Aemilia Lanyer 1569-1645
(Born Aemilia Bassano) English poet.
Lanyer is recognized as a notable English poet whose work has garnered critical attention in recent years for her unique female perspective on the role of women in Jacobean society. Her only volume of poems, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611), has been praised as the first significant book of original poetry published by an Englishwoman. The volume contains eleven dedicatory pieces, a long poem on Christ's passion, and the first of the “country-house” genre of poems to be printed in English. In recent years, feminist interpretations of her work have explored Lanyer's depiction of women's friendships, gender roles, and sexuality. Moreover, scholars have commended her appropriation of male-authored biblical stories and rewriting them from a female perspective. Critics assert that her poetry offers valuable sociological and historical insight into Jacobean England.
Lanyer was born at Bishopsgate in 1569, the illegitimate daughter of an Italian court musician. In 1576 her father died penniless, which forced her employment as a maid at a young age. While in the service of Susan Wingfield, countess of Kent, Lanyer received an education in religious theory, classical literature, and contemporary poetry—particularly that of Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke, who proved to be an influential figure in her life. As a teenaged girl, she became romantically involved with Lord Henry Carey Hunsdon, first cousin to Queen Elizabeth. As his mistress, Lanyer was kept in comfort and became acquainted with several aristocratic and powerful ladies. When she became pregnant in 1592, Hunsdon abandoned her and she was married off to a court musician and soldier, Alphonso Lanyer. Lanyer tried to regain her previous status at court by advancing her husband's place in English society, and she hoped that he would be given a knighthood. Although he failed to receive this honor, in 1604 he was granted a hay-and-grain patent by King James I which provided them with a steady income. In the early 1600s Lanyer was inspired to write “The Description of Cooke-ham” after a visit with Margaret, the Countess of Cumberland, and her daughter, Lady Anne Clifford, at a country estate. Lanyer's religious verse was influenced by Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, who with her brother translated the biblical Psalms. In an attempt to attract patronage for her work, Lanyer published her poetry collection Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum in 1611. Although it was read by a number of influential people, the work failed to elicit patronage, and Lanyer never published again. After the death of her husband in 1613, Lanyer focused her attention on keeping the rights to his patent for her family and heirs. In 1617 Lanyer opened a school in the London suburb of St. Giles in the Fields, but stopped teaching when the lease was lost in 1619. At this time Lanyer lived with her son and, after his marriage in 1623, with his wife and children as well. There is no evidence that Lanyer wrote again. She died in March or April 1645 and was buried at St. James, Clerkenwell.
Major Poetic Works
The poems collected in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum praise the qualities of specific women whom Lanyer hoped would act as her patrons. Critics view the poems as an exploration of the major role women have played in promoting Christian values throughout history and a call for all women to turn to virtue and religious piety. Most commentary is devoted to two poems: “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum” and “The Description of Cooke-ham.” The title poem focuses on the Passion of Christ, relating the events from the Last Supper to the Crucifixion from a female point of view—that of Pontius Pilate's wife. This was one of the first poems of religious devotion published by a woman and the first to grant women a higher religious authority than men. In this work Lanyer praises the virtues of females and argues that women have the right to be free of the subjugation of men. She also reflects on the role of contemporary Christian women, asserting that they must remain strong, virtuous, and pious and fulfill their obligations to Christian principles. Lanyer also paid tribute to Queen Elizabeth I in “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum” and dedicated the poem to the Countess of Cumberland, praising her virtues and comparing her with the Queen of Sheba. “The Description of Cooke-ham” is an early English example of a country-house poem. Written after her visit to the Countess of Cumberland's estate at Cookham, the poem memorializes the noble estate and the companionship she shared with the inhabitants. Describing Cooke-ham as an ideal Christian community of women, she contrasts it to the misogynist world outside of the borders of the country home. Although Ben Jonson's “To Penshurst” is often cited as the first country-house poem, “The Description of Cooke-ham,” which was published five years before Jonson's poem, is recognized as being the first poem of this type to appear in print. The pastoral poem “The Authors Dreame to the Ladie Marie, the Countesse Dowager of Pembroke” pays tribute to Mary Sidney, whom Lanyer celebrates and praises as a major inspiration for her work.
