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Habits of Highly Effective Researchers? Online Communication and the Early Modern Boundaries Network

Peter Auger (Queen Mary University of London)


[1] In his English translation of Michel de Montaigne’s essay ‘Of Custome’, John Florio writes that ‘whatsoever is beyond the compasse of custome, wee deeme likewise to bee beyond the compasse of reason; God knowes how for the most part, unreasonably’.[1] The same essay argues that ‘custome doth so bleare us that we cannot distinguish the true visage of things’. Pessimism about customary thinking can also inspire an empowering awareness of how new habits drive innovation. This can help us to reflect on Renaissance studies as a discipline, like all disciplines, in which research follows established conventions that define what counts as valuable and reasonable. Change the routines, and discoveries become possible that can expand the compass of our understanding.

[2] The Early Modern Boundaries project, funded by a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award between 2015 and 2017, spent its first year examining how early modernists might develop working practices that better reflect the transnational and multilingual nature of early modern cultures. As recorded in our first report for this journal, a symposium held at Queen Mary in September 2015 highlighted the value of paying greater attention to transnational and regional movements, and seeking opportunities for collaborative research and improved language skills. The last of these points became the subject of a follow-up workshop at Newcastle in March 2016 that identified practical ways to promote language skills and exchange (twenty of which are listed on the project website).

[3] At both events, online communication came up as an area where new structures might usefully emerge to facilitate collaboration amongst early modernists, especially on language-related matters. In particular, participants raised the idea of an online professional network that would allow early modernists to ask and answer questions among colleagues with adjacent interests. So when the British Academy awarded us follow-on funding in Spring 2016, the obvious next step was to set up such a network to allow the research community to begin interacting in these new ways. In order to get a better picture of how research-related online communication currently works, we spent a couple of months talking to colleagues with diverse research interests and social media habits. Mailing lists (like JISCmail and H-Net), we learnt, are good for announcements but are often too large to initiate discussions among new members, plus it is hard to find out who else is on the list and only possible to contact the whole group en masse. For those who use it, Twitter is the best available tool for contacting many other researchers at once, and is especially useful during conferences; however, it feels too public for some, and is not as effective for directing questions to experts. Facebook groups can also generate a sense of scholarly community, but the blurring of personal and professional lives can be even more off-putting.

[4] We also received sensible practical advice. Don’t tell people how to interact – this was a project that should showcase new ways to communicate and see how researchers take them up. Don’t convene an omnium gatherum of early modernists, or something that just feels like yet another thing to sign up to. Instead, do have a clear identity: make the most of the emphasis on multilingual, transnational and comparative research to target a like-minded section of the larger community. Do concentrate on supplying a service that meets researchers’ current needs. Do gather together existing networks of people who have met in person rather than be wholly virtual; the group might even aspire to be a network of networks. Finally, don’t create an electronic island, but do create links with ways that researchers already meet and interact.

[5] With a sense of timeliness for a project aiming to strengthen ties between scholars in the United Kingdom and abroad after Britain’s EU Referendum, the Early Modern Boundaries network launched its pilot initiative in Autumn 2016, offering ‘a new platform for early modernists to discuss research queries among targeted groups of other researchers’. Hosted by a communications hub called Mobilize that has been evolving while we have been subscribing to it, at the time of writing we have 170 members from across the world – from Korea, Egypt, Mexico, New Zealand, India, the United States and Canada as well as a host of European nations. New members are always welcome: the project website has full details about the project and its uses, and how to join.

[6] The network operates roughly like a customizable mailing list. On joining, members can add information about research interests, languages and periods of study, then search a directory of other researchers who are willing to offer assistance, and contact sections of the group or individuals with research queries. The platform works best for research enquiries directed solely at recipients with shared interests, such as seventeenth-century Spanish, sixteenth-century French or outreach activities for English literature. Members of our community have been offering unfailingly prompt and well-informed assistance to questions asked on these and other areas. It is through such queries that the platform has enabled a kind of communication that could not have happened without the network’s existence.

[7] Members can also make announcements to the whole group if they wish. In order to reduce email volume, we encourage members to post general announcements on the platform where they will be immediately visible to anyone who logs into the platform (which, in practice, is hardly anyone as members can use the service entirely by email) and are then included in a regular email update sent to all members. Members can choose whether to receive emails from the platform immediately, daily or never. Almost all members have chosen to subscribe to email updates, and we try to keep messages at a minimum. However, whole-group messages, including newsletters, do not necessarily have a higher rate of engagement than targeted messages: messages sent by email to the whole group are usually opened by just over half of all members, e.g. fifty-six percent viewed the most recent newsletter (the platform lets you see who views or clicks on your messages).

[8] Having shown what the platform offers to the community, the network’s next task is to explore possibilities for integrating its activities with those of other researchers and projects working on cross-cultural and multilingual topics. The pilot initiative has one-and-a-half years left to run, after which time it will become clearer whether its new modes of communication offered a handy window of opportunity to ask questions, or whether they have revealed new habits among the global research community in early modern studies. The priority so far has been on setting up the platform such that members enjoy the experience, find it simple to interact with other members, and feel rewarded and part of a community when they contribute. The biggest question for the network in its current form is whether its passive members will become more active over time, feeling at home with the platform and able to contribute questions and ideas when they arise.

[9] The network also needs to link its interactions more closely to existing research activities and events. In order to generate discussion about how digital tools enable transnational and multilingual scholarship, the project sponsored a drinks reception at the conference ‘Reception, Reputation and Circulation in the Early Modern World, 1500-1800’, held at the National University of Ireland, Galway, in March 2017 (podcasts and abstracts are now available online). In introducing the project and its aims to potential new members, this contribution was in effect more like a conference paper than a new partnership: as a one-off collaboration, it made little sense to use the platform’s calendar, events and discussion functions to bring participants together. The network might well consider how it could attach itself to a series of occasional meetings to develop its sense of community, and even how such meetings might use video conferencing or recordings to engage participants from right across our international network. An aspiration to use the platform to engage infrequent tweeters in the rich conversations on Twitter has not yet been realized since Mobilize does not offer integration with social media platforms for the time being (though it can now be used via an app).

[10] Another area where the network could grow in response to need is to help more graduate students and other early career researchers to strengthen their personal research network. The network provides a supportive environment for junior academics to seek advice beyond their institution and discipline, to ask questions about languages and cultures beyond their specialism, and to gain tips about research, teaching and careers. The network has created a space for interdisciplinary discussion that complements disciplinary training among a self-identified group of scholars who are open to such conversations.

[11] The larger issue at stake is how the emerging area of transnational early modern studies can create and nurture a research community responsive to new developments that is not dependent on funded initiatives like this one nor on large fixed-term research projects. The network needs to become more closely embedded with activities at institutional and other research centres, and we would be interested to hear from other individuals and universities about creating links, in particular from those who already have an established community in a relevant area (all the more so if located outside the United Kingdom).

[12] The time and money invested in the Early Modern Boundaries project has generated a burst of creative energy to illuminate how linguistic and disciplinary boundaries shape research, and how researchers might organize themselves individually and collectively in response to the need for more work on transnational, multilingual and comparative areas of early modern studies, areas like the Northern Renaissance and Eastern European literature, to name just two. The pilot initiative’s purpose is ultimately greater than making this particular platform succeed: it has challenged members of the global research community to develop more robust methods that enable frequent and casual research collaboration. Such habits will usefully extend the compass of our customs if they help researchers to be visible and approachable members of a single research community that operates across disciplines and nations.

[13] All researchers with relevant interests are warmly invited to join the pilot initiative, which runs until January 2019. Members are very welcome to give thoughts and feedback on the network, and the comments box below offers a place to do so. To learn more and to join, see www.earlymodernboundaries.com.



[1] Montaigne’s Essays, trans. John Florio, 3 vols (London: Dent, 1910; repr. 1965), I, p. 114-15. I am very grateful to Kate De Rycker for comments on an earlier draft. [back to text]

Introduction: Scrutinizing Surfaces in Early Modern Thought

Introduction: Scrutinizing Surfaces in Early Modern Thought

Liz Oakley-Brown & Kevin Killeen

[1]  By examining the relationships between inanimate and animate matter in early-modern Europe, this special issue on Scrutinizing Surfaces in Early Modern Thought takes up and develops Joseph A. Amato’s trans-historical investigation of how ‘humans, ourselves a body of surfaces, meet and interact with a world dressed in surfaces’ (2013: xv). The past three decades have witnessed an ‘emergent field of critical, surficial thought’ (Forsyth et al 2013: 1017) with theoretical curiosity in, for example, flatness, topology, networks and relationality (Deleuze & Guattari 2004; Latour, 2005; Adkins & Lury, 2009; Lury, Parisi & Terranova 2012; Bennett, 2010; Hodder, 2012). In material terms, landscapes, water and the ecological impact of the Anthropocene have been surveyed (Forsyth et al 2013; Gooley, 2016; Crutzen & Stoermer, 2000) alongside terraneous particles such as dust (Amato, 2000) and soil (Eklund 2017). Zooming in and out to examine both minute and capacious things, writers such as Vivian Sobchack (2004), Tim Ingold (2007), and Glen Adamson and Victoria Kelly (2013) analyse line and surface; literary, historical and semiotic theorists, for instance Claudia Benthien (2002), Steven Connor (2004), Elspeth Probyn (2005), Patricia Cahill (2009) and Tanya Pollard (2010), study the significance of cutaneous coverings.[1] However, amidst this profusion of twenty-first century interest, the historical, cultural and social specificity of surfaces per se have been largely overlooked. While some essays are explicitly informed by Jacques Derrida, Daniel Miller and Michel Serres and others are more broadly influenced by the general concepts of ‘surficial thought’ outlined above, each article in this special issue works toward the inauguration of what might be termed sixteenth- and seventeenth-century surface studies.

[2]  The accomplished metaphor of depth and profundity worked to the full in early modern thought, but by no means did it monopolise the era’s ontologies or its poetics. Renaissance rhetoric’s bad conscience and delicious secret was that it was all surface, decorative, gilded, cosmetic. Rhetoric was paint and gloss, and one could never plane the wood down finely enough to be unadorned. We could surely not reckon up the number of abject apologies in which the author insisted he or she was without craft, unadorned and naked in what they write, thrown upon blunt res when verba failed. This too, the era knew, was rhetoric, the parrhesia of the crafty Iago as much as the candid councilor. Hence Francis Bacon’s 1625 essay ‘On Simulation and Dissimulation’ discussed how the manipulation of surface-depth dynamics were important components of Tudor and Stuart realpolitik. Likewise disguise and guile, the outward surface that belied the inner, was a compelling metaphorical trope. Early modernity was fascinated with the lie, its beauty and horror. And the lie was a thing that always had something of the material to it, a grossness.[2]  However, over the past decades, early modern studies has been intensely focused on interiority, the apparently fathomless depths beneath. The essays here aim to focus attention on the ways that the surface mattered in the literary, musical and the scientific, as well as the material experience of the era.

[3]  The early modern period’s well-known interest in the Ovidian myth of Narcissus helps to articulate that fascination. The first vernacular episode from the Latin mythopoesis to be published in Elizabethan England, the anonymous The fable of Ouid treting of Narcissus, translated out of Latin into Englysh mytre, with a moral there vnto (1560), describes how the titular youth, exhausted by his flight from Echo’s advances, stops to rest in a conventional locus amoenus:

    _A sprynge there was so fayre, that stremes like sylver had
whiche nether shepardes happe to fynde, nor gotes that vpwarde gad
__Uppon the rocky hyls, nor other kynde of beste,
wyth flashyng feete to foule the same, or troble at the leste,
__Wherin them selves to bathe, no byrdes had made repare,
nor leffe had fallen from any tree, the water to appeare,
__About the which the grounde had made some herbes to growe
and eke the trees had kept the sunne, from commynge doune so lowe

As Narcissus stoops to drink from the spring, the unsullied water provides the ideal conditions for his tragedy to unfold: ‘the image of hys grace/ therewyth he rapt, fell streyght in loue, wyth shadowe of his face’ (Aiiiv). In the moralised tradition of Ovidian translation, and as is well known, the tale is often read as an allegorical warning against the dangers of self-love: Arthur Golding’s slightly later rendition starkly states ‘lyke a foolish noddye, / He thinkes the shadowe that he sees, too bee a lively boddye’ (1565: BIIIr). However, in the moralised drama between body and reflection, it is all too easy to miss the importance of the water and how Narcissus’ plight engages with early modern Europe’s attraction to surfaces and their significance for sensation, for selfhood.

[4]  In this way, sensual efficiency depends on the interplay with surfaces. While its narrative core features a mythic meditation on sight and touch, ‘the presence of Echo adds a dimension of hearing, sound and voice to the scene’: Ovid’s tale is thus ‘intensely multi-sensory’ (Moshenska 2014: 94) and, accordingly, suffused with surfaces (Kenaan 2014: 50) from the evidently physical to the profoundly auditory. Indeed, Ovid’s myth recounts Narcissus’ misrecognition while toying with its audience’s understanding of mise-en-scène. In typical Ovidian fashion, Narcissus’ pause in a ‘pleasant place’ ultimately refutes what its surface suggests (Phillips 2014).

[5]  Leon Battista Alberti’s De Pictura [On painting] (1535) engages with the poem’s self-reflexive qualities. Alberti recognised the Ovidian myth as an aetiology of figurative art. ‘I used to tell my friends’, Alberti explains, ‘that the inventor of painting, according to the poets, was Narcissus…What is painting but the act of embracing by means of art the surface of the pool’ (cited in Ruffini 2011, n.6; see also Kennan 2014: 49). This may be the case when a rapt Narcissus observes that the ‘lytle water here, dothe seuer vs in twayne’ (Aiiiir)’. Here, as Hagi Kenaan shows, ‘the mirroring surface’ presents ‘the enabling condition of visual illusion’ (2014: 48). Yet,

it is Narcissus’ tears, disturbing the pond as they fall, that draw our attention to his reflection. This troubled surface provokes a peculiarly destructive form of self-knowledge by allowing Narcissus to see that he is looking at an imago. (Enterline, 1995: 1)

Lynne Enterline’s focus is firmly on The Tears of Narcissus (the title of her monograph). Even so, her compelling description of the youth’s realisation brings the agitated water into view. Reading with the surface means that Narcissus is not guilty of neglecting insight. Rather, he is guilty of not understanding the nature of surface, and of sheen, the mutually insubstantial image in ripple and beauty in transcience. In phenomenological terms, Narcissus is at odds with the life-world he inhabits. At the same time, Ovid’s myth bespeaks the centrality of the surface for early modern thought.

[6]  As each of the essays in this special issue suggests, the period’s enchantment with and concerns for surfaces is wide-ranging. Helen Smith’s essay explores the ways in which the surface of paper engrossed the attention of writer after writer, its massy and material form as much as its capacity to generate metaphor. Taking her cue from Derrida’s suspicion of the ‘blank paper trope’, the essay explores early modern understandings of paper that might be plain, proverbially blank and passive, but which was also an object whose spongy volume and absorbency, and whose pliable multi-functionality exemplified the idea of the virtual, the latent potential of things. This was a culture, Smith shows, in which paper was deployed in myriad ways – medical, culinary, artistic – beyond writing; it was a vital commodity, a product manipulated with oil, akin to cloth, sometimes layered, such that users, domestic, commercial and scientific, were regularly engaged in quasi-artisanal processes with this most malleable, as well as philosophical and poetic, of materials.

[7]  Anna Reynolds furthers this attention to paper, in her account of its recycling, or rather its very particular repurposing in the bindings of books, the pasted layers that might serve both practical purposes and be strategically demeaning, in the evident Tudor enjoyment of putting monastic waste to the servile work of flyleafs and pastedowns. She traces the dissolution and the scattering of manuscripts, the melancholy, sometimes ritual and sometimes accidental demotion of the material remnants of no-longer-sacred texts, and the acts of retrieval that saw in them the story of a precarious national history. Dealing primarily with John Leland and John Bale in the sixteenth century and the later attentions of John Aubrey to this same matter, Reynolds demonstrates how significant a set of memories inhered not just in things written, but in the rough touch of books.

[8]  It is clear that paper, its feel under the fingers and the tactility of engaging with it, mattered – any reader of a kindle, or indeed an online journal knows the difference, the thing missing. The electronic scroll is a lovely motion, but the turn of the page, Craig Farrell’s essay shows, is its own particular action, whose uses – unveiling, turning over a new leaf, variations in presentation – were well known and played upon by early modern poets, including Thomas Watson, Edmund Spenser and George Herbert. The physicality of poems that emerges, whose typographical tricks might echo and involve the reader’s hand and eye, speaks to a culture attuned to the material, and aware of the rhetorical value in the pause of the turning page. The poets here are shown to pay close attention to the print shop, to the appearance on the page and the reader’s engagement with the physical object.

[9]  Claire Canavan notes how early modern book production was not only lavish, but produced a large number of elaborately well-dressed books, embellished with covers that proved in turn irresistibly and emblematically attractive to painters, who regularly included them in their compositions. Books’ outer surfaces produced their own orchestration of symbolic meaning. The embroidered, the textile and the stitched were not mere ornamentation, but could work as their own hermeneutically challenging addition to the text itself. The textile cover, folded, pleated and embellished, was a rich interpretative resource, complementing and complicating the text, particularly the biblical text, in a culture with a ready sense of the emblematic, and which augmented the text and the reading experience with bookmarks and book-bags, whose ribboned, knotted and shredded fabric, the essay shows, were accorded exegetical as much as decorative weight.

[10]  With a keen focus on the discursive ramifications of the term ‘sur-face’ ‒ a word simultaneously connoting position, body and book ‒ Lucy Razzall examines how the title page is a singularly striking material and intellectual plane. In many ways, and in contrast to bindings, covers and the other pages that make up the rest of a book, she suggests that it is a ‘defining surface’: the title page delineates the contents of the ensuing text and the material circumstances of its production (for example authors, editors, printers, publishers, date and place of publication). Like the foregoing essays, Razzall is invested in materiality and tactility. At the same time, her discussion draws specific attention to the ideological dimensions surrounding the cautious translation of ‘surface’ in the Book of Genesis, from William Tyndale’s Old Testament to the King James Bible and a variety of creative uses of the ‘title leafe’ in William Shakespeare, The seconde part of Henrie the fourth (1600), Barnabe Rich, Faultes faults, and nothing else but faultes (1606), Thomas Dekker, A strange horse-race (1613) and John Taylor Eniautos (1653).

[11]  Moving from title-pages to literal and figurative vocal tracts ‒ and from England to Europe ‒ Richard Wistreich considers the relationships between singing and ‘the surface of sensual experience’ in the court of Alfonso d’Este II at Ferrara. Impelled by the Aristotelian notion of voice as ‘the impact of the inbreathed air against the windpipe’ (De Anima, 1993, 420b 27) and new materialist perspectives on early modern anatomy, Wistreich’s close reading of Giovanni Battista Guarini’s 1582 poem ‘Mentre vaga Angioletta’ (subtitled ‘Gorga di cantatrice’ [‘the singer’s throat’]) – explores the fluid interactions between literary and corporeal boundaries. By moving beyond the classical focus on human voice, syntax and grammar, this critical attention to philosophical and medical vocality provides a suggestive view of early modern physiological and emotive surface effects: the emphasis is on how, rather than what, a song might mean.

[12]  The relationship between bodies and surfaces is extended in Stewart Mottram’s discussion of Andrew Marvell’s writings. Taking inspiration from Nathanael Culverwell’s Spiritual Opticks (1651) and contemporary discourses of religious tolerationism, Mottram probes connections between the textual, the corporeal and the lithic. In so doing, Mottram examines tensions between materiality and immanence in poems such as ‘The Mower’s Song’, ‘The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn’ and, most notably, his epitaphic texts. Designed to record the deceased’s lifetime achievement and thus forming a key component of the early modern sepulchre’s composite surface, Mottram’s essay shows how the combination of Marvell’s Socinianism and marmoreal engagements unsettle epitaphic veracity.

[13]  Kevin Killeen’s contribution to this special issue looks at early modern encounters with the newly available experience of the magnified surface, the microscopic abominations in which things that were to common sense smooth and placid proved to the scientific gaze – if it could be trusted – rugged and pocked. The surface was found to embody not the plain and the straightforward, but rather to be the most counter-intuitive and mysterious of entities. The discussions of microscopy in Robert Boyle’s and Henry Power’s ostensibly empirical enquiries produced objects which needed a new way of describing as much as mere description. Out of this, the essay argues, the seventeenth-century fascination with Lucretius and the very particular Lucretian ‘poetics of texture’ emerge, against which Margaret Cavendish’s vitalist natural philosophy took a brilliant and strange stand.

[14]  Taking a frankly twenty-first century approach, Hilary Hinds’ essay reflects on her own editorial engagement with the material surface of Anna Trapnel’s Report and Plea (1654). Motivated by Trapnel’s concepts of authorship and in the wake of modern practices where ‘the editorial gaze is not directed at the compass of complexities or depths of meaning of the work’ (Gabler 2009: 10), Hinds’ task turns on the relationship with the complex textual surface of seventeenth-century life-writing. To help articulate what she calls ‘the affective territory inhabited by editorial work’, Hinds deploys Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work on ‘paranoid’ and ‘reparative’ criticism. Here, Sedgwick’s binary terms and their respective alignments with reading against (‘paranoid’) or with (‘reparative’) the grain of the text are analogous with concepts of depth and surface. Thus, the editor can either search for hidden tensions or try to understand ‘the complexity of literary surfaces’ that asked to be ‘looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through’ (Best and Marcus 2009: 1, 9).

[15]  If Hinds demonstrates presentist concerns for the interpretation of early modern surfaces, Liz Oakley-Brown looks to William Shakespeare’s As You Like It (c. 1599) and its afterlives ‒ Paul Czinner’s 1936 film and Andrzej Krauze’s artwork for the Old Vic’s production (1989) ‒ to show how surficial thought itself is subject to history. Building on Razzall’s etymological interest, Oakley-Brown considers Shakespeare’s marked avoidance of the word and the ways in which the play’s modernist and postmodernist adaptations help foreground a cultural politics of surfaces. Shifting from England’s second Elizabethan epoch to its first and finally the extraordinary inter-war year in which George V, Edward VIII and George VI were each crowned the nation’s monarch, the comparative media of drama, film and image capture surface’s ideological freight.

[16]  In sum, the ten essays comprising Scrutinizing Surfaces in Early Modern Thought suggest how contemporary notions of surface ontologies add to our understanding of the period’s social milieu and its sensitivity to the material world. They demonstrate the era’s sensory engagements, with voice and stone, or with its newly profuse and most endlessly enigmatic material, paper. They show the ways in which early modern writing was alert to texture and the intricate, and the modalities of touch from the finger on cloth to the air in the throat. If this was an era that felt its duty was to plumb the self, to fathom the social and the philosophical in all their cavernous obscurity, it was no less a time attuned to the vertigo of the depthless. The articles here also conjure up ways in which those earlier superficial interests and anxieties underpin our own.


This special issue emerged from a conference held under the auspices of the Northern Renaissance Roses Seminar at the University of Lancaster, in collaboration with the University of York. We’d like to thank all the participants for two stimulating days and to acknowledge the generous support of the Society for Renaissance Studies and Lancaster University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Research Support Fund.

[1] This overview of the current field is indebted to Liz Oakley-Brown’s editorial collaboration with Rebecca Coleman for the forthcoming special section of Theory, Culture and Society on ‘Visualising Surfaces, Surfacing Vision’. [back to text]

[2] See further Mary E. Hazard (2000) and Helen Smith (2012). [back to text]


Adamson, Glen and Victoria Kelly. eds. 2013. Surface Tensions: Surface, Finish and the Meaning of Objects (Manchester: Manchester University Press)

Adkins, Lisa and Celia Lury. (2009) ‘What is the empirical?’, European Journal of Social Theory, Vol 12, No. 1 (February), pp. 5-20.

Amato, Joseph. 2000. Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible (California: University of California Press)

_____. 2013. Surfaces: A History (California: University of California Press)

Anon. 1560. The fable of Ouid treting of Narcissus, tra[n]slated out of Latin into Englysh mytre, with a moral there vnto (London)

Aristotle. 1993. De Anima: Books II and III ( with Passages from Book I). trans. by D. W. Hamlyn (Oxford: Clarendon)

Bacon, Francis. 1625. ‘Of Simulation and Dissimulation’, in The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall (London), sigs E1r-E4v

Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press)

Benthien, Claudia. 2002. Skin: On the Cultural Border Between Self and World. trans. by Thomas Dunlap (New York: Columbia University Press)

Best, Stephen and Sharon Marcus. 2009. ‘Surface Reading: An Introduction’, in: Representations: Special Issue , Vol. 108, No. 1, pp. 1-21

Cahill, Patricia A. 2009. ‘Take Five: Renaissance Literature and the Study of the Senses’, in Literature Compass, Vol. 6, No. 5, pp. 1014-1030

Connor, Steven. 2003. The Book of Skin (London: Reaktion)

Crutzen, Paul. J. and Eugene F. Stoermer. 2000. ‘The “Anthropocene”’, in Global Change Newsletter, 41 (May), pp. 17-18

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 2004. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. by Brian Massumi (London: Continuum)

Eklund, Hillary. ed. 2017. Early Renaissance Literature and Soil Science (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press)

Enterline, Lynne. 1995. The Tears of Narcissus: Melancholia and Masculinity in Early Modern Writing (Stanford: Stanford University Press)

Forsyth, Isla, Hayden Lorimer, Peter Merriman and James Robinson. eds. 2013. ‘What are surfaces?’, in Environment and Planning A: Themed Issue, Vol. 45, No. (5) (September), pp. 1013-1020

Gabler, Hans Walter. 2011. ‘Thoughts on Scholarly Editing. Review of: Paul Eggart, Securing the Past. Conservation in Art, Architecture and Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2009’, in Journal of Literary Theory Online <http://www.jltonline.de/index.php/reviews/article/view/307/893>

Golding, Arthur. 1565. The fyrst fovver bookes of P. Ouidius Nasos worke, intitled Metamorphosis, translated oute of Latin into Englishe meter (London)

Gooley, Tristan. 2016. How To Read Water (London: Sceptre)

Hazard, Mary E. 2000. ‘Chapter Three: Surface, Color, and Texture as Superficial Comment’, in Elizabethan Silent Language (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press), pp. 77-108

Hodder, Ian. 2012. Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships Between Humans and Things (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell)

Ingold, Tim. 2007. Lines: A Brief History (London: Routledge)

Kenaan, Hagi. 2014. ‘Touching Sculpture’ in Sculpture and Touch, ed. by Peter Dent (Farnham: Ashgate), pp. 45-60

Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling The Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Lury, Celia, Parisi, Luciana and Terranova, Tiziana. eds. 2012. ‘The Becoming Topological of Culture’, in Theory, Culture and Society: Special Issue, Vol. 29, No 4-5, pp 3-35 (July-September)

Moshenska, Joe. 2014. Feeling Pleasures: The Sense of Touch in Renaissance England (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Phillips, Brid. 2014. ‘Locus amoenus or locus violens? Shakespearean Emotions Expressed Through an Ovidian Model, in Shakespeare and Emotions: Inheritances, Enactments, Legacies, ed. by R. S. White, Mark Houlahan and Katrina O’Loughlin (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 29-38

Pollard, Tanya. 2010. ‘Enclosing the Body: Tudor Conceptions of Skin’, in A Companion to Tudor Literature, ed. by Kent Cartwright (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell), pp. 111-23

Probyn, Elspeth. 2005. Blush: Faces of Shame (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press)

Ruffini, Marco. 2011. ‘Alberti on the Surface’. California Italian Studies, 2 <http://escholarship.org/uc/item/3pd1g732>

Sobchack, Vivian. 2004. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkley: University of California Press)

‘A unique instance of art’: The Proliferating Surfaces of Early Modern Paper

‘A unique instance of art’: The Proliferating Surfaces of Early Modern Paper [1]

Helen Smith

‘Materials are materials because inventive people find ingenious things to do with them’
— Christopher Hall, Materials: A Very Short Introduction

[1] In an interview with Les cahiers des médiologie, ‘Paper or Me, You Know … (New Speculations on a Luxury of the Poor)’, Jacques Derrida declares: ‘I have never had any other subject: basically paper, paper, paper’ (2005: 41). Alert to the doubleness of what it means to write ‘on’ paper, Derrida literally sets pen to paper, but also writes ‘on the subject of paper, an actual paper, and with paper in mind’. The term ‘subject’ is not neutral: the history of paper, Derrida argues, is ‘a history tangled up with the invention of the human body and of hominization’ (43). Paper is, Derrida insists, ‘heavy with all the assumptions that … are sedimented down into the history of the substance or the subject … but also that of the relationship between the soul and the body’.

[2] These enfolded ‘papers’ form the subject of my own ‘paper’. I investigate the multitudinous uses of paper in early modern England with two aims: to challenge the prevalent notion of a “paper-short” society, and to go beyond the notion of paper as a surface for writing. For Derrida, it is precisely paper’s susceptibility to inscription that gives it depth: ‘Beneath the appearance of a surface, it holds in reserve a volume, folds, a labyrinth whose walls return the echoes of the voice or song that it carries itself’ (44). Derrida’s ‘paper, paper, paper’ is a playful inversion of surface and content, body and soul, haunted by the ghost of Hamlet’s ‘words, words, words’. Yet although Derrida remarks that paper has many uses – ‘remember there is also wrapping paper, wallpaper, cigarette papers, toilet paper, and so on’ (43) – this most stringent critic of logocentrism is insistently drawn to writing or printing paper by the allure of the ‘graphosphere’ (48), the inscriptive domain which, for Derrida, renders paper not simply a medium but a ‘multimedia’ substance (44). In the course of Derrida’s essay, the whiteness of the surface becomes the whiteness of writing: ‘spacing, gaps, the “blanks which become what is important,” always open up onto a base of paper’ (53).

[3] This article takes issue with the concept of the ‘writing surface’ on two fronts. On the one hand, it responds to Margreta de Grazia and Peter Stallybrass’s insistence that ‘the crucial quality of paper – its absorbency – eludes the dichotomy’ of surface and depth central to the idea of the book (1993: 280). Writing does not exist ‘on’ paper, but sinks into the page, in ways that, as we will see, were experienced by early moderns not only as a practical problem but as a compelling figure for thought. As Juliet Fleming puts it, in a stimulating reading of Derrida: ‘we will never have understood writing if we continue to think in layers, for “on” is only a special case of being “in” the world, a case that is locally stabilized but far from stable, and a fantasy more dominant than it should be, perhaps’ (Fleming, 2016: 141). On the other hand, I draw attention to the manifold uses of paper that have nothing to do with writing: the modes of knowing made visible when we attend to the transformations and possibilities of the surface in, for example, papier mâché, paper medicines, and paper models.

[4] Paper is always at once a real presence and an idea. ‘When we say “paper”, Derrida asks, ‘are we naming the empirical body that bears this conventional name? Are we already resorting to a rhetorical figure? Or are we by the same token designating this “quasi-transcendental paper,” whose function could be guaranteed by any other “body” or “surface”…?’ (52). This article explores these questions in response to specific early modern instantiations of paper and its tropes, arguing that paper formed both a practical and an intellectual resource. Early moderns looked into, as well as at and through, their paper, seeing it as a remarkable material and an instance of the changeability of matter. Restoring paper’s own capacity to fold, to create space and volume, I argue that its ‘multimedia’ potential is a function not of paper’s status as a support for writing but of its unique physical properties.

[5] This article opens by arguing for the close connection between paper and thought, with an emphasis on the act of writing. It goes on to offer a brief account of paper manufacture and circulation in early modern England, arguing that paper was considerably more commonplace than has been acknowledged. After exploring natural philosophical and medicinal uses of paper in section three, I conclude by examining some of paper’s domestic transformations, as the material of tricks and toys, and of decorative techniques. In each of its incarnations, paper is revealed to be an everyday wonder, an object of study and a subject of thought. Encountered outside the ‘graphosphere’ (though approached through the evidence of writing), paper is revealed as an endlessly proliferating, flexible, and generative substance.

‘This blank paper’
[6] The blank receptiveness of paper is a longstanding trope with a rich early modern heritage, ranging from Othello’s demand, ‘Was this faire paper, this most goodly booke, / Made to write whore on?’ (1622: K4r) to the 1635 translation of Vital d’Audiguier’s tragicomic Lisander and Calista, in which ‘Lisander finding Hippolita with a minde free and vnpossessed like a smooth white paper, writ in fiery letters the euerlasting progresse of his loue’ (Y1v). The routine gendering of this analogy is reflected in Thomas Cooper’s definition of the Latin ‘Charta’ as ‘Paper: a leafe of paper : any thinge conteynyng the discription of a place in picture: a mayde that had neuer childe: a booke’ (1565: T2r). The trope equally expressed the impressionability of infants, whether in Richard Baxter’s reflection that whilst children ‘are young their understandings are like a sheet of white paper, that hath nothing written on; and so you have opportunity to write what you will’ (1650: Aaaa2r), or John Locke’s insistence that the gentleman’s son he was engaged to tutor should be conceived of ‘only as white Paper, or Wax, to be moulded and fashioned as one pleases’ (1693: S3r).

[7] The Aristotelian heritage of the blank paper trope, with its connotations of inert matter and shaping form, is made apparent in David Browne’s The new invention, intituled, calligraphia, which explicitly uses the language of Aristotelian matter theory to chart the causes of writing, though Browne admits that his taxonomy is ‘more Metaphoricke than proper’ (1622: ¶¶¶8v). Ink, he argues, is ‘the Materiall cause of Writing … for as the paper is the subject whereon, so the Inke is the matter whereof’(¶¶¶¶1r). Browne uses ‘subject’ in a metaphysical sense, taking it to mean ‘the underlying substance or essence of a thing’, as distinct from its accidents (OED ‘Subject’, n. def. 5.). Along similar lines, Thomas Blundeville, writing in 1617, used paper as an instance of ‘apposition’ (juxtaposition or placing in contact): ‘when a thing sheweth what his owne qualitie or operation is, by being put or added to another thing … Inke being put to paper … will make it black’ (1617: O3v). In these definitions, we see what Derrida describes as ‘the indeterminate “base” of paper, the basis of the basis en abyme, when it is also surface, support, and substance (hypokeimenon), material substratum, formless matter and force in force (dynamis), virtual or dynamic power of virtuality — see how it appeals to an interminable genealogy of these great philosophemes’ (53). Imaginatively cast as what is below, paper’s significance expands until it becomes exemplary of substance itself.

[8] The potent metaphorics of writing were used to address a variety of theological and philosophical problems, from divine grace — ‘As my paper whereon I am writing, receaueth the inke passiuely, and bringeth nothing of it to the writing &c. Whence it followeth, that in those whome God effectually will renew, their will can make no resistance, as my paper cannot reiect my writing’ (S. N., 1622: Aa4v) — to the operations of memory: ‘the memorie remayneth a power passiue, and not actiue: euen as the blew and the white of the paper, is none other than a commoditie whereby to write’ (Huarte, 1594: F8v). These examples, which illustrate Derrida’s contention that the history of paper is the history of the subject, depend upon the imaginative inertness of paper; paper’s very ‘baseness’ is what allows its structural and imaginative power to flicker into view.

[9] Near the beginning of ‘Paper, or me, You Know’, Derrida declares ‘There is no need to trust blindly in all the discourses that reduce paper to the function or topos of an inert surface laid out beneath some markings, a substratum meant for sustaining them, for ensuring their survival or subsistence’ (42). If Derrida is suspicious of the blank paper trope because it reinforces a history of the ‘body-subject’ as an ‘immobile and impassible surface’, we may distrust the figure for more mundane reasons. In Shakespeare’s First Folio, Othello’s question is punctuated with an additional question mark: ‘Was this faire Paper? This most goodly Booke / Made to write Whore vpon?’ (1623: vv2r; figure one). In this instantiation, Othello’s suspicions set not just Ophelia’s chastity but the epistemological status of paper in doubt, directing the attention of the reader to the surface of the book.

Figure one: Detail from William Shakespeare, Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount, 1623), vv2r. Image taken from The Bodleian First Folio: digital facsimile of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, Bodleian Arch. G c.7. http://firstfolio.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/

[10] Despite the popularity of the blank-paper trope, the experience of paper in early modern England was seldom one of a passive substance, though the finest papers were beautifully smooth. Paper was understood as a surface that needed to be remade in preparation for use. Edward Topsell, in his Historie of four-footed beasts, reflected ‘Of the teeth of Oxen I know no other vse but scraping and making Paper smooth with them’ (1607: H5v), an observation that scratches the surface of the symbiotic relationships brought into being by the application of products including white leather and breadcrumbs to the page. In order to delete pencilled guidelines for writing, ‘that both the writ may the more viuelie [sic] appeare, and thine owne ignorance the lesse’, David Browne suggests rubbing them ‘softlie with a piece of Wheate bread’ (1622: B6r). Such practices might lead to a proliferation of cultures on the surfaces of culture: the Victoria and Albert Museum website warns that ‘Oily residues or small crumbs trapped in the paper fibres will support mould growth’ (see also Timmermann, 2013). Writing and some printing paper was treated with size, a glutinous substance made of parings of animal hide, in order to prevent the paper from absorbing too much ink (Barrett, 2012). Artists’, engravers’, and surveyors’ guides describe treatments to ‘strengthen the paper, … make the colour shew the brighter, and last, the better’ (Bate, 1634: R1r), or keep ‘the colours from sinking into the paper, … make them shew fairer, and keep them from fading’ (Salmon, 1672: P2v-P3r).

[11] Like the blank-paper trope, the experience of meeting with a ‘rough’, ‘hard’, ‘dry’ or ‘nought’ writing surface helped authors grapple with complex moral and philosophical knots. Pondering the meeting of nib and surface as an analogy for the relationship between preacher and audience, Nehemiah Rogers reflected:

respect must bee had vnto the Auditory, as the good Pen-man hath in nibbing of his Pen vnto the kinde of Paper he writes vpon, that it agree with it. Some hath a hard and crosse graine, which soone takes off the edge of a Tender Penn … Some paper againe hath a more fine, and tender graine, with which the Smaller Penn doth best agree: Your Ordinarie Paper is Pot-paper of a middle nature, and requires, that the nib be neither too soft, nor too hard, but brought vnto a meane (1632: C2v-C3r).

In a 1607 collection of proverbial wisdom, Nicholas Breton told readers, ‘Good Incke graceth a letter, but if the paper bee nought, the penne will doe no good’ (1607: D1v). The moral applicability of this commonplace is driven home in T. G.’s The rich cabinet (1616):

Reason vttred by a plausible tongue, makes perswasions passable with a popular eare; but iudgement that discernes substance from colour, the maske from the face, the forme from the matter, will easily find out the fallacie and error: euen as a good pen doth helpe and grace a good writer: but if the paper be nought, he shall make many a blot for a letter, or commit such slender faults as will bee easily discried by a Scriuener (R5v).

Writing in 1653, William Twisse emphasised how paper and user come together to form good or bad writing: ‘A good Scribe meeting with moist paper will make but sorry worke. The writing is from himselfe, the blurring from the moistnesse of the paper’ (Kkk2v). Twisse uses this truism to explain the knotty problem of whether sin comes from God: Aquinas, he explains, insists that though God acts upon the believer, the imperfections of embodied existence register themselves in the ‘blurring’ and blots of sin.

[12] The examples above are ‘matterphors’: ways of thinking which inhere in the physical and are ‘at once linguistic, story-laden, thingly, and agentic, … materiality coming into and out of figure’ (Cohen, 2015: 4). They register the intimate connection between the physical presence of paper and its imaginative power, asking us to understand the surface of the page as a figure for consciousness, a figure which always operates in conjunction with ‘actual paper’, a physical surface that inserts itself into the experience of writing. The Particular Baptist minister, Christopher Blackwood, appropriated ‘S. N.’s’ use of the blank paper trope to figure the operation of God on the will of the convert. ‘We will when we will, but God makes us for to will. … As my paper whereon I write, receives the ink passively, and brings nothing of its own to the writing’ (1654: G4r). Yet Blackwood’s conclusion complicates this figure: ‘being written upon, it becomes an instrument with my writing; and as I write more and more, so it still co-operates with me, though in it self there be no natural beginning of the writing’. The paper becomes, if not a collaborator, at least a participant, an object that works together (‘co-operates’) with the writer, and is at once paper — ‘real’ paper — and the devoted subject, opening herself to the will of God.

‘the want and dearth of good paper’
[13] There is a distinct irony in the fact that my sources for this ‘paper’ are overwhelmingly textual: paper lances, boats, boxes are hard to find in archives or museums; ditto samples of ‘oil of paper’, bloodied paper bandages, or the burnt remains that once protected the ears of a roasting hare. The range of early modern paper possibilities are preserved in two of paper’s most privileged instantiations: the codex and the manuscript letter. A similar privileging of script and print lies behind the orthodoxy that early modern England was a paper-short society.

[14] Three sources reveal something of the diversity of early modern paper. Between September 1567 and September 1568, the (parchment) London Port Books record the importation of 13,209 reams of ‘paper’ (presumably white paper of various sorts); 368 reams of ‘printing paper’; 54 reams of ‘writing paper’; 602 reams of ‘loose paper’; 275 reams of ‘cap paper’; 80 reams of ‘loose cap paper’; 160 reams of ‘small paper’; 3 reams of ‘coarse paper’; 4500 bundles of ‘brown paper’; 300 bundles of ‘paper’ (presumably brown); and 1200 paste boards; as well as 238 gross of playing cards; 12 gross of ‘paper combs’; 6 gross of ‘paper buckles’; and 50 ‘papers’ of ‘single mockado’ (a velour fabric).[2] Pins and threads were sold by the paper; a mid-seventeenth century manuscript treatise explains that English pins were initially of such poor quality that the manufacturers used papers with foreign makers’ names and marks in order to sell them. The writer went on to appeal for a suspension of customs duty on paper and the dye used to colour it blue (SP 16/438, f. 87).

[15] My second source, a 1650 Act for the Redemption of Captives, lists the duty levied on imports and exports, and includes paper fans, blue paper (also used for sugar), brown paper, cap paper, demy paper, ‘ordinary Printing and Copy Paper’, painted paper, pressing paper (for the fabric trades), ‘Rochell paper as large as demy Paper’, and royal paper (E7r). Similar lists for Scotland add ‘Morlax paper’, ‘Paper of Cane and Roan’ (1657: O1r), and ‘Gould papers, the groce’ (1611: E2v). Decorative papers became more common as the period progressed, with the first English patent for ‘paper for Hanging’ awarded to E. and R. Greenbury in 1636 (Dard Hunter, 1947: 481; see Fleming, 2013).

[16] Dating from significantly earlier, my third source comprises accounts for a banqueting house constructed for Henry VIII at Greenwich. ‘Wages to moulders of paper, day and night’ are listed alongside payments to joiners, sawyers and carpenters; construction materials include white paper (itemised three times), royal paper at 8d. a quire, ‘brown and white paper to make knots with’, ‘wax and roson for moulds of paper’, ‘gold paper, silver and green’, ‘shavings of white paper to make lions, &c., and the King’s arms’, ‘moulds of paper for the vaulting of arches’, and a payment of 8d. for ‘Cutting of gold paper, silver paper, and orsedye [bronze leaf] for the candlesticks’. Two days later, the Revels’ accounts included a ream of green paper, white paper at 2s. 4d. a ream, and silver paper at 2s. 4d. a doz. (Henry VIII: May 1527: 6-10). Paper continues to appear in the Elizabethan and Jacobean Revels accounts, used to create everything from unicorns to mountains.

[17] This is, of course, an elite source, as is an inventory describing stocks for a royal banquet in May 1526 which includes ‘8 “quayres” white paper, at 2d. the quire.½ bundle of brown paper, 6d.’, and ‘4 green paper, 6d. 4 white silver paper, 6d. 4 sinaper paper, 6d. One paper of fine gold, 2d. 1 quire white paper, 2d.’, much of it used in the creation of edible conceits (Henry VIII: May 1526, 1-15). The use of paper for culinary purposes extended down the social scale. Printed and manuscript receipt books (still relatively elite sources) did not just use paper (Leong); they included it among their ingredients and techniques.

[18] In a list of necessaries for a banquet included in his Good housewives Iewell (1587), Thomas Dawson suggests the efficient domestic manager should equip herself with ‘Paper White and browne’ (C8r), while in The compleat servant-maid (1677), Hannah Wolley not only offers copious instructions for writing, including the art of letter-folding, but iterates numerous other uses for paper: preserving cherries; making cakes; candying and preserving flowers; making comfits; covering seeds or fruits with sugar; making marmalade of grapes; curing the bloody flux; toning down a red face; dying bone or quills; shaping starched lace; and — jarringly — preventing miscarriage. Wendy Wall has recently argued that early modern recipe books reveal ‘differently tactile ways that literacy might signify, and … dramatically expand the scene of literacy formation’, including the quite literal consumption of alphabetic forms (2016: 115). An attention to kitchen uses of paper similarly encourages us to re-think women’s — and men’s — relationship to paper products; cooks might have a fine sense of the grades of paper, their suitability for specific culinary and decorative occasions, and the utility of their particular properties. Instructions ‘To make Spanish Biskit’ in Elizabeth Fowler’s late seventeenth-century cookbook, tell the reader to ‘take wafer paper & lay in the thing If you dissine to bake it in it … set them in the ouen at the disscrestion of the baker’ (Folger MS V.a.468, fol. 67r-v). Rather more precisely, a seventeenth-century manuscript receipt for ‘bisket’, attributed to ‘Mrs E: A:’ tells cooks that the ‘oven must be soe hot as to turne a peece of white paper browne’ (Folger MS V.a.8, fol. 110).[3] Similar principles underlay instructions for secret writing: letters composed in orange or lemon juice had to be warmed in order for the writing to be revealed. Far from being paper-short, early modern England was a society in which diverse kinds of paper circulated, and were used for a wealth of purposes.

[19] At least some of that paper was produced domestically. Wynkyn de Worde’s edition of Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s De proprietatibus rerum (1495) celebrates its own ‘bryght’ pages with a closing rhyme:

And John Tate the yonger Ioye mote he broke
Which late hathe in Englonde doo make this paper thynne
That now in our englyssh this boke is printed Inne ([pp1r]).[4]

Though Dard Hunter suggests that Tate’s enterprise quickly failed, in his will of 1507, Tate bequeathed 26s 8d of ‘whit paper  … of my paper mill at Hertford’ to Thomas Boll and instructed his executors to sell the mill ‘with all the commodities concerning said myll to the moost advantage’ (Hunter, 116), suggesting it was still in operation. Later evidence appears in William Vallans’s poetic celebration of the River Lee, which records that ‘In the time of Henry the eight [i.e. VII] viz. 1507 there was a paper Mill at Hartford, and belonged to Iohn Tate’ (1590: C1r ; see Hills, 1988: 5-12).

[20] The need for domestic paper manufacture was a recurring theme: in 1538, an anonymous writer argued for a monopoly on bible printing, which might be contingent upon the printer being ‘bounde to bylde a paper myll or twayne … I thynke ii paper mylles wolde make as moche paper as wolde serve all the prynters in Englande’ (SP 1/242, ff.132r-v). Between 1554 and 1559 a mill may have been in operation at Fen Ditton in Cambridgeshire (Jenkins, 1958: 159). Another short-lived paper mill was founded by Sir Thomas Gresham on his estate at Osterley in around 1577, but recorded as ‘decaied’ by John Norden in 1593 (F3r). It may have been these ventures to which the stationer Richard Tottell referred in 1585 when he set out his plans to erect a paper mill, complaining at ‘the want and dearth of good paper in this Realme and also the disceite that is used Dailye in makeinge therof’, an intriguingly self-contradictory statement. Blaming foreign competition, Tottell declared that French paper merchants had undermined previous efforts by buying up ‘all our ragges’; bringing in ‘greate aboundaunce of paper’ and selling it at a loss; and harassing the workmen (SP 12/185, f. 172). There is no evidence that Tottell’s scheme came to fruition.

[21] A mill was founded at Dalry in Scotland in 1590, continuing in business until around 1605. In that same year, Robert Stansbye, Randall Wood, and John Zelldre, papermaker, leased land from John Goaydon in County Kildare to build the first Irish white paper mill (Pollard, 2000: 235; 547). A letter of June 1592, written by Archbishop Loftus, introduced Nicholas as a man broken by a run of ill fortune which included having taken ‘in hande a woorke that hath muche disabled him, the buyldinge of a paper mill’ (SP 63/165, f. 159). A second Scottish papermill was started c. 1652 at Canonmills, on the Water of Leith, and continued until at least the 1680s (Thomson, 1974: 9-11).

[22] Also in 1590, John Danett, deputy muster master, wrote from Dublin to Sir Thomas Williams, complaining that ‘paper is heere very deere, very scante & very badd. neere Ivie bridge [London] dwellinge. Mr Spilman a jeweller & maker of paper where it maye be bought for vs vjd the realm very large, very good’ (SP 63/156, f. 4r). It was John Spilman, Goldsmith to Queen Elizabeth, who founded the most significant sixteenth-century white-paper mill, in 1588. In October of that year, Sir Francis Walsingham issued a warrant to Justices of the Peace requiring them to prevent the High Germans ‘that be work men wth Mr Spilman her maties jeweller in his paper mill’ from leaving the country (SP 12/217, f. 114). A 1589 patent, renewed in 1597, granted Spilman a monopoly on buying or dealing in rags ‘fitt for making all sorts of white paper’, and decreed that all paper-making, including in mills ‘alreadye made erected or used for broune paper’, could only take place with Spilman’s licence (C 66/1331; CSPD, vol. CCLXIV, 7 [12], July 4 1597). A ‘letter of assistance’ issued by the Privy Council in 1591 required ‘all publique officers’ to assist Spilman in maintaining his monopoly (PC 2/19 f. 290). In 1600, Spilman complained to the Privy Council that John Turner, Edward Marshall, and George Friend had ‘lately erected a paper mill’ in Buckinghamshire, gathering the ‘best and finest stuff … wherewith your Supt doth use to make the white writyng paper’, for want of which ‘your Supt mills are often in danger to stand still’ (SP 12/276, f. 6r); he subsequently complained that ‘this Petitioner is forced to make brone paper when otherwise he would make writyng paper’ (f. 6v), though it remains unclear what kind of paper his competitors were manufacturing. The following year, Francis Bacon reported to Lord Keeper Egerton that he had judged a case lodged by Marshall and Robert Style against Spilman, and adjudicated that Style must ‘surrender upp his lease and that he enter into bonde not to intermeddle in buyeng or providing any stuffe for the making of paper or buylding using or keeping any paper mill’ (SP 12/282, f. 16).

[23] Spilman was also involved in a dispute with the Lord Mayor and aldermen of London over the collecting of rags in 1601 (SP 12/279, f. 164). In combative mood, the City authorities replied that they had been forced to take action as Spilman’s rag collectors ‘ranged abroad in every street, begging at men’s doors’ (f. 165r). Moreover, they complained, Spilman’s claim to novelty was ‘an error; for others before him have performed the same, and erected paper mills at Osterby, near this city, at Cambridge, Worcestershire, &c.’. No further news of Spilman’s mill appears in the State Papers until, in March 1617, he was granted a patent for making ‘a new and more pleasant kind of playing cards’ (CSPD, vol. XC [116]).[5] The City’s emphasis on the commonplace nature of Spilman’s activity, while undoubtedly rhetorically motivated, deserves to be taken at least as seriously as Spilman’s insistence on his mill’s exceptional status. By 1640, however, when Endymion Porter, John and Edward Reade, and John Wakeman applied for a patent ‘for the sole workinge, or milling & making [of white writing paper] in yor Kingdoms of England, Scotland & Irland for the forme of 57. yeares’ (SP 16/403, f. 111), Spilman’s mill and its predecessors appear to have been wiped from political memory; John Bankes, the Attorney-General, urged that the petition should be granted, ‘the Arte of making white writing paper being a New invention not heretofore used in this kingdome’ (f. 112).

[24] The memory of writing paper manufacture in England may have been still more ephemeral than the product. Yet, as the wranglings outlined above make clear, England’s history of paper-making was more continuous and more substantial than an emphasis on white paper allows. In 1598, the Earl of Nottingham signed a warrant which reported that Spilman had complained that ‘divers and sondry persons … have not onely … gathered and bought up the said stuffe and converted yt to the makeinge of browne paper, whereas yt would have made good wrightinge paper, but have erected divers milles for the makeinge of paper’, wording that suggests brown paper mills were well established in England (PC 2/24 f. 61); Shorter records the existence of thirty-eight English paper mills in the first half of the seventeenth century (1957: 29; see also Gavin, 2012; Luker, 2009).

[25] In 1641, Sir Edward Ford lambasted naysayers who objected to his plans to divert the River Colne at Rickmansworth. The protests included the plans’ impact on the paper-mills, which prompted Ford to declare that ‘the water taken for this Worke cannot possibly bee missed’ by the mills, which ‘are but seaven in all’ (1641: B3r). While it was in Ford’s interests to downplay the significance of the paper industry, that he felt able to dismiss seven mills as an insignificant handful suggests the degree to which the paper industry was thriving. Writing in 1655, an anonymous correspondent of Samuel Hartlib reflected that:

The finest paper we have in England, comes from Genoa and Venice …Much of this paper is gilded with Gold on the edges. Holland ships not onely furnish us with a thick strong white paper, which is commonly called Dutch paper, but also abundantly with a strong brown paper much desired by the Grocers. (Although at present, lesse is imported because we have many Paper-mils lately erected) (Anon, 1655: V3v).

Brown paper, then, which like waste paper was also pasted together to make cardboard and pasteboard, circulated in quantities which are impossible to quantify, alongside smaller quantities of white paper, and papers of every colour from red to gold. Though he was writing to hyperbolic ends, as part of a commendatory poem celebrating Spilman’s mill, Thomas Churchyard was not exaggerating when he demanded: ‘What man, or sex, or shape of worthy molde, / can paper lacke, but buies it lesse or more?’ (1588: C4v). If not entirely everyday, paper was, at the least, a familiar and flexible material, with a range of uses extending far beyond the textual.

‘A Unique Instance of Art’
[26] According to Francis Bacon, it is precisely the commonplace nature of paper that should make us alert to its remarkable qualities. In his Novum organum (1620), Bacon calls on his contemporaries to take special notice of ‘Monadic cases of art’ [things which are unique to themselves]. Arguing that ‘things which really should evoke wonder because of the inherent difference of their species compared with other ones, nevertheless attract little attention if they are in everyday use’, Bacon turns to an example which is close to hand: ‘For example, a Monadic instance of art is paper, a thing extremely common’, not least on the desk of a civil servant and natural philosopher (305). Bacon is struck by the properties of paper, and in particular its flexibility. The cellulose fibres of paper mean that it can be crumpled or folded and retains its shape once creased; it can be stitched, pinned, or cut with remarkable precision; it remains firm and in distinct sheets when dry, but becomes weaker and moldable when wet; and it can be rolled or layered, increasing its strength and thickness.

[27] In this reflexive moment, Bacon both invites us to speculate upon the nature of paper, and makes us alert to the substance of the book we are reading. Contrasting it to other artificial materials, Bacon describes paper as ‘a tenacious body which can be cut or torn, and so imitates and practically competes with any animal hide or vellum, or any plant leaf, and suchlike works of nature’. At least in some of its early modern incarnations, this contrast may have struck the reader in immediate, haptic terms: Newberry library VAULT Case folio B 49 .059, for example, is bound in vellum, allowing for immediate comparison between the book’s fine paper and animal skin.

[28] Early moderns were alert to the literally material histories of their texts. In his encomium to Spilman’s paper mill, Churchyard celebrates the quasi-magical process through which ‘sundry secrete toyes, / makes rotten ragges, to yéelde a thickned froth’, which is stamped, washed, and dried to form paper (1659: D1v). Reflecting on writing paper’s passage through ‘many handes’, Churchyard notes it is ‘A wonder sure, to see such ragges and shreads, / passe dayly through, so many hands and heads’, a trope which aligns the constitutive matter of the paper — its rags — with the diverse compositions written upon it. Lothar Müller notes that ‘the contrast between paper’s base origins and its lofty calling is a common motif in the texts accompanying visual depictions of papermakers and paper mills in early modern books of trades’ (2014: 49-50). A frequently reprinted 1659 translation of the Czech philosopher Comenius’s textbook, Orbis sensualium pictus, includes a compressed illustration of paper’s history and manufacturing techniques (figure two).

Figure two: Johann Amos Comenius, Orbis sensualium pictus (London: J. Kirton, 1659), N6v-N7r. Reproduced by kind permission of Dr Williams’s Library, London.

[29] In Abraham Cowley’s The guardian (1650) paper’s material history takes on a moral valence, eliding contents and substance, as Truman threatens to burn an unfortunate letter:

Unhappie paper, made of guilty linen.
The menstruous reliques of some lustful woman:
Thy very ashes here will not be innocent,
But flie about, and hurt some chaste mens eyes (C3r).

The past uses of the paper’s ingredients inhere in its volatile remnants; it is not the writing Truman blames, but the stuff. This is paper as ‘matterphor’, a material history that continues to figure in an imagined future. In a play concerned with the discrepancy between intention and reception, it is notable that Aurelia disguises herself with a paper mask: ‘Were not you the vertuous gentlewoman with the brown paper-face, that perswaded me to it?’ (C2r), asks Dogrel, collapsing together Aurelia’s disguise and her body.

[30] Perhaps the best-known celebration of paper manufacture comes in John Taylor’s 1620 The praise of hemp-seed, in which the poet declares:

But paper now’s the subiect of my booke,
And from whence paper it’s beginning tooke:
How that from little Hemp and flaxen seeds
Ropes, halters, drapery, and our napery breeds,
And from these things by Art and true endeuour,
Al paper is deriued, whatsoeuer (1620: D4r).

Taylor provides a history and ethnography of paper in a series of relentless puns that demonstrate his alertness to the grades and varieties of paper in circulation. In a more sombre register, Henry Vaughan meditated upon his book, reminding God:

Thou knew’st this papyr, when it was
Meer seed, and after that but grass;
Before ‘twas drest or spun, and when
Made linen, who did wear it then: (G8v)

Drawing attention to the early modern page’s history as recycled rags, de Grazia and Stallybrass suggest that the ‘Renaissance book [is] a provisional state in the circulation of matter’ (1993: 280). For Vaughan, whose understanding of the formation of paper is distinctly lacking in detail, this is a moral lesson: his perishable pages are intended to remind their reader of her own corporeal provisionality.

[31] In a stimulating reading of Vaughan’s poem, Joshua Calhoun observes that the browned pages we encounter in rare books libraries are less likely to be discoloured by age than by the muddy or silted water used in their manufacture. Calhoun points out the ‘network of flecks and fibers’ embedded in early modern paper: vegetable fibres, ‘shives’ (husky fragments of the flax stalk), and scraps of cloth persisted through their transformation into cloth and then paper (2011: 332-3; on the connections between paper and plants, see Knight, 2009: 8-10). Describing the bookworm, Robert Hooke speculated that it finds, ‘perhaps, a convenient nourishment in those husks of Hemp and Flax, which have pass’d through so many scourings, washings, dressings and dryings … ; the digestive faculty, it seems, of these little creatures being able yet further to work upon those stubborn parts, and reduce them into another form’ (1665: Ff1r-v). Hooke’s deductions, which register the shifting forms of the essential matter of the flax, offer evidence that attentive book-users were alert to the presence of shives and fabric, and also remind us that paper was an object of natural philosophical and alchemical inquiry.

[32] In 1670, Daniel Cable translated (the possibly fictional) Valentinus Basilius’ alchemical tract Of natural & supernatural things, which charts the progress of seed to flax to fabric to paper. The full title of his translation, which promises to reveal ‘the first tincture, root, and spirit of metals and minerals, how the same are conceived, generated, brought forth, changed, and augmented’, suggests how paper could be read as representative of the transformations of matter. ‘When this Linnen is quite worn out’, Basilius tells us, ‘the old Rags are gathered together, and sent to the Paper-Mills’ (1670: H4r). But this is not the end of his material history:

If you lay Paper upon a Metal or Glass, kindle and burn it, the vegetable Mercury comes forth and flies away into the Air, the Salt remaines in the ashes and the combustible Sulphur which is not so quickly consumed in the burning, dissolves to an Oil … This Oil hath in it a great fatness, which is the Matter of the Paper, contained originally in the Seed of the Flax; so that the last Matter of the Flax which is Paper, must again be dissolved into the first Matter … that so the first may be made of the last, and the ground-work revealed, so the Virtues and Operations known by the first (H4v).

Whilst his insistence that ‘the first may be made of the last’ expands Basilius’s observations into biblical time, his emphasis on the persistence of the essential matter of the flax-seed in the paper asks us to understand the transformations of flax, cloth, and paper as changes of form rather than radical metamorphoses.

[33] Numerous texts, from at least as early as Thomas Lupton’s A thousand notable things (1579), contain recipes for oil or spirit of paper, a substance that reminds us that early modern paper was greasier — more skin-like, as Bacon notes — than its modern counterparts. Published in 1686, Nicolas Lémery’s instructions drive home the extent to which paper was a tool of the experimental method, as well as its subject: burnt paper is filtered through ‘a coffin of brown paper’ to produce ‘a thick, black, and il-scented oil’ (Cc2r; this recipe does not appear in earlier editions). Paper was used as a filter and to create rolled tubes and tools: Hannah Wolley, for example, recommends that those who suffer from ‘an extream Rheum falling from the Head’ take the smoke of balsam and red sage ‘through a paper tunnel into your mouth … every morning till you find a Cure’ (1674: B9v), and, in instructions to make ‘Sea-Green’, instructs the reader to let an ounce of verdigris boiled with a pint of white wine ‘drop thorough a double Brown-paper’ (D8r).

[34] Lémery observes that spirit of paper is ‘very acid’, a property which he attributes to ‘the many different forms which the flax, and canvas have received, in order to make cloth, and afterwards Paper’ (1686: Cc3r). The material history of paper has material effects: ‘oil of paper’ possesses the properties that it does precisely because of the multiple transformations undergone by the flax. Hugh Plat meanwhile insists that ‘the true spirit of wine’ can only be distilled by using ‘the finest Paper you can get, or else some Virgine parchment’ (1602: E1v), whilst the recipe to amend an inflamed complexion included in A choice manuall, attributed to the countess of Kent in 1653, calls for white paper, literalising the trope of a red and white complexion (M6r).

