Book Reviews friendship and community

Summary: The Friend Chapter 2, Friend to Sir Philip Sidney

This chapter summary is part of my reading summaries series. Click here for more information on the series. Click here for more chapter summaries from The Friend.

In the seventeenth century, Fulke Greville planned a joint memorial for himself and his friend Philip Sidney. Like the tombstone of Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe in the fourteenth century, the arrangement “might have been expected of the tomb of a husband and wife.” However, the sixteenth century tomb marks a development in the understanding of friendship. 

Writing on friendship in his “Two Pastoralls”, Sidney uses terms for friendship that may be more recognizable to the modern reader than those employed in fourteenth-century England. “Friendship is here [presented as] an essentially private relationship that is necessarily set apart from the commerce and practice of the world.”

There is a shift in the portrayal of friendship, as Sidney places friendship in a pastoral landscape and, elsewhere, in a love of learning. Sidney and Grenville’s friendship began as schoolboys, “and their intimacy as school-fellows is caught in Greville’s boyish scribbling in Sidney’s surviving schoolbook.” From that time, Bray writes that “their friendship remained as much a matter of the literary interests they pursued together, or the bed they shared, as matters of state.” And in the Two Pastoralls, one might see a friendship “based on affinity and shared love of letters, set against the power and place of the court.”

The sixteenth century as marked the development of “the ‘familiar letter’–the intimate letter of friendship–that had become the quintessential expression of friendship among educated men, a literary convention.” The central theme of such letters is love between men. Thus Antonio Perez writes in the 1590’s in such a letter: “Today I desired to meet you. I should say that more briefly. I desired you, for he who loves is carried around in the orbit of his desire.”

The letters carried certain conventions, including the comparison of the true friend with the feigned and avoiding certain pitfalls of friendship. They employed a very intimate rhetoric, but one might question the private nature of these letters, given their large quantity and the fact that they were frequently copied and saved in collections. “The insistent implication is that, in some way that is not immediately obvious, they figured in that very practical world of power and place into which Perez [a political man] was seeking to insert himself.”

Perhaps the same might be said for Sidney’s Two Pastoralls: it is an exercise “in intimacy, but an intimacy that then potentially has its spectators”, and thus might be socially useful. One cannot deny, however, that many of these letters, such as the sixteenth century letters between Michael Hickes and John Stubbe “document also an intense personal friendship. So, in these letters, one sees a “combination of convention and affection” that might have multiple purposes.

“What one does not see, though is evidence for the notion that these gestures of friendship marked a profound dislocation with the past: the transformation of friendship into an essentially private relationship, set apart from the commerce and practice of the world.” Indeed, “the appearance of friendship in the public eye… was itself a kind of currency that could be turned to advantage, when others sought to make use of it for themselves.” Friends could protect and recommend each other, and so letters were carefully preserved by friends for later use.

Friendship also had its dangers. Friendship created ties and obligations that could not be severed in the face of difficulty, whether that difficulty be personal or political. Traditional society structured itself in networks of communities, in which the ties of one person affected the ties of everyone. Thus a parish priest records a marriage in 1640, in which one of his parishioners married a woman at a church in a different town “because his friends were against the match.” The man would not have been able to marry in his parish because of “the opposition of those who might think they had a material interest in the marriage he made, including his family.”

Those with such interests were considered “friends.” “The ‘friend’ in this sense was someone whose interests were tied to your own. Even if this tie were irksome–such as that between a debtor and a creditor–it was sufficient to make you use your influence on their behalf, or exptect them to use theirs for you.” Thus friendship played an extremely important social role, and guides on friendship were written frequently at this time on how to make a good friendship.

In part because of the high stakes of friendship, the familiar letters of the humanists presented a love based entirely on a privatized desire for the other, set apart from the broader world. So Godfrey Aleyn follows the expected convention of the familiar letter when he writes in 1595 about a friend: “I onely desyered him to love me.” Still, Aleyn’s letter and others illustrate the ways in which friendship and one of its conventions among the educated, the familiar letter, could be used to establish and leverage relationships for social advantage. Aleyn’s letter was written about his master, who played an important social role in his life, in making important introductions to certain merchants. Bray notes, however, that this utility did not necessarily negate the sincerity of the intimate rhetoric of the familiar letter: “It could be heartfelt, as it could be hollow; but wherever it lay on a spectrum between the two, such language between men always and necessarily signified in the public context of power and place that to modern eyes it seems to belie.”

Considering this, Bray writes that a “rhetorical mechanism of this kind did not mark any radical discontinuity with the past.” Friendship, even when rhetorically intimate, could still be used for social support, as it had been since at least the eleventh century.

In contrast to the familiar letter, which presupposed a literate culture, popular stories played an important role in popular culture in England, and friendship was an enduring theme in these stories. “The place friendship continued to occupy in these stories is a measure of the extent to which they continued to articulate hopes and fears that English men and women had about friendship.” Examples of such ballads in the sixteenth century are the ballad of Adam Bell and the ballad of Bewick and Graham.

Through English history, even amid its religious and political turmoils during this period, friendship continued to play an important role in society. “A network of family and friends remained as necessary for advancing oneself in the sixteenth century as it had been in the fourteenth century.”

Further, on all sides of the Reformation, “friendship remained closely associated with Christianity among traditional-minded Christians.” Looking at Grevilles plans for a joint tombstone with Sidney, “the unquestioned appropriateness of their joint monument illustrates how closely friendship continued to be associated with the sites of Christianity.” Such monuments “continued to express the friendship that linked the living with the dead and provided a model of friendship that ought to subsist between the living” and reflected the “self-evident assumption that the obligations of friendship were not cancelled by death.”

One important change in the sixteenth century that Bray notes is “a manipulation of the sense of history itself.” Humanists, particularly concerned with history, first “constructed the notion of a ‘feudal’ Middle Ages… with one eye to the contemporary political implications that notion might have for their patrons.” An important result as this notion developed was that “the caricature of the violent and disruptive squirearchy of the past… effaced the figure of the learned and courtly knight, like Sir John Clanvowe”, and also effaced, in a certain sense his relationships.

Humanists, seeing the political dangers of friendship, sought to remake this social institution. The humanist-educated secretaries wanted to distinguish their friendships from their caricatured portrayal of the friendships of the past. “The rhetorical force of this contrast strengthened that rhetoric of an altruistic friendship between men that had always eased the precarious uncertainties of friendship and honor in traditional society: it tactfully detached the exercise of friendship between men from the past and placed it in the study, in the ‘closet’ of two scholarly friends, among their books.” They created friendship into a privatized institution, in which the friends were bound up in each other and, in their relationship, separated from the rest of the world.

So the humanists present the image of an altruistic friendship epitomized in a private image of friends as joint scholars. This image, however, “is too persuasive perhaps”, since it “skirts the enabling rhetoric that stance afforded in traditional society”, through the social capital of familiar letters. The altruistic image of friendship is, according to Bray, “a tactful illusion, not a sudden break with the past: a new response to the long-familiar uncertainties of friendships between men that carried obligations that were frequently irksome and always dangerous.”

In his next chapter, Bray will turn to “the story of what it means to have a family.”

1 comment on “Summary: The Friend Chapter 2, Friend to Sir Philip Sidney

  1. Pingback: Summary: Alan Bray’s The Friend | Ideas of a University

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