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Posthumous Love: Eros and the Afterlife in Renaissance England

Posthumous Love: Eros and the Afterlife in Renaissance England

by Ramie Targoff
Posthumous Love: Eros and the Afterlife in Renaissance England

Posthumous Love: Eros and the Afterlife in Renaissance England

by Ramie Targoff




For Dante and Petrarch, posthumous love was a powerful conviction. Like many of their contemporaries, both poets envisioned their encounters with their beloved in heaven—Dante with Beatrice, Petrarch with Laura. But as Ramie Targoff reveals in this elegant study, English love poetry of the Renaissance brought a startling reversal of this tradition: human love became definitively mortal. Exploring the boundaries that Renaissance English poets drew between earthly and heavenly existence, Targoff seeks to understand this shift and its consequences for English poetry.
Targoff shows that medieval notions of the somewhat flexible boundaries between love in this world and in the next were hardened by Protestant reformers, who envisioned a total break between the two. Tracing the narrative of this rupture, she focuses on central episodes in poetic history in which poets developed rich and compelling compensations for the lack of posthumous love—from Thomas Wyatt’s translations of Petrarch’s love sonnets and the Elizabethan sonnet series of Shakespeare and Spencer to the carpe diem poems of the seventeenth century. Targoff’s centerpiece is Romeo and Juliet, where she considers how Shakespeare’s reworking of the Italian story stripped away any expectation that the doomed teenagers would reunite in heaven. Casting new light on these familiar works of poetry and drama, this book ultimately demonstrates that the negation of posthumous love brought forth a new mode of poetics that derived its emotional and aesthetic power from its insistence upon love’s mortal limits.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226789590
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/02/2014
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 5.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Ramie Targoff is professor of English at Brandeis University. She is the author of Common Prayer: The Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Posthumous Love

Eros and the Afterlife in Renaissance England

By Ramie Targoff

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-78959-0


Love after Death in the Protestant Church

Death is an absolute diremption, and maketh an vtter dissolution of the mariage bond.

—William Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties (1622)

According to the Christian scriptures, there is no real possibility for a shared afterlife between husbands and wives. The idea that marriage vows would come to an end with the death of one or the other spouse was common to both Catholicism and Protestantism and was typically traced to Jesus's response to the Sadducees as reported in the synoptic gospels. As Matthew relates it, the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection of the body, asked Jesus what would become of a woman who had married seven brothers successively. "Now there were with us seven brethren," they explained, "and the first, when he had married a wife, deceased, and, having no issue, left his wife unto his brother. Likewise the second also, and the third, unto the seventh." If all seven brothers and the single woman meet in the resurrection, whose wife, they taunted, would she be? Jesus's reply—"For in the resurrection, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven"—became for many the definitive position on posthumous union in the Christian church (Matthew 22:25–26, 28).

Although the Bible does not specify the boundaries for marital union, Christian liturgies have always been clear about the limits of the church's jurisdiction. The Latin rite most commonly used in England before the Reformation, known as the Sarum Use, declared wedding vows to be binding "tyl dethe us departe"; even before the adoption of an English-language liturgy in the mid-sixteenth century this so-called plighting of troth was conducted in the vernacular to make certain that there could be no misunderstandings. The Protestant Book of Common Prayer, first published in 1549, made no substantial alterations to the Sarum matrimony service and kept the language of plighting unchanged. According to the Book of Common Prayer, the minister instructs first the man, and then the woman, to say: "I N. take thee N. to my wedded wife [husband], to have and to holde from this day forwarde ... till death us departe: according to Goddes holy ordeinaunce; And thereto I plight thee my trouth."

