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8. Blasphemy and Print in Stephen Hawes' Conversion of Swearers

Abstract

Stephen Hawes is often labelled as a ‘transitional poet’ and has traditionally occupied an uncomfortable and liminal space in English literary history. As well as being suspended between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, between manuscript and print, and between the secular and the religious, Hawes also appears to have occupied a highly uncertain place at court – between officially sanctioned public recognition and utter irrelevance: groom of the chamber for Henry VII, Hawes suddenly disappears from view with the advent of Henry VIII. Hawes’s career and literary output, then, admirably encapsulate the tensions, counter currents, indirections, and unpredictability that characterise this period in English literary, cultural, and political history. These qualities loom large in a short but fascinating treatise printed in 1509 by Wynkyn de Worde, with whom Hawes appears to have developed an unusually close and long-lasting relationship, dating back to the printing of Hawes’s earliest datable poem, the Example of Vertu (1503). The Conuercyon of Swerers (1509) occupies an improbable place even in Hawes’s unlikely oeuvre, otherwise mixing chivalric instruction with didactic allegory: the Conuercyon is presented as a ‘a lytell treatyse’ against blasphemy, and at first sight appears to be a highly conventional piece of homiletic writing. On closer inspection, however, it appears that together with the Comforte of Lovers (another late work, date 1510-11), the Conuercyon functions as a sort of ‘poetic testament’ for Hawes, by making explicit some of the ethical, political, and cognitive principles that underpin his poetic œuvre as a whole. In particular, the treatise reveals a highly distinctive understanding of the power of the printed word as a tool for the adequate ‘formatting’ of the prince’s subjects – subtly and tacitly conflating the latter with the members of Christ’s mystical body – exhorting readers to ‘prynte in their mynde’ the lessons and values presented in Hawes’s work itself. On the one hand, then, Hawes anticipates later developments in the machinery of Tudor royal propaganda, rooted in the systematic use of print technology to buttress political obedience and social order. On the other hand, Hawes’s understanding of the relationship between the prince and the polity also anticipates some of the more sinister developments associated with the later conflation of political obedience and religious conformity in the wake of the Act of Supremacy (1536), suggesting that the process of centralization of royal power under Henry VII already contained the ideological seeds for such later developments.
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Dates and versions

hal-04295418 , version 1 (20-11-2023)

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  • HAL Id : hal-04295418 , version 1

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Marco Nievergelt. 8. Blasphemy and Print in Stephen Hawes' Conversion of Swearers. Brepols. The Power of Words in Late Medieval Devotional and Mystical Writing ed. Rory G Critten and Juliette Vuille, pp.NA, In press. ⟨hal-04295418⟩

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