III. VIRTUE AND VICE

“Every schoolboy” knows Roger Ascham’s denunciation of the “Italianate” Englishman (1563):

I take going thither [to Italy] … to be mervelous dangerous … Vertue once made that countrie mistress over all the worlde. Vice now maketh that countrie slave to them that before were glad to serve it… I know diverse that went out of England, men of innocent life, men of excellent learnyng, who returned out of Italie … neither so willing to live orderly, nor yet so liable to speak learnedlie, as they were at home before they went abroad … If you think we iudge amiss … heare what the Italian sayth … Englese Italianato e un diabolo incarnato … I was once in Italie myself, but I thanke God my abode there was but ix days. And yet I saw in that litle tyme, in one Citie, more libertie to sinne, than ever I hard tell of in our noble Citie of London in ix years.21

Elizabeth’s tutor was not the only one who strummed this tune. “We have robbed Italy of wantonness,” wrote Stephen Gosson in The Schoole of Abuse (1579); “compare London to Rome, and England to Italy, you shall find the theaters of the one, and the abuses of the other, to be rife among us.” Cecil advised his son Robert never to allow his sons to cross the Alps, “for they shall learn nothing there but pride, blasphemy, and atheism.”22 Philip Stubbs, a Puritan, in The Anatomie of Abuses (1583), described the Elizabethan English as wicked, vainly luxurious, and proud of their sins. Bishop Jewel, in a sermon before the Queen, lamented that men’s morals in London “make a mockery of God’s Holy Gospel, and so become more dissolute, more fleshly, more wanton than ever they were before … If our life should give testimony and report to our religion … it crieth out … ‘There is no God.’ ”II23

Much of the jeremiads was the exaggeration of moralists fuming against men and women who no longer took to heart the terrors of hell. Probably the bulk of the population was no worse or better than before. But just as the Puritan minority tightened its morals, purses, and lips, so a pagan minority agreed with many Italians that it was better to enjoy life than fuss about death. Possibly Italian wines, popular in England, helped to broaden morals as well as arteries, and more lastingly. From Italy, France, and classical literature may have come a franker sense of beauty, though saddened with a keener consciousness of its brevity. Even the beauty of the youthful male aroused the Elizabethan soul and pen; Marlowe made Mephistopheles praise Faust as fairer than the skies,24and Shakespeare’s sonnets fluttered between homosexual and heterosexual love. Woman’s loveliness was now no mere poetic conceit, but an intoxication that ran through the blood, the literature, and the court, and turned pirates into sonneteers. For at the court women added wit to cosmetics and captured men’s minds as well as their hearts. Modesty was an invitation to the chase and doubled beauty’s power. Litanies to the Virgin were lost in deprecations of virginity. Romantic love burst into song with all the ardor of denied desire. Women gloried in seeing men fight for them, and gave themselves, in marriage or without, to the victor. It was significant of the decline in the authority of religion that no church sanction or ceremony was now required for the validity of marriage, though the admission was considered an offense to public morals as distinct from law. Most marriages were arranged by the parents after a mutual courtship of properties; then the dizzy goddess of the hour became a disillusioned housekeeper, dedicated to children and chores, and the race survived.

A worse laxity of morals marked public life. Graft, petty or magnificent, ran through the official services; Elizabeth connived at it, as excusing her from raising salaries.25 The war treasurer made £16,000 a year besides his pay; by a time-honored swindle the captains kept dead soldiers on the list, pocketed their stipends, and sold the uniforms allotted to them;26 a soldier was worth more dead than alive. Men in high places took large sums from Philip II to turn English policy to Spanish ends.27 Admirals practiced piracy and sold slaves. Clergymen sold ecclesiastical emoluments.28 Apothecaries could be persuaded to concoct poisons, and some doctors to administer them.29 Tradesmen adulterated goods to the point of international scandal; in 1585 “more false cloth and woolen was made in England than in all Europe besides.”30 Military morals were primitive; unconditional surrender was in many cases rewarded with massacre of soldiers and noncombatants alike. Witches were burned, and Jesuits were taken down from the scaffold to be cut to pieces alive.31 The milk of human kindness flowed sluggishly in the days of Good Queen Bess.

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