Joseph Hall Essay - Critical Essays

Hall, Joseph


Joseph Hall 1574-1656

English satirist, poet, philosopher, and religious essay writer.

A prominent Anglican bishop, Hall is chiefly remembered as a moderate arbitrator in the bitterly divisive ecclesiastical battles between the conservative Puritan and liberal Episcopal factions of the Church of England in the decades preceding the English Civil War. His pioneering secular and religious literary output includes satires, moral epistles, didactic character sketches modeled after the Greek philosopher Theophratsus, meditative verse, and religious essays detailing his moral and theological philosophy. Styled by his contemporaries as “our English Seneca,” Hall was a significant contributor to the neo-stoic movement in England in which the pagan classics, especially Seneca's stoic philosophy, were reconsidered and enhanced within the context of Christian values and ideals.

Biographical Information

Hall was born in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire, to John and Winifride Hall on July 1, 1574. His father was a bailiff for Henry Hastings, the Earl of Huntingdon; his mother was a devout Calvinist whose spiritual mentor was the noted Puritan minister, Anthony Gilby. Hall studied at the Ashby Grammar School, founded by Huntingdon with a curriculum set by Gilby. His aptitude as a student convinced his parents to send him to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, at the age of fifteen, where he studied under Gilby's son, Nathaniel. Hall entered Emmanuel College in 1589, received his Bachelor of Arts in 1592 or 1593, and became a Fellow of the college in 1595. He took Holy Orders in 1600, though he continued to study through the decade to come, earning a Bachelor of Divinity in 1603 and a Doctor of Divinity in 1610. During his years at Emmanuel, Hall began experimenting with verse satire, which ultimately comprised the six books of Virgidemiarum (1597-08). He published the first three books in 1597 under the subtitle “Tooth-less Satires”; a year later, he released the remaining books under the subtitle “Biting Satires.” During this time, he probably also began work on a prose satire entitled Mundus Alter et Idem (1605). After taking orders, Hall accepted the rectorship of Hawstead, Suffolk, claiming the patronage of Sir Robert and Lady Anne Drury, who may have provided his connection to John Donne. When the Drurys’ daughter Elizabeth died in 1610, Donne composed poems for the first and second anniversaries of her death—the famous Anniversaries of 1611 and 1612. Hall provided a preface for each of these poems and also helped Donne with the publication of the second when Donne was abroad with Drury. In the meantime, Hall married Elizabeth Winiffe in 1603; their union produced six sons and two daughters. He also began writing manuals for Protestant meditation and other works of Christian thought, including Meditations and Vowes (1605-06) Heaven upon Earth (1606), and The Arte of Divine Meditation (1606). Further, he wrote essays which infused classical literary models with his own brand of Christian morality. These essays and sketches were collected in his Epistles (1606-08) and Characters of Vertues and Vices (1608). In 1606, Prince Henry was in attendance during one of Hall's sermons at Richmond Palace. The prince was so moved by the sermon that he offered Hall a position as an occasional chaplain at court. Soon thereafter, Hall's career in the church began to flourish: he assumed the rectorship of Waltham, Norwich, in 1608; he was named Archdeacon of Nottingham in 1611; he was appointed Dean of Worcester in 1616; and he became a representative of the Anglican church accompanying James to Scotland for the Perth Conference of 1617. Early on in his career, Hall had earned a reputation for having a moderate stand on controversial ecclesiastical matters and for attempting to negotiate with religious opponents, especially Catholics. To dispel growing concerns about his beliefs, Hall published his first self-defense in A Common Apologie of the Church of England (1610) to assure James I and the Church of England of his unwavering support of the episcopacy. Nevertheless, he continued to find himself in the middle of numerous heated ecclesiastical controversies between the extremist factions of Anglicans, Puritans, and Catholic sympathizers all trying to gain political and religious advantage in an intensely conflicted time. Despite his involvement in these myriad controversies or perhaps because of his abilities as a mediator, Hall was promoted to the prestigious position of Bishop of Exeter in 1627. His generally futile attempts to steer all parties to common ground are reflected in his major works of this period: The Olde Religion (1628), The Reconciler (1629), and Episcopacie by Divine Right (1640). But it was his An Humble Remonstrance to the High Court of Parliament (1640) which ensnared Hall in the most sensational and bitter war of words in his lifetime. In this work, Hall took exception to a Puritan-supported plan to abolish the episcopal hierarchy of the Anglican church. In response, a group of Puritan clergymen who styled themselves the “Smectymnuus” engaged Hall in a pamphlet war challenging the various theological points of the issue. Before long, John Milton joined the fray on the side of the Smectymnuuans and effectively wore down Hall with infamous and vicious attacks which ultimately cast aspersions on his character rather than addressing his points of argument. Hall's misfortunes increased as the monarchy under Charles I—James's successor—began to weaken under pressure from the Puritan-dominated parliament. By December 1641, Hall was imprisoned in the Tower of London, charged, along with twelve other bishops, with high treason. He was eventually released and assigned the bishopric of Norwich in 1642, but his time there was brief. With the passage of the Ordinance of Sequestration in 1643, Hall lost his position and any income associated with it. He continued living at Norwich until 1648, when he was evicted from his home. He moved his family to Higham, where he continued to write and to deliver occasional sermons until his death on September 8, 1656.

