Kissing the Pope's Toe

Books, manuscripts, newspapers, and verse were not the only media which was read in earlier centuries. Indeed, much of what was read was not even primarily textual. Visual culture – book illustrations, graphic satires, prints, shop signs, heraldry, ceramics, to name just a few examples – was an important part of the culture of news and print. From the seventeenth century political and religious groups began to use visual material to express allegiances and ideas in much the same way that they did with texts – such as party-specific slogans, newspapers, and periodicals – and spaces – such as party-specific coffee houses. In images, we see core themes of anti-popery expressed with a power and immediacy which expressed the visceral nature of intolerance. That power was not necessarily simple, however. Capturing how ‘stock’ images connoted meaning takes us to the heart of anti-popery as a highly adaptable discourse.

Fig 1: Every Man His Own Humour (1778). Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

Fig 1: Every Man His Own Humour (1778). Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

Such images were rarely completed divorced from text: book illustrations, images printed on ballads, and graphic satires (what we would now call ‘cartoons’) involved a close-relationship between image and text which generally necessitated reader/viewers moving between the two to understand the object completely. What interests me about this visual culture is the existence of a core of images, tropes, and motifs which appeared over and over again: reiterating the comparison with text, we might say that there was a vocabulary of images in early modern visual culture; and, like a vocabulary, what those images meant – the specific message which they were intended to impart to their audiences – was not fixed, but heavily reliant upon the context in which they were used. Tone, intention, and nuance were matters which affected readers of visual materials as much as they did textual.

Fig 2:  Doing Homage  (1821). Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum.

Fig 2: Doing Homage (1821). Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum.

This is captured with particular power in Every Man in His Own Humour. The print was part of a much broader No-Popery campaign which followed the Catholic Relief Act of 1778. Reactions to this act in some quarters was heated: easing the penal code was depicted as a betrayal of the Reformation, of the 1688/9 constitution, the thin end of a ‘popish’ wedge which would lead to catastrophe and outrage, or a combination of all of the above. The print depicts the pope – depicted farcically – blessing one MP, who kneels to kiss his toe as another is about to follow suit. That the act was a betrayal of British Protestantism was captured in the accompanying verses:

            A certain Knight brimfull of hope,

            Knight of the Shire also;

            To gain the Papists pleas’d the Pope,

            And humbly kiss’d his Toe.


            Poh, cried his Colleague in a pother,

            That’s but a simple Farce;

            And that he may outdo his Brother

            He’s gon to kiss his Arse.


Simple? Yes. Crude? Certainly. An effective means of diminishing parliamentary authority? Absolutely.

Fig 3:  Doing Homage  (1829). Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

Fig 3: Doing Homage (1829). Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

What we miss when we take prints like this in isolation, however, are the unspoken resonances which visual vocabulary had accrued in the public consciousness over generations. The trope of ‘kissing the pope’s toe’ had been a ubiquitous part of anti-Catholic discourse since the sixteenth-century Reformations. It had entered popular parlance in the 1530s during the propaganda campaigns surrounding Henry VIII’s campaign to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and the subsequent campaign for the Royal Supremacy; became a short-hand for papal tyranny and pride in the subsequent generation; and was very quickly adopted as a slogan of the farcical yet disgusting levels of slavish obedience and unthinking credulity which the Catholic Church instilled in its followers (in the eyes of Protestant polemicists). By 1570 it had entered the visual repertoire of English Protestantism, playing a prominent part in the iconography of the heavily-illustrated second edition of John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (1570), more commonly known as ‘the Book of Martyrs’. This text – which positioned the Reformation as a glorious break from papal tyranny – was widely read by the standards of the sixteenth and seventeenth century and had an important afterlife in abridged editions throughout the eighteenth. Its images – particularly those of Henry VIII and the execution of key protestant martyrs under Mary I – became classics of English popular culture, evoked in literature, pottery, and many other media.

Consequently, analysing prints like Every Man in His Own Humour, Days of Yore, or Doing Homage requires us to understand that audiences who encountered them did so with the weight of almost three centuries behind their central joke. The mockery is immediately apparent to us. As is the sense of outrage. We can even grasp that prints like this were powerful because their gibes were simple and therefore immediate. But what we cannot grasp without reading them more deeply is the sheer weight of the protest inherent in the kissing the pope’s toe motif. That image had been synonymous with the Reformation as a glorious escape from ‘popery’ for generations, and its re-use in a new context consequently unleashed a host of unspoken resonances. Seeing MPs, Prime Ministers and Kings kissing the pope’s toe was to see them betraying England’s past, betraying the Reformation, and therefore betraying one of its central and defining identities: Protestantism. When read with the eyes of contemporary viewers, we begin to understand that jokes were far from frivolous things.

***This entry was originally posted on the ‘Communities of Print’ website.

*****For further details on these prints see Frederic George Stephens and Mary Dorothy George, Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, 11 vols, (London,1870), 5681, 14178, 15660. Doing Homage was made by William Heath and published by Thomas McLean; Days of Yore was published by J Lewis Marks; and Every Man His Own Humour was published anonymously.