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

Alison Shell, Oral Culture and Catholicism in Early Modern England, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007. £50, ISBN 978-0-521-88395-5 (hardback), pp. xiv + 244.


Reviewed by: Jenna Lay, Stanford University, November 2008

In this study of oral culture within the post-Reformation English Catholic community, Alison Shell supplements her earlier, field-defining work on early modern Catholic literary culture.  Catholicism, Controversy and the English Literary Imagination, 1558-1660 (1999) traced imaginative literature written by Catholics amid the religious controversies of late Tudor and early Stuart England.  Oral Culture shifts the focus of its predecessor—turning from print and manuscript texts to oral communication—and expands upon its field of inquiry: Shell widens her historical purview in order to identify the material traces of orality in Gothic novels, local legends and antiquarian volumes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Shell confronts the difficulties involved in attempting to recover early modern oral culture by addressing a disparate mix of sources and incorporating issues of reception and transmission into her analysis. In some instances, the mere survival—of a ballad or ghost story, for example—is, for Shell, as worthy of scholarly attention as the historical, biographical, or social evidence offered by such materials. She is candid about the problem of authenticity when working with an oral tradition but also notes that recent studies have revealed a similar ‘instability of written and printed evidence’ (151).  Building upon recent work on orality by scholars such as Adam Fox, D.R. Woolf, and Bruce R. Smith, Shell reveals how ‘looking at oral culture can tell us a good deal about what happens to a once unchallenged religious body, after it has been driven underground.  Because of the difficulty controlling or censoring oral discourse, records of it are a natural place to find opinions running counter to the prevailing orthodoxy’ (3).  This book thus provides a compelling model for scholars working on religion—and particularly religious minorities—in a number of fields and periods: we would all benefit from increased attention to the oral remnants of religious culture, and Shell’s methodology offers a useful framework for scholars working with a wide range of unconventional sources.

Shell’s first chapter is perhaps her most literary: it focuses on orally transmitted sacrilege stories that were preserved in antiquarian literature and borrowed by authors of Gothic novels.  But it also critiques the temporal divisions created within many literature departments, as Shell argues against ‘the relentless periodisation of undergraduate courses’, which can ‘obscure the relationships between English Reformation literature and later works’ (24).  She finds the roots of late eighteenth-century Gothic fiction (specifically, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto) in the seventeenth-century sacrilege narratives that responded to the dissolution of the monasteries.  Those members of the list who are working in later periods may find this chapter particularly illuminating: Shell identifies increased legal toleration for Catholics—in the form of the Catholic Relief Acts—as ‘the return of the repressed’ and claims that ‘to many English Protestants of the late eighteenth century, nothing could have seemed more familiar, more superseded or more threatening than medieval Catholicism’ (52).  Her more polemical point should be of interest to scholars working on religion in any field: she offers a searing critique of secularism and what she sees as a tendency on the part of literary critics to read religion out of literature.  But Shell’s urgent proposition that ‘religious themes in the Gothic novel should not invariably be read as a metaphor for something assumed to be more relevant to today’s undergraduates’ is a reaction to critical agendas that were widespread before the ‘turn to religion’ that she herself acknowledges has been prevalent in literary studies for at least the last decade (53, vii).

Chapter 2 examines English Protestants’ representations of folklore and their identification of Catholicism with the supernatural.  Shell describes how the elements of Catholic liturgy and ritual that had filtered into the popular consciousness became an easy target for anti-popery pamphlets.  As in her first chapter, she pays particular attention to the oral evidence preserved by antiquarian writers, but here she notes the doctrinal bias that connects these texts to the works of more explicitly polemical writers: ‘no antiquarian in early modern England could have avoided engaging with England’s Catholic past, and for many non-Catholic antiquarians, the shift into anti-Catholic polemic was easy to make wherever an appropriate fact was surrounded by commentary’ (68).  Even educated Catholics were likely to distance themselves from folklore—a broad category which includes spells, popular botany, and fairy stories—and Shell’s analysis reveals that the division between literacy and illiteracy has been too readily mapped onto doctrinal divides in the early modern period.

The final two chapters focus on balladry, describing how polemical exchanges influenced the creation and dissemination of oral verse.  Many Catholic ballads survive only in manuscript, or in the printed refutations of Protestant commentators, and Shell acknowledges that this raises a question of audience and form: is a ballad found in a manuscript miscellany (documents that are often compiled by members of the gentry) truly representative of the popular genre?  She finds, in ‘universally accessible genres like ballads,’ reason to extend her analysis of literacy and illiteracy in early modern England, ultimately arguing that ‘the denominational subject matter of Catholic and anti-Catholic libels would have ensured them an audience at many social levels, and that this is very likely to have affected their composition and sometimes their targeting’ (85, 110).  Chapter 4 turns to martyr ballads, and Shell draws on the work of musicologists in a fascinating discussion of the psalmic connections between ballads and motets.  This chapter also features a brilliant fusion of literary exegesis and historical recovery, as Shell uncovers the layers of metaphor and association that may be hidden within a name or pseudonym.  Her readings of Henry Garnet (‘a garneter was the overseer of a granary. . . . reinterpreted in terms of a sacred onomastic pun, Garnet ensured the fullness of the granary by being cut down’) and Thomas Pilchard (‘while any name connected with fish could have strengthened a Catholic priest’s connection with the Apostles. . . Pilchard’s name is that of a fish rather than a fisherman, and therefore takes on its full appropriateness at the martyrdom that Pilchard must always have know was a possible fate’) are deftly woven into her larger argument that ‘oral and material culture cannot be considered in isolation from each other’ (135, 139, 143).

Shell makes a compelling case for the importance of oral traditions, both to early modern Catholicism and to religious culture more generally.  Her book is marvelously well researched—scholars working in similar fields will find much to pursue here—and carefully argued.  But, as readers of this review will guess, Shell makes only infrequent mention of women—a surprising oversight, considering how readily she aligns women with the ‘unlearned’ dissemination of faith: ‘women, for instance, were less likely than men to be literate at all levels of society, but were crucial as conduits for the faith because of their role in running households and educating children’ (163-4).  I imagine future projects might build upon Shell’s work by attempting to address areas that she does not cover—including ‘the relationship of orality to prayer and devotional practice, and the Catholic sermon’—in which women such as Mary Ward might figure more prominently (20).  Furthermore, monastic archives (both male and female) could yield material for a fascinating analysis of collective orality.  Shell has provided an excellent foundation for studies like these.