The formula "till death us departe" was almost certainly intended to prohibit abandonment or divorce; it was consistent with Jesus's answer to the Pharisees' question, related in Matthew 19, as to whether it is "lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause," to which Jesus replied, "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Matthew 19:6). But in the post-Reformation period, the phrase took on a second meaning: it was also used to reinforce the termination of marital vows after death. Far from encouraging the widow (or, less commonly, the widower) to maintain vows of fidelity to the deceased, the emphasis fell on cutting all affective ties with one's deceased husband or wife, in order to encourage remarriage. As William Gouge advises in his 1622 advice manual Of Domesticall Duties, surviving spouses should feel no obligation to the deceased but should be free to join "with another yoke-fellow after they are loosed from one." "If they mary againe," Gouge contends, "and manifest such a minde [i.e., by remaining too devoted to the deceased], they plainly shew that they respect [the former spouse] more then Gods ordinance. By Gods ordinance man and wife are no longer bound one to another then [when] they liue together. Death is an absolute diremption, and maketh an vtter dissolution of the mariage bond." "Death is an absolute diremption": the noun diremption from the Latin diripere, meaning to tear away or violently separate, typifies the uncompromising terms in which certain Protestants imagine the effect of death on marriage. There is no need for continued devotion to the deceased spouse: the role of widow or widower is not disparaged, but it is also not held up as an ideal, especially for women who are still of childbearing age.

The frequency of remarriage during this period in England—Lawrence Stone estimates it at roughly one-quarter of all marriages—as well as the suspicion with which young widows were generally regarded suggests a different cultural orientation from much of medieval Europe, where widows were esteemed as second only to virgins in their piety. As the historian Bernhard Jussen has shown, by around 500 CE the bereaved wife became both a crucial figure for moral order and a metaphor for the church on earth, awaiting the bridegroom Christ. Widowhood, Jussen argues, shifted at this time from a temporary position to a permanent one. It became, in effect, a profession.

There was no comparable system of rewards for widowhood in Protestantism, nor was there ecclesiastical encouragement to remain unmarried as there was in the Catholic tradition. If we compare, for example, a text like Juan Luis Vives's 1523De institutione feminae Christianae (Instruction of a Christen Woman), dedicated to the staunchly Catholic Catherine of Aragon, with Gouge's deeply Protestant Of Domesticall Duties, the differences in attitude toward remarriage are striking. Vives's Latin manual, which was translated into English by a member of Thomas More's household, lays out characteristically Catholic advice on the subject of widowhood. Although he does not explicitly discourage young widows from remarriage, he reminds them of the life that awaits them in heaven: "This is the true and sure Christian consolation, when they that be alive think and trust, that their friends, which are dead, be not separate from them, but only sent before in to the place, where within short space after they shall meet together full merily." "These things ought Christian priests to show and tell unto young widows," Vives advises, "and not as many do drink to them in the funeral feast, and bid them be of good cheer, saying, they shall not lack a new husband, and that he is provided of one for her already."

Vives's encouragement of the widow to think about her heavenly reunion with her deceased husband, who becomes in this account unavailable to her only temporarily, provides a strong contrast to Gouge's advice to both widows and widowers considering the prospect of remarriage. Posing the question "Are they who haue buried their husband or wife so free, as they may marie againe?" Gouge answers: "Yea, as free as they who were neuer before maried. The law doth not only permit a widow to marie againe: but if her husband died before he had any children, it commanded the next kinsman that was liuing and free to marie her, that he might raise vp seed to his brother deceased" (186). After citing this crucial passage from Deuteronomy (25:5–6), he refers to Timothy 5:14—"I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully"—before reaching his conclusion: "We finde no restraint from a third, or fourth, or more mariages, if by the diuine prouidence so many wiues, or husbands one after another be taken away while there is need for the suruiuing partie to vse the benefit of mariage."

