Tuesday, February 14, 2017

These Violent Delights have Violent Ends: The Sword and the Instant of Time in Romeo and Juliet

Here's the abstract of the essay I'll be taking to the Shakespeare Association of American in Atlanta (April 2017).  If you'd like to comment on the full draft, you can do that at Academia.edu.

These Violent Delights have Violent Ends: 
The Sword and the Instant of Time in Romeo and Juliet

It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden; 
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be 
Ere one can say ‘It lightens.’ 

The early moderns’ fascination with the nature of time was particularly acute when it came to its smallest divisions, the so-called instant of time or change, when one action or situation ends and another begins. On the one hand, natural philosophy, beginning with Zeno and Aristotle, had long wrestled with the paradoxical implications of time’s divisibility into discrete instants. On the other hand, the most important human experiences, such as dying or falling in love, were understood to occur in a moment of time so small as to be inaccessible to human understanding. Certain disciplines and practices were particularly concerned with understanding, and sometimes theorizing, precise timing, disciplines such as the theatre, music, dance, and above all, fencing. Early modern dueling masters devoted considerable attention to the concept of tempo, described alternately as the instant between two actions or the action between two instants. In appearance, a good swordsman’s movements might seem smoothly continuous, but the discipline was based on the separation of action into discrete moments separated by instants in which one movement ends and another has yet to begin. Theorists sought to define the “true time,” in which an attack should take place. In a fight, failure could produce a mortal wound in an instant. It is no accident that a play like Romeo and Juliet, which is so concerned with the instant of change (in love and death) and in which tragedy results from a failure of timing, is also a play in which dueling plays a significant dramatic role.  Drawing on early modern natural philosophy and on fencing manuals by Fabris, Capoferro, Silver, and others, I argue that the instant of time was inherently freighted with a sense of loss and inaccessibility and that this emerging temporal concept drives the tragedy in Romeo and Juliet.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Mapping the Bristol Channel Flood of 1607

I have been analyzing reports this natural disaster both for the upcoming Shakespeare Association of America Conference and for a paper on early modern animals for the SCSC in Belgium. Along the way I made the online map below to help myself understand the scope of the disaster.

On January 20, 1607 a sudden inundation of the sea coast along both sides of the Severn estuary covered hundreds of square miles in sea water and killed many inhabitants, both people and animals. At least twelve villages appear to have permanently erased.

The cause is generally accepted to have been a storm surge combined with a spring tide and perhaps some rain-swollen rivers, although in 2004 an argument was advanced that the devastation was caused by a tsunami,1 based partly on geological evidence and partly on a few of the contemporary accounts like this description from a Welsh author in the pamphlet Gods warning to his people of England:
For upon the Tuesday being the 20 of January last ... about nine of the clocke in the morning, the Sunne being most fayrely and brightly spred, many of the Inhabitantes of those Countreys before mentioned, prepared themselves to their affayres ... Then they might see & perceive a far of, as it were in the Element, huge and mighty Hilles of water, tumbling one over another, in such sort as if the greatest mountaines, in the world, had over-whelmed the lowe Valeyes or Marshy grounds. Sometimes it so dazled the eyes of many of the Spectators, that they immagined it had bin some fogge or miste, comming with great swiftnes towardes them: and with such a smoke, as if Mountaynes were all on fire: and to the view of some, it seemed as it: of thousandes of Arrowes had bin shot foorth all at one time, which came in such swiftnes, as it was verify thought, that the Fowles of the ayre could scarse fly so fast, such was the threatning furyes thereof.
There are three published accounts of the tragedy in 1607 (one pamphlet came out in two editions in same year), it is memorialized in a variety of church plaques recording the height of the water, and it is mentioned in Camden and in several parish records.

1 Simon K. Haslett and Edward A. Bryant, "The AD 1607 Coastal Flood in the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary: Historical Records from Devon and Cornwall (UK)," Archaeology in the Severn Estuary 15, no. 81–89 (2004). The argument for storm surge was argued most recently in Kevin Horsburgh and Matt Horritt, "The Bristol Channel Floods of 1607 –reconstruction and Analysis," Weather 61, no. 10 (October 1, 2006): 272–77.

