Tudor Aristocrats and the Mythical "Stigma of Print"

by Steven W. May

Originally published in Renaissance Papers, 1980

It has become axiomatic in English literary history that the Tudor aristocrat honored a social code obliging him to feign, at least, an abhorrence of the press. Above all he scorned to publish any works of his own, least of all his creative writing, or "poesie" in Sidney's sense of the word. Scholars interpret this disdain for printing as either an outgrowth of a scorn for all mechanical arts, or as a corollary to the idea that it would be degrading for a gentleman "to sell the products of one's labour, whether of hands or brain."[1] His disdain for poetry, on the other hand, becomes entangled with the moral issues which Sidney confronted in the Apologie, especially the charges that literature wastes time while it incites others to debauchery and godlessness. The code against publication, in its numerous learned formulations, has been applied to virtually the entire Tudor aristocracy, and with very serviceable results. Such wholesale application is most useful, for instance, in explaining the often considerable time-lag between a courtier's writing and the appearance of his work in print, particularly the appearance of aristocratic verse in the printed anthologies. It is also used to explain the apologetic stances adopted by professional authors who earned their bread by publishing and yet contrived so many excuses to make it appear that they did not.

Unfortunately, the alleged code, handy and time-honored as it has become, does not square with the evidence. During most of the sixteenth century, the Tudor elite demonstrated that to publish was not necessarily to perish, excepting of course publications issued as a demand of office or from a sense of duty: royal proclamations, doctrinal treatises by prominent churchmen, or legal tracts by serjeants of the law, for example. Those "gratuitous" works of Tudor aristrocrats voluntarily and openly acknowledged by the socially elite show the insufficiency of the Tudor myth of the "stigma of print."

The origins of the myth which forbade such publication are not far to seek, however. Neither Wyatt nor Surrey, the earliest important "courtly makers" of the Tudor era, made any effort to see his works through the press; both poets had been dead for over a decade by the time Tottel's Songs and Sonnets made their lyrics readily available. But it was not until 1870 that Edward Arber seems to have fathered the "stigma of print" concept -- in an attempt to account for this wide gap of time in the preface to his edition of Tottel: "The Poets of that age, wrote for their own delectation and for that of their friends: and not for the general public. They generally had the greatest aversion to their works appearing in print."[2] To all appearances the code was upheld by the next generation of courtier poets, insofar as Sidney, Dyer, Ralegh, and the Earl of Essex, among the more prominent Elizabethan courtiers, likewise made no provision to publish their works. Indeed, George Puttenham assures us that this new breed of courtier poet would not let his works be widely known in print or manuscript, a condition neatly dovetailing with Castiglione's advice that the courtier should keep close his verses, revealing their imperfections only to his nearest friends.

With the courtesy book's theory bulwarked by the testimony of an English eyewitness, Puttenham, the code of concealment and aversion to print seems quite a safe bet. Jusserand relied on it to explain the apologetic stances assumed by professional writers: "It was so notoriously an elegant attitude to disdain the press, Surrey-like, Sidney-like, that professional writers assumed it or pretended to, then and long after."[3] Phoebe Sheavyn and her successors perpetuated the myth, which has become so firmly entrenched among literary historians as to receive no further critical examination. As Edwin H. Miller puts it, "aristocrats, whether of the well-pedigreed or new variety, affected disdain of vulgar print, and subordinated art to pursuits worthy of courtiers," an opinion seconded and extended by Russell Fraser's assertion that "The printer, who sees the gentleman's polite effusions through the press, has no warrant from him. On the contrary: he does what he can to inhibit publication."[4] In its most extreme forms the myth has been invoked as a sort of oracle, as hallowed and as piously observed as many religious articles of the age. In the words of Ruth Loyd Miller, for example, for the Earl of Oxford "to publish, or permit his poetry to be published, under his name or identifiable initials, and his name to appear on the title-page of the publication, went against the social canon of his class. By this he was deeply compromised in name and fame."[5] We are asked to believe that strictures against publishing took on the authority of a universal etiquette, quite on a par with kneeling to address the sovereign or clothing oneself correctly before going out in public.

