Category Archives: Shakespeare & his world

the progress of the king (note #4 from the Levine library)

Last week I wrote about my copy of the Rheims-Douai Bible, an English translation made by Catholics in 1582 and smuggled into Protestant England for Catholic laypeople to read. One of the translators, Edmund Campion, is now a saint, tortured to death for his secret work in England.

This Bible refutes the widespread myth that Catholics opposed translating and disseminating scripture. I think the myth sticks as a result of Protestant propaganda plus a desire to believe that religious bodies typically seek to control knowledge whereas technology (in this case, the printing press) liberates it.

I mentioned in passing that this Bible was printed in Douai, now a city in France, which then belonged to Philip II. I also inherited from my father a 1552 volume that describes some possessions of that monarch, who later became King of Spain, King of Portugal, King of Naples and Sicily, officially the King of England and Ireland for a few years, Duke of Milan, Lord of the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands, and the colonial ruler of the Americas from New Mexico to Peru. In my translation from the Spanish, it’s entitled The Most Happy Journey of the Highest and Most Powerful Prince, Don Philip, Son of the Emperor Charles V the Great, Through Spain and His Lands in Lower Germany, With a Description of All the Estates of Brabant and Flanders.

Douay is presented on pp. 161-3. It is a “very good and well-favored [suerte] town of Gallic Flanders on the banks of the River Scarpe.” It is the site of a “good monastery” that has produced several saints. Its jurisdiction extends over many nearby villages. In mid-paragraph, the text then launches into a description of the visit by the young Philip with his father, Charles V, “who came to eat at Orchies [now in France], which was made very fresh and special with fruits and bouquets, strewn in the streets as a sign of welcome, and there the prince first ate before entering Douay. … Out of the town came the burgomasters, knights, and counselors, very well accompanied, and in the field beyond was a flag with [pisaros – ?] and drums, and there were three hundred soldiers very well ordered in colorful arms and clothing, yellow and white, and at the gate of the city the clergy processed …” — and so on for a couple more pages.

The aim is evidently propagandistic, which doesn’t imply that the authors were insincere. Perhaps they thought that Philip was a “most happy” prince of a happy empire. He did, however, face a massive uprising in his Low Country dominions.

This book was written three decades before the English Bible was printed in Douai/Rheims, but it gives a flavor of the times, which were still feudal and chivalric.

See also: A 1582 Catholic translation of the Bible into English (note #3 from the Levine library)

Cover, Douay–Rheims Bible, 1582

A 1582 Catholic translation of the Bible into English (note #3 from the Levine library)

Many people seem to believe that the medieval Church forbade translating the Bible into modern languages–in order to monopolize access to scripture–until a technological innovation (moveable type) and/or the Reformation liberated people to read the Bible in their own tongues.

This story is false: translations were regularly made during the Middle Ages. It also neglects a real obstacle to translating, which is the need to coin many new words and turns-of-phrase to render an ancient book into a new language–a task that often lags behind the emergence of the language itself.

I think it’s worth correcting this history because too many people are in the grip of technological determinism and don’t appreciate the cultural work involved in a task like translation.

I have inherited from my father a 1582 English Bible that was published in Rheims and Douai by exiled English Catholics, including St. Edmund Campion, who was later hanged, drawn, and quartered for his faith. They published this Bible to be smuggled into Protestant England for the secret and illegal use of Catholic recusants. (This is almost the opposite of the idea that Catholics were against translation.)

In the preface, the translators explicitly note that the Catholic Church had, “neither of old nor of late, ever wholly condemned all vulgar versions of Scripture, nor have at any time generally forbidden the faithful to read the same.” They promise to translate more accurately than the Protestants, who have worked out of “pride and disobedience.” They seek the “preservation of this divine worke from abuse and profanation” by rendering it better in English.

The title page says “cum privilegio.” Usually, the permission of the Church is designated with the phrases imprimatur and nihil obstat (“let it be printed” and “nothing stands in the way”). As far as I can tell–and I could easily be wrong about this–cum privilegio generally refers to the permission of a sovereign. France encompassed Rheims, and Douai was a Spanish Habsburg possession, so I wonder whether one of those governments authorized this Bible. Or does the phrase “cum privilegio” imply–falsely–that the book will be legal in Elizabeth’s realm?