 Primary Sources

Anon. A True Report of Certaine Wonderfull Ouerflowings of Waters, Now Lately in Summerset-Shire, Norfolke, and Other Places of England Destroying Many Thousands of Men, Women, and Children, Ouerthrowing and Bearing Downe Whole Townes and Villages, and Drowning Infinite Numbers of Sheepe and Other Cattle.  London, 1607.

---. Lamentable Newes out of Monmouthshire in VVales Contayning, the Wonderfull and Most Fearefull Accidents of the Great Ouerflowing of Waters in the Saide Countye, Drowning Infinite Numbers of Cattell of All Kinds, as Sheepe, Oxen, Kine and Horses, with Others: Together with the Losse of Many Men, Women and Children, and the Subuersion of Xxvi Parishes in Ianuary Last 1607.  London, 1607.

---. More Strange Newes: Of Wonderfull Accidents Hapning by the Late Ouerflowings of Waters, in Summerset-Shire, Gloucestershire, Norfolke, and Other Places of England. London, 1607.

Jones, William of Usk. Gods Warning to His People of England By the Great Ouer-Flowing of the Vvaters or Floudes Lately Hapned in South-Wales and Many Other Places. Wherein Is Described the Great Losses, and Wonderfull Damages, That Hapned Thereby: By the Drowning of Many Townes and Villages, to the Vtter Vndooing of Many Thousandes of People. London, 1607.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Finding the Blade

While in Chicago, I signed up for Renaissance style fencing lessons at Forteza Fitness. This club is a member of HEMA - Historical European Martial Arts. Their goal is to reconstruct early forms of fighting, through careful study of primary documents and with hands-on experimentation. I signed up on lark (swords!) but I quickly discovered that learning to fence in the Renaissance Italian style (the style that became popular in Elizabethan England) was opening my eyes to concepts and connections I had before understood only hazily and indirectly. It is a testament to the value of experiential learning. Not only was I understanding more deeply the material culture of the past, but I was appreciating its connection to a variety of common early modern concepts. My esteemed instructor, Trey Ptak, is a man who, but for his name, could have stepped from the pages of Alexandre Dumas. He teaches, partly in Italian, directly from the pages of dei Liberi, Fabris, and Capoferro. Imagine a gym class that begins with a lecture on dueling and sword design and in which discussion ranges from Romeo & Juliet to Aphra Behn. Here are some of the things I have learned, or relearned.
  1. One of the most familiar concepts in Renaissance court culture is what the Italians called sprezzatura. Castiglione describes it best. The courtier should strive, "to do his feats with a slight, as though they were rather naturally in him, than learned with study: and use a Recklessness to cover art, without minding greatly what he hath in hand, to a man's seeming." When I teach the literature of this period, we always spend some time on this concept, reading Castiglione and considering the implications for a culture in which a gentleman is always deliberately advertising his recklessless and nonchalance without apparent regard for the consequences (consequences which in a Renaissance court could be deadly). The sword of course, was one of the quintessential marks of a gentleman, so it is no accident that its use would demonstrate the basic principles of aristocratic identity. However, handling a sword according the principles laid down in ancient fighting manuals brings this concept into sharp focus. Every aspect of swordplay seems designed to evoke casual disregard for consequence. The shoulders are relaxed, the sword held lightly, every movement is to be elegant, ideally liquid and without apparent effort. At the same time, the weapon is deadly, with a fine point (ours are blunted, thank heavens), and the game is one of life and death. I can think of no better analogue for court life in, say, the court of Henry VIII. It makes me think anew of Shakespeare's Richard II talking about Death:
    As if this flesh which walls about our life,
    Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus
    Comes at the last and with a little pin
    Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
    The sword embodies both the bravado of the Renaissance courtier and his necessary anxiety.

