Christopher Highley, Catholics Writing the Nation in Early Modern Britain and Ireland. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2008.

Christopher Highley, Catholics Writing the Nation in Early Modern Britain and Ireland. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2008. £50.00, ISBN 978-0-19-953340-4 (hardback), pp.248. 

Reviewed by: Laurence Lux-Sterritt, LERMA, Université d’Aix-Marseille I, France, November 2008.

This captivating book is one of the latest publications testifying to the recent revival of the study of Catholics and Catholicism in early modern England.  Indeed, it seems that in the last decade, Catholic studies have been back in fashion: excellent monographs have been published by academics such as Frances E. Dolan, Anthony Milton, Michael Questier and Alison Shell, to cite but a few, examining the literary production of Catholic writers, as well as the representation of Catholics in Protestant texts.  In addition to these specialised full-length studies, various collections have brought together the contributions of literary critics and historians, their interdisciplinary scope contributing to a more nuanced and more comprehensive analysis of Catholics in early modern English literature and culture. Christopher Highley himself contributed to such a collection of essays with Ronald Corthell, Frances E. Dolan and Arthur Marotti very recently in Catholic Culture in Early Modern England (Notre Dame, Ind. : University of Notre Dame Press, 2007).

In the synopsis provided on its dust jacket, Catholics Writing the Nationpresents itself as part of the ongoing endeavour to move beyond the traditional Protestant academic bias.  Highley argues that, by consistently highlighting Protestant historical success or elevating Protestant texts to the status of paragons of English literature, modern scholars have contributed to the equation of Protestantism with Englishness to the detriment of Catholic narratives, which have remained understudied and undervalued as a consequence.  The author proposes to put confessional bias aside and tackle Catholic narratives in their specific cultural and political contexts.

In his first chapter, Highley confronts the contending Catholic and Protestant definitions of national identity and dwells upon what he terms ‘discourses of the nation’, in an effort to explore the relationships between confession and national awareness.  In order to analyse the Catholic construction of an English national image, chapter two dwells on those who chose to retire to the Continent even before the publication of Puis V’s 1570 Bull Regnans in Excelsisexcommunicating Elizabeth I.  For this first wave of religious expatriates, the cities of Antwerp and Louvain provided safe havens from which to reflect and write about their native land; in their writings, these Catholic exiles constructed a sense of national belonging and confronted the very essence of what it meant to be English.  Highley argues that these men and women portrayed themselves as loyal subjects of the English crown and contrasted their loyalty to the queen to the previous disloyalty of Protestant exiles who repudiated the legitimacy of Mary I: in their publications, Louvainist exiles protested that their undiminished obedience to the crown made them truer English subjects than their earlier Protestant counterparts.

If Catholic writers printing from oversees often claimed that exile had intensified their feeling of Englishness, they also alleged that the Englishness of their Protestant compatriots at home had been sullied, corrupted beyond repair by the ‘new religion’; in chapter three, Highley shows how Catholics raised extensive comparisons between the Turks and those they called Protestant heretics.  The chapter finishes on an intriguing evocation of the countries of the North represented as natural lands of religious degeneracy and corruption which, according to Catholic writers, could explain why Northern regions, far from the Southern regulating and civilising influence of Rome, fell prey to Calvin’s theories.

If the first three chapters are well-researched, informative and illuminating, it is, to my mind, in the second part of the book that Christopher Highley really brings a new dimension to the blooming field of Catholic studies.  The main merit of this monograph lies in its interdisciplinary and broad geographical approach; far from being centred solely upon London or England, it reveals early modern Catholicism as a phenomenon which, by definition, transcended borders.  Catholic subjects of the English crown were, by their very adherence to the faith of Rome, members of a complex community which encompassed many countries and yet was not welcome in their native land.

Chapter four (‘The lost British Lamb’) highlights the efforts made by Catholic to compete with John Foxe’s Acts and Monumentsand publish their own martyrologies; thus, the English priest John Wilson published in 1608 in St Omer a volume entitled The English martyrologe conteyning a summary of the lives of the glorious and renowned saintes of the three Kingdomes, England, Scotland and Ireland.  This influential publication was organised according to a chronological rather than geographical structure, addressing for one period the saints of the ‘three kingdoms’ together, and including many Welsh examples. This illustrates the Catholic impulse to cross boundaries and represent the Church as trans-national, multi-ethnic and cross-cultural, a tendency which was underpinned and strengthened by the extensive use writers made of the Venerable Bede and of established narratives of origins such as The history of the church of Englande.

After dwelling upon England, Wales and Scotland in chapter four, Highley dedicates the whole of chapter five to an excellent analysis of English Catholics and Ireland and shows the tense reality of the relationship between Irish and English exiles.  After being included in William Allen’s English seminary in Douai, Irish students opened their own college in Paris in 1594 rather than follow their English counterparts to Rheims.  In the 1590s, the Roman college was prey to violent Anglo-Irish rivalries whilst, in Valladolid, Irish students were altogether excluded.  Edmund Campion himself, in his A Historie of Ireland(1571) gave an ‘unenthused’ (125) account of early Christian Ireland, whilst another prominent English catholic exile, Nicholas Sanders, joined forces with Irish militants such as James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald against the common Protestant enemy.  Thus, Sanders and Campion illustrate opposite ends of the spectrum of English Catholic opinion about their Irish co-religionists, and the picture of trans-national harmony earlier painted for England, Wales and Scotland is shown to have been a failure in the case of Anglo-Irish relationships.

In his sixth and final chapter, Highley explores ‘Anglo-Spanish Relations and the Hispaniolized English Catholic’.  While the Irish, through the Milesian myth, claimed an original consanguinity with the Spanish, English exiles in Spanish territories experienced more difficulties to adapt to the culture, the climate, or the food of those southern regions, to which they were not suited.  At home, in the heat of anti-Spanish propaganda, Protestant publications argued that such exiles became de-natured, contaminated by Spanish traits and lost their very Englishness, thereby equating Catholicism with foreignness and excluding Catholic subjects from the national construct of English identity.

This book provides a fascinating insight into how English Catholics ‘wrote the nation’ at home and, above all, abroad.  Its abundant and up-to-date bibliography demonstrates the current liveliness of this field of research.  Yet to my mind, the particular strength of this monograph lies in its excellent passages of political contextualisation, putting English Catholic self-representation within the context which shaped it, for instance evoking the Catholic hopes preceding the Elizabethan Scottish succession or during the long drawn-out negotiations for the Spanish match between Charles and the Spanish Infanta Maria. In the current efforts to build a more complete picture of English Catholicism, such a broad scope brings an illuminating perspective to the detailed studies which document specific periods, regions or social networks and adds a further dimension to the construction of early modern Catholic history.