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CHAPTER 13. Early Modern Religious Prose

Julie Maxwell

Subject Literature, Religion

Key-Topics Bible

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405131605.2009.00013.x


Imagine the following dystopia. A student of literature, you are allowed access to literary criticism, but not to primary texts. Only university professors have copies of The Divine Comedy, Don Quixote and War and Peace – all in original language editions that few English students can read. A handful of underground manuscript translations circulate, but you can't afford to buy one. Your knowledge of literary masterpieces is restricted to the parts the professors happen to quote or describe in lectures and critical studies. Unfortunately, they seem far more interested in each other's arguments than, say, Goethe or Proust. Sometimes, you suspect, they are being fanciful. But without reading the texts for yourself, you cannot possibly challenge what they say. Before the early modern period, reading or hearing religious prose could be just like this. It summarized, interpreted, elaborated, and generally put itself in the place of a text that was known directly only to a few: the Bible. Legends of the saints, not the letters of St Paul, were familiar material. But in the sixteenth century this changed, and what happened to religious prose across the next 150 years is the subject of this chapter. An unwieldy category – which ranged from pastoral writing to polemical, devotional to doctrinal, exegetical to ecclesiastical – religious prose dominated publishing. “When I allege any scripture,” ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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