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Renaissance and Revolution 101: A Literary and Historical Overview


Foreword


This series explores the literature that arose from the conflicts, ideologies, and rapidly changing cultures of 17th-century England. Fostered in the reigns of both James I and Charles I, it is the purpose of this series to discover the progression of literature and culture from the early Stuart period to the Restoration era which harboured struggles of power, ideology, and paradigms of the monarchy. Examining the English Civil War as an ideological war so much as it was a physical war, this article series explores the literary and political progression of contemporary ways of thinking about the social structure of England in a time of unparalleled change. As the century progressed, attitudes to the monarchy, the government, and the rights of the people polarised, with literature such as poetry, pamphlets, and manifestoes becoming significant players in the social and political debates of the period. 17th-century writers were keen to address major political questions such as: Should the powers of the king be curtailed? Can power be absolute? Are the civil liberties of the people greater than the authority of the king and government?


This series responds to these key questions, discovering how writers and political groups used literature to propagate their understandings of these key ideological interrogations and to persuade and influence political mindsets and decisions. Considering literature as a vehicle of politics, this 101 series uncovers the ways in which prominent writers of the period used literature to address the hostilities and instabilities that characterised the period, as prevailing attitudes towards the monarchy, the nation, sex, and religion came under pressure.


This series will be divided into eight articles:


  1. Renaissance and Revolution 101: A Literary and Historical Overview

  2. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Religious Contexts of the English Civil War

  3. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Jacobean Culture and Shakespeare’s Othello

  4. Renaissance and Revolution 101: The Cavalier Poets

  5. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Literature and Revolution I – John Milton

  6. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Literature and Revolution II – Andrew Marvell

  7. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Radical Voices

  8. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Sex and Desire in the Restoration


Renaissance and Revolution 101: A Literary and Historical Overview


The 17th century was a rich and diverse cultural time, a period rocked by chaos, war, challenging attitudes, and a turn away from paradigmatic views. The monarchy in the 17th century faced scrutiny in ways it had never before, and the rights of parliament versus the rights of the monarchy polarised the nation, resulting in a period of revolution, dissatisfaction, and violent tension. This article will outline the cultural and literary climate of the 17th century, from the Jacobean Era through to the Restoration, to explore the progression of attitudes throughout the period. During a period of intense cultural shifts of views and opinions, individuals and groups turned to writing to express their views of kingship, religion, and society in unprecedented ways. This will explore the ways in which the literary cultures of the century reflected the growing disagreements around religion, monarchical power and ideas of democracy.


The Jacobean Era: A Brief Overview

The root causes of the English Civil War are multifaceted and temporally complicated. Whilst the agitation and discontentment of the nation came to a boiling point during the reign of Charles I, the struggle between the prerogatives of the king and the rights of Parliament was a predominant cause for conflict in the reign of James I. As Cecile Hanley (1972) explores, the dissatisfaction that had mostly been “held in check during Elizabeth’s long reign” (p. 11) was not so easily contained under the reign of James I. The somewhat harmonious rule of Elizabeth I could not be reinstated by James I, who found in his England “a sense of disorientation, disorder, and relentless pressure for change” (p. 6). Even before his son had taken the throne, the reign of James I contributed to the revolutionary mindset of the nation, where his foolish actions and commitment to the absolute rights of the monarch fostered a climate of disdain for the monarchy. As Hanley (1972) attests, “along with the rising disregard for the old privileges of the hereditary class, came a rising disrespect for the church establishment and finally for the court itself” (p. 6). As such, the reign of James I served to foster rising discontent and encourage a vision of England where the power of the monarch was widely restricted.


Figure 1: Portrait of James I (Mytens, n.d.).

James I was a staunch advocate of the divine right of kings and royal absolutism. In a time when the rights of Parliament were already under deliberation, discontent with monarchical absolute power began to spread. James’ perception of his rights as a monarch was clear cuthe was God’s lieutenant on Earth and as consequence, his power was absolute and not to be challenged. Many in Parliament began to advocate against the absolute superiority of the king, believing the monarch to be ruled by contract, and that as such, parliamentary rights should be on par with those of its ruler.