Upon its publication in 1611, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum attracted little or no attention. Until recently, Lanyer has remained an obscure minor poet. In 1973 A. L. Rowse identified Lanyer as the “Dark Lady” in Shakespeare's sonnets—a theory that was quickly refuted by other Shakespearean scholars. The controversy brought attention to Lanyer's verse, and critics began to investigate her feminist interpretation of Christianity and explore the sociological value of her work. As an outsider—a woman of lower socioeconomic rank—her views on an aristocratic, patriarchal society that sought to marginalize women is considered an essential historical and sociological perspective. In particular, commentators regard Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum as a valuable cultural document that expands our understanding of women's religious roles. Lanyer's expression of ambivalence toward the power of the patronage system is considered a noteworthy commentary on the practice of patronage in the arts. The influence of the Jacobean court on Lanyer's life and work has been another topic of critical discussion. Recent studies have focused on homoerotic aspects of her poetry and have examined the attachments between women during the Jacobean period, perceiving these bonds as a way for women to transcend class differences to create a community of women. In addition to these issues, Lanyer has been praised for her vivid imagery and mastery of rhyme and meter, and “The Description of Cooke-ham” has attracted critical interest for the role it played in defining the conventions of the country-house poetic genre. In the past few decades, critical evaluations of her work have deemed Lanyer a major author and ready for inclusion in the canon of significant English writers.
SOURCE: Lewalski, Barbara K. “Of God and Good Women: The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer.” In Silent but for the Word: Tudor Women as Patrons, Translators, and Writers of Religious Works, edited by Margaret Patterson Hannay, pp. 203-24. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1985.
[In the following essay, Lewalski admires Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum for its “quite remarkable feminist conceptual frame.”]
A volume of religious poems published in 1611, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, was written by a gentlewoman who identified herself on her title page as “Mistris Aemilia Lanyer, Wife to Captaine Alfonso Lanyer, servant to the Kings Majestie.”1 Since published women poets were so very rare in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, the volume invites attention on that score alone.2 But beyond this, it has considerable intrinsic interest as a defense and celebration of good women and of Lanyer herself as woman poet. It has also some real, if modest, poetic merit.
Lanyer's volume is in three parts. First, there are eleven dedications, all to women: nine dedicatory poems to royal and noble ladies, a prose dedication to the Countess of Cumberland, and a prose epistle “To the Virtuous Reader” which is a vigorous apologia for women's equality or superiority to men in spiritual and moral matters—and by implication an apologia for Lanyer herself as a religious...
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SOURCE: Krontiris, Tina. “Women of the Jacobean Court Defending Their Sex.” In Oppositional Voices: Women as Writers and Translators of Literature in the English Renaissance, pp. 102-20. London: Routledge, 1992.
[In the following excerpt, Krontiris elucidates the strategies employed by Lanyer to gain financial compensation and acceptance as a female writer.]
The Jacobean period was a time of advances in the status of women. Comparing it to earlier periods, Retha Warnicke states that it is the one most deserving the label ‘golden.’1 Many more women than before were receiving some form of education, and more female precedents had been established in publishing and patronizing books. The theatre was paying more attention to women, and though most dramatists simply exploited the gender issue, some were questioning traditional notions.2 The court itself was relaxing its restrictions, despite the fact that King James himself was a misogynist. Neither his attitude nor the association of the theatre with loose morals kept James's Queen Consort, Anne of Denmark, from appearing in extravagant court masques and inviting other women of the nobility to do the same. Indeed, the Jacobean court appears to have served as a kind of training ground for at least two outspoken women writers—Aemilia Lanyer and Lady Mary Wroth. Lanyer was the daughter and wife of court musicians, while Wroth was...
(The entire section is 6591 words.)
SOURCE: Goldberg, Jonathan. “Canonizing Aemilia Lanyer.” In Desiring Women Writing: English Renaissance Examples, pp. 16-41. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Goldberg provides a favorable evaluation of Lanyer's contribution as a female poet and considers the importance of sexuality and gender roles in her life and work.]
In the opening paragraph of an essay offering an important rejoinder to the emphasis on “idealized sisterhood” in “current studies devoted to early modern women writers” (an intervention that guides the pages that follow), Ann Baynes Coiro notes a remarkable fact about one of these writers: in the most recent (sixth) edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature (1993), Aemilia Lanyer appears “as a major author,” ready for, if not granted, canonization by her inclusion.1 Coiro does not mention the fact that the headnote introducing Lanyer is, save for a single phrase, identical to the one that prefaced the piece of her writing that had appeared in the previous edition of the Norton Anthology (1986). There she had been included as a sixteenth-century prose writer, and one of the three prose pieces in her Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611) had served to represent her. Lanyer's elevation in the sixth edition involves dropping her preface “To the Virtuous Reader” and replacing it with a...