Major Works

Hall's major writings can be classified into three groups: satires and moral essays, meditations, and ecclesiastical treatises. In his Virgidemiarum, Hall boldly declared himself England's first satirist. While the claim does not necessarily stand up to scrutiny—indeed, other writers had already introduced a colloquial brand of satire—Hall does deserve credit for applying the fundamental rules of classical verse satire to the English language. Modeled after Seneca, a significant characteristic of Hall's poetic style was the employment of terse, aphoristic verse to convey his satirical sentiments. Such a device was a radical departure from the verbose, ornate Ciceronian style which had been favored by Continental and English writers throughout the sixteenth century. Further, Hall adhered to classical sources which employed satire as a vehicle for moral instruction and for the advocacy of social improvement. Indeed, Hall enhanced the aesthetic philosophy of his sources, demonstrating how morality and social responsibility can be achieved through a devotion to Christian ideals. These fundamental concepts inform many of Hall's early works, including Mundus Alter et Idem, Characters of Vertues and Vices, and the Epistles. Hall also influenced the development of meditational verse and instruction. In his seminal The Arte of Divine Meditation, he espoused a departure from the traditional Catholic method of relying on the imagination to initiate mediation. In contrast, he advocated that one should read and meditate on biblical verses to achieve inspiration. To that end, Hall wrote a number of works on mediation, including Meditations and Vowes, Heaven Upon Earth, and Occasionall Meditations (1631). As a leading figure in the Anglican church during a tumultuous period for English politics and religion, Hall contributed a vast array of ecclesiastical treatises detailing his moderate solutions to resolving many divisive issues. An advocate for the “via media,” or the middle road, Hall challenged all groups at every point of the religious spectrum to identify and compromise on key theological and episcopal points in an effort to stabilize the Church of England. Nevertheless, Hall's attempts to establish an atmosphere of moderation and understanding among his fellow clergymen often succeeded in only stirring up more controversy within the church. Hall's treatises addressing ecclesiastical policy and interpretation include A Common Apologie of the Church of England, The Olde Religion, Episcopacie by Divine Right, and An Humble Remonstrance to the High Court of Parliament.