James I had a notoriously troubled reign, being renowned for possessing favourites in court who had the ability to exert significant power, which encouraged growing resentment by those neglected by the king and had restricted powers. Religious conflict was a defining feature of the 17th century, and whilst James I saw himself as a peacekeeper, his introduction of increasingly harsh penal laws against the Catholics fostered a growing atmosphere of discontentment, resulting in Catholic plots such as the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. James I also faced increasing pressure from the Puritan minority in England, whose desire for an episcopal structure that abolished bishops threatened his authority, whilst the Millenary Petition, signed by 1000 Puritan ministers cast further questions on the authority of the king. Christopher Durston (2006) also considers the contribution of the English Reformation to the religious turmoil of the early 17th century, which had ”alarmed and alienated many people and created deep divisions which were still evident” (p. 2) upon James’ ascension to the throne.


Figure 2: Guy Fawkes or the Anniversary of the Popish Plot (Doyle, 1830).

The relationship between James I and Parliament was fraught and tense. As Robert Ruigh (1971) attests, “more than once James had lectured the Commons on the proper place of Parliament in the constitutional structure of England” (p. 1). James’s vision of his role as king caused him to have a less flattering opinion on the kind of role Parliament had in relation to the monarchy, and hence to the nation. James’ extravagant spending also alienated Parliament, and “the king’s continued reliance on financial expedientsaids for the knighting of his son and the marriage of his daughter, benevolences, forced loans, impositions, and projectsalienated men of substance and helped speed the coalescence of factional opposition to his program” (Ruigh, 1971, p. 4). James’ commitment to ruling without a Parliament for seven years following the Addled Parliament of 1614, which was dissolved by James I when it had failed to pass any legislation or new taxes, further cemented parliamentary discontent.


Though the above events are only a few of many factors contributing to growing discontentment within the nation, they demonstrate the growing feeling of agitation during the reign of James I, evidencing the “disorientation, disorder and relentless pressure for change” (Hanley, 172, p. 6) preceding the Civil War years.


Figure 3: The House of Lords (Hollar, 1664).

The Jacobean Era: Literary Culture

An interesting critical examination of the literary culture of the Jacobean period follows many scholars’ interpretation of the role of royal writing in the literary climate of James I’s reign. As Jane Rickard (2015) articulates, a distinctive feature of the reign of James I was his obsession with using his pen to propagate his staunch attitude to the rights of the king. She comments that “this King repeatedly used his pen, touching sacred matters” (p. 2). The King’s printed works were a vast collection, including “two collections of poetry, two scriptural meditations, a treatise on the divine right of kings, a treatise on the practice of kingship and a treatise on witchcraft” (p. 2).


James’s treatise on the Divine Right of Kings grounded his royal authority in God-given right. As Harold J. Laski (1919) attests, the divine right of kings meant to James exactly what it said. “Kings”, he wrote, “are the breathing images of God upon earth” (p. 296). In his treatise, he clearly laid out the relationship between King and nation, as well as the relationship between King and Parliament:


Inferior office was derived from royal will. Subjects had duties without rights. Law was the affirmation of the king’s desire. The power of Parliament was the duty to offer its advice when asked (Laski, 1919, p. 296).

Figure 4: James I Speech in the Banqueting Chamber (National Archives, 1610).

James’ written conviction of his ideas and beliefs, according to Laski, was a defining factor in “the constitutional struggle of James’ reign” (p. 298). Understanding the literary culture of the 17th century requires an acute knowledge of the ways in which writers used the written word as a medium through which to navigate the fraught relations between the monarchy and government of the period. As Perry Curtis (1997) articulates, it is significant to understand the “kinds of influence a king or queen has on a country’s literary production” (p. 2), and that Jacobean culture was essentially defined by “the ways in which writers reshaped, reused and rejected old ideas and conventions in response to the influence of the new king and his government” (p. 2).


James I inadvertently encouraged his own subjects to manufacture their own responses and to use the written words as a propagator of their own ideas and reflections. As Cyndia Susan Clegg articulates, supporting Laski’s view:


Paradoxically, by opting to employ the written and printed word as tools of his authority, James I unwittingly empowered his subjects as readers, interpreters, and imitators, giving rise to alternative discourses of authority […] (Qtd in Laski, 1919, p. 2).

