Roads not taken and the Reflexive Pronoun in the Edwardian Homilies (1547)

In a sermon-oriented subdivision of the Westminster Case Team at PRIVACY me and two of my colleagues, Lars Cyril Nørgaard and Mette Birkedal Bruun, are reading the official Tudor homilies. That is, the Edwardian Homilies from 1547 and the Elizabethan homilies from 1563 and 1570.

Table of Contents, Certayne Sermons, or homilies, appoynted by the Kynges Maiestie, to be declared and redde, by all persons, Vicars, or Curates, every Sondaye in their churches, where they have Cure, 1547, London.

The homilies were printed sermons, written with the aim to instruct the English in their new religion. As such, they are highly prescriptive texts and enjoyed a wide audience during the Edwardian and Elizabethan reigns. In fact, weekly readings from the homilies during Sunday service was made requisite and preachers failing to comply were met with sanctions during both reigns. So what are the homilies about?

In broad terms, the homilies inform churchgoers how to go about their religious lives: what to do, how to do it and why – and, in particular, they tell church goes what NOT to do, what NOT to think and why. As such, the homilies are prescriptive texts that mark out – or prescribe – the accepted and unaccepted religious inner and outer behavior of the private believer. This is our common interest and focus in the Westminster group; namely, what can the homilies tell us about the Edwardian and Elizabethan private believer?

Yet, as you might imagine, such an intriguing collection of texts also open up for avenues, branches, alleys, nooks and crooks that divert from the main boulevard of research interest. Research is to an infuriating degree about roads taken and not taken. Sometimes we’ll say with Frost:

Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.[1]

But the PRIVACY blog, I think, is a wonderful opportunity to diverge from the main road and for a short span skip happily down a grassy sideway that otherwise would have been left untaken.
For me, in reading the homilies, one such sneaky sideway is paved with questions about reflexive pronouns and the reflexive pronoun ourselves in particular.

It is, perhaps, a curious thing to focus on. And what, really, is the reflexive pronoun? The OED will tell you that a reflexive pronoun is a pronoun that refers back to the subject of the verb and inform you that the core of what we refer to as reflexive pronouns is made up of pronouns ending in –self in the singular or –selves in the plural. Myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourself, etc. These are the most common forms of the reflexive pronoun, though in what the OED refers to as ‘recent’ English, the words me, him, them – all objective personal pronouns – are also known to take on reflexive uses.

Elly van Gelderen, A History of English Reflexive Pronouns, 2000

A more philological, approach, as that taken by Elly van Gelderen in A History of English Reflexive Pronouns: Person, Self and Interpretability, reveals that the reflexive pronoun as we know it only came into common use around 1500. Van Gelderen tracks the development of reflexivity from the Old English me of Beowulf:

No ic me an herewæsmun hnagran talige
not I me on prowess smaller think
guþgeweorca, þonne Grendel hine
ardeeds than Grendel him
‘By no means do I consider myself smaller in prowess and wardeeds than Grendel does himself.’[2]

to the more modern looking Middle English hymself from the mid-fourteenth century poem Gawain and the Green Knight:

Bot Šet he sayde in hymself
‘But still he said to himself.’[3]

and finally to the beginning of the modern use of the reflexive pronoun exemplified in Shakespeare’s 2 King Henry IV

An honest man sir, is able to speake for himselfe.[4]

Gelderen explains that the development is one from adjectival to nounal use as well as a morphologic development from him or him self to the compound himself around 1500.[5]

William Tyndale ,New Testament, Stuttgart Collection, 1526

Myself and himself seem to be the most commonly used among the reflexive pronouns and Gelderen does wonder why some pronouns ‘are reinforced with ‘self’ to function reflexively earlier than others’.[6] One of the latecomers to the ‘self’-reinforcing party is the pronoun ‘our’ in the plural form ourselves. The OED gives the 1526 Tyndale New Testament as its earliest record of ourselves “We have herde hym oure selves.”[7]

Only thirty-one years after the OED’s earliest listing, the Edwardian homilies are printed. In these we find no less than 56 uses of ourselves.

For comparison, there are 201 uses of reflexive pronouns in the twelve Edwardian homilies all together, meaning that ourselves, the pronoun that only within a couple of decades had come in to common use in the English language, stands for more than a fourth of all of the uses of reflexive pronouns in the text. It is perhaps not surprising that the more commonly used pronoun myself is less commonly used in the homilies, seeing as that would take the focus from the listening congregation to the preacher at the pulpit. But we might have expected more a more direct addressing of the congregation, for which yourself would do well, or the more distanced himself.

There is, I think, and this is part of my hypothesis concerning the use of reflexive pronoun in the homilies, a rhetorical decision behind not only the ample use of reflexivity, but also behind the use of ourselves specifically. The use of ourselves, it seems, is more than a decision to address the congregation directly.

