The printing of books, as an art and industry, has been documented from any number of perspectives. The arduous setting of type, the business of publication and distribution, the craft of binding — these are some of the many things we consider while thinking about the history of the book. But in past centuries, when the printed page, folded, sewn, and bound, was as much a conduit for subversion as intellectual exchange, the authorship, publication, or even possession of certain books could, at times, be exceedingly dangerous. The John J. Burns Library is currently presenting an exhibit of rare books that explores just such a period in the history of England. These books, now on display in the first floor gallery, were produced during a time when clandestine presses, hidden in garrets and cellars, churned out biting works of controversy, doctrine, and impassioned apology.
During the 16th and 17th centuries the political fallout from the Reformation was tearing Europe asunder, as the opposing ideologies of Catholicism and Protestantism were used by rival empires, countries, and families to make war on one another. In this context, church and state were often inseparable, and rejecting the religion of one’s king or queen was commonly seen as a subversive attack on the legitimacy of one’s national government. This was particularly true in England, where the monarch was the head of both the Anglican Church and the secular state. Thus English Catholics, who eschewed Anglican communion and recognized the Pope as their spiritual leader, were seen as adherents to a foreign power, and were frequently accused of treason. Beginning during the reign of Elizabeth I and extending for nearly a century, English Catholics were required to attend Anglican masses or risk a series of penalties ranging from fines to confiscation of property to imprisonment. Those Catholics who refused to comply were known as recusants (from the Latin recusare: to refuse).
This exhibit explores the printed output of the recusant era, and features books that typify many of the important facets in the intellectual sphere of recusant life. A number of the titles on display were printed on the presses of Catholic colleges for English exiles, which sprang up in places like Duoay, Rouen, and Rome. The so-called “controversial” works of the era, which belong to a literary genre defined by strident advocacy and acrimonious dispute are also well represented, their title pages giving evidence to a bitter conflict carried out through print. In addition, the exhibit highlights the biographical details of prominent figures like Reginald Pole, the influential English Cardinal; Robert Parsons, the controversial Jesuit leader and intellectual; Saint Edmund Campion, the clandestine missionary and martyr, and many others.
Through this exhibit the curators sought to represent the recusant period not only via the frictions between Catholic and Protestant, but also through the international political tensions of the era and the power struggles within the recusant community itself, with an emphasis on the consequences of an intolerance espoused by all sides in this complicated conflict over religious doctrine.
If you can’t visit the exhibit, then be sure to view it online. If you would like to learn more about this exhibit or about our fine collection of recusant and recusant-related literature, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Jay Moschella, Senior Special Collections Cataloging Assistant, John J. Burns Library