Figure 5: Part of James I Speech to Parliament (James I, 1609).

Prior to the reign of James I, there was “neither the opportunity nor probably the desire on the part of most subjects to directly challenge the monarch” (Hanley, 1971, p. 4). Yet, caused by James' own actions, the Jacobean period saw a new era of literary production in which responses to the political climate of the nation were widespread and encouraged by their monarch’s own commitment to the written word. Curtis (1997) argues that James’s personality as King released the nation from the "affective bond” produced by his predecessor’s “civic persona” (p. 12) and as a result, James became a “figure to be commented on, flattered, ignored, copied, feared, courted, revered, advised and mocked” (p. 7). As such, Jacobean literary culture became defined by royal commentary, fostering and encouraging attitudes of discontent or support, contributing to the polarisation of the nation into factions of Parliament or monarchy. The literary culture of the Jacobean period, defined by its commitment to royal commentary, was generally fostered by the writings of their own king, which encouraged readers and writers alike to empower their own satisfaction or dissatisfaction through the written word.


The Caroline Era: A Brief Overview

The dissatisfaction and increasingly negative attitudes towards the monarchy were exacerbated under the reign of Charles I. The events of the middle of the seventeenth century were an unprecedented example of intense change to the constitutional structure of England. The reign of Charles I was defined by violence, heavy structural changes to the nation, and an influx of competing attitudes and voices questioning the power of the monarchy, Parliament, and the people.


Figure 6: Charles I (Van Dyck, 1636).

The English Civil War refers to separate wars fought between supporters of the King and supporters of Parliament between 1642 and 1651. Traditional historical views agree that the Civil War began when Charles I raised an army without the consultation of Parliament in an effort to squash rebellions in Ireland. This brought political tensions to a head, and years of dissatisfaction and resentment led to the outbreak of a violent conflict. Prior to this, Charles I had dissolved Parliament and ruled by his own Royal decree, a period referred to by his enemies as “the Eleven Years Tyranny”. This decision exacerbated existing disillusionment within the Parliamentary faction, which believed it was the right of the people to participate in governmental rule. The period lasted from 1629 to 1640, when Charles was forced to call Parliament in order to raise the money he required to wage the second Bishops’ War in Scotland, where ecclesiastical reforms were being rejected.


As a result of growing tensions, Charles almost immediately disbanded the Parliament he had called, giving it the nickname of “The Short Parliament”. When he ran out of money again, Charles was forced to call another Parliament, renowned as “The Long Parliament”, which quickly passed acts that made frequent Parliamentary sessions a legal decree, and ensured Parliament could not be dissolved without the consent of its own members. The actions of the Long Parliament, which lasted from 1640 until 1653, put pressure on the authority of the monarchy and caused increasing tension between monarchical and parliamentary supporters.


Figure 7: The Battle of Marston Moor (Barker, 1644).

According to Conrad Russell (1973), the Civil War that broke out in 1642 was more of a rebellion than a revolution. It was not so much a “social revolution, but a split in the governing class: a movement by a large number of peers and gentleman to force a change of policy and a change of ministers on Charles I” (p. 2). This was not a war that sought to overthrow the monarchy and institute a government solely ruled by parliament, but rather a conflict that intended to redefine the terms of Charles I’s monarchical power and restrict his absolute influence over governmental proceedings. It sought to establish the rights of Parliament and of the people, but not by abolishing the monarchy altogether.


The Second Civil War between 1647 to 1649 was contrastingly “a revolution in the full sense of the term: it was an assault on the existing social structure, and particularly on the position of the gentry” (p. 2). So different were the two conflicts that many supporters and leaders of the original rebellion against the absolute powers of the monarchy “grew so frightened of their own following that their sympathies returned to the king” (p. 2).


Figure 8: German Engraving Depicting the Execution of Charles I (Stuart, 1649).

This evidences the fluctuating and ever-changing ideologies of the period, as well as the chaotic and turbulent nature of the Civil War period. The conflict did not originate as a full attack on the structure of the monarchy, but as ideas developed and disillusionment grew, groups such as the Levellers and the Fifth Monarchists triumphed with truly revolutionary ideologies that resulted in the execution of the king and the implementation of Britain’s first republican constitution. Charles I was executed in 1649, which resulted in the only period of republican rule in English history. In a period heralded as the Interregnum, which lasted until 1660, military leader Oliver Cromwell ruled as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. In a chaotic and turbulent period in which monarchical and constitutional structures that had existed for centuries had been overthrown, the new structural composition of Britain was unprecedented and challenging.


