Modern advance in the study of Renaissance historiography has concentrated mainly on Italy; the application of its results to English Renaissance historiography and literature has been curiously long delayed. This is strange, since the tracing of rhetorical themes in the English Renaissance has grown in recent years into a formidable output of studies. In this enthusiasm for rhetoric it seems to have been forgotten that history as developed in the Italian Renaissance was itself a branch of rhetoric allied to moral philosophy; that arising out of the emphasis on history there arose new schools of historical thought which transformed the old assumptions; that of all the Renaissance themes adopted in England in the sixteenth century the new emphasis on history was one of the most prominent. In England the old style of chronicle history still held the field throughout the century though humanist influences came flowing in. Hall and Holinshed are chroniclers; a humanist educator, like Ascham, advises study of ancient historians for their style, and Thomas Elyot in The Governour and Walter Raleigh in his History of the World quote Cicero on the moral value of history. Humanist emphasis on exemplarism—on history as moral philosophy teaching right conduct by taking historical personages as examples of virtues and vices (this was of course also a medieval tradition)—was taken for granted, and humanist imitation of ancient historians flourished. How far the more advanced types of critical historical thinking really penetrated English theory or practice in the period is a moot question.

In his lectures at Toronto, now published as The Race of Time, Herschel Baker attacks the subject of English Renaissance historiography through studying three main themes, illustrated from a very wide range of reading. Among the many historians discussed or quoted are Holinshed, Speed, Camden, Selden, Thomas More, Cotton, Hakewill, Raleigh, Francis Bacon, and Milton. First he emphasizes that the Renaissance historian was concerned to find the “truth” of history when it followed, since truths differed from opinions, that history tended to be strongly propagandist. Next he proves that the exemplarist view of history was dominant. Finally he discusses the “Form of History” and finds that there was a growing dissatisfaction with traditional historical methods and a search for new approaches. He has skillfully organized his rich material to make these three points, and the points themselves are well chosen and fundamental.

THE “TRUTH” OF HISTORY which had to be set forth under the Tudor dynasty was the truth of the providential rise to power of the Tudors. All English chronicles must move towards this end; if they deviated from it, the censorship stepped in. We hardly yet realize the power of the censorship in Tudor England; as applied to history writing it was devastating; Baker mentions the case of Fulke Greville, who aspired to write a history of the reign of Elizabeth but was denied access to the records by Cecil. The great official propagandist history was John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, basically a chronicle history adapted from Eusebius’s history of the Church to the Tudor Protestant Reformation. Foxe’s book was chained in churches as compulsory reading for loyal church goers. All history, ancient or modern, could be suspect of “taxing the present state,” as Ben Jonson put it. It might be illuminating to compare the English historical output with that in contemporary France where the unsettled and chaotic situation actually allowed of far more freedom of expression; there was no counterpart in England to that mass of fairly outspoken memoirs which make the sources for French history of the period almost embarrassingly profuse.

Yet it was precisely that chaotic situation which they saw across the water that did much to reconcile Englishmen of many differing shades of religious opinion to the stability and order of their Tudor monarchy, made them willing to write propagandist history in its favor, not excluding those myths of its Trojan descent which Polydore Vergil had exploded as factually unsound. The compulsory propagandist history was not necessarily insincere; after all that other more famous Vergil presumably really believed in Augustus as a valuable stabilizing figure and was not insincere in weaving round him the Trojan myth on which the Tudor myth was modeled. Though from the historiographical point of view the question arises as to how far the supremacy of the monarchical idea and the subservience of history to it delayed the advent in England of more modernist and critical approaches to history.

In his second section, Baker draws together a mass of evidence of the dominant moralizing and exemplarist view of history. Though the material is again interestingly presented, one misses here some more definite recognition of historical exemplarism as itself a branch of humanist rhetoric, of more precise indication of the ancient historians which were taken as models, and of the mingling of humanist influences with the native chronicle tradition.


