Lockdown reading takes many forms, from the rediscovery of the attractions of Jane Austen’s socially enclosed worlds, to the recognition of the predictive power of texts like Camus’s La Peste, or Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. As a specialist in Renaissance literature, my mind inevitably turned to my own research preoccupations and the long duration of ‘plague literature’. Thus Boccaccio’s Decameron has been remembered not so much for its tales of sexual misadventure as for the grim framing device, when in 1348 ‘the deadly plague reached the noble city of Florence’, forcing the young aristocrats – who go on to tell the stories which make up the collection – to leave the benighted city.
The Decameron was undoubtedly on Edmund Spenser’s mind when he sat down to write the poem he published as Prosopopoia: or Mother Hubberds Tale in 1591. (‘Prosopopoia’ means roughly personification, and the poem is almost universally known by its easier and more familiar subtitle.) Mother Hubberd is a fascinating poem from a range of angles; in its most controversial episode, it satirizes Elizabeth I’s chief minister William Cecil, Lord Burghley, when the poem’s antihero – a Fox – impersonates a chief minister in the service of his equally venal compadre, an Ape, who impersonates the King. Indeed, the poem was so recklessly outspoken in its attack on Burghley that it was officially suppressed, or ‘called in’, shortly after its publication. Though we don’t know all the details, it is one of the best documented cases of the official censorship of literature during the Elizabethan period, all the more striking because the year before this poem’s publication, Spenser received an official pension for epic poem, The Faerie Queene, which was dedicated to Elizabeth and which in part represented her allegorically.
Yet my interest in the context of the lockdown isn’t so much the satirical content of Mother Hubberd as the short framing device which introduces the poem. As I’ve said, Spenser was thinking of the Decameron, and also of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which the ‘General Prologue’ introduces the pilgrimage to Canterbury and the characters who tell the stories that make up his collection of stories. Spenser’s frame – like Boccaccio’s – explicitly locates his text in a time of plague:
[…] a wicked maladie
Raign’d emongst men, that manie did to die,
Depriv’d of sense and ordinarie reason
That it to Leaches [doctors] seemed strange and geason [extraordinary].
My fortune was mongst manie others moe,
To be partaker of their common woe;
And my weake bodie set on fire with griefe,
Was rob’d of rest and natural reliefe
Though the language is slightly archaic – as with the verse form of rhyming couplets, Spenser is again thinking of Chaucer in the kinds of words he uses – the situation is almost shockingly contemporary. Medics (called leaches because of their fondness for using these parasitic worms in blood-letting cures) are at a loss to understand this unusual disease which ‘deprives’ people of their sense and overturns normality; as the narrator puts it just before this passage, the earth is overcome by ‘plague, pestilence, and death’. The fact that the narrator himself gets the disease enhances the eerie sense of familiarity – no one is exempt from this illness as the poet himself is a ‘partaker’ of the ‘common woe’.
Though we don’t know precisely when Spenser wrote Mother Hubberd – it could have been at any time between the 1570s and its publication in 1591 – we do know that the threat of plague was a part of the ‘common’ experience of Elizabethans, particularly during the summer months, when the risk of spread was at its strongest. Thus the theatres were regularly closed during the early modern period because of plague outbreaks. While Spenser was a student at Cambridge, he was away from the University during the last six weeks of the academic year 1573-74, just at the time of a return of the plague. As Spenser’s biographer Andrew Hadfield comments, ‘Fellows and students were advised to stay away from Cambridge, or to stay inside and shut their doors’. Again, the experience of four hundred years ago is oddly commensurate with the events of 2020: with normal life suspended, what do you do?
The Mother Hubberd frame gives one answer: you indulge in the recreational exchange of storytelling with your friends. Elizabethans were innocent of the medical benefits of social distancing, so the image of the narrator being visited by his friends to cheer him up with ‘gladsome solace’ is both touching and alarming – isn’t this the last thing you should do? On the other hand, Spenser’s description of the social ritual of exchanging tall stories – ‘Some tolde of Ladies, and their Paramoures […] And some of Giaunts hard to be beleeved’ – points to the therapeutic qualities of storytelling in whatever media it occurs. And because the narrative materials of the poem which follows are so explosive – the poem depicts a social world inverted, where the Fox and the Ape’s impersonations work almost without impunity – the frame serves to limit and soften the potential offensiveness of the poem. This is where we encounter the Mother Hubberd of the poem’s title:
who did farre surpas The rest in honest mirth, that seem’d her well: She when her turne was come her tale to tell, Tolde of a strange adventure, that betided Betwixt the Foxe and th’Ape by him misguided; The which for that my sense it greatly pleased, Ile write in termes, as she the same did say, So well as I her words remember may.
So one thing you can do in the lockdown is to read Spenser’s poem, which charmingly records his own – or more precisely his narrator’s – delight in ‘a strange adventure’, which according to this formulation more or less accurately represents what this ‘good old woman’ said in the telling of her tale. If you like, it’s a charming vignette of the milieux in which literature takes place: a dynamic portrayal of the oral character of storytelling, all the while cleverly alluding to the vernacular classics of Boccaccio and Chaucer. And as Spenser constructs this little fiction, he disguises, he misguides, his real concern with a troubled, unequal society, in which virtue is not rewarded and decisions are seldom taken rationally, whether you are a farmer or a king. Should you be bored or at a loose end, I warmly recommend it to you as a way of spending an afternoon.
For an online text of Mother Hubberds Tale, see http://www.luminarium.org/renascence-editions/hubberd.html
For more on Spenser’s life and works, see https://www.english.cam.ac.uk/spenseronline/welcome/
Richard Danson Brown is Professor of English Literature at The Open University, and the author of several books on Spenser, including most recently The art of The Faerie Queene (Manchester UP, 2019); he is currently Head of the School of Arts and Humanities.