Critical Reception

Despite that fact that he was a genuine literary innovator on several fronts, Hall has been chiefly remembered as the unfortunate recipient of Milton's attacks. However, as literary scholars have come to assess the full measure of Hall's literary and ecclesiastical accomplishments, his reputation as a pivotal figure in the Tudor and Jacobean periods has been assured. Many critics have examined Hall's early forays into satirical writing, particularly focusing on how Hall transformed Senecan satire into a vehicle to express his own Christian values. Indeed, Richard A. McCabe (1982) has maintained that Virgidemiarum is a seminal work in which Hall sets out to satirize Elizabethan social and moral attitudes from a Puritan perspective, demonstrating how the author masterfully employed a strict classical form of satire to protest social injustice and immorality. Many reviewers have also asserted that Virgidemiarum set the standard for how to write satire at a time when the English manifestation of the genre was not well defined, in a sense confirming Hall's bold claim that he was England's first satirist. Critics have also discussed Hall's literary and philosophical contributions to the field of religious meditation. Louis Martz (1962) has produced a landmark study of meditation poetry in which he has identified Hall's verse as having a significant influence on the later work of authors such as Donne and Richard Crashaw. Ronald J. Corthell (1978) has explored the Protestant undertones of Hall's method of meditation, particularly focusing on the relationship between Hall's Protestant ethos and his Senecan prose style. Corthell describes Hall's meditations as an example of his integrated approach to Protestant Christianity, merging strains of Puritan and Anglican thought. Indeed, the extent of Hall's devotion to stoicism has provided scholars with a topic for debate. Many early reviewers have classified Hall as a neo-stoic, who presaged the wider resurgence of stoicism in the eighteenth century. Audrey Chew (1950) was among the first scholars to question this classification, maintaining that Hall's stoicism actually reflected back to the Middle Ages. Chew has argued that while Hall's writings do emphasize the neo-stoic concern with individual reason, nevertheless he continued to underscore the importance of grace and revelation, unlike the modern school of stoicism. Geoffrey Aggeler (1990) has connected Calvinist thought with the revived interest in stoicism, as modeled in works such as Hall's Heaven Upon Earth. Aggeler concludes that the concepts of stoicism and Calvinism share similar concerns about the corruption of man and the importance of self-knowledge and suggests that stoic civic ideals—freedom from tyranny, the duties of man, and the duties of rulers—may have informed the political beliefs of seventeenth-century Calvinists. In recent years, critics have even attempted to redeem Hall's reputation tarnished by the Smectymnuus controversy. They have moved away from accepting the validity of Milton's ad hominem attacks, and instead have called attention to Hall's efforts at moderation and conciliation within the faction-riddled Anglican church.

Principal Works

Virgidemiarum conteyninge Sixe Bookes. First three Bookes, of Tooth-lesse Satyrs (satire) 1597

Vigidemiarum. The three last bookes. Of Byting Satyres (satire) 1598

Meditations and Vowes, Divine and Morall. Devided into two bookes (meditations) 1605

Mundus Alter et Idem (satire) 1605; translated as The Discovery of a New World 1609

The Arte of Divine Meditation (meditations) 1606

Heaven upon Earth: Or, Of True Peace and Tranquillitie of Minde (philosophy) 1606

Meditations and Vowes, Divine and Morall: A third century (meditations) 1606


(The entire section is 279 words.)


Audrey Chew (essay date December 1950)

SOURCE: Chew, Audrey. “Joseph Hall and Neo-Stoicism.” PMLA 65, no. 6 (December 1950): 1130-45.

[In this essay, Chew discusses Hall's brand of neo-stoicism in relation to the evolving Christian stoic philosophy from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century. Further, the critic analyzes the major philosophical points on which Hall agreed with and diverged from Seneca, particularly noting that Hall embraced Seneca's puritanical concept of placing virtue before pleasure.]

During his own lifetime Bishop Joseph Hall was nicknamed “our spiritual Seneca” by Henry Wotton and later called “our English Seneca” by Thomas Fuller; as a result it has recently become...

(The entire section is 7945 words.)

U. Milo Kaufmann (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: Kaufmann, U. Milo “Two Divergent Traditions in Puritan Meditation.” In The Pilgrim's Progress and Traditions in Puritan Meditation, pp. 118-50. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966.

[In this essay, Kaufmann examines Hall as a founding father of a significant school of Puritan philosophical thought which advocated using biblical scripture rather than the imagination to initiate the state of mediation.]

The reader's first glimpse of Christian finds him in anguished meditation, standing in a field, with a book in his hand. The scene happily dramatizes a notable motif of Puritan discussions of meditation. The two Old Testament texts most often cited in...