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SOURCE: Lewalski, Barbara K. “Seizing Discourses and Reinventing Genres.” In Aemilia Lanyer: Gender, Genre, and the Canon, edited by Marshall Grossman, pp. 49-59. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998.
[In the following essay, Lewalski views Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum as an appropriation and rewriting of patriarchal ideology and discourse.]
Aemilia Lanyer—gentlewoman-in-decline, daughter and wife of court musicians, cast-off mistress of Queen Elizabeth's Lord Chamberlain, Henry Hunsdon (to whom she bore an illegitimate child)—is the first Englishwoman to publish a substantial volume of original poems, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611). These poems are now beginning to accumulate the kind of scholarship and criticism that will enable us to assess and properly value their cultural significance and their often considerable aesthetic merit.1 My interest here is in Lanyer's appropriation and rewriting, in strikingly oppositional terms, of some dominant cultural discourses and a considerable part of the available generic repertoire, as she introduces a forceful female authorial voice into the Jacobean cultural scene.
Lanyer's volume challenges patriarchal ideology and the discourses supporting it, opposing the construct of women as chaste, silent, obedient, and subordinate, and displacing the hierarchical authority of fathers and husbands. Her book as...
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SOURCE: Grossman, Marshall. “The Gendering of Genre: Literary History and the Canon.” In Aemilia Lanyer: Gender, Genre, and the Canon, edited by Marshall Grossman, pp. 128-42. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998.
[In the following essay, Grossman investigates Lanyer's place in and influence on English literary history.]
In what ways does Aemilia Lanyer solicit us to think about the theory and practice of literary history? In general, when we write the history of literature we construct a variety of narratives to connect events, works, styles, writers, genres—what have you—over time. The narratives so constructed serve not only to represent the past, but to represent it to the present, and, the past being past, it is in the present that these narratives must have their effect. The very small number of surviving copies of the Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum and the lack of contemporary reference to it or to any other literary works by Lanyer argue against her having participated in any great way in the construction of English literature. Perhaps something of hers was in some manner appropriated by writers the impact of whose work is easier to trace. Ben Jonson comes to mind as someone she might have influenced, and though the evidence does not support A. L. Rowse's contention that she was Shakespeare's “dark lady,” her connections to the court music as well as to the Lord...
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SOURCE: Guibbory, Achsah. “The Gospel According to Aemilia: Women and the Sacred.” In Aemilia Lanyer: Gender, Genre, and the Canon, edited by Marshall Grossman, pp. 191-211. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998.
[In the following essay, Guibbory analyzes Lanyer's relationship to the sacred as expressed through her poetry.]
In the history of Western religion, women have had a far more ambiguous relation to the sacred than men. Although women were celebrated in the Hebrew Bible for their heroism and devotion to God, it was men, we are told, who were the priests and prophets chosen for God's service. With the destruction of the temple in 70 c.e., the study of the sacred Torah became exclusively the province of males, and the rabbis replaced the priests, while women engaged in practical, domestic roles supporting the spirituality of the male scholars. In some ways, the advent of Christianity might have marked a change in women's relation to the sacred, for Christ's teachings could be seen as giving women equal access to the divine—“there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28); the fact that all believers, male and female, are “sonness” of Christ (e.g., Gal. 4:6-7) and strive to be his “spouse” (e.g., Matt. 25:1-13) might minimize gender as well as class differences.1 But there were other passages in the New Testament that...
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SOURCE: Woods, Susanne. “Lanyer and English Religious Verse.” In Lanyer: A Renaissance Woman Poet, pp. 126-62. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Woods discusses Lanyer's religious verse and places her among several key religious poets, including John Donne and John Milton.]
Religion defined the social, political, and intellectual life of medieval and Renaissance Europe. From the imperialist folly of the Crusades to individual sacrifices, from cathedrals and epics to vestments and sonnets, religion also infused and transported the period's artistic imagination. Today many find it hard to grasp the ubiquity and power of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It underlay virtually every assumption about the nature, purpose, and value of life, and what appear to us as small differences within a hegemonic worldview were reasons for debate, imprisonment, and even martyrdom.
The seventeenth century is the great age of English religious verse. Stimulated in part by the Protestant focus on the Word and in part by the vivid piety of the Counter-Reformation, poets struggled to articulate their personal relationship with the divine. Religious verse was of course not new to England in this period. The greatest portion of extant medieval English verse is occasioned by religious themes, but they represent a religion so integrally a part of the rhythms...
