N.D. versus O.E.: anonymity's moral ambiguity in Elizabethan Catholic controversy

by Marcy L. North

Over one-third of the English Catholic books published during Elizabeth's reign featured an anonymous author or translator.(1) One might expect this figure to measure necessity; the choice to publish anonymously was really no choice at all when Catholic polemicists and their book producers faced imprisonment, torture, and execution for creating and transmitting texts that the government deemed a threat to Elizabeth's security and sovereignty.(2) Modern scholars should not, however, allow anonymity's crucial protective function to overshadow the traditions and exceptions that made this function effective. The debates about anonymity that pepper the texts of Catholics and their English Protestant(3) opponents suggest that, for early modern readers and writers, anonymity was a highly nuanced and complicated authorial stance. Both Catholic and Protestant authors employed it not only to conceal identity but also to control perceptions of authorship and authority. Tellingly, they rarely discussed anonymity's ability to hide an author from danger, even when they were utilizing its protective function. Both sides chose rather to denounce or defend anonymity as an authorial stance motivated by custom and morality (or immorality), and they justified their perspectives by invoking anonymity's traditional roles in popular, literary, and ecclesiastical genres such as libel, satire, devotional literature, divine scripture, and institutional publication. The reliance on anonymity's traditions may have masked an anxiety about anonymity's increasing ability to deceive amidst the sixteenth-century proliferation of printed books, but it also demonstrated the ingenuity of Catholic authors who embraced the power of print and reformulated older conventions to reach readers in places too dangerous for a Catholic scholar or priest to go.(4)

This essay begins by demonstrating anonymity's moral functional, and legal breadth in Elizabethan England, especially in light of the censorship of Catholic literature. It then profiles the arguments about anonymity which took place in two particular Elizabethan Catholic debates at opposite ends of Elizabeth's reign, the Jewel-Harding Controversy from the 1560s and the turn-of-the-century Watchword Controversy. The two debates reveal the ways Catholic authors manipulated anonymity's ambiguities to make it a more effective protective device and to further their own side's religious and political platforms. On a larger scale, however, the debates articulate the relationship between anonymity's traditional justifications and its new uses in a book culture where naming and name suppression were both important sources of moral authority. Throughout this study, the term "anonymity" describes broadly the numerous conventions of name suppression and disguise familiar to early modern readers and authors. As a flexible and manipulable set of conventions, anonymity allowed for the creation of complex authorial identities that often proved more important and more useful than names. The study's focus on publications in English is not intended to discount anonymity's importance within Latin polemic, but rather, to demonstrate the manipulation of anonymity in texts available to a relatively broad reading public in England. Rather than analyzing only the Catholic side of the arguments, this essay follows both sides to illustrate how the subject of names, the act of anonymity, and the morality of authorship were bandied back and forth in a political and religious context where secrecy and knowledge were matters of life and death.

Elizabethan polemicists did not hesitate to make use of anonymity's functional breadth, that is, its ability to serve more than one purpose, and they often manipulated this quality with great sophistication and subtlety. The Jesuit Robert Southwell, for instance, couched the anonymity of his secretly printed Epistle of Comfort (1587-88) in the language of traditional devotional humility and fashionable reluctance to print a private letter. In a preface to the reader, he claims to have written the epistle "not thincking at the first to lett it pass any farther" than the hands of his "espeaciall frende" (f. 1).(5) But, acknowledging the entreaties of others, he has printed the work, hoping that readers will "attribute" anything praiseworthy to "the spiritt of that body, wherof I am an unworthy member" (f. 1). Readers are asked to blame the author, however, "if any thing be amisse" (f. 1). Southwell signs his letter "By one, that reverenceth your prisons, beareth most dutiful affection to your persons, and humbly craveth parte in your prayers" (f. 214v). Although Southwell attests to the dangers Elizabethan Catholics faced in practicing their faith, he grounds his anonymous authorial stance without discussion in conventional humility topoi and not in his need to hide from danger.(6) His request for prayers and corrections suggests that he was known to some of his sympathetic readers. With less sympathetic readers of this illegal text, his anonymity almost certainly served him initially as a protective device. Southwell was in England as part of the Jesuit Mission when he undertook the secret printing of the Epistle. Even with some protection from his patroness, the Countess of Arundel, this was an extremely risky endeavor.(7) Anonymity's literary and devotional conventionality allowed Southwell to portray his secrecy as traditional church-sanctioned modesty, and whether or not his readers accepted this portrayal as sincere, they could not deny that humility had long been a conventional moral justification for anonymity. Anonymity was flexible enough to accommodate Southwell's seemingly contradictory needs to publish illegally and to frame his authorship morally.

Southwell's secrecy helped him to evade the Elizabethan government's prohibitions against Catholic publication and unauthorized printing, but this instance of success does not bespeak an exact correlation between government crackdowns on Catholic activity and the popularity of anonymity in Catholic polemic. Anonymity did not always mirror repression closely as a countermeasure, perhaps because, as Cyndia Clegg has recently argued, Elizabethan censorship was "less a product of prescriptive (and proscriptive) Tudor policy than a pragmatic situational response to an extraordinary variety of particular events."(8) Toleration, persecution, freedom of the press, and book suppression were by no means consistent conditions in Elizabeth's reign. Catholic polemicists experienced periods of relative freedom, such as the first decade of the reign, and periods of harsh repression, such as the early 1570s and several years in the 1580s when the Jesuit Mission and impending war with Spain occupied Elizabeth's mind.(9) One would like to say that anonymity was most common during the harshest years of repression, but no exact formula emerges from the information available.(10) In the first decade of Elizabeth's reign when restrictions against Catholic publication were relatively lax, few authors published anonymously. The crisis years that followed reveal a variety of responses to repression. Catholic authors employed anonymity most frequently in the early 1580s, in 1592 and 1593, and again in the last three years of Elizabeth's reign. When the Elizabethan government took action against the Mission priests in the early 1580s, many of the Catholic apologists did indeed publish anonymously. The years surrounding the Armada threat (1588-91), however, resulted in a dearth of English Catholic publications; only one of the few books published was anonymous. The end of Elizabeth's reign was marked by a sharp increase in Catholic publication and a new employment of initials as a convention that could enact both anonymity and naming.(11) The Appellant and Archpriest Controversies, to which many of these late Elizabethan texts belonged, took place between Catholics with differing views about the government of the underground English Catholic church and the appropriateness of an appeal to Elizabeth for greater toleration.(12) Although the Elizabethan anti-Catholic statutes were still in place, Elizabeth seems to have encouraged this controversy discreetly.(13) The anonymity of its authors, therefore, was not specifically in reaction to a new government crackdown and probably had more to do with the growing conventionality of anonymity in ecclesiastical debate.(14) Throughout Elizabeth's reign, one finds anonymity integrated into the flurry of particular debates rather than serving solely as an enabler of free speech in periods of great repression. Anonymity allowed authors to take advantage of relatively lax enforcement of book regulations. It also served as a protective device for those using provocation to effect change and begin debates. Most often, however, anonymity reflected the character of particular debates and the choices and circumstances of individual authors and book producers.

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