For a flavor of the translation, consider Luke 2:8-10:

8 And there were in the same countrie shepheards watching, and keeping the night watches over their flocke.

And behold, an Angel of our Lord stood by them, and the brightnes of God did shine round about them; and they feared with a great feare.

10 And the Angel said to them: Feare not; for, behold, I evangelize to you great joy, that shal be to all the people…

The King James Version of this passage (1611) may be more familiar from Christmas celebrations:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

In the KJV, the Angel “bring[s] good tidings.” The Catholic 1582 version renders this phrase as “evangelize.” Perhaps the Douay–Rheims translators noticed that when St. Jerome had translated the New Testament from Greek into Latin, he left the Greek word evangelizo in his Latin text. They may have decided that they should import this word into their English Bible as well, for maximum accuracy. (And the English verb “evangelize” was already available in 1582.) In contrast, the proto-Protestant John Wykliffe had translated the Greek verb as “preach to you.” He saw the Angel in Luke as a preacher. The KJV’s “I bring good tidings” is more poetic than either alternative, in my opinion; and it’s justifiable, since the Greek verb means to bear a good message.

Here is Tintoretto’s painting of the shepherds, completed the same year:

Tintoretto, Adoration of the Shepherds (1578-1581)

See also: Coryat’s Crudities (note #1 from the Levine library); Reformation propaganda (note #2 from the Levine library); innovation in technology and the humanitiestwenty-five thousand books to Bosnia.

Reformation propaganda (note #2 from the Levine library)

This post is one of a series about books that my father left to me and that now line my office shelves at Tufts. More on how that happened is here.

In a folio volume of almost 2,000 dense pages, informally known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, John Foxe describes the persecutions of true-believing Christians since Roman times. Most of the book is devoted to its own period, when the persecutors were Catholics. This narrative helped create a sense of Protestantism as distinct from Roman Catholicism, and of England as a Protestant nation. It influenced and supplied some illustrations for my book The Anachronist.

Foxe’s Booke was a massive undertaking. It required the vast collaborative labor of collecting the names and stories of tortured and executed Protestants from across Europe. Foxe published numerous editions as new names arrived, and many copies were sold.

I have the 1576 edition, a great block of Gothic text with numerous engravings, most of which depict Protestants being tried or killed by Catholics. Here, for example, is the image on p. 1468, which shows “The talk between M[r] Bradford, and two Spanish Friers.”

John Bradford (1510–1555) was a Protestant clergyman who was burned by the government of Mary Tudor. The image shows him in his cell in the Tower of London, being interrogated by Spaniards. Queen Mary–“Bloody Mary” to Protestants–had married King Phillip II of Spain and brought England back into the Roman Church. However, by the time Foxe published an edition of his Booke in England, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth was “our gracious Lady now reigning,” and Spain was the hated enemy. This is an image of foreign treachery as well as Roman Catholic intolerance.

I thought of it last spring when I saw a painting in the Carthusian monastery of Granada, Spain. Painted in the early 1600s, it shows Thomas Cromwell condemning four Catholic clergy to death for their faith. He is likely sitting in an imagined Tower of London. That is where John Bradford met the Spanish friars under Queen Mary and where Cromwell had his own head chopped off (meriting a heroic account in Foxe’s book).

Juan Sánchez Cotán, Historia de los mártires de Inglaterra. Tres priores y un monje de Santa Brígida juzgados por C[r]onwel, Granada, Spain, via

This painting hangs in the refectory, where the monks would dine, as part of a series entitled “The History of the Martyrs of England” by Juan Sánchez Cotán. Its didactic purpose was to remind the Spanish friars of Granada that Protestant Englishmen were their persecutors and foes.

The two images have some iconographic and stylistic similarities, although the “Gaoler” in the English print looks Mannerist (with his elongated body), and the Spanish painting is baroque.