[35] Where Basilius notes that oil of paper makes ‘a good Medicine for dim and defective Eyes’, Lémery suggests that it ‘has some use in Physick: the oil is good for deafness, whilst the fumes of burning paper relieve hysterical women’ (Cc1v-Cc2r). Paper was an essential ingredient for both the domestic and the professional medical practitioner. In 1678, Moyse Charas described the indispensable contents of The royal pharmacopoea, which included ‘Marble, Porphyrie, Sea-shells, divers Stones and Jewels, certain Horns, several Bones, divers Shells, as also the Eggs and Skins of some Animals; Woods, Roots of Trees, Shells of certain Fruits, Woollen and Linnen-Cloths, Silk, Hemp, Flax, Rind of Trees, Horse-hair, Ropes, Pack-thred, Paper; divers Earths, and Sands, Glasses, Chrystals, Bitumens’ (G4r). Rendered exotic through its affiliation with this diversity of ingredients, paper, Charas tells the reader, is used ‘to filter several Liquors, to cover bottles, pots, and to wrap up several Medicines’ (G4v). The drying properties of paper aided the cure of those who suffered such painful diseases as ‘ulcers engendred in the priuie members’ (Barrough, 1583: M4v).

[36] Paper medicines were made at home: one cure for ‘children that bee broke’ instructed parents ‘Take white Paper, and chawe it well with your teeth, and make thereof a plaister, as great as wil couer al the broke, binde it in a swadle band with a linnen clothe’ (Ruscelli, 1562: H4r). In a rather more literal sense than Derrida intended, the history of paper becomes the history of the body, creating a surface that imitates and heals the skin. Paper plasters, as well as cloth ones, were frequently recommended, and the flaxen composition of paper may have made the two interchangeable; Joseph Blagrave suggested that ‘the young Chirurgion’ must always carry plasters ‘ready spread upon cloth or paper’ (1585: T6r). For haemorrhoids, the Countess of Kent suggested laying powdered burnt cloth on brown paper, ‘and with spittle make it Plaister-wise, and lay it to the place’ (1653: I4v-I5r). Thomas Bonham’s plaster for a toothache, set out in a book which interleaves its printed contents with blank paper pages to allow for notes and additions, calls for doubled gray paper (1630: Ee4v); Robert Boyle suggests honey spread on Cap-paper ‘For an Outward Contusion’ (1692: D2v); and ‘T. C.’ treated migraines with egg and flax laid upon russet Paper (in the same recipe suggesting ‘a fold of russet paper or els of linnen’ should be put between the medicine and the skin; H4v). In the work of the minister John Edwards, these practices lend a distinctly material charge to his wish that his book might cure the reader of sin: ‘O that this Paper might prove a Plaister to draw it!’ (1578: A2r).

[37] Less scrupulous parents, according to the physician John Jones, might mould their children, not as if they were paper, pace Baxter and Locke, but with paper: Jones accused ‘ouer curious and daintie Dames’ of altering their children’s bodies by binding them in ‘Brasers, Wastes, or bodies, made eyther of paper bordes, plate, or Cardes, &c. to make them slender’ (1579: G2v). Some invalids may even have sported paper prosthetics. Ambroise Paré suggested that ‘such as want their eares, either naturally or by misfortune’ should have another ‘made of paper artificially glewed together, or else of leather, and so fastened with laces, from the toppe or hinder part of the head, that it may stand in the appointed place, and so the haire must be permitted to grow long’ (1634: Ddd6r).

[38] If paper was a subject of study for the natural philosopher, it was also a powerful tool which attained some ingenious shapes. In 1582, the library of Henry Fitzalan, twelfth earl of Arundel, was described as being enviably stocked with ‘books on the arts, philosophy, jurisprudence, medicine, mathematics, theology and history, and spheres, globes, bronze and paper instruments of all kinds’ (Dent, 1962: 59). Later in the period, members of the Royal Society made use of the handiness and flexibility of paper in a range of tools. Samuel Pepys lamented in July 1668 that ‘the month ends mighty sadly with me, my eyes now past all use almost; and I am mighty hot upon trying the late printed experiment of paper Tubes’, an account of which had appeared in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (Pepys, July 31, 1668; Royal Society, 266-67).[6] A few days later, he reported himself ‘mightily pleased with a little trial I have made of the use of a Tubespectacall of paper, tried with my right eye’ (11 August, 1668; see Wilson et al). Robert Boyle is frustratingly coy in mentioning, in 1669, ‘a little Instrument of Paper’ which ‘that Sagacious Mathematician Dr Wren’ rustled up for him ‘with great dexterity as well as readiness’ in order to demonstrate the efficacy of the air-pump. The nature of this device is unclear: Boyle claimed he would have made much greater use of it ‘had it not been casually lost when the ingenious Maker was gone out of these parts’ (T3v-T4r). In the same experiment, Boyle used a ‘small Label of Paper, about an 8th of an inch in breadth’ to create a ‘litle Instrument’ of feathers to test air resistance (T3r). A marginal note directs the reader to its visualisation in ‘Plate the Fig. the’ (in fact, Plate VII), an awkward reminder of the limits of the book as a technology of paper and print.

[39] Matthew Hunter has investigated the competitive cleverness of Hooke’s paper model of a telescopic micrometer, whose moveable paper patch allowed for the visualisation of both exterior and interior mechanisms. Printed by John Martyn, the model was ‘made as a multiple, to be printed, cut, pasted and sold’ (Hunter, 2013: 549). Other DIY paper tools were available: John Blagrave gave careful instructions to those who wanted to assemble the ‘singuler instrument’ he termed his ‘mathematical jewel’, assuring them that if they were careful ‘in the cutting out of the branches & barres, he wil serue you a long time to better vse then one of mettall’ (1585: ¶¶2v). Where Blagrave’s astrolabe formed part of the book which explained it, and has — at least in some cases — been cut and assembled according to his instructions (figure three), William Oughtred told readers of his Dialling performed instrumentally that ‘if any shall desire to have this Instrument ready printed off in paper for his use or practice, hee may bee furnished with what quantitie hee desire’s by William Hope Book-seller at the Blew Anchor’ (1652: E3v).

Figure three: John Blagrave, The mathematical jewel (London: Walter Venge, 1585), inside front cover. Cambridge University Library LE.28.5. Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

[40] Outside of the English context, Johannes Kepler wrote to Friedrich I von Württemberg in 1596, enclosing with his letter a paper model representing the universe as it was mapped out (using geometric forms) in his Mysterium Cosmographicum, published in the same year (letter 30, pp. 65-7). Less appealingly, Johannes Goedaert recalled in his study Of insects that ‘I had a mind to try what wou’d become, of the putrid and corrupted Vrine of a man; I made a Funnell of paper, and so folded it, that no Fly or other Animall cou’d get into it: having infused into it oft times humane Vrine; I found some Worms to be bred in the folds, where the feces stayed’ (1682: R2r-v). This apparently self-generating matter stands for the generative presence of the crease or fold, multiplying the surfactual presence of the paper.

[41] A practical engagement with the properties of paper also characterised anatomical texts: Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica librorum epitome, printed in Basel in 1543, was the first book to use intricate layered paper manikins to reproduce the complexities of human body; a fashion that was quickly taken up across Europe, including in England (figures four and five).

Figure four: from Vif pourtraict des parties interieures du corps humain (Paris: chez Alain dematonniere, [1560?]). Wellcome Library L0055146 . © Wellcome Library, London.

Figure five: from Interiorum corporis humani partium viva delineation (s.n., [London, ca. 1559]). Wellcome Library L0055210. © Wellcome Library, London.

More and less intricate volvelles (paper dials with moveable parts) were used for astrological calculation, navigation, and prognostication (figures six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve; see Karr).

Figure six: Volvelle with unicorn, from Kartenlossbuch: Darinnen auss H. Schrifft vil Laster gestrafft, vnd heylsamer Leeren angezeygt werden (Strasbourg: Jacob Kammerlander, [1543]). Beinecke Library 1976 335. By permission of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Figure seven: Volvelle, from Martin Cortes, The arte of nauigation, conteynyng a compendious description of the sphere, with the makyng of certen instruments and rules for nauigations ([London], 1561). Beinecke Library Taylor 129. By permission of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Figure eight: Volvelle from The mariners mirrovr ([Amsterdam]: Jodocus Hondius, 1605), pp. 16-17. Beinecke Library 1976 Folio 46. By permission of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Figure nine: Volvelle, ‘Sfera facile per trovare in ogni tempo sia passato presete…’, from Antoni Carrarion, Opera astrologica perpetva ridotta secondo la nvova riforma dell’anno (Rome?, 1581). Beinecke Library 2004 Folio 20. By permission of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.


Figure ten: Volvelle, ‘Medianor, Meridies’, from Peter Apian, Cosmographicus liber Petri Apiani mathematici studiose collectus ([Landshutae, 1524]). Beinecke Library Taylor 57. By permission of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Figure eleven: ‘Verus motus der sonnen’, from Leonhard Thurneisser zum Thurn, Archidoxa dorin der recht war Motus, Lauff vnd Gang, auch heymlikait, wirkung und krafft, der Planeten, Getirns, vnd gantzen Firmaments … (Munster in Westphalen: Johan Ossenbrug auff Verlegung H. Herr Leonhart Turneyssers zum Thurn, 1569). Beinecke Library Rs5 T42 569. By permission of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.


Figure twelve: Unconstructed volvelle, from Giambattista della Porta, De fvrtivis literarvm notis vvulgo (Naples: Mariam Scotum, 1563). Beinecke Library Z44 2m. By permission of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

And numerous books, including Hooke’s Micrographia, made use of the simple technology of the unfolding inserted leaf to offer readers maps and engravings on a large scale, or unfurl the intricacies of an expanding table, often based on the proliferating subdivisions of Ramist logic (figures thirteen, fourteen, fifteen).

Figure thirteen: Robert Hooke, Micrographia (London: for John Martyn, printer to the Royal Society), foldout plate (Schema. XXXIII). Houghton Library EC65 H7636 665maa. Houghton Library, Harvard University.


Figure fourteen: Folded table from Abraham Fraunce, The lawiers logike (London: William How for Thomas Gubbin and T. Newman, 1588). University of Chicago Library BC151.F84. Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.


Figure fifteen: Staphylus, Fridericus, The apologie of Fridericus Staphylus counseeler to the late Emperour Ferdinandus (Antwerp: John Latius, 1565), fold-out before sig. Hh1r. Folger Shakespeare Library STC 23230. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-SA 4.0).

[42] Mathematicians too made use of the capacities of paper to fold, crease, slice and bow, in attempts to render complex abstractions concrete. In a guide to Euclidean geometry, Henry Billingsley insisted that ‘when there is in Geometry mention made of pointes, lines, circles, triangles, or of any other figures, ye may not concyue of them as they be in matter, as in woode, in mettall, in paper, or in any such lyke … But you must concieue them in mynde, plucking them by imagination from all matter so shall ye vnderstande them truely and perfectly’ (Euclid, 1570: B2r). Nonetheless, Billingsley quickly turns to paper models to make the essentials of Euclidean geometry accessible to his readers:

…if ye draw the like formes in matter that wil bow and geue place, as most aptly ye may do in fine pasted paper, such as pastwiues make womens pastes of, & then with a knife cut euery line finely …, if then ye bow and bende them accordingly, ye shall most plainly and manifestly see the formes and shapes of these bodies… [I]t shall be very necessary for you to have store of that pasted paper by you (Ss5r).

Billingsley celebrates the flexibility of paper, and its ability, when cut and folded, to render in three dimensions what his diagrams constrained to two. At the same time, Billingsley’s knowledge of the activities of paste-wives, along with his assumption that his readers will be intimately familiar with the moulded paper edges that supported fashionable headgear, blurs the distinction between the vogue for Euclidean geometry and the fashion for French hoods.

[43] The term ‘pasted paper’ occurs twenty-three times in Billingsley’s instructions, suggesting how necessary the work of folding was to the geometrical imagination. Billingsley’s instructions take the book out of itself, transforming a two-dimensional problem into an easily understood three-dimensional solution. The book itself participates in this dynamic, offering up its pages for cutting and folding (figures sixteen and seventeen). Paper stands in, repeatedly, for the idea of the plane or surface; its cuttable, foldable properties make it an indispensable tool for materialising problems as well as a conceptual tool for extrapolating ideas which attempt to go beyond the limits of matter.

Figure sixteen: Henry Billingsley, Elements of Euclid (London: John Day, 1570), Rr5r. B515 Eu3211, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York.


Figure seventeen: Henry Billingsley, Elements of Euclid (London: John Day, 1570), Rr5r. Image courtesy of History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries.

Tricks and Toys
[44] Immediately after his encomium to paper in the Novum organum, Bacon reflects: ‘Again, among Instances of Ingenuity or of the Hand of Man, we must not entirely despise tricks and juggling. For some of them, though their use be trivial and playful, can still provide sound information’ (305). Solemn as Bacon’s tone may be, his reflection points to the degree to which the inventive paper practices described above shared common ground with ingenious entertainments and child’s play in their propensity to multiply the surfaces of paper through folding, creasing, rolling, cutting and moulding.

[45] Numerous sources suggest the widespread use of paper as a children’s plaything. To investigate the consistency of colours, Walter Charleton tells the reader of his Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltonia to ‘fold the Cloth, as Boyes do paper for Lanterns’ (1654: Bb1v); John Aubrey recalls a chalk-pit discovered by a boy who fell down it while chasing a paper kite (3.284); and Michael Drayton describes a personified world sitting with a lap full of ‘paper Puppets, Gawdes and Toyes, / Trifles scarce good enough for Girles and Boyes’ (V3r). Michel de la Serre writes of ‘castles of paper and cards, such as little children lodge their pety cares in’ (1639: H3r), and Bosola, in The Duchess of Malfi, despises bodies as ‘weaker then those / Paper prisons boyes vse to keepe flies in’ (1623: K1r). In The Countesse of Montgomeries Urania, Mary Wroth describes an errant ship: ‘vnguided she was, vnrul’d, and vnman’d, tumbling vp and downe, like the Boates boyes make of paper’ (1621: Lll3r). Thomas Edwards dismissed one attack on The second part of Gangraena as ‘a lance of brown painted paper, fit for children to play with’ (1646: Z2r), whilst Thomas Brown described children ‘making Durt-pyes, and snipping Paper’ (1690: E4v). And in a prefatory poem praising William D’Avenant’s Madagascar, Endimion Porter describes having seen

…a childe with Sissors cut,
A folded Paper, unto which was put
More chance, than skill, yet when you open it,
You’d thinke it had beene done, by Art and Wit: ([1638: A3v])

Whilst Porter’s poem explicitly contrasts childish ‘chance’ with a mature ‘Art and Wit’, an attention to the pleasures of paper-folding prompts us to think differently about the sensuous delights of intricate engagements with paper, from building geometrical models or paper instruments to the complex series of folds needed to close a letter (‘Letterlocking’). A seventeenth-century painting, in the style of Jacob Toorenvliet, shows four observers (women and men, children and adults) appreciating a delicate toy, designed to twist and turn in the breeze (figure eighteen).

Figure eighteen: ‘Watching a paper wind toy’, style of Jacob Toorenvliet 1640-1719), last quarter of the seventeenth century, British Optical Association Museum, LDBOA1999.178. © The College of Optometrists, London.

The figure in the foreground is pinching a pleated object between two fingers, probably a paper fan used to set the model moving. Letters around the edge of the model read ‘MEMENTO MORI’ and repeat the message in Dutch (‘GEDENCK TE STERV[EN]’), reminding the viewer that she is as fragile as this trembling globe.[7]

[46] Women were expert proponents of the paper arts. Wolley offers a veritable encyclopaedia of decorative paper-work, from decoupage to scroll-work. In the 1630s, Edmund Waller complimented ‘the Lady Isabella Thynn on Her exquisite Cutting trees in paper’ in a poem which plays on the blank-paper trope, claiming Thynn’s art in cutting as a kind of ‘writing’ that can engage with ‘Virgin paper’ ‘Yet from the stayne of inke preserve it white’. In full flattering mode, Waller distinguishes Thynne’s art from that of the writer or painter, collapsing the boundaries between artifice and nature in a quasi-blasphemous compliment:

For though a paynter boughs and leaves can make
Tis you alone can make ’um bend, and shake
Whose breath salutes their new Created grove
Like southerne windes, and gently makes it move (MS Rawl Poet 84, 113v-r).[8]

William Hicks’ 1673 London Drollery includes another poem in praise of paper-clipping, complimenting ‘Madam E.C’ ‘Upon her Curious Art in Cutting Figures in Paper; and other her Artificial Curiosities’. Drawing upon the conceit of an art that exceeds nature, Hicks suggests: ‘one would think your very Flowers do grow: / So well they’re cut, by your ingenious hand’ (D8v).), and ‘With the Clipping Tool, You to life do bring / To th’ Eye those things which seem inanimate’ (E1r).). Whilst Hicks’ emphasis is upon his addressee’s ingenious skill, both he and Waller are alert to the animacy of cut paper: its trembling responsiveness to its environment.

[47] Matthew Hunter opposes Madam E. C.’s awe-inspiring cutting to Hooke’s micrometer, arguing for the latter as a form of ‘materialized intelligence’ thanks to its ability to ‘solve puzzles and also undermine its own authoritative structure, prompting and stimulating new imaginings’ (2013: 550). Yet Hicks’ poem is testimony to its subject’s ability to stimulate ‘new imaginings’, and explicitly says that E. C.’s cut paper entrances the natural philosopher: ‘When Curiosoes see ’em, they’re at a stand’. The ‘curioso’ is the man of science, ‘an admirer or collector of curiosities; a connoisseur, virtuoso’ (OED, ‘curioso, n.’). Waller’s poem also appears alongside a number of Restoration poems in a miscellany of papers belonging to John Locke (Locke e.17 ), suggesting the philosopher’s interest in Thinn’s as well as Waller’s craft. Women’s paper-cutting was thus located within a realm of virtuosic play that blurred the bounds of nature and art.

[48] Various writers celebrated the ingenuity of paper arts. In 1661, Thomas Powell celebrated the ‘pretty Art’ of ‘a pleated paper’ in which ‘men make one picture to represent several faces’ (G6v). The fold or pleat offers the promise of simultaneous concealment and revelation, as well as what a modern-day paper practitioner describes as the ‘satisfying, rhythmic, repetition of light and shade’ (Jackson, 2011: 55), linking to the early modern fascination with perspective and optical illusion. A 1676 volume of Sports and Pastimes offered its users instructions for ‘A sheet of Paper called Trouble-wit’: ‘a very fine invention, by folding a sheet of Paper, as that by Art you may change it into twenty-six several forms or fashions’ (J. M., F2v; figure nineteen).

Figure nineteen: J. M., Sports and pastimes: or, Sport for the city, and pastime for the country; with a touch of hocus pocus, or leger-demain (London: H. B[rugis] for John Clark, 1676), F3r. Huntington Library Rare Books 64667.

Situated just before a table of contents which includes such gems as ‘To make sport with an Egg’, ‘To fox Fish’, and ‘To make one laugh till the tears stand in his eyes’, the ‘trouble-wit’ explicitly declares itself part of the ephemeral world of play. J. M.’s terms of ‘art’, ‘wit’, ‘invention’, and ‘ingenuity’ bring paper into the realm of the mechanical but also the marvellous. In its proliferation of surfaces, the trouble-wit troubles the surface of the page, inviting readers to imagine a book extending beyond itself in artfully elaborated folds.

[49] Like several of the examples describe above, Sports and Pastimes draws our attention to the book as a technology of folded paper. Half-way down page 40, J.M. apologises that his illustrations come to an abrupt end, leaving the keen maker to work out for herself exactly how to shape the paper into ‘the fashion of a Court Custard’ or ‘a Carriadge for a piece of Ordinance’. Explaining that he would have supplied the rest, J. M. complains ‘I am tied to six sheets at present, which will not contain them’. The folded and stitched paper of the codex is revealed to be considerably less flexible than the trouble-wit whose material nonetheless insists upon its continuity with the book’s pages. Yet perhaps this restriction might be generative, leaving open the imaginative possibilities of the fold. Derrida, writing about the ways in which the changed support for writing offered by the word processor changes the lines of his thought, concludes that his typographical experiments were precisely a product of his material: ‘without those constraints of paper—its hardness, its limits, its resistance—I wouldn’t have desired them’ (47).

[50] A 1649 collection of Naturall and artificiall conclusions … with a new addition of rarities, for the practise of sundry artificers, plays with the line between nature and art in more disturbing ways. Among other ‘diverting’ experiments, it offers instructions to ‘make of paper a Bird, Frog, or other artificial creature, to creep on the ground, flee, or run upon a wall or post’: ‘Take a piece of Paper, and cut it with a knife or cizers into the form of the Figure before … and stick thereon a Fly, Beetle, or what other such small voluble creature you shall think fit: and you shall hereupon behold a very pretty conceited motion’ (Hill, G2r). As horrid as this hybrid seems to the contemporary reader, Hill’s title language of the ‘natural and artificial’, as of ‘rarities’ and ‘artificers’, places it firmly in the realm of the wonderful, influentially described by Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park (2001).

[51] Paper even found its way into the Wunderkammer, that space which R. J. W. Evans and Alexander Marr describe as ‘the emblem par excellence of early modern curiosity and wonder’ (2006: 10). Paula Findlen describes how books both stood in for and were incorporated into curiosity cabinets (1996: 29, 49, 59-60, 67-8), whilst paper was used to label and support objects. In his catalogue of the ‘natural and artificial rarities’ belonging to the Royal Society, Grew included ‘The WEB of a Bermuda-Spider … wound upon a Paper like Raw-Silk’ (1681: Z3v), and ‘The WATER-SCORPION’, which, he explained, was almost impossible to describe, it ‘being glewed to a Paper with the Belly upward’ (Z4v). Paper itself became an object of curiosity: John Tradescant’s catalogue of his collections (eventually the foundation of the Ashmolean Museum) lists a series of



cut in Paper by some of

the Emperours

Indian paper made of




-Rinds of trees. (D5r)

Grew, in turn, lists shells used ‘for the polishing of Paper’ (T1v), and bee and wasp nests, consisting ‘of the small Fibers of Plants, cohering, altogether as in Paper; as may be seen by a Glass. So that the Stuff may not be improperly called BEE-PAPER’ (Y2r), ‘An Example of the CHINA-Language … upon two sorts of China Papyr’ (Ccc1r), samples of ‘Paper or Pastboard-Money’ (Ccc4v) and ‘A FORREST, with a House at the end of it; and several Beasts both wild and tame, as the Lion, Unicorne, Boar, Camel, Stag, and a Dog pursuing him: all Cut in PAPYR, in the compass of about three inches square’ (Ccc1v-Ccc2r). In these examples, paper becomes an example both of nature (the bees’ nest; papyrus) and of exquisite art. Grew’s catalogue was published by subscription; in an advertisement issued in 1680, Grew promised that ‘whoever Subscribeth for Six English Copies in Quires … shall receive seven such Copies … upon very good Paper’.


[52] It seems fitting to conclude with the period’s greatest poet of paper, John Taylor. Apollo shrouing, a comedy composed for the scholars of the free school at Hadleigh in Suffolk, celebrates, if satirically, the boat Taylor crafted from brown paper in 1619 in an attempt to row from London to Quinborough in Kent. When Drudo laments, of Taylor, ‘Would we had him in Parnassus. Hee would stroake our Mistresses the Muses gently with his oare, and make their worships very merry, with his paper Wherry’, Lawriger responds: ‘Paper Wherry? you meane by a metaphor, that his papers and verses carry a mans attention as smooth as a wherry’. ‘No’, replies Drudo, ‘I meane his sayling in a Paper Boate’ (Hawkins, 1627: B8r). Posing the question of whether ‘we can still talk about such a thing’ as ‘actual paper’, Derrida asks ‘Can we speak here about paper itself, about the “thing itself” called “paper”—or only about figures for it?’ (50). Drudo’s bathetic collapse of Lawriger’s high-flying, or rather high-floating, metaphor bluntly asserts the presence of ‘actual paper’ in the midst of figuration.

[53] Paper’s propensity to be folded, creased, cut, crumpled and moulded calls into question our routine insistence upon seeing the page or sheet as surface, and of conceiving of paper strictly within the terms of the graphosphere. This article opened with Hall’s appealing aphorism: ‘Materials are materials because inventive people find ingenious things to do with them’ (2014: xiii). Ingenious people certainly did do inventive things with early modern paper, but they were able to do so because of its material properties: properties which were a source of philosophical and literary speculation, and practical use. ‘It is from the particularities of substances’, Hall goes on to say, ‘that uses arise’ (1). Taking account of paper’s propensity to be fashioned, to re-present or imitate a rich range of forms and functions, encourages us to think again about the matter of the surface: its durability, its ephemerality, and its transformations.

University of York


[1] Warm thanks to audiences at Lancaster, Cambridge and the IHR for their comments on earlier versions of this article, and to participants at the ‘Size Matters’ workshop at the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, whose insights and expertise informed this ‘paper’ in its final stages. Thanks too to the anonymous reviewers for Journal of the Northern Renaissance for their thoughtful comments.[back to text]

[2] In quantitative terms, this translates to just over 2.2 sheets of white paper per head of the English population (though distribution was markedly uneven), alongside an undetermined quantity of imported brown paper, domestically-produced paper, and paper which persisted from previous years. In 1699, a ‘bundle’ was defined as two reams of paper; however, the size of a bundle prior to that date is not clear, and it is plausible that the 1699 figure was part of a project of regularisation, rather than an accurate reflection of quantities. In 1659, the translator of Comenius’s Orbis sensualium pictus instructed readers that twenty-five sheets made a quire, ‘twenty quires a Ream, and ten of these a Bale of Paper’ (N7r).[back to text]

[3] Elaine Leong also cites this receipt in a recent blog post: https://blog.shakespearesworld.org/tag/margaret-baker/ [back to text]

[4] For the standard accounts of English papermaking, see Coleman, esp. 40-88; Hills, esp. chapters one and four; Hunter, esp. 114-20; 224-57.[back to text]

[5] Heather Wolfe and Henry Woudhuysen are currently undertaking research into the uses of Spilman’s paper; see http://collation.folger.edu/2014/02/an-example-of-early-modern-english-writing-paper/. [back to text]

[6] Thanks to Kate Loveman for drawing this experiment to my attention.[back to text]

[7] I am grateful to Sjoerd Levelt and Freya Sierhuis for their help in deciphering this puzzle.[back to text]

[8] Thanks to Claire Canavan for drawing this poem to my attention. Variants appear in BL Add. MS 70454, f. 50v (the last two lines), Yale fb. 228/58 (‘Of a fair lady that cut free in paper’), U. Leeds, Brotherton Lt 36, f. 33v (‘Of a tree cut in paper’), All Souls, Oxford, Codrington MS 174, p. 237 (‘The Lady Isabella Thynne on her exquisite cutting trees in paper’), Huntington Library HM11619 (‘To the Lady Isabella Thynne on her exquisite cutting trees in paper’), Bodley Rawl poet 116, f. 64 (‘Waler to a Lady who sent him a Groue of trees cut out in white Paper’), Bodley Locke e.17, p. 80 (‘To my Lady Isabella Thinn cutting trees in paper.’), and Bodley Ashmole 1819, between no. 22 and no. 23 (‘Of cutting Trees in Paper, by the Lady Isabella Thynn, daughter of ye Earle of Holland.’), which records: ‘These verses I had from my Lady Dorothy Long of Dracot-Cerne(?) 1656. Her Lap. had severall other Copies of Mr Waller, wch he had not copy of, wch she lent(?) to ye Dutchesse of Beaufort at Badminton, which were never return’d’.[back to text]



Bodleian Library
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PC 2/19
PC 2/24
SP 1/242
SP 12/185
SP 12/217
SP 12/276
SP 12/279
SP 12/282
SP 16/403
SP 16/438
SP 63/156
SP 63/165

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‘Such dispersive scattredness’: Early Modern Encounters with Binding Waste

‘Such dispersive scattredness’: Early Modern Encounters with Binding Waste

Anna Reynolds

[1]  A book’s outer layers speak a very particular language. This article moves wrappers, flyleaves, pastedowns and guards inward from the periphery, focusing in particular on the monastic waste that can be found in many early modern bindings after the dissolution of the monasteries. To decipher the meanings of these waste materials we need to imaginatively inhabit a world populated by torn and scattered sheets, in which pages from manuscripts and printed books regularly moved across a spectrum of legibility and abjection. These ‘leau’s’, according to John Donne, ‘may paste strings there in other books’ (1611: D4r), or, in the words of Thomas Nashe, might serve as ‘Priuie token[s]’ (read toilet paper), to ‘drie and kindle Tobacco in’, ‘stop mustard-pots’ and for ‘Grocers … to wrap mace in’ (1594: A3v). More than just ‘rhetorical flourishes’ (Smyth 2013: 127), these playful allusions to repurposing paper reveal an ecology characterised by ‘dispersive scattredness’ (Urquhart 1651: A6r), a paper-rich environment captured in Heather Wolfe’s study of ‘Filing, seventeenth-century style’ (2013: passim) and Tiffany Stern’s description of a city ‘covered in texts’, littered with loose playbills, proclamations and title-pages (2006: 87).

[2] Contrasting our tendency to conceive of books as two-dimensional objects, comprised of flat, white and featureless pages, early moderns encountered their books haptically, as three-dimensional, mutable assemblages of parchment, paper, wood and leather. Elaine Scarry, for instance, describes the ‘tactile features’ of a book as being ‘limited to the weight of its pages, their smooth surfaces, and their exquisitely thin edges’ (2001: 5). This is symptomatic of the manufacturing techniques that, since the 1960s, have made books more uniform. Glued rather than sewn, they are ‘paper brick[s], impeccably trimmed and squared’, with each bleached, wood-pulp page of almost identical thickness and whiteness (Bringhurst 2008: 95). Typography is now a digital process, with ink sitting on top of, rather than within, the surface of the page. Letterpress printing, however, sculpts the page, and chain lines and watermarks, visible in certain lights, remember the mould that a rag-based sheet was shaped in. On occasion, flecks of flax and fabric remain embedded in the page, leftover from its past life as linen (Calhoun 2011: 332-33). The quality of the rags determined the colour and coarseness of the sheet, just as the life of the animal determined the quality of a piece of parchment. Scars and blemishes on the animal’s skin are visible as gaping holes, and, if incorrectly treated, a network of veins might show through the translucent skin.

[3] Housed in our rare books libraries and archives, often having been separated and rebound and carefully catalogued, these books appear to be ‘discrete, self-enclosed units’; but these ordering techniques conceal what Jeffrey Todd Knight has described as the ‘relatively malleable and experimental’ nature of early modern books (2013: 4). They were often hybrid things, made of paper and parchment, manuscript and print (see figure one). These objects were, as Adam Smyth argues, always ‘incomplete’, prone to insertion, deletion, cutting and pasting (2012: 461). Book users played a crucial role in the life-cycle of books, commissioning bindings and rebindings, leaving them unbound, or using them as waste. Early moderns, then, were sensitive in different and more nuanced ways to the materials and processes of book-making and unmaking, and grounded their encounter with the book in the tactile and kinetic as well as the visual.

Figure one: Antoine de Chandieu’s De legitima vocatione pastorum ecclesiæ reformatæ (Morges: Jean Le Preux, 1583) bound with George Buchanan’s De iure regni apud Scotos, dialogus, authore Georgio Buchanano Scoto (Edinburgh: John Ross, 1579), The Huntington Library, San Marino, California 353529/30. The binding is a leaf of a service-book stuffed with multiple sheets of printed wastepaper. The rear flyleaf is a scriptural commentary. Reproduced by permission of the Huntington Library.

[4] Within this papery landscape, waste pages were far from an inert and invisible frame for everyday experience. Although a repurposed manuscript sheet might easily be construed as the mundane wrapper for more valuable contents (a hefty folio, for instance, or expensive spices), waste, this article will show, might come intermittently into focus for the early modern book-handler. The experience of waste paper and parchment moved from a scarcely perceived prop at one extreme, to a thoughtfully apprehended object at the other.[1] Though much of the experience of early modern waste matter must remain invisible to us, exceptional encounters are available within textual records. This essay begins with The Laboryouse Journey & serche of John Leylande, for Englandes Antiquities, printed in 1549 and heavily edited by John Bale. I argue that the authors’ drive toward the collection and cataloguing of monastic books is haunted by the tendency of objects to turn to waste, before moving on to a reading based in John Aubrey’s later manuscript work. Within The Naturall History of Wiltshire sits a ‘Digression’ which, I suggest, is uniquely ‘bio-bibliographical’. In it, Aubrey interweaves his experience of monastic fragments with an autobiographical and a national history.

[5] Leland, Bale and Aubrey are sensitive and responsive readers of waste. Their writings reveal an awareness of the histories contained within wrappers, pastedowns and flyleaves: these materials carry visible traces of their past vagaries in their tears and folds, in the fading of ink and the accumulation of dirt. Monastic waste performs multitemporally, or palimpsestically. The fragments are what Jonathan Gil Harris would term ‘untimely matter’: they are remnants that puncture the linearity of time, remembering a lost whole, be it a complete manuscript, a monastery library or a Catholic past, offering up ‘a play of multiple temporal traces’ that tell an object’s own story (2009: 8). They describe a world in which things rub against each other and wear away, narrating, to those who choose to read them, a trajectory of fragmentation and decay.

‘Their Dyspersed Remnaunt’: Monastic Libraries and the Dissolution
[6] The re-use of old books pre-dates the dissolution of the monasteries, but the ‘great cataclysm’ that took place between 1536 and 1540 intensified the process (Leland 2010: civ).[2] There was a dramatic influx of manuscripts into the wastepaper trade and, alongside it, a radical shift in the ways the practice of wasting could be conceived. Furthermore, Edward VI’s 1550 Act against Superstitious Books and Images led to a second wave of large-scale book destruction a decade later. What had for centuries been a gradual process of replacing redundant texts became violent and visible. Previously, the parchment surfaces of predominantly legal and administrative manuscripts had been scraped clean to make way for the addition of new ink, or had been wasted and replaced by printed copies. After the dissolution, these palimpsestic processes accelerated as service books, theological treatises, and historical chronicles came under threat. These ranged from contemporary sixteenth-century texts to the luxuriously illuminated twelfth-century manuscripts soon to be sought out by antiquarian collectors.[3] Additionally, a huge array of administrative documents and financial records, stored haphazardly around the monastery and rarely catalogued, entered the waste market, though this material has been largely neglected by book historians (Harvey 2002: passim). These objects were now valued according to their bulk rather than their contents: in 1549 John Bale described ‘a merchaunt man … that bought the co[n]tentes of two noble lybraryes for .xl. [40] shyllynges pryce’,[4] and in 1557 John Dee records purchasing a manuscript from the dispersed Duke Humfrey’s Library at Oxford ‘par le poys’ (by the pound weight) (Rundle 2004: 116).[5] This continued for several decades: in 1564, a Mr Seeres paid 24 shillings ‘for old Parchment books weying cc [200] pounde’ (Ker 1954; repr. 2004: x).

[7] It is impossible to quantify the number of manuscripts dismembered and destroyed during these decades. Few monastic catalogues survive from the decades leading up to the dissolution, and Henry VIII’s surveyors rarely included books within their inventories of monastic goods (Carley 2006: 256).[6] Neil Ker’s Medieval Libraries of Great Britain lists 5,200 library and service books extant from the eight hundred or more religious houses of England. Of these, 1,800 belonged to the secular cathedrals that remained relatively unscathed, leaving a total of 3,400 surviving books (Ker 1964: passim). In the words of another historian, ‘[t]hat tens, even hundreds, of thousands of library books and service-books were destroyed in the course of a few years is undeniable’ (Ramsay 2004: 138). Although these fragments are not as conspicuous as the crumbling stones of dissolved abbeys and monastery buildings, a visit to a rare books room reveals the fate of many monastic manuscripts. Ker’s Fragments of Medieval Manuscripts used as Pastedowns in Oxford Bindings lists approximately 2,200 bindings that contain monastic waste. Outside of Oxford, these manuscript pastedowns were used in books bound in Cambridge and at Canterbury Cathedral throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (McKitterick 1992:9; Watson 1988: 70).

[8] The university focus of Ker’s study should not distract from the widespread use of monastic waste in stationers and binderies across the country; although no other location offers so many manuscript pastedowns as Oxford, old books could be found dismembered and inserted into new books throughout the country and well into the seventeenth century. David Drummond, founder of Innerpeffray Library (ca. 1680), owned a 1654 folio bound with a medieval manuscript waste guard (see figure two), and the Huntington Library possesses a late-sixteenth or early-seventeenth-century sammelbände wrapped in a twelfth-century manuscript and with a waste printed vellum flyleaf (see figure three). Medieval manuscripts were most often used as guards or spine supports (see figure four), particularly towards the end of the sixteenth century.

Figure two: John Hall’s Of Government and Obedience as they stand directed and determined by scripture and reason (London: T. Newcomb, 1654), Innerpeffray Library, Perthshire, O5: a late example of the use of medieval manuscript guards. Reproduced by permission of Innerpeffray Library.


Figure three: The Compendious Treatise, of Nicholas Prepositas (London: John Wolfe, 1588) and André Du Laurens’ Discours de la conservation de la veüe (London: Felix Kingston, 1599), The Huntington Library, San Marino, California 618583: these volumes are bound in a twelfth century English manuscript wrapper and with a printed vellum flyleaf from the Sarum Missal. Reproduced by permission of the Huntington Library.


Figure four: A manuscript, parchment spine support probably removed from Nicolai Gerbelij Phorcensis, pro declaratione picturae siue descriptionis Graeciae Sophiani : Libri Septem ([Basel]: [s.n], [1550]), Innerpeffray Library, Perthshire E3; now slipped loose into the repaired binding. Reproduced by permission of Innerpeffray Library.

This was no doubt to conserve the supply of durable parchment waste, putting it to use in the area of the book that needed the most reinforcement (the spine), rather than as flyleaves and pastedowns. This eking out of a dwindling supply is perhaps behind the structure of several bindings in Bishop Cosin’s Library (founded 1668): a number of volumes contain wastepaper guards in addition to a combination of twelfth-century and contemporary waste parchment spine-supports (see figure five). Although as the seventeenth century progressed these fragments shrank in size and stopped circulating, they were still widely available to the readers and owners of earlier books.

Figure five: Detail of the early seventeenth-century binding of Luciani Samosatenis philosophi opera omnia quae extant (Lutetiae Parisiorum: P. Ludouicum Feburier, 1615), Durham Library Cosin W.1.10. Leaves from an early seventeenth-century English Bible have been used as guards, reinforced with fragments of a contemporary document and a twelfth-century liturgical manuscript. Cosin W.1.11 and Cosin K.2.14 have almost identical binding structures. Reproduced by permission of Durham University Library.

[9] The fragments of manuscripts extant in bindings perhaps give the impression that waste was relatively static, stitched tightly within other books. This was, however, far from the case: waste moved in and out of a variety of contexts and spaces. Richard Layton, a principle commissioner of the dissolution, told Cromwell that, on his return to New College Oxford, he had ‘fownde all the gret quadrant court full of the leiffes of Dunce [the 13th century theologian Duns Scotus], the wynde blowyng them into evere corner’.[7] Duns Scotus’ windy and worthless words are, as Layton demonstrates, both rhetorically and literally lightweight: the manuscript’s material qualities marry with those attributed to its contents by the reformers. He goes on to describe how a student, Mr Grenefelde, was found ‘getheryng up part of the saide bowke leiffes (as he saide) therwith to make hym sewelles or blawnsherres [scarecrows, scaring sheets] to kepe the dere within the woode’ in his home county of Buckinghamshire (quoted in Aston 1984: 327).

[10] No longer bound and chained within libraries, manuscripts moved beyond the highly literate and homosocial centres of monasteries and universities. John Bale describes how

A great nombre of the[m] whych purchased those superstycyouse mansyons, reserued of those lybraye bokes, some to serue theyre iakes [toilets], some to scoure theyr candelstyckes, & some to rubbe their bootes. Some they solde to the grossers and sope sellers, & some they sent ouer see to ye bokebynders (B1r).

The monastic fragments, according to Bale, passed frequently through grocers’ shops and kitchens, rubbing and wrapping any number of mundane objects. Despite retaining legible text, they were no longer experienced as textual objects. Instead the old manuscripts provided more haptic forms of knowledge, or, to borrow Matthew C. Hunter’s phrase, a ‘materialized intelligence’, on a larger scale than ever before. Dismembered books prompted a series of ‘generative … imaginings’ through their ‘physical manipulation’ (2013: 549, 564). This manipulation was, for Mr Grenefelde, grounded in their lightness, their capacity to shiver and rustle in a Buckinghamshire breeze, and, for other users described by Bale, in their pliability and relative durability: their capacity to wipe, rub, fold and wrap. Encounters with monastic manuscripts had been transformed. No longer situated within sacred spaces and reserved for elite use, they entered everyday experience. This ubiquity meant that the ‘imaginings’ generated by manuscript waste were especially capacious: the 2,200 binding fragments catalogued by Ker, and those that we encounter in our own archival research, only skim the surface of early modern waste.

Leland and Bale among ‘Monumentes of Learninge’
[11] John Bale and John Leland’s The Laboryouse Journey is a product of this transformation, born from the religious and bibliographic turmoil of the dissolution. Both authors sought out manuscripts in monasteries with the aim of producing ‘bio-bibliographies’, catalogues that outlined the history of Britain through its ancient writers (Carley 2010: xxvii). They travelled through England and its libraries independently between 1533 and 1536, and both undertook a second series of bookish itineraries after the dissolution.[8] There was now a sense of urgency: no longer simply recording, they saw themselves as salvaging British history from the dank oblivion of mould, decay and wasted parchment. Leland’s journeys took place between 1541 and 1544, in the immediate aftermath of the dissolution, and Bale’s between 1548 and 1552, sandwiched between two periods of exile on the continent and in the midst of Edward VI’s iconoclastic reforms.

[12] Leland envisaged an immense body of work, beginning with De uiris illustribus (a chronology of Britain’s literature), and taking in a history of Britain (in fifty volumes), a history of the islands neighbouring Britain, a topography of British place names, a history of British universities, and an ecclesiastical history. But instead, several weeks after Henry VIII’s death in 1547, Leland was incapacitated. According to a friend, quoted by Bale, Leland had fallen into madness because ‘he was vayne gloryouse, and that he had a poetycall wytt’ (B4r). He left behind some printed Latin verse, a mass of unedited manuscript material, and a letter composed after his 1543 itineraries and perhaps presented to the King as a ‘New Year’s Gift’ on January 1st 1544. It described his bibliographic achievements and outlined plans for the expansive projects listed above.

[13] Bale printed his Summarium of British manuscripts, compiled in exile, in 1548. Returning to England later in the year, he began editing Leland’s incomplete manuscript De uiris illustribus whilst pursuing his own ambitious bibliographic work, assembling a list of the authors, titles and opening lines of all extant and noteworthy British books.[9] In 1549, Bale printed and enlarged Leland’s ‘New Year’s Gift’. Inserting a lengthy dedication, commentary and conclusion as well as details of his own antiquarian labours, he titled it The Laboryouse Journey. This text is representative of Bale’s concerted efforts to rewrite Leland’s life and labours in service of his own ‘evangelical’ ends. Whereas Bale was a passionate reformer, Leland remained, like his patron Henry VIII, religiously conservative. Leland was a humanist scholar, ‘personally loyal’ to the King and eager to uncover the literary triumphs of the nation’s past (Ross 1998: 51-64; Simpson 2002: 7-33). He was, therefore, an ideal candidate to seek out Anglo-Saxon manuscripts that might provide theological support and a historical precedent for Henry VIII’s divorce and break with Rome.

[14] Leland’s efforts at textual retrieval, then, were patriotic and politically expedient. In his ‘New Year’s Gift’, he describes his work in triumphalist terms, reminding the King that he had ‘encorage[d]’ him ‘to peruse and dylygentle to searche all the lybraryes of Monasteryes and collegies … to the entent that the monumentes of auncyent wryters … myghte be brought out of deadly darkenesse to lyuelye lyght’ (B8r). In the Journey, Bale resituates Leland’s rhetoric of darkness and light within the rhetoric of the Reformation. These books had been ‘tyed vp in cheanes’ (C3r), concealed, like the scriptures, in ‘vncertayne shadowes’ (C6v). Leland’s labours were, according to Bale, Christ-like, as he harrowed the ‘deadly’ dark spaces, dragging their contents into Protestant light. Leland ‘wold clerely redeme them from dust and byrdfylynges’ (C2v), granting the manuscripts salvation from a uniquely bibliographic kind of hell.

[15] In Bale’s account, the authors of these texts could be made to participate in the Reformed agenda of reclaiming England’s religious past through its old books (Fritze 1983; Schwyzer 2004: 49-75; Summit 2008: 101-35). These ‘[m]oste olde and autentyck Chronycles’ (C2v) provided ample evidence for ‘the vsurped autoryte of the Byshopp of Rome and hys complyces’ (C5r). The monuments and antiquities provide the building blocks for a new national faith, legitimizing the young religion in the face of Catholic attacks on its novelty. England, as Leland’s (on occasion erroneous) discoveries make clear, was in the process of returning to a purer, pre-Popish past, where, for instance, ‘Kynge Athelstane’ had ‘the scriptures … translated into the Saxonysh or Englyshe speche’ (D2v). Leland’s labours, he proclaims in Journey, uncovered both popish lies and English truths: the salvaged manuscripts provided the foundation for a chauvinistic narrative of patriotic and Protestant renewal.

[16] Although the Journey is principally concerned with ideologically useful and physically whole manuscripts, the text is rooted in the material context of the ‘dyspersed remnaunt’ (F4v) of the monastic libraries. The vagaries of waste paper and parchment provide a subversive undercurrent that pulls against Bale and Leland’s homogenizing narratives. ‘Remnaunt[s]’ haunt the text as they tend, disobediently, toward waste. In addition to providing evidence of proto-Protestant accomplishments, the dispersed libraries are a source of melancholy for the antiquarian duo. Ultimately, the loose leaves frustrate attempts at collection and coherence: fragmentary books are only able to produce fragmentary texts. The products of Leland and Bale’s labours are a series of catalogues, or lists: Leland had hoped that ‘the names of the[m]’ who ‘hath bene learned and who hath written from tyme to tyme in this realme’ would be listed ‘wyth their lyues and monumentes of learnynge’ (C7v), seeking to reduce whole manuscripts to titles and abstracts. Bale describes how he ‘put fourth a worke of the same argument’ (D1v), and details the practicalities of putting such a catalogue together:

Among the stacyoners & boke bynders, I found many notable Antiquitees, of whom I wrote out the tytles, tymes, and begynnynges, that we myghte at the leaste shewe the names of them, though we haue not as now, their whole works to shewe (G2v-3r).

[17] The narrative of national monuments snatched from monkish clutches falters as Bale reveals the nitty-gritty of antiquarian labour. Ultimately, he and Leland were attempting to gather together a flood of dissolving and disintegrating objects: if only, he laments, ‘ye had their whole workes in dede, as they were in substaunce & fashyon, whyche now for the more part are peryshed, ye shoulde haue seane most wonders of all’ (H5v). The monuments and antiquities are typically, but unspokenly, incomplete: they offer only ‘tytles, tymes and begynnynges’. In addition to proclaiming the triumphs of England’s past, the broken bits of books announce the violence and fragmentariness of England’s present. Their absent parts are palpable. Despite attempts to gloss over them with orderly lines of text, the wasted objects continued to tell their own stories through the negative presences of gaps and silences.

[18] The ‘broaken vp, and dyspersed lybraryes’ (D1v) are, therefore, the source of a contradiction at the heart of the Journey. This duality is encapsulated by the term ‘disperse’, meaning to ‘scatter, or spread abroade’ (Cawdry 1604: D2r), which describes both Leland and Bale’s triumphant spreading abroad of books and knowledge for the benefit of the nation, as well as a much more literal spreading abroad: the dismembering and scattering of a book’s pages. Leland and Bale, as agents of the dissolution, were complicit in the destruction of what they sought to preserve (Simpson 2002: 14-17; Summit 2008: 109-10). The selective nature of an antiquarian’s labours condemned the majority of manuscripts to a waste fate, with only the prioritized categories of histories and chronicles salvaged. Leland was only able to gather a limited number of books for the Royal Library, which was dispersed after Henry VIII’s death (Carley 1999: 274-82), and Bale’s personal library of 150 books, lost when he fled from Catholic priests in Ireland in 1553, was comprised largely of chronicles (McCusker 1935: 144-65).

[19] A number of collections containing early manuscripts, gathered by Leland and Bale’s contemporaries and near contemporaries, do survive. These libraries, made up of from bits of other, dispersed libraries, demonstrate the manner in which collection and fragmentation go hand in hand. In the early seventeenth century, Sir Robert Cotton dismembered his duplicate or unwanted medieval manuscripts, inserting them as ‘stuffing’ or binding waste into other, partially disassembled books (Carley and Tite 1992: 94-99). His ‘‘cut and paste’ approach’ was often aesthetically driven, with fragments of highly illuminated works used as decorative borders, frontispieces and end-leaves in other manuscripts and printed books (Brown 1998: 291-98). Archbishop Matthew Parker’s books are similarly composite. He glued and stitched leaves from Anglo-Saxon and medieval manuscripts into his own volumes according to his political and theological needs (Knight 2013: 41-50; Graham 2006: 328). These ‘auncient monumentes’ were, like all books in early modern England, malleable objects, hybrid things that left behind a trail of trimmings and offcuts.

[20] Antiquarians like Leland, Bale, Parker and Cotton did not collect old manuscripts to keep them whole. Collections did not lead to coherence or completion, but highlighted discontinuity and acts of disposal. In a process of de-accession and replacement intensified by the dissolution, even the most prized manuscript sheets might ultimately be relinquished to the stationers’ and grocers’ shops: the ‘notable Antiquyte[es]’ should, according to Bale, ‘be stayed in time, and by the art of pryntynge be brought into a no[m]bre of coppyes’ (B2r). This proto-Eisensteinian view of the printing press as a stabilizing force is at odds with the mutable objects described above. Instead, in a continuation of scribal practice, printing an old manuscript replaced an individual object with a number of new ones, releasing its parchment leaves into a mundane world of binderies, merchants’ shops, and kitchens.

[21] This fragmentary drive remains submerged within the Journey. The violent wasting of monastic manuscripts is something that others do. Bale recounts his trip to Norfolk and Suffolk, where ‘all the library monume[n]tes, are turned to the vse of their grossers, candelmakers[,] sope sellers, and other worldly occupyers’ (G3rv). This rough-handling, or ‘vngentilnesse’, stems from the failure of the wider public to conform to Bale’s categorisation of monastic manuscripts. They misread the dispersed pages, neglecting to distinguish between godly monuments of national importance and disposable popish trash. Instead, they treat both as ‘worldly’ things. These materialistic book-wasters, according to Bale, fail to transcend the grossly corporeal: their fixation with the physical features of a manuscript is inseparable from their carnal appetites. They are ‘bellygoddes’, or gluttons (A8r). They prioritize ‘belly ba[n]kettes & table tryu[m]phes’ over ‘the conseruacyon of … Antiquytees’ (B1v-2r). This carnal approach condemns manuscripts to a grotesque fate: they ‘geue them leaue to rotte in vyle corners, or drowne them in … iakes’ (E7r), entering them into the digestive and excremental cycles of the everyday.

[22] Bale hypothesizes an alternative state of affairs, one in which material attributes marry up with textual content. Imagine:

Yf the byshop of Romes lawes, decrees[,] decretals, extrauagantes, cleme[n]tines and other suche dregges of the deuyll … and frutes of the bottomlesse pytte, had leaped out of our libraries, and so become couerynges for bokes … we might wele haue ben therwith contented (G3r).

Ideally, confessional labels would determine the material fate of manuscripts, with popish pages enacting a suicidal agency, voluntarily leaping from library shelves and cases to become book-wrappers and binding waste. This would neatly align the manuscripts’ corrupt nature with an appropriately base function. Peeking from the margins of reformed texts, binding waste might demonstrate Protestant supersession of the Catholic past as Bale so desired. In one particularly pertinent example, fragments of a monastic service-book sit as guards within John Bale’s anti-monastic treatise, The Acts of English Votaries (London: John Tysdale, 1560) (See figure six). But this supersession depended on the sympathies of the viewer, and waste might just as easily interrupt the text it bound, triggering nostalgia for a lost way of life. Regardless, all manuscripts, whether ‘auncient Chronicles’, ‘noble hystoryes’, ‘learned co[m]mentaryes and homelyes vpo[n] ye scriptures’ were put ‘to so homely an office of subieccyon & vtter conte[m]pte’ (G3r).

Figure six: John Bale’s Acts of English Votaries (London: John Tysdale, 1560), The Huntington Library, San Marino, California 12963: in a sixteenth-century limp parchment binding with fragments of an old service-book used as guards. Reproduced by permission of the Huntington Library.

[23]  Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Bale and Leland work to distort the organic physicality of the dispersed libraries. In their descriptions they seek to enshrine books as godly objects, linguistically transforming them into abstracted ‘monumentes’. Although ‘monument’ can refer to a written document or record (OED, def. 3.a), the term is laden with a particular set of temporal and material attributes. It is rooted in the Latin ‘monere’, to remind: it both refers backward to a past event or person, and refers forward to their expected endurance in repeated acts of recollection. This is inextricable from a monument’s material qualities: it is synonymous with ‘Sepulchre, Statue, Pillar, or the like’, granting perpetuity to a transient event or decaying body through its relative solidity and permanence (Phillips 1658: CC4r). Leland and Bale’s ‘monuments of learnyng’ and ‘Antiquite’ are, therefore, petrified objects: rather than mouldering manuscripts that disperse and disintegrate across the Reformation landscape, they are fixed and lasting tokens of England’s recently recovered past.

[24]  The manuscripts, however, refuse to be monumentalized. Their sheets are not stony but soft and pliable. Loosened from wooden boards, stiff covers, metal clasps and chains, old books became mobile. Having begun this article by celebrating Leland and Bale as ‘readers of waste’, it is perhaps more appropriate to describe Leland and Bale as misreaders of waste. They misrepresent the material reality, redescribing objects to fit the frame of their triumphant narrative. But crucially, the authorial pair attend (albeit begrudgingly) to the vagaries of manuscript fragments. The counternarrative of disintegration and violent dispersal is a consequence of Leland and Bale’s thoughtful, physical encounters with waste: the text’s terminology of monumentality is internally unravelled because the fragments, though apparently peripheral, are the contextual frame for the Journey.

[25]  Bale does offer a more appropriate epithet, terming the manuscripts ‘lyuely memoryalles of the nacyon’ (A7v). ‘Lyuely’ nicely captures the organic nature and mobility of the fragments, and conveys the manner in which lively things move along a temporal trajectory of atrophy and decay. Monastic waste flaunts the fact that it is, in the words of Margreta de Grazia and Peter Stallybrass, ‘a provisional state in the circulation of matter’ (1993: 280). ‘Memoryalle’ is also fitting. Whereas a monument is a category of object, memorial is relatively empty of concrete associations. Memorials were widely, and rather enigmatically, defined as ‘remembrancer[s], or that which puts one in mind of any thing’ (Phillips 1658: BB4r). The dispersed manuscripts sit neatly within this category: they are malleable memorials, present remembrancers that act as palimpsests of past events and encounters.

[26]  These manuscript ‘memoryalles’ circulated alongside other remembrancers in early modern England, keeping company with a category of objects commonly acquired after the death of a loved one and the dispersal of their goods. These memento mori took the form of mourning rings, typically bearing death’s heads and engraved conceits, and perhaps containing fragments of the deceased, such as a lock of hair (Llewellyn 1997: 95-96). The relationship between these two types of tokens or relics shed light on the apocalyptic undercurrent of the Journey. Bale writes that whereas men of old laboured:

…to holde thynges in remembraunce, whych otherwyse had most wretchedly peryshed. Our practyses now are … to destroye their frutefull fou[n]dacyons. … [W]e in these dayes are as prompte to plucke down (I mean the monumentes of lernynge) as though the worlde were now in hys lattre dottynge age, nygh drawynge to an end (E6v-7r).

In a text that attacks monastic corruption and celebrates the nation’s return to godliness, Bale momentarily falters, lamenting the destructive tendencies of the preceding decades. The ‘fou[n]dacyons’ of early modern England and its ‘remembraunce’ of the past are unstable and under threat after the dispersal of the monastic libraries. They have been corroded because people find it hard to ‘hold’ fast onto godly ‘thynges’, and instead abject and expel them as waste. In this construction of history, the ‘practyses’ of ‘pluck[ing]’ and pulling apart books takes on an eschatological significance. The manuscripts are lively, millennial things: their passage in and out of bindings, grocer’s shops and privies highlights their movement toward degeneration and decay.

[27]  As Leslie P. Fairfield has demonstrated, Bale ascribed loosely to a Lutheran religious chronology, espousing a ‘general low-key pessimism’, a ‘sense of senescence and decay, of living at the “latter end of the world”’ (1976: 75-85). Bale’s catalogues were concerned with revealing the progression of the ‘seven ages of the world’ through a chronology of British authors, from apostolic purity to the dawning of an enlightened age with the writings of Wycliffe. The present day was situated well into the sixth and penultimate age, and the seventh and last age was fast approaching (King 1982: 66-67; Fairfield 1976: 99-120). The waste ‘remnaunt[s]’ of monastic manuscripts shaped this morbid historiography. It seemed reasonable to think that the post-Reformation world was teetering on the brink of destruction: it was full of corruptible things that were, like waste sheets, ‘nygh drawynge to an ende’.

[28]  Waste sheets prop up this religious timeline because, found ‘amonge wormes and dust’ (E7r) in monastic libraries, rotting in private hands or privies, they highlighted the atrophy of all organic things. They rubbed against the leather of ‘boots’ and the soap, spices and foodstuffs of the ‘grosser’s shop’. When turned to ‘serue our iakes’, or privies, skin met skin, or pulped and pressed vegetable matter, subsequently wasted, met expelled excrement (B1r). In Bale’s formulation, wasted manuscripts became excremental in nature. He describes how ‘we abhorre & throwe fourth’ our valuable books ‘as most vyle, noysome matter’, regarding them as little ‘ye parynges of our nayles’ (E7v). A noisome thing is something that is ‘hurtful’, ‘vnholsome, corrupt … pestilent’, capable of infiltrating and ‘infect[ing]’ the body (Cawdry 1604: F8r). Once the manuscripts had been abjected and become waste, they threatened to permeate the skin, blurring unsettlingly with the surfaces that they encountered and compromising the body’s boundaries.

[29]  Bale’s comparison of the trimmings of cut-up and discarded manuscripts with the offcuts of the human body is quite striking. Parchment and fingernails share a distinctive, milky off-white colour, and both become easily ingrained with dirt. Both are stiff but flexible and might contain traces of other corporeal textures, such as hair, follicles and veins. The narrow strips of manuscript waste scattered across the work surfaces in binders’ shops and visible as guards in books reminded Bale of the body’s ‘matter’, triggering sentiments analogous to those brought about by more traditional ‘memoryalls’ and tokens. Nails, like hair and bone, endured after death. When set in jewellery, they reminded their owner not only of their loved one in death but also the transience of their own lives. Manuscript waste generated similar meanings: it was a relic of what had been lost (a whole manuscript, a monastery and way of life), and a reminder of what will come to an end (the body and the world). Transitioning from usefulness to waste and from wholeness to fragment, the movements of manuscript fragments resembled the temporal trajectory of the body to an uncanny degree.

John Aubrey: Reading Wrack and Ruin
[30]  A number of Leland and Bale’s near-contemporaries were engaged in similar activities of gathering manuscripts dispersed from the monastic libraries, and an account of early modern encounters with binding waste might limit itself quite justifiably to this lineage of sixteenth-century antiquarians. This study, however, favours a binocular view of the period in which manuscript waste circulated. One of the striking features of monastic waste is its capacity to endure, and so a proper assessment of these waste objects should consider and seek to account for their manifold afterlives. John Aubrey lived over a century after the dissolution in a vastly different political and theological context, one in which the nature of antiquarian practice itself had shifted. As Daniel Woolf has argued, in the late seventeenth century remnants of the past were likely to be perceived as curiosities, collected as much for their aesthetic as their philological value (2003: 141-44). But despite Aubrey’s distance from the dispersal of the monastic libraries, his writings are more sensitive to waste than any of his contemporaries or predecessors. He looked across two centuries of bibliographic turmoil through the lens of local recollection and the objects themselves. Growing up in the decades when the use of monastic waste began to dwindle, Aubrey’s approach to the past was discernibly shaped by these fragments. He began compiling his Natural History of Wiltshire in 1656, and the 1690-91 version, copied at the request of the Royal Society, contains an unusual ‘Digression’.[10] In it, Aubrey structures a miniature autobiography, genealogy and local chronology through traceable encounters with wasted manuscripts.

[31]  Here he describes past environments of waste, how ‘[i]n my grandfathers dayes, the Manuscripts flew about like Butterflies’.[11] These were the days of his maternal grandfather, Isaac Lyte (1576-1660), demonstrating that as late as the last quarter of the sixteenth century, decades after the dissolution, monastic waste was considered to be ubiquitous. At this time, ‘All Musick bookes, Account bookes’ and ‘Copie bookes &c.’ were, according to Aubrey’s grandfather, ‘covered with old Manuscripts. … And the Glovers at Malmesbury made great Havock of them; and Gloves were wrapt up no doubt in many good pieces of Antiquity’.

[32]  Although by the second quarter of the seventeenth century the world no longer brimmed with lively fragments, monastic waste was a memorable participant in Aubrey’s childhood. He recounts that in 1633, aged seven and a pupil of ‘the Latin-Schoole at Yatton-Keynel’, it was the ‘fashion then … to save the Forules of their Bookes with a false cover of Parchment sc{ilicet} old Manuscript’. He credits his childhood self with an appreciation of and detailed attention to these objects, writing that although ‘he was too young to understand’ the textual content of the sheets, he ‘was pleased with the Elegancy of the Writing and the coloured initiall Letters’. Aubrey recalls a sensual interaction with the manuscripts, which would prove to be a prominent antecedent for the antiquarian engagements of his adult life.[12]

[33]  The school that Aubrey next attended, in the nearby parish of ‘Leigh-Delamer’, undertook ‘the like use of covering Bookes’, but ‘Blandford-Schoole’ in Dorset, which he attended from the age of 12, did not. Although the schoolboys covered their books with ‘old Parchments’ such as ‘Leases &c.’, Aubrey ‘never saw any thing of a Manuscript there’. This was because ‘Here about were no Abbeys or Convents for Men’. The ‘Digression’, therefore, suggests both the longevity and the geographical distribution of monastic waste. In parishes containing and bordering dissolved monasteries, ecclesiastical manuscripts were available for wasting long into the seventeenth century. Elsewhere, waste practices were founded on a more diffuse range of disposable texts (see, for instance, figure seven).

