The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Learning to Weep: Early Modern Readers Reading Saint Peters Complaint (1595)

A guest post by Clarissa Chenovick

Devotional weeping was serious business in early modern England. In an impressive array of bestselling print sermons and spiritual treatises, preachers and writers of varied religious persuasions exhort their hearers and readers to weep, sigh, and groan over their sins, and their audiences seem to have complied—or tried to comply—-with enthusiasm.1

We are familiar with the idea that medieval and Counter-Reformation Catholics embraced bodily expressions of penitence, including intensive weeping, but early modern Protestants also emphasize the value of devotional weeping. The preacher and Marian martyr John Bradford is lauded in the preface to his Sermon on Repentance for entering into a prayerful trance during which tears would silently trickle down his cheeks, while a seventeenth century translator Lancelot Andrewes manuscript of personal prayers rhapsodizes on the “glorious deformitie” of Andrewes’ original manuscript that had been “water’d with His penitential tears.”2

Within these cultures of enthusiastically lachrymose piety, devout laypeople could sometimes exhibit deep angst over their own failures to weep. This is a recurring theme in the notebooks of the prolific Calvinist-leaning seventeenth-century tradesman Nehemiah Wallington, who, in the Folger’s MS V.a.436 describes agonizing over his inability to weep despite an afflicted conscience, but who seems to brighten up slightly as he notes “but then I wept because I could not weep.”3

Writing book of Nehemiah Wallington, Folger MS V.a.436, page 305.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that when Robert Southwell’s lengthy, tear-drenched penitential poem Saint Peters Complaint burst on the scene in 1595 it became an instant and long-running bestseller, going through at least fifteen editions by 1640. The poem presents an affectively intense soliloquy in the voice of Saint Peter bemoaning his betrayal of Christ, dramatically expanding his penitential tears recounted in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (“And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly,” Luke 22:61-62).

The Folger collection includes over a dozen copies of this early modern bestseller—some annotated by early modern readers—as well as examples of Southwell’s Italian source texts and later English imitators, offering fascinating insights into how Southwell’s most popular work fit into early modern readers’ efforts to weep and moan sufficiently over their sins. Together, these sources remind us of crossovers between early modern Catholic and Protestant devotional habits and offer a glimpse of the ways devout early modern people used their books to experience and express penitential sorrow.

Facsimile of the title page to Gabriel Cawood’s 1595 edition of Saint Peters Complaint, here used to replace the missing title page of the 1599 edition (STC 22959 copy 2).

It has often been remarked that the authorship and publication circumstances of Saint Peters Complaint seem like they ought to have given pause to devout Protestant book-buyers.  Southwell was a well-known Catholic recusant priest who had trained with the Jesuits in Rome in order to come back to England as a clandestine missionary, and he had been hunted down by English authorities and executed for treason almost immediately before the publication of Saint Peters Complaint in 1595. Many critics agree that Southwell’s authorship of the text was likely something of an open secret, citing in part the extent to which the publication timing of the text seems to capitalize on the notoriety of the author’s execution.4 Although Southwell’s name does not appear on the title pages of early editions, the initials “R” and “S” do appear on the highly decorated title page of William Leake’s 1609 edition, with the “S” somewhat cryptically intertwined with different letters on each side of the page.

Title page, Saint Peters Complaint, Newly augmented with other Poems, London: H.L. for William Leake, 1609.