In the last section on the “Form of History” the growing search for new historical methods is indicated by many quotations, some of them from little-known writers, a new emphasis on documentary research is stressed, and a gradual change towards more critical attitudes to history writing becomes apparent. Baker mentions Bruni and the Italians, but seems to think their influence relatively unimportant; he under-estimates the significance of the spread of Machiavellian realism and perhaps of the influence of Guicciardini’s tragic view of history. More might have been said of Thomas Blundeville as the first Englishman to put forward a theory of history writing. Nevertheless this section is most interesting, showing that a great golden age of imaginative, if uncritical, history gradually passed away.

A general criticism of the book might be that by studying more or less the same range of writers of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries under three heads, it breaks each of them up into three parts and blurs the outline of their individual significance. Yet this is but the reverse side of its quality in laying emphasis on the right points. The book as a whole is a useful move towards opening up the neglected field of English Renaissance historiography in a scientific way. And it is significant that it is written by an expert in English literature who has constantly in mind the application of his themes to poets and playwrights. It is to be hoped that the book will initiate more systematic study of history as propaganda, history as rhetoric, history as poetry, in relation to the great literary figures.

IN A CLEVER LITTLE BOOK, The Happy Beast, published more than thirty years ago, George Boas discussed paradoxes, “little essays against the prevailing opinion of mankind” which were popular in the Renaissance: that it is better to be ignorant than wise, that war is better than peace, better to live in a cottage than a palace, to be in prison than at liberty. In a Renaissance smart set a lady might suddenly “try the wit” of a courtier by demanding an amusing speech in praise of flies, quartan fever, or baldness, and the wisest and gravest, like Erasmus, would break into paradoxical praise of folly. The paradoxical encomium was a branch of classical rhetoric well acclimatized in England. Puttenham called it “the wonder” because of its surprising effect. Interest in Renaissance paradox has been gathering momentum and has now reached a crest in Rosalie Colie’s book.

There is room for a book on this subject, which should be based on careful definitions of what constitutes paradox in its various aspects and of how the Renaissance used this rather elusive mode. These requirements are not fulfilled in Paradoxia Epidemica. The rhetorical paradox is assimilated to the logical paradox by an impossible argument, inducing confusions which run all through the book, nor is any attempt made to define and delimit Renaissance paradox, to distinguish what is genuinely paradoxical from other modes of expression or thought. This confusion is, however, intentional, since Miss Colie seems to believe that paradox, as she interprets it, does cover practically everything in the period. Had she been more precise in her definitions and more moderate in her claims she might have made a good case for paradoxy as an important ingredient in the Renaissance outlook, but she wildly overdoes it. That favorite Platonic image of the boxes made in the likeness of ugly Silenuses which when opened were found to contain holy things, as the comic exterior of Socrates hid his divine teaching, implies for her a “strict correspondence of opposites” and is therefore a paradox, and one connected with the rhetorical paradox since it includes the element of surprise. It is not a paradox but an image or metaphor relating to the fundamental Renaissance concept that truth is hidden under many disguises, as in the theory of mythology where the fables are the husk or bark under which truth is hidden. Or again, Utopia, says Miss Colie, is a paradox because it is nowhere and to be nowhere is an ontological paradox, a fantastic overstraining in the effort to stretch everything on the Procrustean bed of paradox.

The book is divided into rhetorical and psychological paradoxes; paradoxes in divine ontology; ontological paradoxes; epistemological paradoxes. Under these heads are treated among other subjects and writers, Rabelais, Petrarch, Sidney, Donne, Marvell, Milton, Burton, Spenser, Herbert, Shakespeare, Pascal, still-life painting, and suicide. Milton deals in paradoxes of time and eternity, foreknowledge and free will; The Faerie Queene is about being and becoming and is therefore based on an ontological paradox; Montaigne’s self-examination represents epistemological paradox of self reference. No coherent picture emerges from this ambitious program, which is confused by the basic failure to define the subject, strains to include much that is not relevant, and omits much that would have been relevant.


The Renaissance “epidemic” of paradox died down, thinks Miss Colie, when the scientific revolution took over. Paradox became degraded as one result “of a revolution in thought which valued clarity and exactness above the tricky duplicities of comprehension induced by paradox.” In support of this she quotes from Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two World Systems passages in speeches by Simplicius against maintaining paradoxes and deriding the “liar” paradox as a sophism. She has forgotten that Simplicius is the Aristotolian pedant who is arguing against the paradox of heliocentricity. His fatuities are not evidence of Galileo’s own views, as she takes them to be, but quite the reverse. On this curious misunderstanding she builds several pages of argument about the decline of Renaissance paradoxy with the coming of the scientific revolution!