Figure seven: The essaies of Sr Francis Bacon Knight (London: for [John Beale], [1617]), Huntington Library, San Marino, California 6010136: bound in a contemporary legal document. Reproduced by permission of the Huntington Library

[34]  Aubrey’s local environment brimmed with ecclesiastical estates, ‘for within half a dozen miles of this place’ were Malmesbury, Stanley, Monkton Farleigh, Bath, and Cirencester Abbeys, along with Bradenstoke Priory. Of these, only Malmesbury and Bath had been adapted for parish use. The others had been ‘digged up’, plundered for building materials and left to ruin. Stone ruins and malleable manuscript sheets were experientially interconnected, both manifesting, in the words of Margaret Aston, ‘the gashes’ and ‘scars of earlier destruction’, shaping, in her formulation, a nostalgic and historically driven ‘sense of the past’ (1973: 243). Aubrey imaginatively reconstructs these scars, repopulating the library shelves and reading the absent wholes of potentially precious library books into the waste fragments encountered in his schooldays: ‘it may be presumed the Library’ of Malmesbury Abbey ‘was as well furnished with choice Copies, as most Libraries of England’, he writes, teasing himself with what-might-have-beens, conjecturing that ‘perhaps in this Library we might have found a correct Plinys Naturall History’.

[35]  The ‘Digression’ moves on to delineate local personalities through their encounters with loose parchment pages. He describes the rector of Malmesbury, one William Stump, great grandson of a wealthy clothier who had purchased the site of the Abbey and its neighbouring lands after the dissolution. ‘[S]everall Manuscripts of the abbey’ had passed down the generations of Stumps, surviving for more than a century, stowed away for special use. ‘[W]hen He brewed a barrel of speciall Ale’, Aubrey recalls, ‘his use was to stop the bung-hole (under the Clay) with a sheet of Manuscript: He sayd nothing did it so well which me thought did grieve me then to see’. Whereas the young Aubrey relished the luxurious (if faded) shapes and surfaces of waste sheets, Stump appreciated their capacity to mould and fold within a bung-hole whilst remaining relatively water-tight. Although this ‘grieve[s]’ the grown up Aubrey, both engagements, ostensibly dissimilar, are rooted in the hapticity of waste.

[36]  Stump’s sons, we learn, take after their father. In 1647, when Aubrey was 21 years old and Civil War had ravaged the landscape for several years, he returned to the rector’s house ‘out of curiosity to see his Manuscripts, whereof I had seen some in my Childhood’. They were, however, ‘lost, and disperst: His sonns were Gunners, & Soldiers, and scoured their Gunnes with them’.

[37]  This anecdote is indicative of Aubrey’s fluctuation between different scales of storytelling. He intermittently expands from the autobiographical and local to the wider cultural histories contained within waste sheets. Aubrey’s description of a secondary ‘los[s] and dispers[al]’ of manuscripts in the 1640s blurs the religious and political turmoil of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. ‘Before the late warres’, Aubrey writes, ‘a World of rare Manuscripts perished here about’. At first glance, he seems to be referring to the relatively recent events of the Civil War, when ecclesiastical buildings and objects underwent a new wave of iconoclastic violence (Aston 1988: 84-95). It is, after all, a critical commonplace to credit the Civil War with shaping Aubrey’s antiquarian mindset, lending him an ‘acute sense of … impermanence’ (Parry 1995: 276). But for Aubrey, the chronology of destruction was not so clear-cut. Although Civil War iconoclasm was primarily directed at the early seventeenth-century ‘innovations’, in practice it was largely indiscriminate, with late medieval survivals destroyed alongside Laudian introductions. It is unlikely, however, that large numbers of monastic manuscripts survived outside of private hands in the 1640s.[13] Instead, it is probable that ‘Before the late warres’ refers to a much longer, more vaguely defined stretch of time, reaching backward across a century from the period of Civil War to the dissolution of the monasteries. Throughout these decades, the old parchment books comprised an inhabitable ‘World’, undergoing repeated acts of dispersal and dismemberment, until, following the violence of the Civil War, they eventually fell out of circulation.

[38]  The ‘Digression’ is a multitemporal text. Moving between descriptions of the days of grandfathers, great-grandfathers and his own experiences, Aubrey dips in and out of traditionally discrete events and periods of time. This multitemporality is grounded in the waste objects themselves. They are carried through the decades, accumulating traces and wearing away as they pass through hands and spaces. The sheet’s surface layers condense common historiography as they offer up a palimpsest of several centuries, from monastic composition, binding and storage, to dissolution and dispersal, to an indefinite period of fragmentation and wasting. As Harris argues, we cannot ‘separate time into a linear series of units’. Instead, ‘objects collate many different moments’ (2009: 2-4). Rubbing, wrapping and barrel-bunging leave indelible marks as the frictive give-and-take of surface layer on surface layer records where an object has been and what it has touched.

[39]  If bound in other books, waste might tell further stories of collection and archiving. Aubrey reads the same stories told in rare books rooms of the twenty-first century, describing how ‘One may also perceive by the binding of old Bookes, how the old Manuscripts went to wrack in those dayes’. Shifting to the present tense, Aubrey puns on the violence endured by the manuscripts, eliding the frame on which parchment was stretched with its namesake, the instrument of torture. This observation echoes a motto, borrowed from Bacon who borrowed it from the fifteenth-century Italian antiquary Flavio Biondo, that Aubrey employs frequently throughout his writing: ‘Tanquam tabula naufragii’, ‘like planks from a shipwreck’ (Williams 2016: 103). Antiquities and anecdotes are both salvage, the residue of a passed present and a lost whole, but, as Bacon makes clear, these fragments are legible: ‘ANTIQVITIES, or Remnants of History, are, as was said, tanquam Tabula Naufragii; when industrious persons by an exact and scrupulous diligence and obseruation out of Monume[n]ts, Names, Wordes, Prouerbes, Traditions, Priuate Recordes, and Euidences, Fragments of stories, Passages of Bookes … doe saue and recouer somewhat from the deluge of time’ (1605: CC3r). The wreckage might seem trivial but it reveals, to an attentive reader like Aubrey, its own biography, as well as the wider, cultural trajectories that impact on the fate of an object.

[40]  Whereas Bale and Leland fought hard to fit monastic waste within the Protestant programme of the Journey, Aubrey, at first glance, allows waste to speak for itself. His readings, in contrast to his Reformation counterparts, seem relatively objective. Typically reticent on matters of religion, Aubrey’s grief at the destruction of manuscripts is framed as wistful aestheticism, rather than closet Catholic nostalgia, with his interpretive voice largely concealed behind a strategy of Baconian empiricism (Aubrey 2015: xxxiv). The distinct contexts of mid-sixteenth-century religious polemic and late seventeenth-century antiquarianism produce disparate types of text, but, when placed side by side, they do more than demonstrate the surprising longevity of monastic fragments. They are both waste narratives, constructed from parchment palimpsests, and both signal the complex relationship between waste as a concrete thing and waste as a rhetorical construction. Crucially, waste both tells its own stories and speaks its own language. Attentive handlers might read the historical trajectory of waste through its traces, situating its folds, tears and marks within their own interpretive framework. These handlers might go on to author an interrelated but incontrovertibly distinct narrative about the object, as Leland, Bale and Aubrey did. Translated into textual format, waste becomes a trope or emblem, moulded to sit within a variety of authorial narratives and rhetorical programmes. Waste metaphors and metonyms are, however, persistently haunted by their concrete counterparts. Regardless of literary trappings, these tropes will always, at some level, speak the language of a material thing that moves along a trajectory of fragmentation and decay.

[41]  Aubrey’s life-long encounters with waste paper and parchment are translated into just such a trope in his Brief Lives: the pages that contain Aubrey’s own life story are ‘to be interponed [interposed] as a sheet of waste paper only in the binding of a book’ (Aubrey 2015: I.429). Employing a common modesty topos, Aubrey subordinates his own biography to the multitude of lives he has recorded, offering it as a protective wrapping, a prop or frame for the book’s more valuable contents. But, as we have discovered, far from playing an insignificant part, waste was an active participant in Aubrey’s life. Kate Bennett has suggested that this might in fact be a literal instruction, as Aubrey stored valuable manuscript sheets and papers within his books. At the very least, she argues, it is a ‘melancholy’ or ‘ironic reference’ to the waste practices of his schooldays (Aubrey 2015: I.393-94).

[42]  Regardless of its relative playfulness, the meta-material direction demonstrates the manner in which Aubrey shaped his self-identity through the vagaries of waste fragments. Although apparently humble and peripheral, sitting on the edge of extinction, waste is a time-traveller telling stories of the past, and the fragility of the survival of such stories. Aubrey evidently saw himself as sharing at least some of these traits. Typically self-effacing, Aubrey described himself as a ‘wheatstone’, only useful for sharpening the wit of others, and his works as ‘only Umbrages’ and ‘ruines’ (Aubrey 2015: I.433-34). But it was Aubrey and his scattered papers that, like ruins and waste sheets, shored up past fragments against the ‘deluge of time’.

[43]  That which sits on the periphery, like fly-leaves, pastedowns, wrappers and guards, might be what becomes, every now and again, most important. The shipwrecked remnants are ‘as planes and lighter things’. They ‘swimme, and are preserved, where the more weighty since are lost. … In like manner is it with matters of Antiquitie’ (Aubrey 2015: II.761). The lightweight sheets, easily dispersed but fortuitously preserved, speak a language of wrack and ruin, grounded in the traces of past encounters and the vagaries of survival. Far from being ventriloquized or enlivened by authors such as Leland, Bale and Aubrey, waste told of multilayered histories. These authors and their texts are indicative of a wider early modern sensitivity to the waste fragments, which, though no longer flying through the air like butterflies, scattered across the post-dissolution landscape for well over a century.

University of York


[1] This essay’s understanding of the experience of objects borrows from, and takes issue with, the work of Daniel Miller: things ‘direct our footsteps, and are the landscapes of our imagination’ but are not, as Miller argues, ‘invisible and unremarked upon’ or ‘familiar and taken for granted’ (2009: 50-54).[back to text]

[2] Knowles (1959; repr.1976) and Youings (1971) are the foundational studies of the dissolution, although they do not discuss the dispersal of the monastic libraries in any detail. See Carley (2002 and 2006), Fritze (1983), Ramsay (2004) and Wright (1951).[back to text]

[3] For the chronological trends of sixteenth and seventeenth-century manuscript destruction see Ker (1954; repr. 2004: ix-x). [back to text]

[4] Bale and Leland (1549: B1v). All further page numbers given parenthetically in main text.[back to text]

[5] This note can be found within the volume itself. The inscription reads: ‘et a ceste heure voyre en L’an de notre seigneur 1557 a moy Jehan Dee Angloys: lequel ie achetay par le poys‘. This might indicate that much of Duke Humfrey’s collection, sold in bulk, found its way into binders’ and stationers’ shops. Fragments of manuscripts, traceable to the old library, have been found in bindings. See de la Mare and Gillam (1988: 124). [back to text]

[6] The catalogue of the house of Syon, compiled between c. 1500 and c. 1524, is the only extant and intact monastic library catalogue from these decades (Carley 2006: 265). It reveals the acts of incorporation and disposal that a major monastic library undertook between the introduction of print and the advent of the dissolution. By 1504, the collection was over 1300 volumes strong, but only 30 books of Syon providence have since been identified. As with most monastic collections, the exact fate of the collection is unclear. De Hamel’s hypothesis is an evocative one. He suggests that because the extant books are predominantly ‘from the middle of the alphabetical range of class-marks’, they most likely sat moulding in the abandoned library for a number of years after the monastery’s dissolution in 1539, with the outer edges of the book-cases most vulnerable to the elements, thieves and rodents. See Gillespie (2001) and de Hamel (1991).[back to text]

[7] On the concerted wasting of the works of Duns Scotus, see Summit (2008: 88-90).[back to text]

[8] There is some debate over the dating of Leland’s itineraries and ‘New Year’s Gift’. This chronology is taken from Carley’s recent and exhaustive edition of De uiris illustribus (2010). See also Chandler (1993) and, regarding Bale, Fairfield (1976) and King (1982).[back to text]

[9] These notebooks are held in the Bodleian Library (MS Selden Supra 64) and were the foundation for Bale’s Catalogus (1557-59).[back to text]

[10] As quoted in Yale (2009: 1-2). All further references to Aubrey’s ‘Digression are from these pages.[back to text]

[11] See Yale for an explanation of Aubrey’s terminology regarding manuscripts (‘those written on parchment or vellum before the advent of printing’) and papers (contemporary ‘loose sheets, notes from experiments and observations’ etc.) (2009: 4).[back to text]

[12] Kate Bennett gives an interesting example of one such later engagement. Aubrey records removing a parchment ‘Cover’ (a ninth or tenth-century text of Ecclesiasticus) from a contemporary astrological work, and inserting it into his manuscript Monumenta Britannica. He sought to analyse the manuscript as part of his larger paleographical project (2013:94).[back to text]

[13] Spraggon records several instances of the destruction of ‘old books’ during the Civil War, for instance, in Peterborough, Lichfield and Winchester in 1642 and 1646 when ‘divers larg[e] p[ar]chm[e]nts’ were used to make ‘Kytes w[i]thall to flie in the Ayre’. These books, however, seem to have been predominantly administrative documents, such as charters and parish registers (2003: 209, 235).[back to text]


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‘Like to a title leafe’: Surface, Face, and Material Text in Early Modern England

‘Like to a title leafe’: Surface, Face, and Material Text in Early Modern England

Lucy Razzall

[1]  In a letter composed in 1645 and published posthumously in an English anthology just over a decade later, the French writer Jean-Louis Guez Balzac thanked a friend for sending him a work of theology. Responding to the book, Balzac wrote:

Expect not here […] from me a precise judgement of what I cannot reach. I have not discover’d the depth of the book: It is true, Madam, the outside and surface is very beautifull and is precious. I am ravished with the sound of the harmony which is made by matters I cannot comprehend: this way of writing would have amazed the Philosophers whom it had not convinced. And had Gregory of Nazianza, shewn such a piece of work to his friend Themistius, questionlesse it had wrought upon him He would have admired the appearance and outside of Christianity though he could not have beheld the secret and interiour part of it. They are not words printed and read on the paper, they are felt, & penetrate even to the very heart. (Balzac 1658: sig.O8v)

In praising the gift, Balzac opposes its ‘depth’ and ‘surface’; the former is something he ‘cannot reach’, remaining yet to be ‘discover’d, while the latter is at ‘the outside’, and readily appreciated as ‘very beautifull’ and ‘precious’. It is not clear, from these lines, whether he is referring to the visual appearance of the material text he has received, presumably a bound book, or more metaphorically, to its literary qualities. The contrast between the superficial and the hidden persists throughout his letter; he goes on to praise ‘the appearance and outside of Christianity’, which is more easily admired than the ‘secret and interiour part of it’. As the letter progresses, the distinction between the book as material object and mental or spiritual experience is increasingly blurred, as is the distinction between this particular work of theology and the broader concept of ‘Christianity’. In the final line of this passage, Balzac seems to downplay the importance of the book’s materiality – rejecting the ‘words printed and read on the paper’ – but it is only through the very physical vocabulary of sound, feeling, and penetration that he can express the persistently inward effect of these words, which ‘penetrate even to the very heart’. Despite his rhetorical negation of the material text, ultimately Balzac is dependent on this materiality to make effective his portrayal of the complete experience of reading. His letter neatly illustrates the inevitable intricacy of ‘surface’ and ‘depth’, even as it sets them in opposition: literary or spiritual ‘depth’ can only be facilitated by, and encountered through, the simultaneously mental and material experience of ‘the outside and surface’ of ‘words printed and read on the paper’.

[2]  This brief early modern account of reading elides the material and conceptual experiences of the book. Balzac blurs the distinction between his book’s various possible surfaces, which might be visually impressive – perhaps a beautiful binding, or ornate title-page – or intellectually so – a ‘way of writing’, as he says, which stirs his mind in a way that also has to be expressed in physical terms. The moment of interplay between visual and intellectual experiences of a book in Balzac’s letter provides a helpful opening for this essay, which will explore some of the visual and metaphorical aspects of one particular bibliographical surface in early modern literary culture: the printed title page.

[3]  The title page is one of the first textual surfaces, and very often the first textual surface, that a reader of an early modern printed text encounters. Although bindings, blank sheets, waste sheets, and fly leaves may precede it, the title page is usually the outermost or uppermost textual surface of the printed book as a multi-surfaced, multi-dimensional object with physical as well as metaphorical ‘depth’. Like contents pages, prefatory dedications and epistles, indexes, and other paratextual features, title pages set themselves outside the book proper, as navigational starting points for finding a way into, and through, the book. Modern editions of early modern texts usually standardise the information provided on original title pages, and so it is easy to forget that title pages are often intriguingly messy typographical sites, as well as particularly rich reminders of the many agents involved in producing a printed work in the early modern period.

[4]  Bibliographers, book historians, and others usually offer fairly fixed definitions of what a title page is, although there are some disciplinary variations. In her history of the title page in the incunable period, Margaret Smith reminds us that ‘whereas bibliographers are at pains to define the title-page as not containing the beginning of the text, manuscript specialists conflate a decorated first page of text with a frontispiece, or a title-page. For bibliographers a title-page must be distinguished from both a frontispiece and the first page of a text’ (2000: 12). Building on the conventions of manuscript culture, the title page in the early years of print emerged gradually: ‘the title-page went through several stages of development: beginning with the adoption of manuscript practice, then to a blank, to a label-title on the blank (the birth of the title-page in the printed book), and finally to the full title-page’ (Smith 2000: 16). Throughout the sixteenth century the visual and verbal conventions of the title page continued to evolve, and in English, there appears to have been no specific name for the title page until the end of the century. Moreover, the very concept of a title, as well as its form and function, and its relationship to a written text, were also evolving gradually in the early modern period (Genette 1997: 55-103).

[5]  Physically outside a printed text proper, the title page is a distinctive exterior surface, but it is also a distinctive intellectual exterior, usually serving various practical and commercial purposes. Although the term suggests that this is a surface primarily concerned with a text’s ‘title’, in the early modern period this page is also the site for other important information about the work and those involved in producing it. It might provide the names of authors, editors, printers, and publishers, as well as the date and place of publication. If it supplies the details of an individual printer’s or bookseller’s shop, for example, a title page links the book as commercial object to a geographically specific location in London. A printed title page might feature other text too, such as epigraphs or quotations, instructions to the reader, and perhaps non-textual material in the form of decoration and illustrations. In contrast with engraved title pages, printed title pages have received relatively little attention in critical work on early modern paratexts. [1]

[6]  Title pages are one of the principal outward faces of a printed text, usually providing the reader with some information about what will be found inside. As sites of initial encounter, they are both face and surface on the book as object, communicating textual identity but also suggesting physical and intellectual senses of depth. This article brings together some early modern literary responses to real and imaginary title pages, including the first known use of a specific term for this particular part of a book, and teases out the connections between ideas of face and surface embodied at these sites. In considering how they operate in textual, material, and metaphorical ways, the article explores how early modern title pages might be useful locations for troubling some of our own, as well as early modern, assumptions about ‘surface’. This word itself has its origins in the early modern period, and the first part of the essay examines the relationship between ‘surface’ and ‘face’ as the former entered the English language. In its early appearances, the idea of ‘surface’ offers not simply an oppositional contrast with ‘depth’, but is associated with the creation or inscription of identity. The origins of ‘surface’ as word and idea in English writing provide an illuminating backdrop for thinking about the textual, visual, and material functions of the title page in early modern literary culture.

[7]  The word ‘surface’ entered English usage in the later sixteenth century, from the Middle French ‘surface’ and Latin ‘superficies’, referring to the ‘visible outside part of a body’ or ‘outermost boundary of any material object’ (OED 2016). In its early English appearances, it is generally employed as a technical term in geographical, mathematical, and astronomical contexts, where it is particularly associated with descriptions of the globe – as one astronomical handbook illustrates, a globe is ‘a massie body inclosed with one platform or surface’ (Tapp 1602: sig.A4r). In his 1592 dialogue on globes, the mathematician Thomas Hood explained that ‘whether the Globe be Mathematically conceaued in minde, or sensibly deliuered to the eye, it is contained and inclosed vnder one surface’ (1592: sig.B2r). His two speakers discuss the basic form shared by both terrestrial and celestial globes:

The surface of the Globe, as wee haue hetherto spoken of it, is to be vnderstood as a blancke hauing nothing inscribed in it, yet fit to receiue any inscription: therefore according to the inscription of the Globe wee diuide it two seuerall wayes: so that the Globe is saide to be eyther Celestiall, or Terrestriall (sig.B2v).

Their metaphor evokes bibliographical imagery: the ‘surface’ of any globe is compared to a ‘blancke […] fit to receiue any inscription’ – in other words, it is like a sheet of paper, awaiting text. This paper-like ‘blancke’ exterior is crucial to imagining a globe’s transformation from the general to the particular. The nature of such ‘inscription’ on this exterior surface decides and defines what kind of globe it will be, either ‘Celestiall or Terrestriall’. These early appearances in English reveal the word ‘surface’ to be associated with enclosure and exteriority, but also to have intriguingly imaginative, textual connotations.

[8]  Yet a keyword search in Early English Books Online suggests that beyond these technical contexts of mathematics, geometry, and geography, ‘surface’ was not more widely used in English until further into the seventeenth century. Alongside Hood’s description of the surface of terrestrial and celestial globes, I now want to compare the more poetic context of the opening lines of the book of Genesis, which describe the creation of heaven and earth. Contrasting early English translations of these lines leads Adam Nicolson to think about the apparent hesitancy in this period surrounding the word ‘surface’, and the possibilities offered by its close relation, ‘face’ (2003: 192-4). In his unfinished Old Testament translation of the 1530s, William Tyndale wrote:

In the beginnyng God created heauen and earth. The erth was voyde and emptye, and darcknesse was vpon the depe, & the spirite of God moued upon the water.

Tyndale’s prose here is accessible and useful, stating the facts of creation, but it is without any literary grandeur. Twenty or so years later, the compilers of the Geneva Bible offered this variation:

In the beginning God created the heauen and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darknesse was upon the deep, and the Spirit of God mooued vpon the face of the waters.

In their version, the prose is made more fluent, and more specific. The earth was ‘without form and void’, rather than only ‘voyde’, and the word ‘face’ is introduced in the final clause, suggesting the possibility of life emerging from the now plural ‘waters’, in contrast with Tyndale’s singular ‘water’. The King James Version of 1611 incorporates the additions of the Geneva text, building on them further:

In the beginning God created the Heauen, and the Earth. And the earth was without forme, and voyd, and darknesse was vpon the face of the deepe: and the Spirit of God mooued vpon the face of the waters.

Although the changes are slight, the effect is magisterial. The prose is rhythmic, poetically balanced through judicious punctuation, the repetition of ‘the’ and ‘and’, and the ‘darknesse’ ‘vpon the face of the deepe’ set against the ‘Spirit of God’ ‘vpon the face of the waters’.

[9]  Nicolson points out that there is a word which means ‘surface’ in the Hebrew, but all of these early English versions of Genesis avoid it (2003: 194), unlike modern English translations – the New Revised Standard Version, for example, gives us: ‘darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters’, overlooking the poetic possibilities embraced by the King James translators. Early modern translators repeatedly chose ‘face’ rather than ‘surface’; indeed, the word ‘surface’ does not appear anywhere at all in the King James text. Nicolson’s comments about the general preference in scriptural translation for ‘face’ over ‘surface’ are very suggestive. ‘The spirit of God moving on the face of the waters has a mysterious and ghostly humanity to it which neither the modern translations nor Tyndale’s blankness can match’, he writes – ‘The face of the waters carries a subliminal suggestion that the face of God is reflected in them […] In this first, archaic darkness a connection already exists between God and his creation. The universe from the moment of its making is human and divine’ (2003: 194).

[10]  While Nicolson’s justification is theologically and poetically convincing, it may also be the case that the King James translators were more conscious than Nicolson acknowledges of some of the contemporary technical associations of the word ‘surface’, exemplified in the astronomical works I cited earlier, and also in Robert Norton’s 1604 volume of applied mathematics, where it is stated that ‘A Superficies or Surface hath onely length and bredth without deepenesse’ (Norton 1604: sig.G3r). Norton’s definition in particular suggests one reason why ‘surface’ might not be an appropriate word to use for the primal waters of Genesis, even though is already associated with descriptions of terrestrial and celestial globes – according to Norton, a surface is specifically ‘without deepenesse’ (my italics). However, even as it sets up a contrast between surface and depth here, Norton’s definition complicates any potential binary, giving ‘surface’ the expansive dimensions of both ‘length’ and ‘breadth’, which define it as more than simply the opposite of ‘deepenesse’.

[11]  The hesitation of early modern scriptural translators surrounding ‘surface’ is a reminder that this word can be as potentially problematic as it is useful. With the avoidance of ‘surface’, the relationship between maker and what is made in Genesis is depicted implicitly as one of seeing ‘face to face’, a phrase which comes up explicitly, no fewer than eleven times, in the King James translation. It is perhaps most famously used by St Paul, who reassures the people of Corinth that ‘now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face’ (1 Corinthians 13:12), but it also appears many times in the Old Testament, where Moses and other prophets are associated with seeing God, or his angels, ‘face to face’ (Exodus 33:11; Deuteronomy 34:10). Whereas ‘face’ implies desirably direct, intimate encounter in all of these examples, when it is given the three-letter prefix ‘sur’ (from Latin, super, meaning ‘above’, ‘on top of’, ‘beyond’, ‘besides’, ‘in addition’), it is immediately made less direct, those three letters performing on the page a visual intervention like that which the word ‘surface’ itself implies, as something that comes before something else, concealing something from direct view or immediate revelation.

[12]  The printed title page provides a rich material and imaginative focus for thinking about the web of associations between the visual and the metaphorical connected to the word ‘surface’ in early modern writing. Like Thomas Hood’s ‘blancke […] fit to receiue any inscription’, the title page serves as a defining surface, at which we might expect to deduce something of the nature of the text within. As these early modern technical and literary contexts for thinking about ‘surface’ suggest, title pages, like faces, might also be associated with literal and metaphorical kinds of recognition and reflection. Several of these material and imaginative connections are at play in the first published instance of a specific term for a title page in early modern writing, to which I will now turn, before then considering what some other literary and real encounters with title pages tell us about how these bibliographical sites work as surfaces.

[13]  In the opening scenes of William Shakespeare’s The Second part of Henrie the fourth (written around 1596 and first printed in 1600), three different messengers bring conflicting news from the battle of Shrewsbury, and on the arrival of the third, the sick Earl of Northumberland exclaims:

Yea this mans brow, like to a title leafe,
Foretells the nature of a tragicke volume:
So lookes the strond whereon the imperious floud,
Hath left a witnest vsurpation.
Say Mourton, didst thou come from Shrewsbury? (1600: sig.A3v)

Morton’s facial expression, before he has spoken, reveals that he brings bad tidings – the news that the rebellion against the king has largely been defeated, and Northumberland’s son, Hotspur, has been killed by Prince Hal, not the other way round as reported several lines earlier. In response, Northumberland likens Morton’s face to a ‘title leafe’ of a ‘tragicke volume’; more specifically, it is his ‘brow’ which draws this simile from him. His words suggest a physiognomical moment of revelation, in which the furrowed lines of Morton’s forehead can be read, accurately foretelling ‘the nature’ of his news. No sooner has it been read in this way, however, than Morton’s face is rapidly transformed into another surface, on a much greater scale: a shoreline bearing traces of tidal invasion. While editors of the play usually comment only on the comparison between the frowning human brow and the lined aspect of a beach encroached upon by the tide here, there is also a suggestion of the lingering salty wetness of sweat on his brow, or even tears on the rest of his face, further ‘witnesses’ of the news of Hotspur’s death.

[14]  It is especially appropriate that this invocation of a title page comes at the beginning of the play, as initial encounters between protagonists take place, and the nature of the drama that is to follow is established. ‘How doth my sonne and brother?’, Northumberland goes on to ask Morton, continuing before he can respond: ‘Thou tremblest, and the whitenes in thy cheeke/Is apter than thy tongue to tell thy arrand’ (sig.A3v). As an ominously trembling ‘title leafe’, Morton’s face has the ‘whitenes’ of paper, on which blankness might ‘foretell’ and ‘tell’ as much as, or indeed more than words. Northumberland elaborates that because of this face, he knows ‘my Percies death ere thou reportst it’ (sig.A3v), making Morton into a primarily visual, rather than verbal, source. In the Induction moments earlier, the figure of Rumour, ‘painted full of Tongues’, has established an atmosphere of mistrust for the play’s opening, in which ‘continual slanders ride’ and ‘smooth comforts false, worse than true wrongs’ circulate (sigs.A2r-v). Upon Morton’s entrance though, Northumberland trusts what he sees, before he hears anything; in this encounter, all is on the surface. He focuses on Morton’s face as a visual form of communication, rather than an aural one, in contrast with the cacophony of uncertainties ‘from Rumour’s tongues’. As a legible ‘title leafe’, Morton’s face more reliably establishes the nature of the action to follow.

Figure 1: William Shakespeare, The Second part of Henrie the fourth (London: V.S. for Andrew Wise and William Aspley, 1600), title-page. RB 69318, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

[15]  Shakespeare’s simile of the ‘title leafe’ also hints at the materiality of the play in its printed form. Although it does not feature Northumberland’s word ‘tragicke’, the title page of the 1600 quarto describes The Second part of Henrie the fourth, continuing to his death, and coronation of Henrie the fift, tempering this with the promise of the humours of sir Iohn Falstaffe, and swaggering Pistol. Between the printed text of the title, the references to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and William Shakespeare, and the colophon at the foot of the page, there is one piece of non-alphabetical type – an architectural ornament depicting a small grotesque face within a cartouche. Although this ornament is there to fill blank space, and as a necessary feature of the printing process has no intentional relationship to Shakespeare’s play, the presence of this image is a reminder of the connections between faces and books embodied in another term sometimes used as a synonym for title page or ‘title leafe’, the ‘frontispiece’.[2] From the Latin frontispicium, meaning literally ‘looking at the forehead’, ‘frontispiece’ was an architectural term referring to the principal ‘face’ or front of a building in use in English from the late sixteenth century, as well as to the first page of a printed book from the early seventeenth (OED 2016). Thus as Northumberland reads Morton’s ‘brow’, he might equally and more literally liken it to a ‘frontispiece’. Although a distinction is usually now made between title page and frontispiece, with the latter term given to an illustrated page facing the title page, often involving a portrait, the terms were less clearly distinguished in the early modern period.

[16]  For example, John Taylor conflates these two terms figuratively in a sermon on repentance, which he describes as ‘a great volume of duty; and Godly sorrow is but the frontispiece or title page: it is the harbinger or first introduction to it’ (1653: sig.E5r). Just as Morton’s face relays sad news at the start of Shakespeare’s play, here Taylor asks his audience to imagine ‘Godly sorrow’ as the necessary ‘harbinger’ of repentance. In both texts, the ‘frontispiece or title page’ works as a crucial simile or metaphor to convey the sense of something to be read, indicating what is yet to come. For Shakespeare’s Northumberland and for Taylor, the face and the ‘frontispiece or title page’ are both reliable surfaces, which in a culture that made much of physiognomy, can be accurately read as revelatory sites. [3]

[17]  Yet at the same time, anxieties about the reliability of such outer surfaces pervade early modern writing. The reinforcement of the surface-depth distinction is often in the context of religious polemic, and is particularly tied to the distinctively Protestant fixation with the idea that exteriors are deceptive.[4] In his exposition of ‘Meekness’ as a ‘necessary feminine Vertu’, the preacher Richard Allestree uses another metaphorical ‘frontispiece’ to insist that a woman’s ‘mind’ should ‘correspond’ with her face:

For tho the adulterations of art, can represent in the same Face beauty in one position, and deformity in another, yet nature is more sincere, and never meant a serene and clear forhead, should be the frontispiece to a cloudy tempestuous heart. ’Tis therefore to be wisht they would take the admonition, and whilst they consult their glasses, whether to applaud or improve their outward form, they would cast one look inwards, and examine what symmetry is there held with a fair outside; whether any storm of passion darken and overcast their interior beauty, and use at least an equal dilligence to rescu that; as they would to clear their face from any stain or blemish. (1673: sig.C3r )

According to Allestree, it is fundamentally unnatural for the face to conceal the true feelings of the heart. The truly virtuous woman should seek to resolve the desired ‘symmetry’ of the face and what is ‘inwards’, so that the former looks outwards unblemished, accurately foretelling ‘interior beauty’. An earlier seventeenth-century treatise on virtue and moral conduct by Henry Crosse offers a more general catalogue of the ways in which ‘by the disguised craft of this age, vice and hypocrisie may be concealed: yet by Tyme (the trial of truth) it is most plainly reuealed’ (1603: sig.A1r ). The sin of hypocrisy is everywhere: ‘this idle shewe and false appearance, o how dangerous it is to the truth! being possessed with nought but treacherie and cosonage, a capitall plague, it is for the wicked to make shewe of goodnesses, and may fitly be sorted to the Apothicaries painted boxes, that haue nothing within but poyson, or some deadly compound’. A man to whom ‘glorious titles’ are given, but who does not match these with a virtuous character, is like ‘a rotten carkasse with a painted skin’, but as Crosse warns, ‘the all-seeing eye of heauen, to whom darknesse is light, perspicuously obserueth all their deeds, and will bring them forth euen as they are naked and vncouered’ (sigs.D3r, H2v-H3r).

[18]  In this conventional Protestant polemic, God alone remains undeceived, while mortals are easily led astray by earthly things, amongst which are the particularly dangerous agents of ‘vaine, idle, wanton Pamphlets and lasciuious loue-books’. Crosse protests that they conceal ‘idle Poems of carnall loue, lust, and vnchaste arguments’:

the very nurses of abuse, by which the minde is drawne to many pestilent wishes. For when as young folkes haue licked in the sweete iuice of these stinking bookes, their conuersation and manners are so tainted and spotted with Vice, that they can neuer be so cleane washed, but some filthy dregges will remaine behinde. I may liken them to fawning curres, that neuer barke till they bite: or a gaye painted coffer, full of toades and venemous beasts: So in like manner many of these bookes haue glorious outsides, and goodly titles: as if when a man tooke them in hand, he were about to read some angelicall discourse: but within, full of strong venome, tempered with sweete honey: now while the minde is occupied in reading such toyes, the common enemie of man is not idle, but doth secretly insnare the soule in securitie […] (sig.N4v).

While there are men with ‘glorious titles’ which are not matched by inner virtue, so too are there books with ‘glorious outsides, and goodly titles’ which ‘infect and poison delicate youth’. In this passage Crosse exploits the aptness of pestilence and poison as metaphors for the way in which books affect their readers in unseen, insidious ways. The ‘glorious outsides, and goodly titles’ of a book are both material and intellectual surfaces, and when the reader takes the book ‘in hand’, literally and mentally, they must be wary of how they interpret these external surfaces, in case the volume turns out to contain ‘strong venome’ rather than the ‘angelicall discourse’ promised.

[19]  Such diatribes against worldly dangers, in which the danger of superficiality is relentlessly emphasised, present fairly standard reformed rhetoric. Books are implicated as material, intellectual, and spiritual experiences, with a particular emphasis on the deceptive potential of their ‘titles’, and by extension, their title pages, as distinctive faces or surfaces. This anxiety about the reliability, or not, of a title page extends beyond puritanical debate to a more generalised fear of dishonesty in print, as Thomas Dekker admits in one of the prefatory epistles accompanying his intriguingly-titled pamphlet A strange horse-race:

The Titles of Bookes are like painted Chimnies in great Countrey-houses, make a shew a far off, and catch Trauellers eyes; but comming nere them, neither cast they smoke, nor hath the house the heart to make you drinke. The Title of this booke is like a Iesters face, set (howsoeuer he drawes it) to beget mirth: but his ends are hid to himselfe, and those are to get money. Within is more then without; you shall not finde the kirnell, vnlesse you both cracke and open the shell. (1613: sig.A2v).

The ‘Titles of Bookes’ manipulate a reader’s perspective, Dekker says, on closer inspection often turning out to mean less than they promised. His appropriately architectural simile for the frontispiece or title page suggests the reader’s material as well as intellectual experience of it, as something that is often visually tempting from a certain distance, but which may disappoint within. Turning to his own book, he implicitly brings in the more literal meaning of ‘frontispiece’, likening his title to ‘a Iesters face’, which seems to ‘beget mirth’ but conceals a more avaricious intention. Books, buildings, and faces all have the potential to mislead with their exterior surfaces, but Dekker dares his reader to venture further, even at the risk of disappointment.

[20]  While Dekker meditates on the deceptive potential of the title page for his own entertaining purposes, the problems he raises are recounted in other ways by contemporary writers concerned with the fact that printers have significant influence over the titles of books, and can exploit title pages for their own commercial ends. Barnabe Rich, soldier and author whose various works include six texts on the art of war, reflected that:

the Printer himselfe, to make his booke the more vendible, doth rather desire a glorious Title, than a good Booke: so that our new written Pamphlets of these times, are not much vnlike to a poore Inne in a Countrey towne, that is gorgiously set foorth with a glorious signe; but being once entred into the house, a man shall find but cold intertainment, as well of homely lodging, as of bad fare. They are but resemblances to the Apples that are said to grow about Sodom, which being pleasant to the eye, doe vanish into smoke, or into soot as soone as a man doth but put his teeth into them: and like the small bells of the Choribantes, that may make a little tingling noise, but they are good for nothing but to trouble the braine. To speake truly, I haue many times beene deceiued with these flourishing Titles that I haue seene pasted vpon a Post, for bestowing my mony in haste at my better leisure looking into the book, and finding such slender stuffe, I haue laughed at my owne folly: but I haue yet made vse of them, for what will not serue for one thing may well be imployed to another. (1606: sig.L4r)

Rich’s vocabulary here is very similar to Dekker’s, but instead of an ostentatious country house he invokes ‘a poor Inne in a Countrey towne’, whose ‘glorious signe’ conceals the poor welcome offered inside. Moreover, title pages may even be detached from the book altogether, and ‘pasted vpon a Post’ for advertising purposes. This passage reinforces in emphatically material terms the idea that the title or title page is all too often but a let-down, promising more than it delivers. Although title pages were among those things ‘we commonly hang vpon a wall, fasten thereunto’, as one contemporary noted – ‘if it be a Proclamation or Title page of a booke, that it is pasted vnto the wall; if it be a new Pamphlet, that is fastened to the wall with nails’ (Willis 1621: sigs.B2v-B3r) – Rich finds the complete separation of this part of the book especially problematic. He says he has ‘yet made vse of them’, however, euphemistically alluding to other possible uses of paper that reduce it to nothing but an entirely disposable surface.

[21]  In such articulations, title and title page inevitably conceal a lack of substance. While these are commonly expressed concerns in early modern writing, the reality is that title pages represent much more complex kinds of surface, which confound many of our assumptions about how this particular face or surface of a book should work, complicating the relationship between surface and depth. The close imaginative associations between title pages and other surfaces requiring visual interpretation, whether faces, or buildings, or inn signs, are a reminder that the printed title page may be visually striking, even in purely typographical terms. Title pages printed in the first half of the sixteenth century are often especially engaging in this respect, with text laid out in bold, graphic shapes. The visual effects of the text often conflict with our modern sense of what a title is, and what the title page should do, as words are prioritised and split in surprising ways, and an often symmetrical, visually pleasing outline of the text block is achieved at the expense of easy reading. Access to the contents of the book may be slowed down through unexpected hierarchies, where opening articles such as ‘a’ or ‘the’ are given greater prominence than the more specific details of the title. The eye may be gradually drawn in to a vanishing point, to a single piece of type, blurring the distinction between letter and ornament. The effect is almost one of optical illusion, not unrelated to the early modern fascination with visual perspective, in which the two-dimensional page gestures towards the three-dimensional space of the whole book. While engraved title pages might more explicitly play around with perspective, using architectural designs to create an almost tangible sense of depth, for example, printed title pages can also visually suggest depth, revelling in the possibilities and limitations of the printed surface.

[22]  Very little has been said about this curiously ornamental stage in print history – Margaret Smith says, dryly: ‘it must be conceded that a label-title arranged in a half-diamond indention could be quite attractive’ (2000: 60). Her comment is insufficient in responding to the effects of these surfaces, where the textual becomes the visual, and individual letters units of decoration, before they are words. We might compare them to shape poems like George Herbert’s familiar Easter-Wings, which resolves the fallenness of sin and the uplifting power of Christ’s resurrection in a poem that hovers, as a pair of wings, as if about to take flight from the page, or ‘The Altar’, which similarly slows down the process of reading, and hints at a three-dimensional material form beyond the page.

[23]  One example of this manipulation of the visual possibilities of type on a title page is found in a quarto printed by John Day in 1560, containing three sermons given by Roger Hutchinson. On Day’s title page, framed by an architectural border of scrolls, leaves, and faces, eight lines of text gradually shorten, announcing the topic of the sermons, the name of the preacher, the place in which he preached them (Eton College) and the year (1552). The description of the sermons, A faithful declaration of Christes holy supper, involves upper case type in two decreasing sizes for ‘A faithful declaration of’, as well as italic and blackletter fonts in smaller sizes again for ‘Christes holy supper’. The word ‘comprehended’ and the two parts of the author’s name are split over breaks between lines.

Figure 2: Roger Hutchinson, A Faithful Declaration of Christes holy Supper (London: John Day, 1560), title-page. RB 61548, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

Day’s details and the date of printing, as well as the Latin statement of royal approval are set out beneath in a similar visual composition.[5] Between these two blocks are some further lines, in type of the same font and size, and a similar almost-triangular shape: ‘Whose contentes are in the other syde of the lefe.’ In the Huntington Library copy of this text, a reader has added in the name of the author, Roger Hutchinson in manuscript, in the gap between this note and the printing details, reasserting that crucial detail in the conventional form of complete words, as if for quick reference.

[24]  This early modern reader’s intervention is perhaps a giveaway that this title page is not so easy to read – that the printer’s practical decisions over how to arrange text on this surface have brought about visual coherence at the expense of readerly convenience. The printed title page thus becomes a surface obsessed with itself. In the sixteenth century there is often little distinction between a title page and a contents page, hence Day’s reminder to check ‘the other syde of the lefe’ for the ‘contentes’ of the sermons. Moments like this are quite common: ‘Thou that to read this title doth begin, turn over leaf and see what is within’ (Anon 1663), announces one anonymously published moral treatise of the mid-seventeenth century on its title page. Unlike other paratextual materials, such as epistles, the title page itself is not usually explicitly attributed to anyone, and so these moments of instruction come from an uncanny, unknown voice. Such volumes are acutely aware of their own materiality, and remind the reader that intellectual engagement is inseparable from tactile, physical encounter.

[25]  The direction to ‘turn over leaf’ seems unnecessary – surely the reader does not need to be directed to turn this page, of all pages – but it also works like a sort of apology for the limitations of the page itself, as well as anticipating verbally the moment of suspense as a page is turned. Even as it admits to its own two-dimensionality, the printed title page signals the three-dimensionality of the book, and complicates our notion of its surface function. The early modern literary invocations of the title page discussed here have revealed how these paratextual features are especially vibrant surfaces, at which the book is especially aware of the possibilities and limitations of its own form. They also illustrate the importance of thinking beyond a clear-cut opposition of ‘surface’ and ‘depth’; as well as suggesting something within, and potentially deceiving the eye about what is hidden, title pages might be more reflective or participatory sites. As a ‘superficies or vpper part, the first shew or outward face’ as one early seventeenth century dictionary defined ‘surface’ (Cotgrave 1611: sig.4Fiiv), the printed title page is not merely a passive surface on which text is laid, but a transformative site of initial encounter, at which the material, visual, and mental experiences of the book as three-dimensional object are particularly closely intertwined.

 University of Cambridge


[1] The engraved title page, which I am excluding from my discussion here, is the focus of Corbett and Lightbown’s The Comely Frontispiece: The Emblematic Title-Page in England 1550-1660 (1979). Among recent work on particular elements of printed title pages, see Smith’s ‘‘Imprinted by Simeon such a signe’: reading early modern imprints’ (2011) and Sherman’s ‘On the Threshold: Architecture, Paratext, and Early Print Culture’ (2007). [back to text]

[2] For more on reading faces in early modern culture, see Porter’s Windows of the Soul: Physiognomy in European Culture 1470-1780 (2005). [back to text]

[3] William Shakespeare, The second part of Henrie the fourth (London: V.S., 1600), title page. HM69318, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.[back to text]

[4] For more on vision and superficiality in the context of the Reformation, see Clark’s Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture (2007). [back to text]

[5] Roger Hutchinson, A faithful declaration of Christes holy supper, comprehe[n]ded in thre sermo[n]s, preached at Eaton Colledge (London: John Day, 1560), title page. HM 61548, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.[back to text]


Allestree, Richard. 1673. The ladies calling in two parts by the author of The whole duty of man, The causes of the decay of Christian piety, and The gentlemans calling (Oxford: n.p.)

Anon. 1663. Good counsel to be had at a cheap rate. Wherein is contained many excellent matters which are very needful to be had in consideration amongst all sorts of people that are now living in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (London: W. Gilbertson)

Balzac, Jean-Louis Guez. 1658. Balzac’s remaines, or, His last letters. Written to severall grand and eminent persons in France (London: Thomas Dring)

Clark, Stuart. 2007. Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Corbett, Margery and Lightbown, Ronald. 1979. The Comely Frontispiece: The Emblematic Title-Page in England 1550-1660 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul)

Cotgrave, Randle. 1611. A dictionarie of the French and English tongues (London: Adam Islip)

Crosse, Henry. 1603. Vertues Common-wealth: Or the High-Way to Honovr (London: John Newbery)

Dekker, Thomas. 1613. A strange horse-race at the end of which, comes in the catch-poles masque (London: Nicholas Okes for Ioseph Hunt)

Genette, Gérard. 1997. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, tr. By Jane E. Lewin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Hood, Thomas. 1592. The vse of both the globes, celestiall, and terrestriall most plainely deliuered in forme of a dialogue (London: Thomas Dawson)

Hutchinson, Roger. 1560. A faithful declaration of Christes holy supper comprehe[n]ded in thre sermo[n]s (London: John Day)

Nicolson, Adam. 2003. Power and Glory: Jacobean England and the Making of the King James Bible (London: HarperCollins)

Norton, Robert. 1604. A mathematicall apendix, containing many propositions and conclusions mathematicall: with necessary obseruations both for mariners at sea, and for cherographers and surueyors of land (London: R.B. for Roger Iackson)

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Porter, Martin. 2005. Windows of the Soul: Physiognomy in European Culture 1470-1780 (Oxford: Clarendon Press)

Rich, Barnabe. 1606. Faultes faults, and nothing else but faultes (London: Valentine Simmes for Ieffrey Chorlton)

Shakespeare, William. 1600. The second part of Henrie the fourth continuing to his death, and coronation of Henrie the fift (London: V.S. for Andrew Wise and William Aspley)

Sherman, William. 2007. ‘On the Threshold: Architecture, Paratext, and Early Print Culture’, in Agent of Change: Print Cultures After Elizabeth L. Eistenstein, ed. Sabrina Alcorn Baron, Eric N. Lindquist, and Eleanor F Shevlin (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press): 67-81

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The Poetics of Page-Turning: The Interactive Surfaces of Early Modern Printed Poetry

The Poetics of Page-Turning: The Interactive Surfaces of Early Modern Printed Poetry

Craig Farrell

Nowe the sundry kindes of rare deuises, and pretty inuentions which come from ye fine poeticall vaine of manie in strange and vnacustomed manner, if I could report them, it were worthie my trauell: such are the turning of verses: the infolding of wordes: the fine repititions: the clarklie conueying of contraries, and manie such like. Whereof though I coulde sette downe manie: yet because I want bothe manie and the best kindes of them, I will ouerpasse: onelie pointing you to one or two which may suffice for example.

William Webb, A discourse of English poetrie (1586), sig.G2r

[1]  In the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, works we might think of as nascent literary criticism of English poetry began to be written and published in increasing quantities. While many of these combine the history of poetry, theoretical defences, and comments on recent writers, some treatises also began to incorporate close readings – attention to the stylistic aspects of a poem or author which reflect in some manner on its content (Alexander 2004: xxi-xxiv). Such readings have always been a part of the reception of classical literature, but with the growth of vernacular literature a generation of writers turned their attention to English verse. In the section above, Webb goes on to discuss some of the ways in which poetry might demonstrate the wit and inventiveness of its authors. Many of these are rhetorical flourishes or stylised grammatical arrangements, but in the course of this article I want to focus on a phenomenon hinted at by Webb’s quotation, but rarely given much space in our own critical discussions of early modern poetry, even with scholarship’s newfound focus on the material text. Webb’s mention of ‘the turning of verses: the infolding of words’ certainly refers to the general process of writing poetry and the composition of words in an artful manner – but, given the era’s self-consciousness about the materiality of page and book and paper, it also gestures towards another aspect of poetry entirely: the physical interaction of reader with a text, turning pages and quite literally ‘infolding’ words on top of one another.

[2]  Page-turning is a ubiquitous but almost invisible phenomenon that is present in the codex as a form. Unlike the scroll, or when words are inscribed on objects, the codex is composed of sheets, folded one or more times into gatherings, then cut to form discrete pages (Gaskell 2007). As a result, the majority of readers interacting with a text in this medium will necessarily need to turn pages in order to move through the volume, whether in a linear fashion or in a more random order. Indeed, sometimes the individual page might be revisited immediately after being read as readers attempt to follow the grammar of a sentence or stanza from one page to the next. Scholarship in the last few decades has explored the ways in which the physical manifestation of a text can affect a reader’s engagement with its content. In particular, the semiotics of the printed page have been deconstructed, with mise-en-page arrangement, the use of typefaces, running titles, the amount of blank space, or the presence of printed marginal annotations (e.g. Smith and Wilson 2011; Tribble 1993) all receiving close attention. While these aspects have been brought to bear on texts by scholars for a number of years, including superb work by Wendy Wall (1994), attention to the overlap between poetic form and material form have been given particular impetus by a number of studies bridging the bibliographical work of D.F. McKenzie and Roger Chartier on the one hand, and the interpretive approach referred to as ‘new formalism’ on the other (Deuterman and Kisery 2013; Scott-Bauman and Burton 2014).[1]

[3]  Despite this, attention to the handling and turning of pages has been less frequent. Peter Stallybrass (Andersen and Sauer 2002) has explored the transition between scroll and codex in respect to the bible, while Christina Lupton (2014) demonstrates the ramifications of these issues to the eighteenth-century novel. In addition to these works, Andrew Piper (2013) has provided a broad and thoughtful analysis of the book, including our interaction with pages, particularly in contrast to newer electronic forms of reading. One of the few scholars directly addressing the interpretive ramifications in early modern literature is Coleman Hutchison (2006), whose work on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, though not explicitly handling page-turning, nonetheless sees the placement of poems on the page as a site of interpretive interest that parallels my own approach. What I wish to suggest through a handful of close readings is that there is much greater scope for seeing page-turning not as a neutral activity in the reading process, but one which can take an active part in our engagement with and understanding of the text. In the readings of Thomas Watson, Edmund Spenser, and George Herbert that will follow, I will suggest that including the act of page turning in our interpretive horizons can directly impact on our reading of early modern texts, and extend our understanding of the interaction between material form and literary meaning.

[4]  Page-turning shaped the language and metaphors of early modern writers in quite explicit ways. Published collections of poetry in this period frequently suggest that if the reader ‘lykes not the reading of it, turne ouer the leafe, and you shall finde somwhat els to your contentmente’, in the words of Nicholas Breton in his Workes of a young wit (1577: sig. H4v). Similar defences can be found in George Gascoigne’s Hundreth Sundrie Flowres (1573), and John Harington’s Orlando Fusioso (1591), among many others. In this respect, an acknowledgement of the reader’s physical interaction with the text features prominently in the defences undertaken by their authors – to the extent that it enters into the standard rhetorical toolkit for prefatory apologetics of writers in this period. For those authors engaged in publishing collections of poetry, page turning not only becomes a symbol for the variety on offer in the text but also for the larger questions of reader’s choice and appreciation. The now-proverbial ‘turning over a new leaf’ appears to date from the middle of the sixteenth century (Speake 2016). Though certainly in use before its first documented example, that it appears and was quickly adopted at this moment demonstrates one of the ways an increasingly literate society adopted the ideas present in its handling of texts into its imaginative lexicon. With this in mind, I wish to suggest in the discussion that follows that some bibliographically-alert writers also began to experiment with incorporating these ideas into their texts, generating a range of effects including stasis, playfulness, surprise, and active embodiment.

[5]  To begin looking at the ways a reader’s interaction with the page might have interpretive relevance for the text, I will explore an example from Thomas Watson’s Hekatompathia (1582). As a collection of eighteen-line poems handling largely Petrarchan themes, Watson’s work is normally mentioned only as a footnote to the explosion of sonnet sequences in the 1590s, but in its complex mise-en-page and authorial commentary to his poems possesses considerable importance on its own merits (e.g. Spiller 1992).[2] Indeed, Jeffrey Todd Knight has recently demonstrated that at least one reader’s appreciation of Hekatompathia generated a whole series of poetic responses around and between Watson’s poems (Knight 2013: 87-116). Watson’s volume is a carefully organised text: almost every poem is set to a single page, and has a brief introduction above each that notes the themes of the poem, relevant literary antecedents, and sources for translated sections or poems. In addition, a number of poems carry marginal annotations, and each page is decorated with one of a handful of woodcut illustration or borders. Whether these choices resulted from the publisher, Gabriel Cawood, Watson himself, or a combination thereof, the effect is similar to that of Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender (1579) insofar as both feature contemporary English poetry that responds to classical and continental literature and bracket their texts with scholarly annotation.

[6]  This attention to presentation and paratextual effects is revealing when we turn (to deploy another linguistic legacy of page-turning) to one of the more unusual poems in the collection, Sonnet 81. This sonnet comes at a crucial break in the text: while the previous eighty poems have described the sufferings of the speaker in a number of standard Petrarchan metaphors and themes, this poem begins a new section, entitled ‘My Love is Past’ (see Figures 1 and 2). The sonnets of this section denounce love, and in the loose narrative of the sequence suggest that the speaker has grown wiser as a result of his youthful indiscretions. As such, Sonnet 81 acts as a fulcrum between the two sections of the sequence; however, this is not the only reason for the poem’s importance. Uniquely among the sonnets, it is prefaced by a full page of preliminary discussion, including advice on how the poem should be read. These instructions are necessary because rather than being printed in the style of the other poems, this sonnet is shaped to resemble an urn, with numbers and letters running down the left and right sides of the image. Over the page, the sonnet is printed in the standard form of the others, where some of the poem’s formal structures become clear:

A   At last, though late, farewell old wellada;                 A

m   Mirth for mischance strike up a new alarm;           m

a   And Ciprya la nemica mia                                             a

r   Retire to Cyprus Ile and cease thy war,                      r

e   Else must thou prove how Reason can by charm     e

E   Enforce to flight thy blindfold brat and thee.           E

s   So frames it with me now, that I confess                    s

t   The life I led in Love devoid of rest                              t

I   It was a Hell, where none felt more than I,                I

n   Nor any with like miseries forlorn.                             n

s   Since therefore now my woes are waxed less,           s

a   And Reason bids me leave old wellada,                     a

n   No longer shall the world laugh me to scorn:          n

i    I’ll choose a path that shall not lead awry.                i

r   Rest then with me from your blind Cupid’s car        r

e   Each one of you that serve and would be free.         e

,,   His double thrall that Liv’s as Love thinks best

,,   Whose hand still Tyrant-like to hurt is press’t,

Once unpacked, we can see that the poem is a ‘regular’ (in Watson’s work) eighteen-line, unrhymed sonnet, with a double acrostic. Each line begins and ends with the same letter, which are printed separately in the left and right margins, spelling out ‘amare est insanire’ – to love is to go mad.

[7]  I want to focus specifically on the fact that the ‘shaped’ and ‘regular’ versions of the sonnet are on the recto and verso of the same leaf, and argue that attention to this detail adds several possible interpretations to the poem itself. Especially on a first reading, it is very difficult to follow the shaped version without reference to the standard printing: to create the urn pattern, Watson is forced to break his lines into several sections and space them at irregular intervals, leading to a poem that is almost unrecognisable from the regular version on the other side of the page. As a result, it can be difficult to discern some of the patterns in the shaped version, from individual lines being unclearly demarcated, to the pattern of initial and terminal letters being obscured by their distance from one another. While the introduction to the poem somewhat optimistically emphasises its intelligibility, it also notes that the ‘whole pillar is but just 18 verses, as will appear in the page following it’ (sig.K4v). For a reader to notice much less appreciate, the formal ingenuity of Watson’s poem it is necessary to compare the shaped and regular versions almost on a line-by-line basis. Certain features, such as the aforementioned initial and terminal letters, are difficult to discern in the shaped version, given that lines of the regular version often appear in the middle of lines when shaped into the distinctive urn form. Given that these poems sit on the recto and verso of the same page, the reader is almost obligated to turn the page forwards and backwards in the course of reading. In at least one copy of Hekatompathia (British Library C.14.a.1) one can see the feint outlines of the poem on the opposite leaf. This is particularly apparent for these two poems because of the differences in shape, and the result is to create a palimpsestic ‘ghost’ of one poem on the other. Though a consequence of the methods of book production, this provides an evocative point of contact between these two poems, and should remind us of the interpretive consequences that even this sort of bibliographic minutiae might hold.

Figure one: Thomas Watson, Hekatompathia (1582), sig. L1r. © British Library Board C.14.a.1


Figure two: Hekatompathia, sig. L1v. © British Library Board. C.14.a.1


[8]   This act of page-turning has direct ramifications for our understanding of the poem, beyond any frustration the reader might feel in deciphering the shaped image. The poem is one that thematically hovers between states of movement and stasis; the opening stanza for example sees the speaker relegating Venus and her ‘blindfold brat’ to Cyprus in a defiant act of ‘Reason’ triumphing over their allures. And while we have this expulsion of love from the speaker, we also see him reminiscing on the inescapable discomfort he experienced while in love:

So frames it with me now, that I confess

The life I ledde in Loue deuoyd of rest

It was a Hell, where none felt more then I,

Nor any with like miseries forlorn. (ll.7-10)

The phrase ‘deuoyd of rest’ seems particularly crucial, given the physical interaction of the reader with the text in the course of reading the poem. In much the same way that the speaker describes his own restlessness, the reader is also engaged in constant motion between the two versions of the poem. It is worth noting that these lines in the shaped version of the poem are visually the longest on the page, as if thematic exploration of duration here was being replicated typographically.

[9]  Having expelled love, the speaker endeavours to change his behaviour in order that those around him might no longer ‘laugh me to scorne’ (ll.13) in a manner reminiscent of many prodigal-son stories from the period (Helgerson 1976; Crane 1993). For all of this promise of future progression, however, the speaker also encourages fellow lovers to ‘[r]est then with me’ (ll.15). If the reader’s engagement in the act of page-turning is necessary to understand both versions of this poem, we might see these thematic concerns played out in a material sense: while the reader will follow the speaker on his journey beyond love, they are also temporarily suspended from proceeding. Between the two versions of the poem and the preceding page of explanation, this single poem covers three pages, creating a bibliological pause that is very similar to that imagined by the poem itself. One might also suggest that the two versions of this poem articulate the difficulty in leaving such love behind: while the shaped version seems to suggest a final, funereal relinquishment of love, on the very next page the reader finds the poem unpacked into the same structure that has characterised all of the poems in the sequence to this point. That a further eighteen sonnets follow this dramatic renunciation may suggest that the speaker has a more difficult time abandoning love than he initially declares.

[10]  In the closing couplet to the poem, with a reference to Sophocles’ Ajax, the speaker reaffirms his new position on love and the suffering it brings to those ensnared by it: ‘His double thrall that liu’s as Loue thinks best / Whose hand still Tyrant like to hurt is prest’ (ll.17-18). That the hand acts as the central metaphor of the final line is crucial given the positioning of the two versions of the poem I have been describing, once again signalling the interaction of the reader’s hand in moving between the two versions. It is also an unusual metaphor in the context of Petrarchan verse – though bodily suffering is a resource for poets writing in this genre, it is less common than the detailed internal and behavioural anguish usually described. As a result, it is tempting to see this particular poem as calling attention to the physical way his readers might be interacting with the text. Finally, it is also worth dwelling on Watson’s choice of double acrostic: ‘amare est insanire’. If the material-textual form of this poem has encouraged readers to experience its thematic concerns in a physical as well as intellectual sense, the act of necessary page-turning might be seen to replicate the meaning of the acrostic. Trapped between the two poems, attempting to compare their forms with the copious notes that precede them, the reader might be seen to enact their own small act of ‘insanire’ in the course of reading.

[11]  I would suggest that this was a conscious decision by Watson, rather than a fortuitous accident of the print shop. Positioning the poem at the outset of a new section and ostentatiously shaping one version calls attention to the poem as a crucial moment in a thematic and narrative sense. The complex mise-en-page of text and paratext throughout the volume also suggests a sensitivity to the inflections material presentation might bring to the interpretive process. Finally, the poem contains a number of themes and metaphors that might be seen to correlate with the reader’s page-turning in the process of reading the poem. The individual page here becomes a vehicle for physically replicating the thematic content of the poem, and using the material process of page-turning to engage the reader in a deeper involvement with the text that is quite beyond the abilities of language alone.