When I initially examined this title page, I wondered if the central emblem—a globe surmounted by a winged, laurel-crowned skull, topped by an hourglass and a book opened to the text “I liue to dy/ I dy to liue”—could be a cryptic reference to Southwell’s martyrdom. Instead, it turns out that the printer William Leake used this emblem on nearly all of his title pages between 1602 and 1610, and McKerrow notes that it is a copy of Johannes Sambucus’ emblem In morte vita, found in the 1566 edition of his Emblemata, whose subject is the fame that lives on after the death of the man who has dedicated his life to study.5 Is it possible that Leake was aware of the resonances of his chosen printer’s device when it appeared between the initials of a recusant martyr on the title page of a book that includes shorter lyrics with titles like “I dye alive” and “Lifes deaths loves life”? The phrase “dye to live, live to dye” certainly has devotional rather than scholarly resonances in the prefatory materials to a roughly contemporaneous religious text featured in another Collation blog post: Mary Sidney’s translation of Philippe de Mornay’s A Discourse of Life and Death. Whether or not Leake intended his emblem to take on associations with martyrdom or the memento mori injunction, this title page makes such connections available to the reader and allows for an intensification of the poet’s spiritual authority as a martyr speaking from beyond the grave.

Despite its Catholic authorship, Southwell’s poem seems to have filled a deep need for sixteenth-century English Protestants who were nervous about the potentially idolatrous implications of placing invented words in the mouths of biblical figures but who still intensely desired affectively moving scripts for repentance.6 Part of the appeal of Saint Peters Complaint was the extent to which it called attention to itself as a voiced expression of personal remorse and, by extension, as a script a reader could use to stimulate their own repentant prayers and tears.

This emphasis on voice is evident in Southwell’s careful work to frame Saint Peter’s voice with a short prefatory poem, “The Author to the Reader,” in which he addresses the reader directly before the beginning of Saint Peter’s Complaint, which is spoken entirely in the voice of Saint Peter. The first stanza of the prefatory poem exhorts the reader to imaginatively enter into repentant self-examination using St. Peter’s sins as an example:

Deare eye that daynest to let fall a looke,
On these sad memories of PETERS plaints:
Muse not to see some mud in clearest Brooke,
They once were brittle mould that now are Saints.
Theyr weaknes is no warrant to offend,
Learn by theyr faults, what in thine owne to mend.

Southwell is careful to point out to his readers that the fact the saints were also sinful humans does not give his readers “warrant to offend” God but rather offers them examples of sins they can discern in themselves and “mend.” The poem in Saint Peter’s voice that follows serves as both an example and script of how one might “mend” one’s thoughts and actions through repentance.

Most early editions of the poem highlight this change of voice by placing “The Author to the Reader” directly facing the first page of Saint Peters Complaint and using an italic typeface for the prefatory poem and a roman typeface for the poem itself. While this is not uncommon printing practice, the effect is to make the voice of Saint Peters Complaint stand out boldly from the voice of the prefatory poem, mimicking the increased pitch and volume of lament (as opposed to instruction) as Peter bursts into repentant speech with the words “Launch forth my soule into a maine of teares[!]”

Saint Peters Complaint, Newly augmented with other Poems, London: H.L. for William Leake, 1609, A3v-A4r.

Southwell’s framing and intensification of Peter’s voice represents a departure from his source text, Luigi Tansillo’s Le Lagrime di San Pietro (176- 889q), first published in 1560 as the fragment Southwell probably worked from, and from other texts in the Italian “literature of tears” tradition, like Torquato Tasso’s Stanze del Sig. Torquato Tasso per le lagrime di Maria Vergine Santissima, & di Giesu Christo Nostro Signore (247425). These poems, while similarly affectively intense and tear-filled, are spoken in the voices of mediating narrators who invite their readers to weep with them as a response to the weeping of an exemplary biblical weeper.