The best parts of the book are the studies of the English paradoxical poets; here Miss Colie’s wide reading and experience as a stimulating exponent of English literature show to great advantage. Her analysis of the love conceit brings out its paradoxical aspects and she suggests a possible answer to problems such as the simultaneous maintaining of Petrarchist and Anti-Petrarchist opinions, as by Sidney. Her examination of Donne’s poetry on the two levels of love paradoxes and divine paradoxes will be read with interest, and she has much to say on Shakespeare and paradox. There are suggestive and imaginative insights in the book, which though not an authoritative study of Renaissance paradox, certainly arouses thought on the subject.

“THE EARTHLY PARADISE” is an example of approach to the Renaissance through tracing the history of what E. R. Curtius called a topos. It begins with classical gardens and golden ages, traces the absorption of these themes into Christianity, their conflation with the Garden of Eden or Earthly Paradise, and studies the garden theme in Dante, Ariosto, Tasso, Spenser, and Milton. The book is a sound piece of scholarship, with very good bibliographies, and may be rather warmly recommended as useful for students. Usefulness of this kind is indeed the modest aim of the author, and though the tracing of topoi can lead in some hands to dullness, this is not the case with Giamatti’s handling of his paradises. He is a subtle psychologist, extremely sensitive to poetry—with the great advantage of being equally at home in Latin, Italian, and English poetry—and his garden sequences present what amounts to quite an original approach to Spenser and Milton.

“My Spenser,” says Giamatti, “is really a very conventional one.” He sees the poet as taking the method of allegory from his medieval sources but mingling it with influences from the epics of the Italian Renaissance. This is indeed an elementary idea because Spenser himself states that he is following Ariosto and Tasso. Why then does Giamatti’s deceptively simple approach come as something of a surprise? Because we tend to think of allegory as essentially medieval, without studying its Renaissance transformations, and because no one reads Ariosto and Tasso.

THE THEME, or one of the themes, which Giamatti studies through his garden images is that of illusion as both the instrument and the result of evil. Astolfo, master of good magic, tries to educate the simple knight Ruggiero into seeing the difference between illusion and reality as he plays for his soul in the false garden paradise of Alcina, malignant manipulator of illusion. Ariosto’s Alcina is succeeded by Tasso’s Armida who makes the artificial seem real in the garden of delights where she seduces Rinaldo to abandon his magic shield (like Ruggiero before him) and forget his mission to recover the City. Tasso succeeds brilliantly in presenting a double vision, the garden on its own terms as the home of delights and the garden as false by the standards of the City. When Giamatti passes from his fascinating explorations of the Italian enchanted gardens to Acrasia’s Bower of Bliss in The Faerie Queene, he carries us with him to full realization of how essential it is not to jump straight from medieval allegory into Spenser; $$$ is the same theme of illusion as the source and result of evil explored with a new and quite unmedieval subtlety.

Giamatti suggests that Milton turned from the Renaissance enchanted gardens and returned to the true Christian Earthly Paradise which Dante had depicted, yet that in Milton’s Paradise the tempter is a Renaissance master of illusion. The remarkable analysis of Satan’s illusionist techniques and of the corruption of the garden into a landscape of despair owes something to examination of these themes by other scholars, but Giametti has contributed a new understanding of the Miltonic garden by taking us first on his voyage of discovery through the beauty and duplicity of the Italian false paradises.

This is comparative literature as it ought to be done, no’ the superficial tracing of “sources,” but the organic study of a theme at a deep level. Giamatti asks where the image of the garden went, why modern man no longer conceives of happiness as a garden existence, no longer yearns for a lost Eden. He suggests that it is because man is diminished and “in losing the Renaissance breadth of imagination, we have lost the earthly paradise once again, not simply as a state of joy, but also as an object of hope.” Another answer might be that true and false paradises depend on a conception of innocence which is no longer admired.

This Issue

February 23, 1967