The Calvinesque

An Aesthetics of Violence in English Literature after the Reformation

by Claudia Richter (Author)
©2014 Thesis 176 Pages


This study deals with the aesthetic manifestations of one of the world’s most fiercely iconophobic and anti-aesthetic religious cultures: Calvinism. It establishes the category of the Calvinesque as an aesthetic of extreme violence against the human body. In close readings of theological documents, literary texts and dramatic speeches, the book examines the extent to which language, literary imagination and theology permeate and condition each other. The book aims at providing new perspectives on literary stylistics after the religious turn in the humanities. By emphasising the pervasive impact of Protestant theology on secular Western culture and by radically questioning some of the narratives that have been crucial to Western (Protestant) identity, this study opens up historical perspectives to contemporary debates about the impact of Calvinism on political discourses, violent entertainment, disciplinary culture and an Anglo-American humanitarian «pornography of pain».

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Delineation of Definitions and Categories
  • “The Calvinesque”: an aesthetics of violence
  • Religion, Protestantism, Violence
  • 1. The Reformation of the Image
  • 1.1 Iconophobia
  • An Almshouse for a Palace?
  • Prophets and word-painting
  • 2. Anti-Theatricality and the Imagination of Violence
  • 2.1 Calvin’s Early Christian Sources: Tertullian, De Spectaculis
  • 2.2 Augustine, Ad Simplicianum
  • 2.3 Crime and Punishment: Thomas Beard, The Theatre of God’s Judgements
  • 2.4 Representations of Violence: Martyrdom
  • Medieval Martyrdom and Violent Imagery
  • John Foxe
  • The Death of John Hooper
  • 3. The ‘Calvinesque’: Literary and Dramatic Language
  • 3.1 Psalm Translations after the Reformation
  • 3.1.1 The Maledictory Psalm 137
  • 3.1.2 Psalm 137 and Milton’sSonnet 18
  • 3.2 Calvinism, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama
  • 3.2.1 The Rhetoric of Prophecy: Marlowe,Tamburlaine andDr. Faustus
  • Protestantism and Rhetoric
  • Hyperbole, Rhetoric and the Bible
  • Future Tense and Hyperbole inThe Passionate Shepherd,Dr Faustus andTamburlaine
  • Revelation: Calvin andTamburlaine
  • 3.2.2 Tamburlaine the Great and Foxe’sActs and Monuments
  • 3.2.3 The Iconography of God’s Punishment: Braining
  • The case ofDr Faustus: The GermanFaustbuch to Marlowe’sDr Faustus
  • Endings
  • Back to Braining
  • 3.2.4 The Dramatic and Literary ‘Calvinesque’: Summary
  • 4. Calvinism and Histories of Violence in Europe
  • 4.1 The “Pornography of Pain”
  • 4.2 Disciplinary Society
  • Philip Gorski and Charles Taylor
  • Michel Foucault
  • Norbert Elias
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography
  • 1. Editions
  • A. Theological
  • B. Literary
  • C. Works cited
  • Miscellaneous
  • Deutsche Zusammenfassung
  • Kapitelüberblick


This book is about a literary imagination of violence after the Reformation. It seeks to establish new perspectives for the interpretation of an aesthetics of violence in texts generated under the influence of Protestant theology and ideology.

One of the key observations is the degree of voyeurism in various kinds of popular Protestant texts when it comes to violence. This goes especially for moral pamphlets and explicitly ideologically driven textual material used for propagandistic purposes. In the following chapters, I contrast this material with more literary and poetic texts composed in post-Reformation England: the plays of Christopher Marlowe and Psalm translations. I argue for a cultural connection between different texts displaying what I would call a ‘voyeuristic imagination of violence’ relying on visuality and realistic detail. In contrast to the still popular assumption of an early modern residual ‘medieval barbarism’, I argue for an intrinsic connection between Protestant theology and specific modes of representing violence. Historical continuities between pre-modern, medieval and early modern representations of violence must be taken into account and considered alongside what I identify as Protestant modes of representing violence. However, as a general tendency, my argument is critical of approaches that assume voyeuristic representations of violence to be a universal human phenomenon. In Greek tragedy, the representation of violence was considered inappropriate: violent scenes were not enacted but were reported in dramatic speech, although beatings and verbally violent arguments were acceptable and welcome in comedy.1 The enjoyment of violent spectacles has been considered ethically ← 9 | 10 → questionable at various points in history, and was (and often is) associated with the lower classes and their basic instincts, or with male youth. This view implies that the bestial nature in man desires violent spectacles, which applies to the blood-thirsty mob at the Roman arena which the man of letters should avoid to safeguard his refined nature,2 or the ‘groundlings’ in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who would be most impressed by actors “out-herod[ing] Herod” (III.ii.13). In my readings, I propose to add another perspective to the enjoyment of violent spectacle, which takes into account a specific religious imagination.

