Autobiography in John Bale’s Vocacyon

This short text by the Protestant bishop and writer John Bale [1496-1563] is often regarded as one of the earliest ‘autobiographical’ writings in English. Bale describes his appointment as the bishop of Ossory, the difficulties and resistance he encountered once he had arrived in Ireland, the dangers he faced, and his travails in fleeing them. He records his disgust at the restoration of Catholicism upon the accession of Mary I in 1553 and in this book, which claims to have been published in the December of that year, offers his story as a counsel against despair for other Protestants. The title page image was a re-working of a generic illustration, captioned here to show conflict between ‘the English Christian’ and ‘Irishe Papist’. As in the text, where Bale compares himself to St Paul, this positions Bale’s own ‘persecucions’ as one part of a greater battle. The autobiographical here is in service of the universal. In its intertwining of national and confessional conflict this image also points towards the divisive impact of religious change in Ireland: a legacy of Reformation that looms large in many modern memories. CL

John Bale, The vocacyon of Ioha[n] Bale to the bishiprick of Ossorie in Irela[n]de his persecucio[n]s in ye same, & finall delyueraunce (Rome [false imprint for Wesel?]: [Joos Lambrecht and Hugh Singleton?], 1553), title page .

CUL: Hib.8.55.1

Further Reading

Leslie P. Fairfield, ‘The Vocacyon of Johan Bale and Early English Autobiography’, Renaissance Quarterly, 24 (1971), pp. 327-40.

Peter Happé and John N. King (eds), The Vocacyon of Johan Bale (Binghamton, 1990).

Meredith Skura, Tudor Autobiography: Listening for Inwardness (Chicago, 2008), ch. 3.

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