  2. The earliest fencing manuals were conceived in part by mathematicians. As a result there is a clear emphasis on geometry in the practice which reflects a well-known larger interest in geometry in Renaissance culture as a whole. The various guard positions are designed to create what has since been called a "cone of defense," in which attacks originating from a single point need to be deflected only outside a narrow cone that includes the body of the defender. See, for example, the aerial diagram of the two main guard positions, terza and quarta (3rd and 4th), in which a slight repositioning of the blade suffices to ward off two different attacks. This process, while invoking the nonchalant "just enough" quality of sprezzatura, echoes Renaissance developments in fortifications, which were also driven by geometric principles. The most famous illustrations are by Vauban, but the basic principle is the same as in fencing, only in reverse. A bastion is built to take up the entire cone of defense formed by defensive cannon, denying any sheltered spots for an attacker. Renaissance fortification is also based on the concept of forward defense or of treating defense as a kind of offense. Likewise Renaissance fencing manuals considered offense to be an extended form of defense. The classic attack, today called a "lunge," was for the Italian writers, merely an extension of a guard. One attacks by extending a guard, thus protecting oneself while attacking. Renaissance ideas about fortification had a huge influence upon the radial design of cities in the period, and cities in turn had an influence upon the human mind. The connections might seem obvious, but until I was forced to hold a sword in the various guards and to watch the effect of those guards upon the blade of an opponent, I had not thought to connect swordplay with city architecture or with larger ideas about cognition.

  3. The language of Renaissance fencing is also the language of music and dance, based on terms like tempo (time) and misura (measure). One is in measure (in attacking distance) or out of measure. One can attack in false time or in true time. A tempo in fencing can be described as either the pause between two movements or the movement between two pauses. In reality, a good fencer's movements may seem smoothly continuous, but the discipline is based on the separation of movement into discrete moments separated by instants in which one movement ends and another has yet to begin. I may be extrapolating too far here, but physically engaging in swordplay on a Renaissance plan makes me realize the extent to which basic concepts of time are under construction at the time. Writers of the period are fascinated by what has been called the instant of change, when one action or situation ends and another begins. The instant itself is vanishingly small, but it is still recognized as a thing since two states, such as life and death, are clearly different. It is therefore probably no accident that a play like Romeo & Juliet, which is so interested in the instant of change (falling in love, dying) is also a play in which fencing plays a dramatic role.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Golden Verse for a Golden Valley: Poetry, Agricultural Innovation, and the Environment in Early Modern Herefordshire

Here's what I'm planning for the 2016 MLA

Golden Verse for a Golden Valley: 
Poetry, Agricultural Innovation, and the Environment in Early Modern Herefordshire

      The animal-centered qualities of early modern England have been well documented both by historians and literary scholars. Less well theorized have been the effects of an increasingly  animal-centered economy on broader attitudes toward the agricultural environment.  By some accounts, livestock density doubled in the course of the sixteenth-century, a phenomenon driven by the increasing appetite of the markets of London for meat, wool, and other animal products.  These animals needed fodder, and the consequence was increasing agricultural innovation. In the early sixteenth century English pastures were in “a natural biological state”; by the end of the century they were “systematically cultivated, fertilized, and sown.”(1) The English meadow, so frequently a metonymy for the concept of nation, was becoming a site of dramatic environmental change, and England’s poetic resources were sometimes mobilized in the service of this change. I explore the results of this process in one especially pastoral region that felt these pressures acutely: Herefordshire and in particular the so-called “Golden Vale” along the river Dore. This was, among other things, the site of Rowland Vaughan’s famous invention of the water meadow. Drawing upon the encomiastic poetry of Robert Davies, Michael Drayton, and others, I argue that the poetry heralding early modern English agricultural innovation draws upon pastoral traditions in ways that deliberately cloak the dramatic environmental effects of such innovation. In this process it resembles the modern optimistic discourse of “sustainability” that fuels visions like Richard Alley’s “ten billion smiling people.”(2)

(1)  Mark Overton, Agricultural Revolution in England: The Transformation of the Agrarian Economy 1500-1850, (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 111.

(2)   Richard B. Alley, Earth: The Operators’ Manual (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011).

Monday, March 9, 2015

Map of Early Modern London (MoEML) provides amazing research opportunities for students

I'm very happy that my two students, Dana Demchak and Kate Casebeer, have been approved for FURSCA funding to work this summer on animal-related entries for the Map of Early Modern London digital humanities project.  Dana is going to start with the Royal Mews and Kate with the city Dog House.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Cow-Cross Lane and Curriers Row: Animal Bodies in the Procedural Rhetoric of Early Modern London

Here's my abstract for the "Animal Materialisms" seminar for the Shakespeare Association of America Conference (Vancouver, April 2105)

