In forrein costes, men sayd, was plenty:

And so there is, but all of miserye.

I dempt there much to have eeked my store,

But such eeking hath made my hart sore.

(Diggon Davie, The Shepheardes Calender, Edmund Spenser)


Edmund Spenser’s shepherd told the sixteenth-century Englishman what he already knew. More often than not this ‘knowledge’ was intuitivism, bolstered by so keen a patriotism that he rarely thought it necessary to visit ‘forrein costes’ for confirmation. England was the place to be, the idyllic, heavenly centre of the world. There was little point in leaving.

Spenser filled The Shepheardes Calender with paeans to England and its countryside. Charismatic country folk stroll and survey their land, plant seeds. Lovelorn shepherds indulge their woes in the shade of aged trees. Skies brighten over the head of Queen Elizabeth I, while her subjects make merry until sundown. In the first editions of the poetry book, detailed pictures adorn each of the twelve pastorals – and nothing is more bewildering than these.

Published in 1579, eleven years before his Faerie Queene, Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender was one of the early fully illustrated books printed in England. Until then the occasional woodcut had tended to suffice: a horse-mounted knight as a preface to The Knight’s Tale (Chaucer, Workes, 1561), decorative prints loosely connected to the text in books such as John Lydgate’s The historye, sege and dystruccyon of Troye (1513). With its twelve narratological black-and-white woodcuts – one for each month of the year – the Shepheardes Calender made its mark as a rare and instant collector’s item.

Designed by an anonymous artist, Spenser’s pictures capture in miniature the daily lives of the 90% of so or the population who were rural dwellers in Elizabethan times. In Julye a shepherd watches his flock from atop a haystack while more industrious labourers reap rivet or buckwheat in the fields beyond. October is a flurry of little lambs with docked tails. Lambing was still very much a springtime occupation, so these could only have been Dorset bred, delivered in autumn. More gambolling lambs in November. Now the trees have lost their leaves. These lambs are from Dorset, Hampshire or Wiltshire, bred just in time for Michaelmas.

As familiar as these scenes were to Spenser’s readers, they often offered an improved version on real events. The disputes of contemporary landowners are a world away. No greedy men here ‘engrossing’ (which involved joining fields together to create larger spaces). No demarcating fences or hedges. No country-dwellers market gardening. In the verse for September, the shepherd Diggon Davie expresses his disgust for those men who ‘setten to sale their shops of shame,/And maken a Mart of theyr good name’. In the pictures, the countryside is as it should be – free of boundaries, forced vegetation, and excessive control over pasturing.

When Eliza herself appears in Aprill, her long city skirts dusting the hillocks, she resembles Astraea, wheat sheaf in hand, mistress of the golden age. All is in spring, full of promise for the fertile years to come.

The artist (or artists) responsible for these charming scenes certainly had a sense of humour. In the Februarie woodcut, he puns on his occupation as a woodcut-designer by portraying a husbandman wielding, mid-swing, a mighty axe before a tree. Wood felled for timber was at this time an endangered commodity, pushed to rarity by crown and courtier. Its value soared in days of short supply. Churchmen would harvest what limited timber was left in order to make ends meet, triggering governmental enquiries into bishops’ exploitation of woodland.

In his verses for Februarie, Spenser describes a husbandman coming to ‘seruewe his grownd,/And his trees of state in compasse rownd’. E. K, the mysterious commentator on Spenser’s text, glosses ‘trees of state’ as ‘taller trees fitte for timber wood’. The very timber used to produce Spenser’s illustrated book is no less contentious.

The lopping of endangered trees was an apt metaphor for a life cut short. Spenser’s herdsman Thenot tells his younger rival Cuddie a fable about a man who fells an aged oak tree. This Oake produces neither acorns nor inspiration for poetry or song. A Briar complains that the Oake is stemming his vitality. Cuddie adopts the metaphor for sexual virility, taunting his elder rival: ‘Now thy selfe hast lost both lopp and topp,/Als my budding braunch thou wouldest cropp’. But once Oake is felled, the Briar suffers winter’s onslaught and is trodden down ‘in the durt/Of cattell’. Such, Thenot says, was his punishment for scorning his elder. In Spenser’s picture, the potent Briar is a leafy plant, trodden and chewed by a cow.

The 1579 Shepheardes Calendar quarto is at once a thing of beauty and enigma. Produced at the London press of Hugh Singleton, an Englishman, the woodcuts are as European in style as they are English in theme. They all have strange intestine-like clouds filled with astrological signs, reminiscent of those printed in Netherlandish almanacs and an early French edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. They share compositional traits, too, with Sebastian Brant’s famous illustrated edition of Virgil’s Opera, produced in Strasbourg in 1502. It is a fair bet that the artist of Spenser’s pictures was not a farmer or indeed an Englishman at all, which only makes the countryside details the more astonishing.

While Spenser was writing his Shepheardes Calendar, many of the most skilled workers in London were immigrants. The number of Englishmen emigrating abroad was paltry compared to the number arriving. About three-quarters of the alien population that resided in London and Westminster were Flemish. The unsettlement wreaked by the first Dutch Revolt and the Duke of Alva’s aggressive rule had led natives of Valenciennes, Tournai and Antwerp to seek refuge here from the persecution of their Protestant or Calvinist faith.

Fortunately for England’s writers and stationers (publishers), many of the newcomers possessed precisely the skills they were looking for: they were maestros of book production. Wearied by Philip II’s attempts to quell the publication of subversive literature in Europe, they arrived in England equipped with the technical skills to produce fine illustrated books.

Spenser would have visited Hugh Singleton, his stationer, at his London press to proofread the printed pages. Singleton’s first printing house was located in the middle of St. Paul’s Churchyard, which hummed with the sounds of men working the presses and drying the pages. Immigrants flocked here, conversing in many tongues. Banned from reaching the upper echelons of the Stationer’s Company until 1557, they were still in demand for skilled work.

Like his more famous contemporary stationer John Day, Hugh Singleton must have had close connections not only with the European immigrants who set up shop in this quarter of London, but with those still based on the Continent. It is possible that he spent over 25 years of his life in the Netherlands, and then went on to employ immigrants in London to work for his London press. Perhaps it is no wonder that the charming pictures in Spenser’s book outdo in quality anything being produced for English literature at this date. Each woodcut is a melting pot of ideas familiar from illustrations across Europe, particularly France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

Spenser’s pictures are, as it were, an embodiment of the sixteenth-century print industry itself. The European networks through which prints travelled were also those available to immigrant craftsmen, who carried with them not only print ideas and motifs, but the expertise needed to execute them.

In Spenser’s poem, Diggon Davie and his fellow rustics shun the wider world in favour of their green fields and shade-giving trees. Good on them. There was no need for them to go foraging for ‘plenty’ overseas – or even in the city – when Europe was arriving in London, quite equipped to adorn books with the beauty of the English countryside.

By Daisy Dunn

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