Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The return of Adam's worm

OK, so looking at my last post, I see I was a bit optimistic. Year... week... what's the difference?

Out of the blue I got a note from an old colleague asking whether I might have an essay to contribute to an almost complete volume that needed something on "land animals" in the Renaissance. I suggested this piece, one I had originally intended for another book that never materialized :( Here's the abstract:

Adam’s Worm: Invertebrate life in the Early modern English Body

"From whence came these insects in all these bodies?"
Daniel LeClerc, A Natural and Medical History of Worms

For a variety of reasons, recent scholarship on early modern zoology has tended to focus on large perennially charismatic creatures.(1) The development of ecocriticism, however, has made clear the need for a wider vision, one that allows us to understand how individual disciplines such as zoology participated in wider attitudes toward the interplay between humans and the natural environment.(2) In the case of zoology, it is actually in the lower reaches of land animals, among humble invertebrates like worms and caterpillars that one finds the most profound distance between early modern natural philosophy and modern science and consequently the most visible evidence of epistemological change at work. Creatures like worms and caterpillars challenged basic notions of ontogeny. On the one hand, they were associated with putrefaction and death. On the other hand, their astonishing fecundity and apparently spontaneous derivation within substances made them the most basic example of the generation of life. Indeed, popular opinion had it that Adam was created with his worm already inside him. In this essay, I begin by drawing on works ranging from Latimer’s sermons to early treatises on helminthology in order to suggest that the paradoxical notion of life arising from putrefaction resonates with more general early-modern English ambivalence about what constitutes economic, political and social well-being. The two concepts are so closely related, indeed, that the connection goes beyond metaphor into metonymy. Invertebrates like worms and caterpillars served in many cases as a metonymic representation of an ambivalence that runs equally through both natural philosophy and early modern society, including its literary works. The best-known literary text in which this ambivalence plays a major role is Shakespeare’s Hamlet, revolving as it does around the notion that there is something "rotten" in the Danish state. The play is full of references to invertebrate life. The zoological and the political find their natural concurrence in Hamlet’s everyday language. In the second half of this essay, I suggest that the metonymy of worms might cast new light on passages traditionally understood mainly as metaphorical or merely symptomatic of Hamlet’s condition. These images suggest that Hamlet’s ambivalence is not personal but a symptom of a larger cultural uncertainty metonymized by invertebrate life. The social forces at work in the play are of a piece with the most basic zoological categories of generation and corruption.

1. See for example Erica Fudge, Ruth Gilbert and Susan Wiseman, eds., At the Borders of the Human: Beasts, Bodies and Natural Philosophy in the Early Modern Period (New York: Palgrave, 2002), Bruce Boehrer, Shakespeare among the Animals: Nature and Society in the Drama of Early Modern England (New York: Palgrave, 2002).

2. The breadth of the field is indicated in a wonderful series of papers derived from a 1994 ASLE conference: Michael Branch, Defining Ecocritical Theory and Practice, 1994, ASLE, Available:, July 17 2006.

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