Of the enormous number of animals that entered London in the latter half of the sixteenth century, few ever left the city alive. This process is captures what Erica Fudge has called the creation of “animal-made-objects,” and by its logic the city itself can be considered a vast tool for turning animals into objects, from food to clothing. But Fudge also coined her term to conjure up its reversed meaning: not animals objectified but “objects constructed from animals” (42). If we extend both meanings of the term to the city, we might say that while early modern London made animals into objects, it was also a city made out of animals: it was itself an animal-made-object. In the past fifteen years, early modern animal studies has explored animal bodies largely through individual details. In what follows, I take a different approach to the issues. Rather than choosing a particular variety of animal (horse, dogs, etc.) or a particular animal-related event (bear baiting, etc.), as so many, including myself, have done before, I explore the value of viewing the various animal-human networks in one place and from a great height. My goal in this essay is to analyze early modern London’s “procedural rhetoric” (borrowing a term from Ian Bogost’s game theory) with respect to the animal bodies that had come to shape the city both economically and materially. I take as a primary source the multiple layers of content created by Janelle Jenstad and others in the Map of Early Modern London project (MoEML), layers which can be combined (GIS-fashion) to demonstrate visually the interrelationship between different stages in animal-encounters, from generation through transportation, processing, and consumption.  I draw also upon a variety of literary and extra literary sources to authenticate in a more familiar textual sense the larger persuasive rhetoric of the city.  Ultimately, I argue that the procedural rhetoric of early modern London constantly drew its human inhabitants into multiple and historically persistent forms of identification with animal material, shaping their behavior, their language, and their sense of communal identity.  The value of approaching animal London as a coherent rhetorical system is that doing so allows us to see how its persuasive logic both underlies and causes the kind of persistently animal-centered textual discourse that has become so familiar to us.

(1) This claim is not as hyperbolic as it sounds. Thanks to the work of historians over the last thirty years, it is well understood not only that early modern Western Europeans were more dependent on domestic animals than other cultures of the time but that England, particularly in the late sixteenth century was even more animal-dependent than other European nations.  

Works Cited

Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2010.

Fudge, Erica. “Renaissance Animal Things.” Gorgeous Beasts: Animal Bodies in Historical Perspective. Ed. Joan B. Landes, Paula Young Lee, and Paul Youngquist. University Park, Pa: Penn State UP, 2012. 41–56.

“MoEML: The Map of Early Modern London.” N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Why are rivers a traditional part of the pastoral idiom?

    In the conference version of my paper on the great Eastern rivers in English lyric, I wrote from the assumption that rivers had always been “a staple of pastoral poetry.” This is true, but the reasons for it are complex and appear to offer a path to understanding the way that pastoralism, primitivism, and biblical history merged in seventeenth-century English poetry.  The simplest explanation is that since pastoral poetry has an agricultural setting, rivers, as sources of irrigation would naturally play an important part. But this straightforward explanation is eclipsed by the pressures of culture and literary history. 
    Pastoral poetry arose in the classical world, and is first represented in the Idylls of Theocritus. His poems are lighthearted and bucolic, but they are at least partly mythological: the nymph Daphnis, legendary creator of pastoral poetry, is a central topic. Rivers, fountains, and springs had always served as important loci for the place-bound polytheism of the Hellenic world, which is why so many of the stories passed down involve such watery locales. For Theocritus, though, and for his many imitators over the centuries, springs and rivers serve partly as décor and partly as allusion to the sounds of poetry.   The shepherd Thyrsis exclaims, at the beginning of the first Idyll
Sweet is the music of yon whispering pine
Beside the spring; and, goatherd, sweetly thou pipest.
The goatherd replies,
Sweeter, O Shepherd, is a song of thine
Than the loud murmur of yon waterfall
That plushes down the crag.(1)
Out of this tradition was born the idea that pastoral poetry takes place within the sound of flowing water, and the shepherd/poet is always near a river.  The most famous of the Idylls, #5, begins, “Once upon a time three friends went forth from the city together, / Eucritus, I, and Amyntas, down to the river of Hales.”

Paralleling the classical tradition is a biblical one. In Genesis we are told:
And out of Eden went a river to water the garden, and from thence it was divided, and became into four heads.

The name of one is Pishon; the same compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where is gold.

And the gold of that land is good; there is Bdellium, and the Onyx stone.

