Arthur F. Marotti, Religious Ideology and Cultural Fantasy. Catholic and Anti-Catholic Discourses in Early Modern England. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN, 2005.

Arthur F. Marotti, Religious Ideology and Cultural Fantasy.  Catholic and Anti-Catholic Discourses in Early Modern England. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Ind., 2005.  £ 19.50, ISBN 0 268 03480 X (paperback), pp.xii +307.


Reviewed by Laurence Lux-Sterritt, LERMA, Université d’Aix-Marseille I

In his preface, Arthur Marotti states that, in writing about Catholics, he is ‘writing against the grain of most historical and literary interpretation’ (p.5) since, in England, history has long described Catholicism in negative terms and literary studies have been moulded by the works of zealous anti-Catholic writers such as Edmund Spencer or John Milton, who shaped both the national literary landscape and the cultural identity of the kingdom.   However, the author does not ignore the significant developments made in the field of Catholic studies in the last three decades; he acknowledges that, if it stills remains a niche compared with the long-standing Whig tradition so typical of English consciousness, much research has now been done to construct a better-balanced view of Catholic activity and literary production in early modern England.  Marotti is therefore careful to highlight the contributions of historians such as Christopher Haigh, Eamon Duffy, Anthony Milton, Patrick Collinson, Peter Lake, Michael Questier and John Bossy and, for issues regarding gender, to cite amongst others the works of Frances Dolan, Alison Shell, Anne Dillon or Raymond Tumbleson.

Religious Ideology and Cultural Fantasy will be of interest to anyone seeking to understand at least some of the processes through which cultural identity was shaped at that time; it weaves literary and historical study and shows, through an impressively varied range of primary texts, how religious and political language contributed to the making of myths through which both the Protestant majority and the Catholic minority defined their own identities.  Exploring such varied subjects as bodily and literary remains, the relationships between recusant women and Jesuit priests, as well as martyrdom and conversion accounts, the study examines how, through their construction of Catholicism as the quintessential ‘other’ and through their rejection of that otherness as entirely alien to the consciences of loyal subjects, English Protestant writings influenced the development of a strong national cultural identity.  In his excellent fifth and final chapter, Marotti approaches ‘the anti-Catholic construction of Protestant English history’ (p.131) through the perception of various Catholic plots and uprisings; thus, the Gunpowder Plot, the infamous Titus Oates’s affair or the Irish rebellion are used as a back cloth for the study not only of anti-Catholic texts but also of the polemics and feelings which they generated, and which in turn acted as the catalyst for the construction of a more united national Protestant identity around a common enemy.

The book is organised as a collection of thematic and self-contained essays, which function as independent chapters.  This unusual composition works quite well since the over-arching themes of cultural construction and identity link all the parts efficiently to give a sense of unity to the study as a whole; my only reservation would be that the first chapter, which focuses upon Southwell’s remains, appears to stand somewhat on its own and be less well integrated to the overall structure of the book.  This may be partly because it feels shorter and more self-contained than other sections, although there is no doubt that, thematically, is does belong to the general conceptual framework of the study as a whole.

From the beginning, the missionary priests of the Society of Jesus are given an overwhelmingly prominent part in Marotti’s analysis of the English mission.  The author, aware of the imbalance between his treatment of secular and regular clergy, justifies his choice since, according to him, the anti-Jesuit mythology found in polemical writings was crucial to the construction of the Society of Jesus as the nation’s ‘perfect antagonists’ (p. 2), a group of tricksters and plotters intent upon bringing England down.  Reviled and demonised by Protestants of all convictions, Jesuits also bore the brunt of their fellow Catholics’ resentment; their overt idealisation of martyrdom, for instance, made most pious recusants highly uncomfortable.

Crudely summarised, Marotti’s argument is that ‘popish’ crises served a hidden agenda: by putting the emphasis upon malevolent Catholic plots, the government of the country eluded close scrutiny of its malfunctions and blamed the quintessential ‘other’ for all political upheavals.  Much of the virulent anti-Catholic literature which had initially been published decades earlier (amongst which John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments) was reprinted in the late 1670s-early 1680s in an attempt to re-write national history and build the enduring myth of Catholic perfidy, which stood to account for most of the great disturbances that affected the kingdom under the great Elizabeth I and provoked, under the Stuarts, the terrible conflicts opposing monarchs to their Parliaments.  Moreover, by highlighting the international dimensions of ‘popish plots’, these texts came to link Catholicism with foreign influence, and particularly with France, where Louis XIV’s rule was entirely at odds with the growing English distaste for absolutism and its longing for a more representative system of government.  Catholicism was therefore constructed, in the national psyche, as the source of much political evil and as culturally incompatible with Englishness.

Since he straddles the disciplines of history and discourse analysis, Marotti highlights his care not to ‘trespass on the territory of professional historians’ (p. 3), and his concern about his trans-disciplinary approach is palpable throughout his work; yet to the reader, his literary and historical approach offers a clear picture of the crucial topics of this book.  In fact, Marotti’s analysis of Catholicism is made more complete than most by his handling of various types of Catholic and anti-Catholic writings; his focus upon cultural construction of identities does not consider events in themselves but rather their perceptions, which throws much light upon the themes which recurred in Protestant debates and were at the centre of national as well as international politico-religious polemic and conflicts.