British and Irish Literature Catholic Literature
Lucy Underwood, Eilish Gregory
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0189


Catholic literature was a diverse field in early modern England. Manuscript and printed texts were an integral part of confessional identity for English Catholics. It enabled them to establish textual communities, to participate in private meditations, practice their faith, and for women to play an active role in Catholic book and literary culture, with images and mnemonic devices in printed texts offering a way for the illiterate to participate in private meditations. Catholic literature formed part of a Europe-wide movement linked to Catholic Reform and post-Tridentine spirituality, of which English Catholic readers and authors were a part. Print and manuscript circulation of Catholic texts was aided by illicit printing presses set up across England and Europe, which reveals the growing appetite for these texts, and which were also read and responded by Protestant readers, showing the appeal of Catholic religious and spiritual texts across the confessional divide. Once perceived as of interest only to historians of “recusant” post-Reformation Catholics, Catholic writers such as Robert Southwell are now frequently included in cross-confessional general works of literary criticism, and Catholic literary culture is better recognized as an integral part of the study of early modern English literature, literary culture, print and book culture. Setting the parameters for a bibliography on this subject requires a threefold definition. We have taken “early modern” fairly broadly, covering the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, which includes some pre-Reformation as well as post-Reformation material. “Catholic” could be defined in a number of ways which would exclude or include different texts and scholarly works. We have focused on texts of Catholic authorship, generally meaning that the author identified as a member of the Catholic Church at the time of writing; we have also prioritized subject matter, so studies of texts by Catholic authors which are not distinctively Catholic in content may not appear. Finally, “literature”: once implying simply the “literary canon” in which Catholics who wrote after the Reformation rarely appeared, appreciation of the literary elements of all kinds of texts has widened the category. We have included such genres as devotional literature and martyrology, valuable in themselves for understanding early modern religious culture, and also as context for the more “canonical” literary productions of Southwell, Dryden, or Pope. We have included a section on translation, in recognition of the increasing scholarship on literary translators (especially women) and of the importance of continental European texts and spirituality in shaping English Catholicism after the Reformation. The bibliography is set out thematically, with works covering different genres of literature grouped together, but with dedicated sections on selected individual authors. Especially in the latter, the quantity of scholarly work on this field means that this bibliography must, for reasons of space, aim to be representative rather than comprehensive.

General Works

This section includes bibliographical works, books and chapters which address a range of texts, and works which have proved key to developing scholarship on English Catholic literature. The bibliographical catalogues of Allison and Rogers (Allison and Rogers 1989–1994), with those of Blom, et al. (Blom, et al. 1996) and Clancy (Clancy 1996) provide comprehensive listing of English Catholic printed output from 1558 to 1800, including up to 1,640 works in languages other than English. Of the critical works in this section, Shell’s 1999 monograph (Shell 1999) proved a turning-point in understanding and integration of Catholic literature into literary scholarship, while her 2001 essay addresses the problem of defining Catholic literature (Shell 2001). The collection edited by Marotti aimed to demonstrate the importance of Catholic as well as anti-Catholic texts in the development of English literary culture (Marotti 1999). Alexandra Walsham’s article (Walsham 2000) looks at Catholic print culture; Clancy’s on 17th-century English Catholic publishing assesses trends in the content of their printed works (Clancy 2000). McQuade’s monograph (McQuade 2017) exemplifies the integration of Catholic texts into literary/textual scholarship on wider topics. Jeremy Carnes’s work (Carnes 2017) brings to light the continuing development of “Catholic literature” in the eighteenth century, beyond the chronological parameters primarily addressed by Shell and others.

  • Allison, A. F., and D. M. Rogers. The Contemporary Printed Literature of the English Counter-Reformation between 1558 and 1640. 2 vols: Aldershot, UK: Scolar Press, 1989–1994.

    This invaluable research resource catalogues all printed works written by, about, or for English Catholics from the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign to 1640. The bibliographic information includes identifying the secret presses in England which produced certain works, and lists of holding libraries. Vol. 1: Works in Languages Other than English. Vol. 2: Works in English.

  • Blom, F., J. Blom, F. Korsten, and G. Scott. English Catholic Books 1701–1800: A Bibliography. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1996.

    This bibliographical catalogue lists all works printed by and for English Catholics during the eighteenth century, including holding libraries.

  • Carnes, Jeremy. The Papist Represented: Literature and the English Catholic Community, 1688–1791. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2017.

    A wide-ranging study of the English Catholic community’s literary activities during the eighteenth century. Reveals how the slow acceptance of Catholics’ minority status in English society was reflected in their literary and cultural output.

  • Clancy, Thomas H. English Catholic Books 1641–1700: A Bibliography. Rev. ed. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1996.

    This bibliography catalogues English language works by and for English Catholics published in the sixty years following the end-date of Volume 2 of Allison and Rogers’s Contemporary Printed Literature of the English Counter-Reformation.

  • Clancy, Thomas H. “A Content Analysis of English Catholic Books, 1615–1714.” Catholic Historical Review 86.2 (April 2000): 258–272.

    DOI: 10.1353/cat.2000.0196

    Follows up the work of his bibliography by assessing trends in the type and genre of books English Catholics were publishing.

  • Marotti, Arthur R., ed. Catholicism and Anti-Catholicism in Early Modern English Texts. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.

    A collection of essays focusing on polemical, political, devotional, and literary texts which expose the tensions and clashes in early modern Catholic and anti-Catholic discourses published in the early modern period.

  • McQuade, Paula. Catechisms and Women’s Writing in Seventeenth-Century England. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781108182232

    Examines early modern women’s literary use of catechizing in their printed and manuscript writings. Argues that catechizing reveals women’s linguistic skills, their reception of devotional texts, and their engagement with contemporary religious and political debate.

  • Shell, Alison. “What Is a Catholic Poem? Explicitness and Censorship in Tudor and Stuart Religious Verse.” In Literature and Censorship in Renaissance England. Edited by Andrew Hadfield, 95–111. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2001.

    Asking this question in the context of official censorship, Shell’s essay suggests that it was not “statements” that defined Catholic poetry for audiences at this time, but pervasive features which “a Protestant could not have imagined or condoned.”

  • Shell, Alison. Catholicism, Controversy and the English Literary Imagination, 1558–1660. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511483981

    A key scholarly monograph on English Catholic literature across the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, exploring themes including “exile” and “loyalism.” It addresses anti-Catholic themes which pervaded much “canonical” English literature, as well as arguing for the inclusion of Catholic authors and texts in the literary “canon,” which Shell suggested have been excluded for historical as much as literary reasons. Authors discussed by Shell include poets Robert Southwell, Henry Constable, and Richard Crashaw.

  • Shell, Alison. Oral Culture and Catholicism in Early Modern England. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511483998

    Study of the interface between oral and literate culture, and the role of oral transmission in the maintenance of Catholicism, including apologetics (the defense of Catholic tenets) and the commemoration of martyrs. Discusses texts which Shell argues preserve evidence of oral culture, and covers material from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.

  • Walsham, Alexandra. “‘Domme Preachers’? Post-Reformation English Catholicism and the Culture of Print.” Past and Present 168.1 (August 2000): 72–123.

    DOI: 10.1093/past/168.1.72

    Article examining the relationship between post-Reformation English Catholicism and the evolving culture of print. Argues that print acted as an agent of autonomy for the laity and enabled English Catholics to perform piety domestically at home.

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