And the name of the second river is Gihon; the same compasseth the whole land of Cush.

The name also of the third river is Hiddekel; this goeth toward the Eastside of Asshur.
And the fourth river is Perath. (2:10-14)
The notes in the Geneva Bible are thick in this passage, informing the reader of the location of Havilah, the possible identification of “bdelium,” and the fact that Hiddekel and Perath are the Tigris and Euphrates. Perhaps because it connects a legendary place with a known geography, this passage played an important part in subsequent representations of paradise, and rivers became firmly associated with the idea of an edenic world, the Judeo-Christian parallel to the classical Golden World.  Combined, these threads help explain the prevalence of rivers in primitivist and pastoral settings.

I’ll need to go back to Wyman Herendeen’s book, From landscape to literature: the river and the myth of geography, to see how much of this he has already covered. 

(1) Theocritus. The Idylls of Theocritus. Trans. James Henry Hallard. Rivingtons, 1901.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

“Despisèd straight”: Shakespeare's observation of semantic memory bias

Here's my abstract for the Shakespeare Association of America conference this spring (2014) in St. Louis.

“Despisèd straight”: Shakespeare's observation of semantic memory bias


The large number of early modern works devoted to memorization suggest how important memory was to the early moderns, but they also foreground the epistemology of memory (its adequacy or faithfulness) at the expense of more psychological concerns.  In particular, because such texts were primarily concerned with verbal or visual memory, they tended to obscure the key role of emotion except as catalytic or fixative (remembering using images that conjure up strong emotions). To some extent modern scholarship has tended to replicate the early modern focus. Those working on Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example, have tended to concentrate on the poems to the Young Man, in which memory is explicitly invoked, and on the adequacy or inadequacy of memory as represented by certain metaphorical models. Few focus on the process of recollection itself, and fewer still on the ways that emotions such as erotic desire shape remembrance.  Drawing on early modern theories of the passions, on Aristotle, and on modern psychological studies, I argue that the Sonnets move from an obsession with the adequacy of memory as a record of individuals and emotions toward a recognition that memory is a process utterly contingent upon the passions of the mind.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

“Thou by the Indian Ganges’ Side”: The Eastern river in Early English Lyric


Here's the abstract for my seminar paper for this year's SAA in Toronto:
“Thou by the Indian Ganges’ Side”: The Eastern river in Early English Lyric
Considerable critical attention has been devoted over the years to the subject of domestic rivers in early modern English culture.(1) River banks have always been a staple pastoral locale, but by the seventeenth-century, English rivers became the basis of a small genre of panegyric poetry and the structural basis for chorographical works, most famously Drayton’s Poly-Olbion. In his recent essay “Fluvial Nation,” Andrew McrAae argues that rivers were a uniquely English subject and that their appearance in poetry reflects an attempt to incorporate the concept of mobility within the discourse of nationalism.(2)  Much less attention has been devoted to the presence of foreign rivers in English poetry, although the great eastern rivers, the Nile, the Indus, and especially the Ganges, make an appearance in nearly every major river poem. In fact, English poets consistently place domestic rivers in the context of the most famous foreign rivers. Drawing on a variety of extra-literary sources and on selected passages from the lyric, I argue that the literary conventions governing eastern rivers are remarkably similar to developing early modern English attitudes toward their own rivers. First, the traditional role of the eastern river as geographical boundary or marker became one basis for the notion that local rivers could convey regional or national identity. Second, the legendary wealth associated with eastern rivers was realized in England’s mercantile adventures on the one hand and in the increasing attention to property interests in domestic rivers on the other. Finally, the exotic and fabulous alterity always connected with foreign rivers allowed English rivers to become a pastoral and lyrical space.  Thus the appearance of the great eastern rivers in English verse anticipates and partially determines the role of the domestic river.

(1) See for example, Wyman H. Herendeen From Landscape to Literature: The River and the Myth of Geography (Pittsburgh, PA:  Duquesne UP, 1986), or Maggie Kilgour. “Writing on Water.” English Literary Renaissance 29.3 (1999): 282–305.

(2) Mcrae, Andrew. “Fluvial Nation: Rivers, Mobility and Poetry in Early Modern England.” English Literary Renaissance 38.3 (2008): 506–534.