John Bale 1495-1563
English antiquarian, playwright, essayist, propagandist, and editor
Bale was a significant promoter of the Protestant Reformation in England, propagating anti-Catholic views in a variety of literary forms, including dramatic and nondramatic genres. He is also credited with a number of important literary advancements. His most influential work, King Johan (c. 1538-40), introduced the use of historical figures into English drama with its depiction of the twelfth-century English monarch's disputes with the Catholic Church. His Vocacyon of Johan Bale to the Bishoprick of Ossorie in Irelande (1553) is recognized as one of the earliest autobiographical works written in English, and his pioneering bibliographies, Illustrium maioris Britanniae scriptorum summarium (1548) and Scriptorum illustrium maioris Brytannie Catalogus (1557-59), represent some of the earliest listings of English literary figures and their works.
Bale was born into a large family of modest circumstances on November 21, 1495, at Cove, near Dunwich. At age twelve he was sent to a house of Carmelite friars in Norwich, where he received much of his early education. The Carmelites paid for Bale to attend Cambridge University, and he undertook a course of study of religion at Jesus College. After a period of travel Bale returned to Cambridge, where he eventually earned his Doctor of Divinity degree. Throughout the early 1530s Bale served as prior of various Carmelite monasteries, including houses in Maldon, Ipswich, and Doncaster, but he soon came into conflict with Church authorities. In 1531 he was suspended from preaching for a year for refusing to take an oath. Within a few years he again angered his superiors with a sermon criticizing Catholic doctrine. He escaped sanctions, however, through the efforts of his friend, John Leland, the King's Antiquary, who intervened on his behalf with Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's chief minister and vicegerent for religious affairs. During his tenure at Ipswich Bale came into contact with Thomas, Lord Wentworth, a patron of religious reformers whom Bale later credited with bringing about his conversion to Protestantism. In 1536 Bale left the Carmelite order, married, and became a secular priest in Suffolk. That same year he was arrested and imprisoned on charges of heresy. Again Cromwell—a prominent supporter of Protestant propagandists, who appreciated Bale's satiric dramas attacking Catholicism—intervened, and after a contentious trial Bale was released. In the years following his trial for heresy Bale traveled with the drama troupe Lord Cromwell's Players, and he helped stage several of his own works. In 1540, when Cromwell fell from power and was executed, Bale fled with his family to the large English expatriate community on the European continent. The eight years of Bale's exile were his most productive period as a writer. He published between two and four works each year from 1543 to 1547. The accession of the pro-Protestant Edward VI to the English throne in 1548 prompted an outpouring of twelve works from Bale, including A Comedy Concernynge Thre Lawes and The Image of Both Churches. Bale subsequently returned to England and resumed his ecclesiastical duties. In 1552, despite Bale's reluctance, Edward appointed him to the Bishopric of Ossory. Bale chronicled his experiences in this turbulent and staunchly Catholic diocese in his Vocacyon. Upon the death of Edward and the rise of Catholic Mary I, Bale again fled to the Continent, where he became entangled in disputes among various Protestant factions. He spent the majority of this period, however, conducting his bibliographic work. He returned home for the final time in 1559, following the accession of Elizabeth I. He served as a canon of Canterbury Cathedral until his death in November 1563.