Most of the specific stories that both sides collected were probably true. Each side interpreted the persecutions of their own co-religionists as clear evidence that their enemy was cruel. There is perhaps a lesson here about selection bias …

See also Coryat’s Crudities (note #1 from the Levine library); twenty-five thousand books to Bosnia; and my father’s books are going to James Madison’s desk at Montpelier.

Frontispiece of Coryat's Crudities, London 1611

Coryat’s Crudities (note #1 from the Levine library)

For reasons that Angela Nelson describes in this article, my office at Tufts contains about 2,000 books printed before 1800 that my late father collected. Recently, I brought a ladder to campus so that I can see what’s on the upper shelves. I’m planning to pull down a book or two at a time and blog occasionally about what I find.

For instance, I found a 1611 edition of Coryat’s Crudities. It is in characteristically poor condition, split into two parts along its spine, with its cover loose. As a result, its market value is just about zero. However, the split reveals some considerably older, Gothic printed text that was used to repair it.

A previous owner has hand-written a kind of index on five blank pages at the front. I am not certain, but I think this owner was the Obadiah Cookson who signed his name on the title page in 1754. If that’s true, it’s fascinating, because the Obadiah Cookson known to Google lived nearby in the Massachusetts Colony. My Dad bought most of his books in London, so possibly this one has made three Atlantic crossings.

As for the book: Thomas Coryat or Coryate was an eccentric, a courtier who seems to have been more laughed at than laughed with–most popular as a butt of jokes. In 1608, during a period of peace, he traveled in Continental Europe and published his Crudities as an anthology of notes, letters, anecdotes, and poems that he ostensibly collected along the way. It was the first work in English to tell the story of William Tell and the first to describe the implement that we call a fork:

The Italian and also most strangers that are commorant in Italy, doe alwaies at their meales use a little Forks when they cut their meat. … so that whatsoever he be that sitting in the company of any others at meale, should unadvisedly touch the dish of meate with his fingers from which all at the table doe cut, he will give occasion of offence unto the company, as having transgressed the lawes of good manners, insomuch that for his error he shall be at the least brow-beaten, if not reprehended in wordes.

Coryat adds that he still uses a fork in England, and a friend has nicknamed him “Furcifer”–fork-bearer.

The first pages of the book are headed, “Certain opening and drawing dystiches [two-line poems] to be applyed as mollifying Cataplasmes [poultices] to the Tumours, Carnosities, or difficult Pimples full of matter appearing in the Author’s front …”

In other words, if the author’s main text offends, you can apply his rhyming couplets for relief. For example:

Our Author in France rode on horse without stirrup
And in Italie bathed himself in their syrrop. 

These lyric gems are all attributed–falsely–to B[en] Jonson, who is also credited with an introductory poem in honor of Coryat. A different “charitable friend” purportedly wrote the character-sketch that comes next in the volume. This text describes the “famous … Traveler and Gentleman Author of these … Crudities” thus:

He is an Engine, wholly consisting of extremes, a Head, Fingers, and Toes. For what his industrious Toes have trod, his ready Fingers have written, his subtle head dictating. He was set a-going for Venice the fourteenth of May Anno 1608 and returned home (of himself) the third of October following.

We’re told that he absolutely loves to travel:

The mere superscription of a letter from Zurich sets him up like a top: Basil or Heidelberg makes him spin. And at seeing the word Frankford, or Venice, though but on the title of a Booke, he is readie to break doublet, cracke elbowes, and overflowe the roome with his murmure. Hee is a mad Greeke, no lesse then a merry, and will buy his Egges, his Puddings, his Ginger-bread, yea, cobble his shoes in the Atticke dialect …

This fellow seems to have been a sort of Yorick, or a Jacobean Edward Lear, or a bit like Anthony Bourdain in his enthusiasm for travel and food and his self-deprecating humor. I think I would have liked him, although at times he may have talked too much about himself.

See also: a seventeenth-century Englishman inside the Great Pyramid

setting a price on people in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline

In Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber observes that people usually want to distinguish sharply between their fellow human beings and other animals or objects. Therefore, most societies treat money in either of two ways.