Left: Tansillo, Luigi, Le lagrime di S. Pietro del signor Luigi Tansillo; con le Lagrime della Maddalena del signor Erasmo da Valuassone. (Venetia : Apresso Giacomo Vincenti, [1589]), Ar. Right: Tasso, Torquato, Stanze del Sig. Torquato Tasso per le lagrime di Maria Vergine Santissima, & di Giesu Christo Nostro Signore. (Venetia : Appresso Giorgio Angelieri, 1593), A2r.
Southwell’s use of the first-person voice in a religious lament was not necessarily original; a number of medieval religious lyrics offered scripts for devout laments on the Passion, often in the voice of the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene.7 But it seems to have been Southwell’s production of a first-person script for voiced repentance that particularly captured the imaginations of his later Protestant imitators. Two examples in the Folger collection include Thomas Collins’s 1610 The penitent publican: his confession of mouth. Contrition of heart. Vnfained repentance. And feruent prayer vnto God, for mercie and forgiuenesse (STC 5566) and William Lithgow’s delightfully titled The gushing teares of godly sorrow: Containing, the causes, conditions, and remedies of sinne, depending mainly upon contrition and confession (1640, STC 15709). While neither poem invokes the exemplary repentance of Saint Peter, both follow Southwell’s poetic form (decasyllabic sixains with an ABABCC rhyme scheme) closely or exactly, and both present a first-person performance of voiced repentance. Collins’s publican emphasizes the voiced and performative nature of his penitence in a way that sounds almost comical to modern ears, declaring at the outset:

On bended knees, and with a broken heart,
Eyes cast on earth, hands beating of my brest:
I come to act a penitentiall part,
Before th’almighty, who is pleased best
With sinfull soules, when they are thus addrest:

Collins, The Penitent Publican (London : Printed [by T. Creede] for Arthur Iohnson, 1610), Br.
Lithgow, on the other hand, draws directly on the language of Southwell’s opening lines to open his poem. Where Southwell’s Saint Peter begins by exclaiming: “Launch forth my soule into a maine of teares,” Lithgow’s unnamed penitent exclaims, “Spring sweet coelestial Muse, launch forth a flood,/Of brinish streams, in cristall melting woes.”

Lithgow, The Gushing Teares of Godly Sorrow (Edinburgh: Robert Bryson, 1640), Br.

Both of these imitations suggest that what their readers found most compelling about Southwell’s poem was the immediacy with which an affectively intense monologue helped them and their potential readers to “act a penitentiall part” by voicing and embodying another person’s repentance.

Evidence of the usefulness of Southwell’s poem for other would-be weeping penitents can be found in the annotations of early readers who marked up the text or adapted it to their own ends.  At least one early reader of Gabriel Cawood’s 1599 edition seems to have responded earnestly to Southwell’s framing of his poem as a script for self-examination and repentance, underlining in “The Author to the Reader” the line “Learn by theyr faults, what in thine owne to mend” and bracketing the second stanza’s emphatic reminders that the reader’s sins far outweigh Peter’s. This reader seems to apply both of these ideas to their reading of Saint Peters Complaint, marking with a curly bracket on the facing page the lines “Fly not from forreine euils, fly from thy hart: / Worse then the worst of euils is that thou art” as if to mark Peter’s self-abnegating words as their own.

Robert Southwell, Saint Peters Complaint, London: I[ames] R[oberts] for G[abriel] C[awood], 1599, A3v-A4r. The bracket next to the lines “Fly not from forreine euils, fly from thy hart: / Worse then the worst of euils is that thou art” is difficult to spot because it is in the gutter.
The same reader, who thoroughly marks up the entire book, shows similar enthusiasm for passages on tears, starring Peter’s description of his penitential weeping at lines 769-771 (“Prone looke, crost armes, bent knee, and contrite heart,/ Deepe sighs, thicke sobs, dew’d eyes, & prostrate prayers,/Most humbly beg release of earned smart”) and underlining in the poem “Marie Magdalene’s Blush” Mary’s self-accusations and her declaration that tears must wash away her sins: “Faults long vnfelt doth conscience now bewray,/ Which cares must cure, and teares must wash away.”

