A Myrrovre for Magistrates: The Sociology of a Mid-Tudor Text

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Sirles, Michael Timothy
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Middle Tennessee State University
William Baldwin’s mid-sixteenth century collection, A Mirror for Magistrates, enormously popular in its own time, had been relegated to the footnotes and appendices of what were considered by scholars of literary history to be more prominent Tudor texts. Its timely and topical subjects combined with a problematic narrative frame and complicated publication history—not to mention a verse style that critics have long seen as tedious—renders A Mirror for Magistrates more noteworthy as historical artifact than a work worthy of study as meaningful, imaginative literature. Recent scholarship has changed the way that A Mirror for Magistrates is viewed. Paul Budra, Scott Lucas, Harriet Archer, Andrew Hadfield, Sherri Geller, and Mike Pincombe, among others, have brought A Mirror for Magistrates into the mainstream of academic research, and scholars have explored it beyond its simple place as a bridge text between the medieval works of Chaucer or Boccaccio, for instance, and the early modern works of Shakespeare and Spenser. Following Scott Lucas’s lead, I examine A Mirror for Magistrates as a voice in the dialogue of the English Reformation. Focusing specifically on the suppressed 1554, the 1559, and the 1563 editions, my dissertation claims that in laying bare the sociological history of A Mirror for Magistrates as a material object, genre piece, and political commentary, a distinctly Protestant form of collaborative composition emerges. The first chapter introduces the significance of A Mirror for Magistrates by giving a brief overview of its composition and critical reception. The second chapter addresses the material study of books in the age of the printing press and the biography of William Baldwin in the context of mid-Tudor print culture. Chapter Three examines the de casibus tradition, its medieval roots/routes, and the ways in which A Mirror for Magistrates both embraces and confounds the parameters of the genre. Chapters Four and Five examine, respectively, mid-Tudor political and religious crises to relocate within them the textual difficulties of A Mirror for Magistrates as emblematic of a specific mid-Tudor moment. Reconsidering this important book, long-neglected by scholars, in the light of recently renewed interest, I take a multi-faceted approach to study what D.F. McKenzie (whose Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts inspired this dissertation’s title) called “the social and technical circumstances of . . . production.” In studying the Mirror and attempting to position it within its historical, political, religious, and sociological context, I have found it necessary to construct a portrait of its times that is panoramic in scope. This portrait consistently finds A Mirror for Magistrates at its center—a focal point and crossroads of a mid-Tudor panorama that encompasses all these various socio-political elements and combined, provides a clearer understanding of mid-sixteenth-century England. My contention is that study of A Mirror for Magistrates can act as a proxy and an exemplar for the study of an age.