Yet the code, insofar as there ever was such a thing, had fallen into a perilous state of collapse well before Elizabeth came to the throne. While the polemical and humanist writings of Sir Thomas More and Sir Thomas Elyot are too well known to require comment, these writers were by no means brilliant but eccentric exceptions to an otherwise immaculate rule. As early as 1524, John Bourchier, Baron Berners, sent to press the first two volumes of his translations of Froissart's Chronicles; the third and fourth volumes followed in the next year, with no further justification than that the entire project was undertaken "at the highe comaundement" of the King, and "Under his graycous supportacyon" (Preface, sig. A 2v). Nothing in either preface suggests that the King had encouraged Lord Berners in this task as some sort of public humiliation, or that the work was published as an act of penance. Indeed, his other prefaces indication that Berners personally sent at least two further translations to the printer, although the earliest surviving editions post-date his death. The colophon of this nobleman's most popular work, The Golden boke of Marcus Aurelius, informs us that it was translated "at the instant desyre of his neuewe syr Francis Bryan" (sig. 2V 3v); and Bryan, a Privy Counsellor and great favorite of Henry VIII, himself published his Dispraise of the life of a Courtier (1548) after borrowing a copy of the French original from William, Marquess of Northampton. The Marquess not only encouraged Bryan's translation, but it was at his "ernest request" that Queen Catherine Parr set forth her Lamentacion of a Synner (1548, title page), a work which followed her publication in 1546 of Prayers or Meditacyons. Another aristocratic author connected with Queen Catherine is her chamberlain, Sir Anthony Cope, whose Histories of the two Noble Captains and Godly Meditation also came out in the 1540s. Meanwhile another peer, Henry, First Baron Stafford, had published his translation of a Latin tract by Bishop Edward Fox. Stafford claimed to have borrowed the original from "Master Morrison," who is doubtless Sir Richard Morrison, author of at least six works published between 1538 and 1540.[6]

The upperclass attitude toward publication is tellingly summarized by Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, in his lengthy preface to a translation of Otto Werdmueller's Spyrytuall and moost precyouse Pearle (1550). The Duke not only "requyred hym of whom we had the coppye of thys boke... at our request... to set thys boke forth and in prynte" (sig. A 7-7v), but he explains that such publication is a praiseworthy activity:

Yf they be worthye prayse who for a zeale and desyre that they have to do theyre neyghbours good, do wryghte and put in prynte suche thynges as by experyence they have proved... how muche more deserve they thank and prayse that teache us a true comfort salve and medycyne of the soule. (sig. A 5-5v)
And this is exactly the commendation which Seymour appropriates for himself insofar as the treatise is one in which he found "greate comforte... in oure greate trouble, whych of late dyd happen vnto us" (sig. A 7), referring to his recent imprisonment. Thus, in 1550 England's foremost duke appeals as to a well-known fact that it is honorific to publish useful works. Somerset likewise practiced what he preached, for in the same year that he sponsored the Werdmueller translation he published his own translation of a letter he had received from John Calvin.

The pre-Elizabethan works set forth by Tudor aristocrats are about evenly divided between devotional tracts and humanist works (albeit in this latter category are included several political and military treatises). The only genuinely literary publication came from the pen of Henry Parker, Eighth Baron Morley. As early as 1539 Morley had published an Exposition of the Psalme... Deus Ultionum Dominus. During the reign of Queen Mary he set forth his translation of The Tryumphes of Petrarch, to which he appended some sixty-four lines of his own verses; thus Morley becomes the first English peer to print an essentially literary work, and the first nobleman to publish verses of his own composition.

