Allegories of Fanaticism

  • Ross Lerner
Part of the Crossroads of Knowledge in Early Modern Literature book series (CKEML, volume 1)


Dominant perceptions of religious fanaticism today tend to be as polemical and reductive as they were in the Reformation. Contemporary scholars share with early modern philosophers and theologians a sense of fanaticism as the incarnation of religion devoid of reason. Shaped by a long history of polemics against fanaticism, scholars disenchant or condemn the fanatic’s claim that he knows and does God’s will, or that God works through him. Yet in doing so, Lerner argues, they misread the complex ways in which religious forms interacted with and shaped the emergence of what we call modernity. This chapter interprets Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene as an engagement with religious fanaticism, demonstrating that the fanatic’s claim to divine agency regularly creates an epistemological and representational crisis in the poem—an incapacity to know and depict the true origins of sacred violence. If allegory in The Faerie Queene works by analysis, parsing motives and causes into discrete parts, religious fanaticism's claim to manifest God’s undifferentiated will threatens to obliterate the allegorical distinctions that uphold the poem’s mythopoesis of the English nation. If, in Book I, The Faerie Queene achieves a seemingly knowable allegorical representation of Redcrosse as an ‘organ’ of divine might, the poem grows more worried about its capacity to distinguish between true instruments of the divine and false prophets like the Egalitarian Giant of Book V. Representations of fanaticism in the poem suggest that allegory in its purest form may no longer be allegory and may itself become fanatical: the emptying out of a character and incarnation of divine will.


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© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ross Lerner
    • 1
  1. 1.English DepartmentOccidental CollegeLos AngelesUSA

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