Some societies use money for ordinary commodities and abhor using it to buy people. They prohibit not only slavery but also the use of dowries and ransoms and the purchasing of sex, offices and titles, children, and body parts.

Other societies use money only for people. Individuals pay ransoms and dowries, purchase slaves, and make monetary gifts, which often accompany a change of status, such as a promise to submit to someone’s authority. However, in these societies, people are careful never to use money for commodities, which drastically limits the significance of slavery. They also avoid exchanging people for money by making heavy use of asymmetrical gifts and carefully distinguishing gifts from barter.

Evil results when the two systems combine, because then it becomes profitable to sell human beings. This is generally a consequence of violent external power, such as European colonialism after 1450.

Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (ca. 1611) seems pervasively concerned with anxiety about money turning people into objects.

In Scene 1, we learn what is now called the “back story” by overhearing an expository dialogue between two gentlemen. Apparently, the king has been very generous to an orphan, Postumus. The king’s gifts should have put Postumus in his power, but the young man has instead taken Imogen, the royal daughter, as his lover. As a consequence, he will be banished–excluded from the society. The First Gentleman uses a market metaphor to assess Postumus’ high worth as an individual. Imogen has sacrificed her status to be Postumus’ lover, and

            her own price
Proclaims how she esteem'd him and his virtue;
By her election may be truly read
What kind of man he is. 

Before he leaves the court, Postumus and Imogen exchange a ring and a bracelet as a kind of informal marriage ceremony (albeit without a dowry or bride-price). First, Imogen simply gives Postumus an object that she suggests is incalculably valuable: not exchangeable for any other good.

          Look here, love;
This diamond was my mother's: take it, heart;
But keep it till you woo another wife,
When Imogen is dead.

Here she also grants Postumus the freedom to marry another woman in the event of her own death. Postumus responds by giving Imogen a bracelet, which he minimizes as a “trifle” but imagines as the price of making her his prisoner. This exchange turns the bracelet into the equivalent of her diamond, and of herself.

As I my poor self did exchange for you,
To your so infinite loss, so in our trifles
I still win of you: for my sake wear this;
It is a manacle of love; I'll place it
Upon this fairest prisoner.

Gallantly, he assess his own worth as infinitely less than Imogen’s, yet he implies that the exchange has made them equals.

The exiled Postumus then takes refuge in the house of Philario, whom Postumus’ father had more than once saved in battle. In Debt, Graeber explores the widespread idea that saving someone’s life obliges you to care for that person, since you’re responsible for the fact that he’s alive. Graeber suggests a different explanation: people who save or spare others are typically powerful and are expected to make the ones whom they spare into their dependents. The gift symbolizes their authority. For instance, late in this play, Cymbeline pardons his own daughter, believing her to be a boy named Fidele, and follows this life-saving act by promising another gift:

To say 'live, boy:' ne'er thank thy master; live:
And ask of Cymbeline what boon thou wilt,
Fitting my bounty and thy state, I'll give it.

Postumus’ own final action in the play is to spare a condemned enemy voluntarily. But his status in Philario’s household is ambiguous. He’s the son-in-law of a king and also an exile; he needs Philario as much as Philario needed his father. It’s not clear who is being generous to whom.

In Philario’s household, Postumus meets an Italian, Iachimo, who is obsessed with market logic. (Italy was then the center of banking and international commerce). Iachimo assesses Postumus’ worth by considering the “catalogue of his endowment” and “perus[ing] him by items”–like a customer in a store. He doubts the “words” said about Postumus (his reputation), because this man has voluntarily exchanged his privileges as a courtier for a woman: “This matter of marrying his king’s daughter, wherein he must be weighed rather by her value than his own, words him, I doubt not, a great deal from the matter.”

Postumus has bragged that his mistress (note the possessive; and he never uses her name in this scene) is “more fair, virtuous, wise, chaste, constant-qualified and less attemptable than any the rarest of [the] ladies in France.” Here Postumus suggests a rank-ordering of women, such that the value of each one can be mathematically assessed. Iachimo appreciates that “kind of hand-in-hand / comparison” but claims that all British women are less valuable than all Italians.

