The Shepheards Calender Maye Eclogue

Edmund Spenser (1579) "Maye" is the first eclogue in Edmund Spenser's The Shepheardes Calender to focus on the politics of the Elizabethan church. (The other ecclesiastical eclogues are "Julye" and "September.") It is an allegorical dialogue between the two shepherds, Piers and Palinode, who are identified in the Argument as representations of Protestant and Catholic clerics. In this context, Catholic means priests who are considered superficially or insufficiently reformed by the more zealous Protestants whom Piers represents. Piers is not a Puritan, however.

Piers's name and speech evokes the Piers Plowman tradition, and especially The Plowman's Tale, which is connected to "Februarie." These other texts are as concerned as Piers is in "Maye" with "faytours" (i.e., "fakers"), or corrupt priests. Faytours is the term Piers uses to condemn the shepherds who are celebrating the season after Palinode describes them admiringly in sensuous detail. In Piers's view, these shepherds should be tending to their flocks, meaning those in their spiritual care. Palinode then accuses Piers of envy and argues against austerity: one must enjoy what is good in life while it lasts. Piers counters that shepherds must live for others, not themselves. Then he makes an appeal for returning to the practices of the early church when he suggests that inheritable lands and wealth have corrupted many shepherds and injured their flocks. Palinode is deeply angered by this last criticism, which he rejects as an absurd and divisive exaggeration. In his view, things are as they are and cannot be otherwise. Piers insists that the situation is inherently divisive: There are true and false shepherds, and they are as different as day and night. Piers's arguments are more intellectually developed and persuasive than Palinode's, but his cold, stoic temperament contrasts negatively with Palinode's colorful praise and enjoyment of the late spring landscape and festivities.

The eclogue concludes with Piers telling a variation of a traditional fable about a disguised fox who tricks and catches a young goat. This is intended as an allegory of the various foreign and domestic Roman Catholic threats to English Protestantism. Palinode seems to agree about the threat, but since he wants to tell the story in church to a potentially Roman Catholic priest or sympathizer, it is unlikely he has been persuaded to think as Piers does.

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