British and Irish Literature English Reformation Literature
Mark Rankin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0184


The English Reformation produced a vibrant literature, which entertained and consoled readers and audiences, and attempted to influence the direction of religious change. Scholars long overlooked this literature because they clung to assumptions of canon-formation by which the medieval poet Chaucer and his imitators were thought to lead seamlessly to the Italianate aesthetic standards of the 1570s and the careers of Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare during the reign of Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603). The field of “English Renaissance Literature” still to some degree neglects the Reformation, despite recognizing a “religious turn” in the study of Shakespeare’s plays. This subject encompasses religious literature produced prior to Elizabeth’s reign, as well as Elizabethan and early Stuart religious writing. The Protestant literary tradition which flourished into the 17th century in the poetry of George Herbert and John Milton is rooted in English biblical translation and in the creative poetry and prose produced during the reigns of Tudor monarchs, especially Henry VIII (r. 1509–1547), who broke from the Catholic Church, and Edward VI (r. 1547–1553), whose government instituted a radical Protestant reformation. English Reformation authors experimented with a large variety of genres and forms, in verse and prose, in order to counsel those in power or influence public opinion. Allegories, ballads, beast fables, biblical paraphrases, comedies, courtly and popular interludes, dialogues, epistles, examinations and trial records, flytings, historical chronicles, liturgical and devotional writing, martyrologies, millennial prophecies, morality plays, orations, parables, polemics and argumentative writing, proverbs, satires, sermons, theological treatises, tragedies, and more circulated as manuscripts and printed books well into the Stuart era (1603–1714). This material drew upon medieval antecedents while it simultaneously incorporated continental ideas. When Mary I (r. 1553–1558) reversed the religious policies of her father and brother, Catholic authors used the written word to solidify the return to orthodoxy. Under the Protestant rule of Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth, English Catholics produced controversial poetry, historical writing, martyrologies, and devotional material. Apologists for successive Tudor monarchs wrote in Latin and English to justify royal policies. As those policies shifted across the reigns of Henry VIII and his successors, Protestant as well as Catholic authors who found themselves on the wrong side produced illicit literature on underground presses or in secret scriptoria, or they smuggled such writing to England from the relative safety of continental exile. Scholars examine the history of books and of reading in order to understand how this literature was produced and consumed. See the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Renaissance and Reformation article “English Reformation.”

General Overviews

King 1982 affords the definitive foundation for the study of English Reformation literature. It locates the origin of an English Protestant literary tradition associated with Spenser, Milton, Foxe, and Bunyan in the radical Reformation of Edward VI’s reign. King shows how a diverse range of authors both developed a plain style in support of religious change and modified a range of medieval genres and forms in creative writing directed to a wide audience. His thesis questions C. S. Lewis’s influential but now largely discredited characterization of mid-Tudor religious literature as “drab,” which Lewis lodged in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1954). Other important antecedents to the study of English Reformation literature include Firth 1979, which illuminates the medieval roots of apocalyptic thought, an important Reformation literary discourse. Norbrook 2002 shares with King the commitment to tracing connections between hitherto neglected Reformation literary genres—in this case, radical political poetry, and prophecy—and more widely accepted canonical authors. Related to, but distinct from, this research are two developments within the wider field of early modern literary studies: the rise of the New Historicism, an approach to literary productivity indebted to Marxist and French philosophical thought, and a subsequent “turn to religion,” with its interest in the theoretical assumptions which inform the development of early modern religious and literary thought. Jackson and Marotti 2004 describes the relationship between these two approaches as more alike than not. More recent research reveals a complex fusion of these methodologies. Betteridge 1999 follows King’s focus on neglected genres by describing the political uses of English Reformation historical writing. Simpson 2002 also focuses on the medieval roots of Reformation literature but questions the implicit optimism of some scholars in viewing the “Renaissance” or “Reformation” as instituting a definitive break in literary history. Shrank 2004 traces the stylistic and linguistic developments of Reformation literature in terms of the wider scholarly debate on the rise of ideas of English nationalism. Cummings 2002 is the best available study of the influence of the European Reformation upon the hermeneutical basis of early modern English religious literature and is especially useful in connecting the wider field’s interest in language to the theological writing of Reformation authors. Lander 2006 reminds scholars of the centrality of polemical writing to broader ideas of the nature of literary writing. Coles 2008 shows how the English Reformation provided opportunities for female literary agency.

  • Betteridge, Thomas. Tudor Histories of the English Reformations, 1530–83. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1999.

