© 1994, 1997 Ian Lancashire. ISBN 1-896016-00-6
The Elizabethan homilies are the third of four pillars of the Church of England in the Renaissance. The first was the articles of faith. A brief statement of the points of belief required by the Church was the highest priority for Henry VIII, who engineered the break with Rome: Henry's Ten Articles (1536), subsequently revised as the 42 Articles under his son Edward VI (1552) and the 39 Articles under Henry's daughter Elizabeth (1563). The second pillar was a Bible Englished so that every person could read the scriptures and thus see the basis for supporting the dogma of the Church. The Great Bible of Henry VIII, translated by Miles Coverdale, appeared in 1539. Published in 1547 and extended under Elizabeth in 1563, the homilies (the third pillar) were designed to be read from the pulpit of every parish in the realm: they explained the articles of belief, justified them from the Bible and the Fathers of the Church, and set doctrine on many public issues. The fourth pillar, in many respects the most important one in the daily life of most people, was the Edwardian Book of Common Prayer, published in 1549 and revised under Elizabeth ten years later. This contained the liturgy: prayers for many occasions; passages for reading from the psalms; and the text of all church services, from communion (the mass) and marriage to the last rites and burial. The liturgy unified the other three pillars of faith: recitations of the creed (which contained the articles of faith), readings from the Bible, and of course sermons and homilies. Eighteen years' work, from 1536 to 1563, created a religion that supplemented Roman Catholicism and influenced profoundly the thinking and writing of the English to this day, when the Anglican Church remains the established or "government-sanctioned" faith of Great Britain.
From the viewpoint of literary history as well as of religious belief, the homilies have had a powerful, seminal effect on the English Renaissance. The first homily, "A Fruitfull Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture," taught that every person was personally and entirely responsible for her or his faith and character, and that the only way of carrying out that responsibility was through reading and listening the Bible.
Therefore as many as bee desirous to enter into the right and perfect way vnto GOD, must applie their mindes to know holy Scripture, without the which, they can neither sufficiently know GOD and his will, neither their office and duty. And as drinke is plesant to them that bee drie, and meate to them that be hungrie: so is the reading, hearing, searching, and studying of holy Scripture, to them that bee desirous to know GOD or themselues, and to doe his will.From 1547, when Cranmer and Somerset, the protector of the young Edward VI, established a dogma that made faith -- not good works or charity -- to be the sine qua non of salvation, all the props of Roman Catholicism on which the people formerly leaned for salvation (among them, the priest's absolution, pardons, and gifts to the church) fell away useless. The Church could not save its flock, only help it to save itself; and the sole gateway to life after death in heaven rather than in hell lay in the individual's ability to read and to analyze text, that is, what we call literacy. The new Church of England thus laid the foundation for a general interest in well-written poetry, prose, and drama. In a single stroke, it fostered a love of English in the people, whether they were farmers, servants, merchants, soldiers, wives, or the nobility. Within a decade there was a broad market for books and plays of all kinds. Writers like Sidney, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Spenser, and Jonson, and anyone who spoke in public, could make a living by feeding need of all the English people "to know GOD or themselues."
The titles of many homilies describe the themes of great literature of the period. These doctrinal texts contributed much to the intellectual, moral, and religious culture of their period. In general, "The misery of all mankinde" (1.2) reflects the world depicted in Shakespeare's King Lear, Donne's The Anatomy of the World, and Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. For "the saluation of all mankinde" (1.3), the Elizabethan world read Spenser's The Faerie Queene, Book I, whose Red Cross Knight weds Una, "the true and liuely fayth" (1.4), as the Restoration was to read Milton's Paradise Lost. There are not more moving accounts "Of good workes" or "Of Christian loue and charity" (1.5-6) than Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is a casebook "Against swearing and periury" and "Of the declining from GOD" (1.7-8). Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, surely the most cheerful book on that gloomy subject ever written, exhorts us "against the feare of death." Shakespeare's history plays and Holinshed's chronicle before them are extended studies on "good Order, and obedience to Rulers and Magistrates" (1.10), "Against strife and contention" (1.12) and "An Homily against disobedience and wilfull rebellion" (2.21).
Homilies like "Of the right vse of the Church" (2.1), "For repayring and keeping cleane of Church" (2.3), played much more of a role in daily parish life than they do in literary history, but audiences of Shakespeare and his contemporaries could apply many such specific homilies to his characters: "whoredome and adultery" (1.11) to Cressida, "gluttony and drunkenesse" (2.5) to Falstaff, prayer (2.7-8) to Claudius and Desdemona, "excesse of apparell" (2.6) to Lear and Osric, the passion of Christ (2.13) to Richard II, matrimony (2.18) to Petruchio and Katharina, and idleness (2.19) to Hamlet. The point here is not that the homilies are sources for these plays, but that Shakespeare's characters defined themselves, like most Renaissance men and women, in Christian terms filtered through these homilies, read as they were, for decades, in parishes across the width and length of England. Everyone in the period from 1547 until at least the late 1580s listened to these homilies.
It certainly helps to be a Christian in reading them, because in many places they only knit together quotations or paraphrases from the Bible and the Fathers of the Church. Yet many times the homilies render the strengths and weaknesses of their authors, and their heartfelt advice in coping with terrible things, in a clear, vivid, and memorable English that asks any reader or listener, of whatever faith, to reflect.
A man may soone deceiue himselfe, and thinke in his owne phantasie that he by faith knoweth GOD, loueth him, feareth him, and belongeth to him, when in very deede he doeth nothing lesse. (C2r)
... the life in this world, is resembled and likened to a Pilgrimage in a strange countrey, farre from GOD, and ... death, deliuering vs from our bodies, doth send vs straight home into our owne countrey, and maketh vs to dwell presently with GOD for euer, in euer-lasting rest and quietnesse ... (F1v-F2r)
... he that shall despise the wrong done vnto him by his enemy, euery man shall perceiue that it was spoken or done without cause: whereas contrarily, he that doth fume and chafe at it, shall helpe the cause of his aduersarie, giuing suspicion that the thing is true. And in so going about to reuenge euill, wee shew our selues to bee euil, and while we will punish and reuenge another mans follie, we double and augment our owne follie. (H5r)
So are drunkards and gluttons altogether without power of themselues, and the more they drinke, the dryer they waxe, one banquet prouoketh another, they studie to fill their greedie stomackes. Therefore it is commonly sayd, A drunken man is alwayes drie, and A gluttons gut is neuer filled. (Ii1v)
Your high wayes should be considered in your walkes, to vnderstand where to bestow your dayes workes, according to the good Statutes prouided for the same. It is a good deed of mercie, to amend the dangerous and noisome wayes, whereby the poore neighbour sitting on his silly weake beast foundereth not in the deepe thereof, and so the Market the worse serued, for discouraging of poore vittailers to resort thither for the same cause. (Vv5r)
For this folly is euer from our tender age growne vp with vs, to haue a desire to rule, to thinke highly of our selfe, so that none thinketh it meet to giue place to another. That wicked vice of stubborne will and selfe loue, is more meet to breake and to disseuere the loue of heart, then to preserue concord. Wherefore married persons must apply their minds in most earnest wise to concorde, and must crave continually of GOD the helpe of his holy Spirit, so to rule their hearts, and to knit their minds together, that they be not disseuered by any diuision of discord. (UU6v)
Passages like these certainly imitate the scriptural tone of the Old and New Testaments, but they also render, in plain English, simple thoughts about important mundane subjects expressed by thoughtful sixteenth-century clergy who earned, by living, the right to say what they thought.