The Caroline Era: Literary Culture

N. H. Keeble’s (2001) analysis of the literary climate of the Civil War is a significant study. Alerting to the writings of Puritan Minister Richard Baxter, he cites his text written in dismay that “every ignorant, empty brain […] have the liberty of the press” and that “the press of late” had become “a design of the enemy to bury and overwhelm in a crowd” (p. 1). Understanding that “the prolific output of the press […] spread them through the country at large”(p. 1), Baxter’s fears of anarchy on the basis of a political outpouring from radical groups that was assuredly spread throughout the nation heavily emphasises the power of the literary culture within the Civil War period. Pamphlets, polemics, and general writings had a real power to influence public opinion, and fear of Baxter with the power of the press highlights the extent to which the literary culture of the period had a grounded political impact in polarising the nation and encouraging radical attitudes. As N. H. Keeble (2001) attests, “there is no disputing either the productivity or the influence of the press during the middle decades of the seventeenth century” (p. 1), which was certainly an unprecedented occurrence. What had been an “annual output of fewer than 300 titles in 1600 had become 3,000 in 1642” (p. 1), evidencing the newfound and significantly influential nature of the press in political discourses during this era.


Figure 9: "The Resolution of the Women of London to the Parliament" (1642) and "The Parliament of Women" (1646).

It is significant to consider how the English Civil War differed from previous medieval conflicts of the Crown. It was fundamentally an “ideologically conflict” (Keeble, 2001, p. 2), a war of ideas, and as such, the popularization of political writings showed that this conflict depended on the circulation of these ideas in print. As the war progressed and Charles’s personal right to rule came under scrutiny, “competing notions required articulation and defence” (p. 2), once again highlighting a heavy reliance on these mass publications. Summers (1999) supports this view of the significance of the press, stating that “literature itself was at the very epicentre of the constitutional crisis” (p. 2), with written and printed literature playing an unprecedented role in public affairs (p. 2).


The reliance of radical and non-conservative groups, such as the Quakers and the Ranters, upon political publications, necessitated a response from the Royalists who also defended their ideas and allegiance. Royalist literature was defined by “incomprehensible loss” (p. 4) as they lost claim on their previous power. For both sides of the conflict, the contemporary world was one of profound change, disequilibrium, and uncertainty, and led to the state of this period to be characterized as a “world turned upside down” (Summers, 1999, p. 1). For some groups, this strange new world was an opportunity for “redressing social grievances or realising millenarian dreams”, while for others, “it might signify only the imposition of new forms of tyranny” (p. 1). For Summers (1999), the overwhelming majority of political writings however, addressed a “feeling of disorientation” caused by the “deeply bewildering and unsettling breakdown of authority of all kinds” (p. 1).


Figure 10: The World Turned Upside Down (Smith, 1646).

Cavalier poetry recasts political allegiance “to the obvious virtues of the good life” (p. 2), and for Thomas Crofts (1995), the ideal Cavalier poet wrote “of erotic love, wine and well-stocked pantries in countries houses […] devoted to the pleasures of civilisation, which for them meant a benevolent, adored monarch, flourishing arts and a peaceful, unmolested populace” (p. iv). For the Cavaliers, the unsettling state of the world was negotiated in poetry through a staunch dedication to security and flourishment of a world under a monarch, promoting their political agenda whilst easing the anxieties caused by the unsettling state of the nation. Writers such as Ben Jonson and Richard Lovelace mixed “obvious joy in language” with a sense of “foreboding: the pageantry of the court was going out, and the Protectorate, Cromwell’s dictatorial reign, was coming in” (p. iv). As such, the Civil War and its reality were still ever present in the Cavalier’s surface joyous and celebratory carpe diem poems, and there was a strong acknowledgement of the grim reality of their political purpose.