    Study of English history writing about the English Reformation. Argues that the story of the Reformation told by authors such as Edward Hall, John Bale, John Foxe, Miles Hogarde, George Cavendish, and others evolved in response to the shifting political priorities of successive regimes, from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I. Similarities in this historiography could transcend doctrinal differences.

  • Coles, Kimberly Anne. Religion, Reform, and Women’s Writing in Early Modern England. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    Traces the development of early modern women’s writing from the English Reformation to demonstrate how the religious woman author shaped ideas of “literary” writing. Case studies of Anne Askew, Katherine Parr, Mary Sidney Herbert, Anne Vaughan Lok, and Aemilia Lanyer reveal the influence of women’s writing within the wider culture. Attentive to the history of the publication and circulation of works by women authors.

  • Cummings, Brian. The Literary Culture of the Reformation: Grammar and Grace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198187356.001.0001

    Definitive analysis of the relationship between literature and the Reformation, and the interconnectedness between biblical and literary interpretation and theological argument. Three parts, with Part 1 dedicated to Erasmus, Luther, and northern Europe; Part 2, the development of English Protestant theology and culture from changing ideas toward the English language; and Part 3, English religious poetry. Study of authors from Tyndale to Milton.

  • Firth, Katharine R. The Apocalyptic Tradition in Reformation Britain, 1530–1645. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

    Important study of the post-Reformation transformation of apocalyptic prophetic and historical writing. Traces the work in this area by authors including John Bale and John Foxe, to continental and medieval antecedents. Shows how Bale connected prophecy and history, and how this shaped subsequent developments. Argues that 17th-century authors departed from earlier expectations of the world’s end in favor of anticipation of a millennial kingdom.

  • Jackson, Ken, and Arthur F. Marotti. “The Turn to Religion in Early Modern English Studies.” Criticism 46 (2004): 167–190.

    DOI: 10.1353/crt.2004.0031

    Theoretical analysis of the so-called New Historicism’s hesitation to engage explicitly with early modern religious literature; the authors argue that the early modern literary study’s interest in alterity derives from the religious preoccupations of French continental philosophy. They describe the increasing prominence of work within early modern literary studies on Shakespeare and religion and early modern Catholic studies using this lens.

  • King, John N. English Reformation Literature: The Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.

    Foundational study of the native Protestant literary tradition which emerged from late medieval writing and flourished during Edward VI’s reign (r. 1547–1553). This literature fostered the development of Protestant themes that anticipate the achievement of Edmund Spenser, John Milton, and other authors. Combines historical investigation with study of art history, iconography, and the history of printing across many genres, including verse satire, comedic drama, dialogue, allegory, prophecy, and biblical paraphrase.

  • Lander, Jesse M. Inventing Polemic: Religion, Print, and Literary Culture in Early Modern England. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    Explores the ways in which early modern English literary culture evolved from the polemical writing of the English Reformation. Organized around a series of case studies of major texts, from John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments to Milton’s Areopagitica, which describe each’s relationship to the wider printing trade. Reveals how the decline of polemic in post-Reformation England accompanied the rise of the “literary” as an aesthetic category.

  • Norbrook, David. Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance. Rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199247189.001.0001

    Major revisionist study, with focus on early modern political poetry. Argues that radical elements of Renaissance humanism and the apocalyptic thought of the Reformation shaped later prophetic poetry and demonstrates ways in which familiar writings by poets such as Sidney can be realigned with a tradition of “reforming” verse open to more radical ideas. Describes 17th-century reaction to this tradition in Jonson, Milton, and others. First published by Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.

  • Shrank, Cathy. Writing the Nation in Reformation England, 1530–1580. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199268887.001.0001

    Argues that mid-Tudor authors participated within, and helped to shape, a national community prior to England’s later definitive emergence as a “Protestant” nation. The Reformation’s break from Rome resulted in new ideas concerning national language and literary style. One of several monographs in the field (see also Highley 2008, in English Catholic Literature) interested in the connections between Reformation authors and concepts of national identity.

  • Simpson, James. The Oxford English Literary History. Vol. 2, 1350–1547: Reform and Cultural Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Describes the English Reformation and its early literature not as a liberating break from the past but rather as a negative development characterized by constraining forces not found in late medieval literature. Characteristic of a trend in recent scholarship to minimize the significance of the dividing line between the “medieval” and “Renaissance” periods as an interpretive marker linked to anachronistic ideas concerning periodization.

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