Becoming Christian: Race, Reformation, and Early Modern English Romance

Becoming Christian: Race, Reformation, and Early Modern English Romance

Dennis Austin Britton
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Becoming Christian: Race, Reformation, and Early Modern English Romance
    Book Description:

    Becoming Christian argues that romance narratives of Jews and Muslims converting to Christianity register theological formations of race in post-Reformation England. The medieval motif of infidel conversion came under scrutiny as Protestant theology radically reconfigured how individuals acquire religious identities. Whereas Catholicism had asserted that Christian identity begins with baptism, numerous theologians in the Church of England denied the necessity of baptism and instead treated Christian identity as a racial characteristic passed from parents to their children. The church thereby developed a theology that both transformed a nation into a Christian race and created skepticism about the possibility of conversion. Race became a matter of salvation and damnation. Britton intervenes in critical debates about the intersections of race and religion, as well as in discussions of the social implications of romance. Examining English translations of Calvin, treatises on the sacraments, catechisms, and sermons alongside works by Edmund Spenser, John Harrington, William Shakespeare, John Fletcher, and Phillip Massinger, Becoming Christian demonstrates how a theology of race altered a nation's imagination and literary landscape.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-5715-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Introduction: Not Turning the Ethiope White
    (pp. 1-34)

    Richard Crashaw’s poem provides hope for English Christians who might have been discouraged from engaging in evangelistic projects by Jeremiah 13:23 (“Can the black More change his skin? Or the leopard his spottes?thenmaie ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil”) and Geffrey Whitney’s “Aethiopem lavare” inA choice of emblemes(1586).² In the book of Jeremiah, God speaks through his prophet to the people of Israel, who have forsaken their ancestral religion and turned to the worship of Baal. Israel’s apostasy and its seemingly immutable spiritual condition are compared to the unchangeable physical condition of...

  6. 1. “The Baptiz’d Race”
    (pp. 35-58)

    The above epigraphs sit uncomfortably with each other.¹ Archbishop Cranmer’s statement draws from a traditional, indeed universally accepted, understanding of baptism. No Roman Catholic would have disagreed with this statement; baptism has long been understood as the sacrament of Christian initiation.² Disagreement emerges only when we ask how “by baptisme we enter into the kyngdome of God.” Answers to this question varied greatly among Protestant reformers: Martin Luther asserted the importance of the sacrament for salvation; Ulrich Zwingli argued the opposite; John Calvin’s position was in the middle.³ English Protestant beliefs about baptism were influenced by continental reformers and hence...

  7. 2. Ovidian Baptism in Book 2 of The Faerie Queene
    (pp. 59-90)

    Critics have long disputed the meaning of baptism in the Nymph’s well episode in Book 2 ofThe Faerie Queene, but none have explored the racial implications of Spenser’s treatment of theological controversies.¹ As I illustrated in the previous chapter, the Church of England’s theology of infant baptism and salvation encouraged English Protestants to conceive of Christianity as a racial identity, a hereditary or blood trait passed from parents to children. Book 2 ofThe Faerie Queenereflects this outlook in its epic project of national self-definition, rejecting the infidel-conversion motif and aligning religious identity with concepts of race that...

  8. 3. Infidel Texts and Errant Sexuality: Translation, Reading, and Conversion in Harington’s Orlando Furioso
    (pp. 91-111)

    Spenser’s self-conscious uses and rejections of allegory inThe Faerie Queenemost likely reflect Protestant ambivalence about allegorical interpretation, which was usually associated with Catholic hermeneutics. Tyndale, for one, tells readers, “Beware of allegoryes for there is not a more handsome or apte a thing to begile withal than allegory,” and, conversely, “there is not a better vehementer or myghtyer thing to make a man understand than allegory.”¹ Contradictory as these two statements may seem, Tyndale is less concerned with allegory as an author-intended mode of figuration than he is with the Catholic hermeneutic penchant for imputing allegorical meanings to...

  9. 4. Transformative and Restorative Romance: Re-“turning” Othello and Locating Christian Identity
    (pp. 112-141)

    Epic romances like Spenser’sFaerie Queeneand Harington’sOrlando Furiosoare mainly concerned with internal differences of genealogy, blood, and the spirit, but they do not provide imagery that prompts readers to visualize those differences. Early modern English drama, however, seeks to make difference spectacularly visible. Non-European and non-Christian characters populate English plays, in which the internal trait of religious belief is often externalized through the mechanisms of early modern theatrical production: Costumes, skin coloring, and caricatured foreign behavior enlivened the dramatic spectacle.¹Othellois such a play, probing the interconnectedness of black skin, Moorishness, and infidel identity that might...

  10. 5. Reproducing Christians: Salvation, Race, and Gender on the Early Modern English Stage
    (pp. 142-172)

    Behind the racial and religious themes ofOthellothere lurks an uneasiness about romantic relationships between non-European men and European women.¹ Early modern English comedies and tragicomedies, however, suggest that the English had less of a problem with romantic relationships between Europe an men and infidel women. These types of relationships were staged often, in plays such as Greene’sOrlando Furioso(circa 1590) andThe Comical History of Alphonsus, King of Aragon(circa 1590); Shakespeare’sThe Merchant of Venice; Fletcher’sThe Island Princess(1621); and Massinger’sThe Renegado(1623/4) andThe Emperor of the East(1632). In these plays there...

  11. Afterword: A Political Afterlife of a Theology of Race and Conversion
    (pp. 173-176)

    Not all infidels are desirable converts to Christianity; the conversion of non-Christians to Christianity can have unwelcome repercussions. Brabantio certainly found this to be true; he could not have known that welcoming a converted Moor into his home would lead to the loss of his daughter, his property. Iago and Roderigo suggest that Othello’s marriage to Desdemona is a kind of home-invasion robbery. Othello has crossed boundaries he should not have; he has disturbed the sanctity of home. Brabantio later amplifies the consequences of this invasion when he states, “For if such actions may have passage free, / Bond-slaves and...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 177-228)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 229-252)
  14. Index
    (pp. 253-260)