The differences between Vives and Gouge capture one of the subtle but important changes wrought by Protestantism in relation to the status of marriage after death. Both religions officially held that marriage was limited to this world, but Protestants tended to draw much stricter lines between earthly and heavenly ties. Nowhere is this more visible than in the writings of John Calvin, who declares in his 1542 work Psychopannychia that we should expect no human fellowship whatever in heaven. "To be in Paradise and live with God," he exclaims, "is not to speak to each other, and to be heard by each other, but is only to enjoy God, to feel his good will, and rest in him." This rigid position does not reflect Calvin's feelings about his own marriage or his affection for his wife, Idelette de Bure, who predeceased him by fifteen years. When she died, Calvin expressed his sorrow to his friend Pierre Viret in unusually heartfelt terms. "Truly mine is not common grief," he explains in a private letter; "I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life, who, if any severe hardship had occurred, would have been my willing partner, not only in exile and poverty but even in death." But Calvin does not allow himself the comfort of imagining a possible future with Idelette in heaven. Divine companionship, he argues, is entirely inconsonant with the companionship of former spouses, and the pleasures of being with Christ should not be compromised or diluted by affection for husbands or wives.

Calvin grounds his argument for the strictly divine nature of heavenly companionship not, as we might expect, on Matthew 22:30 ("For in the resurrection, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven") but on a later verse from the same gospel: "Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left" (24:40). The choice of Matthew 24:40 to argue against heavenly companionship between earthly loved ones was entirely idiosyncratic. Unlike the corresponding passage in Luke, for example, which is preceded by a warning that bedfellows will be parted—"I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left"—the verses in Matthew do not gesture in any way to spouses, nor was there a tradition of biblical commentary that interpreted the two people in the field as a married couple. As Thomas Aquinas shows in his compilation of biblical commentaries, The Golden Chain, St. Hilary interprets the verse as the "two people of believers and unbelievers," John Chrysostom as the "masters and servant, they that work, and they that work not," and Remigius of Auxerre as "the order of preachers to whom is committed the field of the Church." In the subsequent verse, moreover, Matthew portrays female laborers grinding at the mill—"Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left"—so the division between the sexes in this section of the text is quite explicit, rendering it even more difficult to apply to married couples.

But Calvin saw in Matthew 24:40 a clear articulation of the imperative to separate partners from one another at the moment of death, and he takes this opportunity to warn husbands and wives against any expectations they might have of resuming their ties in the afterlife. As if correcting a false application of Matthew 19:6—"What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder"—Calvin specifies that marital bonds must be severed with the death of one spouse. "Husbands and wives will then be torn apart from one another," he writes, employing the Latin verb diripere (to tear to pieces) that lay behind Gouge's noun "diremption," "lest the bonds that connected human beings to one another hinder the pious." The reason for this shattering of human bonds is to ensure that men and women "run with cheerfulness" to their deaths, that they not hold back due to any prior obligations or ties. Christ intended, Calvin concludes, "to cut off every occasion of delay, to enjoin every one to make haste, that those who [are] already prepared may not waste their time in waiting for their companions." Only Calvin could worry about wasting time as he approaches an eternity in heaven.

I. English Heaven

The Church of England never officially adopted Calvin's position. There were no ecclesiastical articles or injunctions issued on the status of marital bonds after death, nor did either the Book of Common Prayer or the Book of Homilies describe what would await deceased spouses after death (in the official "Homily of the State of Matrimony," obligations surrounding the spouse's death are not discussed). Versions of Calvin's position surfaced regularly, however, in English sermons and treatises, where we frequently encounter descriptions of heavenly company stripped of all prior earthly attachments. As Edward Vaughan succinctly puts it in A Divine Discoverie of Death (1612), in heaven we will exchange "the company of husband or wife for the company of Iesus Christe himself."

To the extent that English churchmen imagined human company in heaven, this company usually consisted of biblical figures rather than loved ones. The Scottish minister Alexander Hume explains in his 1594 Treatise of the Felicitie of the Life to Come:

We shall haue for our familiar brethren and companions our first progenitor Adam, Noe, Lot, Abraham, Isaac &&&; Iacob, and the twelue Patriarks, the sonnes of Iacob: Likewise wee shall see, by familiar, and contract friendship &&&; brotherhood which never shall be dissolved, with Moses, Aaron, Iosua, and the just judges of Israell, with Samuell, Elias, and Elisha, Esay, Ieremie, Ezechiell, and Daniell, with David, Ezechias, and Iosias, with Iohn the Baptist, Peter, Paul, &&&; Iohn, whome our Saviour loved: with whome wee shal dwell as brethren and Citizens of a Cittie.

