Julie Crawford. Marvelous Protestantism: Monstrous Births in Post-Reformation England. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. 270 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8018-8112-1.
Reviewed by Kathryn Brammall
Published on H-Albion (November, 2008)
Commissioned by Brian S. Weiser
Monstrous Symptoms of Religious Sickness
Julie Crawford has produced a fascinating investigation of the post-reformation use and interpretation of the births of English monsters. Her conclusions are clearly and forcefully communicated and if this book’s illustrations were in color, one might suggest that her research is lavishly illustrated; given that the forty-two images in question are black and white reproductions of woodcuts that were monotone in the original, perhaps "generously" is more a more fitting description, but the impact is, nevertheless, impressive. Indeed the proliferation of "monstrous images" represents a key piece of evidence supportive of what Crawford considers the role of the literary genre she names "Marvelous Protestantism"; stories of monstrous births were illustrated and printed in order to "popularize their messages, reaching a wide audience through visual enticement and content at once sensational and pedagogical" (p. 4). Their popularity ensured their cultural significance and their illustrations contribute to their popularity because, despite Protestant tendencies toward iconoclasm, they communicate messages that help to define acceptable (i.e., reformed) theology and to highlight divine power.
Crawford’s book fits neatly into a variety of scholarly fields, dealing as it does with questions of literary genre; the history of wonders, marvels, and miracles; Reformation theology and social discipline; and gender. Most importantly, it has much to offer all of these areas. Her approach is to read and analyze deeply several tales (or as she eventually refers to them, “fables”) of monstrous births. In the process, she recreates the historical, social, and religious contexts into which these unfortunate children were born. She has also spent a good deal of energy attempting to identify the historical actors (mothers, polemicists, and local and regional authorities) referenced in these tales, although her main goal is not “to be what Lean Marcus calls an all-knowing ‘hunter and gatherer’ of topical relevance”; rather she wants to “understand the ways in which tales of monstrous births were framed to substantiate the truth of controversial claims and to tell stories that sought to find not just curious readers but educable ones" (p. 11).
The tellers of the tales, she claims, often had multivalent objectives: a monstrous birth might simultaneously resonate in a very local and specific way, "based on real people involved in real controversies in real towns" (p. 10), but also assume "an integrated part of a political, religious, and professional agenda" (p. 145). So for example, the stillbirth of a partially formed conjoined twin in Standish, Lancashire (the subject of chapter 3, "Forms of Imperfect Union") proved a literary and theological boon to the Puritan incumbent minister, William Leigh. Over the subsequent year, Leigh chastised local sinners in an illustrated pamphlet, and in a sermon he read the monster "as a Protestant portent, a warning on a national level of God's wrath against England and its religious equivocators" (p. 88). Among those who suffered under Leigh's critical gaze were the proud, the avaricious, the drunk, and English recusants (many of whom lived within his own parish); though all such individuals were personally immoral, the greater threat was their contribution to the "disordered body politic" (p. 101). Even King James was, albeit subtlely, censored for allowing Catholics to swear the loyalty oath but keep their religious consciences secret, thus creating a "monstrously two-faced" realm (p. 109).
Crawford rightly makes much of the flexible and myriad messages that authors communicated in analyzing monstrous births and specifically highlights the fact that such tales are frequently told not by those in positions of authority but by "those who wished to see the Reformation carried further (Puritans, or the 'godly'), loosened for individual interpretation (sectarians), or pushed backward (recusants or papists)" (p. 25). Moreover, it is among the groups lacking direct influence or official power that "the divine and punitive qualities" of such tales remained most vibrant and useful (p. 183). But these authors are not generally champions of the people in any way; the authors of these accounts are frequently interested in delegitimizing "vulgar" culture and practices through the "reformation of manners." Furthermore, they frequently single out for the greatest approbation the mothers of these misbirths and the wider female population they represent. They are chastised regarding their clothes (chapter 1), their poverty (chapter 2), their religious devotion (chapters 4 and 5), and their independence of thought (chapter 5), among other things. But their crimes went even further in the early modern mind, Crawford argues; monstrous births do not just communicate female weaknesses, they are in fact created by those weaknesses: "the majority of births I discuss in this book do not just appear; they are made, and understood to be made, in women’s bodies. It is women whose acts and behaviors produce monsters" (p. 14). And if women were responsible for corrupting humanity, and demonstrating its deformity through the monsters they produced, these women had a crucial role to play in the "reproduction of Protestantism" (p. 20). Their behavior certainly required correction (as did that of a vast majority of men), but even their consciences and imaginations had to be curbed because of their unique ability to imprint their sins on their children.
The desire of authors to reform women's (and men's) consciences is central to the protection of religious truth and stability, according to Crawford, and here, there is much to recommend her conclusions. Part of the problems that all reformers faced was the fact that their theology denied them the comfort of outward signs of salvation. In such a world the saint and the sinner looked remarkably similar. As response to this dilemma, Crawford sees the emergence of a belief system she calls "reformist physiognomy" which allows observers to "determine from a given bodily form the state of the soul and that the body was transparent to the error, or righteousness, of its conscience" (p. 18). Monstrous births are central to this physiognomy, highlighting in graphic detail their parents' religious errors. They were quite literally the invisible made visible (p. 161). Even as post-Restoration authors in positions of official authority attempted to relegate belief in such "marvels" to the biologically and mentally unstable (often female) elements and deluded "enthusiasts," the stories could still be touted as valuable lessons for the individual, demonstrating "that the controversy over the causes and meanings of monsters was ongoing and passionately polemical throughout the seventeenth century" (p. 183).
Overall this book provides a very thorough reading and analysis of the tales it highlights. These stories are recounted by Protestant authors with very clear, albeit multilayered, agendas in which they "deployed superstitious ideas in service of [their] reformist ends" (p. 70). The undeniable depth of Crawford's research is clearly reflected both in her copious notes and extensive bibliography. Her sources, however, are mainly pamphlets and sermons, and one wonders if similar conclusions would be reached if she analyzed other texts that recount monstrous births, such as longer moral and political treatises whose main concerns are neither women, religion, nor, in some cases, births in a literal sense. In addition, she might occasionally be accused of pushing her evidence too far. For example, one of her monstrous births is the product of a well-dressed woman who is able to pay the expenses she incurs. Though she is "wandering" at an advanced stage of pregnancy, the pamphlet account provides no real information on her marital or social status (or indeed the reason she is traveling); even the women who assist the unfortunate traveler treat her with respect and sympathy (as Crawford acknowledges). Nevertheless Crawford equates this account with others "of disorderly or wandering women and their bastard offspring" (pp. vii, 78-84) and mothers who fail "to heed the appropriate authorities" (p. 118). There are also some minor editing errors: the mysterious repetition of a single image, omitted or duplicated words, and awkward phrasing. Nevertheless, such things are quibbles in the face of a strong, intriguing, enlightening study of the universally fascinating history of monstrous births.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
Kathryn Brammall. Review of Crawford, Julie, Marvelous Protestantism: Monstrous Births in Post-Reformation England.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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