William Baldwin Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

William Baldwin c. 1515-c. 1563

English novelist, poet, editor, translator, and nonfiction writer.

A respected author, editor, and translator during the middle years of the sixteenth century, Baldwin published a small number of works that display linguistic and narrative complexity as well as a sophisticated understanding of the political power of writing. As the editor of the enormously popular anthology A Mirror for Magistrates (1559), as a compiler of a popular philosophical compendium, as a translator of the biblical Song of Songs and of Italian satire, and as the writer of original works of poetry and prose, Baldwin demonstrated the range of his interests and the scope of his literary experimentation. His works chart too his appropriation of Erasmian humanism in the service of the Protestant Reformation. Baldwin also holds the distinction of having published the first sonnet in English and of authoring the first long work of prose fiction in English, Beware the Cat (1570). During his life, Baldwin was best known for his Treatise of Moral Philosophy (1547), but modern critics have concentrated on his role as the editor of Mirror and on resurrecting the reputation of Beware the Cat, which has been called the first English novel and the best anti-Catholic satire of its time.

Biographical Information

Although during his life Baldwin enjoyed renown as a learned man, little is known about his background and family life. There is some speculation that he was of Welsh descent, but the date and place of his birth remain a mystery. There is a record of two William Baldwins from Shropshire, one of whom served as a cupbearer to Queen Mary I and another who is reported to have died in 1544. A Baldwin family moved from Wales to Shropshire and to Staffordshire, and a similar event is mentioned in Beware the Cat. However, whether William Baldwin the author was a member of any of these families cannot be confirmed. Most scholars take his date of birth to be around 1515, and some believe he may have received a degree from Oxford in 1533, but again, this cannot be verified; while his works show him to be a man of learning, he may have been self-educated. It has been conjectured, too, that before 1547, when his name was first associated with the printer Edward Whitchurch, he may have been a schoolmaster or perhaps served in the military.

However he spent his young adulthood, Baldwin's path led to the printing house of Whitchurch, a man who shared his vehement opposition to Roman Catholicism and support of the Protestant Reformation. In 1547 Whitchurch published Baldwin's commendatory sonnet to Christopher Langton's A very brefe treatise, ordrely declaring the principal partes of phisick, and for the next six years Baldwin worked as the printer's assistant. In those years, Whitchurch published sixty-eight books, mainly religious works and the writings of Baldwin, including A Treatise of Moral Philosophy, The Canticles or Ballads of Solomon (1549), Wonderful News of the Death of Paul the Third (1552), The Funerals of King Edward the Sixth (1560), and Beware the Cat. In 1555 Baldwin completed A Mirror for Magistrates, but the work was suppressed and published only after the end of the Catholic Queen Mary I's reign. All indications are that Baldwin was well respected among his contemporaries as a man of letters and remained active in London at least until 1559, despite his commitment to Protestant ideals under the Catholic monarchy. It is unclear what became of him after 1559. He may have become a preacher, and it seems probable that he died in 1563.

Major Works

In 1547 Baldwin's commendatory sonnet to A very brefe treatise, ordrely declaring the principal partes of phisick appeared as an advertisement for Langton's work. It was the first English sonnet to be set in print. That same year, Baldwin published one of the two works for which he was best known during his lifetime and for several generations afterward. A Treatise of Moral Philosophy, a didactic work written in the tradition of Erasmian humanism, includes brief lives of twenty-four classical philosophers and translations of over twelve hundred classical sayings in prose and verse. Revised seven times between 1547 and 1564, the Treatise was reprinted twenty-four times by 1651. In 1549 Baldwin published The Canticles or Ballads of Solomon, a metrical translation of the biblical Song of Songs. A companion piece to Baldwin's Treatise, this work provides a counterpoint to the pagan philosophy in the earlier work.