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SOURCE: Rogers, John. “The Passion of a Female Literary Tradition: Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judæorum.” Huntington Library Quarterly 63, no. 4 (2000): 435-46.
[In the following essay, Rogers delineates the social and cultural conditions that influenced the creation of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum and regards the volume as an “unprecedented achievement.”]
As the first significant book of original poetry published by an Englishwoman, Aemilia Lanyer's 1611 volume of poems, Salve Deus Rex Judæorum, bears a considerable burden. The volume self-consciously assumes the task of delivering to posterity a new literary tradition, a newly public, because published, tradition of poetry by women. Intimately tied to this unprecedented achievement is the stunning claim for her poetic vocation that Lanyer makes in that volume's title poem, a narration of the Passion, the events surrounding the crucifixion of Christ. Literary history has traditionally assumed Lanyer's younger contemporary, John Milton, to be the first English poet to ascribe his vocation to his fate at birth.1 But we must ask Milton to relinquish that honor to Lanyer, who offered a bold incarnational narrative near the end of her long poem on Christ's Passion. Addressing the countess of Cumberland as either a real or presumed patron, she writes:
And knowe, when first into this world I came, This...
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SOURCE: Woods, Susanne. “Anne Lock and Aemilia Lanyer: A Tradition of Protestant Women Speaking.” In Form and Reform in Renaissance England: Essays in Honor of Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, edited by Amy Boesky and Mary Thomas Crane, pp. 171-84. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Woods finds connections between the English author Anne Lock and Lanyer.]
Two of the most interesting early modern English women writers are Anne Vaughan Lock (c. 1534-c. 1590) and Aemilia Bassano Lanyer (1569-1645). Lock, a confidant of John Knox, published translations of Sermons of John Calvin, Upon the Songe Ezechias Made after He Had Been Sicke (1560) and (as Anne Prowse) of a treatise by the French Huguenot, Jean Taffin, Of the Markes of the Children of God (1590), each prefaced by a substantial dedication to a noblewoman and followed by original poems. Lanyer, daughter and wife of court musicians and, in her youth, mistress to Queen Elizabeth's Lord Chamberlain, in 1611 published Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (“Hail God, King of the Jews”). This impressive book of poems is centered by a long poem on Christ's passion prefaced by a series of nine dedicatory pieces and followed by the first published country-house poem in English, “A Description of Cookeham.”
On the surface these two women would seem to have little in common. Not only are they of...
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SOURCE: Seelig, Sharon Cadman. “‘To All Vertuous Ladies in Generall’: Aemilia Lanyer's Community of Strong Women.” In Literary Circles and Cultural Communities in Renaissance England, edited by Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth, pp. 44-58. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Seelig explores the community of women described by Lanyer in the poems of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.]
Pondering the question of literary circles in Renaissance England and attracted by the thought of a literary circle in Dearborn, I began to wonder, with Joan Kelly-Gadol, whether women had literary circles. They did, of course: one thinks of the circle of patronage created by the countess of Pembroke at Wilton, of the notables attracted by the light of Lucy, countess of Bedford, whom Donne and Jonson found the “brightness of our sphere”1 (though I note that both these circles were inhabited chiefly by male poets); one thinks of Katherine Philips, who re-created herself as Orinda, supplied her husband and friends with literary names to suit, and thereby became known as “the matchless Orinda,” center of a fictive as well as an actual circle. I thought even of the much humbler An Collins who, in writing her strongly biblical poetry, seems to have addressed a circle of like-minded believers, a community of the faithful. Or one might recall Margaret Cavendish, who,...
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SOURCE: Lamb, Mary Ellen. “Patronage and Class in Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.” In Women, Writing, and the Reproduction of Culture in Tudor and Stuart Britain, edited by Mary E. Burke, Jane Donawerth, Linda L. Dove, and Karen Nelson, pp. 38-57. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Lamb views the poems of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum within the context of the patronage system and the socioeconomic structure of the period.]
Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum shows evident, even blatant, signs of its production under a patronage system: eleven prefatory dedications, the tailoring of various states of the text as presentation copies, explicit allusions to Lanyer's fall from former status, lengthy addresses to the countess of Cumberland.1 Yet, although various critics note Lanyer's transparent bids for patronage, until recently, most discussions of the Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum have bracketed off financial motives as somehow extraneous to the work.2 The notion of compensation seems to sit uncomfortably with what Robert C. Evans has called “a modern urge to enshrine the poet as a creative culture-hero, somehow set apart from and above ambition” (36).
This natural and generous impulse to idealize beloved poets is especially intense regarding women writers, whose works have been...