Bale wrote twenty-four plays, of which five are extant. King Johan, widely regarded as his finest drama, was written sometime in the 1530s and likely revised at least twice. Never printed in Bale's lifetime, the play survives in a single manuscript written partly by a scribe and partly by Bale himself. King Johan is significant as one of the first uses of drama for purposes of Protestant proselytizing. Even more important from a literary standpoint is its introduction of historical figures into a dramatic piece, an event that marks the genesis of the history play, a genre that would become one of the most prominent dramatic forms of the English Renaissance. Bale inserts the figure of King John—whose reign was marked by conflicts with the Pope and by internal dissension and rebellion—into what is essentially a traditional morality play featuring personified abstractions. Figures such as Civil Order, Usurped Power, and Private Wealth are allied into factions either supporting or opposing the king. Within this framework Bale, in accordance with his religious objectives, casts John as an early Protestant martyr whose defiance of the Pope is glorified and whose ultimate capitulation is presented as tragic. Bale thus uses the tumultuous circumstances of John's reign as an analogy to the religious and political strife of his own time, particularly Henry VIII's conflicts with Rome. Protestant propagandizing is an important aspect of many of Bale's other works as well. The Image of Both Churches, the first commentary in English on the Book of Revelations, interprets history in terms of the Apocalypse, aligning the “false,” Catholic, faith with the forces of the Antichrist, which eventually overwhelm the “true,” Protestant, church. According to Bale the world will soon end and Christ will return to save the faithful. This model of history permeates all of Bale's works. The Image of Both Churches also focuses on what would later become an important device in partisan religious works, the figure of the Whore of Babylon. Cast in the form of a Protestant hagiography, Bale's Vocacyon is unique in being autobiographical. Covering the events of Bale's turbulent tenure in the predominantly Catholic bishopric of Ossory, this work recounts such outrages as the poisoning of Bale's friend and superior, Hugh Goodacre; the brutal ambush and murder of Bale's servants; his deliverance from almost certain death with the help of a force of two hundred men; and his lengthy captivity aboard a Flemish pirate ship. Bale presents his narrative in the standard form of a saint's life, offering his experiences as an example to other Protestants suffering from adversity and persecution. The Catalogus, too, is consistent with Bale's mission as a Protestant polemicist, adhering to Bale's apocalyptic paradigm of history and emphasizing the works of Protestant writers who toiled in times of persecution while assailing those of Catholic apologists.
During his lifetime, evaluations of Bale were sharply divided along religious lines. He was vilified by Catholics for his attacks on the Church, while he found a receptive audience among the Protestant community, as evidenced by his prolific output. After his death, when political and religious discourse became less contentious, Bale was disparaged for the stridency of his rhetoric and dismissed with the moniker “Bilious Bale.” In the succeeding centuries his work was largely ignored.
Twentieth-century scholars have commonly viewed Bale as a significant innovator and contributor to the development of several literary genres. As Peter Happé has pointed out: “Although Bale's particular apocalyptic rendering of history was unacceptable to some, there is little doubt that the recurring image of ecclesiastical conflict on a cosmic scale became a central idea for many writers, including Spenser and Milton.” Although some critics, including Honor McCusker, have disputed the innovative nature of King Johan, others, such as May Mattsson have stressed Bale's influence on later writers. Mattsson has stated that Bale's play “deserves a place in English literary history primarily because it marks the emergence of a dramatic genre that fifty years later was to become important.”
King John (drama) c. 1538-40
A brefe comedy or enterlude concenynge the temptacyon of Our Lorde and Sauer Jesus Christ, by Sathan in the desert (drama) 1538
A tragedye or enterlude, manyfestying the chefe promyses of God unto man by all ages in the old lawe (drama) 1538
Yet a course at the romyshe foxe (criticism) 1543
A brefe chronycle concernynge the examinacyon and death of the martyr syr J. Oldecastell (essay) 1544
The actes of Englysh votaryes (essay) 1546
*The first examinacyon of Anne Askewe (commentary) 1546
A brefe comedy or interlude of Johan Baptystes preachynge (drama) c. 1547
*The latter examinacyon of Anne Askewe (commentary) 1547
A comedy concernynge thre lawes, of nature Moses & Christ, corrupted by the Sodomytes, Pharysees and Papystes (drama) c. 1548
Illustrium maioris Britanniae scriptorum Summarium (bibliography) 1548
The image of both churches, after the moste wonderfull and heauenly Reuelacion of Sainct John the Euangelist, contayning a very frutefull exposicion or paraphrase upon the same. Wherein it is conferred with the other scripturs, and most auctorised historyes (essay) c. 1548
The apology of Johan Bale agaynste a ranke...