Baldwin's next major work, Beware the Cat, was written around 1552 but not published until 1570, after the accession of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth. (An edition may have been printed in 1561, but the earliest extant edition is that of 1570.) Beware the Cat, the earliest original piece of long prose fiction in English, has also been called the first English novel. It is an interlaced series of stories satirizing superstition in general and Catholicism in particular. The frame of the work is an argument between Baldwin, as a naïve narrator, and Master Gregory Streamer, a pedantic scholar, over whether animals can reason. Baldwin uses the discussion to satirize Catholicism, alluding to, for example, the amoral behavior of the pope and attacking Catholic dogma. What sets Baldwin's work apart from the numerous other anti-Catholic satires of the day is its sophisticated voice, verbal inventiveness, and novelistic structure.

Just as the anti-Catholic Beware the Cat could not be published until after Elizabeth's accession, so Baldwin could not publish his next literary endeavor until after Mary's reign had ended. A continuation of John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, A Mirror for Magistrates was licensed to John Wayland (a Catholic who took over Whitchurch's printing shop when Mary assumed the throne in 1553) but was suppressed in 1555. The anthology was eventually printed in its first edition in 1559. In this work Baldwin creates a frame in which a series of ghosts from English history appear to him and describe how their actions caused their downfall. The verse stories are directed to public officials, and the idea is that they are a “mirror” to show officials what behavior to avoid. Various writers contributed to the Mirror, including such notables as Thomas Churchyard, Thomas Phaer, Thomas Chaloner, Thomas Sackville, Francis Seager, John Dolman, and Baldwin himself, but it was Baldwin's narrative frame of the work that made it so popular and spawned numerous imitations.

Two minor works by Baldwin reinforce the Erasmian humanist program seen in his longer compositions. The 1552 pamphlet Westerne Wyll, upon the debate betwyxte Churchyarde and Camell, part of the flyting between Churchyard and Thomas Camell, is a work of social criticism that looks ahead to Baldwin's later fictional works in its play with narrative point of view, its dialogic structure, and its epistemological thematics. Also around 1552 a translation now attributed to Baldwin appeared. The satirical letter Wonderful News of the Death of Paul the Third, by one Publius Esquillus, was translated from Epistola de morte, attributed to Matthias Flacius and P. P. Vergerio. The title identifying the translator as “W. B., Londoner,” together with Baldwin's motto, “Love and Live,” point to Baldwin. The work ostensibly follows the soul of the late pope to hell, where his crimes—sodomy, incest, licentiousness, poisoning, and the like—are recorded on pillars of adamant. Baldwin's last work, The Funerals of King Edward the Sixth, a 380-line verse elegy on the death of the young king, blames the immorality of the English people, particularly its government and church leaders, for Edward's death. It also portrays Mary's accession as a punishment for their seditious behavior.

Critical Reception

Although Baldwin is an obscure figure to modern readers, he enjoyed renown during his own day as an important Protestant man of letters. He edited one of the best-known anthologies of the sixteenth century—by 1610 the Mirror had been printed no fewer than eight times—and assembled one of the century's most-read books of moral philosophy. Despite his commitment to educating his readers in humanist and religious principles, however, Baldwin dropped from sight after 1559 and, it is widely assumed, ceased to write. Some scholars believe that his dedication to Protestant ideals moved him to answer the calling of the ministry. A Mirror for Magistrates remained in print long after Baldwin's disappearance from public view (it was one of the most popular works of the seventeenth century), but the author himself and his other works fell into obscurity. It was only in the twentieth century that critics began to show renewed interest in his works. In the 1970s William A. Ringler, Jr. championed Baldwin as a prose writer of distinction, and with his 1988 edition, with Michael Flachmann, of Beware the Cat made that text accessible to modern readers. Since then, most scholars writing on Baldwin have focused on Beware the Cat, which has come to be regarded by many as the first English novel. However, critics have also taken up Baldwin's nonfiction, examining, among other things, the author's didacticism and his sophisticated use of the narrative frame.