[12]  Watson’s poem allows for a detailed reading of how page-turning in this instance generates a stasis in the progression through the volume, but other writers can also be seen to encourage the same kind of tactile engagement between their text and readers, though with different purposes in mind. A number of examples can be found in the work of Edmund Spenser, who like Watson was intensely interested in the material form of his poetry, and the resulting interaction with its content. On at least one occasion he imagined precisely this moment of a reader’s handling of his text, with the opening lines of Amoretti (1595) Sonnet 1 jealously saying of the book itself: ‘[h]appy ye leaves as when those lily hands, […]/ shall handle you…’ (ll.1-3)

[13]  An occasion when page-turning plays a larger interpretive role is The Shepheardes Calender (1579), a work famous for its combination of woodcuts, typographical semiotics, and elaborate glosses before and after each eclogue. The way in which the glosses in particular playfully toy with the reader have allowed for some excellent scholarship on the ways that Spenser used both text and paratext to multiply interpretative possibilities to readers (McCabe 1995). At the same time, one of the most curious, and rarely-discussed aspects of Spenser’s text is that there is no clear indication as to whether any given word or phrase has been glossed. Annotated texts frequently tended to have their glosses on the same page as the text, for obvious reasons of clarity for the reader. This is especially relevant for Spenser when we realise that some of the direct antecedents for Spenser’s volume, such as the annotated editions of Virgil (the first example printed in England by Henry Bynneman in 1570), located their commentary around the text with each annotation marked in the verse by an asterisk (Wilson-Okamura 2015: 15-26).

[14]  As a result of this lack of notation, the reader is left in a constant state of uncertainty as to whether the line they are reading has been discussed by E.K., and would need to read the text either by turning to the end of each eclogue in order to check, or by reading the glosses after the eclogue, and turning back to the poetry to understand the context for the commentary. In the glosses to ‘Januarie’ for example, one might imagine the surprise of the name ‘Hobbinol’ being glossed by a lengthy digression on ‘paederastice’. Though this reading is instantly derided, one can nonetheless imagine readers immediately returning to the stanza in question to reread what had provoked such a heated response from the annotator. The deliberate archaisms and regionalisms that litter Spenser’s writing necessarily distance the reader from easy comprehension of the text at first sight, a point made by both Paula Blank (1996) and Hannah Crawforth (2011). The ‘strangeness’ of Spenser’s text can only be appreciated by recognising that it is necessary to move physically around the book in the course of reading, and that this in some senses cooperates with the interpretive playfulness that is clearly at work in this text.

[15]  A more complicated Spenserian example, however, is the moment between Books I and II of The Faerie Queene (1590), where the reader turns the leaf to find a full-page woodcut of St. George slaying the dragon immediately facing the proem to Book II. This is a unique moment in the text, given that it is the only image that appears in the 1590 text, or indeed any text published during Spenser’s lifetime after The Shepheardes Calender. Though the printing of the 1590 text is thought to have been ‘a story of accident, confusion, and revision’ (Zurcher 2006: 117) its placement here and subsequent reappearance in the same position in the 1596 edition, raises the question of its interpretive place in Spenser’s text. The woodcut was owned by the printer for the volume, John Wolfe (Luborsky and Ingram 1998: I. 311), and used for several pamphlets before appearing in The Faerie Queene. This has led Paul J. Voss (2001) to make a strong case for its associations with Henri I of Navarre, who later appears in Book VI in allegorical guise. While these intertextual readings have great relevance to understanding this image and its political ramifications, I believe the woodcut has meaning for the text quite independent of a reader’s familiarity with it from other publications. To explore this, it will be useful to consider the mechanics of page turning, and the surprising aspect of this image upon turning the last page of Book I.

[16]  Book I concludes with Redcrosse triumphantly slaying the dragon, and promising to marry Una after his labours for the Faerie Queene are concluded. Book I then ends with a nautical metaphor reflecting on the narrative itself: ‘[f]or we be come unto a quiet rode, / Where we must land some of our passengers, / And light this wearie vessell of her lode.’ (I.xii.42.2-4). These ‘passengers’ are presumably the main protagonists of Book I, given that Book II largely consists of new characters in new settings. After leaving these characters behind, however, and turning the page, the reader is once again confronted by an image of Redcrosse, and in that context this image is more provocative than might be suspected. On the one hand, it reinforces the theological and national narrative at work in Book I: unlike the ‘passengers’ who return to rest, Redcrosse / the individual Christian / England as a devout nation need to continue their mission. That the woodcut appears after the text has concluded reinforces the endlessness of both Spenser’s epic form and the ongoing need for action on the behalf of his readers themselves.

[17]  Another aspect of this woodcut’s relationship to the text comes from the character Archimago, whose appearances bracket this image; his final attempt at deceit is the last action of Book I. He is then the instigator of the first narrative action in Book II, indeed he is the very first character named by its first Canto. Given Archimago’s protean ability to change shape and appearance, his appearance on either side of The Faerie Queene’s only woodcut directly continues the exploration of appearance and interpretation that is crucial to both Books. While Archimago continues to shift shape and attempt to mislead the heroes of the epic, the woodcut offers St. George as a counterweight, fixed and unchanging before the reader’s eyes. As a result, the woodcut also speaks to the firmness of the English Protestant identity in comparison to the mutable Catholicism symbolised by Archimago. Though a subtle moment in a lacunae between the opening two books, the woodcut nonetheless provides a final series of meanings for Book I as well as bridging the narrative and thematic gulf before Book II. Whether its placing was on Spenser’s instructions or Wolfe inserted the image on his own, the woodcut between Books I and II of The Faerie Queene acts as a crucial point of transition: as well as striking the reader with a triumphant image of Redcrosse’s success, it also reinforces the contrast between the Protestant heroes and Catholic villains that was a major theme of Book I. The reappearance of the image in 1596, this time published by Richard Field, suggests that an effort was made to retain the image and its place in the poem, and that it holds more importance to the text than has typically been assumed.

Figure three: Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene (1596), sig. M5v. Reproduced by kind permission of the Provost and Scholars of King’s College, Cambridge. Keynes.C.02.19


[18]  My final examples come from George Herbert’s The Temple (1633). Herbert has long been recognised as a formally ingenious poet, and one for whom form has a deep and intrinsic connection with the content of the poem itself and the broader themes of the collection (e.g. Guernsey 1999; Sanchez 2014). In addition, recent work by scholars like Adam Smyth (2012) has repositioned Herbert’s writing as one that developed in a culture intensely aware of the material nature of the books they handled and used. While Herbert can be seen to experiment in a huge number of forms across his volume, ‘The Altar’ and ‘Easter Wings’ are perhaps the best known examples of both Herbert’s work and pattern-poetry in general. Although these poems have been previously discussed in great detail, I am going to suggest that scholarship has overlooked the way in which Herbert also used the reader’s physical interaction with his text to implicate them in the theological narrative of his poems.

[19]  To begin with the more straightforward of these two examples, ‘Easter Wings’ is well known for its two distinctly shaped stanzas, bearing a visual similarity to a pair of wings if laid out vertically, as is the case in both the Williams and Tanner manuscripts, or two pairs of wings if printed horizontally, as was the case in every sixteenth-century edition (see Figure 3). As with ‘The Altar’, which will be discussed below, ‘Easter Wings’ describes the gradual contraction and expansion of the speaker in both a formal and thematic sense: as the metre contracts in the centre of each stanza, so too does the speaker reach his lowest ebb. As the reader turns the page to view the poems, and as they turn the page to move further into the volume, however, they are forced into making the poetic ‘wings’ of the book’s pages act very much like real ones – unfolding and folding in the course of reading.

[20]  Though appearing as a minor typographical joke from Herbert, this reading of the poem’s physical forms has ramifications for our understanding of the poem itself. ‘Easter Wings’ compares the suffering of the individual Christian to the cosmological drama of humanity’s fall from Eden. While the fault of Adam and Eve was ‘foolish[ness]’ (ll.2), in the speaker it is ‘sickness and shame’ (ll.3). As always in Herbert, God offers the possibility of redemption, and the speaker twice requests that he be helped to achieve what is rendered as a metaphorical ‘flight’ (ll.20) from sin. If we consider the two ways the poem was presented, vertically in manuscript, horizontally in print, we can see the interpretive effect of page-turning working in slightly different ways. In the vertical version, the two stanzas act as a single set of wings, beating as the page opens and closes. In this case, the act of page turning enacts in a physical sense precisely the act that the speaker has wished for, and just as ‘[a]ffliction shall advance the flight in me’, so does closing the page propel the reader and speaker towards the next poem. The next poem in question is ‘Holy Baptism’, a poem whose title suggests an obvious connection with the calls for redemption expressed in ‘Easter Wings’. The transition between the two poems is emphasised by the first stanza of ‘Holy Baptism (I)’, which suggests that upon viewing his sins the speaker’s ‘eyes remove / More backward still, and to that water fly’ (ll.3-4). In short, the beat of the poetic wings carries the reader further into the volume, ‘advancing’ the reader through the narrative of the collection much as the speaker of ‘Easter Wings’ imagines himself propelled from sin to grace.

Figure four: George Herbert, The Temple (1633), sigs. B5v-B6r © British Library Board. C.58.a.26


[21]  This, of course, is only applicable to the vertical presentation of the poem. The more familiar version, however, is the horizontal printing present from the first published editions of Herbert in 1633. Here we have what are traditionally thought of as two sets of wings – and in this case we can see a slightly different relationship when the pages are closed. In the course of the poem the speaker describes the redemption offered by God as flight, and asks that he might be allowed to ‘imp my wing on thine’ (ll.9). When printed horizontally, we might see the reader turning the page as fulfilling exactly what has been requested – bringing the two sets of wings into contact with one another. Given that the two stanzas respectively describe a cosmological and a personal experience, we might see that contact as the joining or ‘imping’ between man and God.

[22]  The second of my two examples from Herbert, ‘The Altar’, marks the beginning of ‘The Church’, the central section of The Temple (see Figure 5). This body of poems stretches from the plaintive desire of the speaker to be transformed into a suitable site for God’s sacrifice, to the final moment of communion with Christ at the close of the volume. The precise nature of the narrative that connects these two points is less clear – and as several critics have suggested, it might be more helpful to see the ‘narrative’ of the sequence as a patchwork or mosaic of experiences and moments rather than a clear single trajectory of events (Toliver 1993; Lewalski 1979). At the same time, thematic and verbal relationships can be discerned between poems in proximity to one another – a method of reading that Herbert himself seems to endorse in ‘Holy Scriptures (I)’.

[23]  The opening poems of ‘The Church’ are one such example, and in the course of turning pages between them we can see Herbert transforming this quotidian act into one that metaphorically represents the relationship between man and god. The thematic trajectory of the opening three poems, ‘The Altar’, ‘The Sacrifice’, and ‘The Thanksgiving’ can be conceptualised as an exploration of the proper way of talking about, and addressing, God in poetry. ‘The Altar’ is of course a brief narrative of regeneration – one that details the speaker’s journey from a broken and fragmented state into the very kernel of his being, before once again moving outwards as a new and suitable place for Christ’s sacrifice to be demonstrated. Having reimagined himself (and his book) to be a suitable place for that expression to be made, we then move to ‘The Sacrifice’. This harrowing poem leads us through the sufferings of Christ, and is articulated in Christ’s own voice, quite unlike the other poems of The Temple.

[24]  Immediately following ‘The Sacrifice’ is ‘The Thanksgiving’, a poem that retreats from the intense ventriloquism of the previous poem, and offers up a softer and more restrained approach to the poetic project of rendering the experience of Christian faith in poetry. At the close of the poem, the speaker seems to suggest that it is the act of ventriloquizing that has demonstrated the limits of expressing these ideas in language: ‘Then for thy passion – I will do for that – / Alas, my God, I know not what’ (ll.49-50). These poems form a crucial bridge between ‘The Church Porch’ and the reader’s entrance into the ‘The Church’, and in many senses encapsulate the thematic concerns of sin and salvation that the rest of the volume explores. While not demonstrating a narrative as such, we can see the speaker confidently assert his readiness at the close of ‘The Altar’, then attempt to ventriloquize Christ in ‘The Sacrifice’, before dropping this ambitious goal and outlining a more modest program for the remainder of the volume.

[25]  To return to ‘The Altar’, however, I want to focus on what happens as we finish that poem and begin reading ‘The Sacrifice’. At the close of the Altar, the speaker begs

O let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,

And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.

The block capitals here are doing obvious work in connecting the two poems, and preparing us for the transition from one poem to another. And, as Helen Wilcox remarks in her excellent edition of Herbert, the two poems are also connected in the sense of having the ‘sacrifice’ literally sit on top of the ‘altar’ in the couplet (Wilcox 2007: 93-4). At the same time, however, I believe many readers of Herbert have missed a crucial moment as we transition to ‘The Sacrifice’ and begin to move through that poem. As we reach the end of the first page of ‘The Sacrifice’, we turn the page, and in the course of doing so, literally place ‘The Sacrifice’ on ‘The Altar’. The reader is not only placed in a position where (internally or aloud) they are speaking in Christ’s voice, but in the act of page turning they are also performing Christ’s actions, joining altar and sacrifice in exactly the manner envisioned by ‘The Altar’.

[26]  There is good evidence this interpretation may have been Herbert’s intention in his ordering and placement of his poems. In the first instance, ‘The Altar’ is the only poem, other than ‘Superliminary’ to be set on an individual page – the other poems in the collection do not appear to respect the boundary of the page, sometimes squeezing only the title and a few lines of the next poem to the foot of the page. As a result, having ‘The Altar’ generously spaced and bordered forces ‘The Sacrifice’ onto the next page and creates the facing-page arrangement that makes this reading possible. Behind this formatting lies Herbert’s original drafts; in both the Tanner (Bodleian MS Tanner 307) and Williams (Dr Williams’s Library MS Jones B.62) manuscripts, our most complete records of Herbert’s original compositions, the poems retain this order and spatial relationship. Like my reading of ‘Easter Wings’ above, I believe this is a moment of experiment by Herbert, allowing the material relationship of poem(s) to page to extend the already complicated relationships between the texts of the poems. If this moment of page-turning forces the reader to in some sense act as, or at least imaginatively sympathise with, Christ, it mirrors the movement of the speaker, who transitions from a pose of subservience in ‘The Altar’ to full embodiment in ‘The Sacrifice’.

Figure five: The Temple (1633), sig. A10v-A11r © British Library Board. C.58.a.26


[27]  While this act of page-turning demonstrates the material as well as thematic relationship between the two poems, it also comes at a crucial moment of ‘The Sacrifice’. In the narrative of the poem, we follow Christ from his prayers in the garden of Gethsemane to his eventual death on the cross. The final stanza on the page facing ‘The Altar’ appears to hold out the possibility of redemption that ‘The Altar’ had requested: ‘These drops being tempered with a sinner’s tears, / A Balsome are for both the Hemispheres: / Curing all wounds…’ (ll.29-31). As soon as one turns the page, however, and begins reading the eighth stanza, the role of the believer transforms into something far less hopeful: Yet my Disciples sleep; I cannot gain One houre of watching; but their drowsie brain Comforts not me, and doth my doctrine stain: Was ever grief like mine? The ‘Yet’ that opens this stanza breaks syntactically as well as thematically with the stanzas preceding it, and the effect of having this section begin on a new page is startling. Here, rather than tears of repentance, Christ laments that his disciples ‘sleep’, and more damningly ‘Comfort not me and doth my doctrine stain.’

[28]  From this point on, we see Christ undergoing his various tortures and, finally, his execution. At the same time, the ‘drops’ of Christ’s blood offer a final and rather hopeful answer to ‘The Altar’, offering the possibility of human salvation through the titular sacrifice. After turning the page, however, we are immediately confronted by human fallibility, and launched into an itinerary of suffering. In many respects, the turn of a single page moves the reader from the benevolent act of placing the sacrifice on the altar to suddenly realising the horror and intensity of what that might entail.

[29]  The relationship of these poems to one another and to the rest of the volume requires careful attention to their precise bibliographic form. The transition into the unique setting of ‘The Sacrifice’ and the subsequent retreat from this mode of expression in ‘The Thanksgiving’ is made even more startling if we appreciate how Herbert’s book lures us into assuming the role of Christ in an active sense. If Herbert has long been appreciated as a poet of exceptional formal ingenuity, there may be ways of seeing that ingenuity at play in the physical as well as the poetic forms that his poems took.

[30]  In the examples above I have selected some varied and illustrative close readings of particular poems, and suggested that a range of effects could be achieved, from surprise to physically engaging the reader in the spiritual drama of the text. The methodology explored here can be extended to a much larger body of texts; in an abstract sense, of course, every text has some relationship with the pages on which it was written or printed, as well as what preceded and follows it. In the hands of poets who experimented formally and materially with their texts, and seemed engaged by the possibilities of print as a medium, we can see certain provocative readings emerging once we adjust our interpretive expectations to include the act of page turning. While the examples of Watson and Herbert demonstrate two examples of poets using their reader’s tactile interaction with the text to enact a sense of the narrative embodiment, the examples from Spenser show page-turning’s capabilities to surprise, to disorient, and to undercut assumptions. Beyond this, we can see a number of different effects, from ‘thematic’ breaks in grammar or sense, unexpected images in relation to what preceded it, and opportunities for playing with readers in various other ways.

[31]  Though the examples above present three poets with demonstrable interest in form (material and poetic), many of the decisions about the arrangement of the text would have relied on the publisher’s finances and the practicalities of the print shop. As such, authorial intention becomes difficult to judge in many cases. Despite this, the process of page turning was necessarily part of the reading experience, and in this sense this project connects with a recent interest in the physical senses and their relationship to literature (e.g. Moshenska 2014; Karin-Cooper 2016). Whether authorial or editorial, whether decisions in the print shop, or purely serendipitous, each act of page turning provides the grounds for close reading and produces questions about the ways that early modern readers may have understood these material dynamics.

[32]  Moving beyond individual texts, there is also scope for including a range of other types of page-turning within the scope of this methodology. Works of this period frequently direct the reader to other sources, whether classical, biblical, or contemporary, and for certain texts the act of turning the pages of other books would have been part of the reading process.[3] Commonplacing provides a more familiar site for handling pages, as in the course of reading some early modern individuals would be navigating their personal repository of sententiae (Moss 1996). One text may provoke or encourage the turning of other pages, and we need to be alert to the material dimension of intertextuality in this sense.

[33]  This project also opens other questions, particularly in respect to the ways in which we choose to edit and publish early modern texts, whether in a print or electronic medium. For example, modern editions of Herbert do not replicate spatial relationship between ‘The Altar’ and ‘The Sacrifice’. Helen Wilcox’s now-standard scholarly edition of Herbert places each poem on an individual page, with notes following it, making the reading above impossible to generate in these conditions. This is not to criticise either the publication or its editor: scholarly editions are necessarily shaped by institutional convention, technological limitations, and market demands. Rather, I have attempted here to demonstrate that even minor aspects like these can have ramifications for the interpretive project of reading and analysing early modern books. Digital facsimiles, which can provide the original texts in as much detail as one could ever expect, have fewer problems in this regard, but there may be questions to ask about the way that interacting with digital simulacrum might blind us to certain tactile interactions that were an important part of the reading process for the early modern period. In our efforts to explore all of the ways in which a text might convey meaning, especially in those forms first encountered by contemporary readers, it may be necessary for us all to turn over a new leaf, and incorporate a phenomenology of page-turning into our consideration of early modern texts.

University of York


I would like to thank Kevin Killeen and Elizabeth Oakley-Brown for their organisation of both the Scrutinising Surfaces conference and this resulting special issue. I also thank my peer-reviewers for their encouragement and helpful suggestions.

[1] See in particular Chartier’s The Order of Books (1994) and D.F. McKenzie’s Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (1999). For ‘new formalism’ see in particular the useful collection of essays edited by Verena Theile and Linda Tredennick (eds.), New Formalisms and Literary Theory (2013), and Mark David Rassmussen, Renaissance Literature and its Formal Engagements (2003) for an early modern perspective. [back to text]

[2] Watson’s poems are not sonnets but their closeness to the form and their Petrarchan themes suggest an obvious kinship. Watson himself describes them as sonnets, and I will refer to them as such throughout this discussion. [back to text]

[3] I am grateful to Hannah Crawforth for pointing out these potential lines of research. [back to text]


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______. 2007. The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. by Helen Wilcox (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

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______. 1590. The Faerie Queene (London: John Wolfe for William Ponsonby)

______. 1595. Amoretti and Epithalamion (London: P. Short for William Ponsonby)

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Reading Materials: Textile Surfaces and Early Modern Books

Reading Materials: Textile Surfaces and Early Modern Books[1]

Claire Canavan

[1] A portrait believed to be of Elizabeth Pierrepont, Countess of Kellie and wife of Thomas Erskine, offers a suggestive glimpse into how early moderns understood books as enmeshed within a proliferation of surrounding material surfaces. Painted by Paul van Somer around 1619, Figure one shows Pierrepont standing beside a book, probably a Bible, in an ornate binding, perhaps an example of the elaborate embroidered covers which were in vogue during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Fabrics extend both into and out from the book. A multi-stranded bookmark protrudes from the top and bottom of the spine, its tasselled bar and red, gold and silver threads co-ordinating with the cover and with the red ties which trail off the edge of the book-block. Falling onto the velvet cushion upon which the book rests, these textiles find visual, material and conceptual continuities in the fabric surfaces which surround them. The cover is echoed in the tones and pattern of Pierrepont’s gown. The bookmark’s curling threads offer textural correspondences with the chair’s golden fringe and tassels as well as the wrinkled fingers of the adjacent glove, a symmetry which suggests correlations between the book’s cover and the glove’s embroidered gauntlet.

Figure one: Attributed to Paul van Somer, ‘Elizabeth, Countess of Kellie’, c. 1619, oil on canvas, 205.7 x 123.2 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven, Accession Number B1981.25.598.

[2] Produced around the time when Pierrepont’s husband was appointed Earl of Kellie and showing her lavishly attired, this painting might be seen as portraying the well-dressed, stately book and its material connections as a spectacle of political authority and fashionable display. In this context, the portrait seems to illustrate Heidi Brayman Hackel’s claim that whereas men are depicted handling or responding to open volumes, women are characteristically represented alongside, but not in contact with, closed books which serve ‘as props or mere decoration’. Hackel concludes that ‘[o]pen books — books in use — are masculine; clasped books, like chaste women, are feminine’ (2003: 112). These binaries, however, do not hold true here. Although this book’s pages remain covered, its trailing ribbon ties present the book as emphatically unclasped: as its multi-stranded bookmark underscores, this is a book in use as well as a spectacle. Showing reading in progress, these materials highlight the significant roles that threads placed on or around the surfaces of a book played in understanding a text, and ask us to consider how the haptic and visual practices prompted by textiles participated in acts of reading and interpretation.

[3] Pierrepont’s gloves, apparently wrought with the pelican in her piety, point to conceptual as well as physical correspondences with her Bible: feeding her young with her own blood, the pelican was a popular emblem of Christ’s self-sacrifice and the Eucharist, as well as offering an image of benevolent female authority, having been adopted by Elizabeth I as a symbol of her maternal devotion to her subjects (Meakin 2013: 199–201; Strong 1963: 22). This Christian iconography suggests that the book’s textual meaning as well as symbolic power might be elaborated and produced in combination with an extensive range of textile objects and furnishings.

[4] Even amongst bookbinding scholars, embroidered bindings and other ornate book coverings have been liable to be dismissed as ‘manifestation[s] of ostentatious piety and personal pride’, expressions of ‘mere vanity’ which were ‘meant for show’ and which suggest that ‘the book inside may have been only of secondary consideration’ (Foot 1998: 62–63). The tone of moral disapproval provoked by richly embellished book coverings resonates with Daniel Miller’s exposition of the ‘depth ontology’. As Miller explains, contemporary Western philosophy is underpinned by the ‘pervasive ideology’ that ‘there is a relationship between surface and lack of importance’, that ‘everything that is important for our sense of being lies in some deep interior […] as against the dangers of things we regard as ephemeral, shallow or lacking in content’ (1994: 71). For readers taught not to judge a book by its cover, this idea — that it is what is inside that matters and that surfaces are at best trivial and at worst misleading — might be aptly applied to books. Yet this not only sidesteps the mutability of bookish surfaces — contents become surfaces themselves when a book is opened — but overlooks the possibilities for reading outside as well as inside a book. Juliet Fleming has drawn attention to the vast variety of inscribed surfaces used in early modern England, from walls to skin to pots, revealing how the material surface contributed to the message in ways which refuse a ‘distinction between exterior surface and interior meaning’ (2001: 71). More recently, Bruce Smith has challenged assumptions that even bookish readers remained engrossed within a text. Rather, according to Smith’s theory of ‘ambient reading’, readers saw connections between books and their material environments, allowing the verdant images woven in the hangings that clothed domestic interiors to inform their responses to a text. Conjecturing that a tapestry book cover could mediate between words and woven images, Smith’s theory invites us to consider further the meaningful textile surfaces of books themselves, and to explore the connections they wrought with accompanying fabric objects (2009: 125–167, especially 127–28, 152–53).

[5] Whereas Miller (1994) challenges the depth ontology by examining cultures in which it is reversed — depth is mistrusted and surface prized — I want to suggest that the material accoutrements of books and accompanying objects highlight how surface and depth, and the concepts they have come to embody, are implicated in one another. Considering the fabrics which were applied to, enfolded in, and used alongside early modern books, I reveal how textile surfaces acted as significant sites which elaborated, participated in, modelled and even produced the internal structures and meanings of the bound text and paratexts.

[6] Beginning with threads which lay on the surfaces of texts — fabric bookmarks, bindings and ties — I argue that these fabrics form part of the interpretive structures of early modern books and should be regarded as complementary reading materials, in which meanings and modes of understanding might be created and perceived. I then turn to the connections between books and the surfaces of other embroidered objects, considering how books were used within ensembles of material artefacts. Where Smith looks for ekphrastic connections in the large-scale tapestries which enveloped readers (2009: 128–162), this article considers small embroidered objects such as gloves and purses which were designed to be used alongside books. Highlighting structural, aesthetic and functional correspondences between books and companionate objects, I reveal how texts were perceived as components of richly significant, and widely understood, networks of textile meaning. Examining the manual, visual, verbal and hermeneutic practices prompted by and preserved in these objects alongside writings which employ textile metaphors to conceptualize textual and paratextual content and practices, I argue that early modern readers considered textile surfaces as rich interpretive resources.

[7] Embroidered bindings and other wrought surfaces are perhaps particularly vulnerable to the depth ontology due to the gendered lens through which fabric, needlework in particular, is typically considered. As Miller highlights in his work on sartorial fashion and clothes shopping, assumptions about the insignificance of material surfaces are ‘clearly bound up in ideologies of gender, since it is women, in particular, who are associated with such activities’ (1994: 72). Embroidery has long been dismissed as mere frippery, ‘devoid of significant content’ and lacking the intellectual depth of other forms of cultural production, particularly the supposedly male pen (Parker 1989: 6). More recently, however, scholars have begun to recover some of the significance of needlework in the early modern period. Notably, Susan Frye has examined how women reworked scriptural stories in needlework pictures (2010: 116–159), whilst Bianca Calabresi has revealed how alphabets stitched in girls’ samplers constituted ‘alternative sites where literacies might originate, be registered, or be contested’ (2008: 79–104, especially 81). Assumptions that the needle is subordinate to the pen are perhaps more reflective of modern than early modern attitudes; as Dympna Callaghan has suggested, it was not until after the Renaissance that sewing was devalued as a cultural artefact and as a practice (2000: 53–81, especially 54–56, 78).

[8] Embroidery continues to be considered largely as a female ‘subculture’ (Jones and Stallybrass 2000: 156). Rebecca Olson’s work on literary invocations of large tapestries (typically woven by men rather than stitched), as well as Jeffrey Todd Knight’s exposition of structural sewing inside books, has begun to acknowledge that early modern men too developed textile literacies (Olson 2013; Knight 2015: 523–42). However, this has yet to impact on approaches to small needlework objects, with embroidered books and accessories still considered predominantly as ‘jewels for gentlewomen’ (Walsham 2004). While many objects discussed in this article had female owners, I argue that these stitched surfaces are not only revelatory of women’s reading practices; early modern men as well as women had a critical and an imaginative vocabulary with which to respond to needlework. This vocabulary not only encompassed pictorial and alphabetic content, but, as in the case of the inscribed surfaces examined by Fleming, was alert to the combination of message and medium, and regarded material forms and practices as meaningful. Applied beyond the domain of needlework, the vocabulary formed a significant metaphorical and analogical domain which men and women used to think through a range of practices and problems, including techniques of literary composition, and devotional and theological practices.

[9] In some cases, it is tempting to regard these material practices as illustrative of pre-Reformation sensibilities. In recent years, however, scholarship has challenged the rigid divide which has typically been assumed to exist between Catholic sensuality and Protestant austerity, and pointed instead towards the rich variety of tactile, visual and material resources and practices which formed part of reformed devotion (see, for example, Milner 2011; Hamling 2010). Alexandra Walsham has highlighted Protestants’ appreciation of embroidered bibles and prayer books as ‘sacred artefacts’ and as sites for instructive ‘narrative pictures’ (2004: 134, 140–41). Recently, Lucy Razzall has examined the complexities of Reformation attitudes to fine bookbindings with regards to ‘the function of external appearances’, and has cautioned against ascribing the rise of embroidered bindings in Stuart England to Laudian tastes. While noting that Protestants were anxious about a book’s material surfaces distracting and misleading readers from its ‘inner truth’, Razzall emphasises that ‘[r]eformed religion did not reject the exterior of the book as an important visual surface and interface’. ‘Protestants’, she notes, ‘remained acutely sensitive to the metaphorical potential of a material object which had an inside and an outside’ (2013: 95–136, especially 99, 101, 126, 123). The artefacts and texts discussed in this article highlight that although Catholic or Laudian sympathies could heighten interest in particular visual, gestural or textual schemes, Protestants too appreciated finely wrought textiles as aesthetic and critical objects, and used them to structure responses to texts. Engaging mind, body and material in complex hermeneutic and imaginative practices, textiles directed and participated in early modern reading experiences and thought processes, revealing that “deep” thinking could be a superficial process.[2]

Multi-stranded Bookmarks
[10]  Numerous examples of multi-stranded bookmarks like that placed in Pierrepont’s book survive from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[3] Usually preserved in scriptural and devotional reading material, extant examples are composed of a bar or ‘pippe’ to which are attached up to fourteen plaited, woven or twisted strands of silk and/or metallic threads. Some have solid-coloured strands; others are wrought with geometric or heraldic patterns. A small number have words woven into the strings, composed using a process of letter-braiding which was popular during the seventeenth century (see, for example, CUL BSS.201.C32.15).[4]

[11] Figure two shows one such alphabetic bookmark with eleven strands which was owned by Anne Hopkins, later wife of John Caygill, and which is preserved in her 1617 King James Bible, bound with The Genealogies (1632) and Psalmes (1617). The first four and the sixth and seventh strings spell out three mottos from George Wither’s A Collection of Emblemes (1635), with each couplet divided across consecutive strings (Wither 1635: sigs. N2r, P2v, Y3v). The first pair note: ‘Take wing my soul and mount up higher/For Earth fulfils not my desire’; the second pair: ‘They after suffering shall be crowned/In whom a constant faith is found’; the sixth and seventh strings: ‘Even as the smoke doth pass away/So shall all worldly pompe decay’. The fifth string declares: ‘Anne Hopkins, Her Book, August [_] 16[_]6’. The final four quote the King James Version of Colossians 3:18-19: ‘Wives submit yourselves unto your own husbands/ as it is fit in the Lord’; ‘Husbands, love your wives and/ be not bitter against them’ (Ghelerter, Majer and Wishner 2009: 12–13).[5]

Figure two: Anne Hopkins’ multi-stranded bookmark, mid-seventeenth century, Courtesy of Cora Ginsburg LLC.

[12]  These strands position the bookmark as an extension of and addition to the inscriptive surfaces and semantic contents of the book. Declaring the Bible ‘Her Book’, the ownership mark of the fifth string is like that penned upon a book’s pages, treating the bookmark lain upon the paper as part of the book. The verses from Colossians draw out the Bible’s contents; lifting the words off the surface of the page, they offer themselves as alternative grounds for reading and the inscriptive practices that it prompts, acting as vehicles for and products of textual extraction. The couplets from Wither insert as well as excerpt material, underscoring that the silken text is complementary rather than subsidiary to the book’s printed contents. Extracting and gathering pious reading materials, marking them as Hopkins’ own, and deploying them in fresh contexts, this bookmark’s functions resonate strongly with practices of commonplacing, compiling and note-taking. These practices have attracted considerable attention recently not only as records of reading practices and thought structures, but as compositional media (see, for example, Moss 1996; Smyth 2010: 123–58). Hopkins’ bookmark indicates that textiles constituted similarly rich resources which engendered and recorded complex interpretive and creative structures.

[13] The textual content of Hopkins’ strings elucidates particularly clearly that multi-stranded bookmarks constituted sophisticated devices, which constructed, participated in and sometimes complicated interpretive processes, presenting continuous, complementary or alternative reading surfaces to the printed text. Bookmarks without textual content were equally involved in getting to grips with books, hermeneutically and epistemologically. In his study of discontinuous biblical reading practices, Peter Stallybrass highlights that multi-stranded bookmarks functioned as ‘prosthetic fingers’. For Stallybrass, these prostheses are simply navigational, ‘tak[ing] the reader easily from place to place’ (2002: 43, 47). Yet as William Sherman has demonstrated in relation to another prosthetic finger – the manicule – early modern readers conceived of reading as a ‘self-consciously embodied practice’ in which hands grasped simultaneously the conceptual and physical matter of books (2008: 40–52, especially 48). Like these manicules, the manipulation of bookmarks involved the interpretive and imaginative manipulation of a book’s contents.

[14]  Hands feature prominently in processes of remembering, and were often used in combination with material mnemonic artefacts. Discussed in Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, the practice of tying threads on one’s fingers had a long mnemonic heritage which was adapted in various practical and imaginative ways, including drawing knots on manicules (Quintilian 1970: XI, ii, 30; Carruthers 2008: 314, 450n.67). John Willis’s manual of memory arts, Mnemonica (printed in Latin in 1618 and translated into English in full in 1661), observes how a person, fearing to forget ‘some business’, ‘bindeth a Ribbon or Thred about his little finger, by sight of which visible Idea he is admonished of his charge’ (1661: sig. A6r; see also Willis 1618: sig. B7v). Referencing this practice, William Basse explains that ‘by the tying of the finger with a thrid, we are sometimes remembred, what that cannot tell vs, but points vs to, as an adiunct to our memory’ (1620: sig. B5v). Operating indexically and gesturally, this prosthetic ‘adjunct to our memory’ resonates with recent work on early modern forms of distributed cognition and the extended mind, whereby ‘the realm of the mental can spread across the physical, social, and cultural environments as well as bodies and brains’ (Sutton 2010: 189 cited in Tribble and Keene 2011: 74–75; see also Tribble 2011; Johnson, Sutton and Tribble (eds) 2013; Anderson 2015). In Thomas Tomkis’s drama, Lingua (1607), Anamnestes (‘Good Remembrance’) appears with ‘Ribbands and Threds tyed to some of his fingers, [and] in his hand a paire of Table-bookes, &c’; he holds these threads literally hand-in-hand with chirographic mnemonic technology (1607: sig. D3v).[6] Deploying similar haptic, gestural and visual stimuli to these knotted threads, the handling of bookmarks constitutes an analogous means of reminding users of marked passages. The erasable surface of Anamnestes’ ‘Table-bookes’, often used alongside commonplace books, offers a suggestive parallel to the temporary marks which repositionable bookmarks made on the surface of the page: indicating that bookmarks’ strands could constitute comparable sites of memory and meaning to inscribed tables, they suggest that the ‘visible Ideas’ of non-alphabetic strands could bear similar semantic contents to alphabetic markers.

[15]  Bookmarks were also interpretive devices which not only recorded but determined reactions to texts, impressing themselves upon the reader and shaping complex approaches to textual content. As noted above, multi-stranded bookmarks are particularly important in reading practices which move back and forth throughout a text, instead of proceeding from beginning to end (Stallybrass 2002: 47). Rather than simply supporting such habits, fabric strands could engender and extend ‘discontinuous’ readings, particularly those which pursued thematic and typological connections. Strands are often formed in pairs by folding a single string in the middle and attaching it to the pippe in a loop or with a cow hitch knot to create two page markers (see, for example, the bookmark accompanying FSL STC 2283.5; Swales and Blatt 2007: 157). This conjoined composition creates conceptually as well as materially connective structures, with the bipartite composition encouraging readers to think in dyadic and relational ways; composed of one ribbon, the coupled markers unite two separate pages, materializing continuities between physically disparate sections of text. Though wrought as individual strands, Hopkins’ marker achieves similar effects alphabetically, drawing couplets out over two strands and thus constructing semantic continuities between discontinuous pages. These woven words further multiply connections, not only prompting the reader to associate two portions of printed text, but overlaying them with a third textile verse. Placed perpendicular to typographic lines, this verse could disrupt as well as complement the printed text, requiring a spatially and perhaps conceptually different way of reading which might compete with the page as well as reveal fresh correspondences.

Figure three: Anne Hopkins’ book, bound in a tapestry cover, mid-seventeenth century, Courtesy of Cora Ginsburg LLC.

[16]  Many surviving markers accompany Bibles and other scriptural and devotional works bound in textile covers, often wrought with complementary devotionally inflected designs. For example, a 1640 Psalter containing a six-stranded marker is embroidered with scenes of David slaying Goliath, connecting David’s Psalms with scriptural records of his actions (BL C.143.a.10.). The covers of Hopkins’ Bible depict Adam and Eve picking fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, a popular choice for bible bindings, here created in the more unusual medium of tapestry (figure three). This image complements both the verses from Colossians and Wither’s mottos, portraying spousal relations, pointing towards the suffering resulting from sin, and indicating the transience of earthly pleasures relative to heavenly rewards.[7]

[17]  In their original and widely popular form, Wither’s emblems underscore the co-operation of pictorial and alphabetic forms of expression and understanding, combining motto, image, and verse-epigram (Bath 1994: 73–74). Applied to Hopkins’ book, this tripartite structure is constructed between the marker, the printed text, and the woven covers. Such an emblematic reading further challenges hierarchies of significance between textual content and textile surfaces, directing the reader to use the Bible, like the verse-epigram, to make sense of the connections between fabric words and pictures. Holding the book’s contents in tension with its cover, Hopkins’ reading materials refute the binary logic of the depth ontology, figuring the book’s meaning as something produced within an elaborate system of material surfaces, and interpretation as something practised outside as well as within a book.

On the Margins: Ribbons, Knots and Lace
[18] The imbrication of a book’s textual and textile surfaces is extended by a 1632 octavo Bible, bound with The Booke of Common Prayer (1632), The Genealogies (1633) and The Whole Book Of Psalms (1633) (NYPL Spencer Coll. Eng. 1632). This book’s embroidered binding shows Moses holding the tablets of the Law on the front cover, and, on the back, David holding his harp (figure four), both popular subjects on contemporaneous embroidered bindings of Bibles and Psalters.[8]

Figure four: Back cover of embroidered Bible with ribbon ties, New York Public Library, New York, Spencer Coll. Eng. 1632. Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Indexing the inscription of the Pentateuch and the composition of the Psalms, these images draw out the various materialities of the Word. This cover also spells out the book’s contents, extracting and connecting significant passages. Although the words wrought on Moses’s tablets are now illegible, an earlier catalogue suggests that they may have read: ‘The law was given by Moses and Grace and Peace came by Jesus Christ’ (Griffiths and Farquhar 1925–26: 295).[9] A near-quotation from John 1:17, these stitched words differ slightly from the verse printed within the book and suggest the cover’s place as an alternative site of linguistic as well as material translation. Joining the two clauses using ‘and’ rather than the ‘but’ of the Authorised translation, the embroidery seems to have reinterpreted the verse’s attitude to the Old Testament, repositioning it as co-ordinated and conjoined with the New Testament, rather than its counterpoint. A banderole around Moses’s head draws out further conjunctions between the Law and Gospel, bearing Christ’s promise regarding the law, recorded in the Vulgate version of Luke 10:28: ‘hoc fac et vive [do this and thou shalt live]’. On the back cover, another banderole around David’s head echoes Sternhold and Hopkins’ translation of Psalm 132:1: ‘Remember David’s Troubles’.

[19] Illustrating the material grounds of text as well as the textuality of material, the ribbon-like form of these stitched words is made concrete in the book’s pink ties. The inner sides of these ribbons are stitched with a verse which highlights that they too contributed to the book’s legible surfaces and that material surfaces constituted poetic structures. Each poetic line occupies one ribbon; although the fourth ribbon and final poetic line is now missing, it seems that the verse may have originally read:

This Booke Doth Shew, that God made all
The world, Heavens, Earth and Man
who, Into Sin Did quickly fall
almost as soon as Time began (Griffiths and Farquhar 1925–26: 295–96).

When the book is opened, these ribbons extend from the page edge, forming a material margin glossing the book’s content. Read from top left to bottom left, and then top right to bottom right, these paratextiles refuse a straightforward opposition between a book’s inside and outside, surface and contents, text and textile: they carry meaning across, through and beyond the printed page, and position material meaning as something which both permeates and extends from the book. Revealed when the book is unfolded for reading, they combine verbal and physical articulation to open up the book exegetically and spatially, drawing the book’s material trimmings into a dynamic interpretative relationship with its contents.

[20] This book’s interpretive use of physical and material structures indicates that, like multi-stranded bookmarks, ribbons need not bear text to participate in creative and hermeneutic responses. Portraits show book ties tucked between or laid onto pages, suggesting that ribbons could perform similar mnemonic and interpretive functions to bookmarks.[10] Some readers responded haptically and visually to the particular functions and position of book ties. Jason Scott-Warren highlights a poem by Richard Crashaw written on the occasion of sending a copy of George Herbert’s The Temple to a gentlewoman. Drawing attention to Crashaw’s instruction ‘When your hands unty these strings,/ Thinke you have an Angell by th’wings’, Scott-Warren notes that Crashaw ‘rewrites Herbert’s shape-poem “Easter Wings” around the material form of the book’; getting to grips with the book’s ribbons produces a deeply embodied understanding and re-enactment of the poetic and visual structures of the text (Crashaw 1646: E3v; Scott-Warren forthcoming 2017). The devotional gesture seems to have gained wider currency: W.F.’s 1649 broadsheet elegy for Richard Holdsworth, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge and once a royal chaplain, describes how ‘taking up his bible by the strings,/ Hee’d turne the leaves as if hee’d spread Christs wings’ (W.F. 1649). Such gestures recall the verse woven into Hopkins’ bookmark — ‘Take wing my soul and mount up higher’ — and suggest that the injunction might be enacted in lifting the strings between different pages.[11]

[21] Ribbons could also correspond, conceptually and practically, with hermeneutic manipulations. Epitomising and glossing the book’s contents, the embroidered ribbons of the 1632 Bible provide summary and explanation. Even in the absence of literally material prompts, these functions were conceptualised in terms consonant with ties. Contemporaries defined a summary as a ‘briefe gathering together of the whole matter’, evoking the gathering and compression performed by ribbons (Phillips 1658: sig. Oo1r). Lexicographer Randle Cotgrave framed his 1611 translation of the French ‘Sommaire’ in fibrous terms, describing it as the ‘chiefe point or knot’ of ‘a collection of words, or things’, a definition echoed in his translation of ‘Principal’ as ‘the summe, chiefe knot, maine point, of a matter’ (1611: sigs. Dddd5v, Sss4v). ‘Points’ also possessed textile connotations, describing laces for tying clothes, an homology often exploited by writers who adopted the material vocabulary of ‘a dozen of points’ to itemize textual content (see, for example, Lightfoot 1649: sigs. B3r-v; A Godly New Ballad, intituled, A Dozen of Points 1658–64; see also Marsh 2015: 102; Watt 1991: 102-3).

[22] Knots also entangled exegesis. Anglican bishop Joseph Hall, for example, discussed ‘interpret[ing] even difficult scriptures, and […] unty[ing] the knots of a Text’ (1649: sig. R6r–v). Richard Allestree was praised for his ‘exact and dextrous untying [of] the knots of argument’, an observation that synthesizes mental and manual deftness and positions untying a book’s knots as an embodied thought process (Allestree 1684: sig. e1v). Others, such as Puritan clergyman Giles Firmin, were even more explicitly bodily. Arguing that parents who flouted Church discipline did not have the right to have their children baptised, Firmin acknowledged of one objection: ‘this is a hard knot to untye, I desire some who have better fingers then I, would lend their help’ (1651: sig. G4v).

[23] Textual knots were often marked in material ways, emphasizing the liability of knots to cross back-and-forth between figurative and manual practices. Several bookmarks have strands ending in Turk’s head knots (see, for example, PML 2095). Similar knots could be glued to the fore-edge of the page as indexing tabs, helping readers to grasp the chief sections of a book (see, for example, FSL 212- 796f; see also Sawyer 2016: 102). Others marked significant textual knots with needle and thread. As Jeffrey Todd Knight has highlighted, a reader of Henry Montagu’s Contemplatio Mortis, & Immortalitatis (1636) annotated the margin of one page with a stitched and knotted thread, serving ‘the function of a “manicule” or nota bene’ (FSL, STC 18027a: sig. G7r; Knight 2015: 536-37). Requiring nimble fingers, material marginalia could develop a dextrous handling of a text as well as flagging passages that demanded unravelling.

[24] As these textual tangles underscore, textile structures underpinned texts as much as the converse. At the same time as ribbons and threads present material variations on printed margins, both the linguistic and typographic composition of the page were regarded as material constructs; where Knight sees the marginal thread as imitating written marginalia, early moderns were equally alert to how marginal devices often imitated threads. Marginal annotations were frequently figured as fabric embellishments, positioning superficial material elaboration as a site of advanced literacy, and the flourishes of textual erudition as aesthetic as well as intellectual adornments. Lace was a common analogy, perhaps prompted by visual and material consonances between lace trimmings and the patterns of the margin, printed on paper made from linen rags.[12] Puritan minister Stephen Jerome conjectures of the preface to Englands Iubilee (1625) that readers might ‘marvell why by so manie Marginall quotations, I lay so much Lace on this Sute’, punning upon ‘suit’ as a garment and a supplication (sig. A2r). William Annand, later Dean of Edinburgh, rejects such embellishments, describing his text as ‘plain white-seam work, without the Point, or Lace, of Marginal citations’ (1671: sig. *4v). It is tempting to associate Annand’s comment with Reformation anxieties about marginal notes printed in the Bible running contrary to its ‘plain’, self-explicating text, aligning concerns about material and textual plainness (Tribble 1993: 11–56). Annand, however, has other reasons: they are absent ‘because Toylsome and Expensive’ (1671: sig. *4v). Gesturing towards the stationer’s as well as the author’s handiwork, this indicates that the embellishments added to the surface of the printed text might be regarded, like those of ornate fabrics, in terms of costly material composition and laborious craftsmanship.

[25] Saint Stevens Last Will and Testament (1638), by moderate Puritan preacher, Thomas Gataker, provides a particularly extended example which underscores that Protestants were attentive to the material form of their books and the fabric environment, and appreciated elaborate textiles as sources of a sophisticated critical and aesthetic vocabulary. Addressing fellow clergyman Daniel Featley, Gataker’s preface explains the features he has introduced in preparing his sermon for print:

the quotations of Scripture, and such shreds or parcels of exotike Language, as might be some rub to an English Reader, but had beene indifferent to your selfe, I have removed into the Margine, and set on a little more Lace there, to make the Piece somewhat sutable to the rest of my Works, that are in hands abroad alreadie. (sig. A4r)

Gataker’s understanding of his printed text is thoroughly material, from the ‘shreds’ (textile fragments or strips) of ‘exotike Language’ to his description of the sermon itself as a ‘piece’, a unit of fabric measurement as well as the ‘product or result of an art, craft, etc.’ (see OED ‘shred, n.’, defs. 3a, 4 and ‘piece, n.’, defs. 4a, 14). Evoking Renaissance conceptions of literary composition as a techne combining ‘manual skill and creative invention’ (Kalas 2007: 1), this suggests affinities between the workmanship of well-fashioned sentences and that of curious stitchery. Gataker’s concern that this ‘Piece [is] somewhat sutable to the rest of my Works’ further grounds the sermon within a material context; ‘sutable’ describes articles of dress or fabric furnishings whose ‘shape, colour, pattern, or style’ was designed to match (OED, ‘suitable, adj. and adv’, def. 1). Applying this to his printed corpus, Gataker indicates that producers and readers of texts regarded a collection of printed texts with aesthetic as well as intellectual concerns about stylistic consonance.

Figure five: ‘Ashbourne Portrait’, 1612, with nineteenth-century alterations, oil on canvas, 119.4 x 94.6 cm, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, FPs1. Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

[26] Gataker’s comments echo more literal concerns about material suitability. Several portraits show books’ ribbons flowing into chromatically and texturally consistent surfaces, illustrating a taste for co-ordinated books and furnishings (see, for example, figure five). In Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s play, The Woman Hater, Lucio describes his study as ‘furnisht after a graue and wise methode’ and declares ‘My book-strings are sutable & of a reaching colour’ (1607: sig. H4r ). Spoken by a foppish statesman, these lines are evidently intended satirically and suggest how concern with a book’s material surfaces could be regarded as symptomatic of a desultory interest in the text. In other cases, though, ‘suitable’ strings ‘reach’ towards devotionally as well as materially appropriate objects. A portrait of Agnes Imple, Lady Astley, shows her dressed in mourning; her left hand grasps an open book, probably a prayer book, whose pink ties gravitate towards the matching pink watch-ribbon held in her right (figure six). Providing a memento mori upon which she might meditate alongside her book, this watch indicates that a book’s fabric embellishments could constitute forms of intermateriality which tied a text to a wider network of corresponding significant objects.

Figure six: Anon, ‘Agnes Impel (d. after 1652), Lady Astley, in Mourning Dress’, c. 1640, oil on canvas, 73.7 x 61cm, National Trust, Seaton Delaval, NT 1276835 ©National Trust Images

Thinking Outside the Book: Texts, Gloves and Purses
[27] Several embroidered books survive alongside accompanying wrought objects. Falling prey to the depth ontology, these assemblages are at risk of being dismissed as objects for women more concerned with ‘appearing well-dressed in church’ than with their books’ contents (Foot 1998: 62; compare Walsham 2004: 134). In this section, I reveal structural, perceptual, and epistemological continuities between books and companionate objects, arguing that these assemblages situate the book within a contexture of analogous objects and provide complementary or alternative reading materials.

[28] The Bayerisches Nationalmuseum holds an especially striking set, probably made in the Netherlands and given as a gift, which is fashioned in matching purple silk embroidered with flowers (figure seven). It comprises: a book containing German translations of the Psalms and songs of prayer and consolation by Protestants Friedrich III, Friedrich IV and Johann Casimir; a pair of gauntlet gloves bearing flaming heart emblems and the initial ‘E’, whose tabs match the book’s embroidered ribbon ties; and a pin-cushion designed to hang from the girdle.[13]

Figure seven: Embroidered Gloves, Psalter and Pin-cushion, The Netherlands, c. 1629–1630, Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich, Inventory Number: 62/21.1–3, Photo Number D55103 © Bayerisches Nationalmuseum München. Photo by Walter Haberland.

This pin-cushion may have possessed textual applications: pins were not only fabric tools, but tools of textual engagement, used to mark passages and fasten additional materials to the page (Smith 2012: 185). Emphasising that being well-dressed and well-read could be complementary, these pins suggest that the items within this set could be functionally as well as fashionably co-ordinated.

[29] The flaming hearts embroidered on the gloves offer a suggestive complement to the book. Although this emblem was a prominent devotional image in counter-Reformation and Jesuit art, the image also had a much wider currency, as is highlighted by the numerous flaming and smoking hearts in Wither’s A Collection of Emblemes. Here, the flaming heart not only emblematizes Christian fervour and contrition, but, when combined with joined hands, signifies amity and friendship (Wither 1635: sigs. F4r, M4r, N3v, O3r, P3r, Ff2v, Hh3v, Ii3r). This latter configuration seems to re-materialize in the emblem’s application to the gloves and suggests that the embroidered gauntlets may have not only prompted devotional practices, but been read as enacting the social relations produced in gift-giving.

[30] The British Library holds a 32mo 1639 Whole Booke of Psalmes bound in white silk, embroidered in silver and silk with flora including roses, borage and strawberries alongside a bag embroidered with these and other plants (BL C.17.a.21.). The library also holds a 32mo 1633 Book of Psalms embroidered with images of a man and woman alongside a purse embroidered in silver and gold with a parrot and various flowers including a carnation and rose which echo those wrought on the book’s back cover and spine (figure eight); they are accompanied by suede gloves embroidered in silver with a floral pattern.

Figure eight: Embroidered psalm book and bag, British Library, London, ©British Library Board, C.194.c.27.

This book once contained a now-missing silk bookmark bearing portraits of Charles I, and the words ‘From Prison Bring Youre Captive King’ (BL C.194.c.27.). As well as indexing a royalist readership, this bookmark indicates that the embroidered Psalter was considered, like Hopkins’ Bible, in a context of meaningful materials and invites us to consider how the other embroidered surfaces in this ensemble were brought to bear upon the book.

[31] Embroidered gloves were popular complements to books, both as conspicuously matched objects and as items which are more generally materially and perceptually consonant. A portrait of Lady Hunsdon painted around 1620 shows the fingers of her left hand inserted in a miniature embroidered book whilst her right hand holds the fingers of a pair of embroidered gloves.[14] In a contemporaneous portrait, attributed to John Souch, Lady Anne Lawley rests her right hand on a small embroidered book which lies on the fingers of her embroidered gloves.[15] Recalling the prosthetic fingers of bookmarks, and the mirroring of Pierrepont’s marker and glove fingers, these arrangements indicate that getting to grips with one’s book could go hand-in-hand with haptic and visual experiences of complementary materials, and suggest that other textile supplements to the hand could be imbricated in the manual arts of reading.

[32] Margaret Cavendish’s ‘Natures Cabinet’ offers an intriguing suggestion as to how gloves’ social and manual applications could position them as materials of thought. Redirecting the supposed vacuous superficiality of fashionable adornments, the poem offers a very literal take on Cavendish’s materialist natural philosophy by presenting the brain as a ‘Cabinet’, full of ‘Knack[s]’, many of them fabric. Alongside ‘Ribbons of Fancies new’ and ‘Veiles of Forgetfulnesse’, Cavendish finds ‘Gloves of Remembrance, which draw off, and on,/ Thoughts in the Braine sometimes are there, then gon’ (1653: sig. R3v; see also Benedict 2001: 59). Cavendish’s figure builds on the ‘prosthetic’ uses of gloves, and the giving of them as tokens of remembrance, as well as the mnemonic uses of hands (Stallybrass and Jones 2001: 114–32); gloves had traditionally supplemented manual forms of memory and understanding, as is highlighted by a broadsheet depicting Some fyne gloues […] wherby they maye learne the. x. commaundementes at theyr fyngers endes (c. 1560–1570; discussed by Tribble and Keene 2011: 43). Drawn off and on, Cavendish’s gloves emphasise that the ephemeral is not insignificant and produce a prosthetic form of memory whose transience resonates with that of bookmarks, threads and writing tables.

[33] Gloves not only accompanied reading materials but contained and were contained by inscriptions. Gloves were popular both as love tokens, and in political and royal gift-exchange (North 2008: 53–54); it seems that, in this latter context too, embroidered gloves might be given along with books in fine textile bindings (see, for example, Goldring and others (eds) 2014: II, 572). In both cases, the gloves could have posies or letters pinned to them, embroidered upon them or written inside. The text could be inscribed directly onto the surface of the cloth or leather, or on a piece of paper tucked within; alternatively it may have been penned upon the protective paper in which gloves were wrapped (see, for example, Cupids Posies 1642; Loues Garland 1624; Cambridge Jests 1674: sig. F3r; d’Urfé 1658: sigs. K3v–L1r; Davies 1659: sig. L1r; Goldring and others (eds) 2014: II, 572–73). Paralleling or inverting the material structures of books, these arrangements mark gloves as complementary or alternative spaces where texts might be discovered and reading take place, and generate perceptual analogies between both the meaningful surfaces and the significant contents of these gifts.

[34] In an example of a doubled fabric wrapping for the contained text, the bags accompanying the British Library psalters appear to have been used to hold the book.[16] Enfolding the embroidered psalter within a further wrought covering, the purse iteratively augments the surface of the book and incorporates it into a multi-layered fabric environment. Contemporaneous texts indicate that books were often kept and carried in bags and purses, not only by wealthy readers but, in less ornate forms, by those from lower social orders. An anecdote in a late seventeenth-century jest book features a journeyman whose wife takes her Bible to Church in a green bag (Versatile Ingenium 1679: sigs. D8v-E1r). In William D’Avenant’s comedy The Witts (printed 1636), the extravagant Young Pallatine, promising to live more moderately, declares that he will ‘hang at my velvet Girdle,/ A Booke wrapp’d in a greene Dimity Bagge’ (sig. B3r); while the velvet girdle makes the coarse dimity a rather flawed economy, the image nevertheless points towards the more extensive contextures within which bags embedded books and emphasizes that books could literally be trimmings upon one’s suit. Bags like those held by the British Library were similarly designed to hang from a strap tied at the waist (North and Tiramani (eds) 2012: 136–37), indicating that they may have been one way in which so many ‘English Damoselles’ apparently wore ‘bookes tyed to theyr gyrdles’ (Lyly 1580: sig. Gg2r; see also Smith 2012: 214–15). As Razzall notes, such bookish attire was about being well-read as well as well-dressed and fostered an intimate, perhaps too intimate, understanding of the book’s contents (2013: 129); clergyman William Heale laments that ‘those too too holy women-gospellers, who weare their testament at their apron-strings’, are forever ‘catechiz[ing] their husbands, citing places, clearing difficulties, & preaching holy sermons too’ (1609: sig. F1r).[17] As D’Avenant’s satire suggests, this was not necessarily a wholly or peculiarly feminine practice, with men as well as women using and appreciating elegant book bags and wrappers.

Figure nine: Embroidered Purse and Sweet Bag showing King Solomon, 1620–1650, England, 11.25 cm x 13.75cm, Gallery of Costume, Platt Hall, Rusholme, Manchester, 1960.246. Image courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery.

[35] Purses and purse-strings were sometimes reading materials in a literal sense. Like bookmarks, some purse-strings were braided with letters. One seventeenth-century bag, perhaps used as a sweet-bag, bears a partially preserved purse-string which apparently excerpts a motto from Thomas Combe’s emblem book, The Theater of Fine Devices (first published, 1593): ‘Patience brings the minde to rest and helpes all troubles to digest’ (Combe 1614: sig. D1r; Manchester Art Gallery 2016). Like the complementary books, markers, and covers described above, this motto invokes the interplay of word and image. Here the purse body supplies the pictorial elements, replacing Combe’s image of the caged bird with a depiction of the Judgement of Solomon on one side and, on the other, Jacob wrestling with the angel (figures nine and ten).

Figure ten: Embroidered Purse and Sweet Bag showing Jacob wrestling with the angel, 1620–1650, England, 11.25 cm x 13.75cm, Gallery of Costume, Platt Hall, Rusholme, Manchester, 1960.246. Image courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery.

The latter was a popular subject on embroidered bindings (see, for example BL C.17.a.24.; BL C.65.l.6.; BL Davis 77), highlighting further creative, conceptual and visual consonances between bags and books. Jacob was commonly understood as a parable of patience (Cowper 1607: sig. E6v), whilst Solomon emphasized this virtue as a condition of wisdom and jurisprudence and was praised for ‘patiently hear[ing] the controuersie’ of the two women (Merlin 1599: sig. Q7r). Like the bookmarks, the loop of the handle thus constituted a conceptually as well as physically connective device which recorded and prompted comparisons between different scriptural verses. Wrought with biblical stories, the bag not only provides a site of religious instruction and devotion. It materializes hermeneutic practices and structures of thought which are continuous with those of books and indicates that the techne of reading could be developed and informed by responses to a wider assemblage of material surfaces and forms.

[36] The range of objects and texts considered in this article indicates not only that fabric surfaces and fabric experience were part of the book, but that both physical texts and textual content were perceived within a textile framework. Early modern men and women were highly attuned to material, interpretive, epistemological and perceptual correspondences between textual and textile objects and practices, and contemplated them in an intimate, sustained and deeply considered conversation. These correspondences underscore that early modern readers thought in ways which were at once more conceptual and more material than has yet been recognised by modern observations on the etymological origins of text, in textus, that which is woven. The textiles applied to and used alongside books resist attempts to dismiss them as ‘simply’ decorative or perfunctory. Rather, their structural and aesthetic as well as material, pictorial and alphabetic aspects constructed advanced critical and theological literacies, and operated as materials with which to think, enabling readers to mark, scrutinize and understand texts and concepts. The extent to which a critical and imaginative vocabulary of cloth pervades accounts of textual composition and interpretation points to a prevalent and conceptually rich material idiom which positioned books within an extensive and diverse material environment. Sites of complex significance and advanced critical and creative processes, the elaborately wrought textiles which permeated and surrounded texts challenge us to read in ways which are simultaneously more superficial and more intricately involved.

University of York


[1] I wish to thank Helen Smith and Jason Scott-Warren for their comments on early drafts of this article, and the Wolfson Foundation for funding which has supported my research. The F.R. Leavis Fund at the University of York generously helped with illustrations.[back to text]

[2] My thinking has been informed by recent work on early modern cognitive ecologies. For an important example of scholarship in this field, see Tribble and Keene (2011).[back to text]

[3] Lois Swales and Heather Blatt (2007: 145–79) provide a preliminary catalogue and technical discussion of extant medieval and early modern examples.[back to text]

[4] I discuss fingerloop braiding’s literary applications further in Canavan, 2016.[back to text]

[5] The bookmark appears to cite Thessalonians in reference to the first of these verses (Colossians 3:18).[back to text]

[6] On writing tables, see Peter Stallybrass and others (2004: 379–419).[back to text]

[7] Andrew Morrall offers a stimulating discussion of the significance of images of Adam and Eve in needlework, including embroidered bookbindings, (2012: 313–53).[back to text]

[8] For another example of Moses, see HL 438000:070; for David, see MMA 64.101.1294.[back to text]

[9] Griffiths and Farquhar (1925–26: 295-96) describe a book whose appearance seems to have been very close, if not identical, to NYPL Spencer Coll. Eng. 1632:

An embroidered Bible and Psalms printed in 1632, embroidered on satin with gold thread and coloured silks. On the front cover appears the figure of Moses, who holds a book, on which is written ‘The law was given by Moses and Grace and Peace came by Jesus Christ.’ On the back of the cover appears a figure of David and the words ‘Remember David’s troubles.’ The two pairs of tie strings of crimson silk are inscribed, ‘This booke doth shew that God made all, the world, heavens, earth and man, who unto sin did quickly fall, almost as soon as Time began.’