What I mean is that more than addressing the congregation ourselves seems to express an inclusive concern that aims directly at the inner ‘selves’ of each attentive listener in the audience, while at the same time insisting on the communality and plurality of that ‘selves’ as well. Ourselves speaks both to the private believer him/herself as an individual and to him/herself as part of a common whole. As such, it balances on the fine line between addressing individual self and communal self.

The reflexivity of ‘self’, as we have seen in the examples from Gelderen is in part used to denote a consideration of what one makes about oneself or even to denote what one says or thinks to oneself – that is, an aspect of selfhood, of the interior or inner man.

What I want to posit is that there is an inherent interiority, an inherent focus on the inner self in the reflexive pronoun, but such inherency is difficult to explain when the pronoun takes on a plural form.

As such, ourselves is an almost oxymoronic or self-negating construction in its form. If there is an ‘inherent interiority’ as I posit, in the reflexive pronoun, it seems contradictory that that interiority is expandable from the singular to the plural. And yet, we see examples of exactly such an idea of plural inward uniformity being promulgated across the homilies. This is most clearly done in the homily ‘Agaynst strif and contention’ in which the ideal of complete inward and outward uniformity is repeated with emphasis: ‘you wil be one whole body, of one mynd, & of one opinion in the truth’.[8]

Naturally, the reflexive pronoun has other meanings and can be used differently from the self-oriented examples I have given, but it is this introspective quality that I am interested in.

Reflexive Pronouns in the 1547 Book of Homiles

Among the twelve Edwardian homilies, one in particular struck my mind and sent me out on this byway meandering. What struck me, of course, was its excessive use of the reflexive pronoun. And in particular, the emphatic and abundant use of the reflexive pronoun in John Harpsfield’s homily ‘On the Miserie of All Mankynde’.

Out of the 201 reflexive pronouns in the Edwardian homilies, 47 of them are used in Harpsfield’s text. Looking to the pronouns used by Harpsfield, the preference for the quasi-communal, quasi-individual ourselves is clear: Hym/himself: 10; thy self: 1; themselves: 2; and ourselves: 47.

Types of reflexive pronouns in Harpsfield’s homilie on ‘The Miserie of all Mankynde’


The homily on the ‘miserie of all mankynde’ is the second in the collection, which opens with a homily on the importance of reading scripture.
Harpsfield was a religious writer and theologian at the time and was not known for his reformed views. After the death of Edward, Harpsfield enjoyed success under the Marian reign and equal fall from grace due to his catholic convictions during the Elizabethan reign. Harpsfield’s text is focused on the sinfulness of man and his own inability to cleanse himself of sin. One of the main tenants of the homily is that man is unable to know himself perfectly – only God knows man perfectly – and that despite this inability, it is the duty of every man to examine himself and repent every desire and sinful thought.

Title page to the homily by John Harpsfield, Certayne Sermons or Homelies, 1547

This command for self-examination is prevalent in first homily ‘A fruitful exhortation to the readinge of holy scripture’ which opens with the declaration that ‘In these bokes [Scripture] we may learne to know our selfes, how vile and miserable we be, & also to know God, how good he is of hymself; and how he communicateth his goodnes vnto vs, and to al creatures.’[9]  This trope is taken up throughout the first book of homilies. In Edmund Bonner’s sermon ‘On Christian Loue and Charitie’, the trope is elaborated upon and almost as if it were an afterthought the image of a mirror is incorporated:

‘therfore you shall heare now a true & playn descripcion of Charitie, not of mennes imaginacion, but of the very woordes and example of our sauior Iesus Christ. In which descripcion, euery man, (as it were in a glasse) maye considre himself & se plainly without error’.[10]

The simile ‘as if it were in a glasse’ drives on the same idea that is presented in the first homily on holy scripture, but what we see in Bonner’s figure of speech is that the connection between scripture and inward examination is intensified and even objectified. In this sense, the immaterial mind and the daunting task of examining one’s mind is concretised and likened to the action of looking at one self in a mirror. The difference, of course, being that when you look in a mirror you see your outer self, whereas, when you read the bible, you may come to know your inward self.
The figure of speech employed by Bonner is repeated in Harpsfield’s homily on ‘Miserie of all Mankynde’:

‘Here’ referring to the Book of Genesis, Harpsfield writes, ‘(as it wer in a glasse) we may learne to know our selfes’.[11]

In the line above, Harpsfield leads up the elaborated trope, by paraphrasing the trope from the first homily. Harpsfield writes that scripture can

‘teache vs the moste commendable vertue of humilitie, how to knowe our selfes, and to remembre, what we be of our selfes.’[12]

There is an intertextuality here between the first homily on the importance of reading scripture and the second homily on the misery of mankind. Scripture is in a sense the means of detection in Harpsfield’s sermon and therefore paramount in any investigation of man’s inward self and this self, be it interior and individual or a collective state of mind is invoked and verbalized through the first person plural ourselves.