Key figures of the literary period include John Milton and Andrew Marvell. Milton condemned Charles I’s staunch advocacy of the divine right of kings, and in his political book The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates he defends the right of the people, particularly in the justification of the people’s right to execute a guilty sovereign. Milton’s vision was one of coalescence, one of a monarchical government:


It being thus manifest that the power of Kings and Magistrates is nothing else, but what is only derivative, transferred and committed to them in trust from the People (Milton, 1649, p. 4).

Milton wrote many political texts which will be considered within this 101 series. The works of Milton emphasise the significance of literature in influencing ideas and attitudes of the period, with The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates influencing the production of various other political works and theories, both in support of or in opposition to Milton’s views.


Figure 11: Portrait of John Milton (Unknown, c. 1629).

Andrew Marvell represents conflicting and fluctuating allegiances during the period of the Civil War. Initially a supporter of Charles I, Marvell eventually came to support Oliver Cromwell, writing several poems which praised Cromwell. His renowned political work An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland is one of the most famous works of the Civil War, in which he celebrates the rise of a Republic in England and praises Oliver Cromwell as a strong soldier and statesman.


The great diversity that characterised the literary culture of the Civil War emphasises the ways in which literature had become a significant tool to articulate the chaos, uncertainty, and violence of the period. The intense outpouring of political literature in the period was certainly unprecedented, illuminating the way in which literature became significantly propagated the political campaigns of both sides of the war.


The Restoration Period: A Brief Overview

N.H. Keeble's (2008) book, The Restoration: England in the 1660s, defines the year 1660 as “a turning-point in history: the end of one story and the beginning of another” (p. 1). In 1660, Charles II was welcomed back to the English throne, with both the monarchy and episcopacy restored. As expected in such a period of chaos and rapid change, the Restoration “was not only unplanned but unique, an event without precedents by which to interpret or understand it” (p. 2). In a period of shifting loyalties, “neither those who relinquished nor those who gained power in 1660 quite knew what had been won and lost, nor how far they could trust” it (p. 2). As Keeble (2008) articulates, the reinstatement of a monarchical figure to the throne did not incite immediate stability, trust, or peace in the nation. The people of the nation were uncertain as to whether this new arrangement would be any more durable than the republic had been, whilst the Crown and its Parliament did not know where English loyalties would lie.


Figure 12: King Charles II in Coronation Robes (Wright, 1660).

The Restoration period was no less of an era of uncertainty, chaos, and tension than the prior years of the 17th century. Historians regard the event as “an uneasy, brief settlement within longer-term political negotiations among Crown, Parliament, Church, and people” (MacLean, 1995, p. 3), with many considering that the struggles of which continue “to reverberate well into the eighteenth century and beyond” (p. 3).


The restoration of a monarch to the throne did not encourage a complete return to structures, attitudes, and ways of living such as those existing before the Civil War. In fact, MacLean (1995) contends that “the king’s return was accompanied by various constitutional and social changes that might appear to indicate a general return to conditions prevailing before the civil wars, but the restoration was […] a deeply contradictory affair, the product of an already divided society” (p. 4). The Restoration period thus still harboured many of the political and religious struggles inherited from the years between 1630 to 1660, and the dissent and ideologies of the pre-war and civil war period remained. The nation had to accommodate the old constitutional structures alongside the new ideologies and ways of thinking produced throughout the turbulent war years.


Figure 13: Oliver Cromwell (Cooper, c. 1650).

The Restoration Period: Literary Culture

Keeble (2001) considers the Restoration period as a literary attempt to “heal the body politic” (p. 5). Understanding the 1650s as a “period of constitutional experimentation” (p. 5), Keeble (2001) comments on the uncertain attempts at reconstruction which mark this period's literary culture. In a world without the “traditional assurances of security and stability […] in which customs, precedents, traditions and authorities could no longer be relied upon” (p. 5), Restoration literature sought to configure their new reality through the written word. MacLean (1995) argues that after years of civil unrest and bloodshed, “everyone wanted peace and order” (p. 6). Literature rushed to propagate such peace, with “satire flourish[ing] to translate disruptive anger and hostility into either companionable irony and innuendo” (p. 6). MacLean also points to the reopening of public theatres where attempts to entertain the urban public also sought to keep the peace through such entertainment.