The thesis is developed from the assumption that the Reformation crucially meshed into, shaped and changed cultural and aesthetic practices in Europe. The theoretical patron of this outlook for me has been Max Weber with his seminal essay Die Protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (1904/05).3 Instead of rejecting Weber’s approach, as has been common in the historical sciences for a few decades now, I would like to expand it to aesthetics.

The idea that religious cultures, ‘ideas’ and patterns of thought may give rise to related aesthetic expression, however, is not entirely new. I am drawing this mode of thinking from an intellectual tradition with representatives such as Walter Benjamin, Erich Auerbach, Erwin Panofsky and Aby Warburg. I will not refer to their works in detail here because none of them have focused specifically on an aesthetic of Protestantism, and their approaches are nevertheless quite different from mine. Although my approach may be more indebted to art historical traditions of thought, philological and rhetorical analysis have been valuable methods for developing my argument. By marrying formal analyses with cultural historical questions, I hope to contribute to a method that pursues politically and historically relevant questions without abandoning poetically sensitive literary readings and interpretative practices.

In early modern English literary studies, Debora Kuller Shuger, Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, and Brian Cummings have developed and perpetuated an ← 10 | 11 → interdisciplinary approach between theology and literary aesthetics, to which my study is related and indebted.4 My attention to both literary and non-literary documents is methodologically related to the New Historicist approach. The central interest of this book is to explore an aesthetics of violence related to Calvinism, and I pursue cultural anthropological questions through literary documents in a way that is different from but related to Stephen Greenblatt’s exploration of a ‘poetics of culture’.5

Delineation of Definitions and Categories

‘The Calvinesque’: An Aesthetics of Violence

This thesis proposes a new aesthetic category emphasising the nexus between religious ideas and aesthetics: the ‘Calvinesque’. I suggest this category be employed in the way in which all categories should be employed: not as a rigid strait-jacket, but rather as a new pair of glasses that might provide new and relevant insights. It is important to me to retain a degree of playfulness and openness in this category. This does not diminish the serious concern to bring something to light that has been overlooked. In fact I would like to use the term ‘category’ with reference to the etymology of the Greek word kategorein (meaning to ‘accuse’). In this sense, a category is an accusation against the world, because it does not correspond entirely to the object that is categorised (“Die Kategorie ist eine Anklage an die Welt, weil sie nicht in ihr aufgeht”).6 If categories remain imperfect, however, they may carry the possibility to make ← 11 | 12 → properties visible. Hence, I would like to develop the hypothesis starting with the premise that: 1. there is a connection between religious ideas and aesthetic manifestations in the secular world, even in contexts where religious doctrine is not explicitly articulated or consciously present. A writer does not have to identify with a religious doctrine to promote its very contents and aesthetics. 2. there is a connection between a particularly violent imagination and Calvinism, which becomes discernible in various textual genres. 3. this violent imagination carries distinct aesthetically discernible features which suggest a connection with Calvinism.

This is not to say that some of these features or a particularly violent imagination have occurred only as a result of Calvinism. Seemingly similar violent fantasies may have developed in other cultural and religious contexts for different reasons. This should not prevent us, however, from examining the specific frames for specific cultural products with characteristic aesthetic properties.

My use and understanding of aesthetics is not located in any specific philosophical tradition. More appropriately, I could have used the term ‘poetics’, as my project focuses almost entirely on textual, literary qualities. However, I consciously chose the term aesthetics for three reasons: 1. it carries a meaning in its colloquial use which I would like to invoke here, namely the ‘attractive’, alluring quality of this poetics of violence. 2. the visual dimension of texts appealing to the ‘eyes of the mind’ play a large role in my analyses. 3. I allude to the paradoxical usage of the term aesthetics in German literary scholarship in the context of something that according to Enlightenment parameters is not perceived as beautiful or admitted to have attractive qualities.7 However, precisely the voyeuristic delight in that which is morally and ethically repulsive and prohibited is central to my argument.

