Anti-Catholic Polemic in Jacobean Print Culture: Contextualizing Westward for Smelts (1620)
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The 1620 anonymous prose fiction Westward for Smelts does not identify itself as a participant in the popular anti-Catholic polemic rampant in Jacobean England. Instead, Smelts relies heavily upon stereotyped caricatures of Catholics which were made popular through the anti-Catholic polemic; Smelts seems to assume that these stereotypes are clear and distinguishable. The fiction is comprised of a controlling frame story, set in Lenten London, and sextet of short tales, all of which stereotype Catholic behavior negatively. The tales that make up Smelts are told by six fishwives, much in the tradition that recalls Chaucer, Boccaccio, and de Navarre. This format allows for six “different” voices to communicate to one another, contributing to a greater or lesser degree to the Jacobean anti-Catholic climate. Contextualizing Smelts in this way works to aid readers in their own comprehension of the fiction; many of the anti-Catholic sentiments represented in Smelts have either completely vanished from society and others have “grown up,” forgetting their early modern English roots. This study aims to inform Smelts’ readers in such a way that will clarify the ambiguities and assumptions within the fiction; in misunderstanding or overlooking these anti-Catholic attitudes, one risks losing Smelts’ insight into the religious climate of 1620.