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A Carmelite friar and scholar turned Protestant propagandist, John Bale wrote literary history, chronicle history, and religious polemics as well as verse drama. While a Carmelite, he edited some devotional works and compiled several Latin-language catalogs of the Order’s practices and history in England. His Illustrium Maioris Britanniae Scriptorum (famous writers of Great Britain), first issued in 1548, subsequently revised and retitled in 1557, gave biographical information about the important writers of England, Scotland, and Wales and listed the titles and dates of their works. Bale also wrote chronicles of persons he deemed noteworthy Protestant martyrs: A Brief Chronicle of Sir John Oldcastle, the Lord Cobham (1544), The First Examination of Anne Askew (1546), and The Latter Examination of Anne Askew (1547).

A bitter opponent of the traditional Catholicism, from which he converted in mid-life, Bale wrote polemics combining dialogue with diatribe. He interpreted the pope as the Antichrist in The Image of Both Churches (part 1, 1541; part 2, 1545; part 3, 1547). In The Acts of English Votaries (1546), Bale attacked the behavior of those in religious orders. He disputed the positions of various Catholic apologists in the verse tract An Answer to a Papistical Exhortation (1548), and in prose in An Expostulation Against the Blasphemies of a Frantic Papist (1552) and The Apology of John Bale Against a Rank Papist (c. 1555). Bale attacked the papacy in Acta Romanorum Pontificum (1558; acts of the Roman pontiffs), and he criticized opponents nearer to home in his book A Declaration Concerning the Clergy of London (1561).

Bale edited a work on the sacrament of Holy Communion by John Lambert, A Treatise to Henry VIII (c. 1548). In 1538, he translated from the German Thomas Kirchmayer’s Protestant play Pammachius, though his translation is not extant. Bale’s The True History of the Christian Departing of Martin Luther (1546) is a translation of German accounts originally collected by Justus Jonas, Michael Cellius, and Joannes Aurifaber.


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A controversialist living in chaotic times, John Bale is known less for originality in his own work than for setting precedents that other talents brought to flower. Bale’s own literary catalogs include a sprinkling of medieval trivia, such as attribution of certain literary works to the biblical Adam, yet his work provided a model for persistence in research, acknowledgment of sources, and comparative thoroughness in the entries on the writers of his own era. Modern literary biographers are still drawing on Bale’s Illustrium Maioris Britanniae Scriptorum and its expanded editions for information on sixteenth century writers.

In his time, Bale was known for his Protestant propaganda, which attacked various doctrines and practices of Roman Catholic tradition as well as the views of other Protestants whom Bale believed to be extreme or misguided. Hence, in all genres, dogmatic Protestant zeal motivated his writing.

Bale’s chronicle on Sir John Oldcastle was intended to rehabilitate the fourteenth century nobleman’s reputation. As a follower of early reformer and Bible translator John Wycliffe, Oldcastle was depicted unfavorably in traditional records. Bale’s wish that Protestant martyrs be viewed sympathetically was not unique, but according to his friend John Foxe, Bale’s chronicle influenced in perspective and substance the histories written by Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed, as well as Foxe’s The Book of Martyrs (1559). All three writers reflected to some degree a break from traditional Catholic perspectives, and the chronicles of Hall and of Holinshed were to become sources for William Shakespeare’s history plays.

Although Bale recorded titles of twenty-one plays that he wrote, only five are extant. The titles of the lost works, such as Against Adulterators of God’s Word, Christ’s Passion, and Simon the Leper, imply that the lost plays share the dogmatic purpose and medieval conventions of the plays that survive.

The extant play King Johan, however, includes a basic innovation that later writers worked to full advantage. Among the familiar walking, talking abstractions of the morality play’s virtue and vice characters, Bale placed the thirteenth century monarch King Johan (King John) and a few of his historical enemies. King Johan’s ill repute easily outlasted Bale’s attempt to make him a Protestant saint and hero of English sovereignty and therefore a villain to Roman Catholic historians. Still, King Johan is a prototype drama including historical persons and events in English theater. The history plays of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe display far greater sophistication in plot, characterization, and theatricality, but Bale set the precedent for the history play as a type. He also, in perspective and substance, influenced the chronicle histories of Hall and Holinshed that Shakespeare used extensively in writing his history plays and stirred the debate over Sir John Oldcastle’s true character that gave Shakespeare material for his rascal Falstaff.


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Bale, John. King Johan. Edited by Barry B. Adams. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1969. Primarily prepared for the specialist, this volume is a definitive analysis of the sole surviving manuscript of King Johan, with discussion of the play’s date, sources, costuming, and staging. Contains an analysis of the verse, with commentary on the play’s association with other plays of its time. Several appendices, one on the eccentricities of Bale’s orthography.

Bryant, James C. Tudor Drama and Religious Controversy. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1984. Bryant considers Bale’s play King Johan as a polemic supporting Henry VIII’s First and Second Royal Injunctions of 1536 and 1538, respectively. He also finds him to be a satirist of many elements of the Roman faith, including the allegorization of scripture.

Fairfield, Leslie P. John Bale: Mythmaker for the English Reformation. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1976. Argues that Bale’s conversion from Catholicism led to his reinterpretation of England’s past (including concepts of sainthood), that Bale’s search for victims and opponents of Roman Catholicism led to his focus on Sir John Oldcastle and King Johan (King John), and that Bale wrote to correct Polydore Vergil’s slander of Oldcastle.

Happé, Peter. “Dramatic Images of Kingship in Heywood and Bale. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 39, no. 2 (Spring, 1999): 239-253. Happé compares and contrasts Bale’s King Johan and John Heywood’s The Play of the Wether (pb. 1533).

Happé, Peter. English Drama Before Shakespeare. New York: Longman, 1999. A discussion of dramatic forms from the fourteenth to the late sixteenth century that provides a concise overview of the life and works of Bale.

Happé, Peter. John Bale. New York: Twayne, 1996. A basic biography that covers the life and works of Bale. Happé focuses his discussion on the dramatic works. Bibliography and index.

Harris, Jesse W. John Bale: A Study in the Minor Literature of the Reformation. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1940. Excellent coverage of the major events of Bale’s life, including two periods of exile in Germany. Contains a discussion of Bale’s dramas, with attention to their actual performances and their relationship to the drama of the time. Also includes a discussion of Bale’s historical writings.

Mattsson, May. Five Plays About King John. Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1977. Bale’s play is discussed in every chapter and is studied in connection with the anonymous The Troublesome Reign of King John, William Shakespeare’s King John (c. 1596-1597), and two later plays about that monarch. Bale’s play is considered in connection with the exercise of royal power, the throne’s relationship to the church and the temporal lords, and the issues of public and private morality.

Walker, Greg. Plays of Persuasion: Drama and Politics in the Court of Henry VIII. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Deals with Bale’s connections with Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell, and John de Vere. Sees King Johan as a reflection of the dangers facing the Henrician court in 1538-1539, when Bale’s play was performed at Cranmer’s residence, the timing suggestive of Bale’s fears of the French-Spanish truce and the schemings of an English cardinal, Reginald Pole.


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