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SOURCE: Introduction to Kynge Johan: A Play in Two Parts,edited by J. Payne Collier, The Camden Society, 1838, pp. vi-xiv.
[In this excerpt Collier examines Bale's seminal use of historical figures and events in his plays and the bridge his works created between medieval theater and modern drama.]
… The date when Kynge Johan was originally written cannot be clearly ascertained: perhaps before Bale was made an Irish prelate by Edward VI. in 1552; but this point may admit of dispute. From the conclusion, it would appear that Elizabeth was on the throne; but I apprehend that both the Epilogue (if we may so call it) and some other passages, were subsequent additions. The speech of Verity, on p. 84, in which John Leland is called upon to wake out of his slumber, was possibly one of these. It seems to have been inserted partly for the purpose of vindicating King John from the accusations of the “malicious clergy,” and partly for the sake of giving time to the actors to prepare for the ensuing scene. The introduction of the name of Darvell Gathyron on p. 48, of course establishes that the line was written after 1538, but of that fact there could be no doubt. It is known that in many of our plays, from the earliest times to the closing of the theatres, it was not unusual to make changes and substitutions, either to increase the interest, to improve the story, or to adapt it to the circumstances of...
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SOURCE: “King Johan and Sixteenth-Century Drama,” in John Bale's King Johan, edited by Barry B. Adams, The Huntington Library, 1969, pp. 55-65.
[In the following essay, Adams acknowledges King Johan's unique attributes while refuting the theory that the play greatly influenced later works.]
Most students of the Elizabethan drama agree that King Johan exerted no direct influence on either the Troublesome Raigne or Shakespeare's King John. W. W. Greg's opinion that all three plays “follow in common a Protestant tradition” in their treatment of King John has not won universal acceptance, but it has at least discouraged attempts to link Bale's play very closely with the later King John plays.1 Certainly it seems unlikely on the face of it that a playwright from the 1580's or 1590's would be familiar with a manuscript play written at least fifty years earlier and which has left no record of performance later than 1539. Only through very compelling internal evidence could a direct relationship be established, and such evidence has not been found.
The only noteworthy attempt to overturn the prevailing consensus is far from successful. John Elson, who comes just short of proposing King Johan as an immediate source of the Troublesome Raigne, claims to have discovered “more than a hundred parallel passages and instances of...
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SOURCE: “The vocacyon of Johan Bale and Early English Autobiography,” in Renaissance Quarterly Vol. 24, No. 3, 1971, pp. 327-40.
[In this essay, Fairfield examines The vocacyon of Johan Bale as a unique example of an early autobiographical work.]
Sixteenth-century Englishmen were not frequently given to self-scrutiny—at least not in writing. This was a disinclination which they shared with their medieval forbears, since autobiography was not a very common form of literary activity in the Middle Ages. Monastic self-analysis, sub specie aeternitatis and guided by the standard categories of virtues and vices—yes. Coherent study of the self, for its own sake and in all its quirks and idiosyncracies—scarcely ever.1 In the early sixteenth century, the murmur of new ideas from Italy did begin to touch England: a sense of distance and of difference between the present and the past, and an awakened appreciation for the discrete, the singular in human personality. These stirrings did evoke an interest in biography in England, at least in Sir Thomas More and his circle; though in that respect these men were a bit ahead of their time.2 Autobiography remained practically nonexistent until the last quarter of the century—and even then, one can almost count the number of English autobiographical works on the fingers of one hand.3 This dearth of...
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SOURCE: Five Plays about King John, University of Uppsala, 1977, pp. 4-7, 21-27, 60-71, 95-99, 122-130.
[In the following excerpts, Mattsson explores Bale's use of the medieval King John to further the cause of the burgeoning Protestant Reformation by dissecting King Johan into such subject areas as royal power, the church, the barons and private morality. Mattsson emphasizes Bale's manipulation of history and his use of the ancient king's story as an analogy to comment on Henry VIII's struggle with the Catholic Church.]
