John Cruso of Norwich: a man of many parts

John Cruso of Norwich (b. 1592/3) is a fine example of an early modern self-made man. This study of his life and work illustrates well that fundamental tenet of the Renaissance: individuals were not born as a finished article but could, in some sense, make themselves during their lifetime. John Cruso of Norwich and Anglo-Dutch Literary Identity in the Seventeenth Century follows Cruso in an odyssey through time and space that allows us to see how he made himself and to explore themes such as multilingualism, migration studies, cultural transfer, networking, translation studies, identity formation, military science, and the reception of classical and Renaissance literature.

Our journey begins in Flanders where Cruso’s parents were born. Because of economic hardship and religious persecution, they, like many other Flemings, left for England, eventually settling in Norwich. They established themselves in one of the city’s poorer parishes, to the north of the River Wensum. Their eldest son, John, would cross the river each day to the free grammar school to gain the classical humanist education that he drew on throughout his life. He then moved to London to work for the family cloth and hosiery business. There he met other Dutch Strangers who helped him to hone his skills as a Dutch Renaissance poet. He published his first Dutch verse, an elegy, in 1622 in a collection of Latin and Dutch elegies to the late minister of the London Dutch church, Simeon Ruytinck. It included verses by Constantijn Huygens and Jacob Cats and is arguably the most important Anglo-Dutch literary moment in the seventeenth century.

Cruso crossed Fye Bridge over the Wensum going to school next to Norwich Cathedral. Author Photo.

We move with John back to Norwich: he married and started a family in the parish of St. Andrew’s, finding inspiration for his poetry through local connections as he grew his business. There, he befriended the local Anglican minister, Lawrence Howlett, whose sermons were much admired. Howlett’s untimely death in 1626 inspired Cruso to write three English elegies, including a sonnet. He also developed the family textile business, taking on an apprentice and accruing wealth. We follow Cruso as he continued to make himself, moving in 1632 to a fine house in Norwich’s richest parish, St. Peter Mancroft, and going up a social notch becoming a gentleman.

Cruso did not, however, forget his Netherlandish heritage. He remained a Dutch Stranger, becoming an elder in the Dutch church in Norwich and captain of the city’s Stranger militia, both a man of God and a man of war. Cruso’s many years of service as a militia man allowed him to learn the soldier’s craft and to write military works, which helped to shape the English Civil Wars. Probably the most successful of these, Militarie Instructions for the Cavallrie, was first published in Cambridge in 1632 and republished in 1644 in the heat of the First Civil War. In 1639 and 1640, he published two translations from French, demonstrating his talent as a polyglot. In 1642, as the opening shots in the First Civil War were being fired, he published two military manuals, one on castrametation and the other on military watches. The former brought the military knowledge of the great Flemish engineer Simon Stevin to an English audience.

We find that Cruso was a busy man in 1642, for in addition to military works he published two Dutch verses in Amsterdam. One was an elegy to Johannes Elison, the late minister of the Dutch church in Norwich, who in 1634 had sat for Rembrandt with his wife, Maria. The other verse was a 1400-line amplificatio on Psalm 8, a paean to God’s creation. Here, Cruso moves across time, plundering antiquity for source material, and moulding it into Dutch alexandrines, verse lines of six iambs forged in the heat of the French Renaissance by the poets of La Pléiade.

Cruso moved across genres. Whilst several of his verses were elegies, he also penned epigrams. His collection of 221 Dutch epigrams, printed in quarto in 1655 by Arnold Bon in Delft, was his final act as a multilingual mercator poetans. These provide further examples of his erudition and poetic dexterity. Many resemble Latin epigrams written by Sir Thomas More, and Cruso may have been inspired by some of these. He took his lead from his contemporary Ben Jonson, who saw the role of the poet as not to ‘imitate servilely, as Horace saith’, but to draw from the ‘best and choicest’ of the verse of other authors. The epigrams demonstrated his lighter side, with some gently mocking those who took themselves too seriously.

This book will allow scholars to include John Cruso in their accounts of early modern Dutch and English literature and literary identity. As well as following John, it follows other members of the Cruso family, as it gradually integrated into English society. His brother Aquila and son John Jr. studied at Cambridge and became Anglican prelates. Another brother, Timothy, moved to London to manage the family business there. Timothy’s grandson, also Timothy, studied with Daniel Defoe at the Dissenters’ Academy in Newington Green, London, and thus inspired the name of Defoe’s great literary creation, Robinson Crusoe, in some sense immortalizing the name of this illustrious family of Flemish migrants.


CHRISTOPHER JOBY is Professor in Dutch Studies at Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland, and Visiting Scholar at the Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan. His research focusses on the intersection of the Dutch language and culture and other languages and cultures in a historical context. He has published books on the Dutch language in Britain and Japan, the Dutch poet and statesman, Constantijn Huygens, and art in the Dutch Reformed Church. He is currently writing a book on the reception of the Christian Gospel in seventeenth-century Taiwan.

John Cruso of Norwich and Anglo-Dutch Literary Identity in the Seventeenth Century
By Christopher Joby
9781843846147, Hardcover, £48.75 or $78.00

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