Left: Robert Southwell, Saint Peters Complaint (London: I[ames] R[oberts] for G[abriel] C[awood], 1599) E4r. Right: Fr.
Another reader of Cawood’s 1595 edition, whose annotations have at one stage been trimmed and washed or bleached out and can only be (partially) read under UV light has written in the margin of the poem “Lifes death loves life” two lines of what I take to be self-condemnatory self-reflection, although I am open to corrections and suggestions:

Robert Southwell, Saint Peters complaynt : With other poems. (London: Printed by I[ames] R[oberts] for G[abriel] C[awood], 1595) Ir.
The text, as far as I can make out, is: “That I am [boeth?] Inemie [to] all goodnes/ ala [deletions] […ly?] foode[.]” Could the writer be commenting on their personal sinfulness and destiny as food for worms? Is this an attempt by the annotator to create their own couplet or the beginning of a new devotional poem as a readerly response to Southwell’s devotional poems?

We can see Southwell’s poem being integrated into embodied acts of domestic devotion in a differently vivid way in the Miscelanea. Meditations. Memoratiues of Elizabeth Grymeston, a relative of Southwell and another recusant whose printed devotions enjoyed some popularity amongst mainstream Protestants. Grymeston’s “Morning Meditation, with sixteen sobs of a sorrowful spirit” is prefaced by an editorial note (probably by her widower), noting that she used these meditations “for mentall praier, as also an addition of sixteen staues of verse taken out of Peters complaint, which she vsually sung & plaied on the winde instrument.” Grymeston weaves stanzas of Saint Peters Complaint between prose prayers directed to God, selecting stanzas from the poem that voice vehement self-reproach, remorse, lament, and hope in God’s mercy. The practice called for by the hybrid script she produces suggests alternations between spoken prose prayer and sung repentant lament.

Left: Grymeston, Miscellanea : Prayers. Meditations. Memoratiues. By Elizabeth Grymeston (London: Edward Griffin for William Aspley, [1618?]), C6v . Right: C7r.
The use of Grymeston’s meditations by a reader who makes short, penciled underscore marks throughout the text presents a slight puzzle. Pencil marks are difficult to date, though a penciled signature on the back flyleaf (below) looks early modern to me. Could these marks be related to the placing of stresses in vocal performance of the text?

Grymeston, Miscellanea : Prayers. Meditations. Memoratiues. By Elizabeth Grymeston (London: Edward Griffin for William Aspley, [1618?]), Signature on back flyleaf.
Together, the myriad uses of Saint Peters Complaint witnessed by the Folger collections highlight the ease with which devotional materials and strategies could circulate between early modern Catholic and Protestant audiences. They show the extent to which acts of writing, whether notetaking, poetic composition, or rearrangement and recombining of existing text, could be considered forms of reading, embodied acts through which readers processed texts and made them their own. And, perhaps most importantly, they remind us that performance—vocal, musical, written, or all three—was the most important end goal of many early modern devotional texts, opening up a window onto the very active, embodied, and vocal world of early modern English devotional reading.

Dr. Clarissa Chenovick is a 2019-2020 Folger Mellon Long-Term Fellow and an Assistant Professor of English at Florida Atlantic University, where she teaches courses on early modern poetry, prose, and drama. She has published articles in The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, English Literary History, and The Huntington Library Quarterly. Her current book project, “Reading to Weep: Penitence, Embodied Reading, and Spiritual Cure in England, 1350-1670” examines penitential texts and reading practices across the divide of the English Reformation to illuminate early modern physiologies of reading and the role of the body in religious devotion.

