William Baldwin Essay - Critical Essays

Baldwin, William


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.

Principal Works

“Commendatory Sonnet” [published in Christopher Langton's A very brefe treatise, ordrely declaring the principal partes of phisick] (poetry) 1547

A treatise of morall phylosophie, contaynyng the sayinges of the wyse. Gathered and Englyshed by W. Baldwyn (philosophy) 1547

The canticles or balades of Salomon, phraselyke declared in Englysh metres [translator; from the biblical Song of Songs] (poetry) 1549

Westerne Wyll, upon the debate betwyxte Churchyarde and Camell [attributed to Baldwin] (pamphlet) c. 1552

Wonderful News of the Death of Paul the Third [translator; of the satire Epistola de morte by Matthias Flacius and P. P. Vergerio] [attributed to Baldwin] (satirical letter) 1552

A Myrroure for Magistrates [editor and contributor] (poetry collection) 1559

The funeralles of King Edward the sixt. Wherein are declared the causes of his death (poetry) 1560

A marvelovs hystory intitulede, Beware the Cat (novel) 1570


Curt F. Bühler (essay date January 1948)

SOURCE: Bühler, Curt F. “A Survival from the Middle Ages: William Baldwin's Use of the Dictes and Sayings.Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies 23, no. 1 (January 1948): 76-80.

[In the following essay, Bühler argues that in composing his Treatise of Moral Philosophy Baldwin borrowed from the version of the thirteenth-century Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers that was translated into English by Earl Rivers.]

William Baldwin's1A Treatise of Morall Phylosophie, judging from the number of editions which were called forth, seems to have been extremely popular among Tudor and Stuart readers, no fewer than twenty-three...

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R. Levitsky (essay date autumn 1973)

SOURCE: Levitsky, R. “Another ‘Germ’ of the Garden Scene in Richard II?” Shakespeare Quarterly 24, no. 4 (autumn 1973): 466-67.

[In the following essay, Levitsky contends that Shakespeare's use of certain gardening metaphors in Richard II may be traced to Baldwin's Treatise of Moral Philosophy.]

Peter Ure, in his introduction to the Arden Edition of Richard II, rejects the suggestion that the germ for the allegory in III.iv should be sought in any particular source.1 Taking cognizance of similar metaphors in Traison and elsewhere, he nevertheless finds the principal features of the allegory common in medieval and...

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Paul Gaudet (essay date October 1978)

SOURCE: Gaudet, Paul. “William Baldwin and the ‘Silence’ of His Last Years.” Notes and Queries 25 (October 1978): 417-20.

[In the following essay, Gaudet speculates on what happened to Baldwin after he disappeared from public view and ceased to write.]

William Baldwin was a man of diverse interests and occupations, and one of the most productive and experimental writers in England from 1547 to 1564. In his lifetime he was scholar, printer, writer, theatrical jack-of-all-trades, and perhaps schoolmaster. In his writings, Baldwin was an active sampler of various literary forms. His dedicatory verse for a work on physiology is probably the first sonnet published...

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William A. Ringler, Jr. (essay date winter 1979)

SOURCE: Ringler, William A., Jr. “Beware the Cat and the Beginnings of English Fiction.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 12, no. 2 (winter 1979): 113-26.

[In the following essay, Ringler offers an account of Beware the Cat, places the novel in the larger context of the history of English prose fiction through 1558, and comments on the excellence of Baldwin's handling of point of view, action, characterization, and style.]

The English novel was born the evening of December 28th, 1552. This is a fact of literary history that does not appear in any history of the novel. It is a fictional date, but the fiction is enmeshed with verifiable fact. On that evening...

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Stephen Gresham (essay date spring 1981)

SOURCE: Gresham, Stephen. “William Baldwin: Literary Voice of the Reign of Edward VI.” The Huntington Library Quarterly 44, no. 2 (spring 1981): 101-16.

[In the following essay, Gresham asserts that Baldwin is the most representative religious and moralistic writer of the years 1547 to 1553, showing how his writings help elucidate the complex nature of the English Reformation and merge didacticism with literary quality and accessibility.]

The most representative religious and moralistic writer of the reign of Edward VI is William Baldwin, a man of letters known best to us as the chief compiler of as well as a contributor to A Mirror for Magistrates. Baldwin...

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David Scott Kastan (essay date December 1981)

SOURCE: Kastan, David Scott. “The Death of William Baldwin.” Notes and Queries 28, no. 6 (December 1981): 516-17.

[In the following essay, Kastan conjectures that Baldwin probably died in the autumn of 1563.]

The date of William Baldwin's death has eluded scholars. Anthony Wood writes, ‘As for Baldewyn he lived, as 'tis said, some years after Qu. Eliz. came to the Crown, but when he died it appears not.’1 Facts concerning Baldwin's death have, however, slowly begun to appear. In spite of Arthur Freeman's claim that Baldwin lived well into the 1580s,2 Paul Gaudet has recently endorsed Eveline I. Feasey's suggestion that...

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William A. Ringler, Jr. and Michael Flachmann (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Ringler, William A., Jr., and Michael Flachmann. Introduction to Beware the Cat by William Baldwin: The First English Novel, pp. xiii-xxviii. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1988.

[In the following essay, Ringler and Flachmann provide background on the rise of fictional prose narrative and the career of Baldwin before discussing the narrative art of Beware the Cat, which the critics contend is one of the best productions of sixteenth-century European fiction.]

The long fictional narrative in prose, what is now called the “novel,” has been the dominant literary form in the west since the eighteenth century, although it was the latest to be...

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Nancy C. Gutierrez (essay date spring 1989)

SOURCE: Gutierrez, Nancy C. “Beware the Cat: Mimesis in a Skin of Oratory.” Style 23, no. 1 (spring 1989): 49-69.

[In the following excerpt, Gutierrez asserts that Beware the Cat articulates the humanist theory that a text is not just a product of its author but an experience of reading that serves to create a more moral reader.]

In a ballad entitled “A shorte Answere to the boke called: Beware the Cat” (pub c. 1570), the anonymous poet derides William Baldwin's piece of short fiction, published in 1570, as a misrepresentation of the truth: “Every thing almost: in that boke is as tru / As that at midsomer” (Holden 94). The poet's confident and...

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Terence N. Bowers (essay date winter 1991)

SOURCE: Bowers, Terence N. “The Production and Communication of Knowledge in William Baldwin's Beware the Cat: Toward a Typographic Culture.” Criticism 33, no. 1 (winter 1991): 1-29.

[In the following essay, Bowers maintains that Beware the Cat is a “cultural object” that reflects the transition from Catholic oral culture to Protestant print culture, claiming further that the work is a kind of treatise on reading and its social function as well as an argument for widespread literacy.]

For as the first decay and ruin of the church before began of rude ignorance, and lack of knowledge in teachers; so, to restore the church … it...

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Andrew Hadfield (essay date September 1992)

SOURCE: Hadfield, Andrew. “A Possible Source of the Horse-Corser Episode in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus.Notes and Queries 39, no. 3 (September 1992): 303-04.

[In the following essay, Hadfield suggests that an episode in Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus was adapted from a passage in Beware the Cat.]

It is generally agreed by scholars that the incident of the horse-corser in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, extant in both ‘A’ and ‘B’ texts, is either the work of Marlowe's anonymous collaborator or co-written by the collaborator with Marlowe.1 It is possible that this episode may have been adapted from a passage in William Baldwin's...

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Edward T. Bonahue, Jr. (essay date summer 1994)

SOURCE: Bonahue, Edward T., Jr. “‘I Know the Place and the Persons’: The Play of Textual Frames in Baldwin's Beware the Cat.Studies in Philology 91, no. 3 (summer 1994): 283-300.

[In the following essay, expanded from a lecture originally delivered in 1992, Bonahue examines the textual framing produced by the several component narratives in Beware the Cat.]

The reader or critic seeking entry to the fictional world of William Baldwin's Beware the Cat could do worse than consult, as a kind of aesthetic pylon, the woodcut of three animals appearing on the verso of the first edition's title page (Figure 1). (Figure 1 omitted.)1 The...

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Nancy A. Gutierrez (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Gutierrez, Nancy A. “King Arthur, Scotland, Utopia and the Italianate Englishman: What Does Race Have to Do with It?” Shakespeare Studies 26 (1998): 37-48.

[In the following essay, Gutierrez looks at Baldwin's The Funerals of King Edward the Sixth, Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, and a speech by Queen Elizabeth I to demonstrate that there was a developing awareness of racial hierarchies in mid-sixteenth-century England.]

Exactly what does it mean that race is a category of analysis for early modern writings? In most cases, the word race suggests a “color”/whiteness binary, in which whiteness is privileged. However, in the first half of the...

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Robert Maslen (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Maslen, Robert. “‘The Cat Got Your Tongue’: Pseudo-Translation, Conversion, and Control in William Baldwin's Beware the Cat.Translation and Literature 8, no. 1 (1999): 3-27.

[In the following essay, Maslen claims that Beware the Cat comments on the state of printing and translation during Edwardian rule just before the accession of Mary I and is a sophisticated celebration of the powers of the new information technology.]

William Baldwin's clever little fable Beware the Cat—a piece of prose fiction written in 1553, published in 1570, and christened by its recent editors ‘The First English Novel’—records what is undoubtedly...

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Sherri Geller (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Geller, Sherri. “What History Really Teaches: Historical Pyrrhonism in William Baldwin's A Mirror for Magistrates.” In Opening the Borders: Inclusivity in Early Modern Studies, edited by Peter C. Herman, pp. 150-84. Newark, Del.: Associated University Presses, 1999.

[In the following excerpt, Geller discusses the frame story of A Mirror for Magistrates and the way it blurs the boundary between fact and fiction, arguing that it explores the indistinguishability of truth and lies in accounts of history, thus undermining its own veracity.]

Like plenty of modern advertisements, the phrase “newly corrected and augmented” on an early modern...

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Further Reading


Farnham, Willard. “The Progeny of A Mirror for Magistrates.Modern Philology 29, no. 4 (May 1932): 395-410.

Discusses the effect of A Mirror for Magistrates on English literary fashions in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century, listing a number of titles that follow the form and spirit of Baldwin's collection.

Feasey, Eveline I. “William Baldwin.” Modern Language Review 20 (1925): 407-18.

Reconstructs Baldwin's intellectual and political milieu and presents his activity as a dramatist.

Freeman, Arthur. “William Baldwin: The Last Years.”...

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