With the accession of Queen Elizabeth two changes occur in the pattern of upperclass publication. First, religious tracts, so much a staple of the earlier Tudor output, virtually disappear. Perhaps the closest Elizabethan example came out in 1579 when Sir Jerome Bowes published his translation of a French tract in defense of the Huguenots. The second trend concerns the ever-widening scope of aristocratic works issuing from the press; devotional and polemical writings are replaced by those on a variety of other subjects. In 1583, for example, Lord Henry Howard, son and namesake of the poet Surrey, published his attack on the efficacy of popular means of foretelling the future. Three years later the Marquess of Winchester set forth his personal collection of aphoristic prose commonplaces.[7] Bacon's Essays appeared in 1597, along with Sir Edward Hoby's Theorique and Practise of Warre; Hoby, moreover, had translated Coignet's Politique Discourses a decade before as a New Year's gift for Lord Burghley.

The most interesting aspect of this new diversity, however, is the growing emphasis upon literary works. Harbingers of this trend are Thomas Sackville's contribution of the "Induction" and "Tragedy of Buckingham" to the Mirror for Magistrates, as well as the commendatory sonnet which he prefaced to Sir Thomas Hoby's translation of The Courtier[8] Similarly, the Earl of Oxford published original verses in praise of a book printed in 1571 by his friend and fellow courtier, Thomas Bedingfield.[9] But the most significant printing event of a literary nature occurred in 1584 with King James' Essayes of a Prentise, in the Divine Art of Poesia. This title staunchly advances the King's opposition to the widespread contempt in which poetry was held, for of the "war against poetry" as a fact of the English Renaissance there can be no doubt.[10] Thus, to term poesy a divine art worthy the service of a royal apprentice strikes boldly at the detractors as its sets a precedent for publication of other apologies by Sidney, Puttenham, and Harington. King James' little book of sonnets, verse translations, poetic theory and instruction, was reprinted in 1585 and followed up by His Majesties Poeticall Exercises in 1591. If these royal examples opened no floodgates of literary publication among English aristocrats, they did suspiciously precede the foremost Elizabethan works: Harington's translation of Ariosto, for example, with its "Apologie of Poetrie," and book by book explication of the text, plus his not quite anonymous Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596), its satiric and literary qualities balanced by so mundane a purpose as the introduction of the flush toilet. Fulke Greville and the Countess of Pembroke not only strained their friendship in their invidious efforts to see Sidney's verse and prose fiction through the press, but in 1592 the Countess authorized Ponsonby to print her translation of Garnier's Antonius.

The pace quickens after the turn of the century, along with an ever-greater diversity of literary output: pastoral verse by Sir George Buc, sonnets and plays by Sir David Murray and Sir William Alexander, epigrams by Stradling and Sir Thomas Wroth, the narrative verse of Sir John Beaumont and Sir Richard Fanshawe, prose fiction by Lady Mary Wroth, and the miscellaneous poetry of the Duke and Duchess of Newcastle -- the line bodes well to stretch out to the crack of doom.

Meanwhile, diversity of a non-literary nature likewise expands under the early Stuarts. King James brings out tracts on tobacco and witchcraft. There are translations of religious, classical, and contemporary works by Lady Elizabeth Russell, Sir Arthur Gorges, and the Earl of Monmouth. Bacon's philosophical works issue from the press as do metaphysical tracts by Lord Herbert Cherbury. To round out the list, we must not neglect The Countesse of Lincolness Nurseries (1622), wherein this noblewoman implores English mothers to fire the wet nurse and breast-feed their own children.

In conclusion then, several fundamental changes in our received ideas about aristocratic attitudes toward the press during the Renaissance are evident. First, no "stigma of print" is discernible during the Tudor age, much less thereafter. Proponent of this view, however, may wish to regroup around the period 1476-1523 to determine if the lack of elitist publications in his first half-century of English printing was intentional rather than coincidental. Afterward, Tudor aristocrats published regularly, setting forth an increasingly diverse range of their own and others' writings. After mid-century, literary works, including poetry, add to this variety, nor can attitudes toward the press be blamed for their late arrival of their gradually increasing numbers. It was poesy, not the printing press, which our ancestors viewed with suspicion: the "stigma of print" should give place to the "stigma of verse." But even this inhibition dissolved during the reign of Elizabeth until anyone, of whatever exalted standing in society, might issue a sonnet or play without fear of losing status.