(The entire section is 4853 words.)

Ejner J. Jensen (essay date spring 1967)

SOURCE: Jensen, Ejner J. “Hall and Marston: The Role of the Satirist.” Satire Newsletter 4, no. 2 (spring 1967): 72-83.

[In this essay, Jensen compares Hall's concept of satire with that of John Marston, observing that Hall has a stronger sense of the satirist's purpose. Jensen concludes that Hall's assurance carries over to his poetic technique as well, making his satire more effective and more readable than that of Marston.]

It is extremely difficult for a modern reader to approach the work of the verse satirists of the last decade of the sixteenth century with any assurance of his ability to read them properly. To a student who has based his conception of satire...

(The entire section is 5131 words.)

Rudolf Kirk (essay date spring 1967)

SOURCE: Kirk, Rudolf. “A Seventeenth-Century Controversy: Extremism vs. Moderation.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 9, no. 1 (spring 1967): 5-35.

[In this essay, Kirk suggests that Hall's public battle with Henry Burton anticipated his confrontation with Milton and the writers of Smectymnuus. The critic emphasizes Hall's moderation in both conflicts, noting that while it did not serve Hall well in the short term, it may have benefited the Church of England in the end.]

The controversy over episcopacy between Bishop Joseph Hall and John Milton is well known to all students of the poet and to others concerned with the politics leading up to the English...

(The entire section is 13237 words.)

Gerhard Müller-Schwefe (essay date summer 1972)

SOURCE: Müller-Schwefe, Gerhard. “Joseph Hall's Characters of Vertues and Vices: Notes Toward a Revaluation.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 14, no. 2 (summer 1972): 235-51.

[In this essay, Muller-Schwefe argues that Hall's opus can be viewed as “a document of his sober judgment of man.” The critic then maintains that Hall's Characters of Vertues and Vices is not a mere exercise in abstract moralizing, but rather an astute examination of human nature.]

Much has been done during recent years to make the works of even minor seventeenth-century authors available in reliable editions. Most of Joseph Hall's works, however, have still to be...

(The entire section is 7454 words.)

Leonard D. Tourney (essay date winter 1977)

SOURCE: Tourney, Leonard D. “Joseph Hall and the Anniversaries.Papers on Language and Literature 13, no. 1 (winter 1977): 25-34.

[In this essay, Tourney contends that Hall's prefaces to Donne's Anniversaries reveal that there was a contemporary critical understanding that Donne's eulogies were written to convey a didactic kind of meditation, to demonstrate praise of God, and to compose verse in the Petrarchan rhetorical tradition.]

The response of Donne's contemporaries to his two long and elaborate elegies on the death of Elizabeth Drury has been a recurrent issue among modern critics. Most have agreed with Sir Herbert Grierson that the poems were...

(The entire section is 4325 words.)

Ronald J. Corthell (essay date fall 1978)

SOURCE: Corthell, Ronald J. “Joseph Hall and Protestant Meditation.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 20, no. 3 (fall 1978): 367-85.

[In this essay, Corthell explores the Protestant undertones of Hall's method of meditation, particularly focusing on the relationship between Hall's Protestant ethos and his Senecan prose style. Corthell describes Hall's meditations as an example of his integrated approach to Protestant Christianity, merging strains of Puritan and Anglican thought.]


Several recent studies in seventeenth-century literature have drawn attention to a distinctively Protestant theory and practice of formal meditation...

(The entire section is 7797 words.)

Frank Livingstone Huntley (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Huntley, Frank Livingstone. “The Bishop of Exeter, John Milton, and the ‘Modest Confutant.’” In Bishop Joseph Hall, 1574-1656: A Biographical and Critical Study, pp. 115-34. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1979.

[In this essay, Huntley focuses on a low point in Hall's career, during which he was at odds with other Anglican bishops and he was embroiled in a malicious public print war with John Milton and other writers. Huntley emphasizes Hall's moderation and consistency of character in the dispute, in contrast to the petty, ad hominem attacks of Milton.]