Cecile M. Jagodzinski, Privacy and Print, 1999

These inquiries of course open up sideways of their own – one such is the relation between privacy and reading – Cecile Jagodzinski has investigated this boulevard of inquiry in her book privacy and print and argues that “the emergence of the concept of privacy as a personal right, as the very core of individuality, is connected in a complex fashion with the history of reading.”[13]

Perhaps, there is a connection here between the insistence on reading, the image of scripture as a mirror for self-reflection and the profuse usage of the reflexive pronoun. This, of course, is pure speculation, but the abundant reference to selves, especially the collective/individual ourselves might just be an aspect of the emerging verbalization of personal privacy that Jagodzinski identifies in the relation between interiority and reading.

Where to next?

The Reformation is one of the upheavals that in Jagodzinski’s book leads to an intensified focus on reading and introspection. As we have seen, the homilies encourage both reading and introspection, but interestingly, the two homilies that elaborate most fully on this trope of scripture as a mirror for self-examination were written by Catholics who after Edward’s death quickly turned from reformed ideas and rose to power under the Marian Catholic faith. The Marian state saw the many benefits of the homilies, tools of propaganda as they most certainly were,[14] and Edmund Bonner, author of the 6th homily in Edward’s 1547 edition, collected and wrote a Marian book of homilies published for the diocese of London in 1555 that included both Bonner’s own homily ‘Of Christian loue and charitie’ and Harpsfield’s homily on the ‘miserie of all mankynde’.

Where then is this sidetrack down the reflexive pronoun leading us? It would be tempting to make a case on reformed ideals about the direct relation to God, but the circumstances around the homilies and especially those of Bonner and the Harpsfield require more investigation. Having come down this road so far, it seems silly to turn back and really, the next step, I think, in this small inquiry of mine, will be to compare the Edwardian and Marian Homilies for the uses of the reflexive pronoun and in particular to investigate whether Harpsfield’s Marian homily changes its rhetoric and use of the reflexive pronoun from the Edwardian version.

[1] Robert Frost, Poems, ‘The Road Not Taken’, Everyman’s Library, 1997

[2]“There is a total of 55 mes in Beowulf and 6 of these would be myself in Modern English. They are listed in (1) above, repeated here as (7), and (8) to (12)” – (Beo 677–8) – Elly van Gelderen, A History of English Reflexive Pronouns: Person, Self, and Interpretability (Amsterdam/Philadelphia, The Netherlands: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2000), p. 33 <> [accessed 6 May 2020].

[3] ((91) Gawain 1198) – Gelderen, 2000, p. 83.

[4] (207) 2 King Henry I, V, i, 50; Gelderen, 2000, p. 112.

[5] “In short, around 1500, the Middle English situation changes to the Modern English one. This is due to the category change of ‘self’ from adjective to noun (‘self’ becomes the head without person features) and to the change in person features of the pronoun from unspecified (but Interpretable) to Uninterpretable. In what follows, I provide evidence that unspecified features
can be Interpretable.” Gelderen, 2000, p. 114.

[6] Gelderen, 2000, p. ix.

[7] John iv. f. cxxiiijv  ‘Ourselves, Pron.’, OED Online (Oxford University Press) <> [accessed 17 May 2020].

William Tyndale, 1526, Stuttgart Collection, Title page.

[8] ‘Agaynst strief and contencion’, p. 100a. I have expanded abbreviations silently and modernized spelling in cases with þ to th.

[9] ‘A fruitful exhortation to the readinge of holy scripture’, p. 7a.

[10] ‘Of Christian loue and charitie’, p. 46b.

[11] ‘Of the miserie of all mankynde’, p.12b. My emphasis.

[12] ‘Of the miserie of all mankynde’, p. 12b. My emphasis.

[13] Cecile M. Jagodzinski, Privacy and Print, Reading and Writing in Seventeenth-Century England (Charlottesville, Va: University Press of Virginia, 1999), Book cover.

[14] J. P. D. Cooper, Propaganda and the Tudor State, Political Culture in the Westcountry, Oxford Historical Monographs (Oxford: Clarendon, 2003).
See in particular chap. 8, pp. 210-247.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Anni Haahr Henriksen (May 18, 2020). Roads not taken and the Reflexive Pronoun in the Edwardian Homilies (1547). Centre for Privacy Studies. Retrieved July 14, 2024 from

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