The three plays from the sixteenth century—Bale's King Johan, The Troublesome Reign of King John and Shakespeare's King John—were written during or after the reign of Henry VIII, so all the authors had experienced a reformation of the English Church.1 There were no revolutionary changes in church government or in doctrine—the Reformation “had not yet become a theological struggle”—but there was probably a pervasive alteration in religious sentiment.2
Bale tried to promote and strengthen the Reformation in two ways. First, he adapted chronicle-writing to the new ideas. Formerly most annalists had been Catholic priests and monks who had seen “the outside world through a distorting lense whenever it impinged on the monastery's interests.”3 Bale was a professional...
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SOURCE: “The Polemical Drama of John Bale” in Shakespeare and Dramatic Tradition: Essays in Honor of S.F. Johnson, edited by W.R. Elton and William B. Long, University of Delaware Press, 1989, pp. 211-227.
[In the following essay, Pineas argues that Bale was “completely uninterested in the internal and overall consistency of his polemics or in historical or chronological accuracy,” but that he was unerringly consistent in his overriding objective to “demonstrate that the Church and Bishop of Rome were the root cause and current repository of all evil.”]
S. F. Johnson has pointed out that Bale's Kinge Johan is a protestantization of the miracle play, just as in other plays Bale had protestantized the mystery play—and that the polemical drama of John Bale represents a deliberate attack on the “popetly playes” of the medieval church and an attempt to replace that drama with a Protestant substitute.1 It is the purpose of this paper to examine the polemical content and technique of these plays and demonstrate that Bale's overriding and constant concern was anti-Catholic polemic; that, contrary to recent criticism,2 to further this sole concern he sacrificed consistency, historical accuracy, dramatic forms and traditions, save those which served him polemically, any interest in biblical dispensations or periodization of prophecy except to use them as polemical...
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Introduction to The Vocacyon of Johan Bale, edited by Peter Happé and John N. King, Renaissance English Text Society, 1990, pp. 9-13.
[In this excerpt, the authors provide an overview of The Vocacyon of Johan Bale, one of the first attempts at autobiographical narrative in English literary history, albeit covering only one year of Bale's life. The authors focus on the biblical allusions and polemical wrath of Bale's work.]
Bale's Vocacyon represents a precursor of the spiritual autobiographies that became fashionable within Puritan circles during the seventeenth century. It offers an unusually detailed account of a turbulent year as an example of God's providential deliverance of a Protestant “saint.” Literary antecedents include the visions of Juliana of Norwich (c. 1343-c. 1413) and The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1436), the earliest autobiographical narrative extant in the English language. Unlike these illiterate medieval mystics, who had to rely upon amanuenses, Bale wrote his Vocacyon on his own, and presumably arranged for its publication. The hundreds of entries in the Summarium and Catalogus offer a precedent for this work because they contain a brief biography and character for each author, in addition to a bibliography. Treating individual authors as exemplary types within the overarching movement of providential history, Bale gives himself a place...
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“The Sacrilizing Sign: Religion and Magic in Bale, Greene, and the Early Shakespeare,” in The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 23, 1993, pp. 34-7.
[In this excerpt, Tetzeli Von Rosador asserts that Bale's strategy in A Comedy Concerning Three Lawsis self-defeating, observing that the attributes he assigns to the Catholicism he attacks—such as the use of ceremony, signs and representation—are essential elements of the Protestant play he has constructed.]
[John Bale's Thre Lawes, of Nature, Moses, and Christ, Corrupted by the Sodomytes, Pharysees and Papystes.] is rigidly constructed. Each of its three middle acts presents one of the titular laws and its corruption by Infidelitas and his respective hench (wo)men. These processes are contained within Deus Pater's transcendental realm and government, as staged in Acts I and V.1 Such a framing sets up two opposed worlds, that of the temporal and that of the transcendental, and poses the question how the one is to be mediated through the other. The second act, presenting Naturae Lex and its disfigurement by Infidelitas, Idololatria, and Sodomismus, can be taken paradigmatically. It foregrounds the conflict of religion and magic, never totally absent in the rest of the play, most vigorously and extensively.