Finally, it is not possible to insist that no Tudor aristocrat ever thought it beneath his dignity to publish his writing, be it original or a translation, literary or expository. But the substantial number of upperclass authors who published during the sixteenth century effectively discredits any notion of a generally accepted code which forbade publication, since noblemen and knights, courtiers and royalty, trafficked with the press in ever-increasing numbers. We are today frequently urged to understand Renaissance people in terms of the "roles" which they supposedly assumed. It is perhaps in order then to remind ourselves that the Renaissance was also an age of exuberant individualism, where the blanket invocation of norms and stereotypes may do more to obscure the age than illuminate it.


[1] Phoebe Sheavyn, The Literary Profession in the Elizabethan Age, 2nd ed., rev. by J. W. Saunders (Manchester, 1967), p. 162. Saunders also explores the supposed discrepancy between courtier and professional relations with the press in "The Stigma of Print," Essays in Criticism, 1 (1951), 139-64.

[2] Tottel's Miscellany (London, 1870), p. iii. The genesis of the myth is clearly traceable from Arber's formulation here. George Saintsbury simply quoted Arber outright (A History of Elizabethan Literature [London, 1887], p. 2). Harold Child's "The New English Poetry" in the CHEL (1909; rpt. New York, 1928), III, 203, and Sheavyn are typical retailers of the idea. It occurred to some critics that the argument needed some sort of qualification; thus Kenneth Muir, alarmed at the number or works which Sir Walter Ralegh sent to the printers, attempted to resolve the contradiction by announcing that "no social stigma attached to the publication of prose" (Introduction to Elizabethan Literature [New York, 1967], p. 96). As I shall demonstrate, no stigma attached to the publication of poetry either by the time Sir Walter began to traffic with the press.

[3] A Literary History of the English People (1895-1909; rpt. New York, 1968), II, 380.

[4] Miller, The Professional Writer in Elizabethan England (Harvard, 1959), p. 6; Fraser, The War Against Poetry (Princeton, 1970), p. 149.

[5] Ruth Loyd Miller, ed., "Shakespeare" Identified (Port Washington, N.Y., 1975), I, 558-59, editor's note to the reissue of J. Thomas Looney's Poems of Edward de Vere.

[6] Lord Stafford likewise held the press in sufficient esteem as to secure a license for printing the Mirror for Magistrates: DNB, XVIII, 859.

[7] Howard, A defensative against the poyson of supposed Prophesies; William Paulet, Third Marquess of Winchester, The Lord Marques Idlenes; this book saw a second edition in 1587.

[8] Thomas Cislunar deserves recognition along with Sackville as another aristocrat who wrote expressly for the Mirror; see Lily B. Campbell's edition (Cambridge, 1938), p. 10. The printer of the second edition of Gordobuc (c. 1570) assures the reader that both Norton and Sackville corrected the text of the pirated edition of 1565, that the play might at last appear in authorized form (sig. A2).

[9] This was the translation of Girolamo Cardano's Comforte. Bedingfield, a Gentleman Pensioner of the Queen, also published his translation of Machiavelli's Florentine Historie in 1595.

[10] I admit to taking liberties with this catchy phrase. Lyric verse, for example, is but peripheral to Fraser's study though very much at issue in the theory of the "stigma of print." More to the point is Richard Helgerson's conclusion that the Elizabethans viewed poesy as a trifling occupatio in which youth might be "culpably distracted from the real business of life": "The New Poet Presents Himself: Spenser and the Idea of a Literary Career," PMLA, 93 (1978), 894.

Back to Shakespeare Authorship home page.