There are, however, some discrepancies between the two descriptions which make it impossible to identify the book held by the New York Public Library with that described by Griffiths and Farquhar.[back to text]

[10] See, for example, Hans Holbein the younger, ‘Portrait of a Young Merchant’, 1541, oil on oak, 46.5 x 34.8 cm Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien, GG_905, http://www.khm.at/objektdb/detail/968 [accessed 11 April 2017]; El Greco, ‘Portrait of Dr. Francisco de Pisa’, c. 1610-14, oil on canvas, 107 x 90 cm, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, AP 1977.05, https://www.kimbellart.org/collection-object/portrait-dr-francisco-de-pisa [accessed 30 August 2016].[back to text]

[11] I am grateful to Jason Scott-Warren for drawing my attention to this connection.[back to text]

[12] For discussion of the ‘sartorial associations of paper’, see Joshua Calhoun (2011: 327–44).[back to text]

[13] Birgitt Borkopp-Restle provides details about these items (2002: 148–50). These items were previously believed to have been a wedding gift for Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia; Borkopp-Restle dismisses this, highlighting that the text’s publication date postdates the marriage by sixteen years.[back to text]

[14] Lady Hunsdon, English School, c. 1620, reproduced in North and Tiramani (eds) (2011: 136).[back to text]

[15] John Souch, ‘Lady Anne Lawley’, oil on canvas, 211 x 146.2 cm, reproduced in Christie’s London (2002: lot 6). [auction catalogue] [back to text]

[16] For discussion of embroidered books and book bags as ‘sacred vessels’, see Razzall (2013: 127).[back to text]

[17] Helen Smith discusses both of these passages in relation to books on the body (2012: 214–15). For Reformation ambivalence towards girdle books, see Kearney (2009: 100–13).[back to text]


Original Documents and objects

Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, BSS.201.C32.15

London, British Library, C.17.a.21.

London, British Library, C.17.a.24.

London, British Library, C.65.l.6.

London, British Library, C.143.a.10.

London, British Library, C.194.c.27.

London, British Library, Davis 77.

Manchester, Gallery of Costume, Platt Hall, 1960.246

Munich, Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, 62/21.1–3

New York, Morgan Library, PML 2095

New York, New York Public Library, Spencer Coll. Eng. 1632

New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 64.101.1294

San Marino California, Henry E. Huntington Library, 438000:070

Washington D.C., Folger Shakespeare Library, 212- 796f

Washington D.C., Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 2283.5

Washington D.C., Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 18027a


Holbein, Hans, the younger. 1541. Portrait of a Young Merchant, oil on oak, 46.5 x 34.8 cm Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien, GG_905, http://www.khm.at/objektdb/detail/968 [accessed 30 August 2016]

El Greco, c. 1610–14. Portrait of Dr. Francisco de Pisa, oil on canvas, 107 x 90 cm, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, AP 1977.05, https://www.kimbellart.org/collection-object/portrait-dr-francisco-de-pisa [accessed 11 April 2017].


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‘Inclosed in this tabernacle of flesh’: Body, Soul, and the Singing Voice

‘Inclosed in this tabernacle of flesh’: Body, Soul, and the Singing Voice

Richard Wistreich

Voice is a kind of sound characteristic of what has soul in it; nothing that is without soul utters voice.  (Aristotle 1993: 420b)

Wee cannot come perfectly vnto the knowledge of man, vnlesse first wee doe well see into the Essence both of the body and the soule. Now the knowledge of the soule cannot be made manifest but onely by her operations, which also seeing she doth not performe without the helpe of corporall organs, there is a necessity imposed, that wee also vnderstand the exact composition of the body.  (Crooke 1615: 647)

Our soule useth thoughts and discourses which, cannot be declared as long as it is inclosed in this tabernacle of flesh […] Therefore that which is framed in voice, & brought into use, is as a river sent from the thought with the voice, as from his fountain.  (de la Primaudaye 1594: 57r ; 1618: 377)[1]

[1] As both a singer and a student of Renaissance music, I have long been interested in how early modern singers and their listeners understood that peculiar borderland of the self, lying between interior and exterior, between imagination and embodiment, between articulation and sense, that is inhabited by the voice. Notwithstanding the impact of the invention of audio recording and replay in 1877 that has forever changed our ability to listen to, and endlessly re-hear our own and others’ voices – a momentous ‘loss of innocence’ that none of us who is able to hear can ever recover – voice still remains enigmatic. It is no sooner uttered or perceived than it vanishes, flitting about above and beneath, or perhaps constantly moving back and forth through the surface of sensual experience. Always just out of reach, voice (live or recorded) is characterised by its physical and conceptual liminality. For example, is it inside or outside the body? Does it change between utterance and perception, first hearing and memory? (see Connor 2004). The issue for Renaissance philosophy appeared to hinge on voice’s questionable immateriality. The French Protestant ‘popular scientist’, Pierre de la Primaudaye, seemed to sense that even though voice is elusive, it is perhaps only just beyond our grasp:

Now when this voice and speach is propounded with the mouth, it is invisible to the eyes, so it hath no body wherby the hands may take holde of it, but is insensible to all the senses, except the hearing; which neverthelesse cannot lay hold of it or keepe it fast, as it were with griping hands, but entring in of it selfe, it is so long detained there whilest the sound reboundeth in the eares, and then vanisheth away suddenly.[2]

Yet for all its ephemerality, voice is nevertheless everywhere in the early modern human domain, epitomised by its critical role in the formation of individual and collective identities, and,  in its specialised manifestation as speech and language, the near saturation of social interactions. These include such fields as ‘the literary’, which we nowadays think of as mediated by the eye rather than the voice, but which until well into the eighteenth century was for most people primarily an oral and aural – and thus a communal – dimension. Because of this ubiquity, voice had an importance in areas we barely notice now, including as a symptom of ill-being, a readable marker of temperament and character, and a privileged interface – and medium of intercession – between the mundane and the spiritual.[3]

[2] The singing voice, meanwhile, seems to have potency additional to that of mere speaking (now, no less than in the early modern period), able to play yet more games both with its utterers and its hearers. It is as if the vocal residue we experience particularly clearly besides both the word text and the melody of a song may be ‘voice and nothing more’, and it connects us to a realm beyond linguistic meaning; as Mladen Dolar puts it, voice is ‘the bearer of a deeper sense, of some profound message’ and ‘is endowed with profundity: by not meaning anything, it appears to mean more than words […] it seems still to link with nature, on the one hand – the nature of a paradise lost – and on the other hand to transcend language’ (2006: 30).

[3] Taming, controlling and manipulating the singing voice in order to harness that power and then using it to enchant those who listen, as the finest singers of Renaissance Europe apparently could, entails a combination of highly sophisticated physical and mental skills that can take years to master. These include coordination of breath, almost infinitely rapid adjustments of the minute and untouchable gristle and muscles in the vocal tract and mouth that make up the organs of voice, and the manipulation of acoustic space in response to aural feedback. Its greatest adepts have been admired – worshipped, even, in certain circumstances – since time immemorial. In Western culture, singers’ powers to bewitch can be deployed to either positive or negative effect: traditionally, singing’s ‘good magic’ is usually exercised by men, while female song is almost always potentially dangerous, and usually to males. Thus Orpheus rescued Eurydice from Hades with the power of his voice and David calmed Saul’s rage by singing psalms, while the sirens lured sailors to their deaths with irresistible singing. And in Handel’s operatic reworking of Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata in 1711, the warrior Rinaldo is tricked into captivity by the singing of two mermaid sirens, who divert his mission to save his beloved Almirena, kidnapped by the witch, Armida. She then attempts to undermine the hero’s noble but all too human resolve, by magically taking on the physical shape of his beloved, even to the extent of singing a seductive aria in ‘Almirena’s’ simulated voice. In the end, only good (Christian) magic can counter Armida’s powers and save the lovers from death. Little wonder, then, that such an intangible, volatile, and yet formidable phenomenon as the singing voice and its effects on the emotions and the bodies of listeners should have exercised the closest attention of philosophers, poets, connoisseurs and scientists from classical and early modern times to our own.

[4] My aim in this essay is to consider how early modern constructions of the singing voice are embedded into a range of philosophical discourses that spread far wider than the usual concerns of music scholarship. At the risk of oversimplifying to the level of caricature, for music-historians of the early modern period, singing voices are primarily of interest as the instruments that articulate(d) musical compositions. Of course, this is not to say that musicologists do not concern themselves with the ways in which the act of singing has always been a fundamental component of the broader contexts, both social and emotional, in which vocal music is and was performed; and for this reason, singing remains a potentially rich medium through which to investigate musical objects and musical experiences. But in order to make sense of the copious and complex range of early modern reference to the singing voice and its role in the human sensorium, the emotions, and above all, the operation of the physical body, it is necessary to be prepared to pass through the purely ‘musical’ dimension of representations of singing to the substrata that underpin and explicate voice’s wider role in the making of early modern identity.

[5] This investigation of early modern singing begins, then, not with music, notated or otherwise, but rather with a poem, made in conscious imitation of classical models but nevertheless directly focussed on a ‘live’ experience of the singing voice. The poem was not only written with the express intention that it should be sung, but its content is itself a meditation on the way that the singing voice operates on the listening body. Close consideration of this text leads, in the second part of the essay, to an investigation of some of the broader concepts, both philosophical and ‘scientific’, which lie behind the poem’s engagement with the operation of a particular singing voice, and its effects on the body of the one who listens. My intention is, hopefully, to provide a model for fresh ways of considering a fundamental human phenomenon, that is in my view important to comprehending early modern consciousness, but whose discussion is normally subordinated to the rather different interests of historical musicologists.

Singing and Listening
[6]   One poet active in the second half of the sixteenth century with a particular interest in singers, the singing voice and, in particular, the experience of hearing and listening to singers, both male and female, was Battista Guarini. Besides his most famous literary achievement, the tragi-comic pastoral, Il pastor fido, Guarini was a prolific writer of texts specifically designed to be set to music. His poems (including the famous series of set-piece songs in Il pastor fido itself) were taken up by just about every significant madrigal composer of the age, not least Claudio Monteverdi, whose surviving published oeuvre includes no fewer than forty-two settings of Guarini’s verse.[4] The poet spent most of his life working at Northern Italian courts, mainly Ferrara, but also Savoy, Mantua, Florence and Urbino, where fine vocal performance and its consumption was not only appreciated, but actively indulged in as a form of cultural currency.[5] In the case of Guarini’s native Ferrara, where he spent the majority of his life working at the court of Duke Alfonso d’Este II, singing was assiduously cultivated, perhaps to the point of obsession. Here the poet was able to observe and, indeed, contribute to the Mannerist revolution in the conception and performance of vocal music that occurred in Italy during the latter decades of the sixteenth, and the first years of the seventeenth centuries. This revolution was driven by an intellectual desire to forge a new kind of affective connection between words and music, an intensified focus on the voice itself, and the application to singing of traditional courtly tenets of difficoltà and sprezzatura; it depended for its practical realisation on levels of vocal virtuosity beyond almost anything known in Europe up until then, and Alfonso’s court was for a while its crucible.

[7] Guarini’s wife, Taddea Bendidio, was a noblewoman and successful singer, and in 1580, at the age of seventeen, their daughter, Anna, became a member of the famous ‘concerto delle donne’ at the Este court in Ferrara as a singer and lutenist. The ‘concerto’ was an exclusive ensemble of virtuoso musicians maintained by Duke Alfonso d’Este II and his sister, the Duchess of Urbino from the late 1570s until 1597, when Alfonso died. Their talents were jealously protected and only displayed as part of the performances within the court’s musica secreta at exclusive soirées in the family’s private apartments.[6] This ensemble, and similar groups of mostly female virtuose in Mantua, Florence and later Rome, and other courts outside Italy, played a critical role in taking the prevailing courtly style of singing and developing it in such a way that it came to be characterised by an almost fetishistic attention to eloquent virtuoso display. The main technical feature of this performance style was the continuous embellishment of the basic vocal line of a song both with sometimes breathtakingly fast filigrees of decorative runs and ornaments produced in the throat (‘cantar di gorga’), and other vocal effects including sliding, sighing, gasping, swelling and retracting the sound, which, together with visual stimulation as the women played their instruments while singing (in Ferrara these were the harp, lute and viola da gamba), had the effect of superimposing a sensual lustre on the musical surface.[7] Within a short time, what the German composer, teacher and theorist, Michael Praetorius, described in 1619 as ‘der jetzig Newen Italienischen Manier zur guten Art in singen’ (the latest new Italian style for achieving a good manner of singing), rapidly became the benchmark for art singing across most of Europe, leading more or less directly to the so-called ‘bel canto’ of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and, in turn, creating a hegemony of what is an essentially Italian vocal aesthetic that still in many ways bears sway in classical singing today.[8]

[8] Another feature of the ‘new’ style, however, was its role in the social transformation of the conditions in which secular singing occurred in elite spaces. Beginning in these same North Italian courts around the 1570s, male courtiers were gradually relieved of the necessity to demonstrate their virtù through active participation in collective music-making; the focus now was on sophisticated performances by professional virtuosos – notably women, and instead of singing himself, the courtier strove to achieve pleasure and, potentially, spiritual enlightenment, through ‘active listening’. Guarini’s poem, ‘Mentre vaga Angioletta’, is not only one of the finest literary evocations of this kind of male experience, but also one of the most detailed descriptions of virtuoso singing from the entire early modern period.[9] This is one reason why the poem is of such interest to musicologists; another is that we happen to know a considerable amount about its composition in response to a specific request from Duke Alfonso in 1581, and its obvious connection to the particular accomplishments of the singers of the Ferrara musica secreta. Finally, because, of the six composers known to have published settings of the poem; the last and most famous to do so was Claudio Monteverdi, who included a remarkable version for two tenors and basso continuo in what would be the final (eighth) volume of his madrigals published in his lifetime, Madrigali guerrieri, et amorose (1638).[10]

[9] The poem was written on commission in 1581, and first appeared in print only four years later in 1585 in the third edition of what would become a long-lived series of poetic miscellanies (first issued, but without Guarini’s poem in 1582) consisting principally of works by the Perugian poet, Cesare Caporali, where it was one of just three poems by Guarini included in the volume. The three poems were retained in substantial sections devoted to other poets in numerous reprints and fresh editions of Caporali’s poems, as part of miscellanies published over the course of the following fifteen years.[11] Meanwhile, the text also appeared along with a much larger group of Guarini’s poems, as part of a compendium of ‘excellent writers of our age’, published by Benedetto Varoli in Casalmaggiore in 1590, with the claim that the contents were ‘newly gathered’ (see Figure one).[12] The poem was subsequently included in Guarini’s Rime, the first volume devoted solely to his poetry, published by Giovanni Battista Ciotti in Venice in 1598.[13]

[10] There are a number of small but significant differences between the text of the poem as it was published by Caporali and Varoli, and that in the 1598 Rime, and it is impossible to know if the version of the text in the Caporali and Varoli collections is the form in which Guarini originally sent it to Duke Alfonso, or if it is a corrupted version in early circulation, and so it remains as yet unclear whether the changes we find in the version in the 1598 Rime were Guarini’s corrections to the earlier editions, or second thoughts.[14] Given the significance of a first ‘collected works’, it seems reasonable to suppose that the poet himself had in hand the publication of the Rime, and it is for this reason that I think we have to take the differences seriously, not least because they have major implications for the way that poem can or must be read.[15]

Figure one: Guarini, ‘Descrive il cantar della Signora Laura’ in Varoli 1590: 73–74.[16]

Here is the poem, with the two versions side by side, in order to show the textual and punctuation differences between them.

[11] Guarini’s style in his madrigal texts is typically condensed and often convoluted, and both grammar and punctuation make it at times quite difficult to decipher the correct meaning (if indeed, Guarini intended only one), which naturally impinges on any effort at faithful translation: ‘Mentre vaga Angioletta’ is no exception. The problem is compounded, as I have already hinted, by some of the differences between the two versions, the ‘Caporali/Varoli’ text and that in the 1598 Rime, both issued after its original composition (1581), but still within the poet’s lifetime. Monteverdi’s setting follows the Caporali/Varoli version, and because the madrigal is well-known, there have been many published translations of this version into English included in sleeve notes to recordings and modern editions of the music; needless to say, there is a range of variant readings of its meaning by translators. One of the most opaque and problematic moments of the poem (but, frustratingly, also one of its most important) on account both of its lacunary grammar and the positioning of punctuation, comes at lines 5–9. The problem hinges on the subject of ‘prende (it takes)’ in line 6: ‘it’ is normally understood to refer to the ‘musical spirit’ that somehow takes over, or takes on the form of Angioletta’s singing throat (that is, her voice is the subject of the poem). But if we take the comma after ‘prende’ in the 1598 Rime (the first publication devoted solely to Guarini’s poetry) at face value, ‘it’ could now refer, rather, to ‘my heart’ (i.e., the listening protagonist of Guarini’s poem).[17] If this latter is the case, then, as we will see, it follows that the listener’s heart (which becomes physically transformed in the course of the song) remains the principal subject throughout the poem and is, somehow, itself ‘doing the singing’; this reading appears to be confirmed in the closing quatrain (‘Così cantando, e ricantando, il core, / O miracol d’Amore, / È fatto un usignolo’), and leads, as this essay will seek to explain, to an interpretation of Guarini’s poem rather different to those by recent readers. It is very possible that Guarini wished deliberately to maintain this ambiguity, in order to evoke the struggle of the poet to capture something that cannot be captured: an ‘ecstasy’ brought about by listening to Angioletta’s voice that transcends rational thought. Such an explanation permits the reader to embrace the double meaning rather than needing to resolve it.[18] 

[Translation: While singing, charming Angioletta entices every gentle [well-born] soul: my heart races, and hangs completely on the sound of her sweet song; and in the meantime – I know not how – it takes [on] musical spirit, [and] a singing throat [or: musical spirit takes on [the form of] a singing throat], and with it shapes and feigns [or: imitates], in a strange way, loquacious and masterful harmony. It [either ‘her singing throat’ or ‘my heart-become-throat’] tempers lissom voice with sparkling sound, and turns it, and pushes it with broken accents, and twisting, turns here slowly, and there quickly; and sometimes murmuring in low, moving [Capiroli/Varoli: noble] sounds, and alternating fugues and rests and calm breaths, it now holds it, [then] frees it, now presses it, now breaks it off, now reins it in, now shoots it and vibrates [it], now turns it around, sometimes in trembling and wandering tangles [Capiroli/Varoli: ‘tones’], at others, firm and sonorous. Thus singing [i.e., Angioletta], and singing again, [i.e., in the sense, of ‘singing after, or in imitation of, her singing’] my heart – O miracle of love – is made a nightingale, and now takes flight so as not to stay within me [or, in Capiroli/Varoli: ‘so as not to be sad’].]

[12] One of the first features that strikes one on reading the poem is surely its list of minutely observed vocal effects. In the course of the poem Guarini refers, albeit somewhat tangentially, to at least twenty individual technical elements of singing that can be found described in singing treatises or the written-out ornamentation in many notated songs of the period.[19] They lead the ‘reader’s ear’ along a switch-back ride of pushing, pressing, rushing, pausing, shooting up and swooping down. In this respect, Guarini has clearly made a great effort to fulfil the details of his commission, described in the letter he sent accompanying the poem when he submitted it to Duke Alfonso d’Este II. The poet was at pains to point out the fact that he has matched the required description of vocal virtuosity with his own literary virtuosity:

I am sending the Canzonetta Your Highness commanded of me, in which I have endeavoured to describe the sgorgheggiare and the tirate and groppi that are made in music. This is a new and quite difficult thing, and, as far as I know, not hitherto attempted by any other poet, modern or Greek. Among the Latins, only the divine Ariosto in one of his odes, and Pliny, the ancient writer, have attempted it. I believe that the Musician [performer/composer] will find much invention in it by which to do it justice, as you yourself will best be able to hear’.[20]

Following this first impression, we begin to notice other things: for example, Angioletta does not appear to be giving a formal ‘performance’ in the modern sense of ‘deliberately communicating with her audience’, but rather is overheard ‘while singing’, albeit by a group of ‘gentle souls’, who are ‘merely’ delighted by her singing (‘alletta’ has an implication of superficiality) rather than deeply affected, as would be a truly attuned and focussed listener such as, for example, Duke Alfonso himself (as Guarini implies when he says in his dedication ‘com’ella stessa ottimamente potrà udire’). In fact, Angioletta herself is never presented to the protagonist’s (or our) eyes at all, only to the ears. Thus, her display of ‘cantar di gorga’ hugely magnifies the physicality of her vocal organ; but she – and her singing – are at the same time somehow ‘disembodied’, a ‘quantum’ duality that, as we have seen, is one of voice’s characteristics.

[13] Meanwhile, our attention as readers is drawn to the ‘emotive surface’ of the song: neither the listener nor we are party to its lyrics or its musical structure, and these seem to be of no importance to the effect of her singing on the poem’s protagonist (about which, more later). But the most extraordinary discovery comes when we realise that it is not (or at least only) Angioletta’s singing throat which is being put through its paces, so much as the listener’s heart, first set racing by hearing the sound of Angioletta’s singing, and then ‘left hanging’, before being infused by a mysterious ‘musical spirit’ that has the power to take control of it and cause it to change its material form. The heart is understood not just a metaphor for the listener’s emotional response to the allure of Angioletta’s siren singing, but also as a physical entity capable of undergoing material transformation (‘I know not how’) into another bodily organ, in this case, ‘fauci canore’ (literally, a ‘singing gullet’ – or perhaps ‘vocal tract’).[21] The listener’s heart takes on a life of its own, and in the form of a ‘vocalising tube’ produces a loquacious and musical harmony in sympathy with (or perhaps, ventriloquized by) Angioletta’s own singing throat. And now, in its new garb, the heart-as-throat is made to engage in a thrilling duet with Angioletta, mirroring (‘feigning’ or ‘imitating’) her every warble and musical effect (‘ricantando’), together producing a ‘garrula, e maestrevole armonia’, before eventually taking on another new form, this time as a nightingale, and taking flight, perhaps symbolising an ecstatic mutual ‘death’ (‘O miracol d’Amore’), as the protagonist’s singing soul is finally ‘released’ from her controlling throat, and his own body. This is an echo of the Ariosto poem that had served as one of Guarini’s models for ‘Mentre vaga Angioletta’, in which the listener’s soul strives unwillingly to leave Giulia’s mouth, where it has lodged, drawn from his own body by her singing (‘How the melody has stolen me away from myself! / And still I am not myself, still / my soul does not know how to leave your open lip.’ See note 24, below).

[14] That Claudio Monteverdi also understood the poem in this way is suggested by his musical setting: up to line 5 he sets the text for a solo (tenor) voice singing completely unaccompanied (a scoring which as far as I know is not only unique to the composer, but not found in any other published vocal music of the period); at the words ‘Musico spirto’ the voice is joined by the accompanying instrument(s), perhaps signifying the speaker’s ‘loss of independence’ as ‘musical spirit’ begins to take over his heart; and then at the words ‘Garula e maestrevole armonia’, a second tenor joins the soloist and sings with him, imitating his every ornament and passage, apparently mirroring the ‘duet’ between Angioletta’s throat and the listener’s ‘singing heart’.[22]

[15] Massimo Ossi suggests that Guarini may have intended to portray Alfonso himself as the listener described in the poem, linking the duke’s known predilection for both solitary and particularly intense listening to the singers of his musica secreta to the scene played out in the poem, as it moves from the general effect that Angioletta’s singing has on ‘any gentle soul’ (which presumably refers to the kind of exclusive courtier audiences who would normally expect to experience this kind of sophisticated singing), to focus on the specific listening experience of one ‘soul’, whose almost involuntary surrender to the web-like intricacies and emotional roller-coaster of the vocal display causes him to be transformed and his soul literally to be transported by it.[23]

[16] Whether or not the protagonist is meant to be Alfonso, Guarini himself, or another ‘expert’ male listener, the poem is clearly not simply a eulogy of the vocal skills of a singer called Angioletta, but also an account of what can happen to the body while ‘overhearing’ someone who happens to be in the act of singing (‘Mentre vaga Angioletta … cantando’).[24] Guarini’s intense focus on the process by which the listener’s body is affected by Angioletta’s singing suggests that the taxonomy of dynamic and rubato effects, and the specific throat-produced ornaments (known collectively as ‘gorgie’ (hence the ‘sgorgheggiare’ which he name-checks in his letter to Alfonso) may be, for this most informed cataloguer of the ‘cantar di gorga’ style, just the raw material for his wider exploration of the ‘deep physiology’ of listening to singing (was Guarini perhaps assisted in his use of technical terms by his daughter, Anna? The commission was from the beginning for a poem to be set to music and to be sung, rather than read).[25]

[17] The clues are in his use of a series of words that carried substantial charge in early modern psychosomatic theory, including ‘anima’ (soul), ‘core’ (heart), ‘spirto’ (spirit – or spiritus), ‘fingere’ (to feign or imitate), ‘formare’ (to shape), and ‘armonia’ (harmony). Guarini’s listener declares his mystification at what is happening to his body (‘E non sò come intanto’) and that something unusual, although not entirely impossible, is going on as his heart, infused with a mysterious ‘musico spirto’ becomes, ‘per non usata via’, a singing throat. Is Guarini’s poem, then, simply a flowery literary fantasy woven around the titillating exposure and display of a female virtuosa’s vocal effects to an aural version of the male ‘gaze’ (which is how it is traditionally read)?[26] Or does the poet draw on established contemporary philosophical and medical concepts in order to fulfil his commission to explore the power of a singer’s voice to transcend the listener’s bodily integrity and effect a fleeting unity of souls, something which must surely have been a subject of serious discussion among Duke Alfonso’s d’Este II’s connoisseurs of singing?[27]

[18] In the second part of this essay, I want to explore the wider context of Guarini’s own investigation of the potential effects of vocality and listening suggested by the ambiguities of ‘Mentre vaga Angioletta’, in order to try better to understand both the early modern view of the role of voice, hearing, and ‘spirit’ in mind-body relations, as well as the wider allure and impact that the virtuoso singing voice had in the late sixteenth century. I should at this point perhaps emphasise that, as with Guarini’s poet, my interest in this particular investigation is the voice itself (Dolar’s ‘voice and nothing more’), and not the ‘musical content’ of song. In this sense, this is not an investigation of musical form and content, so central to early modern philosophical discussion of the so-called ‘power of music’ (musica humana), although readers not familiar with this aspect of early modern musical philosophy will be well-rewarded by exploring it.[28]

[19]  For Aristotle, whose interpretation of natural phenomena was, as we will see, central to early modern physiology and psychology, voice is a primary indicator of life in sensate beings: ‘Voice is a kind of sound characteristic of what has soul in it’ (1993: 420b 5). His subsequent aetiology of voice as ‘the impact of the inbreathed air against the windpipe’, and continuing, ‘the agent that produces the impact is the soul resident in these parts of the body’, epitomises the dual identity of voice: a ‘sound’ produced by the impact of air, and also something ‘material’ located inside the body, that is, in ‘the windpipe’, or as we would now more precisely specify, the vocal tract (1993: 420b 27).[29] In Aristotle’s dense definition, voice is a fulcrum around which three key ‘drivers’ pivot: soul, breath and sound, which, together with hearing (implicit in Aristotle’s invocation of ‘sound’, that has to be heard in order to elicit whether an entity is animate or not), are essential to understanding early modern vocality, and in particular, as far as this essay is concerned, its specific manifestation as singing.

[20] Potentially the most arresting aspect of Aristotle’s explanation of the ultimate cause of voice is, perhaps, his direct and apparently unproblematic use of the word ‘soul’, that can’t help but create a potential barrier to our being able to appreciate the wider importance of the Aristotelian paradigm, otherwise so fundamental to understanding early modern conceptions of the functioning of the body. Nevertheless, it is necessary to find a way to be comfortable with the idea of soul within an ‘objective scientific’ account of the generation and perception of singing. Luckily, late-Renaissance technical investigations of voice provides an excellent model for the accommodation of classical Greek philosophical concepts to ‘new’ empirical methodology. Indeed, as Jennifer Richards and I have recently argued, late-Renaissance writing about the voice is remarkably stable, considering the changes which we know were going on in the period in terms of the description and conception of the body and in particular, the effects of a notable ‘dis-membering’ of the unitary body as a result of new approaches to dissection, coupled with a growing scepticism of all received knowledge of nature unverified by observation. One reason for this relative stability is, of course, the extraordinary tenacity of the authority of Aristotle and of his disciple Galen in early modern discourse on the body.[30]

[21] As the ‘new materialist anatomy’, that had its foundations in sixteenth-century Italy, was predicated on the critical reading of classical physiological texts in parallel with visual and tactile contemplation of the dissected body, increasingly serious attempts were made to ‘pin down’ voice and reconcile its two states – physical and ethereal – through dissection, coupled, of course, with intense study of the knowledge and wisdom received from Classical authorities.[31] Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) famously broke the medieval taboo on the process of literally opening up the human body and its constituent parts to scrutiny as physical mechanisms. His contemporary, Gabriele Falloppio (1523–1562), established through dissection alone the interconnectedness of the sense organs in the head, and especially between the ear and the vocal tract. Following in Falloppio’s footsteps, his pupil and successor to the Chair of Anatomy at the University of Padua, Girolamo Fabricio (1537–1619), and then his student and successor (as well as, it seems, rival), Giulio Cesare Casserio (1552–1616), enormously advanced understanding both of the anatomy and function of the voice and of its closest sibling, the ear. In his monumental treatise, De voce auditusque organis, Casserio described the structures of the organs of voice and hearing to a level of precision beyond anything done before in print.[32]

[22] But it is Pierre de la Primaudaye, in his French Academy, who perhaps most vividly captures the mechanics of the link between soul and body in terms of the voice’s role in the ‘traffic’ between the subject’s interior, and the external world:

Our soule useth thoughts and discourses which, cannot be declared as long as it is inclosed in this tabernacle of flesh […] And so wee say that there are two kindes of speech in man, one internall and of the minde, the other externall, which is pronounced, that is the messenger of the internall, that speaketh of [or from] the heart. Therefore that which is framed in voice, & brought into use, is as a river sent from the thought with the voice, as from his fountain.[33]

The motivation to expel this internal discourse to the outer world is sparked by the impulse of reason, but the medium of its passage is physical. In classic Aristotelian and Galenic physiology, air is drawn into the body in order to cool the heart, an organ always hot and in danger of over-heating. As it is driven out in its heated form, the air beats against the walls of the trachea creating sound in the form of unmodulated voice. The pitch and articulatory power of this column of air depends on its speed and its temperature, and this in turn, depends on the temperament of the utterer. The air then reaches the ‘impediment’ of the larynx, where, in order for this air to resonate and make sound, it is now turned back on itself so that it can reverberate, and this is the reason, according to Galen, why the surface of the trachea is flexible and made up of gristly rings that help redirect the air and amplify the sound it carries.[34] In his simplification of the structure and action of the voice for a lay readership, de la Primaudaye demonstrates how, through divine design, speech is a subsequent function of voice, which in turn is the result of the action of the thorax and the laryngeal passage:

For first, speech could not be without voice, for the which God hath created many instruments that are all necessary for that purpose, as namely the vesell of the throat, the winde-pipe, the throate, the lungs, the breast, & certain back running sinews appointed thereunto by reciprocal motions. Al these parts helpe onely to make the voice of man, without any framing of speech, except it bee the vessel of the throat […]. For it serveth first to stay the aire from rushing in over fast & violently into the lungs, & from entering in too cold & over sodainly unto them. Then it serveth also to divide & distribute the aire when it ascendeth from the lungs, that it may be the better scattered and dispersed into all parts of the mouth. And by this means this instrument fashioneth the voice, & causeth it to yield a sound, & so prepareth it for the tongue, that it may be articulated & framed into speech by the same [35]

[23] Voice, according to Aristotle, is the medium or raw material generated by the impact of inbreathed air on the larynx and from which speech ‘is framed’; ‘pure’ voice,  flowing, in de la Primaudaye’s words, ‘as a river sent from the thought’, is antecedent to speech. Aristotle distinguishes between two sorts of vocal utterances, voice (phone) and language (logos): humans share phone with animals, which even without logos, emit vocal signs in the form of cries, calls or threats, and these elicit automatic recognitions and responses from other organisms. This, then, allows animals to form, as Francis Sparshott explains, ‘correlating groups or societies’: voice is, in this sense, ‘bound to the immediate motivation and occasion of its utterance in a way that linguistic utterance is not’ (1997: 201-2). Language, reserved uniquely to humans, has another relationship with voice: its artificial grammatical organisation naturally becomes habituated in normal, informal speech, but linguistic signs can be syntactically organised and re-organised, inscribed (in memory or in writing) and retrieved and then articulated vocally (verbalising) if and when desired.

[24] The classical model of human vocal articulation privileges the centrality of syntax and grammar. In singing, on the other hand, the voice naturally reorders the focus of attention of the ear from syntax to expression, and thus has powers of communication that transcend the chatter of the linguistic, allowing it perhaps to invoke that animal level of the non-verbal which Aristotle assigns to phone. At its most elemental, singing can manifest in the form of pure vocalizing, or melisma, devoid of any linguistically fixed component, ‘the bearer of what cannot be expressed by words’ (Dolar 2006: 30). Not, of course, that this renders the singing voice in any way inferior to the verbalising voice in its potential to affect the intellect, and in turn, the body.

[25] Here let’s briefly recall Guarini’s account of Angioletta’s singing and something that he conspicuously failed to mention: what (if anything) she was singing about. In fact, the protagonist seems altogether oblivious to (or at least, uninterested in) the song’s verbal text (de la Primaudaye’s ‘speech’), but rather concentrates, as we have seen, on naming (and contrasting) her non-verbal vocal gestures. (Neither does Guarini’s protagonist have anything particular to say about what we today might describe as the ‘timbral quality’ of Angioletta’s voice – no mention of that early modern catch-all descriptor of desirable female vocal quality, ‘dolce’, for example). In de la Primaudaye’s terms, the singer’s breath striking the larynx and laryngeal tract (Guarini’s ‘fauci canore’) certainly ‘fashioneth the voice and causeth it to yield a sound’ that is then ‘scattered and dispersed into all parts of the mouth’, and articulated as singing – but not necessarily ‘verbalised’. It is as if Angioletta’s vocality of ornament and affect has the power to bypass the process by which the intellect interprets language, performing its work on the ear and in turn, acting directly on the heart and through a process of sympathetic physical response, transforming the soul.[36]

[26] But what of the precise mechanism by which Angioletta’s ‘speechless’ singing voice, which we now know, as understood in the later sixteenth century, comes ‘as a messenger from the soul’, came to be heard and perceived by Guarini’s listener? And how might early-modern philosophical thinking explain how her voice, specifically because her style of singing is apparently so potent, was able to exercise its power not only to transform the listener’s heart through the medium of ‘musico spirto’ into a ‘virtual singing organ’, but also in so doing, to cause his soul to become united with hers in an ‘out-of-body’ duet, in which the poet’s throat/heart ‘sings again’ the vocal gestures of Angioletta’s voice?

Soul and Body
[27]  Plato thought that the soul is independent of the body; by contrast, Aristotle is clear that although the soul and the body are ontologically different from one another, neither can exist separately. For Aristotle, the soul of an animal is ‘material’, ‘a body, of fire or air or little round atoms, not identical with the animal’s body but present in it, moving it and being moved by it’ (Menn 2002: 84). Plato meanwhile had explained in the Timaeus that the body was created as a container for the soul: ‘All of these [the elements] the creator first set in order, and out of them he constructed the universe […] Now of the divine, he himself was the creator, but the creation of the mortal he committed to his offspring. And they, imitating him, received from him the immortal principle of the soul; and around this they proceeded to fashion a mortal body, and so made it to be the vehicle of the soul’ (1970: 275). One paradox in Plato’s conception of the ‘form’ of the soul that is much discussed is of potential relevance to our investigation of both the liminality and the transformative properties of voice: Plato asserts that unlike the body, which consists of composite parts and is thus ‘in a state of perpetual influx and efflux’, the soul always has the same condition and is thus unlikely to have ‘parts’ (1970: 247). And yet, just after the passage in Timaeus about the creation of the immortal soul, Plato explains that within the body there is also ‘a soul of another nature which [is] mortal, subject to terrible and irresistible affections’ – pleasure, pain, rashness, fear, anger hard to be appeased, and hope easily led astray’ (1970: 275). This explains in turn the construction of the body, which is fashioned specifically in order to house it: the seat of the immortal soul is located in the brain and exercises reason, while ‘fearing to pollute the divine any more than was absolutely unavoidable, they gave to the mortal nature a separate habitation in another part of the body, placing the neck between them to be the isthmus and boundary. And in the breast, and in what is termed the thorax, they encased the mortal soul’. Note that this privileged part of the body, an ‘isthmus’ between the realms of the immortal, or rational soul, and the mortal, or sensual soul, is the neck – precisely the location of the laryngeal tract. Within the thorax, there is a further division (at the waist), so that the ‘inferior soul which is endowed with courage and passion’ lives in the upper part, nearer to the neck, ‘in order that being obedient to the rule of reason, it might join with it in controlling and restraining the [baser] desires when they are no longer willing of their own accord to obey the [command of reason]’ (1970: 275).[37] Plato’s model thus sees the soul as inhabiting the body, but, unlike Aristotle’s view, remaining separate from it: Plato’s explanation, in its most simplistic sense, is the ‘dualist’ account of soul and body, that first Aristotle, and later, Christian doctrine (albeit with caveats), rejects.

[28] The most important medieval philosopher to consider classical Greek conceptions of the relation between body and soul within a Christian world view was, of course, Thomas Aquinas. He accepted Aristotle’s idea that the rational soul gives motion to the body. The problem that both Aristotle and Aquinas saw with the dualist account is that if, as Plato’s model suggests, the soul is ‘superior’ to the body it inhabits, why should they be united, as clearly they are? Aquinas (following Aristotle) argues that the sensitive soul (that animals have, but not plants, which only have vegetative soul) needs the body in order to exercise its vital functions (for example, drawing breath, and, in our case, the resulting generation of voice). Similarly, the rational soul that, exclusive to humans, enables acts of the intellect, is dependent on sensation and this, in turn, requires body: ‘For it is the very same man who perceives that he both understands and senses, and yet sensation does not exist without the body. Hence, the body must be a part of the man’.[38] Aquinas had to face up to an inherent contradiction in opposing a dualist position. On the one hand, ‘the human soul is the form of the body […which] implies that man is composed of body and soul’. But on the other, humans are capable of thought that does not require the body; therefore, in principle at least, the soul does indeed have an existence separate from the body. Aquinas resolves this conundrum by explaining that:

Above other forms there is found a form, likened to the supra-mundane substances in point of understanding, and competent to an activity which is accomplished without any bodily organ at all; and this is the intellectual soul: for the act of understanding is not done through any bodily organ. Hence the intellectual soul cannot be totally encompassed by matter, or immersed in it, as other material forms are: this is shown by its intellectual activity, wherein bodily matter has no share. The fact however that the very act of understanding in the human soul needs certain powers that work through bodily organs, namely, phantasy and sense, is a clear proof that the said soul is naturally united to the body to make up the human species.[39]

Hearing and Spiritus
[29] Aquinas may have been intent on preserving an immaterial form of pure intellectual soul to satisfy theological principles, but classical and early modern medical theory had to deal with the fact that however immaterial thought might be, soul – that distinguishes the living from the dead – has to have some kind of material form that animates the body. The solution, ultimately derived from the Stoic philosophy of pneuma, proposes a ‘bodily, or animal spirit’ (‘spiritus’) that acts as a medium of communication between the immaterial soul and the physical body. Spiritus was envisaged by classical physicians ‘as the subtlest kind of matter in the universe below the moon: like a kind of gas, it could not be perceived by the senses, but it was nonetheless material, and its departure from the body broke the link between body and soul, form and matter, and constituted death’ (Glick, Livesey, and Waillis (eds) 2005): 426). In medieval and Renaissance medical theory then, spiritus is not soul, but rather the material substance that connects soul and body, and which effects the motions of the body. Spiritus was understood to reside in the cavities of the brain and to flow along the nervous system to the sense-organs and the muscles, controlling sense perceptions, motor activity and lower-level psychological activity such as ‘appetite, sensus communis, and imagination’. (Walker 1972 repr. in Gouk (ed.) 1985: 122).

[30]  For the pragmatic Francis Bacon, it was a small step further to reach the conclusion that to all intents and purposes, spiritus and soul are the same, and that soul is thus material. In De augmentibus scientiarum (1623), for example, he argues that:

Since the sensible or animal’s soul must clearly be thought to be corporeal substance, attenuated and made invisible by heat; a vapour (I say) conflated out of flame-like and airy natures, endowed with the softness of air or receiving impressions, and with the vigour of fire for launching actions; nourished partly by oily, partly by watery things; covered by the body, and in perfect animals located chiefly in the head, running through the nerves, and replenished and repaired by the spirituous blood of the arteries; as Bernardino Telesio and his disciple, Agostino Donio, have in some measure not quite uselessly asserted […] This soul might better be called by the name Spiritus.[40]

Bacon developed these ideas further in a number of works, for example, the Sylva Sylvarum, which includes his investigation of the operation of sound and hearing in the context of his understanding of spiritus. Although Bacon’s work post-dates Guarini by more than a generation, his acknowledgement of his indebtedness in developing his theory of material soul in De augmentibus scientiarum, which is an explanation of the way in which hearing acts on both animate and inanimate bodies, causing sympathetic responses, to the works of two late-sixteenth century philosophers, Bernardino Telesio’s De Rerum Natura juxta propria principia (1565), and De natura hominis (1581) by Telesio’s disciple, Agostino Donio, means that Baconian philosophy is neither anachronistic nor irrelevant to our understanding of the process described by Guarini in ‘Mentre vaga Angioletta’.

[31] The leading modern authority on seventeenth-century science and music, Penelope Gouk, explains that Bacon’s natural philosophy was based on the assumption that most natural phenomena, including sound, ‘can be explained in terms of the action of spirit and tangible matter; a pneumatic, rather than a purely atomistic, theory of matter’. She continues:

Bacon believed that sound is a species [‘an essential element of Aristotelian-scholastic philosophy’]: that is, an immaterial entity containing all the qualities of the sounding body within itself, carried by the medium to the ear. […] one of the important qualities of sound as a spirit is its affinities to spiritus. [… and he believed] that inanimate bodies respond to sound and resonate or produce echoes because the species of sound mingles with the pneumatical part of the body, its spiritus. Pleasing, regular sounds produce a sympathetic resonance in the body. (2000: 140)

Bacon also followed the Aristotelian and Galenic idea – by the early seventeenth century, with its legacy of the new anatomy, already becoming outdated – that the physiological action of hearing is dependent on spiritus that is always circulating in the narrow passages in the head (Gouk 1991 and Smith 1999: 104–105). According to this model, sound travels through the outer air, bearing the imprint of the qualities of its generation. When it passes into the cavities of the ear it transfers its imprint to the spiritus, or ‘inbred air’, which filters the sound and delivers it to the ‘animal spirit’, which in turn conveys the sound to the auditory nerve for interpretation and reaction. The mechanism is described in Alexander Read’s 1638 Manuall of the Anatomy, or Dissection of the Body of Man:

Hearing is thus caused. First, the aire received in the first cavity, doth gently move the tympanum, which being shaken tosseth the three small bones joyned to it; then the kind of sound is impressed into the internall aire, which having the quality of the sound, and circular by the windings of the labyrinth, to make it pure is conveighed thorow the cochlea, and delivered to nervus auditorius that the animall spirit may present it to the common sense, the judge of all species and forms. (460)

The voice, carrying the imprint of – in de la Primaudaye’s words – ‘the internall, that speaketh of the heart’ has a particularly privileged passage to the intellect, the process elegantly explained in Balthazar Gerbier’s metaphor:

the life of a humane voyce, the very Spirituall Soule of that voyce, that is to say, its sence, is partly Spirituall, and partly Intelectuall; it is that which enters into the pores by permission of the corporall ayre, where it remaines; having knockt at the doore, and obtained entrance, the spirit then of human speech, which is the speechless sence, bereaves itselfe of that Corporeall robe, and is conveyed unto our intelectuall parts [my emphasis]. (Gerbier 1650: 24)

Thus the ‘Spirituall Soule’ of the voice is its ‘sense’ and this is a kind of essence, ‘the speechless sence’. As I have suggested, singing can also be considered a form of ‘speechless voice’ and it has a critical property in its ability to bypass the rational processes of language, and its passage from the ‘internal speech’ of the utterer’s soul to the receiver of its imprint through the mechanism of hearing and the body’s subsequent responses is a privileged one, on account of the special ‘supra-audible’ powers of music.

[32] In his consideration of the magical powers of music to affect the bodies of those who hear it, a topic of intense speculation from ancient times to the present day, the leading sixteenth-century occult philosopher, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, explained the particular potency of the singing voice, which is in the words of his first English translator, to ‘pierce […] even to the inwards of the soul’, drawing on a whole series of concepts now familiar to us:

Singing can do more than the sound of an Instrument, in as much as it arising by an Harmonial consent, from the conceit of the minde, and imperious affection of the phantasie and heart, easily penetrateth by motion, with the refracted and well tempered Air, the aerious spirit of the hearer, which is the bond of soul and body; and transferring the affection and minde of the Singer with it, It moveth the affection of the hearer by his affection, and the hearers phantasie by his phantasie, and minde by his minde, and striketh the minde, and striketh the heart, and pierceth even to the inwards of the soul, and by little and little, infuseth even dispositions: moreover it moveth and stoppeth the members and the humors of the body.[41]

Here we recognise how the voice, in the form of singing, wields its power over the one who hears it (trumping the effects of the sound of a mere instrument) by the ‘harmonial consent’ of a combination of ‘the conceit of the mind’ (that is, reason), the ‘imperious affection’ of the hearer’s fantasy (the power of imagination) and the heart (Agrippa perhaps implies here ‘emotion’). The voice which the mind perceives has reached it, as we now know, ‘as a river from the thought’ of the singer; indeed a little further on, Agrippa, in order to explain the transformative process by which the ‘inner thought’ of the singer’s soul is projected outwards in physical form so that it can act upon the hearer, cites the fourth-century Platonic philosopher, Calcidius, who ‘saith that a voice is sent forth out of the inward cavity of the breast and heart, by the assistance of the spirit’, which we might now read as an even more succinct summary of Aristotle than even de la Primaudaye’s.[42]

[33]  Agrippa then explains that the singing voice enjoys an especially easy passage to the ear, as it consists of the ‘motion’ of a ‘refracted and well-tempered air’ – that is, bearing the imprint of musical harmony; and by virtue, specifically, of that motion (recalling to us perhaps Guarini’s ‘Garrula, e maestrevole armonia’), it penetrates ‘the aerious spirit of the hearer’ (that is, his spiritus – ‘which is the bond of soul and body’). What happens next in Agrippa’s description of the process provides a possible key to unlocking Guarini’s poem. As we have seen, the role of the spiritus is to carry – or, in Agrippa’s translator’s word, ‘transfer’ – the ‘affection and minde of the Singer with it’. The spiritus now acts upon the listener through sympathetic resonance, so that the singer’s voice operating through the ‘aerious spirit’ within the hearer’s body ‘moveth the affection of the hearer by his affection, and the hearer’s phantasie by his phantasie, and minde by his minde’ – in other words, a form of sympathetic reaction.

[34]  The multi-faceted Renaissance philosophical interest in sympathy and sympathetic action as an explanation of a range of natural phenomena drew in turn on an even richer Classical heritage, exemplified by Plotinus’ notion of the nature of sympatheia, that argues that all souls are ultimately united, an idea that goes back to Plato. Thus, as Eyjólfur K. Emilsson puts it: ‘if, say, a human being is sympathetically affected by something external and distant, this affection is a function of the unity of the World-Soul in which we, through the animation of our bodies, have a share’ (2015: 41). ‘Musical’ examples of sympathy – for example, when the strings of one lute are set in motion if those of another are struck – were regularly invoked in early modern demonstrations of the physical manifestation of an otherwise hidden force (as well as serving as a metaphorical conceit in innumerable literary applications). Giuseppe Gerbino suggests that ‘In such a world, the two strings respond to each other’s motion because of a mysterious affinity that cannot be directly perceived by the senses. Thus, the notion of sympathy, especially in the Ficinian-Platonic version, provided an explanation for an otherwise incomprehensible wonder of nature, while sympathetic resonance in its turn provided evidence of the existence of universal sympathy’ (2015: 102).

[35]  It is a continuation of the metaphor of the striking of an instrument’s strings and their sympathetic action on another that informs the next part of Agrippa’s extended explanation of the action of the singing voice on the listener’s body. Having entered the ear, the singer’s voice, through the mediating material of the aerious spirit, ‘strikes’ and ‘pierces’ the ‘inwards of the soul’ and then – by virtue of the inextricable connection of soul and body – ‘infuseth even dispositions’; thus a ‘quasi-physical’ action is transformed into a ‘physiological’ effect. There are further resonances here with Guarini’s poem, in which the ‘musical spirit’ that arises in the listener from hearing Angioletta’s voice, first ‘forms’ and ‘imitates’ a loquacious harmony; then ‘tempers’ (I think in the sense in which metal is softened and shaped), ‘turns’, ‘pushes’, ‘twists’, ‘holds’, ‘frees’, ‘presses’, ‘breaks off’, ‘reins in’, ‘shoots’, ‘vibrates’ and ‘turns around’ the listener’s ‘sympathetic voice’ as it is made to ‘perform’ in imitation of Angioletta’s singing. Finally, Agrippa adds that the effect of the singing voice ‘moveth and stoppeth the members and the humors of the body’, implying a forcible loss or complete surrender of the listening body to the singing it hears. Thus the singer’s voice has the power ultimately to effect physical (anatomical) and physiological change in another – precisely what Guarini suggests has happened to his listener.

[36] If ‘Mentre vaga Angioletta’ were the only example of a poem about the effects on the body of hearing virtuosos sing, we might have reason to be wary of locating it so firmly, as I have been doing, within a broader medical-philosophical context. There are, however, a number of other poems both by Guarini, and by contemporaries, which frame the commonplace theme of love aroused by a woman’s singing in a similar – if not quite so virtuoso – style to ‘Mentre vaga Angioletta’. For example, ‘Aure soave di segreti accenti’, probably also by Guarini, published twice in 1587 in variant versions, and also set to music for one of the singers of the Ferrara ‘concerto’ (again, possibly Laura) by their ‘musical director’, Luzzasco Luzzaschi:

Aura soave di segreti accenti,
Che da l’orecchia penetrando al core
Svegliasti là dove dormiva Amore.
Per te respiro e vivo
Da che nel petto mio
Spirasti tu d’Amor vital desio.
Vissi di vita privo
Mentre amorosa cura in me fu spenta;
Or vien che l’alma senta,
Virtù di quel tuo spirito gentile,
Felice vive oltre l’usato stile.[43]

[Sweet breeze of secret accents that, penetrating to the heart through the ear, aroused Cupid there, where he was sleeping. For you I breathe and live since you breathed the living desire of Cupid into my breast; I lived without life while the loving cure lay dormant within me. Now it happens that my soul hears the nobility of your gentle spirit, it lives happy, in another way.]

The physical actions and physiological reactions experienced by this listener references concepts we now recognise: breath; the heart ‘penetrated through the ear’; the soul ‘hearing’ the spirit of the sounding other; and the transformative effect of this aural stimulus on the listener’s temperament.

[37]  One final example from the court of Ferrara, is by Battista Guarini’s greatest contemporary, Torquato Tasso (who also served at Alfonso’s court at this time), and, indeed describes the same singer, Giulio Cesare Brancaccio, who is the subject of Guarini’s ‘Quando in più gravi accenti’ (see note 25). Brancaccio was a soldier, courtier, fellow Neapolitan and family friend of Tasso, celebrated for his fine bass voice. In his affectionate ‘voice portrait’, the poet suggests that Brancaccio’s singing could affect his listeners in ways analogous to Agrippa’s observations on the power of the singing voice. Thus, as Brancaccio sings, he ‘unlooses delightful spirits’, and as these penetrate his listeners’ bodies, his voice not only, in Agrippa’s words, ‘moveth and stoppeth the members and the humors of the body’ (‘harmonizing breasts and calming the imperious emotions of limbs’), but Brancaccio even has the power, through the action of his voice alone, to impose control over feelings of desire that may be awakened in his listeners. Further, in an extension of the Platonic notion of ‘universal sympathy’, Tasso hints at the singer’s Orphic ability to effect change in nature itself, tempering winds and thunder and storms:

Mentre in voci canore
I vaghi spirti scioglie
Giulio, tempra in ciel l’aure, in noi le voglie.
Si placa l’aura e ’l vento
Placido mormorando
Risuona e van tuoni e procelle in bando:
Un interno contento
N’accorda anco ne’ petti
E i membri acqueta da’ soverchi affetti;
E se pur desta amore,
Gli dà misura e norma
Col suon veloce e tardo e quasi forma.[44]

[While in tuneful notes Giulio unlooses delightful spirits, he tempers breezes in heaven, and in us, desires. The air is pacified, and the wind peacefully murmuring sounds forth, and thunder and storms are banished: an inner contentment also harmonizes us in our breasts and calms the imperious emotions of our limbs. And even if love is awakened, he gives it measure and regulation, and with sound fast and slow, form as it were.]

[38] I have already alluded to the rarefied environment at the court of Alfonso d’Este II at Ferrara in the latter part of the sixteenth century in which Guarini’s experience – real or imagined – of ‘Angioletta’s’ singing was formed; even at the time, commentators recognised the ‘exceptionality’ of its musical culture, and in recent years, historians have tried to place the near-mythical practices which Guarini’s poem both evokes and to a certain extent helped to foster, within the wider context of Italian vocal practice. It is fair to say, that at such a remove, it is hard to test the proposals that I have been making in this essay about the ways that early-modern conceptions of ‘vocality’ may have been more deeply embedded in wider philosophical and medical discourse than recent musical scholarship has apparently needed to acknowledge, and this is primarily because, apart from surviving musical notation of songs, there is an extraordinary paucity of substantive writing about singing itself that could illuminate the topic. I have, however, attempted here to suggest the potential in reading a broad range of different kinds of texts – not least, poetry – to elucidate the nature of ‘voice’, understood as both physical material able to cross the permeable surfaces that divide one body from another, and as a metaphorical concept that played a critical role in the construction of early modern identity.

Royal College of Music


I am grateful to the two anonymous readers of the first draft of this article for helpful suggestions and also to a number of colleagues, whose contributions are acknowledged at the appropriate moment in the notes. In particular, Tim Carter read an early draft and made many suggestions that have been critical to my thinking. I would also like to thank Liz Oakley-Brown and Kevin Killeen for inviting me to be a plenary speaker at their ‘Scrutinizing Surfaces’ symposium; this led me to develop the ideas which have subsequently been expanded in this essay.

