“Milton and Catholicism” (Corthell & Corns, eds.)

Quite apart from his literary work (Lycidas may be the most perfect elegy ever composed), John Milton is renowned for his political essays. I remember in a First Amendment free speech course in law school being told that Areopagitica was the best early defense and model of our modern free speech rights bar none. And there are, indeed, some memorable lines in it (“Hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye”).

But from time to time, I have wondered about the strength of the American freedom of speech as descended from its earliest Miltonian defense, down through Madison, Mill, and the libertarian model of the twentieth century. At any rate, this new series of essays, Milton and Catholicism, edited by Ronald Corthell (English, Purdue) and Thomas N. Corns (English Literature, Bangor), explore the relationship of Milton’s thought to the Catholicism of 17th century Europe. Not a particularly congenial relationship, of course, and I hazard a guess that the rabidly anti-prelatical themes that are so dear to Milton in Areopagitica (and, mutatis mutandis, so important to contemporary liberalism) make at least an appearance in the book.

The book is published by Notre Dame press and the publisher’s description is below.

This collection of original essays by literary critics and historians analyzes a wide range of Milton’s writing, from his early poetry, through his mid-century political prose, to De Doctrina Christiana, which was unpublished in his lifetime, and finally to his last and greatest poems. The contributors investigate the rich variety of approaches to Milton’s engagement with Catholicism and its relationship to reformed religion. The essays address latent tensions and contradictions, explore the nuances of Milton’s relationship to the easy commonplaces of Protestant compatriots, and disclose the polemical strategies and tactics that often shape that engagement.

The contributors link Milton and Catholicism with early modern confessional conflicts between Catholics and Protestants that in turn led to new models and standards of authority, scholarship, and interiority. In Milton’s case, he deployed anti-Catholicism as a rhetorical device and the negative example out of which Protestants could shape their identity. The contributors argue that Milton’s anti-Catholicism aligns with his understanding of inwardness and conscience and illuminates one of the central conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in the period. Building on recent scholarship on Catholic and anti-Catholic discourses over the English Tudor and Stuart period, new understandings of martyrdom, and scholarship on Catholic women, Milton and Catholicism provides a diverse and multifaceted investigation into a complex and little-explored field in Milton studies.

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