Like each of the three middle acts, Act II opens with the self-introduction and self-explanation of the...
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SOURCE: “‘A whore at the first blush seemeth only a woman’: John Bale's Image of Both Churches and the Terms of Religious Difference in the Early English Reformation,” in Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 25, No. 2, 1995, pp. 245-69.
[In the following essay, McEachern focuses on Bale's use of the image of the Whore of Babylon in The Image of Both Churches as a symbol of the corruption and duplicity of the Catholic Church.]
“When shall Goddes sonne be unto you no syne of contradiction?”(1)
John Bale is a precocious figure in the chronology of Tudor literature. Antiquary and playwright, he ushered in forms diverse as the chorography and the history play, which were to acquire full presence only with the arrival of Elizabethan conditions of textual production. Perhaps Bale's most trenchant contribution, however, to the textual practices of his century was a text that was itself concerned with periodization. Bale's 1545 commentary on the Book of Revelation, The Image of Both Churches, serves as a source not only for exegesis throughout his century, but for a semiotics of Protestant group identity. The Image is a thoroughly inaugural text, uniquely embedded in the moment of the early Reformation; yet in its exfoliation of the shared lability of religious and textual identities, it displays the persistent dilemma of a church defined against...
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“Engendering England: The Restructuring of Allegiance in the Writings of Richard Morison and John Bale,” in Renaissance and Reformation, Vol. XX, No. 1, Winter 1996, pp. 50-77.
[In this excerpt, Vanhoutte explores Bale's attempts at building nationalism through engendering England as a maternal figure in King Johan. Vanhoutte claims that King Johan's “primary goal may be … to impress upon its audience that ‘the Reformation will be defeated if it is nothing more than a switch in royal policy’ … [but also has] concerns with the nature of monarchial and papal power, with the crimes of sedition and treason, and with the allegiances of English subjects and the abuses of the clergy.”]
The place to begin is in 1518, in Tudor England, where a disguising staged by Henry VIII's revels department signals the unifying potential of the Pagan figure, the Turk. In honor of the “Universal Peace Treaty” signed in London, the disguising relies on the figure of the rancorous, excluded Turk to re-assert the common bonds uniting Europe:
On the rock was an olive tree with the Pope's arms, and a fir tree with the Emperor's arms, and a lily with the arms of the King of France, and a rose tree of roses with the arms of the King of England, and a pomegranate tree with the arms of the King of Spain … The rider of the Pegasean horse delivered the following...
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Introduction to King Johan. Elizabethan History Plays, edited by William A. Armstrong, pp. vii-xv. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.
Includes a concise passage on Bale's King Johan. Mentions William Tyndale's influence on Bale and calls King Johan a “highly original play in the nascent history play tradition.”
Introduction to The Complete Plays of John Bale, edited by Peter Happé Bury St. Edmonds, Suffolk, Great Britain: St. Edmundsbury Press, 1985, pp. 1-25.
Provides an overview of Bale's works, including sections on versification, music and staging.
Mager, Donald N. “John Bale and Early Tudor Sodomy Discourse.” In Queering the Renaissance, edited by Jonathan Goldberg, pp. 141-161. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994.
Explores Bale's views on marriage and papal sexual improprieties.
Morey, James H. “The Death of King John in Shakespeare and Bale.” Shakespeare Quarterly 45, No. 3 (Fall 1994): 327-31.
Asserts Shakespeare drew on the death scene in Bale's King Johan for his King John.
Pineas, Rainer. “William Tyndale's Influence on John Bale's Polemical Use of History.” Archiv Für Reformationsgeschichte 53 (1962): 79-96.
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