  1. An excellent overview of the historical evidence can be found in Alec Ryrie Being Protestant in Reformation Britain (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013), 187-195, 208-214, et passim. I discuss seventeenth-century preachers’ exhortations to weep in more detail in “A Balsome for Both the Hemispheres: Tears, Repentance, and Medical Discourse in Herbert’s Temple and Seventeenth-Century Preaching,” English Literary History 84.3 (2017).
  2. John Bradford, Tvvo notable sermons : Made by that woorthie martyr of Christe, Maister Iohn Bradford, the one of repentaunce, and the other of the Lords Supper (London : By Iohn Charlewood, and Iohn VVight, 1581), [A5]v. Lancelot Andrewes, A manual of the private devotions and meditations of The Right Reverend Father in God Lancelot Andrews, late Lord Bishop of Winchester / translated out of a fair Greek MS. of his amanuensis, by R.D. B.D. (London: W.D. for Humphrey Moseley, 1648), [A8]v. My thanks to Folger fellow Natalya Din-Kariuki for calling the Lancelot Andrewes example to my attention.
  3. Writing book of Nehemiah Wallington, Folger MS V.a.436, 305. In another of his notebooks, Wallington can be found torturing himself over the idea that he may have “made an Idol of [his] teers,” for, he confesses, “I have thought very well of myselfe when I had sheed teers and if I have not sheed teers then it could not be well with mee . . . so that you may see I have just cause to weepe and lament over my teers.” Nehemiah Wallington, BL Add MS 40883, 134r, in David Booy, The Notebooks of Nehemiah Wallington, 1618–1654 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 23.
  4. Alison Shell, Catholicism, Controversy, and the English Literary Imagination, 1558-1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 63; Brian Cummings The Literary Culture of the Reformation: Grammar and Grace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 332.
  5. Ronald B. McKerrow, Printers’ & Publishers’ Devices in England and Scotland, 1485-1640. London: Printed for the Bibliographical Society at the Chiswick Press, 1913, 132-133.
  6. Alison Shell makes this argument in Catholicism and Controversy (61-64), and it is picked up by Brian Cummings in Grammar and Grace 333)
  7. A late example of first-person lament in the voice of Mary Magdalene can be seen in the Folger’s unique copy of The complaynte of the louer of Cryst Saynt Mary Magdaleyn published in 1520 by Wynkyn de Worde (STC 17568). Sarah McNamer discusses a number of laments of the virgin in Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).


  • It’s hard to tell with the image quality being what it is, but I think the word you’ve transcribed as “ala” for the annotation in the 1595 book is probably “al” corrected to “as” (or the other way around). The vowels in the last word, on the other hand might be sloppily written e’s rather than o’s, because I think I can see loops that are not visible in the word “good”. Sorry not to be able to offer more, but I think I’d need to be able to zoom in on the image to look at it properly.

  • Thank you very much for the good suggestions! I think you must be right that the “ala” I was seeing is “aa” overwritten as “as.” That final word (the one I rendered tentatively as “foode”) seems a bit harder to determine. I’ve spent a lot of time puzzling over other nearly-invisible annotations by this writer, and their “e”s tend to look a lot more like the final “e” on that word, with more of an open circle that has a loop at the top, though you can see in “goodnes” in the line above that the circle of the “e” closes so there is basically what looks like an “o” with a loop at the top. Certainly, the double letters in that final word are messy, but I don’t think I can see strokes that are trying to form loops at the tops of the letters. It looks to me like the hand finishes the “f” then moves back to the left and around counterclockwise to form a circle that ends in a slight pen blot before it moves back to the right and around clockwise to form the second circular letter. On a different page with annotations, the same writer forms the double “e” in “wee” by looping up from the bottom of the first letter moving counter clockwise and continues counter clockwise to create the loop at the top of the letter and then makes a dip from the tail of the loop down to the bottom of the next “e” so they can repeat the same process of moving up counter clockwise from the base of the letter into a loop at the top. Of course, whether that word is “feede” of “foode” doesn’t resolve the puzzle of what else is in the middle of that line, though it does impact whether or not there seems to be an attempt at a partial/internal rhyme between “goodnes” and “foode.” Thank you for working on my paleography puzzle!

  • I love palaeography puzzles!
    The first letter of the smudged-out bit *might* be a w, but without having anything to compare it to it’s hard to tell, of course. If you don’t mind sharing your images of the other annotations, though, you can send me an email and I’ll try if I can see anything else.

  • Thank you so much for the offer, Elisabeth. I absolutely will send some images your way. I do enjoy a paleography puzzle as well, and there are *many* in this particular book!

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