Postumus insists that he “rates” Imogen as he does his diamond, which is “more than the world enjoys.” Iachimo quips, “Either your unparagoned mistress is dead, or she’s outprized by a trifle.” Postumus replies by differentiating commodities from gifts: “You are mistaken: the one may be sold, or given, if there were wealth enough for the purchase, or merit for the gift: the other is not a thing for sale, and only the gift of the gods.” (Gods do not employ transactional exchanges, because they need nothing.) Iachimo retorts that a ring could be stolen, and then it would certainly be sold for a specific sum. Whether Postumus admits it or not, the diamond has finite value. Therefore, so does Imogen.

The two men begin to discuss a wager, which is the central plot element of the play. Iachimo wants to bet his estate against Postumus’ ring that he can seduce Imogen. He claims that this offer is generous because his estate is worth somewhat more than the diamond, and then he quantifies his offer by betting precisely ten thousand ducats against the ring. Postumus won’t agree, because he is reluctant to set a market price on his gift from Imogen, and hence on her. He offers to bet gold against Iachimo’s gold but will not stake his ring, which “I hold dear as my finger; ’tis part of it.” (The human body is not to be marketed). Iachimo scoffs: “You are afraid, and therein the wiser. If you buy ladies’ flesh at a million a dram, you cannot preserve it from tainting: but I see you have some religion in you, that you fear” losing.

Not wanting to appear reluctant to test Imogen’s virtue, Postumus suggests an alternative to a crude, monetary exchange. “I shall but lend my diamond till your return.” (Giving, receiving, and returning gifts are the foundations of a gift economy, according to Marcel Mauss.) Slipping back into a quantitative comparison–or perhaps mocking that logic–Postumus adds, “my mistress exceeds in goodness the hugeness of your unworthy thinking: I dare you to this match: here’s my ring.” Iachimo agrees:

If I bring you no sufficient testimony that I have enjoyed the dearest bodily part of your mistress, my ten thousand ducats are yours; so is your diamond too: if I come off, and leave her in such honour as you have trust in, she your jewel, this your jewel, and my gold are yours.

Iachimo has set a price of ten thousand ducats on Imogen, on her “dearest” organ, and on the diamond. This logic marks him as the play’s villain, yet Shakespeare grants him effective arguments. Postumus wants to avoid measuring Imogen’s worth (let alone her genitals) in ducats, but his openness to market logic makes him an easy mark for Iachimo. Later, he repents, in a speech that comes once he is manacled as a prisoner of war and believes that Imogen is dead:

          ....  Must I repent?
I cannot do it better than in gyves [fetters],
Desired more than constrain'd: to satisfy,
If of my freedom 'tis the main part, take
No stricter render of me than my all.
I know you [gods] are more clement than vile men,
Who of their broken debtors take a third,
A sixth, a tenth, letting them thrive again
On their abatement: that's not my desire:
For Imogen's dear life take mine; and though
'Tis not so dear, yet 'tis a life; you coin'd it:
'Tween man and man they weigh not every stamp;
Though light, take pieces for the figure's sake:
You rather mine, being yours: and so, great powers,
If you will take this audit, take this life,
And cancel these cold bonds. O Imogen!
I'll speak to thee in silence.

Here, Postumus combines tropes of debt, coinage and monetary assessment (“take this audit, take this life”), and the exchange of his life for Imogen’s. He counters his own earlier talk of bonds, bets, and market value and demonstrates that he has learned a moral lesson.

As with many happy endings in Shakespeare, the improbable finale of Cymbeline supplies the right answer, yet the problem that drove the plot lingers. Iachimo is defeated but not actually rebutted. Only a preposterous series of coincidences has made things turn out well. The playwright understands how the world really works in 1611, even if he doesn’t like it.

See also a darker As You Like It; why romantic relationships do not function like markets Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf (on the gift economy in that poem); when chivalry died; and defining capitalism. I found insightful Katherine Gillen’s “Chaste Treasure: Protestant Chastity and the Creation of a National Economic Sphere in The Rape of Lucrece and Cymbeline.”