Key literary figures of the Restoration period include Andrew Marvell, John Dryden, the Earl of Rochester, Daniel Defoe, and Aphra Behn, writers who in their respective ways sought literature as a vehicle through which to depict the continuing uncertainty of moral, ideologies, and security that seeped into the Restoration period. A defining feature of the literary period was Libertinism, which “embodies a dream of human freedom” (Chernaik, 1995, p. 2). Chernaik (1995) considers the dialogue that was characteristic of Restoration writers, such as the Earl of Rochester and Aphra Behn, to be a dialogue between “the felt need for order and the compulsion to rebel” (p. 2). The literature of the Restoration period was a construction of its age, an attempt to mediate the nation’s desire for peace, order, and stability, while also navigating remaining concerns and disillusionments within the new constitutional configuration.


Figure 14: Miscellany of Poems by the Earl of Rochester (British Library, c. 1655-1679).

According to Chernaik, “nearly all accounts of libertinism as an ideology stress restlessness, dissatisfaction or a sense of incompleteness as its defining characteristic. No one woman, no one conquest, can ever satisfy” (p. 3). The libertine finds himself continually trapped in an “infinite round of repetition” (p. 3). This sense of incompleteness, dissatisfaction and repetition was a manifestation of the the Restoration period, which could not resolve all political qualms and mediate all tension, a reflection of the political responses to the restoration of Charles II to the throne.


Sexual desire was also a key feature of libertine literature. As Anne Russell (1996) suggests, “libertine ideologies constructed and represented sexual relations as a microcosm of, or metaphor for, political relations” (p. 109). As such, Restoration literature also attempts to navigate the tyranny, violence, and upheaval of the century through the metaphor of sexual desire and freedom.


Restoration literature can then be seen as a way to understand and articulate the turbulent events of war, ideology, and upheaval. As Russell (1996) suggests, “in every transaction” in its literature, “the assertion of freedom by one participant means the deprivation of freedom for another” (p. 109). Libertine writers used the terminology and ideologies of the conflict of the century as a tool of navigation. Whilst Behn “uses the terminology of contemporary political debate to sexual relations”, Rochester navigates sexual desire as a “surrender of power, humiliation, defeat” (p. 110). It is clear that sexual desire in the Restoration period becomes a way of thinking about the political events of the century, defining the meaning of power, and the relation of power structures to one another. In such a turbulent age, it is no surprise that writers of this period were attempting to work through ideas of freedom, power, control and tyranny. This signifies the importance of literature in this period as a navigation tool, a way to process and articulate the political events that marked an age of chaos, turbulence, and continually competing structures of power.


Bibliographical References

Chernaik, W. (1995). Sexual Freedom in Restoration Literature. Cambridge University Press.


Coward, B. (2017). The Stuart Age: England, 1603–1714. Taylor and Francis Press.


Crofts, T. (1995).The Cavalier Poets: An Anthology. Courier Corporation.


Curtis, P. (1997). The Making of Jacobean Culture: James I and the Renegotiation of Elizabethan Literary Practice. Cambridge University Press.


Durston, C. (2006). James I. Routledge Press.


Hanley, C. (1972). Jacobean Drama and Politics. Temple University Press.


Keeble, N. H. (2001). The Cambridge Companion to Writing of the English Revolution. Cambridge University Press.


Keeble, N.H. (2008). The Restoration: England in the 1660s. John Wiley and Sons.


Laski, H. (1919). The Political Ideas of James I. Political Science Quaterly, 34(2), pp. 290-304.


MacLean, G. (1995). Culture and Society in the Stuart Restoration: Literature, Drama, History. Cambridge University Press.


Milton, J. (1649). The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. Henry Holt and Company.


Rickard, J. (2015). Writing the Monarch in England: Jonson, Donne, Shakespeare and the Works of King James. Cambridge University Press.


Ruigh, R. (1971). The Parliament of 1624: Politics and Foreign Policy. Harvard University Press.


Russell, A. (1996). [Review of Sexual Freedom in Restoration Literature, by W. Chernaik]. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 7(1), 108–110. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3840446


Russell, C. (1973). The Origins of the English Civil War. Bloomsbury Publishing.


Summers, C. (1999). The English Wars in the Literary Imagination. University of Missouri Press.

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