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Becon, Thomas (1512–1567) - BIOGRAPHY, MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES, CRITICAL RECEPTION

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Thomas Becon is one of those writers whom students of English history and literature invariably see, when they look at the writers at all, as examples of the “incipient Puritanism” of the mid-Tudor dynasty. One of the most prolific of the first generation of English Protestant divines, Becon wrote dozens of works aimed initially at providing devotional guides to the new faith during the 1540s but later added explicitly catechetical and polemical strands to his bow as monarchs and circumstances changed. His collected edition published in the 1560s runs to three long folio volumes. By the time of his death in 1567, he had written over thirty works, not including various collections of prayers and sermons, and several of his more fortunate pieces ran to multiple editions.

Born around 1512 near Thetford, Norfolk, Becon entered Cambridge in 1527 at a time when the university was known for its Lutheran leanings. He appears to have been turned to the new learning by Hugh Latimer, with whom he is often compared, with some justification: both were homilists rather than theologians, and both were tremendously popular. After he left Cambridge with his B.A. in 1531, he joined the community of religious scholars at the College of St. John Evangelist in Rushworth, close to his home, and was there ordained priest in 1533. He seems to have left before the house ascribed to the oath acknowledging the royal supremacy in 1534, for his signature is not among the members who affirmed the schism. By 1538 Becon had attracted the patronage of Thomas Lord Wentworth of Nettlestead (who helped bring John Bale into the Protestant fold) and was plying the circuit between Norwich and London as an intinerant preacher. The conservative backlash in 1540 forced him into the first of his two recantations, and he retreated to the relative security of layman’s clothing and pseudonymous publication, which he left only when Henry VIII died. Three years before his books were officially condemned in 1546, he was forced to cut them up in his second recantation at Paul’s Cross. From that time until Edward VI’s accession, Becon once again became itinerant—this time drifting among households of Protestant gentry in the Midlands, educating children and servants and writing.

After Edward’s accession, Becon attracted the patronage of Edward Seymour, the lord protector, and left his rural retreats for St. Stephen’s Walbrook in London. His theology, which formerly had been Lutheran and rather circumspect concerning the Eucharist, calcified into Zwinglianism—perhaps as a result of his exposure to the daunting intellectual household of the protector whose chaplain he had become. His writings, now under his real name, make explicit and predictable connections between Reformed theology and the acute social problems then current. Perhaps as a result of his many years on foot among the rural laborers, Becon’s Edwardine works voice a guarded but laudable sympathy for the poor.

Under Mary, Becon spent some time in the Tower, then fled abroad. He adopted a moderate stance in the theological tussles between Cox’s moderation and the Calvinism of John Knox* that divided the English exiles on the Continent. Eventually, in 1556, Becon found himself in a familiar position as domestic tutor to the household of Philip, Langrave of Hesse. He continued to write exhortatory works for an English audience as well as undistinguished Latin polemics for a Continental readership, but his pen was sharpened by the company he kept—notably John Foxe and John Bale. Convinced that Mary’s persecutions were proof of God’s direct and unmistakable punishment for the failure of the Reformation under Edward, Becon was ready to join the chorus of her champions in proclaiming Elizabeth* as the English Deborah. While many of the more rigorous former exiles were led to Calvinist nonconformism and even active opposition to the Elizabethan settlement, Becon lived out his days after her accession as a minor prebendary in Canterbury, patronized by Matthew Parker, collecting income as a nonresident pastor from his several cures in London and elsewhere.

MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES

Becon’s works fall most easily into two groups—the homiletic or devotional and the polemical, both of whose margins bristle with scriptural references. He also compiled and published lists of Protestant proof-texts and “commonplaces,” translated Continental Protestant authors into English, and composed lengthy prayers and sermons, many of which are found in the various official formularies of Edward VI and Elizabeth. His early devotional pieces include a sequence of dialogues superficially modeled after Erasmus’* Colloquies . The similarities are strictly formal—in his A Christmas Banquet (1542) he draws the setting, the sequence, and even many of the names of the interlocutors from Erasmus’ A Godly Feast (1522). Unfortunately, he passes over the irony, the complexity, the verbal dexterity and, of course, the humanist leaning of his model in favor of a prolix and transparent Protestant catechesis whose rhetorical simplicity and signal distrust of figurative speech are its most prominent features. Becon’s forte as a popularizer perhaps resulted from his homiletic style, and many of his works are really little more than sermons in print.

By the time it became necessary to educate the second generation of English Protestants, distrust in the virtues of a classical curriculum was widespread among the more evangelical. The impact of Becon’s efforts under Elizabeth in shaping the emerging generation has yet to be assessed, but his views on the utility of non-Christian authors are unmistakable. His educational works, such as the later New Catechism (c. 1560), bring the genre of the humanist dialogue to its knees: in it, a father expounds on the repugnance of Ovid and other pagan authors while his six-year-old son cites approvingly (if somewhat hypocritically) Plato’s expulsion of “poets” from his ideal commonwealth. Lucian, whose ironies and ambiguities delighted both More* and Erasmus only a generation earlier, is delated as especially wicked. Becon’s antihumanist attitude is seen most clearly in the introduction to his collected works, published in 1560, where he chastises English schools for teaching “the profane and strange letters of the wanton poets, lying historiographers, prattling sophisters, babbling orators, vain philosophers” (Ayre, vol. 1, p. 10) instead of an exclusive focus on sacred Christian texts as they once did in the golden apostolic age and now do in Germany.

Becon’s polemics, such as his The Monstrous Merchandise of the Romish Bishops and his Displaying of the Popish Mass , reflect the chiliastic theology then popular among returning exiles and draw from the common stock of Protestant diatribe. But they were never as popular as his devotional pieces or his prayers. An inventory of Tudor-Stuart private libraries reveals quite a few works by Becon, including his best-selling contribution to the ars moriendi genre, The Sick Man’s Salve .

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Perhaps the soporific effect of his prose is responsible for the relative absence of scholarly attention to this quintessentially Tudor writer. Yet Becon’s acknowledged popularity suggests we can learn much from a study of his works and the ironies of his career. A creature of the new technology of print, Becon owes his popularity to a medium he exploits yet repeatedly condemns. He imitates writers whose works he censures and whose rhetorical forms he laments but imitates. Like those of his colleagues Bale and Foxe,* Becon’s writings helped shape generations of English piety. Ayre’s edition of his collected works is the only one available, and it deliberately omits several polemical pieces offensive to nineteenth-century decorum. Only one study—a biography—treats his theology in any depth, and it is now badly out of date. With the rising interest in the history of print and its relationship to the popular culture of the English Reformation, attention to Becon’s works promises to be rewarding.

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about 5 years ago

A very useful summary and very helpful for the book I am engaged on.