James I died on 27 March 1625. As late as the Humble Remonstrance to Parliament (1640), which played...

(The entire section is 9989 words.)

Leonard D. Tourney (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Tourney, Leonard D. “The Taxonomy of Morals.” In Joseph Hall, pp. 43-65. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979.

[In this essay, Tourney surveys Hall's polemical writings in the period between the satires of his early career and his later tracts on ecclesiastical policy. Discussing Heaven Upon Earth, Characters of Vertues and Vices, Epistles and Resolutions and Decisions of Divers Practical Cases of Conscience, Tourney finds Hall to be in the mainstream of moral philosophy for his time.]

Established at Hawstead, Hall turned moralist, a role for which he was well prepared by education and temperament. Yet his decision to give up the flail for the...

(The entire section is 10237 words.)

Richard A. McCabe (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: McCabe, Richard A. “The Virgidemiarum.” In Joseph Hall: A Study in Satire and Meditation, pp. 29-72. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.

[In this essay, McCabe maintains that Virgidemiarum is a seminal work in which Hall sets out to satirize Elizabethan social and moral attitudes from a Puritan perspective. The critic further demonstrates that Hall masterfully employed a strict classical form of satire to protest social injustice and moral turpitude.]

I First adventure, with fool-hardie might
To tread the steps of perilous despight:
I first adventure: follow me who list,
And be the second English Satyrist.(1)

The publication of the Martin...

(The entire section is 9863 words.)

Ronald J. Corthell (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Corthell, Ronald J. “Beginning as a Satirist: Joseph Hall's Virgidemiarum Sixe Bookes.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 23 (winter 1983): 47-60.

[In this essay, Corthell discusses how the Virgidemiarum reveals Hall's early conception of himself as a writer in the Elizabethan era. Further, the critic argues that Hall's first satire represents the work of a young poet attempting to establish an original mode of writing in the shadow of great poets such as Edmund Spenser.]

In his compelling studies of the Elizabethan idea of the literary career, Richard Helgerson has encouraged a reading of Elizabethan literary history which attends...

(The entire section is 6081 words.)

Geoffrey Aggeler (essay date summer 1990)

SOURCE: Aggeler, Geoffrey. “‘Sparkes of Holy Things’: Neostoicism and the English Protestant Conscience.” Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme 26, no. 3 (summer 1990): 223-40.

[In this essay, Aggeler connects Calvinist thought with the revived interest in stoicism, as modeled in works such as Hall's Heaven Upon Earth. The critic concludes that stoicism and Calvinism shared similar concerns about the corruption of man and the importance of self-knowledge and suggests that stoic civic ideals—freedom from tyranny, the duties of man, and the duties of rulers—may have informed the political beliefs of seventeenth-century Calvinists.]


(The entire section is 7637 words.)

Dan Steere (essay date fall 1996)

SOURCE: Steere, Dan. “‘For the Peace of Both, For the Humour of Neither’: Bishop Joseph Hall Defends the Via Media in an Age of Extremes, 1601-1656.” Sixteenth Century Journal 27, no. 3 (fall 1996): 749-65.

[In this essay, Steere examines Hall's role as a mediator who attempted to reconcile disputing factions of the Anglican church. The critic suggests that Hall's career and writings reflect the thought of a sizable group of Calvinists who were generally supportive of the Episcopacy, contrary to the assumption that Calvinist theology was unconditionally linked to Presbyterianism.]

In 1645, toward the end of his illustrious career, Bishop Joseph Hall...

(The entire section is 9091 words.)

Further Reading


Kinloch, T. F. The Life and Works of Joseph Hall, 1574-1656. London: Staples Press, 1951, 206 p.

Comprehensive survey of Hall's life and literary works.


Boyce, Benjamin. “Joseph Hall's Characters of Vertues and Vices.” In The Theophrastan Character in England to 1642, pp. 122-35. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1947.

Identifies Hall as the first significant character sketch writer in England and focuses on important features of the genre.

Clausen, Wendell. “The Beginnings of English Character-Writing in the Early Seventeenth...

(The entire section is 668 words.)