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SOURCE: Huntington, John. “Postscript: The Presumption of Aemilia Lanyer.” In Ambition, Rank, and Poetry in 1590s England, pp. 147-53. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.
[In the following essay, Huntington discusses the themes of social ambition and courtly ambition in the Lanyer's poetic work.]
At the time of the publication of Jones's translation of Nennio and Chapman's “Ovids Banquet of Sence” in 1595, some poets could envision a moment of utopian promise when Fabricio's “virtues of the mind” might seem a viable form of cultural capital, when an intellectual might reject both the rules of courtly discourse, which however much they reward style never forget pedigree, and the abrasive opposition of puritan anger, inspired by a claim to reject the social world in the name of a higher truth outside of time, in order to define a space in which learning, wisdom, and even the very refusal to compete in the social arena—to choose to recline like Bussy at the beginning of the play—can be advanced as sources of cultural power. Even Spenser can at moments modestly and cautiously urge a place for an obscure poetic that is outside the court and, even if the court does not recognize it, has dignity. Under James I, however, the possibilities available at the end of Elizabeth's reign seem to close down; the court tends to monopolize social reward, and compared with the earlier decade...
(The entire section is 3319 words.)
SOURCE: Holmes, Michael Morgan. “Rich Chains of Love: Desire and Community in Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judæorum.” In Early Modern Metaphysical Literature: Nature, Custom and Strange Desires, pp. 89-105. Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Palgrave, 2001.
[In the following essay, Holmes contends that in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum “the commingling of religious piety, a defence of women, and a celebration of their mutual passion and devotion engagingly denaturalizes customary power relations and gender identities.”]
Aemilia Lanyer devoted herself to God and other women. Her visions of past and future utopian worlds consistently place love of the deity in and through a community of women at the centre of personal happiness and social justice. In her only known work, Salve Deus Rex Judæorum, the commingling of religious piety, a defence of women, and a celebration of their mutual passion and devotion engagingly denaturalizes customary power relations and gender identities.1
Scholars such as Barbara Lewalski, Lynette McGrath, and Janel Mueller have discussed the importance of female association to Lanyer's poetry and vision of society. In general, though, they have not considered the relations between Lanyer's work and other seventeenth-century contemplations of love amongst women or the ways in which homoeroticism figures in her treatment of desire....
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SOURCE: Bowen, Barbara E. “The Rape of Jesus: Aemilia Lanyer's Lucrece.” In Marxist Shakespeares, edited by Jean E. Howard and Scott Cutler Shershow, pp. 104-27. London: Routledge, 2001.
[In the following essay, Bowen analyzes Lanyer's inclusion of a quote from Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece in the title poem of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.]
The terms of the national debate have subtly, insidiously shifted. What used to be called liberal is now called radical; what used to be called radical is now called insane.
(Tony Kushner, “American Things,” in Thinking about the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness: Essays, A Play, Two Poems, and a Prayer: 1995)
My question is how to recognize moments in early modern writing when revolutionary change is imagined. Without assuming that we know in advance what form that change would take or that its understanding of class, gender and other social relations would be automatically recognizable, I am struck by how difficult it has become to ask that question, particularly about women's writing. Everything from the supposed discrediting of communism in 1989 to the right-wing attacks on political correctness to the formation of Renaissance studies itself contributes to the inhibition we may feel in approaching the outlines of utopian desire or the possibility of...
(The entire section is 10116 words.)
Hodgson, Elizabeth M. A. “Prophecy and Gendered Mourning in Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 43, no. 1 (winter 2003): 101-16.
Contends that “in at least one respect Lanyer has a consistent goal and strategy throughout Salve Deus: to invoke a particular type of spiritual foremother in a quest to define and defend her own role as prophetic poet.”
Loughlin, Marie H. “‘Fast Ti'd unto Them in a Golden Chaine’: Typology, Apocalypse, and Woman's Genealogy in Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.” Renaissance Quarterly 52, no. 1 (spring 2000): 133-79.
Explores Lanyer's use of biblical typology in order to create a genealogy of woman.
McBride, Kari Boyd and John C. Ulreich. “Answerable Styles: Biblical Poetics and Biblical Politics in the Poetry of Lanyer and Milton.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 100, no. 3 (July 2001): 333-54.
Finds similarities in the style of Lanyer and John Milton.
Phillippy, Patricia. “Sisters of Magdalen: Women's Mourning in Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.” English Literary Renaissance 31, no. 1 (winter 2001): 78-106.
Traces the depiction of women's mourning throughout Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum....
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