Sunday, November 29, 2015

Cover story: "Chastity in Early Stuart Literature and Culture"

Bonnie Lander Johnson is Fellow and Lecturer at Selwyn College, Cambridge. Her new book is Chastity in Early Stuart Literature and Culture.

Here she explains the connection of the book's cover to the pages within:
Van Dyke’s family portrait of Charles I places the King, Henrietta Maria, and their children in the foreground of a space adorned with colonnades, billowing silk and a sweeping backdrop of the stormy clouds and London waters over which the family reign. The portrait situates the marital delight and prodigious fertility of the Caroline monarchy in a framework at once epic and domestic. So why is it on the cover of a book about chastity? To those contemporary westerners who do not practice chastity for religious reasons, the virtue is usually interpreted as an archaic or literary form of celibacy or virginity. In fact it is a virtue that governs all stages of a person’s life, is central to Christendom’s understanding of marriage, and was, this book argues, one of the most important conceptual programmes of the early Stuart period. Elizabeth I may be the most famous chaste icon of British royal history but her Stuart successors were far more invested in the virtue and its role in marriage, monarchy, politics, medicine, and the arts. Chastity in Early Stuart Literature and Culture argues that the combined blessings of chastity and fertility were also central to the controversies from which the Civil Wars emerged. It could be said that when he was beheaded, Charles I became a martyr not just to the Royalist cause but also to chastity.

However, it was not only the court and its supporters who celebrated the blessings of chastity: the pro-Parliamentary plain-religionists who eventually deposed the King were also trying to claim the virtue for their cause. Both sides interpreted chastity differently and from their struggle emerged some of the period’s most developed forms of rhetorical posturing. In a new world of public debate, in which mass print enabled the rapid dissemination of fiery sermons and political theory, the court couldn’t just utilise its elaborate spectacles to celebrate and promote its virtue and power. Instead, it needed to use masques, court ceremonials, and public appearances to answer criticisms from dissenters. This book reads the arguments posed by various court spectacles (including the Queen’s birthing rituals) as responses to anti-court claims about the unchastity corrupting the Stuart monarchy and its Church.

Throughout the 1630s the court’s claims to chastity, primarily through the prodigiously fertile body of the Queen and her elaborate masques, were highly successful. But the young John Milton was preparing to enter the debate with his own masque of chastity. Milton’s skilful recoding of the virtue as Protestant spiritual adventure bolstered the moral strength of pro-Parliamentary arguments. Within a decade the family members in Van Dyke’s portrait were all dead or in hiding and the portrait’s depiction of chastity as familial, fertile, and spectacular was replaced with a version of chastity more at home in the written word, more masculine, and more martial: a steely and inviolate virtue fit for revolution.
Learn more about Chastity in Early Stuart Literature and Culture at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue