a taste for new fangleness

A Taste for New-Fangleness: The Destructive Potential of Novelty in Early Modern England

The sixteenth century was a troubled time for the English people. Religious turmoil, political uncertainty and deep social tensions placed enormous pressures on traditional structures and values; dire predictions of the imminent breakdown of English society litter late sixteenth-century social commentaries and treatises. Seeking explanations for the breakdown of traditional values and society, many early modern writers seized and further developed the medieval idea that the English character was flawed by the nature of the elements about them. Some believed that as an island people, the English were so negatively influenced by the waxing and waning of the moon and the ebb and flow of the tides that they were completely unable to remain constant to their monarch, their social hierarchy, their religion or their culture. Doomed to inconstancy, the English became a people addicted to novelty, to ‘new-fangleness’, an addiction that many early modern Englishmen feared would result in the inevitable destruction of English society.

Medieval and early modern popular thought traditionally assigned certain characteristics to different nationalities.1 The Italians were subtle, crafty and treacherous. The Spaniards were proud, the Scandinavians were trusty warriors, the Italians were jealous and given to whoring, while the Germans and Dutch suffered the embarrassing reputation of drinking so heavily that “they wyl pysse as they doo syt, and other whyle the one wyll pis in a nother shoes.”2 Both European and English writers portrayed the English people as an inconstant race, a people so continually fascinated with novelties they were always ready to abandon the old and trusted at the first glimpse of the new-fangled. The association of the English people with a love of novelties and an inconstant nature dates back to the medieval period. One of the best medieval descriptions of the English people’s flawed character came from the pen of the fourteenth-century chronicler Ranulph Higden in his Polychronicon, a chronicle that remained very popular for three hundred years:3

The peple of Englonde is fulle curious to knowe straunge thynges by experience, deprauenge theire awne thynges [thei] commende other straunge, vnnethe other neuer contente of the state of theire degre, transfigurenge to theyme that is congruente to an other man.4
Higden also believed the English were a people “apte moche to wylenes and decepcion, but importune a fore the dede, levenge [lightly] a thynge y-begunne.” It was this characteristic, Higden continued, which made Pope Eugenius state that the English were an inconstant people, “apte to euery thynge.”5 Significantly, this meant that while the English were almost invincible abroad, they could be easily defeated within their own land.6 While the English seemed capable of uniting against a foreign enemy, when left to their own company it appeared that civil dissension would come easily to these flawed people.

The medieval concept of the English people’s flawed character might have faded into obscurity had it not been for the witty reworking of the image by Andrew Boorde during the 1540s. In the Introduction of Knowledge (written about 1542), a work that repopularized the idea that certain characteristics could be identified with certain peoples or nationalities, Boorde firmly saddled the English people with the label of inconstancy. Beneath a drawing of a naked Englishman holding a length of cloth in one hand and a pair of tailor’s shears in the other, and completely unable to decide what type of garment to fashion, Boorde wrote,

I am an English man, and naked I stand here,
Musyng in my mynde what rayment I shal were;
For now I wyll were thys, and now I wyl were that;
Now I wyl were I cannot tel what.
All new fashyons be plesaunt to me;
I wyl haue them, whether I thryue or thee.7
Boorde was not only concerned with the social aspect of the Englishman’s inconstancy in fashion (although many writers would later deepen this association). It was the novelty in fashion that delighted, yet confused, the Englishman. Boorde’s image of the indecisive Englishman, torn this way and that by the lure of novelty, proved immensely popular, and successive writers referred to it when discussing the Englishman’s flawed character.8

From the mid-sixteenth century the characterization of the inconstant Englishman, corrupted by the lure of novelties and new-fangleness, quickly became a standard image, increasingly used by many English authors to explain the changes around them. Moralists might criticise courtiers for their new-fangled fashions, and both state and Church might attack the lower orders for adopting novelties in social and political behaviour, but many critics were quick to argue that the entire English race was given to novelties. From bookseller to privy counsellor, from balladeer to antiquary, men muttered about their compatriots’ inconstant natures and love of novelties. Robert Copland lamented that books of virtue lay unsold on shelves as readers clamoured for “tryfles” and “wanton toyes.” For the old they had no use; they sought for “thynges a-new.”9 By the 1560s the image of the indecisive Englishman addicted to novelties was sufficiently established to be cited in private correspondence; in 1567 Edward Moorcroft wrote Sir William Cecil that “every country has its fashion of vice … our country folks in new fangledness.”10 Moralists often complained that it was a fault of humankind generally to be drawn towards novelties, but it seemed to be more specifically a fault of the English. While this was bad enough, it also appeared, as William Harrison pointed out in the late 1580s, that the English had a particular love for foreign new-fangles.

such, alas, is our nature that not our own but other men’s do most of all delight us; and for desire of novelty we oft exchange our finest cloth, corn, tin and wools for halfpenny cockhorses for children, dogs of wax or of cheese, twopenny tabors, leaden swords, painted feathers, gewgaws for fools, dogtricks for dizzards, hawkshoods, and suchlike trumpery.11
Novelties of any nature were attractive, but those from foreign lands were almost irresistible. “But tis our English manner to affect Strange things,” a character in Robert Yarington’s 1594 drama Two Lamentable Tragedies observed, “and price them at a greater rate, Then home-bred things of better consequence.”12 Novelties fascinated the English people whose ‘natural vice’ was to prefer foreign commodities before their own.13 Similarly, in 1617 Joseph Hall, later bishop of Exeter and Norwich, took his countrymen to task for their readiness to prefer foreign goods and ideas before their own: “It is an humerous giddinesse to measure the goodnesse of any thing by the distance of miles, and where there is equalitie of worth, to neglect the neerest. I slander our Nation if it be not sicke of this disease.”14 As economic, intellectual and cultural contacts between England and Europe grew during the sixteenth century, many observers derided the English for adopting indiscriminately foreign novelties. Their concern was not simply xenophobic. Many commentators worried that the English people’s preference for foreign goods would adversely affect the nation’s political, religious, social and cultural integrities. A fascination for foreign novelties to the detriment of English products would also impact negatively on England’s trade imbalance; yet, surprisingly, rarely did writers remark on the destructive potential the Englishman’s love of novelty might hold for England’s economic health. A trade imbalance appeared the least of their worries amid growing concern that new-fangles might well cause English society to completely self-destruct.

The English were not alone in reviling their vice of new-fangleness. During the sixteenth century many foreigners, from Popes to German tourists, commented on the English people’s peculiarly inconstant nature. A French ecclesiastic, Stephen Perlin, in 1588 remarked on the English people’s flawed character,15 while Pope Julius III apparently believed the English Reformation was due partly to the fact that the English were given to novelties.16 “The English,” remarked Emanuel van Meteren in the late sixteenth century, “are a clever, handsome and well-made people, but, like all islanders, of a weak and tender nature.”17 Handsome and well-made they might be, but, Meteren continued, the English were also inconstant, rash, deceiving, suspicious and very desirous of novelties, particularly noticeable in their constant changing of fashion.18 To their shame, many Englishmen were well aware that their reputation for inconstancy and new-fangleness had spread across the Channel. In The Court of Virtue (1565) John Hall complained that while other nations remained steadfast to their heritages, the English, addicted to new fangles, were the laughing stock of Europe:

But we here in England lyke fooles and apes,
Do by our vayne fangles deserue mocks and iapes,
For all kynde of countreys dooe vs deryde,
In no constant custome sythe we abyde.19
A few years later Phillip Stubbes, in remarking that no race in the world exceeded the English in their love of new fangles, observed that the English people’s “new fangles and toies, are occasions, why all nations mocke, and flonte vs.”20 Harrison likewise believed that because of the English people’s desire for novelties they reaped “just mockage and reproach in other countries.”21 By the mid-sixteenth century (or well before, if Higden’s comment regarding Pope Eugenius is to be believed) discussion of the English flawed character was not confined to England. It was not only the English who sought to explain the changes about them by characterizing the English race as inconstant and given to novelies. Foreigners, of many nationalities and degrees, were equally willing to cite the English love of new-fangles as reason enough for whatever political and religious turmoil the English nation experienced.22

As the reputation for English inconstancy and love of novelty grew, many writers, medieval and early modern, tried to explain the origins of this peculiar flaw. Some medieval writers believed that island peoples were more subject to the influence of heavenly bodies, particularly the moon, than landlocked peoples. As the waters that surrounded islands ebbed and flowed under the influence of the moon, so too would an island people’s minds vacillate back and forth. Tastes, ideas, behaviours and loyalties would first teeter one way then totter the other as the shifting waters lapped the shores of their island. This was a theory that not only medieval, but early modern commentators, found hard to resist. During the mid-twelfth century Peter of Blois applied it to the people of Sicily in a letter he wrote to Richard, Bishop of Syracuse: “as it is written that all island peoples are generally faithless, the inhabitants of Sicily are indeed deceitful friends, and secret and abandoned betrayers.”23 Some years later Peter of Celle applied specifically to the English the theory that island peoples found it difficult to remain constant to any one idea in a letter to Nicholas of St Albans:

Your island is surrounded by water, and not unnaturally its inhabitants are affected by the nature of the element in which they live. Unsubstantial fantasies slide easily into their minds. They think their dreams to be visions, and their visions to be divine. We cannot blame them, for such is the nature of their land.24
The idea that the moon, through the action of the tides, affected the minds and actions of the English remained current throughout most of the medieval period and well into the seventeenth century. In the late fourteenth century John Gower wrote in Confessio Amantis that the influence of the moon on the English people literally made them so restless that they were predisposed to wander many lands.25 A century later William Caxton mused that perhaps the effects of constant ‘wavering and weaving’ of the moon not only caused the English language to alter constantly from generation to generation, but was also responsible for the various dialects of English spoken in different shires.26 During the early modern period concern for the effects for the English people’s flawed character generally outweighed any intellectual curiosity about its origins, but two or three commentators occasionally attempted to explain why the English were so inconstant. William Camden relied on medieval theories to speculate that the English were so inconstant because they were all “Lunares or … Moones men.”27 Joseph Hall, observing that the English nature seemed naturally to absorb infection, remarked somewhat ambiguously that “Ilanders haue been euer in an ill name.”28 In the mid-seventeenth century James Howell, somewhat tongue in cheek, put into Lord Daniel von Wensin’s mouth the words, “’tis well known, as the sea tumbleth perpetually about [Great Britain], so their braines do fluctuat in their noddles, which makes [the British] so variable and unsteady.”29 Even as late as the 1670s men were not only remarking upon the English people’s love of novelties, but the reasons for it. In 1676 Sir Thomas Baines informed Sir Heneage Finch that “The mutability of air in an island contributed to mutability of thought”; thus the English were “a changing fluctuating people by nature, increased by diet, with the addition of rashness to it.”30 For those men who believed that, as an island race, the English were doomed to inconstancy, the implications must have been worrying: as the waxing and waning of the moon and of the tides about England could not be halted, neither would the English people’s predisposition for novelties be assauged. Under these circumstances, neither political, social, religious or cultural stability could be assured.

Although some Englishmen tried to determine exactly why their countrymen were so inconstant, most commentators generally remarked on the effects of this inconstancy rather than its origins. A love of novelty among the English people might well predispose England to political, religious, social and cultural instability. One of the more disturbing effects of the Englishman’s flawed character was that it increased his likelihood to rebel against his monarch and current political regime. The Tudor authorities were almost paranoid about ‘agreement of minds’, considering novelties in any form, but especially in ideas that promoted ‘diversities’ of minds, to be closely associated with treason and social instability.31 Nothing illustrates this paranoia more than Sir Nicholas Bacon’s address to the Star Chamber in November 1567. Translations of foreign works, Bacon warned, created diversities of mindes, and “diversytes of myndes makethe seditions, seditions bringethe in tumultes, tumulte makethe insurrections & rebellyon, insurrections makethe depopulacions & bringeth in vtter ruyne & destruction of mens bodies goods & Lands.”32 Novelties, therefore, could precipitate the utter destruction of the realm. Naturally, any suggestion that the English character had a peculiar predisposition to the lure of novelties (especially novelties in ideas about political leadership) particularly disturbed the authorities.

Many commentators closely associated the Englishman’s flawed character with civil dissension and seditious activities. While both the chronicler William of Malmesbury and Ranulph Higden believed that if the English were almost invincible abroad then they were easily defeated within their own country, Higden clearly identified this problem with the English characteristic of inconstancy.33 Sir Thomas Malory, took the worrying connection between the Englishman’s flawed character and a tendency for sedition even further in Morte Darthur. When Englishmen supported the rebellious Sir Mordred against their noble King Arthur Malory commented, “Alas! thys ys a greate defaughte of us Englysshemen, for there may no thynge us please no terme.” Thus, “the moste party of all Inglonde hylde wyth sir Mordred, for the people were so new-fangill.”34 In case his readers might suppose indulgently that the English had outgrown their unfortunate fascination with new-fangleness and consequent disloyalty to their king, Malory remarked somewhat darkly that many men still believed that “we of thys londe have nat yet loste that custom.”35 Significantly, considering the political unrest of Tudor England, Andrew Boorde’s very popular image of the inconstant Englishman did not stop at connecting his inconstancy with an irritating tendency to constantly vary the manner of his dress. As Higden had implied centuries earlier, Boorde now asserted that much of the civil disturbance among the English was because of their flawed nature. The Englishman, unable to ‘sit still’, meddled in political and religious matters not his concern. Driven by the ideas “rolling in [his] pate,” the inconstant Englishman not only disrupted his family and friends, but destablized society.

I had no peere, yf to my selfe I were trew;
Bycause I am not so, dyuers times I do rew.36
No matter how strong the fortifications built by the king to repel foreign invaders, the English remained deeply vulnerable to internal disturbance. Despite being a strong and handsome people who lived in a bountiful land, the English seemed disinclined to enjoy their good fortune. “Treason & deceyt among [the English] is vsed craftyly, the more pitie,” continued Boorde “for yf they were true wythin themselfs, thei nede not to feare although al nacions were set against them.”37

Perhaps the most unsettling element in the English people’s inconstancy was that they did not have to be particularly dissastisfied with a monarch to plot treason against him or her. The Tudors certainly had good cause to regard their subject’s allegiance with some wariness. Not only did various factions within the nobility plot against their monarch but the ordinary people of England also tended, as Edward Hall remarked in his mid-sixteenth-century chronicle of the kings of England, to “wauer with the wynde.”38 Even foreign visitors remarked upon the English people’s tendency towards sedition. In 1558 the French ecclesiastic Stephen Perlin observed that “England is a good land with bad people …. [they] are proud and seditious, with bad consciences, and are faithless to their word … although they have a good land and a good country, they are all constantly wicked and moved by every wind; for now they will love a prince; turn your hand, they will wish him killed and crucified.”39 A year later the Venetian ambassador to England, Michael Sociano, summarized the Englishman’s character in a report to the Doge:

The English are universally partial to novelty, hostile to foreigners, and not very friendly amongst themselves; they attempt to do everything that comes into their heads, just as if all that the imagination suggests could be easily executed; hence a greater number of insurrections have broken out in this country than in all the rest of the world.40
After listing the ‘incredible’ number of English people who had met violent deaths over the past twenty years, Sociano remarked that the English were virtually an unmanageable race and counselled that no foreigner could hope to “rule this kind of people.”41 It might perhaps be expected that French and Italian observers would make somewhat unfavourable remarks regarding the English, but even German tourists made similar observations. Frederick, Duke of Wirtemberg, while travelling through England in the late sixteenth century, observed that many internal fortifications had been razed so that “the subjects, who are naturally inclined to sedition, should in no case find an opportunity to rebel and rise up against the government.”42

Faced with serious rebellion during the late 1560s and continued instability throughout the early 1570s, Elizabeth I and Sir William Cecil were unable to resist blaming their subjects’ rebellious tendencies on their love of novelties.43 In a draft of a declaration to her subjects regarding the suppression of the 1569 rebellion, Elizabeth stated that she believed wicked whispers enticed the “vulgar and common sort of people to fansy some noveltyes and changes of Lawes and rulers” and to support the rebellious Earls of Northumberland and Westmorland.44 From the mid-to late sixteenth century observers, ranging from foreign visitors to the English monarch herself, repeatedly remarked that the English people’s love of novelties led them into seditious conspiracies and rebellions. Amid the Tudor paranoia about agreement of minds, the authorities had no trouble believing that the English people’s love of novelty would lead them into such ‘seditions, tumults and insurrections’ that the complete destruction of England’s political and social orders was a frightening possibility.

If the civil authorities worried about the political allegiance of the English people, then the ecclesiastical authorities worried no less that a love of novelties might entice the English away from their allegiance to the English Church or, more likely, away from God altogether. While English Protestant authorities took some decades before they began seriously to suspect that novelties might lure the English away from their religious loyalties, foreign Catholic authorities had leaped to that conclusion during the 1550s. In 1553 Cardinal Morone wrote that Pope Julius III believed that the English were by nature fierce and unruly and given to novelties in matters of religion.45 Sociano not only blamed the English people’s love of novelties for internal insurrections, he also blamed their love of novelties for their change of faith, and suggested that such a change would ultimately result in a revolution in the entire social, legal, cultural and political structures of England.46

Later English commentators tended to believe that a love of novelty, which most argued would lead to pride and subsequently moral depravity, would more likely result in irreligion rather than a return to Catholicism. John Hall, who had pointed out in 1565 that other nations mocked England for its inhabitants’ love of “vayne fangles”, argued that such a fault invariably led to moral decay, from where pride initially made people forget obedience to God’s law and then inevitably made them strive to “blot and put out” His image as best they could.47 In 1582 Stubbes believed that the English studied more in one day for the invention of new toys than they did in their entire lives for the knowledge of God’s word,48 their novel inventions and new-fangled fashions making the English “resemble sauadge Beastes and stearne Monsters, then continent, sober and chaste Christians.”49 Ten years later Thomas Lodge argued that impiety would follow close behind the devil of Novel-monger as fashion and vanity replaced God and conscience.50 In 1617 Joseph Hall complained bitterly that the Englishman’s love of novelties had drawn atheism into the country: “Where that close Atheisme, which secretly laughes God in the face, and thinkes it weaknesse to beleeue?”51 In an age of religious instability, particularly a perceived trend towards unbelief, Catholic and Protestant alike feared the impact new and diverse ideas might have on a people traditionally vulnerable to novelties. Catholic commentators found it easy to blame the English Reformation on the English people’s inconstant natures, while Protestant commentators feared such natures would lead the English people into such moral turpitude they would turn their faces from God completely. Church authorities rested no easier than civil authorities when it came to contemplation of the English people’s inconstancy and the changes such inconstancy might engender.

If many early modern commentators believed that novelties would undermine the political and religious orders, then it is hardly surprising to find them warning that the English people’s love of novelty would undermine the social order as well. Perhaps because of Boorde’s highly popular image of the indecisive Englishman torn between novelties in fashions, but also because of the wider contemporary debate about inappropriate dressing, many commentators focused on the Englishman’s eclectic fashion sense to discuss how the English love of novelties would disrupt, if not destroy, England’s social integrity.52 New fashions were a symptom of the breakdown of the social order as well as the moral order. Both medieval and early modern authorities considered that a clearly defined social order was vitally important. From 1337 until controls were abandoned in 1604 sumptuary laws attempted to enforce standards of dress on the various social orders of English society.53 In another manifestation of the Tudor paranoia about ‘agreement of minds’ and conformity in action, both state and Church expected people to act and dress according to their rank and discouraged them from overstepping clearly defined boundaries in social behaviour. Once people violated these boundaries, the authorities feared they could just as easily disregard the laws of God and state, inevitably plunging society into chaos. Yet social mobility and social ambition were becoming more pronouced as feudal society broke down and a money economy grew. From the fourteenth century English society was characterized not only by a growth in the number of different stations in life, but also by an escalation in the rate of change of fashions by an expanding proportion of society.54 English civil and ecclesiastical authorities, as well as moralists, grew increasingly distressed at the number of people dressing and acting beyond the boundaries of their traditional rank. A tendency toward inconstancy and new-fangleness would thus only encourage the breakdown of traditional society. After all, “discrete nations”, as John Hall had noted, still kept to “Theyr old guyse, what euer fond folkes do inuent.”55 For the early modern authorities discretion was by far the better part of government. Diversity, in whatever guise, could only presage the ‘utter ruin and destruction’ of English society.

Englishmen concerned at people adopting new fashions beyond their degree levelled their complaints at all ranks of society, and neither ploughboy nor courtier escaped criticism. In his late sixteenth-century condemnation of the devil “Superfluous Inuention,” or “Nouel-monger,” Thomas Lodge inveighed against ploughmen who abandoned their russet for fashionable doublets with “wide cuts” and silken garters to wear on Sundays.56 Likewise, in A Quip for an Upstart Courtier Robert Greene derided “euery lowt” who aspired to a higher social position. Now, Greene complained, no farmer was content that his son should hold the plough and servile drudges rustled in their silks; these “dunghill drudges waxe so proud, that they wil presume to wear on their feet, what kings haue worne on their heades.”57 Social critics were not simply concerned with the lower orders of society, many believed the higher orders were also at fault. Gentlemen and courtiers were as guilty of succumbing to new-fangleness and novelty in fashion as their meaner neighbours (who were then further encouraged to adopt new fashions by the behaviour of their social betters). The anonymous author of The Institucion of a Gentleman (1555) believed that English gentleman and yeomen had abandoned their old manners “which wer approued & knowen to be good.” Ignorance had made them accept “straunge inuentions”; consequently the estates of the yeomen and gentlemen had decayed from their former heights.58 Courtiers and ‘gallants’ often received particular criticism, but not simply for the variety of their affected mannerisms and fashions that they copied from foreign countries. The courtier’s fascination with expensive foreign fashion might impact negatively on the economic health of the lower orders of society. In his Quip Greene attacked Italianated courtiers who, adopting ever finer fashions, lost themselves in pride and forgot their duty to the poorer members of society. Greene’s Italianated courtier, Velvetbreeches, had been brought into England by his “companion Nufanglenesse.”59 Velvetbreeches had caused vast misery within English society, raising rents in an effort to finance his expensive lifestyle. Costly velvets, vainglory and pride reigned at the expense of dignity, charity and the honest country life. No longer was ‘public commodity’ foremost in the ‘upstart’ gentleman’s mind, but only private gain.60 In this new England pride had replaced charity, and virtue and social harmony was destroyed.61 Greene’s message was clear: through their love of foreign new-fangles and fashions, English Italianated courtiers had adopted novelties that were destroying traditional English society.

Although Greene’s work was probably the more popular,62 William Rankins’ The English Ape, The Italian imitation, the Footesteppes of Fraunce (1588) remains one of the best examples of a treatise that predicted the complete destruction of English society should the English love for novelty go unchecked. Among Rankins’ primary concerns was the increasingly fractured social structure of England. He complained bitterly about men who dressed and acted well above their station in life:

Haue we not such amongst vs whose attire rather shew them to be Monarchs then meane men, Kings then subiects, whose minds are neither suppressed with the loyalty of their duety, nor with the modest regarde of their meane estate. 63
Once such ‘meane men’ began to flaunt the boundaries of social distinction, ambition and pride would soon follow, and ambition and pride would prove the death of the kingdom: “Oh ambition the nource of mischeefe, the fosterer of vyle dissention: The ruine of cities, the ouerthrow of common wealthes, the disturber of all estates, and the finall confusion of al peaceable gouernements.”64 Pride, itself as destructive as ambition, and borrowed “from euery base inferiour climate,” transformed those Englishmen it corrupted into savage beasts.65 Whether ploughboy or courtier, an addiction to novelty was the first step towards a loosening of moral values and eventual social disorder as people forgot their duty to, and their place within, the commonwealth of England.

Although many Englishmen feared that novelties in fashion and social behaviour might upset the social stability of England, others appeared just as distressed, if not more so, by the damage done to England’s cultural integrity through the wanton adoption of foreign fashions and other novelties by their faithless countrymen. Their sense of cultural and national pride was as affronted as their concern about the blurring of social distinctions through inappropriate dressing. A growing number of early modern Englishmen, anxious that European cultures threatened their traditional English heritage, expressed deep resentment at the affectation of French and Italian culture and manners by members of fashionable society. At the heart of many of their complaints was the belief that the English people, addicted to novelty (and foreign novelties at that), would corrupt and destroy traditional English culture.

Fears that foreign culture was undermining traditional English culture had been growing since the early sixteenth century.66 Many Englishmen, along with the character of Vincent in Cyuile and vncyuvile life (1579), were “sorye to see Englishmen, so apte to leaue their auncient good fashions, and fall into forrayne manners.”67 As the sixteenth century drew to a close the sense that foreign cultures theatened English culture had become almost overwhelming.68 Inevitably, many authors connected the decline in their English cultural integrity with the Englishman’s flawed nature — his love of novelties, particularly foreign novelties. As with the early modern connection between sedition and the Englishman’s flawed character, the undermining of England’s cultural identity and its link to the Englishman’s love of novelties had deep roots in the medieval past. In the early twelfth century the scribe of the Laud Manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle critised the mid-tenth-century Anglo-Saxon Edgar for his fondness for foreign customs that eventually led to harmful elements entering England.69 William of Malmesbury, writing about 1135, also spoke of the corruption of English culture during Edgar’s reign.70 Malmesbury commented that Edgar was so famous that many foreigners came to his court; yet their presence was highly prejudicial to England’s cultural and social integrity:

from the Saxons [the English] learned an untameable ferocity of mind; from the Flemings an unmanly delicacy of body; and from the Danes drunkenness; though they were before free from such propensities, and disposed to observe their own customs with native simplicity rather than admire those of others. For this history justly and deservedly blames [Edgar].71
By the early seventeenth century it appeared that no aspect of English life was safe from corruption by foreign novelties. George Wither connected the Englishman’s flawed character with the corruption of traditional English life in his Abuses Stript and Whipt (1613). Englishmen did not value anything unless it was a foreign import, whether clothes, food, medicines, or other “new deuised forraine trash.” It was an idle humour, declared Wither, which made Englishmen prefer foreign wares before their own goods which were not only of a better quality, but “moore neere at hand.”72 English food and drink was no longer good enough for a nation addicted to foreign novelties: “Wee, that once did feed / on homely rootes and hearbes, do now exceed / The Persian Kings for dainties.”73 Foreign wines now filled cellars where once the English had been satisfied with their cider and ale.74 The English even abandoned traditional English sword-play for continental styles. In 1599 George Silver defended the honourable English tradition of fencing and attacked gallants who forsook their traditional short swords and staves to lust like men sick of a “strange ague” after the “long Rapiers [and] frog pricking Poiniards” of Italian and French fencers.75 Many feared the English people’s indiscriminate borrowing from other nations would finally result in the English becoming a corrupted people who had virtually no individual cultural identity. John Deacon’s list of the final result of the English people’s indiscriminate borrowing from other cultures, published in 1616, is a typical example of what some early modern Englishmen feared might happen to the English nation:

our carelesse entercourse of trafficking with the contagious corruptions, and customes of forreine nations [has led to the fact] that so many of our English-mens minds are thus terriblie Turkished with Mahometan trumperies … thus spitefully Spanished with superfluous pride; thus fearefully Frenchized with filthy prostitutions; thus fantastically Flanderized with flaring net-works to catch English fooles; thus huffingly Hollandized with ruffian-like loome-workes, and other like Ladified fooleries; thus greedily Germandized with a most gluttenous manner of gormandizing; thus desperately Danished with a swine-like swilling and quaffing; thus sculkingly Scotized with Machiauillan proiects; thus inconstantly Englished with euery new fantasticall foolerie.76
Could an English identity survive if the English indiscriminately copied every foreign fashion, manner and vice that they could lay their hands on? John Lyly apparently thought not, remarking with some sadness in the prologue to Midas; “Trafficke and trauell hath wouen the nature of all Nations into ours, and made this land like Arras, full of deuise, which was Broade-cloth, full of workemanshippe.” 77

Obviously many patriotic Englishmen believed that their inconstant compatriots’ preference for foreign wares would have a devastating effect on their native heritage. It appeared very likely that many English people would abandon their native culture, believing it uncivilized, for more sophisticated European cultures. Englishmen travelling abroad sometimes came home favoruing the French, Italian and Spanish languages, so alienated from their native tongue that they declared it a barren and barbarous language.78 As in language, so also in ideas and education. Even those who stayed at home sometimes thought the worst of their own nation in learning, experience, common reason, or wit, “preferring always a stranger rather for the name than the wisdom.”79 In 1592 Sir John Stradling explained that it was a particular fault of the English that, “as we admire and entertaine strange artificers before our owne, so wee wonder at, and more willingly intreate of learning with the learned forrainer, then with our own natiue countrey man.”80 Forty years later the playwright John Ford connected the Englishman’s traditional inconstancy with a disturbing uncertainty about the value of his own culture. Englishmen thought their own products and customs were ‘nothing’ when compared to those of foreign lands. Rather than “fantastic,” Ford portrayed the English as an uncertain people who disparaged their own “fair abundance, manhood [and] beauty.”81 In the 1570s Gabriel Harvey attacked Englishmen who had transformed themselves into French Monsieurs and Italianate Seigniors:

… nothinge is reputid so contemptible, and so baselye and vilelye accountid of as whatsoever is taken for Inglishe, whether it be handsum fasshions in apparrell, or seemely and honorable in behaviour, or choise wordes and phrases in speache or anye notable thinge else in effecte that savorith of our owne cuntrye, and is not ether merely or mixtely outlandishe.82
Like so many others, Harvey feared that the Englishman’s preference for foreign novelties would have a devastating effect on England’s traditional culture. The English people’s love of novelties would allow them no confidence in their own heritage, and many commentators feared the impending destruction of the English people’s sense of cultural identity and even of their sense of national self-respect. No indigenous culture could survive its people’s addiction to foreign new-fangles.

Much of this concern about the Englishman’s fascination for foreign goods, for novelties, occurred because of the increased contact with European ideas, cultures and goods from the sixteenth century on. Today we might view the English community’s delight with European goods, customs and ideas less as an inherent flaw in their character, than a natural delight in an increased access to foreign markets. We live in an age where novelty and new fashion — in whatever sphere — is commonplace and generally accepted. Yet what we might regard as a natural reaction to increased choice, early modern peoples often regarded with horror as a socially destructive phenomenon. Even as late as 1673 a popular adage accounted those men who adopted novelties as the principal danger to the commonwealth.83

Attitudes toward change in early modern England were ambivalent; while many English men and women eagerly embraced changes, or novelties, many oth ers deplored their compatriots’ actions. For the English people of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with no experience other than that of a society and culture used only to slow change and adaptation, and existing in a traditionally isolated community, the growing influence of new and strange customs and ideas in their homeland was inherently threatening, while their countrymen’s seeming addiction to novelties simply deepened the threat. In reaction, some commentators turned to the convenient medieval explanation of the Englishman’s naturally unsteady character. For many Englishmen, the sole explanation they could find for a rapidly changing society was that the English character was so unsteady, or faithless, that the English were preoccupied with novelties in goods, ideas and culture: a situation that they believed had only a disastrous potential for the continuing stability of England’s political, religious, social and cultural orders.

Notes:
1 One of the most recent discussions of medieval national characteristics is by Paul Meyvaert, “‘Rainaldus est maul scriptor Francigenus’ — Voicing National Antipathy in the Middle Ages”, Speculum 66 (October, 1991): 743-763. For one of the wittiest early modern examples of descriptions of the various European nationalities see Andrew Boorde, Introduction of Knowledge (written 1542), ed. Frederick J. Furnivall (London, 1870).

2 Boorde, pp. 156-157. In all my citations from medieval and early modern sources I have expanded abbreviations but have otherwise left the original punctuation and spelling intact.

3 William Camden quoted Higden in 1605 when referring to the Englishman’s flawed character; Camden, Remains Concerning Britain (1605), ed. R. D. Dunn (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1984), p. 19. See pp. xii-xiii for Dunn’s comments on the popularity of Higden’s Polychronicon. In 1642 James Howell alluded to certain ill-favoured prophecies of England regarding the Englishman’s inconstancy in apparel that Higden recited; Instructions for Forreine Travell (1642 and 1650), ed. Edward Arber (London, 1869), p. 68; Ranulph Higden, Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden Monachi Cestrensis, ed. Churchill Babington (London, 1869), II, the text of the anonymous fifteenth-century translator, p. 173. All further citations from Higden are those of the fifteenth-century translator.

4 Higden, II, pp. 169 and 171. In volume I, p. 357, Higden also claimed that the Irish were an inconstant and variable people.

5 Ibid., p. 169.

6 Ibid., p. 169.

7 Boorde, p. 116.

8 John Lyly, Euphues and his England (1580), eds. Morris W. Croll and Harry Clemons (New York: Russell & Russell, 1964), p. 421; William Harrison, The Description of England (1587), ed. Georges Edelen (New York: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1968), p. 145; Camden, pp. 20-21; Thomas Dekker, The Seuen deadly Sinnes of London (1606), ed. Alexander B. Grosart, The Non-Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker (London, 1885), II, the essay on “Apishness”, p. 59; and [Robert Codrington], A Discourse upon some Innovations of Habits and Dressings, appended to Francis Hawkins, Youths Behaviour, or Decency in Conversation Amongst Men (London, eighth edition 1663), p. 54 are only a few of the authors who mentioned Boorde’s characterization of the uncertain Englishman.

9 Comment by Robert Copland in the mid-sixteenth century, cited in Edwin Haviland Miller, The Professional Writer in Elizabethan England (Cambridge, Mass., 1959), p. 70.

10 Edward Moorcroft to William Cecil, 1 January 1567, Calendar State Papers Foreign (1566-1568), item 879, p. 161. Following established concepts, Moorcroft also connected the French with pride, the Spanish and Italians with whoring, the Sicilians and Irish with thieving, and the Flemings and Germans with heavy drinking.

11 Harrison, p. 359.

12 Robert Yarington, Two Lamentable Tragedies (produced 1594), in A Collection of Old English Plays, ed. A. H. Bullen (New York, 1882-1889), IV, p. 12.

13 Ibid., p. 357.

14 Joseph Hall, Quo vadis? A Ivst Censvre of Travell as it is commonly vndertaken by the Gentlemen of our Nation (London, 1617), p. 40. Hall included a long list of the evil fruits of his countrymen’s tendency to borrrow from other nations, pp. 75-80.

15 Stephen Perlin, Description of the Kingdoms of England and Scotland, in R. B. Morgan, ed., Readings in English Social History (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1923), pp. 254-255.

16 Cardinal Morone to Cardinal Pole for Julius III, 21 December 1553, cited in G. B. Parks, “The First Italianate Englishman,” Studies in the Renaissance 8 (1961): 214 and note.

17 Cited in William Brenchley Rye, ed., England as Seen by Foreigners (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1967), p. 69.

18 Ibid., pp. 70-71.

19 John Hall, The Court of Virtue (1565), ed. Russell A. Fraser (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1961), pp. 351-352.

20 Phillip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses (London, 1583), folios C and Gvii (margin comment). As a Puritan, Stubbes was particularly distressed by his countrymen’s addiction to new-fangles.

21 Harrison, p. 359.

22 For some examples, see discussion below on political and religious changes within English society, pp. 9-11.

23 Peter of Blois to Richard, bishop of Syracuse, mid-twelfth century, in G. B. Parks, The English Traveller to Italy (Rome: Edizioni di Storia E Letteratura, 1954), I, p. 220.

24 Peter of Celle to Nicholas of St Albans, ca. 1178, in R. W. Southern, Medieval Humanism and Other Studies (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1970), p. 146. For a slightly different translation and commentary see Meyvaert, p. 750.

25 John Gower, Confessio Amantis, ed. Reinhold Pauli (London, 1857), III, pp. 109-110.

26 William Caxton, transl. and pub., Eneydos (1490), folio A verso.

27 Camden, p. 198.

28 Joseph Hall, pp. 79-80.

29 James Howell, A German Diet: Or, the Ballance of Europe (London, 1653), pp. 53-54. Howell used the pretence of reporting the speeches of sundry German princes to express his own views both on English and on European affairs.

30 Sir Thomas Baines to Sir Heneage Finch, June 1676, Historical Manuscripts Commission, Finch, II, p. ix.

31 Lacey Baldwin Smith argues in Treason in Tudor England that the Tudor authorities were so paranoid about treason that they considered anything outside the ‘norm’ inherently treasonous because it might shatter the fragile harmony of the realm; (London: Jonathan Cape, 1986), particularly chapter III, “The Agreement of Its Minds”.

32 “The Coppye of the L. Keepers oration in the Starre Chamber vttered before divers of the Counseyle & others the xxviiith daye of Nouember, Ano 1567,” PRO SP 12/45/3.

33 Higden, II, p. 169; William of Malmesbury, Chronicle of the Kings of England, ed. J. A. Giles (London, 1847), p. 291.

34 Sir Thomas Malory, Morte Darthur, in Malory Works ed. Eugène Vinaver (London: O.U.P., London, 1971), pp. 708-709. These remarks are Malory’s own contribution rather than ideas he borrowed from French and English sources; Vinaver, ed., The Works of Sir Thomas Malory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), III, p. 1647.

35 Ibid.

36 Boorde, p. 117.

37 Ibid., p. 119.

38 Edward Hall, Hall’s Chronicle (New York: AMS Press, 1965 facsimile ed. of 1809 edition), p. 359.

39 Perlin, pp. 254-255. See Boorde, p. 118, for the Italian proverb that “the land of England is a good land, but the people be yl.”

40 Calendar State Papers and Manuscripts relating to English Affairs: Venice and Northern Italy, VII (1558-1580), p. 328. Report concerning King Philip of Spain, presented by Michiel Sociano (Surian), late Ambassador with his Majesty, to the most Serene Signory.

41 Ibid.

42 Rye, p. 13.

43 Not only may Cecil have remembered Moorcroft’s letter, he and Elizabeth may particularly have had Malory’s words in mind. Roger Ascham (who was certainly in a position to know) remarked in The Scholemaster (written between 1564 and 1567) that he knew a time when God’s Bible was banished at court, and “Morte Arthur received into the prince’s chamber”; Roger Ascham, The Scholemaster (1570), inThe Whole Works of Roger Ascham, ed. J. Giles (London, 1864-1865), III, p. 159.

44 February? 1570, PRO SP 12/66/147 verso, corrections in Sir William Cecil’s hand. Somewhat prophetically for a later monarch, in 1617 Joseph Hall claimed that the English, through their love of novelties, had learned the “bloudy and tragicall science of King-killing; the new diuinitie of disobedience and rebellion”; Hall, p. 79. Hall produced a long list of the evil fruits of his countrymen’s tendency to borrrow from other nations, pp. 75-80.

45 Cardinal Morone to Cardinal Pole for Julius III, 21 December 1553, cited in Parks, “The First Italianate Englishman,” p. 214 and note. Morone’s exact words were, “quei popoli di natura feroci et instabili et assuefatti alle novità”; Parks translated this as “by nature fierce and unruly and given to change”, but an equally correct and more literal translation is “by nature fierce and unruly and given to novelties”.

46 SP Ven., VII, p. 328.

47 John Hall, pp. 352-353.

48 Phillip Stubbes, The Second Part of the Anatomie of Abuses , ed. Arthur Freeman (New York: Garland Press, 1973), folio E8 verso.

49 Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses, folio Bvii verso.

50 Thomas Lodge, Wits Miserie and the Worlds Madnesse (London, 1596), p. 14.

51 Joseph Hall, p. 79.

52 In itself, complaints about inappropriate dressing were closely linked with concerns over the stability of the social heirarchy. See N. B. Harte, “State Control of Dress and Social Change in Pre-Industrial England,” in D. C. Coleman and A. H. John, eds., Trade, Government and Economy in Pre-Industrial England (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976), pp. 132-165, particularly pp. 134-148, and Joseph Strutt, A Complete View of the Dress and Habits of the People of England (reprint of 1842 edition, London: The Tabard Press, 1970), II, p. 117. See also David Cressy, “Describing the Social Order of Elizabethan and Stuart England,” Literature and History, vol. III (1976), pp. 29-44, for some of the ways early modern commentators defined ranks within their society.

53 It was not only concerns regarding the social order of society that drove the English government to enact these sumptuary laws, but also a concern with the balance of payments. Imported cloth and clothing impoverished the English realm while foreign nations profited. Nevertheless, economic motives remained secondary, the Acts of Apparel were primarily intended to impose order on society, “a person’s dress should reflect his station in life”; Harte, pp. 137-139.

54 Harte, pp. 139-140.

55 John Hall, p. 352.

56 [Thomas Lodge], Wits Miserie, and the Worlds Madnesse (London, 1596), pp. 13-14.

57 Robert Greene, A Quip for an Upstart Courtier (1592), in The Life and Complete Works in Prose and Verse of Robert Greene M.A., ed. A. B. Grosart (London, 1881-1886), XI, p. 238. The Quip was an expanded version of the lesser known and anonymous The Debate Between Pride and Lowlines (London, ca. 1570).

58 The Institucion of a gentleman (London, 1555), folio Giii.

59 Greene, p. 294.

60 Ibid., p. 260.

61 Ibid., pp. 234-235.

62 A Quip went through many editions in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

63 [William Rankins], The English Ape, The Italian imitation, the Footesteppes of Fraunce (London, 1588), p. 7.

64 Ibid., pp. 9-10. See also p. 13.

65 Ibid., p. 19.

66 In an epigram written about 1513 Thomas More derided Frenchified Englishmen who scorned their native heritage in preference for French clothes and manners; Thomas More, Latin Epigrams (written about 1513), in The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, eds. C. H. Miller, L. Bradner, C. A. Lynch and R. P. Oliver (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1984), vol. III, Part II, pp. 153-155. An early 1520s ballad, Treatyse of this Galaunt, satirized the Frenchified gallant who imported into England new-fangled fashions, ideas, manners and vices that were rapidly destroying traditional English society; F. J. Furnivall, ed., Ballads from Manuscripts (London, 1868-1872), I, pp. 445- 453. Another contemporary poem, Now-A-Dayes, also blamed the importation of French wares as well as the vice of ‘new fangle’ for the moral decay of English society, ibid., p. 99. These are only a few examples of early sixteenth-century concern.

67 Cyuile and uncyuile life (London, 1579), folio B verso.

68 For a discussion of anti-foreign sentiment in Elizabethan England see Richard Lindabury, Patriotism in the Elizabethan Drama (Princeton: Princeton U. P., 1931), especially chapter VI, “Foreign Manners and Morals” and Chapter VII, “The Alien Invasion”; and Zera Silver Fink, “Anti-Foreign Sentiment in Tudor and Early Stuart Literature,” unpublished Ph. D. dissertation, Northwestern University, 1931. For expressions of cultural anxiety and some attempts to clearly define an English cultural identity during the early modern period, see Richard Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992); J. D. Alsop, “William Fleetwood and Elizabethan Historical Scholarship”, Sixteenth Century Journal 25 (1994): 155-176 is briefly useful. See my Images of Educational Travellers in Early Modern England (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995), Chapter VII, for a more detailed discussion of the early modern belief that the English people’s love of novelties corrupted England’s traditional culture and heritage.

69 G.N. Garmonsway, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London: Everyman, 1953, reprint 1990), p. 115.

70 Malmesbury had undoubtedly read the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and probably took some of his material from that source.

71 Malmesbury, p. 148.

72 George Wither, Abvses Stript, and Whipt (London, 1613), Book II, “Satyre I,” p. 155. See pp. 150-157 for a full discusion of imitative English men and women.

73 Ibid., p. 152.

74 Ibid.

75 George Silver, Paradoxes of Defence (London, 1599), folio A4-A4 verso.

76 John Deacon, Tobacco Tortvred … (London, 1616), p. 10.

77 John Lyly, Midas, in The Complete Works of John Lyly, ed. R. Warwick Bond (Oxford; Clarendon Press, 1902), III, p. 114. First produced 1589.

78 George Pettie, trans., The Civile Conversation of M. Steeven Guazzo (1581), ed. Sir Edward Sullivan (London: Constable & Co. 1925), I, translator’s preface to the reader, pp. 9-10. See also Thomas Wilson’s comments in his Arte of Rhetorique (1560), ed. G. H. Mair (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909), p. 162. I have not the space here to discuss the extensive debate about the merits (or not) of the English language in early modern England; see Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language (London: Routledge, third edition 1990), esp. chapter 8, “The Renaissance, 1500-1650”; for a recent discussion of some aspects of this debate see Helgerson, Chapter I.

79 Lyly, Euphues and his England, pp. 423-424.

80 Sir John Stradling, A Direction for Trauailers (London, 1592) folio B3.

81 John Ford, Love’s Sacrifice (produced 1632), Act I, scene i, in John Ford, ed. Havelock Ellis (London, 1888), p. 290.

82 Gabriel Harvey, The Letter-book of Gabriel Harvey, ed. E. J. Long Scott (London, 1883-1884), p. 66.

83 [Richard Head], The Canting Academy (London, 1673), p. 157.


©1996 Sara Warneke / Sara Douglass Enterprises