[1] De la Primaudaye’s text first appeared in English as The Second Part of the French Academie (1594); The French Academie: Fully Discoursed and Finished in Foure Bookes was published in 1618.[back to text]

[2] ‘Or quand cette voix & parole est prononcée de la bouche, comme elle est invisible aux yeux, ainsi elle n’a point de corps par lequel les mains la puissant empoigner, ainsi est insensible à tous les sens, excepté a l’ouye, laquelle ne la peut encore empoigner comme à mains estendues, ne detenir, ains estant entrée d’elle mesme, elle est detenue cependant que le son en resonne aux oreilles, & puis s’envanouyt soudain’ (Primaudaye 1593 : p. 57r; 1618 : 378–9.[back to text]

[3] Recent seminal work on voice in the early modern environment includes: Richardson (ed.) 2014; Hunt 2010; Bloom, 2007; Fox and Woolf (eds.) 2003; Smith 1999; Salazar 1995; Dumonceaux 1990. I should like to acknowledge here the great value of the many discussions I have had with Jennifer Richards about questions relating to the voice in early modern culture.[back to text]

[4] For a full list, see Whenham 2007: 421–57.[back to text]

[5] See for example, Newcomb 1986: 90–115; Brooks 2000; Lorenzetti 2003; Wistreich, 2007; Cusick 2009.[back to text]

[6] The main studies of the musica secreta and of the musical environment at the d’Este court in general in the final quarter of the sixteenth century are Newcomb 1980; Durante and Martellotti 1989; and Wistreich 2007. See also Stras 2003.[back to text]

[7] That this technical refinement was directly associated with court singing is confirmed in a ‘letter on the voice’ written for noblemen and published in 1562, in which the author, Giovanni Camillo Maffei, comments: ‘il vero modo di cantar cavaleresco, e di compiacere al’orecchia, è il cantar di gorga’ (‘the true method of noble singing, and of pleasing the ear, is ‘throat singing’) (1562: 78).[back to text]

[8] See Wistreich 2013.[back to text]

[9] It is not the earliest, however: Laurie Stras notes that Giam’ Battista Pigna’s poem, ‘In giri or lunghi, or scarsi, or doppi, or soli’ describes in detail the ornamented singing of another Ferrarese courtier-singer, Lucrezia Bendidio (Tadea Guarini’s sister), and was written sometime before the poet’s death in 1575 (that is, at least 6 years before Guarini’s poem); it is also perhaps significant that another Ferrarese courtier, Leonora Sanvitale, is referred to in a poem by Torquato Tasso describing her performance in a mascherata, as ‘Bell’angioletta’; Stras 2003: 156–7.[back to text]

[10] A ninth book of madrigals, containing miscellaneous works, was published posthumously. Of the many studies of Monteverdi’s setting of Guarini’s poem, the most extensive and significant are Ossi 1997 and Gordon 2005; both authors follow the usual assumption that Monteverdi worked from Guarini’s 1598 Rime, but without commenting on the differences between that version and the actual text of the madrigal as it was printed in 1638. See also Carter 2007: 265.[back to text]

[11] Caporali, 1585. Guarini’s ‘Mentre vaga Angioletta’ is found in at least a further six new editions and reprints of the ‘piacevoli rime’, primarily devoted to Caporali’s poems but with works by numerous others including Torquato Tasso and Giovanni Mauro, and published in Venice, Ferrara and Piacenza before the end of the sixteenth century: Rime piacevoli di Cesare Caporali, del Mauro, et d’altri auttori (1586); Rime piacevoli di Cesare Caporali, del Mauro et d’altri auttori (1588); Rime piacevoli di Cesare Caporali, del Mauro, et d’altri auttori (1590); Rime piacevoli di m. Cesare Caporali, da Perugia (1592); Rime piacevoli (1595); Rime piaceuoli di Cesare Caporali, accresciute di moltre [sic] altre Rime (1596). See Pompilio.[back to text]

[12] Varoli 1590: 73-4. See also Durante and Martellotti 1997: 94, n.8. The poem was one of just two Guarini poems included in Scelta di rime di diversi moderni autori. Non più stampate. Parte prima, Genoa: Bartoli, 1591, p. 90. See Vassalli, 1997, 8.[back to text]

[13] Guarini 1598: f.130v–131r; modern edition: Guglielminetti (ed.) 1971): 311 (this is not a critical edition, but it purports to be based on the 1598 Rime). See also Thomas 2010. There are some very small typographical and orthographical differences between the ‘Caporali’ prints and that by Varoli (for example, line 2: ‘Ogni anima’ (Caporali), ‘Ogn’anima’ (Varoli)). These are inconsequential for the purposes of this essay, but I have included a facsimile of the Varoli version for comparison (see Figure one).[back to text]

[14] See Vassalli 1997: 9.[back to text]

[15] Scholars usually assume that the title in modern editions of the poem, ‘Gorga di cantatrice’ (literally ‘The (female) singer’s throat’) is original; but this heading first appeared only in the Rime (1598); in Caporali’s volumes the poem appears without title, but in Varoli (1590) it is headed ‘Descrive il Cantar Della Signora Laura’. This almost certainly refers to Laura Peverara, a Mantuan recruited to the Ferrarese musica secreta as a virtuoso singer and harpist in 1580, the same year as Anna Guarini; also in the same year, Laura was the dedicatee of an entire volume of sonnets, madrigals and other poems by diverse authors, commissioned by the Academia Filarmonica in Verona and set to music by many of the leading composers of the day; see Durante and Martellotti 2010 and Stras 2015. Scholars apparently unaware of the version of the poem in the Varoli volume have expended considerable speculation on identifying ‘Angioletta’ (see, for example, Reiner 1974: 31–33). Whether or not Laura Peverara was, indeed, the true inspiration for the poem (and other circumstantial evidence supports such an assumption, but see n. 9, above), Guarini’s ‘Angioletta’ could be understood as simply a generic name he chose to give his ‘unseen’ virtuoso female singer (the ‘cantatrice’ in the title in the 1598 Rime edition).[back to text]

[16]  I am grateful to Cristina Farnetti of the Direzione Generale Archivi in Rome and to Marcello Eynard at the Biblioteca Civica Angelo Mai in Bergamo for supplying me with these images.[back to text]

[17] This comma, present in the 1598 Rime, is left out in the modern Guglielminetti edition, notwithstanding its claim to be following the 1598 Rime text. For comparison, a facsimile of the 1598 Rime is available online at http://tinyurl.com/h9g7dfe (accessed 13 November 2016).[back to text]

[18] I am grateful to Tim Carter for suggesting this idea, and, indeed, for his generous private discussions with me about the problems of translating and deciphering the poem, and the issues that it raises.[back to text]

[19] There are a number of contemporary sources which list such vocal effects, how they are to be executed, and how they should be applied in the performance of songs; the most prominent to do so systematically are: Zacconi 1592: I, Chapters 61–66; Conforti 1593: 25; Caccini 1602: 11; Rognoni, 1620/ 1970).[back to text]

[20] ‘Mando la Canzonetta che mi fu da V. A. ordinate. Nella quale mi sono ingegnato di descrivere lo sgorgheggiare, et le tirate, e i groppi, che si fan nella musica. Cosa nova, et difficile assai; et per quell ch’l habbia fin qui veduto, da niun rimatore, né tampoco da Poeta Greco, et tra latini dal divinissimo Ariosto in una sua ode, et da Plinio prosatore antico solamente tentata. Nella quale credo, che ’l Musico troverà molta invenzione di farsi onore, com’ella stessa ottimamente potrà udire’; letter from Battista Guarini to Duke Alfonso II d’Este, 20 August 1581; in Durante and Martellotti 1982/ 1989:145; my translation, based on the one by Ossi 1997: 253. The reference to Pliny the Elder is to his description of the nightingale’s song in Naturalis historia¸ X, 43, and the reference to Guarini’s illustrious forerunner as Este court poet, Ludovico Ariosto, is the latter’s description of the equally virtuosic singing of a woman named Giulia, in Qualem scientem carminis et lyra, in Lirica Latina, Carmina XVIII (for the key passages see note 25, below); see also Durante and Martellotti 1982: 94, n8. The final sentence of the letter (not included by Ossi in his translation) implies, I think, either that Guarini assumed that the poem would be turned into a song by one of the singers of the ‘concerto’; or that it would be set by ‘’l Musico’ (quite possibly Luzzasco Luzzaschi, Duke Alfonso’s maestro di cappella).[back to text]

[21] ‘fauci’ is of course, plural, although it is often used to refer to a singular mouth cavity, as in ‘fauci del leone (the lion’s jaws)’; however, in this context the use of the plural form of ‘fauce’ could signal that Guarini is imagining the ‘musico spirto’ transforming multiple – or more precisely two – ‘vocal tracts’: Angioletta’s singing throat and her ‘adept’ listener’s ‘heart/throat’.[back to text]

[22] It is, of course, telling that Monteverdi scores the song for two male voices, rather than as a solo for a (female) soprano.[back to text]

[23] Anyone in a position to overhear Angioletta singing can be assumed to have been ‘gentle’: but this does not in itself guarantee listeners with particularly advanced sensibilities, whereas Guarini may well have intended to flatter Alfonso as being more astute and amenable to transformation than even this relatively sophisticated crowd of courtiers; see Ossi 1997: 254.[back to text]

[24] Interestingly, another poem written by Guarini around the same time describing the singing of another member of Duke Alfonso’s private household, the courtier, Giulio Cesare Brancacccio, hinges on the conceit that if the listener was not able to see who was singing, they might mistake Brancaccio’s deep rumbling voice for a musical earthquake: ‘E chi n’udisse il tuono,/ senza veder chi ’l move e chi l’accoglie, / diria: “Forse il gran mondo / è che mugge con arte? e dal profondo spira musico suono?”’ [‘And whoever should hear and enjoy the sound without seeing who is producing it would say, “perhaps the whole world is rumbling artfully and breathing musical sound from the deep”’]. See Wistreich 2007: 196–7. In the version of this poem in the Rime (1598, f. 119r), it begins: ‘Quando i più gravi accenti (when the deepest accents)’ and this is the version normally cited; interestingly, in the first known edition (the same volume as one edition of Guarini’s ‘Mentre vaga Angioletta’: Varoli 1590: 97), the opening word is ‘Mentre’, the same word with which the poem about Angioletta also begins; ‘Quando’ (‘when’) evokes a mundane kind of hearing in which the listener is primarily passive, whereas ‘mentre’ (‘while’) suggests a measured period of consciously focussed concentration.[back to text]

[25] Each of Guarini’s acknowledged models plays its part in the construction this ‘two-stage’ drama. Pliny the Elder provides an anthropomorphic catalogue of the nightingale’s vocal ‘style’ in terms of human singing technique: ‘et nunc continuo spiritu trahitur in longum, nunc variatur inflexo, nunc distinguitur conciso, copulatur intorto, promittitur revocato, infuscatur ex inopinato interdumet secum ipse murmurat, plenus, gravis, acutus, creber, extentus, ubi visumest, vibrans, summus, medius, imus’ [‘At one moment, as it sustains its breath, it will prolong its note, and then at another, will vary it with different inflexions; then, again, it will break into distinct chirrups, or pour forth an endless series of roulades. Then it will warble to itself, while taking breath, or else disguise its voice in an instant; while sometimes, again, it will twitter to itself, now with a full note, now weighty, now sharp, now with a broken note, and now with a prolonged one. Sometimes, again, when it thinks fit, it will break out into runs, and [pass through] in succession, high, middle, and low’] (Pliny the Elder 1906: 10.43; Bostock and Riley 1855: 510 (adapted)). Meanwhile, Ariosto dwells on the irresistible effect of one Giulia’s singing on the narrator, and particularly, the apparent migration of his soul into her body: ‘Ut ut canoros / quaero iterum modos! / Ut ut mihi me surripuit melos! / Nec mecum adhuc sum; adhuc hiulco / nescit abire animus labello. / Nec si sciat, vult mitti; / adeo et bona et grata tenetur compede’ [‘How I look for those musical modes again! / How the melody has stolen me away from myself! / And still I am not myself, still / my soul does not know how to leave your open lip. And if it knew, it would not want to be sent away, / so firmly is it held by a bond both good and pleasant’.]; Ariosto 1954: 50; I am grateful to Peter Mack and Paul Botley for their generous help with this translation.[back to text]

[26] For example, in Bonnie Gordon’s probing reading of Monteverdi’s setting, she locates the poem within the tradition of the ‘bawdy anatomical blazon’, reading it as ‘taking the female voice apart in a musical and poetic rhetoric of violent dismemberment, partitioning something that once possessed an organic unity’; Gordon 2005: 137.[back to text]

[27] For example, the Mantuan poet, Muzio Manfredi, was clearly convinced that he had been subject to the ‘supernatural’ power of singing the one time he was admitted to the musica secreta on 27 December, 1583. Writing to Ferrante II Gonzaga, Count of Guastalla, he reported: ‘Sappia poi che il Sig. Duca Serenissimo mi fece andare la sera […] alla musica sopranaturale, che non vi era altri che io di forestieri, et mi fece dare il Libro delle compositioni, che cantavano quelle Diavole, ma io sprezzando si fatto favour dissi che delle Rime ne poteva sempre leggere, ma non sempre vedere, et udire cantar creature tali, et che per ciò, per conto mio, il Libro si poteva riporre. Mi fu data ragione con qualche applauso dell’avvedimento mio. Vidi, udii, stupii, trasecolai, trasumanai’. [‘Know, too, that the Lord Duke invited me in the evening … to go to the supernatural music (and there were no other guests there besides me), and he had me given the book containing the songs which these devils were singing; but I, turning down this favour, said one could read [such] poetry anytime, but one could not always see and hear such creatures singing, and that for that reason, so far as I was concerned. the book could be put aside. My prescience was granted approval with some applause. I saw, I heard, I was struck dumb, I was transformed, I was disembodied!’]; in Durante and Martellotti 1997: 152.[back to text]

[28] See, for example, Kim 2015; Palisca 1985.[back to text]

[29] See also Connor 2007.[back to text]

[30] Richards and Wistreich 2016: 276–93; see also Hairston and Stephens 2010; Hillman and Mazzio (eds) 1997.[back to text]

[31] Richards and Wistreich 2016: 281–89.[back to text]

[32] Casserio, 1600 [1601]), partially trans. by Hast and Haltsmark 1969: 1–33. Casserio was the first to show, among other things, that ‘the skeleton of the human larynx is cartilaginous and not osseous, and he correctly illustrates the ventricles of the larynx, the anatomy and function of laryngeal muscles, and provides a description of laryngectomy’: Riva, Orru, Pirino, and Riva (2001): 171.[back to text]

[33] ‘nostre ame use de pensées & discourse, qui ne peuvent faire pendant qu’elle est enclose en ce tabernacle de chair: […] Et par ainsi nous disons qu’il y a deux sortes de parole en l’homme, à scavoir l’une interieure ou mental, & l’autre exterieure, laquelle se pronounce, & la messagiere de l’interieure qui parle au Coeur. Parquoi celle qui est formée en voix, & prononcée en parole, & vient en usage, est comme le ruisseau qui est envoyé de la pensée avec la voix, comme de sa fontaine’. De la Primaudaye 1593: 57r; 1618: 378.[back to text]

[34] ‘The cartilage of the rough artery [i.e., the trachea], then, is the special instrument of the voice itself, and the rough artery would have been made entirely of cartilage, needing neither ligament nor tunic if it were not obliged to move when the animal breathes in and out, blows, or utters a sound. As it is, however, since the rough artery in all these actions must become longer and then shorter again, and also narrower and then wider again, it is reasonable that instead of being made of cartilaginous substance alone. Which is incapable of expanding and contracting, it should receive in addition membranous substance too in order that it may be readily set in motion in these ways’: Galen 1968: 338.[back to text]

[35] ‘Car premierement, la parole ne peut estre sans voix, pour laquelle Dieu crée plusieurs instrumens, qui luy sont tous necessaires, à scavoir la luette, le gosier, l’artere que l’on appel aspre, le poulmon, la poitrine, & certains nerfs recurrents destinez à cela par mouvement reciproque. Toutes ces parties ne servent encore sinon pour administre la voix à l’homme, sans ester formée en parole, excepté la luette […] Car il sert en premier lieu, pour retarder l’air, afin qu’il n s’engorge pas si à coup, & si impetueusement iusques au poulmon, & qu’il n’entre trop froid & trop soudain en icelui. Et puis il sert aussi pour le diviser & departir quand il remonte du poulmon, afin qu’il soit mieux respandu & dispose par toute la bouche. Et par ce moyen cest instrument façonne desia la voix, & de la resonnante, la preparant à la langue pour estre par icelle articulée & formée en parole’: de la Primaudaye 1593: 53r; 1618: 377.[back to text]

[36] Music historians might be surprised by Guarini’s focus on the foregrounding of ‘vocal display’ as the potent element of Angioletta’s singing, rather than the expression of the text: he was, after all, a poet specializing in writing words for song. The move towards privileging the importance of the words over vocal ‘excess’ was already becoming the key driver of the musical avant-garde in Florence and, to certain extent, in other centres of experimentation, including Ferrara; within a generation it would be the defining feature of the madrigal, and made opera possible; see Wistreich 2012.[back to text]

[37] See also Goetz and Taliaferro 2011: 15–16.[back to text]

[38] ‘propter hoc quod ipse idem homo est qui percipit se et intelligere et sentire, sentire autem non est sine corpore, unde oportet corpus aliquam esse hominis partem’; Aquinas 2016.[back to text]

[39] ‘Super omnes autem has formas invenitur forma similis superioribus substantiis etiam quantum ad genus cognitionis, quod est intelligere: et sic est potens in operationem quae completur absque organo corporali omnino. Et haec est anima intellectiva: nam intelligere non fit per aliquod organum corporale. Unde oportet quod illud principium quo homo intelligit, quod est anima intellectiva, et excedit conditionem materiae corporalis, non sit totaliter comprehensa a materia aut ei immersa, sicut aliae formae materiales. Quod eius operatio intellectualis ostendit, in qua non communicat materia corporalis. Quia tamen ipsum intelligere animae humanae indiget potentiis quae per quaedam organa corporalia operantur, scilicet imaginatione et sensu, ex hoc ipso declaratur quod naturaliter unitur corpori ad complendam speciem humanam’: Aquinas 2016, trans. Rickaby 1905.[back to text]

[40] ‘Anima siquidem sensibilis, sive Brutorum, plane substantia corporea censenda est, à calore attenuate, et facta invisibilis; Aura (inquam) ex natura flammea aërea conflate, aëris mollicie ad impressionem recipiendam, ignis vigore ad actionem vibrandam dotata; partim ex oleosis, partim ex aqueis nutrita; Corpore obducta, atque in animabilus perfectis in capite praecipue locata; in nervis percurrens, & sanguine sprituoso atteriarum refecta & reparata, quemadmodum Bernardinus Telesus, & Discipulis Donius, aliqua ex parte, non omnino inutiliter, asserverunt […] & spiritus potius appellation quam anima indigitari possit’. (Cited and translated in Walker 1972: 121).[back to text]

[41] ‘Verum cantus quem instrumentalis sonus plus potest, quatenus praeter harmonicum concentum ex mentis conceptu ac imperioso phantasiae cordisque; affectum proficiscens, simulque; cum aëre fracto ac temperato aërum audientis spiritum, qui animae atque; corporis vinculum est, motu facile penetrans, affectum animumque; canentis secum transferens, audientis affectum movet affect, phantasiam afficit phantasia, animum animo, pulsatque; cor, & usque ad penetralia mentis ingreditur, sensim quoque; mores in fundit: movet praeterea membra atque; sistit, corporisque; humores’. Agrippa 1533: 157; tr. J.F. 1651: 257. [back to text]

[42] ‘Chalcidius ait vocem ex penetrali pectoris et cordis gremio mitti, nitente spiritu’. Agrippa 1533: 157. tr. J.F. 1651: 257.[back to text]

[43] See Durante and Martellotti 1997: 100.[back to text]

[44] Tasso, ‘Sopra la voce del Brancatio’ in Solerti (ed.) 1898–9: III, 269; first published in 1582 in two different collections: Delle rime del signor Torquato Tasso, 2 vols (Venice: Aldo) and Scielta delle rime del Sig. Torquato Tasso (Ferrara: Baldini); the latter has a dedication to Lucrezia d’Este, Duchess of Urbino, signed on 30 November 1581; see Solerti Le Rime, 1 (Bibliografia), pp. 202–4; note Tasso’s use of the word ‘forma’ in the final line, which echoes Guarini’s in ‘Mentre vaga Angioletta’, line 7.[back to text]


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Brief Reflections: The Marble Surfaces of Marvell’s Sepulchral Verse

Brief Reflections: The Marble Surfaces of Marvell’s Sepulchral Verse[1]

Stewart Mottram

[1]  Marvell’s ‘Mower’s Song’ ends with a vision of the mower’s tomb adorned with ‘the heraldry’ of cut grass (Smith 2013: 144-5 (l. 27)). The same grass had at the start of this poem seemed a ‘glass’ (l. 4), or mirror, reflecting the ‘greenness’ (l. 3) of the narrator’s youthful dreams, but the mower’s unrequited love for Juliana quickly turns these green thoughts sour. The luxuriance of the grass, we learn, now begins to taunt the downtrodden narrator, who takes a scythe to the ‘Unthankful meadows’ (l. 13) – an act of ‘revenge’ that also helps restore the grass’s glass-like capacity to mirror the mind of the mower (l. 20). The mower creates of the meadows a ‘common ruin’ that reflects his own (l. 22), and he ends the poem imagining this same cut grass scattered over his tomb – a fit epitaph for the fallen mower, echoing in death the union of flesh and grass in life. The ‘Mower’s Song’ reflects the capacity, but also the inadequacy, of epitaphs to mirror the life and death of the deceased. It is a poem that ends with the mower’s life finding fit reflection, but in an epitaph composed of leaves of grass, not words on stone.

[2]  The idea of the funerary monument as an untrustworthy mirror for the life of the deceased is a recurrent theme in Marvell’s poems. Alongside ‘The Mower’s Song’, it occurs in ‘The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn’, probably written in early 1649 (Smith 2013: 65-71). Like the Mower, Marvell’s Nymph is dying of a broken heart, her poem a lament that also ends with the speaker imagining the appearance of her tomb after death. ‘First my unhappy statue shall / Be cut in marble’, the Nymph declares, ‘and withal, / Let it be weeping too […]’ (ll.111-13). But just as grass proves a fitter glass for the life of the Mower than the stonework of his tomb, so the Nymph also undermines the abilities of art to represent nature, questioning the accuracy of her statue’s reflection of her grief for her fawn. When it comes to tears, the Nymph continues, addressing the fawn, ‘Th’engraver sure his art may spare; / For I so truly thee bemoan, / That I shall weep though I be stone’ (ll.114-6). The implied contrast between the ‘art’ of the engraver and the ‘truth’ of the Nymph’s tears, ‘themselves engraving there’ (l. 118), is further developed as we learn that the fawn will have a statue of his own, ‘Of purest alabaster made’ (l.120). Again, art is incapable of a true-to-life representation, ‘For I would have thine image be / White as I can, though not as thee’ (ll.121-2). Even alabaster is unable to reflect the true whiteness of the fawn.[2]

[3]  As well as imagining the funerary monuments of pastoral figures, Marvell also wrote epitaphs for inclusion on actual monuments in the later seventeenth century.[3] Four epitaphs in verse, one in prose, survive, each printed in Marvell’s Miscellaneous Poems (1681). The verse epitaphs were written between 1658-1672, three in Latin, the fourth and final composed in English. Each was originally carved in stone in churches across south-east England; the three Latin epitaphs were erected alongside monuments to the deceased – since vandalised or removed – in Eton College Chapel, and the Old Church, Laverstoke, Hampshire, the English epitaph on a memorial tablet – still extant and in situ – in the crypt of the London church of St Martin-in-the-Fields (Figure one).[4] It is unclear whether the surviving prose epitaph, beginning ‘Here under rests the body of ____’ (Marvell 1681: 70-71), was ever carved in stone – no monument bearing the epitaph has yet been located, and the identity of the epitaph’s subject is still unknown.[5] Marvell’s extant epitaphs each offer a ‘breve … speculum’ (Smith 2013: 192-4 (l. 1)), as Marvell writes of his Latin epitaph for Jane Oxenbridge (died 1658) – a brief reflection of the person whose life and death it concerns. In this essay I want to show how Marvell’s epitaphs, like his monuments for the Mower and Nymph, end up reflecting, not only on the life of the deceased, but the inadequacy of the reflection of that life in verse.

Figure one: Memorial tablet for Frances Jones (c. 1672), Parish church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. Photo credit Liz Oakley-Brown.


[4]  Critics who have noted this capacity of Marvell’s epitaphs for self-critical reflection on the failings of the form have confined their comments to Marvell’s English epitaph for Frances Jones, who died in March 1672 (Figure one). This epitaph, as Annabel Patterson notes, is entirely composed of a sequence of ‘inexpressibility topoi’ that pay tribute to Frances’s virtues only indirectly, insofar as the poem insists from start to finish on the impossibility of expressing Frances’ virtues in verse. Patterson is among critics to claim that Marvell’s epitaph for Frances Jones reflects his disillusionment with Restoration culture, arguing that Marvell found it increasingly difficult to speak well of England in his post-Restoration writings, and that he opted for satire or silence as a means of ‘speaking true’ (Patterson 1978: 50-59 (57); Scodel 1991: 223-36). But the inability of language to reflect the ‘truth’ of a virtuous life in verse is a theme running throughout Marvell’s poetry from the late 1640s onwards. If Marvell’s epitaph for Frances Jones connects, as Joshua Scodel argues, with his prose attack on the Anglican minister Samuel Parker, The Rehearsal transpros’d, also written in 1672, it shares its concern to ‘speak true’ with the three Latin epitaphs that Marvell composed for Jane Oxenbridge in 1658, and for the brothers John and Edmund Trott, who died in 1664 and 1667 respectively.

[5]  In what follows, I want to connect Marvell’s conceit of the epitaph as an untrustworthy mirror to his lifelong commitment to the cause of religious toleration for beliefs and practices outside the established church. Marvell’s tolerationism emerges particularly prominently in The Rehearsal transpros’d and other controversial writings from the 1670s that were penned as part of wider debates over the question of toleration (or ‘indulgence’) that surrounded the promulgation, and then hasty repeal, of the Declaration of Indulgence in March 1672 (Dzelzainis and Patterson 2003a: 4-20). But as critics are increasingly realising, Marvell’s tolerationism has deeper roots than the 1670s. As Nicholas von Maltzahn suggests (2007: 86-104), it is an attitude almost certainly rooted in Marvell’s childhood and the influence of his father’s irenic consumption of writings from across the religious spectrum – from the Laudian writings of Edward Kellet to Joseph Mede’s millenarian commentary on the Book of Revelation, Clavis Apocalyptica.[6] Evidence of these and other writings are included in the Reverend Andrew Marvell’s surviving manuscript sermon book, which also contains a near complete translation – ‘the first known English translation extant’, von Maltzahn argues (2007: 93) – of the Latin Racovian Catechism, first published in Raków, Poland, in 1609, with an English translation attributed to John Biddle printed in Amsterdam in 1652 (Mortimer 2010: 39-45; 158-67). Raków was the centre of Socinianism – an anti-Trinitarian and anti-Calvinist creed, first developed by the Italian jurist Faustus Socinus (died 1604), whose ideas were considered so inflammatory that they were outlawed across Europe, with copies of the Latin Racovian Catechism burnt in England by order of parliament in 1652 (Mortimer 2010: 196-204; Coffey 2000: 149-51). As well as denying the divinity of Christ, the taint of original sin, and the Calvinist doctrine of justification by faith, the Racovian Catechism identifies a key role for reason in our religious convictions and defends the principle of religious toleration. From Biddle’s translation we learn that all our knowledge of the Christian religion is contained in the Bible, which alone is sufficient for establishing ‘Faith on [sic] the Lord Jesus Christ, and obedience to his Commandements’, without regard for the creeds and councils of visible churches (Biddle 1652: 8). The true church, according to the Racovian Catechism, is merely ‘the Society of such Men, as hold and professe the saving Truth’ that is revealed in scripture (Biddle 1652: 166). Because Socinianism downplays the traditions and practices of particular churches as things indifferent to salvation, it maintains that membership of the true church can cut across creeds and congregations, co-existing wherever the ‘saving Truth’ has a home. Tolerance of the religious beliefs and practices of others is therefore a recurrent theme in Socinian writings, and it is coupled with intolerance of any church that seeks to impose their particular beliefs and practices upon others. Von Maltzahn traces the influence of this particular aspect of Socinianism into Marvell’s own writings in defence of religious toleration in the 1670s (2007: 93-5).

[6]  But Socinianism was not alone in advocating toleration in the mid-seventeenth century. The circle of Cambridge Platonists surrounding Benjamin Whichcote, fellow of Emmanuel College from 1633, shared the Socinian emphasis on reason and toleration, and, like Marvell, were themselves suspected of Socinianism – a charge they rigorously denied. One of Whichcote’s pupils at Emmanuel was Marvell’s exact Cambridge contemporary, Nathanael Culverwel. His Spiritual opticks (1651) uses the Pauline image of seeing God ‘through a glass darkly’ (1 Corinthians 13.12) to emphasise the disabling as well as enabling properties of reason, and it is on the basis of his acknowledgement of reason’s defects that Culverwel argues for the desirability of religious toleration, in a world which he likens to a murky mirror, in which the face of God shows very dimly indeed.[7] Like Culverwel, Marvell’s verse epitaphs also use the language of reflection to express limitations in our understanding of what cannot be perceived by the eye, but as well as sharing imagery, both writers also share ideas about religious toleration which, I want to argue, their references to dim or distorted mirrors help convey. In this essay about the marble surfaces of Marvell’s funerary verse, then, I also want to use Marvell’s mirror-like metaphors to scratch beneath the surface of our current understanding of Marvell’s engagement with religious toleration. I will suggest that the sympathies with Socinianism that von Maltzahn detects in Marvell’s prose writings from the 1670s are late flowerings of an attitude towards toleration influenced by the Cambridge Platonists, and already implicit in the ‘brief reflections’ of Marvell’s verse epitaphs from the early 1650s onwards.

[7]  The early modern sepulchre is a multifaceted surface – an interface between the dead and living that conceals the physicality of death, even as its epitaph reveals the life of the tomb’s occupant to visitors. Musing on the etymology of ‘sepulchre’ – from the Latin ‘semipulchra, halfe faire and beautifull’ – the antiquarian John Weever draws attention, in Ancient Funerall Monuments (1631), to the superficiality of the tomb, its ‘externall part or superficies […] gloriously beautified and adorned; and hauing nothing within, but dreadfull darknesse, loathsome stinke, and rottennesse of bones’ (1631: 9). The marble statuary and stonework of the material tomb is a surface that shrouds skeletal remains, but the epitaph inscribed on this marble surface is there to reveal what the stones themselves conceal: ‘to continue the remembrance of the parties deceased, to succeeding ages’, Weever writes, for ‘they are externall helpes to excite, and stirre vp our inward thoughts’, ‘in that by them we are put in minde, and warned to consider our fragile condition’ (1631: 8, 9). The aim of the epitaph, then, is to reflect on the life and death of the deceased, and in so doing to bring visitors face to face with their own mortality – ‘to have the remembrance of death euer before our eyes and that our brethren defunct may not be out of minde as out of sight’. The epitaph is thus a mirror and a monitory: as Marvell’s cut grass mirrors the ‘common ruin’ of his mower and of humanity more generally, so Weever writes that epitaphs should reflect ‘the life, and the manner and time of the death of the person therein interred’ at the same time as they remind us of the ‘fragile condition’ of us all (1631: 9; Llewellyn 2000: 337-62).

[8]  The idea of the epitaph as an exemplum that preaches morality by putting us in mind of mortality is a commonplace of early modern thought. Noting ‘the reciprocal dynamic between the poetic epitaph and contemporaneous culture’, Joshua Scodel is among critics to chart the epitaph’s changing function across the long Reformation, arguing that epitaphs evolved with society’s attitudes towards religion, and that their late medieval emphasis on inviting the living to pray for the deceased shifted with the abolition of purgatory towards an individualising protestant focus on admonishing the living to learn from the dead (Scodel 1991: 2; Llewellyn 2000: 253-4; Newstok 2009: 19-22). Marvell also makes moral mirrors, of the living as well as dead. Writing to console Sir John Trott, most likely on the occasion of the death from smallpox of his second son, Edmund, in August 1667, Marvell calls on Sir John to ‘be exemplary to others in your own practice’ of grief (Margoliouth 1971: 311-13 (312); Marvell 1681: 67-9). In his only surviving English prose epitaph, included in Miscellaneous Poems, Marvell commends his anonymous subject for being ‘polished to the utmost perfection’; his virtues and lack of vanity were such, Marvell writes, that ‘he appeared only as a Mirrour for others, not himself to look in’ (Marvell 1681: 71). But Marvell found it considerably more difficult to translate the exemplary actions of the living into the ‘brief reflections’ of funerary verse. A virtuous man or woman might live their lives as a mirror for others, but Marvell could not share Weever’s confidence in the ability of epitaphs to admonish the living by holding a mirror up to the life of the deceased. Marvell’s epitaphs always betray an acknowledgment of their own inadequacy as reflections of a remembered life, an awareness of the contrast between verba and res, image and reality, that prompts Marvell to question the efficacy of the early modern epitaph as an exemplary mirror for the living.

[9]  Marvell’s Latin epitaph for John Trott, Edmund’s older brother, who died, also of smallpox, three years before Edmund in June 1664, is a case in point (Smith 2013: 196). The poem opens with Marvell calling on the marble surface of his epitaph to ‘Act your part, O marble, and with your customary humanity [to] speak the brief epitaph of John Trott’ [‘Age Marmor, & pro solita tua humanitate, / […] / Effare Johannis Trottii breve Elogium’] (ll. 6, 9). Any implication that marble is a worthy mirror for John’s virtues is quickly removed in the poem, however, as we learn that Trott was so ‘wholly unblemished, refined, genuine, even beyond the metaphor of Parian marble and worthy to be carved on a gem, not stone’ [‘Erat ille totus Candidus, Politus, Solidus, / Ultra vel Parii Marmoris metaphoram, / Et Gemma Scalpi dingus, non Lapide:’] (ll. 10-12). Parian marble, Pliny the Elder writes, was highly prized for its purity by ancient Greek sculptors, who referred to the stone as ‘lychnites’, or lamplike – a possible reference, Carmelo G. Malacrino notes, to its ‘distinctive translucence’ (Pliny the Elder 1962: 36.iv.14; Malacrino 2010: 16). But however flawless, even Parian marble fails, for Marvell, to reflect the purity of John Trott’s own ‘unblemished’ virtues. In his epitaph for Edmund Trott (Smith 2013: 197-8), enclosed with his letter to Sir John and printed alongside it in Miscellaneous Poems, Marvell moves from the inadequacy of the epitaph’s marble surface to emphasise the inadequacy of the epitaph itself, for we read that Edmund’s parents ‘have placed in vain these surviving words’ to their ‘most beloved son’ [‘Dilectissimo Filio Edmundo Trottio / Posuimus Iidem Iohannes Pater Et Elizabetha Mater / Frustra superstites’] (ll. 1-3). ‘In vain’, Nigel Smith notes in his edition of Marvell’s poems (2013: 197 (l. 3n)), refers to the vanity of Edmund’s parents’ hopes for continuing the Trott family line, now that Edmund, the last of their surviving sons, had died. But the ‘surviving words’ of the epitaph also reflect on the vanity of their own ambitions to pass on the example of Edmund’s virtues to future generations of readers. Marvell’s epitaph to Edmund offers a series of tributes to his moral and physical perfections, but this poem is also self-conscious about the inherent risk of turning genuine praise into platitudes, in cases, as this one, where the subject of an epitaph is so exemplary that the poet’s tribute to them risks sounding insincere. Thus, having devoted twenty lines to Edmund’s praise, Marvell ends his epitaph with what, for Patterson, amounts to an ‘astonishing method of inverted insult’ (Patterson 1978: 56) – Edmund, we learn, is ‘a betrayer of friends, a parricide, the sponge of his family’ [‘Proditor Amicorum, Parricida Parentum, / Familiae Spongia’] (ll. 32-3). These are accusations, as Marvell writes, expressly designed to ‘lighten the envy of true praise with a feigned reproof’ [‘Ut verae Laudis Invidiam ficto Convitio levemus’] (l. 31). At the same time as it strives for an accurate reflection of Edmund’s virtues, therefore, this epitaph also betrays anxiety that readers might find the ‘surviving words’ insincere.

[10]  The epitaph for Edmund Trott also contains another motif characteristic of Marvell’s monumental verse, a preoccupation with going beneath the marble surface of the memorial stones to imagine the decaying remains within. Marvell writes of the grave as ‘a fine and private place’ (l. 31) in ‘To his Coy Mistress’, dateable in its earliest version to the early 1650s (Smith 2013: 75-84), but here and elsewhere in his writing, Marvell flouts the assumed privacy of the tomb, imagining the mouldering body of his coy mistress corrupted by worms, who ‘shall try / That long preserved virginity: / And your quaint honour turn to dust; / And into ashes all my lust’ (ll. 27-30). It is to ashes that Marvell’s thoughts also turn in the midst of his tribute to Edmund Trott, breaking off mid-way through his praise ‘of both the strength and the beauty of youth, attractive in aspect, in carriage, in speech equally’, with the dismissive phrase, ‘and whatever else adds worth to ashes’ [‘Medio juventutis Robore simul & Flore, / Aspectu, Incessu, sermone juxta amabilis, / Et siquid ultra Cineni pretium addit’] (ll. 11-13). A similar fascination with bodily dissolution and decay appears in Marvell’s epitaph for John Trott, which comments wryly on how ‘the deadly pox [had] made sport of his well-made body’, to the extent that, even prior to death, John had appeared a walking corpse, ‘encrusted … in a living tomb’ [‘Ferales Pustulae Corpus tam affabre factum / Ludibrio habuere, & vivo incrustarunt sepulchro’] (ll. 22-3).

[11]  This attentiveness to death and dying as a process of bodily dissolution belies each epitaph’s remembrance of their subject’s moral and physical perfections. Scodel is among critics to draw attention to the popularity of the ‘double tomb’ in the early seventeenth century, in which visitors are confronted by two effigies of the tomb’s occupant; the one as they appeared in life, dressed in clothes befitting their status and profession, the other – recumbent, shrouded, skeletal – a conventional representation of mortality, within the late medieval tradition of the transi, or cadaver tomb. Key examples of ‘double tombs’ from this period include the monument to Robert Cecil, first earl of Salisbury (died 1612), erected at St Ethelreda’s, Hatfield (Hertfordshire) between 1609-1616 (Llewellyn 2000: 340 (fig. 121)), and the joint monument to Henry Cavendish (died 1616) and William Cavendish, first earl of Devonshire (died 1626), erected at St Peter’s, Edensor (Derbyshire) in the late 1620s (Scodel 1991: 40-44 (fig. 2)). Scodel writes that the aim of the ‘double tomb’ was to celebrate the potential for life’s achievements to outlast death, insofar as the iconography of these tombs helped admonish and inspire future generations by drawing attention to the effigy of the man or woman as they appeared in life, which was always placed uppermost, above the recumbent, skeletal figure, as though vanquishing death (Scodel 1991: 40 passim; Llewellyn 2000: 340). Marvell’s use of such memento mori seems, by contrast, less a vehicle for the triumph of virtue, more an admission of the vanity of attempts to remember the merits of individuals after the bodily metamorphosis of death. His imagined corpses interrupt and absorb our attention, as Marvell’s macabre fascination with the metamorphoses of death and disease detract from his ostensible purpose to praise the virtues of the deceased in life. Thus, in his epitaph for Jane Oxenbridge, who died of dropsy in April 1658 (Smith 2013: 192-4), Marvell moves from detailed description of Jane’s fluid-filled body – she, ‘suffering five years with dropsy’, he writes, ‘by gradual stages … became swollen beyond the limit of the human form’ – to develop a colourful conceit comparing Jane’s swellings to the waters of the biblical Flood, her soul to ‘a dove [released] from the ark of her body’ [‘Donec quinque annorum hydrope laborans, / Per lenta incrementa ultra humani corporis modum intumuit. / […] / Evolavit ad Coelos, tanquam columba ex arca corporis’] (ll. 23-24, 28). Occupying five of the epitaph’s final ten lines, the very excessiveness of this conceit risks overpowering Marvell’s more prosaic tribute to Jane’s ‘works of Christian piety’ [‘Pietatis erga Deum […]’] (l. 20) that comes before. Weever writes that the sepulchre conceals skeletal remains, while the function of the epitaph inscribed on its marble surface is to reveal the life of the tomb’s occupant to the living. But as well as holding a mirror up to remembered lives, Marvell’s epitaphs also act as windows that peer indecorously into the privacy of the tomb, there to muse on the bodily dissolution of those whose living virtues had held a mirror up to others. In the process, his epitaphs draw attention to their own failure to reconstruct the pious life of individuals within the ‘brief reflections’ of their funerary verse.

[12]  Marvell’s most sustained commentary on the failings of epitaphs to reflect exemplary lives comes in his epitaph for Frances, daughter of Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh, who died in 1672, aged 39 (Smith 2013: 199-200). This, Marvell’s latest surviving epitaph, and his only extant example of funerary verse in English, is printed in Miscellaneous Poems without indication of its subject’s identity. That it was written for Frances Jones was established only in 1979, when Hugh Brogan (1979: 198-9) discovered the verses on her memorial tablet in the crypt of the London church of St Martin-in-the-Fields (Figure one). The poem itself makes sense only when read alongside the tablet’s opening preamble, ‘Here lyes buried the body of / Mistress Frances IONES’, for Marvell’s claim in the second line – ‘‘Tis to commend her but to name’ (Smith 2013: l. 2) – relies on our foreknowledge of Frances’ identity. This conceit – ‘that the mere naming of [Frances Jones] is her truest praise’ (Patterson 1978: 56) – might stand for the thematic concerns of the poem as a whole.[8] The poem, as Patterson recognises, is from start to finish a commentary on the impossibility of writing a credible tribute to Frances’s virtues in funerary verse, one that recognises the limitations of language to ‘commend’, and which ends with the claim that any such tribute is but ‘weakly said’ (l. 19).

[13]  This emphasis on the inexpressibility of Frances’ virtues is, for Scodel, connected to the poem’s composition in or around the month of Frances’ death in March 1672. The same month saw the promulgation of Charles II’s Declaration of Indulgence, extending toleration to Catholics and protestant nonconformists, and the publication of Samuel Parker’s edition of Bishop Bramhall’s Vindication of Himself and the Episcopal Clergy From the Presbyterian Charge of Popery (1672), with its preface defending the Anglican policy of persecuting nonconformists, whom, as Parker alleged, served the cause of popery by destabilising the English protestant state (Dzelzainis and Patterson 2003a: 4-20). These events prompted Marvell to pen his pro-tolerationist Rehearsal transpros’d attacking Parker’s preface, published in September 1672. Marvell’s lively, and highly literary response to the substance, as well as style, of Parker’s preface, opens with sneering remarks upon the extravagance of Parker’s tribute to the achievements of John Bramhall, the recently deceased archbishop of Armagh. Parker, Marvell writes, is guilty of overpraising the erstwhile archbishop, and he argues that the effect of such ‘improbable Elogies’ runs contrary to their design, in that they ‘diminish alwayes the Person whom they pretend to magnifie’, by awakening ‘Interest, Curiosity, and Envy’ in readers, who ‘are subject to enquire […] whether he came by all this honestly, or of what credit the Person is that tells the Story?’ (Dzelzainis and Patterson 2003a: 55). Scodel (1991: 225-30) connects Marvell’s censure of Parker’s immoderate style – ‘bedawb’d with Rhetorick, and embroyder’d so thick that you cannot discern the Ground’ (Dzelzainis and Patterson 2003a: 55) – with his concerns over the credibility of his praise for Frances Jones, arguing that Marvell is unable to express Frances’ virtues in verse because unable to disentangle the language of praise from the larded rhetoric of Parker’s dissolute style. Language itself is debased ‘In this Age loose and all unlac’d’ (l. 10), Marvell writes in his epitaph for Frances Jones, and so only with silence can a poet hope to speak well of the dead.

[14]  But Marvell’s concern with the credibility of epitaphs is by no means confined to his ‘Epitaph upon Frances Jones’. Patterson argues that Marvell was caught throughout his career between the twin imperatives of ‘speaking well’ and ‘speaking true’ (1978: 57-8), and the idea that true praise might seem insincere when expressed in poetry runs throughout Marvell’s epitaphs from the 1650s onwards. Marvell might claim his epitaphs offer ‘brief reflections’ of the deceased, but both his words and the marble upon which they are inscribed are variously dismissed as inadequate – ‘in vain’, or ‘weakly said’ – to the task of reflecting virtues in verse. The image of the epitaph as an untrustworthy mirror for true virtue is a recurrent conceit in Marvell’s poetry, animating the tombs imagined in ‘The Mower’s Song’ and ‘Nymph Complaining’, as well as the Latin epitaphs. If, as Scodel suggests, Marvell’s ‘Epitaph upon Frances Jones’ should be read in the context of his attack on Parker’s ‘improbable Elogies’ in Rehearsal transpros’d, then it is also necessary to consider how the concerns of both these texts from 1672 might revisit and reflect on the expression of those same concerns in Marvell’s earlier epitaphs.

[15]  What, then, might have motivated Marvell’s lifelong concern with the inadequacy of epitaphs, and with the language of untrustworthy mirrors within which these concerns found expression? Marvell’s use of the epitaph-as-mirror motif in Rehearsal transpros’d suggests strong connections between his concerns for the credibility of epitaphs and his commitment to the cause of religious toleration. Marvell likens Parker’s tribute to Bramhall to the misshapen reflection of distorting mirrors, arguing that Parker ‘hath, like those frightfull Looking-glasses, made for sport, represented [Bramhall] in such bloated lineaments, as I am confident, if he could see his face in it, he would break the Glass’ (Dzelzainis and Patterson 2003a: 56). But Marvell attacks the indecorum of Parker’s ‘improbable Elogies’ in the same breath as he rails against Parker’s intolerance of nonconformity, for he alleges that religious partisanship lies at the root of Parker’s extravagant praise of Bramhall. Parker, Marvell quips, asks ‘but … two Conditions’ of the deceased before he chooses to pay tribute to their virtues, that they ‘have a mind to die, [and] to be of his Party’ (Dzelzainis and Patterson 2003a: 52). So the ‘bloated lineaments’ of Parker’s tribute to Bramhall becomes, for Marvell, a metaphor for how religious partisanship can distort our perception of reality.

[16]  For von Maltzahn, Marvell’s commitment to religious toleration is almost certainly rooted in Socinianism, that body of antitrinitarian writings associated with the teachings of Faustus Socinus. Socinus empowered individuals to use reason as a guide to choosing their own path to salvation, and in so doing he also stressed the importance of religious toleration, in a world where knowledge of God was neither natural, nor innate. These principles, von Maltzahn argues, may well have been familiar to Marvell from an early age, given what can be established about Marvell’s father’s own Socinian interests from the evidence of the partial English translation of the Racovian Catechism contained in Marvell Senior’s surviving sermon book (von Maltzahn 2007: 93-4). Von Maltzahn notes that Marvell makes a number of references to Socinianism in his later writings on toleration, including in The Rehearsal transpros’d, in which Marvell quips about the growth of Socinian sympathies among latitudinarian divines in the Church of England, whose preference for permissive conformity over over-scrupulous uniformity, as set out by Simon Patrick, in A brief account of the new sect of latitude-men (1662), showed an inclination for tolerance of religious differences that fell outside the fundamentals of faith.[9] ‘Onely I cannot but say, That there is a very great neglect somewhere, wheresoever the Inspection of Books is lodged’, Marvell quips, ‘that […] Socinian Books are tolerated and sell as openly as the Bible’ (Dzelzainis and Patterson 2003a: 128).

[17]  It was not with Socinianism that Patrick and other latitudinarians identified, however, but with another branch of rational theology that emerged in England in the mid-seventeenth century and which was associated with the circle of university men surrounding Benjamin Whichcote at Emmanuel College – the ‘Cambridge Platonists’.[10] Like Socinians, with whom they were frequently identified, the Cambridge Platonists also emphasised a fundamental role for human reason in our knowledge and contemplation of the divine, and they argued that because reason was not infallible, there should be latitude for religious toleration within a broad-based national church. In An elegant and learned discourse of the Light of Nature (1652), another fellow of Emmanuel College, and Whichcote’s former pupil, Nathanael Culverwel, characterises reason as ‘the Candle of the Lord’ – a divine albeit ‘diminutive’ light that helps illuminate, however dimly, our knowledge in this life of the existence of God in the next (Culverwel 1652: sigs. B1r, R1v). Plato compared human understanding to a shadow of reality projected by candlelight onto the wall of a cave (Plato 2008: 240-47 (514a-520a)). Mediating this Platonic metaphor through the Pauline image, in 1 Corinthians 13.12, of seeing God ‘through a glass darkly’, Culverwel, in Spiritual opticks (1651), writes of the world as being ‘full of looking-glasses’ – from ‘the poorest and most abject being’, to ‘that vast and polished looking-glasse’, the sky (Culverwel 1651: sig. C4r-v). ‘God hath communicated severall resemblances of himself to the creature’, Culverwel writes, ‘as the face sheds that image or species upon the glass whereby it selfe is represented’. As we see ourselves in a mirror, so we see a reflection of God in ourselves. But in all these glasses, he continues, ‘we see but darkly’, in part because of the dimness of the mirror, in part the defects of our rational eye (1651: sigs. C4r, B2r).

[18]  Culverwel’s part-Pauline, part-Platonic image of the world as a murky mirror that at best casts only a shadowy reflection of the divine, is as concerned to emphasise reason’s fallibility as its foresight, and it is from recognition of these limitations in human reason that Culverwel’s argument for the desirability of religious toleration develops. Although acknowledging, in his Elegant and learned discourse, that it is ‘but fitting and equal’ to show a ‘reverent esteeme’ for religious beliefs that have the stamp of age or authority to recommend them, Culverwel argues that the mere authority of age is insufficient a guide without proof of intellectual prowess, and that we should never feel bound to believe the opinions of others in cases where their opinions differ from our own (1652: sig. X4r). ‘For can you think that God will excuse any one from Error upon such an account as this, such a Doctor told me thus, such a piece of Antiquity enform’d me so, such a general Councel determin’d me to this’, Culverwel asks; ‘where was thine own Lamp all this while?’. At its best, he continues, a general church council is ‘a comparing and collecting of many Lights, an uniting and concentricating of the judgements of many holy, learned, wise Christians with the Holy Ghost breathing amongst them’. But all such councils are ‘subject to frailty and fallibility’, and so while the authority of church leaders and councils should be respected, none should feel bound by their judgements ‘unlesse his minde also concurre with theirs’ (1652: sig. Y2r). Emphasising the rights of individual reason to determine ‘the vitals and inwards of Religion’, Culverwel questions the ethics of heresy laws that condemn someone for saying ‘that two and two makes four’ whenever ‘the Church shall determine against it’: ‘O dangerous point of Socinianisme!’, Culverwel quips, ‘O unpardonable Heresie of the first magnitude! […] Away with them to the Inquisition presently, deliver them up to the Secular powers, bring fire and fagot immediately’ (1652: sigs.Y2r, Y3r).

[19]  To argue that religious persecution is unethical, however, is not, of course, to argue that all religious beliefs are of equal merit in Culverwel’s eyes. If in the above passage Culverwel seems sympathetic to the Socinian emphasis on reason in religion, elsewhere his Elegant and learned discourse attacks the ‘excessive vanity and arrogancy in Socinus, to limit and measure all Reason by his own’ (1652: sig. Z4v), and he rails against ‘the unruly head of Socinus and his followers [who] by their meer pretences to Reason, have made shipwrack of Faith’ (1652: sig. B1v). Although Culverwel appears to preach tolerance of Socinianism, he nevertheless censures Socinus and his followers for their overly-rationalist interpretation of the scriptures. Socinians, he argues, reject the doctrine of the trinity on the basis that this concept is neither mentioned in the Bible nor consistent with their own mode of reasoning. But Culverwel emphasises the need to balance reason with faith in our approach to religion, to recognise that God has chosen to reveal himself in this world through mysteries and miracles that are not always comprehensible to our rational eye. ‘As the Unity of a Godhead is demonstrable and clear to the eye of Reason’, he writes, ‘so the Trinity of persons, that is, three glorious relations in one God is as certain to an eye of Faith’ (1652: sig. Z4r). The Socinians err in ignoring the light of faith, Culverwel argues, but at the other extreme is the new sectarianism of the late 1640s – ‘from the blundering Antinomian, to the vagabond Seeker, or the wild Seraphick’ – all which serve, for Culverwel, ‘for so many fatal examples of the miserable weaknes of mens understanding’ (1652: sig. S1v). Such sects are as arrogant as Socinians in their conviction of the rightness of their religious beliefs, Culverwel writes, but he argues that reason in these cases gives way to blind faith, and if ‘The Candle of the Lord … be amongst them, yet ‘tis not so powerful as to scatter and conquer their thick and palpable darkness’ (1652: sig. S1v).

[20]  Culverwel did not live to see the rise of Quakerism under George Fox and his disciples in the early 1650s, but his criticism of sects who exchange the light of reason for the ‘darkness’ of religious error anticipates the language of anti-Quaker literature circulating in the years immediately after Culverwel’s premature death, at the age of just 32, in early 1651 (Ingle 2004; Hutton 2004). Quakers, who put faith in the primacy of inner revelation – the indwelling Christ – as a spiritual guide to their interpretation of scripture, turned the Pauline image of the prospective glass on its head, arguing that this passage, far from emphasizing limitations in our knowledge of God in this world, in fact illustrates the clear-sightedness of the Quaker understanding of the divine. Following her own spiritual awakening, the Quaker Mary Forster writes, ‘those things which before were hard and dark to me, are now become plain and easie, and now I see […] in the Light of the Lord I see light, not as in a glass darkly, but now I see face to face’ (Forster 1669: sig. B1r). Responding to the new Quaker threat of the 1650s, Presbyterian and Church of England ministers returned to 1 Corinthians 13, reinforcing Culverwel’s earlier reading of this passage against sectarian claims that seeing God ‘face to face’ was achievable in this life through the inner light of revelation. ‘‘Tis alledged, That Scripture and ordinances are useful only in our minority: whilest we are babes in Christ’, writes Richard Sherlock, who as chaplain in the 1650s to Charles Stanley, eighth earl of Derby, was directly engaged in debates with Fox and other Quakers active in Lancashire at this time. And that ‘if we will see clearly, we must throw away the glasse of the word, and ordinances, and have our inspection into the things of God more immediately, and nearly, even by immediate Revelation’. ‘But this mistakes the passage’ in 1 Corinthians 13, Sherlock asserts, ‘which is not about degrees of perfection in this life but comparing the different conditions of the state of grace (in this life) and glory in the next’. Only in death, Sherlock writes, will we see God face to face. ‘In the mean time’, he continues, ‘we must make use of those prospectives God hath graciously lent us’ – for the world, as Culverwel reminds us in Spiritual opticks (1651), is ‘full of looking-glasses’. ‘If we throw away this glasse’, Sherlock writes, ‘we must expect either to see nothing at all, or nothing, but what are the dreams and fond imaginations of mens hearts’ (Sherlock 1655: sigs. X3v-4r).[11]

[21]  In his poems from the early 1650s, Marvell conveys a similar mistrust of sectarian claims to divine revelation, his treatment of the mowers in Upon Appleton House (c. 1651), for example, echoing the anti-sectarianism of Culverwel and his contemporaries. Marvell’s concern over the rise of Levellers and Diggers in commonwealth England is clear enough in Upon Appleton House (Smith 2013: 210-41), a poem written at Nun Appleton, near York, around August 1651, and which, as Derek Hirst and Steven Zwicker note, uses the metaphor of mowing to reflect anxieties over Leveller insurgency elsewhere in Yorkshire that summer (Hirst and Zwicker 1993: 252-3). These are anxieties embodied in Marvell’s ‘tawny mowers’ (l. 388), whose work in cutting the grass to make hay leaves behind a field of stubble – ‘a levelled space’ (l. 443), Marvell writes, and ‘naked equal flat, / Which Levellers take pattern at’ (ll. 449-50). For Cristina Malcolmson, mowing in the poem represents ‘the excessive violence that would occur’ if Levellers and Diggers were allowed to put their ‘theologically and ideologically unsophisticated […] ideas into effect’ (Malcolmson 1994: 261-2; Wilding 1987: 155). Malcolmson argues that Marvell’s figure of ‘bloody Thestylis’ (l. 401), who like her namesake in Virgil’s Eclogues prepares food for the mowers in Upon Appleton House, recalls the religious controversialist Katherine Chidley, herself a Leveller from the late 1640s onwards (Malcolmson 1994: 262-3). Her published ripostes to the Presbyterian polemicist Thomas Edwards, author of the ‘seventeenth-century best seller’, Gangraena (1646) (Baker 2004: ¶11), had likened the struggle of separatists in Presbyterian England to the deliverance of ‘the children of Israel out of the Land of Egypt when Pharaoh vexed them’ (Chidley 1641: sig. *3v).[12] The comparison makes sense of Thestylis’ outcry in the poem: ‘He called us Israelites; / But now, to make his saying true, / Rails rain for quails, for manna, dew’ (ll. 406-8). The ‘he’ in these lines refers most obviously to the poet and his previous comparison between mowers and Israelites, and Jonathan Crewe sees this meta-poetic moment – in which a character in the poem is allowed to answer back to, and wrest control of, the poet’s imagery – as a metaphor for England’s own struggle to control radical sectarian voices ‘on the boundless meadows outside’ Fairfax’s ‘fortified garden’ (Crewe 1994: 284).

[22]  Malcolmson is among critics who also read the anti-sectarianism of Upon Appleton House into Marvell’s treatment of mowing in ‘The Mower against Gardens’ (Smith, ed. 2013: 131-4), a poem traditionally assumed to have been written around the same time as Upon Appleton House, during the period of Marvell’s employment at Nun Appleton between 1650-52, as tutor to Mary, daughter of Thomas, Lord Fairfax, the retired army commander. In this poem, Marvell’s mower not only speaks against the unnaturalness of ‘enforced’ (l. 31) horticultural practises like grafting and budding but against the principle of an ‘enclosed’ (l. 5) garden per se. Its ‘square’ (l. 5) of stagnant sterility the mower contrasts with the ‘wild and fragrant innocence’ (l. 34) of ‘the sweet fields’ (l. 32) beyond – home as well to mowers as to ‘the gods themselves’ (l. 40). The early 1650s saw growing interest in the production of gardening and husbandry manuals which equated gardening with land enclosure, and which as Katherine Bootle Attie notes, were printed as part of a national drive to increase crop yields after the ravages of civil war and recent poor harvests in the late 1640s (Attie 2011). But such ‘pro-enclosure’ manuals also reacted to protests in the late 1640s against the enclosure of agricultural and horticultural land by writers like the Digger Gerard Winstanley, Attie argues, whose New Law (1649) condemns the enclosure of gardens as a cause and consequence of our loss of innocence at the time of the Fall. Only by cultivating common land can we return to the Garden of Eden, Winstanley writes, and Malcolmson reads evidence of Winstanley’s radical stance into ‘The Mower against Gardens’, arguing with Bruce King that Marvell at once echoes and undermines Leveller and Digger protests against enclosure in this poem (Malcolmson 1994: 255-61; King 1970).

[23]  Paul Hammond seeks to re-date ‘The Mower against Gardens’ to c.1668, developing Allan Pritchard’s argument for reassigning a Restoration date to Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ on the basis that this poem contains images borrowed from poetry collections by Katherine Philips and Abraham Cowley first published in 1667 and 1668 (Hammond 2006; Pritchard 1983). Hammond finds evidence of similar borrowing, from Cowley in particular, in ‘The Mower against Gardens’, and his argument for re-dating the poem to the late 1660s has enjoyed widespread critical consensus. But as Hirst and Zwicker argue, there is no reason to assume a Restoration date for either ‘The Garden’ or ‘The Mower against Gardens’ on the basis of parallels with Philips’ and Cowley’s printed poems alone (Hirst and Zwicker 2012: 164-77). Marvell, they argue, may have encountered the work of both poets in manuscript in the early 1650s, since ‘the absence of evidence for early manuscript circulation is not the same as evidence of the absence of such circulation’ (2012: 168). Indeed, they write, the direction of borrowing may have run the other way, with Philips and Cowley making use in their poems of images circulating in manuscript copies of Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ and mower poems. Although no such manuscript copy has yet been discovered, recent evidence pointing to the possible circulation of Upon Appleton House in manuscript in the 1650s is particularly suggestive in this regard (Hirst and Zwicker 2012: 172, n. 27). Reassigning ‘The Mower against Gardens’ to the Restoration ignores the rich seam of horticultural imagery available to Marvell within gardening manuals printed in the early 1650s. It also removes a key rationale for this poem’s composition, alongside Upon Appleton House and in dialogue with gardening manuals, as an anti-sectarian response to Leveller and Digger protests against enclosure, and the enclosure of gardens.

[24]  The anti-Leveller context of both ‘Mower against Gardens’ and Upon Appleton House, and their shared use of the mower as a mouthpiece for anti-enclosure writing current in the later 1640s, combines to make 1650-52 a more likely date for the composition of ‘Mower against Gardens’ than the late 1660s. By then, the Levellers and Diggers had long ceased posing a serious threat to social order, and so the poem’s attack on Winstanley and others would have made little sense. But however inconsistent this poem’s particular attack on Levellers and Diggers would seem if reassigned to the later 1660s, Marvell’s mistrust of religious extremes is certainly also a feature of his post-Restoration writings. When Herbert Croft, bishop of Hereford, argued in The Naked Truth (1675) for a policy of compromise between Anglicans and the more moderate nonconformists, Marvell defended Croft against the attacks of Francis Turner, whose Animadversions (1676) had insisted that all dissenters be made to conform to the established rites. The result was Mr. Smirke, and its appended Short Historical Essay Concerning General Councils (1676), and yet in both Marvell balances his support for nonconformists with passages revealing his own preference for moderation in religion (Spurr 2011: 170-1). ‘Truth for the most part lyes in the middle’, Marvell writes in A Short Historical Essay, although ‘men ordinarily seek it in the extremities’ (Dzelzainis and Patterson 2003b: 137). But the established clergy, Marvell argues, ‘will never get the better of the Fanaticks’ by forcing them to church (2003b: 174). ‘Men are all infirm and indisposed in their spiritual condition’, he notes in Mr. Smirke: ‘Is it not reason’, therefore, ‘that men should address themselves to such Minister as they think best for their souls health?’ (2003b: 105). No creed can compel where conscience does not permit it, because each is ‘his own both Minister and People, Bishop and Diocess, his own Council’, he argues in Short Historical Essay, and ‘his own Conscience excusing or condemning him, accordingly he escapes or incurs his own internal Anathema’ (2003b: 145). Marvell follows Culverwel in disparaging the authority of creeds and councils, but, like Culverwel, he also counsels prudence in matters of faith, and emphasizes the role of reason as a steer to the fanaticism of inner revelation. In Mr. Smirke Marvell mocks Francis Turner’s suggestion that the clergy should force ‘beggarly Fanaticks’ to open their eyes to the ‘truth’ of religion, but clearly Marvell felt that some dissenters were more clear-sighted in their beliefs than others (2003b: 102-3). Where Marvell departs from Turner, however, is in his conviction that clear-sightedness comes through persuasion, not persecution, through liberty of conscience, not compulsion.

[25]  Marvell shares Culverwel’s emphasis on the dimness of our perception of God in this world, and it is this acknowledgement of our spiritual infirmity that causes both writers to condemn the arrogance of sects that presume to know the ‘truth’ of religion, and of churches – the Roman Catholic and Restoration Anglican churches in particular – that seek through creed, council, or act of parliament to impose their beliefs and practices upon others. But Marvell does not confine his sense of our ‘infirm … spiritual condition’ to his post-Restoration prose writing alone. Throughout his career, he returns to the motif of epitaphs as untrustworthy mirrors, and these are images rooted in the same Pauline language of seeing through a glass darkly that informs writing by Culverwel and his contemporaries in the early 1650s, in which mirrors become metaphors expressing limitations in our spiritual understanding. The edition of Culverwel’s Spiritual opticks that was published posthumously by William Dillingham in 1651 ends with an epigram explaining how, in death, Culverwel has ‘gone to see’ God face to face (Culverwel 1651: sig. E2v). The pious life can be a fit reflection of the face of God in this world, Culverwel writes, for ‘look but into your selves, and you will find immortall souls shewing forth that image according to which they were made’ (sig. C4r). But only in death, he continues, can we see beyond ‘Visio reflexa’ – ‘the severall glasses’ of this world (sig. C4v) – to ‘the visio recta, a sight of God face to face, to know as we are known’ (sig. E2v). In reflecting the life of the deceased to the living, Marvell’s epitaphs also underline the limits of our perception, in this life, of the life to come. His ‘brief reflections’ are self-consciously inadequate mirrors, unable to find a fit language with which to express moral worth, and always struggling to see beyond the marble surface of the funerary monument to the ‘dreadful darkness’ within.

[26]  Marvell was Culverwel’s exact contemporary at Cambridge, both matriculating in 1633, and, like Culverwel, he must have come into contact with the ideas of Benjamin Whichcote and other Cambridge Platonists as a student in the 1630s. Nigel Smith writes that Whichcote, a fellow of Emmanuel from 1633, was associated with Trinity, Marvell’s college, and that John Sherman, also of Whichcote’s circle, was a fellow of Trinity, ‘whose lectures Marvell may be supposed to have heard’ (Smith 2010: 32). Donald M. Friedman has similarly speculated about the influence during Marvell’s time at Trinity of Whichcote and other Cambridge Platonists (Friedman 2003: 277). It is in the motif of the epitaph as an untrustworthy mirror, however – a motif that Marvell’s ‘Mower’s Song’ shares with his four verse epitaphs from the period 1658-1672 – that I would suggest we look to see evidence of the Cambridge Platonists reflected in Marvell’s poetry. The grass that Marvell’s mowers cut down in Upon Appleton House becomes, in ‘The Mower’s Song’, a ‘glass’ reflecting the life of the mower after death. In so doing, it reminds the leveling mowers, and Marvell’s readers, that the world ‘is full of looking glasses’ – ‘brief reflections’ that frustrate our search for religious certainty, and which question the fanaticism of those who claim to see God face to face.

University of Hull


[1] This article has been written with grateful support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, grant reference AH/L008866/1.[back to text]

[2] For the significance of alabaster funeral monuments as a statement of social rank, see Llewellyn 2000: 237-8. Llewellyn argues for a hierarchy of stone materials in early modern England, noting that ‘commentators habitually described materials as if they were types of people’ (237). [back to text]

[3] I here adhere to McFarlane’s (1986: xxxiii) broad definition of epitaphs, as defined, not by considerations of form or content, but as poems ‘that can be (or can be presumed to be) inscribed on a tombstone. This means simply (i) that it concerns a death, and (ii) that it can vary considerably in length’. Scodel (1991: 1) writes that before the sixteenth century the brevity of epitaphs was in part necessitated by the expense of engraving on stone. The technological developments that drove down these costs in the early modern period was therefore responsible for encouraging the greater variety in length that McFarlane notes as a characteristic of the Renaissance epitaph.[back to text]

[4] For discussion of the Eton and Laverstoke monuments, see Smith, ed. 2013: 192, 195. For the tablet at St Martin-in-the-Fields, see Brogan 1979.[back to text]

[5] I am grateful to Professor Martin Dzelzainis for highlighting the significance of this little known epitaph, in his lecture ‘Marvell’s Legacies’, at the University of Hull, 10 March 2016. [back to text]

[6] For discussion of the Reverend Andrew Marvell’s religious interests, as witnessed in his surviving sermon book at the Hull History Centre (C DIAM/1), see Smith 2010: 20-25. For the toleration debate in mid-seventeenth-century England more generally, see Coffey 2000: 47-77.[back to text]

[7] For Culverwel’s ideas in context, see Goldie 2004.[back to text]

[8] Patterson was unaware of Frances Jones’ identity when writing Marvell and the Civic Crown in 1978.[back to text]

[9] Patrick’s own ‘latitude’ did not extend to toleration of nonconformity, however; his Friendly Debate between a Conformist and a Non-Conformist (1669) was a decidedly unfriendly invective which anticipated Parker’s own argument for the necessity of persecuting nonconformists in the interests of protestant unity against the popish threat. See Parkin 2004.[back to text]

[10] For the relationship between the Cambridge Platonists and Latitudinarians, see Spellman 1993: 25-9, and van den Berg 1988.[back to text]

[11] See also similar comments rejecting Quaker readings of 1 Corinthians 13.12, in Weld 1653: 15, and Sheffield 1654: 87.[back to text]

[12] For discussion of Gangraena, see Loewenstein 2008 and Hughes 2004.[back to text]


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Microscopy, Surfaces and the Unknowable in Seventeenth-Century Natural Philosophy (from Lucretius to Margaret Cavendish)

Microscopy, Surfaces and the Unknowable in Seventeenth-Century Natural Philosophy (from Lucretius to Margaret Cavendish)

Kevin Killeen

[1]  Catherine Wilson’s The Invisible World depicts the problematic history of surfaces in the seventeenth century, how ostensibly smooth, composite, uninterrupted matter turned out, under the gaze of amplificatory technology, to be a treacherous, gnarly landscape, pocked and intricate, not only permeable, but in a state of continual streaming with effluvia and an oozy unsolidity. The microscope offered a long series of encounters, both textual and visual, with the minimal, as counter-intuitive as quantum physics proved to the twentieth century. ‘Science’ Wilson points out, or at least science in the process of discovering new things, ‘is improbable’ (Wilson 1995: 7). Here were surfaces so utterly unlike anything the unaided senses could discern, that they could not but bewilder, with their demand both that the augmented senses be trusted as the conduit of knowledge of nature and that we concede they were deceived in the first place. Microscopy was deployed to support a resurgent corpuscularity, albeit there was scepticism about what exactly was being seen. As Christoph Meinel noted, the imaginative work of producing atoms from what could be seen through the lens was considerable (Meinel 1988: 81-4; also Wilson 2002: 168-9). The coordinates by which one could map the surface to the inner structure of things became ever more complex, not least in the response of Margaret Cavendish to early microscopic publications (Cavendish 1666), which was to elaborate on the relationship between exterior and interior knowledge, not in regard to what the observer knew, but how surfaces themselves – vital and after a fashion perceptive – knew and responded to their surroundings.