Our own families on this earth will be replaced with the likes of Adam and Noah, Peter and Paul. "We shal see them face to face," Hume declares, "which none can behold, nor apprehend in this life, but by faith only."

John Bunyan's description of Christian's reaction to the Evangelist in the opening pages of The Pilgrim's Progress provides a vivid illustration of Calvin's message: "So I saw in my Dream, that the Man began to run. Now he had not run far from his own door, but his Wife and Children perceiving it, began to cry after him to return: but the Man put his fingers in his Ears, and ran on crying, Life, Life, Eternal Life." Whatever temptation Christian might feel to remain with his loved ones, he propels himself forward on the journey that will ultimately lead to his salvation, literally plugging his ears so as not to hear the cries of sorrow calling him back. When some pages later Christian is asked by the wavering Pliable "what company shall we have [in heaven]," he replies: "There we shall be with Seraphims and Cherubins, Creatures that will dazle your eyes to look on them: There also you shall meet with thousands, and ten thousands that have gone before us to that place; none of them are hurtful, but loving, and holy; every one walking in the sight of God; and standing in his presence with acceptance for ever: In a word, there we shall see the Elders with their Golden Crowns: There we shall see the Holy Virgins with their Golden Harps" (13). Christian's vision of heaven is not stripped of humans—there are "thousands, and ten thousands that have gone before us"—but the emphasis is not on the sweet companionship that they will offer. Instead, Bunyan stresses the supernatural creatures that will "dazle your eyes."

Protestant manuals routinely describe one of the central obligations of matrimony as aiding one's spouse in the pursuit of salvation, but these same texts rarely if ever imagine the heavenly afterlife as something the couple will enjoy together. Gouge's Of Domestical Duties advises that "it is the greatest good that one can possibly doe for another, to be a meanes of helping forward his salvation. And there is nothing that can more soundly and firmely knit the heart of one to another, then to be a meanes thereof." In his 1619 Bride-Bush, or a Direction for Married Persons, Gouge's contemporary William Whately chastises those who worry about their spouses' physical health but neglect their spiritual welfare. "Many husbands and wives have the bodies of their yoke-fellowes so deare unto them," he complains, "that they cannot endure to thinke of their disgrace, poverty, sicknesse, death: but what becommeth of their soules, whether they be sanctified or unsanctified, in the dominion of grace or of sinne, in state of salvation or damnation, going to heaven or to hell: these be in the number of those things, wherewith they are little moved." These men and women, Whately concludes, "love like Heathens, not like Christians, and the Lord is not well pleased, that those which call him Father, should be warmed alone with such carnall affection."

The reward that Whately imagines for those who tend to the salvation of their spouse has no bearing on the status of the marital bond in the afterlife: his vision of heaven is comparable to Calvin's. Hence the role of the husband or wife is merely to facilitate passage from one sphere to the next. "But dost thou often [helpe]," he asks his reader, "with the sanctification and salvation of thy yoke-fellow? Dost thou desire to make thine yoke-fellow, a fellow-heire of Christs Kingdom? Dost thou seeke to helpe thine yoke-fellow to heaven and heavenly benefits, as well as to those earthly? If so, this is to love spiritually: This love beseemes a Christian husband, and a Christian wife" (37). Marriage may be a stepping-stone toward a heavenly future, but that future bears no resemblance to domestic arrangements on earth.


Excerpted from Posthumous Love by Ramie Targoff. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction Burying Love

1 Love after Death in the Protestant Church
2 Banishing Death: Wyatt’s Petrarchan Poems
3 Dead Ends: The Elizabethan Sonnet
4 The Capulet Tomb
5 The Afterlife of Renaissance Sonnets
6 Carpe Diem

Conclusion Limit Cases: Henry King and John Milton

Epilogue “An Arundel Tomb”


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