Timothy Rosendale’s Liturgy and Literature in the Making of Protestant England is an ambitious, innovative, and rewarding study of the liturgical underpinnings of English literary and national culture in the early modern era. It convincingly demonstrates the centrality of the influential (and, among literary critics, understudied) Book of Common Prayer to an emerging national culture. If the English vernacular Bible, which first appeared in print in 1526, legitimized the individual’s encounter with the sacred text, the Book of Common Prayer, which first appeared in 1549, allowed the government to control individual participation within public worship. Rosendale’s book argues that this liturgical synthesis between state-sanctioned order and personal religious authority helps explain certain features of the literary flowering under Elizabeth and the Stuart kings. English worship as envisioned by Thomas Cranmer, the principal author of the prayer book liturgy, fundamentally prioritized the representation of divine things as representation, particularly in the crucial Eucharistic service. The Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, as expressed in the Mass-rite, provoked hostile Protestant response, Rosendale argues, in part because it collapsed the distinction between sign and referent, host and the literal Body of Christ. The Book of Common Prayer, on the other hand, emphasized the Eucharist as a signifying system of signs and invited individual worshipers to obtain spiritual fulfillment through guided personal interpretation of those signs within a specifically Protestant community.
This approach to England’s religious culture during the reign of Edward VI (1547-53), when the nation was in its heyday of Protestant reform, produces a significant payoff. The first half of Rosendale’s book constitutes a detailed case study of the prayer book itself. It reveals how the liturgy emerged from the royal supremacy, by which Henry VIII and Edward VI governed the English church’s doctrinal and political affairs. Rosendale here provides a perceptive reading of Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, which defended the Elizabethan establishment during the 1590s against destabilizing Presbyterian attack. Hooker’s theories of order and conformity constitute perceptive analysis of similar principles within the prayer book itself. This portion also offers insightful discussion of successive changes to the Eucharistic service across a series of mid-Tudor revisions to the prayer book, including the more thoroughgoing Protestant service found in 1552 and the 1559 compromise that accompanied the Elizabethan settlement of religion. Rosendale shows how the liturgy increasingly defined public worship as a system of signs and involved worshipers in the interpretive process involved in their decoding.
The Book of Common Prayer attempts, then, to reconcile competing demands made by the government’s effort to preserve uniformity of worship and the Protestant tendency to proliferate competing versions of religious experience through individuals’ encounter with the vernacular Bible. The second half of the book explores this dialectic in writings by Sidney, Shakespeare, Milton, and Hobbes. In each case, Rosendale argues that these writers develop interpretative possibilities that are latent within the English liturgy. Sidney’s view of poetry’s capacity to provoke moral awareness in the Defence of Poetry, for example, is analogous to the prayer book’s emphasis on the process by which worshipers, who double as savvy readers, experience sanctification by properly internalizing Eucharistic representation. Rosendale also delivers a subtle and persuasive reading of the function of representation in Shakespeare’s history plays. In Henry V in particular, Shakespeare employs a discourse of monarchical representation to construct a productive, even if short-lived, national community.