[2]  Early modern surfaces, scientifically and atomically speaking, were discovered to be a hilly, steamy rind of reality, characterized less by a common-sense solidity of objects than by their poor borders, leaky in all directions. Robert Boyle was far from alone among early modern scientists in being troubled by sweat, ‘the great plenty of matter that is daily carried off by Sweat, and insensible Transpiration’, as he put it in his Experiments and considerations about the porosity of bodies (Boyle 1684: 9). Effluvia and extramissive qualities by which objects gave off their atomic exfoliations meant that few or no surfaces could be deemed solid, deep down (so to speak). Solidity was a matter of scale and a failure of attention to the minute. Porosity and permeability, the openness of bodies to the external, came to seem a fact about matter which was startlingly new. Innovative and strange as they might be, and dependent upon a microscopy whose epistemological corruption was still up for debate, the sciences of augmented reality were for Boyle a quintessentially Baconian mode of unknotting nature’s intricate structures:

I scarce doubt, but if such little things had not escaped the sight of our Illustrious Verulam, he would have afforded a good Porology (if I may so call it) a place, (and perhaps not the lowest neither,) among his Desiderata (Boyle 1684: 2).

Boyle’s Bacon would have produced a science of neglected surface, a ‘Porology’ to map the topographical terrain of the only apparently smooth. Bacon’s expansive wish-list of things missing from the purview of human knowledge, his Desiderata, was a repeated reference point in the early modern rejuvenation of science, placing special heuristic value on the anomalous in nature (the ‘prerogative instances’ in Novum Organum) and for Boyle, the microscope revealed a majestic strangeness and profusion of new discoveries in need of explanation (Keller 2015: 167-98; Hunter 2015: 26-32). Microscopy would discern the secret conduits and ‘perforations that pass quite through the leather’ of the skin, the disturbing correlates of which include Boyle’s presumably offhand comment: ‘when a mans skin is tanned it is of a greater thickness then one would expect’ (Boyle 1684: 11). The permeability of things, their lack of borders, was not only a matter of anatomical curiosity, however. It produced, in early modern writers a sense of a new, near-sublime texture to things.

[3]  Whether fluid or firm, the stuff of nature might intuitively be deemed continuous. Surfaces kept the in in and the out out. There could of course be objects whose characteristics included the perforated and porous, but matter could nevertheless be thought of for practical (and even scientific) purposes as uninterrupted. An Aristotelian legacy firmly opposed to atomic speculation, and presuming the continuous nature of matter, albeit under qualified circumstances, was part of the furniture of philosophical learning (Meinel 1988: 70-1). Beneath the threshold of the senses, as Boyle phrases an interim ‘objection’ to his speculations, ‘the body must appear an uninterrupted or continu’d one’. However, Boyle was not prepared to concede much ground to this merely common-sense idea, when he addressed the subject in his History of Fluidity and Firmness, published in Certain physiological essays (Boyle 1669: 189-90). His corpuscularity, chemical as much as mechanical, had little time for an illusory continuity (Clericuzio 2001: 103-48; Principe 2000: 63-90; Wojcik 1997: 151-188, Anstey 2011). Boyle’s sense of omnidirectional porosity depicts the surfaces of things as never more than contingent and temporary:

A Body then seems to be Fluid, chiefly upon this account, That it consists of Corpuscles that touching one another in some parts only of their Surfaces (and so being incontiguous in the rest) and separately Agitated to and fro, can by reason of the numerous pores or spaces necessarily left betwixt their incontiguous parts, easily glide along each others superficies (Boyle 1669: 164).

Fluids are in this sense, illustrative of the motile reality in which, atomically speaking, constant motion is the very nature of things. Spherical corpuscles ‘conduce to their easie rouling upon one another’, a continual turning upside-down and a churning of apparent surface. Discussing how Salt-Petre in gunfire ‘emulates a fluid body’, he wonders whether this fusion involves ‘the Ingress and transcursions of the atoms of fire themselves’ into the nitre, and concludes that the ‘pervasion of a foreign body’ is the most plausible explanation, not in the relatively gross manner of liquid diffusing into liquid, but a ‘more thin and subtil’ invasion and interpenetration (Boyle 1669: 184-9). Natural philosophy sought, in such a formulation, an account of the forces that governed the ‘unloosable mobility of Atoms’ and the inter-atomic ‘cement to unite them’, why things remained together (Boyle 1669: 165, 189, 210). To assert the boundedness of things, the simple integrity of objects, was not enough.

[4]  The emergence of scientific modernity is often still viewed as a sad but necessary putting aside of the poetic, a coming into rationality that is almost a narrative of the Fall. Whether via the disenchantment of the world, as Max Weber and others have posited, or via the Foucaudian epistemic shift away from analogical ‘world view’, a loss of the metaphoric capacity of reality was part and parcel of this epochal shift (Weber 1917: 9, Foucault 1970). Joseph Amato, in his 2013 Surfaces: A History describes just such a denuding of the poetics of the world that pits De Vinci against Descartes. The medieval was engrossed in its ‘immanence and transcendence of every surface’, embodied in the cathedral’s lithic, luminous being, whose hulking blocks of stone could nevertheless orchestrate light and colour, an experience of immense if not impossible geometry inside the stony lung of the outsized church. He tells the tale of this soaring, spatial encounter with the ineffable, which in the seventeenth century came up against an ‘antithetical way of reading surfaces’, the Cartesian calculus, which could map the curve in astringent mathematics and a precision rationality which ‘washed the surfaces of the visible world clean of their sensuality and textures’, along with the cosmological flight and ontological acrobatics of the medieval (Amato 2013: 119, 127). If ever there was a Fall, this was it, science and philosophy hand in hand with wandering steps and slow: ‘gone too were the whorls and shells of analogies, metaphors and symbols that had enwrapped entire peoples’ (Amato 2013: 135).

[5]  Microscopy has similarly been crafted into a narrative of pigeon-stepped empirical progress, hubristic and cack-handed occasionally, but in essence marching to the drum of rationalism and technological progress, ousting the idea of occult qualities and inching, by degrees, towards a more coherent understanding of forces (Hutchison 1982; Henry 1986). There is no doubt some accuracy in this, and yet it remains the case that the intellectual terra incognita of the surface, newly available to the minuscule gaze of the seventeenth century, provided an epistemological jolt, a new and counterintuitive texture of reality that mesmerized natural philosophers. Surfaces, those least metaphorical, most literal of things – the opposite of deep – became objects of untrustable paradox. This was experienced in writer after writer as an almost mystical buckling of reality; the definitively dull and paradigmatically ordinary-superficial had become mysterious. Scholarship on the Fall as a pervasive supposition in early modern thought has accustomed us to the era’s encounters with things beyond the ken of mere humans, cosmologies too immense, or creation too intricate to fathom (Harrison 2009). But microscopy presented something new, and this essay traces the amazement of early modern natural philosophy in the face of the newly unknowable, when the apparently smooth and continuous surface of the real proved calloused, inscrutable and inconstant. The argument of this essay is neither one of the triumph of rationalism over poetics, nor the reverse; but rather it traces their enfoldedness. It deals firstly with early microscopy, arguing that its florid rhetoric was less an ornamental addition to empirical description than a tactical poetics; a rhetorical mode that inoculated their descriptions of micro-reality from the harsh strictures of plain description that Restoration science prided itself on. The body of the essay, after that, deals with scientific uses of Lucretius in early modernity, how writers found in him a model and a language for addressing the apparent irreality of scale and texture they encountered in microscopy. The essay concludes with one of the most vehement, strange and brilliant responses to microscopy, the still under-read natural philosophy of Margaret Cavendish, whose attention to surface, to the discontinuities of inner and outer, exemplifies the scope of the philosophical puzzle that the seventeenth century found itself faced with.

[6]  Early modern natural philosophers describe, with some excitement and some vertigo, the disorientating experience of the small, and the shifting scales of reference by which the straight line came to seem pocked, the smooth surface became jagged and the barely perceptible fleck of an insect proved intricate beyond any imagination. The complex response to such discovery involved, in the first instance, and in the first publications, a recourse to the poetic. Merely to communicate the strange sights, the dazzling order and bewildering disorder, the earliest accounts of microscopic vision sound at times like travel marvels, and elsewhere as though they need to coin a labyrinthine vocabulary to convey the remarkable world of the tiny: a nettle appeared to Henry Power like a ‘Sword-Cutler’s Shop, full of glittering drawn Swords, Tucks, and Daggers’. Describing a ‘line drawn upon paper’, he notes how it ‘appears all ragged, indented, and discontinued by the rugosities and seeming protuberances of the paper’ (Power 1664: 51, 53). Writing about ‘the Edge of a Razor’, Robert Hooke notes that this most exact of objects, with its ‘affinity to the sharpest Point in Physics, as a line hath to a point in Mathematicks’ seems so only ‘till more closely viewed by the Microscope, and there we may observe its very Edge to be of all kind of shape, except what it should be’, a jagged ‘roughness of those surfaces’, such that one: ‘may find reason to think there is scarce a surface in rerum naturâ perfectly smooth’ (Hooke 1665: 4-5). Microscopy’s discovery in the period was the outlandish irregularity of things, the illusion of plain surface, and its findings took Restoration London by storm (Hunter 2013; Hunter, 2010; Jardine, 1999).

Figure one: Robert Hooke, Micrographia, ‘Of blue mould, and of the first principles of vegetation arising from putrefaction, Of a plant growing in the blighted or yellow specks of Damask-rose leaves’.

[7] Power, a writer who secluded in Halifax remained peripheral to the tumult of Royal Society and Hartlibian science, was one of the earliest enthusiasts for microscopic exactitude (Hughes 2010). Where Hooke, publishing a year later, commissioned and made his intricate, beautiful, monstrous and outsized pictures of fleas, gnats, or the eye of a grey-drone fly, all swollen to the size of a football, Power’s Experimental philosophy depends upon intricately wrought prose for its effect, depicting the world from its immensity to its most minute in a state of constant motion, such that there is no ‘absolute quiescence’, neither in the pulsating heavens nor in the infinitesimally small. He argued, citing Bacon, that natural philosophy had for too long been held hostage to mere sight, in all its limitations, while its task ought more properly be to discern the intricate surface of matter, by augmenting lenses as well as deductive inference: ‘whatsoever is invisible, either in respect of the fineness of the Body it self, or the smalness of the parts, or of the subtlety of its motion, is little enquired’ (Power 1664: sig. c2r). Power’s Faustian ambition was to discern the previously indescribable streaming of bodies, both celestial and effluvial:

and as for the Opace [opaque] and Planetary Bodies of the Universe, they are all porous, and the aetherial Matter is continually streaming through them, their internal fire and heat constantly subliming Atoms out of them, the Magnetical Atoms continually playing about them … the supreme Being (who is Activity it self) never made any thing inactive or utterly devoid of Motion… (Power 1664: sig. B4v-C1r)

Not only did matter subsist in motion and mutability, a ceaseless subliming of itself, but God himself consisted in theological seething and insurgence, the raw principle of activity.

[8]  Magnification, Power argued, did not distort as much as ordinary sight, which was doomed to the intractably flat, a surface no closer to reality than a painted, perspectival stage-set. The quotidian gaze was an epistemological trick and any honest natural philosophy demanded that it be rectified by a technology to circumvent our planate human habits of perception: ‘without some such Mechanical assistance, our best Philosophers will but prove empty Conjecturalists, and their profoundest Speculations herein, but gloss’d outside Fallacies; like our Stage-scenes, or Perspectives, that shew things inwards, when they are but superficial paintings’ (Power 1664: sig. c3v). Power noted the decay of sensory powers as a facet of the long, slow Fall of the senses, asking whether the ‘Aged world stands now in need of Spectacles’ and whether our ‘Primitive father Adam might be more quick & perspicacious in Apprehension,’ a passage we might suppose to be itself quite porous and absorbent of Joseph Glanvill’s wonderful claim that ‘Adam needed no Spectacles. The acuteness of his natural Opticks (if conjecture may have credit) shew’d him much of the Coelestial magnificence and bravery without a Galilaeo’s tube’ (Power 1664: sig. a4r; Glanvill 1661: 5).

[9]  Power’s optimism in this ‘mechanical assistance’ was thorough-going and uncompromising in its call for whatever might bring us closer to the reality of the miniature, to atoms in their oscillation and the secret motions of microscopic being. Indeed, he suggested that the sight of and insight into effluvia itself was not far off:

we might hope, ere long, to see the Magnetical Effluviums of the Loadstone, the Solary Atoms of light (or globuli aetherei of the renowned Des-Cartes) the springy particles of Air, the constant and tumultuary motion of the Atoms of all fluid Bodies, and those infinite, insensible Corpuscles (Power 1664: sig. c2v-c3r).

Later in the body of the text he seems to backtrack on any imminent prospect of understanding how effluxions function, suggesting, in a phrase from Thomas Browne that it is ‘A part of Philosophy but yet in discovery; and will, I fear, prove the last Leaf to be turned over in the Book of Nature’ (Power 1664: 58; Browne 2014: 168). This uncertainty of scale – how much further humans would need to go to sound the bottom of physical reality, and what additional unsettling paradoxes one might meet in probing down – was not just a question of technological boundaries. It presented also a serious epistemological problem. If atoms remained beyond the visible, what kind of demonstration was philosophically sufficient to make assertions about their nature? Seventeenth-century theorization of atoms, from Gassendi through Sennent, to Power and Charleton was deeply invested in analogical models from the visible world, motes in the sun or clouds on mountain-tops whose solidity proved illusory (Boyle 1669: 191; Browne 2014: 194). In the absence of any empirical demonstration of atoms (see Wilson, 2008; Meinel 1988), natural philosophers had to make do with extrapolation and metaphor and early modern science was adept, indeed formidable in this respect. ‘I have more than once taken pleasure to look upon an heap of swarming Bees’ wrote Boyle, ‘for though they make not up a liquid but coherent body, which may be turn’d upside down without losing its coherence … yet these motions of the particular Bees destroy not the coherency of the heap’ (Boyle 1669: 203).

[10]   Microscopy ‘takes away the privilege of a surface’ writes Catherine Wilson. The closer one looked, the more it became evident, that the merely similar, and microcosmic correspondences based on them, was a flawed way of looking. Surfaces were open to their own interiors in the sheer knotty complexity of fibres and pores and ‘in the interior of things there is no resemblance’, Wilson continues (Wilson 1995: 62). The surface that looped in on itself, that dipped into its own involuted interior revealed just enough of itself, to demonstrate its unfathomable nature, ‘Implexions and Entanglements … Omnifarious Particles, jumbling together with infinite variety of Motions’, as Ralph Cudworth wrote, not kindly, of neo-Lucretian atomic speculation (Cudworth 1678: 98). ‘The division between inner and outer is just a tactic’ writes Steven Connor, in his excellent history of skin. Its exchanges are chronic and intrinsic and as unmappable as smoke: ‘A column of smoke possesses no simple inside or outside, but the supposition of interiority and exteriority, repeatedly insurgent and abandoned’ (Connor 2004: 39). To speak of a ‘tactic’ of reality might seem, initially at least, at odds with the Restoration desire for plain language in its science. But much early modern natural philosophy would be wholly at home with Connor’s formulation of a turbulent inner and outer. Early modern writers were positively effusive and irredeemably poetic about the epistemological involutions, the baffling irreality that microscopy suggested. The surface of things was pocked; there were scaly rinds where we presumed things smooth; there were shadow valleys dipping ever-inward on the exterior of things, labyrinths folding in on themselves. To explain such epistemological chaos, writers turned frequently to the poetic, which provided some surprising ready-made resources.

[11]  Natural philosophy in the second half of the seventeenth century saw a surge of interest in Lucretius, the Roman epic ‘paraphrast’ of Epicurus (Charleton 1654: 100, also Boyle 1669: 165). He is quoted in early modern philosophical writing out of all proportion to his ‘scientific’ worth. His atoms were slightly preposterous by most seventeenth century corpuscularian standards (Lüthy 2001; Pyle 1995; Kargon, 1966). His fantasies of omni-explanatory philosophical breadth – that what explains the first grass, also explains the weather and sex and feeling plaguey – were wholly beyond the philosophical pale. They were the opposite of Baconian sobriety, or Cartesian precision, or even the theo-physics of those who would attempt a biblical mechanics of creation. He denied and indeed mocked divine providence, the immortality of the soul, and was frequently seen as straightforwardly atheist, albeit occasionally Christianized (Charleton 1664; Fotherby 1622: 122-3). He was derided for the tale, apparently originating in Jerome, that he had fallen victim to a love philter, given to him by his wife, which drove him to suicide (Heywood 1626: 217; Montaigne 1613: 191; Anon 1665: 451). Any one of these things might have precluded his being taken seriously, and yet early modernity could not stop thinking about Lucretius (Palmer 2014; Gillespie 2007, Brown, 2010). Some worried that he was too good, with the seductive elegance of his poetry, ‘by the extraordinary Goodness of the Verse, the Badness of this Epicurean’s Notions is (I fear) unhappily instilled into the Minds of young Gentlemen’ (Edwards 1696: 119; also Wright 1694: 4-5).

Figure two: Lucretius, De rerum natura, Vat. lat. 1569 fol. 1 recto medbio04 NAN.13

[12]  Lucretius mattered to the era’s natural philosophy, I would suggest, not because he provided any particularly convincing demonstrations of atomism that would meet the exacting if speculative standards of early modern scientists, but for reasons more tangential: first, because of his poetics of scale, and second, because he spoke so impressively about texture. The disorientation of microscopic scale by which continuity of surface proved only illusory has its direct correlate in De Rerum Natura, which produces similar perspectival shifts that defy or mock the senses. Explaining how ‘although all atoms are in motion, their totality appears to stand totally motionless’, Lucretius describes their elusive motion below the range of the senses by reference to two scenes, one of pastoral stillness and serenity and the other, a ferocious melee, both of which, from a lofty enough stance, seem to be nothing of the sort: ‘Often, on a hillside fleecy sheep, as they crop their lush pasture, creep slowly onward, lured this way or that by grass that sparkles with fresh dew, while the full-fed lambs gaily frisk and butt’, but from a distance, this is only as motionless a hill as any other (Lucretius, 2.309-10); or in a battle: ‘Mighty legions, waging mimic war, are thronging the plain with their manoeuvres’. But from a height, the wheeling of horses and flashing of armour means nothing, ‘a blaze of light stationary upon the plain’ (Lucretius, 2.317-20).[1] An apparent stillness of surface tells us only so much about its real vibrant life. Just as the tumult of atomic activity passes below the range of any human scrutiny, so too scale renders emotion insignificant – the slow lovely pastoral, or the intense tumult of battle – are, from some lofty perspective, negligible, indistinguishable. From the distance of the gods, who will not be gazing down, from the perspective of the indifferent universe, nothing significant has changed; the surface is placid, the world unruffled. De Rerum Natura makes divine indifference key to haughtily neutral matter; atoms have no design on or care for human welfare.

[13]  But the reader’s disorientation, in quick-fire flight between scenes, does matter. Lucretius produces endlessly reframed analogies for how atoms move or are combined and the reader has to adjust the scale of reference with some agility; they are, by turns, like motes in the sun in their chaotic streams; like the flotsam of a wrecked flotilla of ships, ‘thwarts and ribs, yard-arms and prow’; like racehorses let loose with coiled energy; like the delirious un-replicable mass of individual faces (Lucretius, Book 2. 115, 553, 264, 346). Any one of these is just model and metaphor, but in their consistent rapid reconfiguring of images, they produce their perplexing, but far from innocent, effects. It is not just that atoms are ‘like’ these things, but that they in fact become them; the tiny anarchic atom produces the anarchy of the sea. John Evelyn, who translated the first book of De Rerum Natura wrote in his animadversions on the manner in which the apparently invisible, unobservable atoms, could manifest themselves though their cumulative effects:

…which though they consist indeed of Atomes altogether inconspicuous to our weak organs, yet do their monstrous effects (which he there compares to that of precipitating Rivers and Cataracts, which have violated their banks, and spoil’d the adjacent places) prove them to be bodies (Evelyn 1656: 127).

The Lucretian poetic embodies the stochastic, the scattered event, the infraction of the normal course of things, the clinamen whose almost undetectable deviation from its flow produces its cataclysm of variety (Passannate 2011: 76-82; Shearin, 2015). And this ability to replicate life at large on the scale of the infinitesimal proved an attractive quality both in the poetic and the proto-scientific deployment of Lucretius.

[14]  Thomas Creech, in the notes following his translation of Lucretius, attacks his author on many fronts, including his atheism and ‘endeavour to disgrace Religion’, but is also concerned throughout with his scientific (im)plausibility, in the course of which Creech makes reference to the ‘many experiments of the Honorable Boyl’, and other early modern natural philosophers, on for instance the nature of air, fluidity and continuum, and on the Epicurean ascription of weight to atoms, with the corresponding implications for their motion, ‘resilition’ (rebound) and declination (Creech in Lucretius, 1682: sep. pag. 39, 22, 17-18). Boyle, in the preface or ‘Advertisement’ to the History of Fluidity and Firmness, explained that he was only eclectically Epicurean: ‘The Authors Explicating things chiefly according to the Atomical Principles will not be thought strange, nor be lookt upon as a sure Argument of his being wedded to the particular opinions wherein the Atomists differ from other modern Naturalists’. Indeed he notes the merely strategic explanatory value of Lucretius, and that he is quite content to dispute or augment, when necessary:

especially since he [Boyle] has on some occasions plainly enough intimated the contrary, by proposing, together with the Atomical ways of resolving a thing, another Explication more agreeable to the Cartesian, or some other modern Hypothesis (Boyle 1669: 161-2).

This claim to strategic use of De Rerum Natura should, I think, be taken at face value, rather than supposing a nervousness about appearing too Lucretian – Lucretius answered a very particular set of seventeenth century needs in natural philosophy, one of which was the Latin poet’s conception of scale. Another not unrelated use of Lucretius was his phenomenal imagining of texture and touch, the knottedness and entanglement of matter up close, the atomic variety of texture explaining the diversity of things. This had its correlate in the early modern experience with the intricate (if synaesthetic) tactility of the microscope, revealing the knobbed, rugged and fibrous surface of things.

[15]  Boyle deploys Lucretius in both parts of his History of Fluidity and Firmness, first to illustrate the ‘gliding of the Corpuscles’ and the ‘easy rouling’ of their spherical form, and then to demonstrate their knitty and gnarly complexity. Atoms are, he asserts, constructed in intricate protrusions, ‘some like buttons, others like loops, some like male, others like female screws’ (Boyle 1669: 165, 235). They snag with hooks or ‘slender twigs’. Quoting from the Lucretian account of touch – ‘tactus enim, tactus, pro divum numina sancta’; ‘This touch, this touch! O sacred deities’, as rendered by Lucy Hutchinson, (Lucretius: 2. 434) –Boyle extols how their design, albeit for Lucretius chance design, produces superlative strength from minimal components. He gives among his examples ‘of the power of the bare Texture of many small Bodies’ how slender threads produce ‘Ropes and Cables; where only by twisting together and wreathing the slender and flexible threds the Cable is made up of, they are so well as it were wedg’d in between and fasten’d to one another’. They can hold fast a ship violently driven by storms, in their intricate corpuscular strength, of which he notes: ‘This figuration of the Corpuscles that make up consistent Bodies, seems to have been the chief if not only cause of their consistence in the Judgment of the antient Atomists, this being the account that is given of it by Lucretius’ (Boyle 1669: 235, quoting Lucretius, 2.444-9).

[16]   Atoms, continually re-forming in their ars combinatoria out of which everything constructed itself, produce what Michel Serres in The Birth of Physics, calls the ‘voluptuous knowledge’ of De Rerum Natura, its coordinating of multi-faceted godless life, scientific, mythic, emotional and all-encompassing, the ‘physics of Aphrodite’, voluptuous of theme, and sensual in its epistemology, a world abrasive, alive, emerging ‘like Aphrodite from a flux of elements … complex, twined, twisting its long thick hair’ (Serres 2000: 107, 104-5). Touch not vision, is the coordinating sense and even vision, in the work’s extramissive sight theory, in which frail simulacra produce a universe of phantoms in continual exfoliation from every surface, is tactile. Walter Charleton citing Lucretius, concludes that ‘all Sensation is a kind of Touching’, (Charleton 1654: 248). The crush that natural philosophers had on Lucretius in the second half of the seventeenth century derived, at least in part, from the seductive, dangerous nature of this tactility, that ‘most exquisite and delicate sense of Touching’ as Charleton comments, before shifting from natural philosophy to temptation ‘the titillation whereof transports a man beyond the severity of his reason, and charmes him to the act of Carnality’ (Charleton 1654: 249; Booth, 2006).

[17]  De Rerum Natura provided a poetics of texture for describing the physical world, which anticipated the counter-intuitive ruggedness of things at a material level. This preceded, but was augmented by the discovery of microscopic roughness, and the new-found technical ability to penetrate surface-illusion of uninterrupted, erugatory form. Atoms were unresting. Walter Charleton, narrating the history of Epicurean-Lucretian atoms, recounts their perpetual warring motion, his sheer adjectival bombardment in imitative atomic action:

on all sides crowding, impelling, and justling each other … a long, long afflux, reflux, conflux, elevation, depression, coagmentation and other various and successive agitations and molitions of these Atoms (Charleton 1652: 41-2).

The boundedness of objects made of vigorous atoms was, for early modern scientists, a thing of wonder, that elements so motile could nevertheless through sheer texture prove so solid. Atoms existed in a ceaseless and delirious movement, the ‘circumvolution, gyration, or vertiginous eddy of them … [an] immense vortex, wedged in each other into the form of an integument or cortex’, and yet, at the level of everyday things, they constituted all that was solid, their thick texture producing an illusion of surface that was whole and calm (Charleton 1652: 46).

[18]  Lucretius provided a model of perception as perpetual wrong-footedness, and disorientation of scale, in a work that is by turns intricate, then vast, an immensity of the tiny that replicated the conceptual vertigo of the microscopic. Those who speculated on the new experience of the miniature in the seventeenth century were all too well aware of perceptual distortion, and of the speculative nature of any atomism. The gambit of truth by which atoms might just approximate to reality was very much Lucretian, a poetics of natural philosophy that was uniquely able to enfold plain and complex ‘involution’ of truth: ‘Parabolical and Poetical Fictions conduce am ad lumen & illustrationem, quàm ad involucrum & velum, as well to the illustration of darker, as the involution of more evident peices [sic] of Truth’ (Charleton 1652: 198-9). Elegance of poetry did not of course imply a thing to be true, but the widespread incorporation of Lucretius into natural philosophy spoke to a pressing need for a mode of seeing the unseeable (e.g. Casaubon 1646: 9-10; More 1668: 182, 185; Culverwel 1652: 196). If the infinitesimal was to remain beyond human perception, truth might have to be glimpsed rather than laid out in full splendor.

[19]   Microscopy provoked a number of antagonistic responses, some philosophical, some medical and some just itchy. A 1668 text on the profoundly uncomfortable experience of small life spoke of ‘several species of wormes macerating and direfully cruciating every part of the bodies of mankind’ (Ramesey 1668). Gideon Harvey wrote against the College of Physicians in an aspersive account of ‘their intrigues, frauds, plots against their patients’, ridiculing their microscopic practices and the self-publicising chicanery, in which they collected ‘whatever false appearances are glanced into their eyes, these to obtrude to the World in Print, to no other end, than to beget a belief in people, that they who have so profoundly dived into the bottomless pores of the parts, must undeniably be skilled in curing their distempers’ (Harvey 1686: 25). If Boyle could extol the idea of a Porology, for Harvey plumbing the bottomless pores was mere chicanery, and mountebank rhetoric.

[20]   But there were also more substantial philosophical arguments against microscopy, among which those of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, are most intriguing. Having repudiated her early interest in atomism, by the mid-1660s, she was challenging both the theories of perception that were the premise of microscopy and the framework of matter theory, into which any understanding of surface and under-surface should be figured. Her extensive philosophical writings of this period return frequently to the discontinuity between ‘interior and exterior’, and the nature of self-knowledgeable matter, surface that was aware of its own superficiality. Cavendish’s Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666) has some scathing comments on the epistemological value of microscopy and the over-enthusiasm of Hooke and Power for the nascent technology in their recently published works, arguing that the science ‘is not able to discover the interior natural motions of any part or creature of nature; nay the question is, whether it can represent yet the exterior shapes and motions, so exactly, as naturally they are’ (Cavendish 1666: 7). In the early part of the work, Cavendish’s concerns centre on perception, how the artifice (art) of microscopy deforms and mis-shapes the very objects it purports to ‘see’, failing to acknowledge or understand where sight gave way to conjecture, ‘interposing and intermixing parts, forms and positions, as the truth of an object will hardly be known’. Such technology skewed what one saw, producing ‘hermaphroditical’ knowledge, ‘mixt figures, partly artificial, partly natural’ and Cavendish was perplexed that it had ‘intoxicated so many men’s brains’ into attending only to the nature of surface and exterior, such that they valorized ‘superficial wonders, as I may call them’. Indeed in calling for a more utile science, she urged, with fine-tuned condescension, that natural philosophers should properly adopt the mantle of Bacon, and not act ‘as boys that play with watery bubbles or fling dust into each other’s eyes, or make a hobby horse of snow’ (Cavendish 1666: 10-11; see Clucas 2003, 1994; Broad 2002; Sarasohn 2010: 149-172).

Figure three: Margaret Cavendish, Frontispiece from Grounds of natural philosophy (1668)

[21]  However, Cavendish’s opposition to microscopy was more thoroughgoing (and more interesting) than merely exposing its ineptitude in what it claimed and aimed to do. When she writes of exterior knowledge and interior knowledge, she does not mean what we can know from the outside and what we might like to know about the inside. Rather, she means what the exterior of an object knows and the different knowledge of the interior. Cavendish’s world is vitalist; its matter is alive, aware and perceptive, even while that world is quite some distance, tonally and philosophically, from any kind of mysticism we might associate with vitalist thought. It is not infused with the divine, and if formally it constitutes panpsychism, it nevertheless has little sense of an anima mundi or a world electric with god. This makes for a curious reading experience that is the converse of the microscopists. Where Power, Hooke and Charleton produce baroque and elegiac prose, awe-struck empiricism at the intricacy of the universe, whose wonder borders on psalm-like prayer, Cavendish might be said to be at the nit-picking and pedantic end of the spectrum of philosophical rhetoric. At times, she repeats her ideas into the ground, and yet in themselves, they are exquisitely strange and original. ‘I am of opinion’ she says, ‘that nature is a self-moving, and consequently a self-living and self-knowing infinite body’, the correlate of which was a world never at rest: ‘I do not mean exteriorly moving … but interiorly, so that all the motions that are in nature, are within herself’ (Cavendish 1666: 135).[2]

[22]  Cavendish’s matter is triune; it is on the one hand inanimate, but it is, without exception, imbued and suffused with animate qualities of both the sensitive, in that it perceives, and the rational, in that it ‘knows’ how to respond to contiguous matter. This tripartite ‘commixture’ of qualities is the constituent and universally-present nature of matter. As Karen Detlefson writes: ‘no portion of material nature, regardless of how small it is, lacks any of the three aspects, and so every portion of material nature is self-moving, sensitive, and rational as well as limited in its abilities’, its inanimate portion acting as a fetter on its ability to self-move (Detlefson 2007: 163-4).[3] Matter senses other matter and knows how to react. The proximity of other bodies prompts things to respond accordingly, not in any purely mechanistic interaction, but with a degree of free will on the part of the matter. It is less that cause produces effect than that one object is the ‘occasion’ of an interaction to which the matter responds, knowingly (James, 1999: 222-5; O’Neill, in Cavendish 2001: xxix-xxxiii; Detlefsen 2006). Cavendish explicitly and frequently refuses to distinguish between kinds of matter, whether mineral or animal, and indeed between matter in general and matter already preformed into discrete figures, whether pebbles, flowers or humans: ‘such composed figures, as, for distinctions sake, we call finite wholes; as for example, an Animal, a Tree, a Stone’. What is important and what unites these is how matter knows, a thing’s dynamic knowledge of its own being.

[23]  In explicating and differentiating between ‘exterior knowledge’ and ‘interior knowledge’, Cavendish is less interested in an observer’s putative knowledge of the outside of a thing (produced by ‘patterning out’ an always imperfect copy), than in how matter ‘knows’ how to respond to the world (see Clucas 2014). Remarkably, a thing knows in different ways on its surface and in its interior. Outside and inside respond to different impulses, and kinds of potential motion simultaneously. There is the ‘figurative motion’, by which the object’s ‘outward figure or shape’ reacts, but there is also action athwart this, a ‘retentive motion’, by which an object produces its own longevity, the ‘preservation and continuance’ of itself: ‘By which we may plainly see that one figure lies within another, one corporeal figurative motion is within another, and that the interior and exterior parts or figures of Creatures, are different in their actions’ (Cavendish 1666: 197-8). Matter dances to several tunes at one and the same time, and the example she gives returns us to Boyle’s interest in the complex fluidity:

the ebbing and flowing, or the ascending and descending motions of water, are quite different from those interior figurative motions that make it water (Cavendish 1666: 198, c.f. Stroll, 1988: 10).

The complex plunge of water as it falls, whose state is intricately distinct from moment to moment produces its shapely reaction to any contiguous surface, be it air or solid, that it ‘senses’. Its gush ‘knows’ and responds to the ‘occasion’ of any surrounding and proximate object. In one sense, this is like Lucretian smoke, its continual reformulation of itself, its involutions resembling Connor’s contingent tactics of inner and outer. But Cavendish’s matter is purposeful. It wills how to act in so far as it knows how to act, both at its external edges and in its interior being, its ‘retentive motions’, by which it moves and remains the same, ‘those interior figurative motions that make it water’. Matter knows to act both when it is considered in undifferentiated clump-form, and when it is composed into discrete figures.

[24]  Cavendish remains adamant that merely mechanical action, of cause and effect, is an insufficient explanatory model. When a hand encounters a ball, there are, she insists, two acts of self-motion, the ball not less decisively part of the action than the hand:

Therefore when a man moves a string, or tosses a Ball; the string or ball is no more sensible of the motion of the hand, then the hand is of the motion of the string or ball, but the hand is onely an occasion that the string or ball moves thus or thus (Cavendish 1666: 159-60).

Kourken Michaelian notes of this passage, the extent to which Cavendish embraces the seemingly outrageous implications of this: ‘she holds that the hand is not necessary for the motion of the ball on the specific ground that the ball moves itself, so that it could have moved as it does even had the hand not been present – the actual cause of a thing’s motion is always the thing itself’ (Michaelian 2009: 45-6; Detlefsen 166). Not only is the ball perceptually aware of the hand, but its movement in a particular trajectory is a matter of its own knowledge (of how it should move) and decision (that it will move):

I will not say, but that it may have some perception of the hand, according to the nature of its own figure; but it does not move by the hand’s motion, but by its own: for, there can be no motion imparted, without matter or substance (Cavendish 1666: 159-60).[4]

For Cavendish, matter is wholly aware of what is contiguous. It knows not only itself (in interior fashion) but also what it comes into contact with, such that its surface perceives other surfaces: ‘the infinite parts of Nature have not onely interior self-knowledg, but also exterior perceptions of other figures or parts, and their actions; by reason there is a perpetual commerce and entercourse between parts and parts’ (Cavendish 1666: 160-1). While the perceiver may know an object, the object, it seems, knows back.

[25]  At the same time, however, nature’s perceptive qualities are curtailed in composite figures by the inability of one part to know another, an ‘ignorance of forreign parts, figures or actions, although they be parts of one composed figure’ (Cavendish 1666: 198). This idea is threaded through the Observations, as the faultline in perception, that sight does not understand touch (‘It is known that man has five senses and every sense is ignorant of the other’) and even that one touch cannot quite make sense of another (‘one of his hands knows not the sense and perception of his other hand; nay, one part of his hand knows not the perception of another part of the same hand’). This radical discontinuity of the ‘sensitive’ parts is mitigated by the rational, which can coordinate and rectify its insufficiencies (‘Whatsoever the sensitive perception is either defective in, or ignorant of, the rational perception supplies’) but Cavendish creates in her human condition of nescience and partiality a state in which the perceiving surface is, after a fashion, more cognizant than the perceiver (Cavendish 1666: 1, 3, 164).

[26]  What do Cavendish’s ideas of animate matter have to do with microscopy, beyond the fact that its inadequacy apparently prompted her formulation of ideas about substance whose interior and exterior might have different notions of what they want to do? The answer, this essay suggests, lies in the nature of surface, a category newly troubled and troubling in seventeenth century thought. Natural philosophy of the post-restoration era returned repeatedly to the idea that surfaces are not staid. Continually and in a streaming litany of matter, bodies exude, and the occluded stuff of nature is emitted and absorbed. The omnidirectional pulse of matter that is present in Boyle or Power has its correlate in the perceiving matter of Cavendish, quite different in many respects, but sharing an attention to the complexity of surface, its non-obvious, non-quotidian nature. Prompting something akin to vertigo, the surface imagined up close become monstrous, in the shifting scale by which the atomic and human-sized became conflated. Imaginative shrinkage produced for early modern writers a perceptual disequilibrium. The early modern microscopist was something of a Gulliver, startled in Brobdingnag to discover at close quarters things terrifying to his sensibilities, whether outsized bees, or the Maids of Honour who use him a sexual toy, whose nakedness and magnified smells so horrify him. Up close, the natural philosopher fumbled through the blasted landscape of magnified textures, in a state both of shock and awe. Early modern surfaces were anything but straightforward. They might produce involutions such that outer and inner became perplexingly similar, like a Möbius strip whose surface has only one side, and they might, in Cavendish’s case have their own perceptual powers. But surfaces presented to the seventeenth century a new kind of ignorance, in which the plain and the ordinary demanded a poetics of the strange.

University of York


[1] I quote R.E. Latham’s engaging translation, On the Nature of the Universe (Penguin, 1951), while citing the Latin from the Loeb of W.H. Rouse, rev. Martin Smith, On the Nature of Things (Harvard, 1992), ‘… Omnia cum rerum primordia sint in motu, summa tamen summa videatur stare quiete … (2.309-10); ‘nam saepe in colli tondentes pabula laeta / lanigerae reptant pecudes quo quamque vocantes / invitant herbae gemmantes rore recenti, /et satiati agni ludunt blandeque coruscant’ (2.317-20) ‘praeterea magnae legiones cum loca cursu / camporus complent, belli simulacra cientes … et tamen est quidam locus altis montibus unde / stare videntur et in campis consistere fulgor.’ (2.323-32).[back to text]

[2] c.f. p. 69, ‘that Nature is a perpetually self-moving body, dividing, composing, changing, forming and transforming her parts by self-corporeal figurative motions’.[back to text]

[3] See Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, p. 191, ‘For there is such a commixture of animate and inanimate matter, that no particle in Nature can be conceived or imagined, which is not composed of animate matter as well as of inanimate.’[back to text]

[4] A parallel passage in Cavendish’s Philosophical Letters (1664), pp. 444-5, develops the example with a bowl instead of a ball (‘When I throw a bowl, or strike a ball with my hand’), either a dramatic kitchen moment, or an early modern Frisbee. The argument in both cases is premised on what Cavendish views as the incoherence of concussive, mechanical, theory, based on the transfer of motion without a loss of matter, which fails to account for diminishment in material substance, see O’Neill, intro, pp. xxix-xxxiii.[back to text]


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‘Let the more loving one be me’: The Paranoid and Reparative Dynamics of Editing Anna Trapnel’s Report and Plea (1654)

‘Let the more loving one be me’: The Paranoid and Reparative Dynamics of Editing Anna Trapnel’s Report and Plea (1654)

Hilary Hinds

[1] Anna Trapnel’s Report and Plea (1654) recounts the author’s journey from her home in London to Cornwall to continue her work of political prophecy, and her subsequent arrest, court appearance in Truro, return to London under armed guard and imprisonment in Bridewell. The text is a deft, lively and engaging narrative memoir and polemic, but it also offers a number of formulations of the author’s understanding of the processes and politics of speaking, writing and publishing. Her previous publications had principally been transcriptions of her prophecies, in which she repeatedly refused to describe herself as the text’s author, claiming instead to be no more than a conduit for God’s word. In this text, however, the fourth published under her name in 1654, she takes up the authorial position on the title page (‘from her own hand’), in the deployment throughout of the first person and in naming herself as the instigator of the text’s publication: ‘I have thought it meet to offer this relation to the worlds view’ (Trapnel 1654: 28[1]). These elements combine to produce an unusually immediate, evocative and engaging instance of seventeenth-century life-writing.

[2] Trapnel’s conception of her authorship of this text, however, was not predicated principally on thinking of her writing as either reliant on memory or as the literary re-creation of her experiences over several turbulent months. Her recollection of those events, she suggests, would have been inadequate to the task of producing this text: ‘I could not have related so much from the shallow memory I have naturally, but through often relating these things, they become as a written book, spread open before me, and after which I write’ (Trapnel 1654: 34). Even prior to the committal of the account to paper the narrative of events had existed, located beyond the author, generated in previous relations of the events of the journey and its aftermath. Thereby those precious, authorising but ‘shallow’ and nebulous memories acquired the solidity and reliability, even the materiality, of the ‘written book’. All that remained for her to do was to transcribe it. In this account, the act of writing confers on Trapnel not so much the position of the author but more that of the textual editor: the assiduous and faithful copyist of the valued words of a pre-existing text.[2]

[3] The preparation of a new edition of the Report and Plea has given me ample occasion and many different ways of experiencing the relationship that evolves between text and editor, and Trapnel’s own formulations, and her complication of the categories of author and editor and of my own presuppositions about their meaning and remit, have raised my awareness of this dynamic.[3] Like most longstanding relationships, that between editor and text is required to accommodate not only the pleasures and satisfactions to be gained from a growing familiarity with the textual object in question, but also the frustration, and sometimes the boredom, of spending too much time in its company. Such emotional responses may from time to time move centre-stage and become fully conscious, but more often they remain on the side-lines, occasionally glimpsed but never sufficiently pressing to become themselves the objects of scrutiny. Instead, the next footnote beckons, insisting on taking precedence over the vagaries of the shifting affective landscape inhabited by the editor.

[4]  Participation in an event, and now a Special Issue, devoted to ‘Scrutinising Surfaces in Early Modern Thought’, however, gives me the opportunity to step to one side of the usual pressures and preoccupations of editorial processes and practices in order to reflect on the dynamics of the text-editor relationship. In its endeavour to collate and present an accurate, reliable, perhaps even authoritative version of its subject-text, editing might be said to be a critical activity centrally and unusually preoccupied with the textual surface. As the leading theorist of textual editing Hans Walter Gabler puts it, ‘the editorial gaze is not directed at the compass of complexities or depths of meaning of the work’; rather, those depths are eschewed in favour of the textual surface, where the gaze is ‘trained on the material minutiae of the text’ (Gabler 2009: 10; my emphasis). In an editorial project such as mine, where the text in question is neither a manuscript nor one of several distinct editions but a single-edition published text from the mid-seventeenth century, attention to the textual surface comprises, in the first instance at least, scrupulous processes of transcription and comparison. The copy-text is keyed in, the copy checked against the original; the transcription is read aloud and recorded, and then played back while following the copy-text word by word, punctuation point by punctuation point. The few extant copies of the text, held by several different research libraries, are scrutinised so that variants can be logged. Painstaking attention is paid to every imperfectly printed word, every inverted letter, every inconsistent page number or catchword, and fine judgements are made about the reproduction or resolution of all such textual anomalies. Editorial principles have to be established. Should the spelling of the copy-text be retained in the new edition, or should it be modernised? If the former, should it be verbatim et literatim, or more editorially interventionist? If the latter, should every emendation be footnoted, or should some changes be made silently, their presence indicated only in an ‘Editorial Note’? Whatever answers are given to these questions, the intention is to safeguard, reveal and enhance the copy-text by means of an accurate reproduction of its textual surface – the words on the page – so that the edition becomes ‘the one optimally representing the work … the best result achievable from historically aware and textually critical efforts’ (Gabler 2009: 9).

[5] That ‘best result’ would usually presuppose an accurate reproduction of the textual surface. However, ‘accuracy’ can be variously conceived, and definitions and understandings of what it might comprise are not value-free. In the editorial lexicon’s rehearsal of its ambitions in such phrases as ‘remaining faithful’, ‘staying true’, ‘respecting’, or ‘doing justice’ to the original text, the moral imperative informing the enterprise is clear – though it is also open to alternative, though no less judgemental, evaluations, as in the construal of an edition as ‘slavish’ (Mandell 2010: 122), for example. The moral dimension of the enterprise is crystallised in the words of the poet Antanas Baranauskas (1835-1902), chosen as an epigraph to an article on textual criticism: ‘May he never find happiness who alters the orthography, let alone a single word, of the text’ (cited by Shillingsburg 2012: 251), where the words ‘May he never’ – a jussive subjunctive used to exhort or order – have the chilling resonance (for the editor of a modern spelling edition, at least) of a curse on the benighted wrongdoer.[4] Whatever editorial principles are finally adopted, however, resulting in whatever practices, forensically close attention to the textual surface pays homage to a literary composite, comprising not only the text as a complex linguistic structure worthy of reproduction , but also its cultural history, its critical reputation and its claim to scholarly attention in the present.

[6] Such an attentive relation to the textual surface is capable of generating, as I have already suggested, a range of emotional responses in the editor. These result in part from the nature of the editorial enterprise itself, and the dedication, endurance and concentration it requires, but they are informed too by the specifics of the editor’s decisions about principles and practices regarding the reproduction of the textual surface in the scholarly edition, and so the decisions themselves in turn inflect the tenor and timbre of the editor-text relation. Modernising a text’s spelling, for example, might suggest a different distribution of power between text, editor and projected reader than would be produced by a verbatim-et-literatim edition. While there is, of course, an extensive, longstanding and theoretically sophisticated literature on textual criticism and scholarly editing, its interest in the relationship between editor and text is usually conceptualised at the level only of principles and practices: the impact of the standing of the putative ‘author’ on that relation, for example, or the conceptualisation of the ‘text’ vis-a-via the ‘work’, or, more recently, the impact of the digital edition.

[7] When an interest in the affective dynamic between text and editor is evinced, it emerges from between the lines which are directed at characterising the editorial enterprise. In his Presidential Address to the Association for Documentary Editing Annual Meeting in 2013, for example, Phil Chase describes the editor’s ‘intimate acquaintance’ with the documents under examination as the result of ‘scholarly diligence’, a demanding combination of ‘focus, concentration, painstaking care, thoroughness, persistence, and perseverance’ (Chase 2014: 4). This intimacy is hard-won, the result of a protracted and demanding encounter. Editors, Chase suggests, are ‘explorers of the vast, strange world of the past or the intricate worlds of literary or intellectual creation’, but far from seeing them as heroic figures, he describes them as stoically and doggedly pedestrian, ‘plodding mile after mile for months on end, ever attentive to everything around them: typography, geology, flora and fauna, human inhabitants, and human creations. Our aim is not so much to tell others about our journey, but to enable them to make a similar journey and see for themselves’ (Chase 2014: 4, 5). Whatever feats of endurance are required of the editor, the personal reward is considerable: ‘Your truest knowledge and best insights come from your editing’. Moreover, for Chase editing is not only life-enhancing, but life-augmenting: ‘Time spent editing is time added to your life, because you are living simultaneously in two different worlds whenever you edit’ (Chase 2014: 8). The ‘joys’ of editing promised in Chase’s title, therefore, are comprehensive and far-reaching, personal, even existential, as well as professional.

[8] My own labours, however, have led me to conclude that the affective territory inhabited by editorial work is more varied and ambiguous than Chase’s characterisation allows, compacting (among other states) delight, dismay and dislike, enchantment and disillusion, deference and dismissal, anxiety, ennui, suspicion and supplication. It is to the specifics of the constitution, fluctuations and implications of this restless relationship between editor and text that this article will attend, prompted by the sense that there is something particular to the dynamics driving editorial work. These specificities lie in the characteristic modes of editorial reading and writing, of course, which differ in impulse and intention from those of other critical work, but they arise too in the peculiarly and powerfully symbiotic relation of text and editor. If these particularities were to be understood as not only procedural and disciplinary but also affective, and were analysed in relation to their characteristic distribution along the axes of the ‘paranoid’ and ‘reparative’ imperatives, might this sharpen our understanding of what is at stake in the acts, ambitions and affects of textual editing, as distinct from other critical modes? The discussion therefore takes as its starting point the tensions between the projects of so-called ‘paranoid’ and ‘reparative’ criticism: that is, the differential models of the critical enterprise so famously characterised in those terms by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.[5] Her interventions have prompted countless responses, which in turn have been ably and amply summarised, reviewed, debated and critiqued (see for example Bewes 2010, Weed 2012; Lesjak 2013; Wiegman 2014; Stacey 2014). Here, rather than offering a further comprehensive overview of the debates thus far, therefore, I shall offer only a brief account of Sedgwick’s thesis and proposition, of the antecedents of and analogues to her critique, including those with an avowed interest in ‘surface’ rather than ‘depth’ studies of literature, in order then to take the terms and premises of the debate back to the particularities of the editorial enterprise.

[9] Sedgwick’s essay ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading’ (2003) has served as a touchstone text in recent discussions of different models of critical practice. She routes her critique and the manifesto it engenders through (in the first instance) Paul Ricoeur’s notion of a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, the interrogative stance of the dominant mode of literary and cultural criticism which she glosses as ‘paranoid’. Sedgwick argues that literary criticism needs to loosen its too-singular attachment to paranoid reading practices such as those adumbrated by a hermeneutics of suspicion, premised on ‘protocols of unveiling’: behind or below the ostensible ‘surface’ of the text lurks its more or less hidden – and usually ugly and unpalatable – truth, which it is the task of the critic to unveil. Sedgwick gives instances of some of the characteristic critical modes through which these processes take place: ‘Subversive and demystifying parody, suspicious archaeologies of the present, the detection of hidden patterns of violence and their exposure’ (Sedgwick 2003: 143). Robyn Wiegman has glossed the primary rhetorical genre of the paranoid model as critique, a mode which confers on ‘the critic sovereignty in knowing, when others do not, the hidden contingencies of what things really mean’ (Wiegman 2014: 7). Sedgwick cites Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) as an exemplary instance of a paranoid critical project, but in an early modern context, paranoid critical impulses or agendas might include, for example, reading for evidence of a Catholic Shakespeare, for same-sex desire in Restoration drama, or for a proto-feminist politics in the writings of Aphra Behn or Katherine Philips. It is not, Sedgwick argues, that such projects are always or necessarily misguided; indeed, she identifies herself as a hitherto paranoid reader par excellence, as indeed do others (Sedgwick 2003: 146; Apter and Freedgood 2009: 144). It is more that a paranoid critical stance has become too rigid a critical orthodoxy, ‘nearly synonymous with criticism itself’ (Sedgwick 2003: 124). Her suggestion is that critics need to recognise that ‘Paranoia knows some things well and others poorly’ (130) and, as a result, broaden their repertoires to include other ways of reading and knowing.

[10] The model Sedgwick proposes as an alternative or ‘alongside’ model to the paranoid is that of ‘reparative reading’, a position she develops through reference to Melanie Klein’s theorisation of the paranoid/schizoid and depressive positions in ego-formation. In these formative processes, the ‘splitting of the mother/breast into good and bad objects produces the fear and suspicion of the breast (paranoid-schizoid position), which is then superseded by the discovery that the breast it hates and the breast it loves are the same breast (depressive position)’ (Stacey 2014: 44). The primary interest for Sedgwick in Klein’s theorisation lies in the impermanence and instability of the paranoid-schizoid position: its ‘hatred, envy, and anxiety’ are always in oscillating relation with the ‘anxiety-mitigating achievement’ of the (equally unstable and temporary) depressive position (Sedgwick 2003: 128). This leads Sedgwick to the speculative proposition of a ‘reparative’ critical stance that would also involve the surrender of the paranoid position’s ‘knowing, anxious[,] paranoid’ (Sedgwick 2003: 146) hypervigilance towards its textual object, whereby it seeks to expose and master its unconscious repressions, affiliations and agendas. In its place, a critical position would be adopted that has been variously characterised as: intimate with or proximate to the object of study; open to and welcoming of the surprises that the text may spring on the reader; generous to the particularities of the text’s character and processes, and to its manifest identifications of its agendas and purposes; and accepting of the text’s limitations and weaknesses (Sedgwick 2003: 126; Wiegman 2014: 7). The reparative reader would seek to replace critical attachments forged by ‘correction, rejection, and anger with those crafted by affection, gratitude, solidarity, and love. Under these affective terms, the critical act is reconfigured to value, sustain, and privilege the object’s worldly inhabitations and needs’ (Wiegman 2014: 7). The words here are Robyn Wiegman’s, but she is alluding to Sedgwick’s much-cited observation that ‘[a]mong Klein’s names for the reparative process is love’ (Sedgwick 2003: 128) – in this case, ‘love’ for the textual object, rather than the paranoid position’s aggressive desire to outsmart it.

[11] Sedgwick’s manifesto on behalf of reparative reading practices has been widely taken up in the last dozen years or so in what Elizabeth Weed aptly calls ‘a groundswell of support for new ways of reading’ (Weed 2012: 95). Sedgwick suggested that, in particular, ‘practices of reparative knowing may lie, barely recognized and little explored, at the heart of many histories of gay, lesbian, and queer intertextuality’ (Sedgwick 2003: 149), and it is indeed the case, as Wiegman observes, that feminist and queer studies have been notable as sites for the enthusiastic adoption of reparative and cognate reading practices.[6] But the reparative impulse can also be seen at work, albeit via a slightly different theoretical genealogy, in literary critic Timothy Bewes’s 2010 call to read ‘with the grain’ of a text rather than against it, and in the introduction to a Special Issue of the journal Representations in 2009 on ‘The Way We Read Now’. There we find a now familiar rebuttal of the ‘depth’ model of reading associated with Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of suspicion, but also with Fredric Jameson’s ‘symptomatic reading’, in which ‘[t]he interpreter … reveals truths that “remain unrealized in the surface of the text”’ (Best and Marcus 2009: 3). Dissatisfied with ‘depth’ criticism’s basis in ‘ideological demystification’, Best and Marcus advocate instead reading practices which ‘seek to understand the complexity of literary surfaces – surfaces that have been rendered invisible by symptomatic reading’ (Best and Marcus 2009: 1). The invocation of a ‘surface’ might seem of necessity to bring with it the notion of depth, dependent on binaries such as outside/inside or upper/lower, but Best and Marcus explicitly reject these associations as embedded within a ‘symptomatic’ purview, where surface is understood as ‘a layer that conceals’. Instead:

we take surface to mean what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts; what is neither hidden nor hiding; what, in the geometrical sense, has length and breadth but no thickness, and therefore covers no depth. A surface is what insists on being looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through. (Best and Marcus 2009: 9; original emphasis)

For Best and Marcus, such an approach might mean attending to the materiality of the text, to the intricate verbal structures of literary language, to textual description, to ‘literal meaning’, or to textual affects. If a paranoid ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ requires the critic to take up the position of the ever-mistrustful sleuth, the reader who scrutinises textual surfaces is characterised more as (quoting Anne-Lise François) ‘“bearing witness to the given” … refus[ing] to celebrate or condemn their objects of study’ (Best and Marcus 2009: 18). As they acknowledge, such a stance brings into view a set of critical ambitions that are close to ‘what has almost become taboo in literary studies: objectivity, validity, truth’ (Best and Marcus 2009: 17). These concepts may have become taboo in literary studies, but they have retained considerable currency, albeit in increasingly carefully theorised ways, in discussions of scholarly editing.

[12] In their refusal of ‘depth’ models of reading, whether the symptomatic reading’s revelation of the truth both hidden behind and revealed by the symptom on the surface, or the paranoid’s reliance on the ‘protocols of unveiling’, the advocates of both ‘surface’ and ‘reparative’ reading strategies offer a shared diagnosis of dominant critical modes. And while the counter-position of ‘surface’ reading continues to rely on the spatial metaphor in its very name, so too does the reparative, if more covertly. Sedgwick declares that in Touching Feeling she has tried ‘to explore some ways around the topos of depth or hiddenness, typically followed by a drama of exposure’, but not through the abandonment of a spatial model but by recasting it: ‘the irreducibly spatial positionality of beside … seems to offer some useful resistance to the ease with which beneath and beyond turn from spatial descriptors into implicit narratives of, respectively, origin and telos’ (Sedgwick 2003: 8; her emphasis). If ‘beneath’ and ‘beyond’ imply a supersession of one thing by another, and hence a hierarchy, or at least a sequence, then ‘beside’ suggests the spirit of inclusiveness and generosity to which the ‘love’ at the core of the reparative project aspires.

[13] These debates have focused on literary and cultural criticism, broadly conceived, but their key terms of reference, whether paranoid and reparative or surface and depth, have immediate traction with regard to the critical field of scholarly editing. Editorial work, as I have already suggested, is manifestly preoccupied with the textual surface – not as an opaque veil that has to be lifted to reveal the contours or depths beneath, but as an object (to return to Best and Marcus’s definition) to be looked at rather than through. The bedrock of editorial work, its core activity, eschews interpretation, in the first instance at least, in deference to the claims for attention of the text itself – not only the correct identification of ambiguous words or punctuation points, but also the patterns of its variants across copies, and the textures generated by its typefaces, page layouts and printers’ ornaments. But, beyond this, editorial work could quite credibly be described as not only preoccupied with surface, but also as quintessentially reparative. Indeed, Wiegman’s gloss on the reparative position cited earlier, in which ‘the critical act is reconfigured to value, sustain, and privilege the object’s worldly inhabitations and needs’ (Wiegman 2014: 7) could itself serve as a succinct summary of the remit and ambitions of textual editing. The trajectory of editing begins with valuing the textual object; it proceeds by a sustained and sustaining attention to the object and its ‘needs’; and, with the publication of the completed edition, it concludes by privileging the text’s right to ‘worldly inhabitation’ in the here and now.

[14] Closer examination of the editorial project finds further evidence of its reparative dimensions. In particular, any lingering editorial ambition of critical ‘sovereignty’ (Wiegman 2014:7), of omnipotent mastery or authority over the text – the province of the paranoid position – has soon, or at least ultimately, to be relinquished, exposed as an impossible fantasy. No matter how devoted an editor might be to the idea of faithful reproduction (however conceived) of the text, sometimes that surface proves recalcitrant, resistant to that editorial desire. Even in the case of my edition of Anna Trapnel’s text, for example – a text which, as I have already suggested, is unusually straightforward and ‘amenable’ in textual terms – I found replication of the ‘words on the page’ less fully realisable than I had anticipated. The following demonstrates the most acute instance of a textual crux in the Report and Plea:[7]

The troublesome word is the fifth one on the second line: ‘Oh you Inhabitants of’ – where? Magnification of the word provides some assistance:[8]

The letters are clear enough, apart from the penultimate one, which is possibly, but not definitely, an ‘i’: the letter rises slightly above the level of the preceding ‘o’, which may or may not be the result of the point over the ‘i’ having merged with the letter. It is difficult to find other likely candidates for this letter. Taking it as an ‘i’ does not help much, however, as there is nowhere called ‘Fruroir’. The conclusion I drew was that this word was likely to be the result of the compositor’s misreading of the manuscript’s ‘Truro’, since this was the place in which Trapnel had been accused of witchcraft by the town’s inhabitants and clergy, and the name of a Cornish town some two-hundred-and-seventy miles away would not necessarily be familiar to a London typesetter.[9] In a verbatim-et-literatim edition, the response to this would have been to reproduce the letters as precisely as possible, with a comment on the problem in a brief footnote. In my own modern-spelling edition, I opted for ‘Truro’, with a rather lengthy footnote providing a discussion of the conundrum. The rights or wrongs of either solution is not at issue here; what the example demonstrates is the text’s refusal to allow any certainty, and hence any mastery or sovereignty.

[15] On other occasions, the textual surface presents no such barriers to transcription, but the refusal of mastery emerges instead at the level of editorial understanding. In the case of my edition of Trapnel’s text, Mrs Winter of Exeter, whose house ‘many yeers had entertained and lodged Saints’ (Trapnel 1654: 8) and with whom Trapnel stayed on her way to Cornwall, remains, despite my best efforts, stubbornly untraceable. Such impasses are the fate of all textual editors: Phil Chase (citing the editor Donald Jackson) suggests that ‘the essence of editing is still … a scholar sitting at a desk surrounded by books and papers, … [t]rying to identify a man named Cuthbert Gleep’ (Chase 2014: 9). The continuing elusiveness of Mrs Winter feels like an editorial failure, but perhaps, instead, the limit to editorial sovereignty that she represents might be refocused through a reparative lens as no longer a source of vulnerability and potential humiliation, but as salutary, indicative of the impossibility of the aspiration to render a text fully transparent, to compel it to yield all its secrets. And this reminder might be particularly apposite with regard to textual editorship, in which the moments where the text refuses to be exposed become the occasions when the editor can be. In other critical enterprises, sleight of hand might permit the circumnavigation of gaps or failures in knowledge: it is possible to disguise the fact that one has not read all of Foucault, or of Freud, or of Milton, while still maintaining a voice of comprehensive critical authority. In a scholarly edition, gaps in knowledge cannot be circumnavigated, but are advertised – footnoted – for all to see: ‘Mrs Winter: untraced’.

