Thursday, December 15, 2011

Love Amidst Religious War: Elizabeth Dacre's Forbidden Passion

When reading about the religious strife that tore apart Europe in the sixteenth century, one should always remember that many people then cared no more about theology than most people do today. While firebrands on all sides preached war and damnation to heretics, there were always moderates trying to paper over differences in doctrine, realists more concerned about statecraft, businessmen just trying to make money, and lovers striving desperately to connect across divisions of faith and politics.

Opening a sixteenth-century copy of Chaucer in the library of West Virginia University, Elaine Treharne, a scholar of Renaissance literature, discovered a loose sheet covered in elegant handwriting. This turned out to be a love poem written in Latin by a young Catholic lady, Elizabeth Dacre, to Sir Anthony Cooke, a leading Protestant. Cooke was one of the tutors to King Edward VI, Henry VIII's sickly boychild and the hope of Protestants, since the next in line after him was the Catholic Mary. Edward's tutors shaped him into a zealous Protestant, more comfortable in church than in court. When he died and Mary came to the throne, Cooke was imprisoned in the Tower and then exiled. The first part of the poem seems to refer to this time:
The goodbye I tried to speak but could not utter with my tongue
by my eyes I delivered back to yours.
That sad love that haunts the countenance in parting
contained the voice that I concealed from display,
just as Penelope, when her husband Ulysses was present,
was speechless – the reason is that sweet love of a gaze.
Then afterwards Ovid sends greeting muses to the absent,
just as to you, distant, I have sent my small note.
I hope then that silent Dacre will not be scorned by you
for the mind has suffered and held fast in faithfulness to you.
Believe that among servants there is not any more faithful:
as Plancus Plotinus thus will Dacre be to you.
I remain your servant Plancus, more faithful than any;
to this servant Dacre, you remain sweet Coke.
The poem ends with a frankly sexual quotation from the Roman writer Martial:

Long enough am I now; but if your shape should swell under its grateful burden, then shall I become to you a narrow girdle.

Nothing else is known of the story behind this verse. It may be that Dacre's passion was secret and unrequited; after all, writing love verses to unattainable beloveds had been a standard practice in Europe from the time of the Provencal troubadours. Cooke was much older than Dacre; when he went into exile she was 17 and he over 40. Treharne speculates that Cooke might at some point have been Dacre's tutor, although it would have been odd for a Catholic family to employ such a firm Protestant to educate their children. Was this a schoolgirl crush that turned to verse as its outlet, since every other sort of contact was impossible?

On the other hand, we are mammals, with an old and deeply ingrained habit of translating such feelings into action. Divides of age and religion do not stop us when the feelings are strong.

Nor marriage; Dacre, as Elizabeth signed this verse, was her married name. She married in 1555, while Cooke was still in exile, and by the time he returned she was comfortably settled and had borne at least two children. Perhaps, in some moment of boredom, or frustration at the emotional poverty of her conventionally political, alliance-of-families marriage, she remembered back to the time when she felt a powerful love, and set those feelings in Latin verse. Or maybe she was trying to rekindle an old affair.

All we have is her words, which is all we have of so much that happened so long ago. The rest we can only imagine.

The original:
Ad Anthoninus Cokinii

Quod conata loqui non dixi lingua valeto
quodque oculi nostri terga dedere tuis
Ille tristis amo qui vultu inhesit eunti
Abstuli ob visum sustuleratque vocem
Sic quoque Penellope coniunx dum liquit Vlixes
muta fuit, causa est quid uisi dulcis amor
post tum absenti musas fert Naso salutes
Sic tibi semoto chartula nostra dabit
Spero igitur mutum non dedignabere Dacrium
nam luet obticuit mens tibi fida fuit
Crede inter servos non est fidelior vllus
Plotino Planco qua tibi Dacrus erit
noster seruo mansit Plancus fidelior vllo
quam seruo Dacre Coke suaue manes

De zona

Longa satis nunc sum dulci sed pondere venter
si tumeat fiam tunc tibi zona brevis

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