Threats from without, within, and below: Catholic commodities and early modern English anti-popery

Andrew Tumminia, Fordham University


This dissertation investigates the ideological and theological energies binding English literature, anti-Catholic polemic, and the marketplace from 1580 to 1630. During this period, the commercial chains connecting producers and consumers grew in both length and complexity, thereby multiplying the social meanings carried by commodities. Primarily focusing on drama, this project explores the resulting anxiety over novelty and luxury felt by English political and religious leaders as they struggled to solidify a new religion in an ever-expanding, increasingly commodified world. To deal with this crisis of newness, English authorities and polemicists resorted to an old enemy, "popery," to vilify products and practices spread commercially, from tobacco and cosmetics to counterfeiting and conjuring. At the same time, the association between these elements of marketplace culture and Roman Catholicism served to make Catholics visible as a threat to English identity. However, the literary record of the period suggests that English Protestant polemic failed to locate the Catholic practically, just as it failed to install effectively the state's preferred sense of the English self at the popular level. Viewed with this insight in mind, William Shakespeare's Hamlet reflects the changing criteria for determining value in a nascent capitalist culture, a problem also evident in Elizabethan and Jacobean concerns with coin counterfeiting and with the Catholic understood as a counterfeit Christian. Shakespeare's Macbeth helps illustrate the consequences of the exclusion of popular beliefs coded as Catholic in early modern England. The Whore of Babylon and The Double PP, both infused with Thomas Dekker's militant Protestantism, reveal the difficulties involved in representing Protestant ideological categories outside of abstract forms. Ben Jenson's Humour plays and The Devil is an Ass illuminate the operation of social distinction in early modern English society, a central concern of Protestant polemic. This dissertation argues that, as insistent as state polemic could be in opposing certain products and practices to core values it claimed as definitively Protestant and English, those values were more rhetorical constructions and ideological impositions designed to address anxieties over social mobility and hierarchical flux as well as over religious difference.

Subject Area

Theater|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Tumminia, Andrew, "Threats from without, within, and below: Catholic commodities and early modern English anti-popery" (2008). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3310428.