[16] A corollary or extension of the reparative position’s aspiration to ‘repair’ or reframe the critical stance vis-à-vis sovereignty concerns its willingness to be taken by surprise by its textual object, as to be taken by surprise is an acute instance of the sudden recognition of one’s incomplete knowledge. The paranoid position’s anxiety attaches not only to its own failing sovereignty (actual or anticipated) but also extends to its apprehensive stance vis-à-vis the future, as evinced by habitual attempts to anticipate and thus prevent any unforeseen and disruptive interventions. As Sedgwick put it, ‘The first imperative of paranoia is There must be no bad surprises, and indeed, the aversion to surprise seems to be what cements the intimacy between paranoia and knowledge per se … [P]aranoia requires that bad news be always already known’ (Sedgwick 2003: 130; original emphasis). The reparative position, in contrast, advocates an openness to surprise: ‘[b]ecause there can be terrible surprises … there can also be good ones’, writes Sedgwick, and in the wake of this might emerge ‘hope’, to be found ‘among the energies by which the reparatively positioned reader tries to organize the fragments and part-objects she encounters or creates’ (Sedgwick 2003: 146). If hope is temporally inclined towards the future, it also brings with it a recognition of the possibility that ‘the past, in turn, could have happened differently from the way it actually did’ (Sedgwick 2003: 146) – a recognition inflected not by hope, but by a vulnerability to a sense of loss or grief. The reparative position encourages the cultivation of the possibility of being taken by surprise by a new recognition of the past’s lost potentialities, and to voices, tones and cadences hitherto unheard.

[17] The protracted process of editing generates an ever-increasing familiarity with the text that might seem to be in danger of dulling any such receptiveness to surprise. However, as one becomes more attuned to the text’s tempo and registers, taking pleasure in ‘tarrying’ with it in order to enter the complexity of its history, as Elizabeth Freeman (2010: xvii) puts it, this familiarity can also bring an ease, an intermittent loosening (though never an absolute relinquishment) of the anxiously hypervigilant editorial grip, a relaxation which then allows the text to speak in another voice. In the course of editing Trapnel’s Report and Plea, a pamphlet with which I have worked, on and off, for thirty years or so, I discovered that a text I had always found to have spoken from a place of anger and betrayal also rang with a kind of celebratory, if still defiant, energy. ‘It’s a lovely life the life of faith’, writes Trapnel (1654: 3-4), and once I read with the grain, in Bewes’s phrase, and took that statement at its face (or surface) value, I heard these tones more clearly throughout. Perhaps this might serve as a small but indicative instance of what Sedgwick meant when she suggested that paranoid and reparative positions result in different kinds of knowledge.

[18] Furthermore, the origin of the editorial enterprise might be seen to lie in just the kind of reparative affective attachment postulated by Sedgwick et al as based in affection, generosity and openness. Certainly, Susan J. Wolfson, in a discussion of scholarly editing in the twenty-first century, describes the editor-text relation in these terms:

I want to propose that the desire and stamina to produce a scholarly edition begin with book-love. Why would one want to manage this author, this text, or this archive, in the intimacies that editing involves? Editing is necessarily visionary and creative work: not only gathering and establishing texts, annotating with scholarly care, judgment, and critical imagination, but also introducing, framing, supplementing the texts in ways that reanimate the labors that first brought the book into the world. (Wolfson 2010: 69)

Editing here is explicitly named by Wolfson as an act generated by love. Desire initiates and drives the project, and stamina is required to sustain it over the long haul. The editor is positioned in this dynamic relationship to the text as a composite of manager, lover, midwife, mother, Dr Frankenstein and John the Baptist, his or her love for and intimacy with the text kindling in the editor the vitalising powers of the creative visionary.

[19] And yet the intimate deference evoked by this characterisation of book-love seems perhaps, in the end, to be more in the service of the subject-editor rather than the beloved object-text, to the extent that the augmentation of the critic, perhaps not as sovereign but as prophet, is reinstated by this account. Wiegman suggests that ‘the reparative turn quite significantly rewrites the critic’s value as the consequence of the object’s need’ (Wiegman 2014: 16), but in Wolfson’s characterisation the editor’s value, elaborated through this litany of multiple roles, seems in danger of overshadowing the object in whose service he or she ostensibly labours. In this slippage, the possibility of more paranoid attachments return, though attaching most easily to a different dimension of the enterprise. If the editing of the text is most easily construed as a reparative practice, the construction of the scholarly apparatus that frames, presents and annotates that text can all too easily become the location for the endless rehearsal of editorial paranoia. Here, the text often seems to lie in wait, eager to catch out its insufficiently expert editor – as in the case of Mrs Winter of Exeter. All too soon, footnotes can cease to look like a framework erected out of respect for the complexity of the text and in an act of service to the reader, and come instead to feel more like a scaffold erected for the humiliation of the editor, where his or her own scholarly shortcomings are put on display. What if (this editor asked) I have failed to find the indispensable inter-text for understanding the court procedures Trapnel underwent in Truro, for example? What if it is glaringly obvious to my more expert editor/reader who Mrs Winter was? In the ever-expanding notes at the foot of each page, every phrase, every name, every allusion must be interrogated, its origin, its context and its afterlife brought to light, in order precisely to pre-empt any post-publication bad surprises. If the editing of the text is understood as reparative, therefore, footnoting could quite readily be seen as the epitome of the paranoid critical position: based in a suspicion of the text, driven by a fear of surprises, and unwilling to countenance the adequacy of a text left to stand or fall by itself, unsupported by its surrounding apparatus.

[20] But is the divide between preparation of the text and the construction of the scholarly apparatus quite as neatly divisible as this? Might there not be ways in which a slight refocusing of the lens would reframe the construction of that apparatus, and footnoting in particular, as driven by a reparative impulse? There is a sense in which the preparation of a scholarly edition makes amateurs of even the most experienced editor, the demands of the text requiring us to step beyond our areas of expertise and enter the world brought into being and governed by the text itself. Editing Trapnel’s text required that I school myself in early modern court procedures, in the history of Bridewell, Whitehall inns, piracy and seventeenth-century coach travel. If the predominant current meaning of ‘amateur’ is non-professional, non-expert, perhaps untrained, the word also retains its etymological link to ‘love’, and so returns us to the reparative position, from which, as ill-equipped amateurs of, or enthusiasts for, particular texts, we enter unknown territory for which we have to construct a map as we go as best we can. But neither is that the end of the process. Refocusing the lens again by another quarter turn, the amateur’s ‘love’ is again revealed as not altogether benign, but as also rivalrous, fuelled by anticipation of the responses of other editors, other ‘lovers’ of Trapnel. To appropriate the words of W. H. Auden, the preparation of a new edition is driven by the editor’s paranoid-reparative, generous-competitive wish to ‘Let the more loving one be me’ (2007: 584).

[21] Through this oscillation between paranoid and reparative positions and impulses, text and editor come to occupy profoundly ambiguous positions in relation to each other. Who or what is the subject of the enterprise, and who or what its object? Sometimes, the text figures as the editor’s object, under relentless surveillance by the paranoid reader-editor, subjected to endless and intrusive poking and prying, and permitted to keep no secrets. At other times, the text is the subject of the endeavour. It is the agent acting on the attentive and devoted editor, governing his or her every move. This can sometimes best be construed as a position shaped by reparative love for and intimate proximity with the object of study. But not infrequently the textual relation reveals its paranoid underbelly, when the text shifts from occupying a position of benevolent authority to assuming one of tyranny, eliciting a response of sometimes servile devotion, sometimes resentful hostility.

[22] In the case of the editorial enterprise, therefore, the positions of paranoid and reparative reading turn out not to be alternatives – the one, outmoded, exhausted and bankrupt, to be discarded in favour of the other, fresh, invigorating and revelatory. In this kind of project, at least, the critic does not select from among a range of critical stances, but is instead moved around by a text which is variously experienced as amenable and open, or as stubborn and closed; hence the unstable affective territory occupied by the editor. The project may begin in a version of reparative book-love, but, true to its Kleinian origins, that reparative position does not supersede the anxieties and exigencies of the paranoid, but exists only in impermanent and precarious resolution of them. The plenitude of the reparative position, Klein insisted, is always temporary, and only ever achieved at a cost – the cost of recognising that the good and the bad objects are one and the same. Moreover, the fragile and precarious reparative position is only ever achieved temporarily, and in phantasy, whereby the hatred of the bad object, and the guilt at the resulting damage done to it, is resolved by its integration with the good. Rather than the reparative position being a place of resolved, generous and loving contentment, the polar opposite of the torments and insecurities of the paranoid, it is ‘in psychoanalytic terms … a defence mechanism’ against the guilt induced by the violent hatred characteristic of the paranoid position (Stacey 2014: 45). Furthermore, as Stacey reminds us (via the words of Laplanche and Pontalis), the reparative position itself is generative of new anxieties: ‘“mechanisms of reparation may come to resemble sometimes manic defences (feelings of omnipotence), and sometimes obsessional ones (compulsive repetition of reparatory acts)”’ (2014: 46; Stacey’s emphasis). In short, not only are the paranoid and the reparative always impermanent and always available positions, they are also mutually inscriptive (each is productive of the other), and consequently, because of their necessary relation to each other, they together characterise the inevitable ambivalence of object relations.

[23] Attention to the work of Klein returns the concept of ‘book-love’ to view in a changed form, refocusing it as a more complex attachment, a phenomenon rooted in phantasy, driven and riven by a range of unconscious fears and desires as well as conscious loyalties and affiliations. By this account, it is required to admit to and take account of ambiguous, uncomfortable and demanding affects as well as the generous devotion with which it is more usually associated. In the context of the editorial enterprise, ‘book-love’ comes to be seen as having less to do with a straightforwardly trusting, generous and benign keeping-of-faith with a respected textual object, and emerges instead as a temporary respite from – or even a defence against – the paranoid insecurities and surprises that structure the editorial textual relation. The socially acceptable and professionally desirable claim to be motivated by book-love might, indeed, serve in part as a decoy, distracting from the less laudable, or at least the less easily acknowledged, affective dimensions of editorial work. The murderous hatred which, according to Klein always characterises the dependent infant’s relation to the mother – she who has the power to withhold as well as provide satisfaction – may not find an exact parallel in the text-editor relation. Book-hatred is not the inevitable shadow of book-love. But if hatred is absent, the vulnerability from which hatred might arise can certainly be found – vulnerability to the text’s refusal to give up all its secrets and, consequently, vulnerability to critical exposure. In this, the editorial process is perhaps distinct from other kinds of critical work, in that, as already discussed, there can be no recourse to an obfuscating sleight of hand. Or – on the contrary – perhaps editorial work simply exposes in particularly stark form the vulnerabilities that other critical projects need never confront, precisely because they do have at their disposal a range of discursive strategies and rhetorical formulae able to disguise them. Either way, the paranoid-reparative relation lays bare the ambivalence of the editor’s relationship with the textual object that both bestows and refuses the editor’s rightful claim to the title, precisely, of editor.

[24] Once the reparative is returned to its Kleinian context, therefore, it ceases to be possible to see it as an alternative to the paranoid position. It is instead refocused as presupposing it, reliant on it, travelling hand in hand with it. If the reparative is seen as co-extensive with the paranoid, however, rather than as a position freely chosen by the sovereign critic as a more desirable and more generous alternative to the exhausted and exhausting stance of the paranoid, where does this leave the notion of the textual surface? Best and Marcus’s formulation, discussed above, refuses any sense that the notion of surface is premised on, and necessarily associated with, a concomitant and dependent notion of depth. Instead, they assert that ‘surface’ can stand alone, beyond the binary relation, and serve as an umbrella under which can cluster a range of critical approaches which ostensibly eschew interpretation and critique. To reprise Best and Marcus’s definition, such approaches concern themselves with ‘what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts; what is neither hidden nor hiding; what, in the geometrical sense, has length and breadth but no thickness, and therefore covers no depth’ (2009: 9). The critical ambivalence generated in the oscillating to-and-fro relation between the two positions, the paranoid and the reparative, is refused by this insistence on imagining a surface without an allied depth: ‘demystifying protocols’ (that is, interpretation) are superfluous, Best and Marcus suggest, when the significance of certain cultural phenomena is there for all to see, inscribed and immediately available on the surface (2). Such an assertion is reliant on the possibility of the separation of ‘reading’ from ‘interpretation’, the former distinct from the mediating intervention represented by the latter.

[25] And yet such a claim pits itself almost wilfully against what now stands as critical orthodoxy: that is, that the idea of a neutral or non-implicated reading, free from interpretative gloss, is a fiction. As Peter Widdowson succinctly puts it, ‘literary texts are, in a sense, “re-written” in every act of reading by every reader’ (1999: 10). This is not just a case of readers making different meanings from a given text, but, he suggests, because the process of reading in effect changes the status and constitution of the textual object itself: ‘the reading-positions from which readers read it are different both throughout history and through their cultural location at any given moment – and “the text” becomes the product of those differences’ (11; original emphasis). Widdowson’s formulation neatly reverses the notion that a reading is consequent to a text, and suggests instead that the text is the result of its many readings. The text’s ‘surface’ offers no easier route to the obvious meanings associated with ‘face value’, no unambiguous access to self-evident, reliable and incontrovertible truth, than does a face itself.[10]

[26] If a critical allegiance to surface without depth is founded in a desire to eschew interpretation, to read without rewriting, scrutiny of the editorial process again reveals the impossibility of this wish. Just as the reparative brought with it the uncomfortable vulnerabilities of the paranoid position, so the surface, in the context of editorial work, is always premised on some kind of imagined textual depth. This is most immediately apparent in the text’s explicatory apparatus, whose task is to offer glimpses of textual, intertextual or contextual depth. But even the editorial focus on the textual surface, the words and marks on the page, the punctuation, the layout, the variants, the typographical errors, cannot be sustained without an interpretative engagement with that surface. The letters that seem to constitute the word ‘Fruroir’ cannot be justly rendered without imaginative recourse to a lost original manuscript, in which those letters resolved themselves into some other, more coherent, set of marks, and in which a misreading (an interpretation) by the compositor intervened. At every stage, therefore, a relation between two terms, whether text and context or printed text and lost manuscript original, intervenes. In the opaque relation between the two terms arises the act of interpretation, undercutting the fantasy of a safely sealed, self-identical, surface.

[27] How, indeed, could it be otherwise? The notion of a textual ‘surface’, even one shorn of its association with depth, is itself resolutely metaphorical and therefore bipartite. As a metaphor, the notion of surface is constitutionally reliant on the assertion of an ambiguous, imaginative and indeterminate relation between two distinct and non-identical entities. If ambivalence is inscribed in the psychic to-and-fro of the paranoid-reparative, so ambiguity is inscribed in the two-part structure at the core of the metaphorical conceptualisation of the textual surface. We are left with the paradox that interpretation resides at the heart of the concept invoked to refuse an interpretative critical practice. Just as editors have to learn to live between the paranoid and the reparative, so advocates of surface reading more generally need to acknowledge and recognise the metaphorical character of their flagship concept, and of the act of interpretative reading that it embodies.

[28] Anna Trapnel knew there was no such thing as a self-evident or inert textual surface; hers, she acknowledged, was explicitly crafted with an eye to ‘what is expedient to be written’ (1654: 34). She knew that, like it or not, interpretations would follow, with consequences that extended well beyond the niceties of literary critical debate, and in her case, as far as the locked gates of Bridewell. The twenty-first-century editor might draw lessons from this. Trapnel’s reflections on the process of writing in the Report and Plea turn not only on questions of textual process but also on its affective navigation. She presents her own writing as a process of transcription rather than of creation de novo, thereby casting herself as editor as much as author. Her stance towards her editing is not premised on a deferential or ‘slavish’ devotion to her notional Ur-text, however. It is instead much more bullishly interventionist, including and excluding at will, shaping the account to her own ends, all in the service of expediency. She unashamedly embraces her manipulation of and mastery over her own narrative, a paranoid move at the level of narration enacted in order to banish the possibility of ‘bad surprises’, just as her self-censorship in the Truro court room was intended to outwit the manoeuvres of the Justices against her. In the brisk back-and-forth of courtroom cross-questioning, she shows herself able to think two or three moves ahead and to modify her answers accordingly, anticipating the risks and showing herself to be a paranoid reader par excellence.

[29]  However, such paranoid rhetorical mastery is deployed not simply to defend against hostile onslaughts on the vulnerable figure of Trapnel herself. Indeed, these come to be relshed as indicative of the rectitude of her own position and of the unenlightened state of her opponents. Rather than her paranoid anticipations and omissions operating as acts of self-defence, however, they work in the service of the ultimate reparation, her words a conduit of God’s redemptive love to his chosen ones. Consequently, the ‘surface’ of her text can never be self-identical or self-evident, its meanings never obvious or readily consensual, because the narrative she recounts is never singular. Its plurality lies not only in the disparity of interpretations she anticipates, but also in the invocation of other ‘alongside’ narratives, whether the divine master-narrative or the notional oral copy-text. These are yoked to the printed narration in a contrapuntal relation, no less sonorous or powerful for being present only in intermittent glimpses or half-caught asides from the textual wings. Surface, in the hands of Trapnel the author-editor, is far from a planar, two-dimensional articulation, as imagined by the advocates of ‘surface reading’. Instead, her reflections on the processes of writing conjure intertextual conversations which are evoked by the page though not necessarily inscribed on it. This enables the metaphor of the textual surface to be reimagined not as without depth, but as enfolding a multiplicity of intertextual narrative iterations, held together by the interpretative play between them. It is in these folds, the juxtaposition of one account with another, that Trapnel’s textual surface delivers its own form of polyphonic depth to the reader.

Lancaster University


[1] The page numbering of the Report and Plea is erroneous, and there are two pages numbered 28. These words appear on the first of the two. For a discussion of the possible reasons for the repeat numbering, see Bullard 2008.[back to text]

[2] For more extensive analysis of Trapnel’s complex relationship to authorship, see Bullard 2008 and Wray 2009.[back to text]

[3] This new edition of Trapnel’s Report and Plea was published in 2016; see Trapnel 1654 in the bibliography for details.[back to text]

[4] My edition of the Report and Plea was commissioned for a modern spelling series, so the decision to modernise was taken for me.[back to text]

[5] Robyn Wiegman traces the trajectory of Sedgwick’s thinking with regard to these issues through a series of her publications between 1995 and 2003; see Wiegman 2014: 8-10.[back to text]

[6] Wiegman (2014: 13-16) cites as examples of such projects Ann Cvetkovich’s practice of ‘redescription’ (2012); Heather Love’s call to think with rather than against the object of study (2010a; see too 2010b); and Elizabeth Freeman’s interest in ‘in the tail end of things …whatever has been declared useless’ (2010). For a recent queer engagement with the reparative, see Henderson 2015.[back to text]

[7] From Anna Trapnel, Anna Trapnel’s Report and Plea. Or, A Narrative of her Journey from London into Cornwal (London: Thomas Brewster, 1654), 49. Image published with permission of ProQuest. Further reproduction is prohibited without permission. Image produced by ProQuest as part of Early English Books Online. www.proquest.com[back to text]

[8] Image published with permission of ProQuest. Further reproduction is prohibited without permission. Image produced by ProQuest as part of Early English Books Online. www.proquest.com[back to text]

[9] This point prompts two further observations. First, if this conclusion is correct, then it suggests that the final discrete section of the text, the ‘Defiance’, was set by a different compositor from the preceding sections, where the word ‘Truro’ appears frequently. Second, given that Trapnel seems to have been a careful proofer of the printed text, since a list of errata is included at the end of the text, then it is odd that an error such as this (if indeed it is one) was not picked up. For a fascinating analysis of the textual history of the Report and Plea, including its possible journey through the press, see Bullard 2008. She too argues that ‘there were at least two printers at work on the text of the Report and Plea’ (43).[back to text]

[10] In a trenchant critique of ‘the less-is-more logic of surface reading’, Carolyn Lesjak argues that surfaces need to be understood ‘as perverse rather than as obvious’, and as thus requiring ‘perverse or ardent reading … more reading, at once close, given our attachments, and distant, given the reach of perverse relations’ (Lesjak 2013: 254, 251, 254). On the history of the reliance on the face as a source of truth about identity, see Elliott 2012.[back to text]


Apter, Emily and Elaine Freedgood. 2009. ‘Afterword’, Special Issue: The Way We Read Now’. Representations 108: 139-147

Auden, W. H. 2007. ‘The More Loving One’, in Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House)

Best, Stephen and Sharon Marcus. 2009. ‘Surface Reading: An Introduction’, Special Issue: ‘The Way We Read Now’, Representations 108: 1-21

Bewes, Timothy. 2010. ‘Reading with the Grain: A New World in Literary Criticism’, differences 21.5: 1-33

Bullard, Rebecca. 2008. ‘Textual Disruption in Anna Trapnel’s Report and Plea (1654)’, The Seventeenth Century, 23.1: 34-53

Chase, Phil. 2014. ‘This Editing Life: The Joys and Imperatives of Documentary Editing’, Scholarly Editing: The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing 35: 1-10

Ann Cvetkovich. 2012. Depression: A Public Feeling (Durham: Duke University Press)

Elliott, Kamilla. 2012. Portraiture and British Gothic Fiction. The Rise of Picture Identification, 1764-1835. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press

Freeman, Elizabeth. 2010. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham: Duke University Press)

Gabler, Hans Walter. 2009. ‘Thoughts on Scholarly Editing. Review of: Paul Eggert, Securing the Past. Conservation in Art, Architecture and Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2009)’. In: JLTonline (03.03.2011) Persistent Identifier: urn:nbn:de:0222-001542 Link: http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0222-001542.10

______. 2010. ‘Theorizing the Digital Scholarly Edition’, Literature Compass 7.2: 43-56.

Henderson, Lisa. 2015. ‘Queers and Class: Toward a Cultural Politics of Friendship’, Key Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism 13: 17-38

Jameson, Fredric. 1981. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (London: Methuen)

Klein, Melanie. 1975. Love, Guilt, and Reparation, and Other Works, 1921-1945 (London: Hogarth Press)

Lesjak, Carolyn. 2013. ‘Reading Dialectically’, Criticism 55.2: 233-277

Love, Heather. 2010a. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press)

______. 2010b. ‘Truth and Consequences: On Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading’, Criticism 52.2: 235-241

Mandell, Laura. 2010. ‘Special Issue: “Scholarly Editing in the Twenty-First Century” – A Conclusion’, Literature Compass 7.2: 120-133

Ricoeur, Paul. 1970. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 2003. ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You’, in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press)

Shillingsburg, Peter. 2012. ‘Scholarly Editing as a Cultural Enterprise’, Variants: the Journal of the European Society for Textual Scholarship 9: 251-272

Stacey, Jackie. 2014. ‘Wishing Away Ambivalence’, Feminist Theory 15.1: 39-49

Trapnel, Anna. 1654. Anna Trapnel’s Report and Plea. Or, A Narrative of her Journey from London into Cornwal (London: Thomas Brewster, 1654). A new edition, edited and introduced by Hilary Hinds, was published in 2016 in ‘The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe’ series by Iter at the University of Toronto, and the Arizona Centre for Medieval and Romantic Studies.

Weed, Elizabeth. 2012. ‘The Way We Read Now’, History of the Present 2.1: 95-106

Widdowson, Peter. 1999. Literature (London: Routledge)

Wiegman, Robyn. 2014. ‘The Times We’re In: Queer Feminist Criticism and the Reparative Turn”’, Feminist Theory 15.1: 4-25

Wolfson, Susan J. 2010. ‘Our Affection for Books’, Literature Compass 7.2: 62–71

Wray, Ramona. 2009. ‘“What Say You to [This] Book? […] Is It Yours?” Oral and Collaborative Narrative Trajectories in the Mediated Writings of Anna Trapnel’, Women’s Writing 16.3: 408-24

Translating Surfaces: Shakespeare’s As You Like It 1599-1989

Translating Surfaces: Shakespeare’s As You Like It, 1599-1989

Liz Oakley-Brown

[1] Andrzej Krauze’s artwork for Tim Albery’s 1989 Old Vic production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It (c. 1599) crafts a striking perspective of the play.[1] His illustration of printed ink on paper fusing skinscape and landscape – the contours of a finely fashioned (feminine?) profile resemble a sparse green-spiked forest encircled by a smooth hirsute hinterland – nimbly captures the comedy’s famous dramatisation of unstable borders, margins and frames. Krauze’s textural design, however, simultaneously raises questions about As You Like It’s engagement with the surface: that ‘boundary condition that comes into being through the active relation of two or more distinct entities or conditions,…The sur-face, as a facing above or upon (sur-) a given thing’ which ‘refers first of all back to the thing it surfaces, rather than to a relation between two or more things’ (Hookway 2014:12). The play’s optical-verbal intensity is illustrated in this brief description of a woman’s hand:

I saw her hand – she has a leathern hand,
A freestone-coloured hand – I verily did think
That her old gloves were on, but ‘twas her hands,
She has a housewife’s hand – but that’s no matter. (4.3.24-7)

As it oscillates between concepts of texture and colour, this quotation (to which I will return) delineates how certain surfaces are more conspicuous at certain times than at others; they ‘emerge, take form, and vanish’ (Amato 2013: 224). Modernism’s reverence of design and phenomenology’s interest in embodied experience, for example, articulate specific twentieth-century discourses of superficiality; postmodernism’s disavowal of depth and political ecology’s understanding of ‘vibrant matter and lively things’ (Bennett 2010: viii) delineate later outward-looking approaches. With a nod to their cultural and political significance, Joseph A. Amato suggests that ‘human history can be written as the story of human recognition and control of both natural surfaces and made and designed surfaces’ (2013: 197). My contribution to this special issue on Scrutinizing Surfaces in Early Modern Thought considers a marked Elizabethan publication of the word ‘surface’ and what I will suggest is a telling neglect in As You Like It. In so doing, I explore how a comparison of Shakespeare’s late sixteenth-century play and Paul Czinner’s 1936 cinematic adaptation help illuminate the ideological significance of the surface by way of four principal properties – stage, skin, stone and screen – and the importance of its visibility for appraising ‘human history’ in different epochs and media.

[2] In the last decade of Elizabeth I’s reign, a quotidian sense of the term surface had still to settle. By contrast with the Euclidean idea of ‘superficies’, defined in John Dee’s ‘Mathematical Preface’ to The elements of geometrie as ‘A broade magnitude’ (Billingsey (tr.) 1570: a5r),[2] the OED insinuates that the word ‘surface’ (etymologically allied with the fourteenth-century French term meaning the ‘outermost boundary of any material object’) first enters the English language via Thomas Bowes’ 1594 translation of Pierre de la Primaudaye’s The second part of the French academie containing ‘a naturall historie of the bodie and soule of man’.[3] In his address to the book’s ‘Christian Reader’, Bowes writes that ‘Seneca the Philosopher reporteth…that the looking glasse was first invented to this end, that man might use it as a meane to know himself the better by (a5r)’.[4] The translator (‘a devout Puritan’) (Boro 2004: para 1)) discusses the fabric of the reflective, but reductive, classically-inspired material ‘looking glasse’ which ‘doth represent unto our eyes only so much of the surface of our own bodies as is directly before it’ (my emphasis). Bowes thus establishes The second part of the French academie – ‘a prose compendium of scientific, moral and philosophical knowledge’ (Gillespie 2001: 277) – as a Protestant speculum which ‘will in most evident maner represent unto us not only the outward members of mans body both before and behind and on every side, but even the most hidden and inward parts thereof’ (a5r; my emphasis). While Bowes’ Elizabethan text is exceptional for the ways in which the words ‘surface’ and ‘bodies’ are brought into close proximity, The second part of the French academie is clearly interested in pushing past the human form to understand the transcendent self. Indeed, the translator’s swift but noteworthy use of the term surface underscores the ‘depth ontology’ (Miller 2010: 16) inherent in sixteenth-century Christian-humanist thought. However, if Bowes is skeptical of the ‘looking glasse’ as a useful device, the work of seventeenth-century microscopists such as Anthony van Leeuwenhoek, Robert Hooke and Marcello Malpighi alongside Galileo Galilei’s telescopic observations ‘took the human mind, eye and hand below the surface of things and toward the outer horizons of space’ (Amato 2013: 128).[5] ‘Probably written at the end of 1598, perhaps first performed early in 1599, and first printed in the First Folio in 1623’ (Dusinberre 2006: 1), As You Like It is produced in the midst of these linguistic, intellectual and ocular shifts. In what follows I argue that Shakespeare’s play presents a perceptive exploration – before (or aside from) the letter – of how the surface is bound with the politics of selfhood.

[3] Like the Shakespearean canon in general, the play does not use the word ‘surface’ or ‘superficies’.[6] And yet As You Like It’s generic status as a play and its dramaturgic components scrutinize surfaces at every turn. Shakespeare, argues Michael Witmore:

used the specific resources of the theatre – that is, its physical limitations; its reliance on sound, speech and gesture; its indebtedness in performance to the passage of chronological time – to say equally specific things about the relatedness of being in the world and their mutual participation in some larger, constantly changing whole […] in telling a story with speaking bodies and relying on their phenomenal presence to produce theatrical effects, theatre must constantly cope with the immediate meaning of sensation and the limits of any one particular body’s command of space. (Witmore 2008: 6)

Viewed this way, Shakespearean drama relies on the interplay between the surfaces of the actors’ bodies and stage apparatuses. In one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated speeches, As You Like It foregrounds a provocative ‘outermost boundary’ for an English Protestant audience. When ‘the melancholy Jaques’ (2.1.41) declaims ‘All the world’s a stage, | And all the men and women merely players’ (2.7.140-1), he employs the familiar early modern topos of the world stage (theatrum mundi), ‘the idea that the world itself was God’s theatre’ (Hawkins 1966: 174). ‘Men and women’, Jaques continues, ‘have their exits and their entrances, | And one man in his life plays many parts, | His acts being seven ages’: ‘infant’, ‘schoolboy’, ‘lover’, ‘solider’, ‘justice’, ‘pantaloon’ [feeble old man], ‘second childishness’ (2.7.142-167). Thomas Heywood’s prefatory poem to An Apology for Actors (1612) provides an example of the same convention:

The world’s a Theater, the earth a Stage,
Which God, and nature doth with Actors fill,
Kings have their entrance in due equipage,
And some there parts play well and others ill.
When we are borne, and to the world first enter,
And all finde Exits when their parts are done.
If then the world a Theater present,
As by the roundnesse it appeares most fit,
Built with starre-galleries of hye ascent,
In which Jehove doth as spectator sit. (a4r-a4v)

As expected from the introduction to an extended essay concerned with defending the theatre from contemporaneous detractors, combined with Heywood’s marginal comment ‘no Theatre, no world’ (a4v), the poem provides a more detailed yet arguably challenging depiction than Shakespeare’s dramatization. While an Elizabethan audience might understand the religious discourses of resemblance inscribed in Jaques’ speech – the idea that God is the prime mover – from a twenty-first century materialist standpoint As You Like It also draws attention to the plane upon which human beings perform teleological patterns circumscribed by their embodied and quantifiable conditions. He begins by embracing both genders, but Jaques’ ‘strange eventful history’ (2.7.168) ultimately offers a chronologically-ordered view of a predominantly masculine society: the stage-as-surface facilitates difference rather than resemblance.

[4] According to Amato:

Surfaces, in all their variety, define margins, set down borders, establish grids, and form interfaces. But surfaces also have openings and entrances, cracks, caves, and crevices. They abound with holes, doors, portals, entries, and windows, forming two or more realms of being. (2013: 30)

With its central figure of an exaggerated ‘cross-dressed heroine’ (Dusinberre 2006: 1) alongside the invocation of ‘tongues in trees, ‘books in the running brooks’ and ‘Sermons in stones’ (2.1.16-17), As You Like It explores the heterogeneous ‘realms of being’ that Amato describes. Most overtly, of course, gendered bodies are reviewed via the palimpsestic portrayal of the comedy’s female protagonist Rosalind who takes on the guise as a young man (Ganymede) in order to escape her uncle Duke Frederick’s wrath. Played (as always on the sixteenth-century stage) by a boy actor, the cross-dressed scenario is extended when Rosalind-as-Ganymede pretends to be ‘Rosalind’ (3.2.409) to counsel Orlando (the object of her affection) in the pursuit of women. The unpredictable sexual politics of desire are examined further still when a shepherdess (Phoebe) becomes enamoured with Rosalind-as-Ganymede. In the words of Juliet Dusinberre, ‘The part of Rosalind manifests an awareness of gender as performance’ (2006: 9) which continues to the very end of the play as the Epilogue – delivered by the boy-actor playing Rosalind – emphasises artfulness:

My way is to conjure you, and I’ll begin with the women. I charge you, O women, for the love you bear to men, to like as much of this play as please you. And I charge you, O men, for the love you bear to women (as I perceive by your simpering none of you hates them), that between you and the women the play may please. If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me and breaths that I defied not. (2006: 10-19)

The teasing conditional clause ‘If I were a woman’ (Epilogue, 16-17) is a final reminder that the Shakespearean actor inhabits ‘a place which is not precisely masculine or feminine, where the notion of identity itself is disrupted’ (Belsey 1985: 187). In one of As You Like It’s defining episodes, a sense of the surface ‘as a boundary condition’ is pressed. Indeed, Rosalind/Ganymede’s multi-hyphenate role cracks Jaques’ androcentric perspective of the world.

[5] Robert Record’s The pathway to knowledg, containing the first principles of geometrie (1551) describes how ‘in a Globe, (whiche is a bodie rounde as a bowle) there is but one platte forme, and one bounde)’ (Aiiir). While the comedy’s precise provenance is uncertain, some scholars speculate that As You Like It was performed in the Globe Theatre (Bednarz 2013: 267), a self-consciously named building which is attendant to the same world stage topoi invoked in Jaques’ speech. Like Heywood’s marginalia, however, the Epilogue resists a wholly orthodox understanding of social and cultural hierarchy. ‘As a playwright working in the theatre called “The Globe”’, Michael Witmore explains, ‘Shakespeare […] would have been called upon to do [a] sort of metaphysical housekeeping of the universe, endowing objects, people and events with their own distinctive qualities and principles of change’(2008: 6). Hence, As You Like It’s overarching interest in surfaces works with the playing space to tacitly interrogate rather than uphold such a singular sensibility. Although its structure is apparently round [7] – Prologue in Shakespeare’s Henry V (c.1599) refers to the dramatic action about to take place ‘Within this wooden O’ (Craik 1995: Prologue 13) ‒ the Globe Theatre encases a far more multi-faceted environment than either the world-stage concept, Record’s definition or Prologue’s gesture suggests. In common with many of London’s early South Bank theatres:

Inside, not outside, provided their very reason for being. What they contained, most obviously, was spectacle: many-sided galleries, surrounding the thrust stage as a focal point, gave much better sight-lines than a square structure would for viewing not only the play but other members of the audience. Extrapolating from the Fortune contract, no one in the Fortune or the 1599 Globe was more than fifty feet from an actor downstage, at the focal centre of the space. (Smith 1999: 206)

As has been comprehensively discussed, ‘The most important architectural characteristic of the original Globe Theatre’ is its thrust stage. Without the proscenium arch’s invisible but divisive ‘fourth wall’, the Elizabethan amphitheatre provided a collective acting and play-going space (Soule 2005: 4). Such an immersive experience demanded a particular kind of stagecraft:

Given that the performers were surrounded by spectators on three sides, it is also certain that they had to perpetually alter the direction in which they faced, in order to maintain contact (even eye contact) with spectators on all sides (as well as above them in the galleries). (Soule 2005: 4)

While Lesley Wade Soule’s account is keenly aware of the Globe Theatre’s holistic environment, the description only considers horizontal and ascendant contact. Notably, there are spectators beneath the performers’ eye-level. The groundlings’ position in front of the stage, for example, engage with the play from the surface of the stage upward, a sightline stressing ‘the reliance of that art upon footwork and footwear’ (Korda 2015: 86). The timber platform upon which the performers’ stand – and upon which the audience might lean – is also accentuated. According to Bruce R. Smith, ‘The 1599 Globe was an instrument to be played upon, and the key instrument was wood’ (1999: 208). Linking non-human and human surfaces on a multiplicity of levels, and in the way that As You Like It’s Epilogue suggests, the ‘boundary conditions’ between player, stage and spectator are not clearly, nor simply, divided.

Skin and Stone
[6] In their respective use of the world stage motif, Jaques’ speech and Heywood’s text are concerned with the separation of theatre-related surfaces. Carla Mazzio argues that ‘A word used as often as “spectator” and “audience” to describe playgoers in the Renaissance was the “assembly”’ (2003: 162). She goes on to discuss how the term ‘implied not only a coming together of persons, but a physical touching of bodies in space’ (162), and the ways in which the dangerous agency of touch thus engaged the minds of anti-theatrical sensibilities. Stephen Gosson’s The Schoole of Abuse, Conteining a plesaunt inuective against Poets, Pipers, Plaiers, Iesters and such like Caterpillers of a commonwealth (1579), for instance, reasons that theatrical performance established ‘straunge consortes of melody, to tickle the eare’. A play’s foremost ability to physically, and erotically, stimulate the auditory organ is succeeded by a series of threatening sensations: ‘costly apparel, to flatter the sight; effeminate gesture, to ravish the sence; and wanton speache, to whet desire too inordinate lust’ (qtd in Mazzio 2003: 178). From Gosson’s censorious viewpoint, the early modern theatre’s use of unnatural music, expensive costumes, womanly behaviour and garrulity render play-going morally overwhelming. Such complex relationships between nonhuman and human matter are paralleled in As You Like It’s plot and dramaturgy. A short but nonetheless arresting quotation from the opening act is illustrative of how the play’s verbal and non-verbal signs – somatic and lithic ‒ draw attention to the societal qualities of surfaces. Spoken by a court jester initially allied with a ‘whetstone’ (1.2.53: ‘A shaped stone used for giving a smooth edge to cutting tools when they have been ground (OED; my emphasis) before he is eventually named ‘Touchstone’ (2.4.17: a piece of stone ‘used for testing the quality of gold and silver alloys by the colour of the streak produced by rubbing them upon it (OED; my emphasis), the noteworthy line is an instruction: ‘Stroke your chins and swear by your beards that I am a knave’ (1.2.70-1). Given that the command is issued to Celia (the daughter of the usurping Duke) and the increasingly multifarious figure of Rosalind (the daughter of the exiled Duke), As You Like It’s investment in surface studies is thus made manifest in this early scene at court. According to Dusinberre:

The absence of a beard announces that Rosalind and Celia are women. Yet it also draws attention to the bodies of the boys playing them […]. The boy’s hand strokes a smooth chin, where bristle would be at present unwelcome – here he is with a woman’s part to perform – but ultimately welcome (2006: 11)

Will Fisher’s examination of facial hair as a prosthetic marker of gender difference (2001) and Mark Albert Johnston’s book-length disquisition on early modern England’s fetishisation of hirsute skin (2011) are indicative of the ways in which Shakespeare’s comedy connects with the topical discourses about boys, bodies and beards. Somewhat differently, Dusinberre’s description of As You Like It’s fleeting, cutaneous caress foregrounds a fleshly circuit of the hand’s surface meeting the chin’s: object momentarily melds into subject. Nonetheless, As You Like It primarily observes how gender difference operates on the surface of the skin. Touchstone’s inaugural scene with Celia and Rosalind fashions a ‘stroke’ which, if not exactly ‘effeminate’, can be seen as a charged Gossonian ‘gesture’.

[7] As the women follow his command to ‘stroke’ their ‘chins’, Touchstone’s speech is a metatheatrical moment accentuating the meeting of fleshly surfaces and touch itself. In the late twentieth century, Ashley Montagu contends that skin:

is the oldest and the most sensitive of our organs, our first medium of communication, and our most efficient protector. The whole body is covered by skin. Even the transparent cornea of the eye is overlain by a layer of modified skin. The skin also turns inward to line orifices such as the mouth, nostrils, and anal canal. In the evolution of the senses the sense of touch was undoubtedly the first to come into being. (1986: 3)

Aristotle’s order of the senses might have ranked sight in pole position, but sixteenth-century England possessed a flexible attitude to the hierarchical classical sensorium.[8] Shakespeare’s contemporary Michael Drayton, for example, produced a sonnet addressed ‘To the Senses’ (publ. 1619) which observes that touching is ‘(The king of senses, greater than the rest), / He yields Love up the keys unto my heart, /And tells the other how they should be blest’ (qtd in Harvey 2003: 3). Drayton’s poetic representation of the inward shift from touch to the heart is also alert to premodern culture’s fluid treatment of the interior and external dimensions of bodies. Similarly, Thomas Newton’s 1576 translation of Levinus Lemnius’ popular handbook, The touchstone of complexions generallye appliable, expedient and profitable for all such, as be desirous and carefull of their bodylye health: contayning most easie rules and ready tokens, whereby every one may perfectly try, and throughly know, as well the exacte state, habite, disposition, and constitution, of his owne body outwardly: as also the inclinations, affections, motions, and desires of his mynd inwardly confirms the sinuous connections between sixteenth-century skins, surface and emotion. As he guides his reader from the production of hair in childhood to manhood, Lemnius’ description is in accordance with details contained in the first known European publication on dermatology, Giralamo Mercurialis’s De morbis cutaneis [On skin diseases] (1572), a book ‘thoroughly Galenic in its elaboration of terms and distinctions and its focus on the skin’s excremental and evacuating functions’ (Connor 2004: 24).[9] Closely linked to concomitant trends in premodern humoralism (the concept that body fluids are responsible for health and disease) Lemnius’ treatise tells us something about the kinds of sensuous affects at stake in Touchstone’s instruction to ‘Stroke your chins and swear by your beards’.

[8] The section on ‘Of a hoate Complexion’, for example, contains an explanation of ‘why children have no beardes’:

For tender age and Childhoode is bare without hayres on the bodye, or els wyth verye smal, soft and mosye hayre onelye, because eyther there be no pores in theyr skinnes for the exhalation to evaporate and grow to the bignesse of hayres, or els there wanteth effluxe and fuliginous excrement, wherewithall the small threads of the hayres, are wont to be drawen and produced oute. But when they bee come neere aboute the age of xiiii. yeares, they beginne to bourgen and shewe forth, lytle and weake. Lustye and flourishinge Age, hath hayres stronger, fuller bushed & blackishe, for that, the pores and passages then beginne to open and be enlarged: and finally stoare of fumous exhalation aboundeth in those partes of the bodye, which are apte to generate and produce hayre, as the Heade, Chinne, Arme pittes, and Privities. […] Therefore the muche stoare and thicknes of hayre commeth of aboundaunce of humours: and the colour thereof is according as the heate is of greatnes. Therefore all those partes in mans body are most rough and hayrie, which abounde in moste heate. (41r-41v)

Connected to the pubescent development of the skin’s porosity and humoral activity, The touchstone of complexions examines the ‘partes in mans body’ which are most rough and hayrie. When Lemnius turns to women, the reader is told that:

women by very same reason that yong Stryplings are, have no hayre on theyr bodyes, but be smothe and slicke skinned, savinge onelye theyr heades and crowne where their hayre groweth in marveylous great plentye, for that the vapours do very much and aboundantly ascend upward. In their other partes their skinne is smothe and unhayrye, because moysture is above heate. Saving […] in and about theyr secrete pryvityes, where also hayrinesse appeareth, such women as be greatlye destrous of carnall lust and copulacion, be verye roughe and thick growen with hayre thereabout, and the more lecherous, the more hayrie and fruictfull. (42v )

By comparison with men and their ‘lecherous’ counterparts, Elizabethan women’s skin – ‘smothe and slicke’– should offer scant resistance: its surface should be glossy, well-conditioned. Though commonly viewed as an archetypal Shakespearean fool who shows ‘wit through parody’ and offers ‘criticism of the social and literary affections of the day’ (Goldsmith 1953: 886-90), as the director of As You Like It’s embedded scene Touchstone – a character whose very name is emblematic of tactility and of its determining power – illuminates the cultural significance of early modern matter and their surfaces in the play as a whole.

[9] In the wake of Rosalind’s spectacular interrogation of gender, the less obviously eye-catching role of Celia provides a complementary view of the relationship between surfaces and social difference. Explaining how she will dress herself ‘in poor and mean attire, / And with a kind of umber smirch my face’ – (1.3.108-9), Celia’s proposed concealment simultaneously depicts a revelation. Paradoxically, ‘boy actors regularly applied white make-up to appear feminine and aristocratic…The boy actor playing Celia would not in fact be applying brown pigment [‘umber’] to his face, but removing the white which disguised his natural boyhood’ (Dusinberre 2006: 186,n.109). In this premodern example of how ‘attitudes to cleanliness and dirt are…founded upon creative attempts at ordering in the social sphere’ (Kelley 2013: 16), the palette of the actor’s skin and its texture are crucial signs of both sexuality and class.

[10] From hereon, as Touchstone, Rosalind and Celia flee from court and take refuge in the Forest of Arden, the play’s interest in the social significance of surfaces gathers momentum. With this shift of scene:

the structure of the dramatic action changes considerably, loosening and altering its tone. Now the play’s dominant (and after III.i its only locale), Arden is the place where the hero and heroine can pursue their desires and encounter new characters and circumstances. Within this general locale, the action flows freely and episodically from place to place. Particular locations within the forest are either unspecific sites where characters happen to meet or locations identified by an association with particular characters such as the ‘campside court’ of Duke Senior or, later, the area near Rosalind and Celia’s cottage. Most of these tend to be associated with characters who make them their ‘homes’: (Soule 2005: 40)

Soul’s insightful description is alert to the Forest of Arden’s ductile qualities; it is a ‘general locale’ where ‘the action flows freely and episodically from place to place’. But even (or perhaps especially) here, surfaces are significant. At the start of Act 2 (the first scene in the Forest) the audience hears the First Lord’s tale about Jaques’ encounter with a wounded deer:

To-day my Lord of Amiens and myself
Did steal behind him as he lay along
Under an oak whose antique root peeps out
Upon the brook that brawls along this wood:
To the which place a poor sequester’d stag,
That from the hunter’s aim had ta’en a hurt,
Did come to languish, and indeed, my lord,
The wretched animal heaved forth such groans
That their discharge did stretch his leathern coat
Almost to bursting, and the big round tears
Coursed one another down his innocent nose
In piteous chase; and thus the hairy fool
Much marked of the melancholy Jaques,
Stood on the extremest verge of the swift brook,
Augmenting it with tears. (2.1.29-43)

Gabriel Egan shows how ‘the touching image of the animal’s big tears rolling down its face carries a fractal (that is, self-similar) miniature representation of the chase that led to its predicament, and his “leathern coat” painfully anticipates what will become of his skin if his body falls into human hands’ (2006: 100). Encapsulating premodern syncretism in its recollection and anticipation of the stag’s tragic timeline, all at once the First Lord’s account blurs the demarcations between ‘antique root’ and ‘wretched animal’. While this episode hints at a compassionate exchange between non-human and human beings, the emotional connection between animal and man is not securely established. As the audience listens to the means by which Jaques ‘moralize(d) this spectacle…into a thousand similes’ (2.1.43-5) using, as Egan tells us, ‘almost entirely urban terms’ (101), the First Lord’s sketch expounds how he ‘Stood on the extremest verge of the swift brook’. Like Act 2’s later world-stage set piece, Jaques adopts an aloof position which places him apart from water, wood and animal. In an example of what Douglas Trevor calls ‘scholarly melancholy’ (2004: 5), Jaques evidently articulate understanding of the stag’s beleaguered circumstances is aligned with humanism’s desire for textual dexterity not empathy. Two acts later, when Orlando’s estranged brother Oliver returns, the audience learn of another incident which took place in a similar setting:

Under an oak, whose boughs were moss’d with age
And high top bald with dry antiquity,
A wretched ragged man, o’ergrown with hair,
Lay sleeping on his back: (4.3.103-6)

Whereas Jaques is viewed apart from the forest’s brook and the stag’s tears, Oliver’s tale of his ‘conversion’ (4.3.135) and the siblings’ reconciliation initially confounds vegetable and human existence as he describes a tree ‘moss’d with age’ and a ‘wretched ragged man, o’ergrown with hair’. But these animate objects are not analogous. The tree’s obscured bark contributes to a sagacious arboreal attitude while the man’s hidden skin is indicative of social deprivation. Conspicuously, the restoration of the body’s surface is aligned with Oliver’s social and familial rehabilitation.

[11] Of course, Rosalind-as-Ganymede confronts and confounds gender difference. Yet the cross-dressed character’s critique of Phoebe’s appearance rests on a set of cultural codes inscribed in Celia’s dirt-ridden disguise and Oliver’s report:

I saw her hand – she has a leathern hand,
A freestone-coloured hand – I verily did think
That her old gloves were on, but ‘twas her hands,
She has a housewife’s hand – but that’s no matter. (4.3.24-7)

This episode, which Dusinberre calls ‘one of the rudest moments of the play’ (2006: 34), reinforces the significance of corporeal texture and colour for early modern English social identities. By contrast with the ‘white hand of Rosalind’ (3.2.378-9), Phoebe’s ‘free-stone coloured hand’ delineates skin that is ‘tawny-coloured, like Cotswold’ (Dusinberre 2006: 304, n.25). From the cross-dressed character’s perspective, smoothness and paleness are privileged terms. Yet Phoebe is also conscious of ‘boundary conditions’. Her initial appearance takes the form of a ‘pageant…/ Between the pale complexion of true love / And the red glow of scorn and proud disdain’ (3.4.49-51) observed by Rosalind-as-Ganyede, Celia-as-Aliena and Corin, a fellow shepherd. Introduced as a type of play-within-a-play, the trio watch a scene of unrequited love between Phoebe and Silvius, her disappointed suitor. Exploiting early modern tracts which theorise how matter is ‘transmitted from the lover to the eye of the beloved’ (Anderson 2015: 198), Phoebe’s rejection of Silvius’ amorous advances is configured as a blink to protect the ‘eyes, that are the frail’st and softest things/ Who shut their coward gates on atomies’ (3.5.12-14). With this magnified glimpse of ocular vulnerability, the shepherdess dramatizes how early modern embodiment and emotion depend on surface interaction.

[12] The two foregoing sections of this essay, from Touchstone’s instruction to ‘Stroke your chins’ to Phoebe’s awareness of the body’s permeability, has examined some of the ways in which Shakespeare’s Elizabethan play draws attention to a specifically early modern sense of the surface. In this third and final section, the discussion’s focus shifts to a twentieth-century film adaptation – ‘The British (Inter-Allied) adaptation…directed by Paul Czinner…(best known today for Laurence Olivier’s first appearance on screen in a Shakespeare film’ (Cartmell 2016: 57) – to exemplify cultural difference. Indeed, Frederick Kiesler’s 1929 comment that ‘film is a play on surface’ (qtd in Bruno 2014: 55) helps to show how and with what effects Elizabethan theatre’s meshy inclinations morph into modernism’s commitment to solidified matter.

[13] Though Deborah Cartmell states that she ‘would rank’ Czinner’s As You Like It as the ‘worst of all of the Shakespeare films of the early sound period’ (2016: 61),[10] this adaptation employs the medium’s capacity for ‘synchronized sound’ alongside ‘the newest techniques of design and cinematography’ (Jackson 2006: 238) with striking effects. Russell Jackson suggests that the film:

[…] takes its place alongside the many distinguished films where the elaborate artifice by which quasi-realistic effects are produced takes the viewer into a new kind of hyper-reality, where we take pleasure in the devices themselves. (2005: para 4)

This ‘elaborate artifice’ begins after the opening titles.[11] The camera pans left across a cloud-strewn sky into the canopy of a living tree then descends into a fabricated orchard-come-forest which ‘Publicity claimed…was 300 feet long and built across two large sound stages at Elstree, making it the largest exterior set ever constructed in a British studio’ (Jackson 2005: para 2). The burnished patina of the court in the subsequent scene exacerbates this ‘new kind of hyper-reality’ (Figure 1a) and close-up shots capture Rosalind’s tear-stained face, significantly played by a woman actor Elisabeth Bergner, as an equivalently lustred facade (Figure 1b).

Figure 1a


Figure 1b

Lazare Meerson’s innovative set designs facilitate the film’s modernist aesthetic. The designer explains:

Concerning perspective, each form introduced into a set should serve, through its line and surface, to establish a certain depth. It is a question of choice and elimination; choice, so as to find elements giving the greatest suggestion of depth, and elimination, so as to cut out elements extremely suggestive by their beauty but which would disturb the limited space in which a picture is made. (qtd in Bergfelder, Harris and Street 2007: 98).

Tim Bergfelder, Sue Harris and Sarah Street note that ‘In As You Like It there are many examples’ of Meerson’s technique, ‘including the Forest of Arden in which the careful placement of trees creates perspective which is accentuated by figures walking into the background as if the space were indeed expansive’ (2007: 98). Though aesthetically impressive, Meerson’s design produces a three-dimensional tessellated overlay in which humankind’s mastery over matter is amplified.

Figure 2a

Figure 2b

Figure 2c

[14] In this highly-edited Shakespearean adaptation, [12] Touchstone’s banter about beards at 1.2.70-1 is omitted (in fact, the character is silent until he reaches the Forest of Arden). Nonetheless, as with the early modern play, Touchstone remains an important device for understanding the film’s negotiation of surfaces. Cynthia Marshall explains that ‘Czinner took advantage of the cinematic medium by punctuating the fight [at 1.2.203] with Touchstone’s miming of its action and by including many reaction shots’ (2004: 66). In Shakespeare’s comedy we hear him say that ‘It is the first time that I ever heard breaking of ribs was sport for ladies’ (1.2.129-30). While that line, like so many, is excised, a great deal of Orlando and Charles’ cinematic struggle is focalised via the fool’s movements (Figures 2a and 2c). As the contest progresses and the camera switches between the wrestlers’ cutaneous contact (Figure 2b) and their onlookers, an extraordinary frame shows how Touchstone mirrors the wrestling match itself (Figure 2c). Shakespeare’s ‘motley critic’ (Goldsmith 1953) becomes Czinner’s spectator responding to, rather than commenting on, corporeal surfaces. The film was released at a time which saw ‘various attempts to understand the meaningful relation between cinema and our sensate bodies’ (Sobchack 2004: 54). Practical, empirical and theoretical work by Sergei Eisenstein, the Payne Studios, Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer, for instance, considered film ‘a sensuous and bodily form of perception’ (Sobchack 2004: 52-5). More recently, and in opposition to ‘ocularcentric paradigm[s]’ (Elsaesser and Hagener 2010: 109), late twentieth-century thinkers such as Laura Marks have examined the ways in which ‘vision itself can be tactile’ (Marks 2000: xi). Czinner’s film of the skin thus seems proleptic of Marks’ later theorisation in The Skin of the Film which:

offers a metaphor to emphasize the way film signifies through its materiality, through a contact between perceiver and object represented… to think of film as a skin acknowledges the effect of a work’s circulation among different audiences, all of which mark it with their presence. The title is meant to suggest polemically that film (and video) may be thought of as impressionable and conductive, like skin. I mean this both to apply to the material of film […] and also to the institution of cinema and cinema-going. (2000: xi-xii)

For of all of its phenomenal potential, Czinner’s As You Like It wraps up as it began, with modernity’s ‘immersion in the primacy of surface’ (Cheng, 2011: 10). And yet the concluding scenes go beyond the period’s aesthetic principles.

[15] Ultimately, it is impossible to ignore the political backdrop of Czinner’s Shakespearean adaptation. As Austrian Jewish refugees (Dusinberre 2006: 70) both the director and Bergner ‘had fled Nazi Germany’ in 1933 (Jackson 2005: 61; Dusinberre 2006: 70) and the film premiered in Britain on 3 September 1936 [13] – exactly three years before the declaration of war by France and the United Kingdom following Germany’s invasion of Poland. S. S. Prawer observes that ‘it is surely significant’ that As You Like It’s narrative is initiated by despotism and exile: This is, of course, the play whose hero and heroine are driven from their home by a tyrannous and unjust decree, and find hospitable refuge in a friendly tolerant society’ (2005: 188). With this context in mind, the plot’s separation from As You Like It’s self-reflexive coda – quite literally – by a gate marked ‘Epilogue’ (Figure 3a) seems emblematic of twentieth-century Europe’s social and political division. As we have seen, the Elizabethan play ends with the ‘ambiguous figure who no longer has a single name or sexual identity combining in one nature Rosalind, Ganymede, and the boy who played their parts’ (Rackin 1987: 36). On stage, such equivocal surface tensions are ‘impossible to recreate in modern performances with women actors in the part’ (Kemp 2010: 74). Likewise, Czinner’s As You Like It has difficulty in representing those premodern sexual imprecisions. Russell Jackson describes how ‘The film’s epilogue in which Bergner mutates from Rosalind (in her wedding finery) into Ganymede and then back again, engages playfully with the medium’s hesitation between going beyond the stage’s capabilities and invoking its status’ (2006: 239; Dusinberre 2006: 346, n.9). It is in this hesitancy that Czinner’s As You Like It relinquishes any residual debt to the early modern principles of theatrum mundi. Rather than leaving the cinema audience with the Elizabethan theatre’s composite and connected ambience, the film can only iterate societal and superficial difference (Figures 3b and 3c). In the form of a gradually closing barrier, the surface ‒ that ‘boundary condition’ – takes shape on screen.

Figure 3a

Figure 3b

Figure 3c

As an Austrian Jewish actor reaches out to their spectators, Phoebe’s depiction of ‘eyes’ as ‘coward gates’ (3.5.12-13) seems transposed into a wholly different kind of embodied separation.

[16] Almost fifty years ago, Michel Foucault opened his Preface to the highly influential The Order of Things (tr. 1970) with a reference to Jorge Luis Borges’ essay ‘The Analytical Language of John Wilkins’ (1941) which discusses a fabulous taxonomy of animals in a supposed Chinese encyclopedia. In the words of Foucault:

This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought – our thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography – breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between Same and Other. (1970: xv)

Before Foucault and Borges, Shakespeare’s comedy negotiates ‘ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things’. Produced alongside vernacularity’s burgeoning interest in the word, yet without invoking the term ‘surface’ itself, As You Like It turns on the analysis of ‘outermost boundaries’ which shape division between ‘the Same and the Other’. In both the form of a play and its twentieth-century cinematic adaptation, Shakespeare’s comedy provides some insight of how surfaces facilitate the cultural and the political order and yet how easily their significance can be manipulated and eventually overlooked.

Lancaster University


This essay has had a long gestation period and I have benefited immeasurably from numerous formal and informal discussions. In particular, I would like to thank Alison Findlay with whom I convened the panel on ‘Shakespearean Surfaces’ for the 2007 British Shakespeare Association and co-organised the 2012 British Shakespeare Conference Shakespeare Inside-Out: Depth/Surface/Meaning. I would also like to thank Rebecca Coleman for her theoretical insights during our 2013 conference Theorising Surfaces and beyond. Last but not least, I thank Kevin Killeen, Hilary Hinds and the anonymous readers of this article for their extremely encouraging and helpful comments.

[1] A digitized image can be accessed via the ‘Theatre and Performance Collection’, The Victoria and Albert Museum <http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1166629/poster-krauze-andrzej> [date accessed 27 April 2017]. All quotations from Shakespeare’s play are from Juliet Dusinberre (ed.), 2006. [back to text]

[2] The OED suggests that the term ‘superficies’ was often used in premodern texts concerned with measurement e.g. ‘The extremes or limites of a bodye, are superficiesses’, in The elements of geometrie of the most auncient philosopher Euclide of Megara. Faithfully (now first) translated into the Englishe toung, by H. Billingsley, citizen of London (1570: i.2r).[back to text]

[3] I was reminded of the OED definition of ‘surface’ in Forsyth et al. 2013: 1015. However, a search on a digitized resource such as Early English Books Online (EEBO) or Lancaster University’s Corpus Query Processor (CQPweb) shows the term extant in the 1580s. I would like to thank Kevin Killeen for refining this point. [back to text]

[4] When citing premodern texts from their original sources, I have modernised i/j and u/v, and have silently expanded contractions.[back to text]

[5] For a detailed discussion of vision’s significance in the period see Stuart Clark (2007).[back to text]

[6] I would like to acknowledge Lawrence Green, ‘“This loam, this rough-cast and this stone”: Walls both ‘wicked’ and ‘courteous’ in Shakespeare’s plays’ and Lucy Razzall, ‘The other syde of the lefe’: Titles, Pages, Surfaces and the Early Modern Material Text’, Scrutinizing Surfaces in Early Modern Thought (Lancaster, UK, 8-9 May 2015. Both talks considered Shakespeare’s lack of engagement with the term ‘surface’. According to Open Source Shakespeare’s ‘Concordance, the nearest equivalent terms are ‘superficial’ and ‘superficially’ http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/concordance/ [date accessed 15 March 2017][back to text]

[7] Based on ‘dimensions projected from partial excavations of the site in 1989, the Globe was a twenty-sided polygon 99 feet in diameter’ (Smith 2009: 210).[back to text]

[8] On the orthodox order of the senses see Andrew Gurr’s discussion of Andreas du Laurens, A Discourse of the Preservation of the Sight… trans. by Richard Surphlet (1599) (1996: 89).[back to text]

[9] See Tanya Pollard for the ways in which ‘over the course of the period, the notion of healthy permeability gradually gave way to fantasies of the body as an impenetrable fortress, sealed off from the world through a protective and vigilantly guarded cover’ (2010: 112).[back to text]

[10] Kalem (1908) and Vitagraph (1912) produced silent versions.[back to text]

[11] A public domain copy of the film can be accessed here:  <https://archive.org/details/AsYouLikeIt1936>[back to text]

[12] Lesley Wade Soule’s individual timings for each scene add up to a running time for the whole play of approximately 138 minutes (2005: 46-124). Czinner’s film is 96 minutes long.[back to text]

[13] This information is from the IMDb website <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0027311/releaseinfo?ref_=tt_dt_dt> [date accessed 2 April 2017].[back to text]


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