Violence in the following chapters primarily refers to ‘physical harm and destruction inflicted on a human body’ (my definition), rather than any of its ← 12 | 13 → originally political implications.8 Neither does my study consider more subtle forms of oppression, e.g. structural violence in the Foucaultian fashion, or violent speech acts, such as insulting, cursing and slander.9 I have also chosen to neglect gender aspects in favour of theological, philological, and cultural-historical questions. It would have been possible indeed to examine representations of Protestant victimhood for ‘femininity’, and of reading the dichotomy of the persecuting vs. the persecuted according to gender binaries. However, I believe this would have been a circular argument, since to my mind, Anglo-American gender theory in the Marxist-Freudian intellectual tradition is steeped in Protestant modes of reasoning to an extent that is yet to be uncovered, and hence based on constructions whose very foundations might require radical re-examination and historicisation.10 This is by no means to ← 13 | 14 → reject feminism’s general ethical agenda, which after all enables me to write this book. The Calvinist conception of God seems to carry more masculine than feminine attributes, however, which might indeed be responsible for the scenarios of violence, war, aggression and physical destruction which I look at in this thesis. The fact that all of the authors discussed here are male, of course, has to do with the fact that early modern women were not officially and publicly involved in theological debates up until the 17th century, although they were encouraged to read the Bible and engage in writing about religious themes.11 It might be revealing to test 17th century prophetic womens’ writing for occurrences of the ‘Calvinesque’ in future studies.

Physical violence according to my definition is central to Christianity. The crucified bleeding body of Christ is the central site around which the Christian religious imagination evolves. Not only is the meditation of His wounds and martyred body part of devotional practices, but also its very imitation in rituals of flagellation and self-castigation, as well as the invitation of physical suffering as a sign of humility and God’s grace. Despite the rather central role of the crucified and martyred body of Christ in medieval piety,12 it is a common place in art history that the rise of the ‘man of sorrows’ and the representation of the crucified and tortured body of Christ becomes increasingly violent in the early modern period, when there seems to be a rising interest in the human ← 14 | 15 → rather than the divine or royal qualities of Christ.13 However, as we shall see in the chapter on martyrdom, what appears violent to a modern mind may have been entirely differently encoded in medieval piety, with violence against Christ and martyrs evoking sentiments of love rather than pity or even morally justified anger.

This thesis is about a specific aesthetics of violence that may be indebted to the theology and culture of Calvinism more than has previously been noted. Debora K. Shuger’s speculations about a connection between an obsessive fantasy of violence and Calvinism, which she felt was related to the peculiarly Calvinistic construction of divinity, and accordingly, man’s relationship with the divine, have served as a crucial source of inspiration to this study.14 I share the conviction of the cultural impact of ideas, especially ideas regarding the highest power. Not incidentally, Shuger quotes a line from Theodore Agrippa d’Aubigné’s epic Les Tragiques in the beginning of the essay, however, without explicating the connection. More can be said about Agrippa d’Aubigné though: the writer was a Calvinist who composed his epic in a prophetic voice. It is replete with grotesquely violent scenes involving physical mutilation, especially in the final books, “Vengeance” and “Jugement”.15 Since this is a thesis in English literary studies and Les Tragiques to my knowledge has not been immediately relevant to literature in England, I have chosen not to include the work. From what I understand, the prophetic stance of the speaker and scenarios of physical mutilation swaying between the experience of violent suffering and the hope of vengeance, which is central to my understanding of the ‘Calvinesque’, can be discerned in this work as well, which could be taken as an argument in favour of the pervasive power of theology to transcend national and cultural boundaries.16 ← 15 | 16 →

Religion, Protestantism, Violence

The degree to which the religious heritage has often been overlooked in literary and cultural studies of the past decades has perhaps diminished since the so-called ‘religious turn’, but much remains to be done in theory after decades of Religionsvergessenheit. As Daniel Weidner has pointed out, not only modern but postmodern theory especially has cultivated prejudices against theology resulting in a lack of attention to religious texts:


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (August)
Calvinismus Protestantismus Bilderstürmer Theaterfeindlichkeit
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 176 pp., 1 coloured fig.

Biographical notes

Claudia Richter (Author)

Claudia Richter studied English Literature and Religious Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, and English and Scottish Literature at the University of Edinburgh (UK). For her MA thesis, The Aesthetics of Violence in the Drama of Christopher Marlowe, she received the Martin Lehnert Award, which is annually awarded by the German Shakespeare Society. In the past, she has been a lecturer and a researcher at Freie Universität Berlin.


Title: The Calvinesque
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178 pages