Scrutinizing Surfaces in Early Modern Thought: Conference Report

surface image


The Second Northern Renaissance Roses Seminar, May 2015

Day 1

The second Northern Renaissance Roses Seminar, held at Lancaster University on 8-9 May 2015, and run jointly with the University of York, brought together more than thirty researchers to explore surfaces material and metaphorical, under the theme ‘Scrutinizing Surfaces in Early Modern Thought’. We travelled to Lancaster from Manchester for two days of papers which interpreted the theme in diverse ways, with surfaces discussed including the material page, architecture, and the body, as well as human interactions with these surfaces.

The focus in the first panel was on textual and material surfaces. Hilary Hinds began the conference with a paper on the editor’s relationship with the textual surface. Eleanor Chan’s discussion of early-modern mathematics touched on a variety of surfaces including work on geometry and measurement, as well as embroidery. We found the image that she showed that depicted the use of geometry in an early-modern fencing manual particularly striking. Finally, Anna Reynolds continued this focus on the material surface, looking at the use of medieval manuscripts, often from monasteries, as bindings for early-modern books.

After a quick coffee break the conference continued with the second panel. This began with Stuart Farley’s paper on the mosaic as a structuring form in early-modern writing, and he offered diverse examples including Montaigne’s Essays, Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and the Bible. Stephen Curtis then looked at early-modern representations of the chameleon as a metaphor for the actor, using it to open up questions about the unfixity of identity when one takes on different roles. Also emphasising imitation and identity, Mareile Pfannebecker’s paper followed on very well from Curtis’s. She discussed English travel writing, in particular Fynes Moryson’s

Mareile Pfannebecker

Mareile Pfannebecker

Itinerary, and the traveller’s use of dissimulation in Catholic countries, drawing out an anxiety about identity caused by this. The fourth and final paper came from Stephen Watkins, who examined the role of painted scenes in restoration drama, and outlined a way of reading these scenes that involves dissonance in relation to the plays in which they featured.


The Regimental Chapel, Lancaster Priory

After lunch we moved to the impressive setting of Lancaster Priory for the final panel of the day and the first keynote. The afternoon began with a paper on architectural surfaces and poetry by Stewart Mottram. He looked at the place of ruins in a number of early-modern literary texts, and focussed in particular on Andrew Marvell’s ‘Upon Appleton House’ to argue that ruins function both as windows onto the past and mirrors for the present moment. With Lucy Razzell’s paper the focus again turned to the material textual surface, in this case title pages. Razzell convincingly argued for the importance of giving increased critical attention to the often neglected title page of a work. Craig Farrell then delved further into the early-modern book, to think about the reader’s interaction with the material surface when turning pages. We found his discussion of George Herbert’s The Temple especially insightful; he noted, for example, that in physically turning the pages the reader actually places ‘The Sacrifice’ on ‘The Altar’.

Helen Smith’s keynote on the multiple and varied surfaces of early-modern paper concluded the first day’s papers. She treated the audience to a fascinating journey through the various ‘folds, pleats, creases and rolls’ of paper in the period, its

Helen Smith

Helen Smith

production and its uses. The discussion following the keynote and Julie Crawford’s response illuminated a number of interesting connections to papers we had heard earlier in the day and to wider questions about surfaces, including the importance of the textual surface when reading, metaphorical ‘surface readings’, and the links between paper and skin, the body’s surface. The day was rounded off in fitting fashion with a concert of sixteenth-century English sacred music by the likes of Tallis, Taverner and Byrd, performed beautifully by members of Lancaster Priory’s choir.

Lancaster Priory's Choir

Lancaster Priory’s Choir


Day 2

The first panel of the day brought together widely varied material surfaces from early- modern England, demonstrating how productively the physical world can interact with literary theory and reflect a culture’s understanding of bodies, subjectivity, and the relationship between the individual and their physical surroundings. Maria-Anna Aristova employed a reading of Freud’s theory of the uncanny to pick out particular details in early-modern architectural ornament. These relief carvings, literally defined by their relationship with shadows, often depict human and monstrous figures as if merging with, or restrained by, the building itself, blurring the boundaries between our own animate world and the inanimate stone.

Claire Canavan presented her research on embroidered book-bindings to complicate our assumptions about gender roles in their production (professional early-modern embroiderers were often men). Women often embroidered book covers as gifts to family members, illustrating their own interpretations and selections from the text. Canavan reminded us that the creation of meaning in early-modern books was spread across many layers of readers, interacting with the text in various ways. She also suggested a comparison between the paratext and the Derridean parergon as another way of thinking about borders and surfaces.

Rebecca Unsworth showed how in early modern clothes for the wealthy, fabric was very far from superficial: clothes became highly sculpted and three-dimensional, playing with the form and limits of the human body. The fashion for ‘pinking’ and slashing the outer fabric to reveal more layers beneath was a further way of complicating the apparently straightforward idea of the surface. Katie Walter used medieval texts to consider the relationship between the skin and flesh, thinking about implants and prosthetics in order to complicate the idea of the skin as a straightforward surface or threshold between the body and the world. For medieval humoral physiology, the flesh was sanguine and could be restored or regrown when damaged, in contrast to the skin, which was spermatic and therefore could not be replaced.

The second panel of the day provided three very different approaches to Shakespeare’s surfaces. Emily Jennings gave a thorough reading of the uses of anatomical language in King Lear, showing how quickly the discourse of anatomy moved into figurative language after the first English use of the word in 1541. Jennifer Edwards used plays from across the corpus to explore how bodies were made legible in various ways. The word ‘index’, for example, constructs bodies and texts alike as capable of being anatomised and read. Lawrence Green looked at Shakespeare’s walls to show how boundaries and surfaces, as well as the points at which they can be crossed, are crucial to understanding the overlapping frameworks of buildings and bodies in Shakespeare and wider early modern Europe. These three papers combined to bring out rich and complicated ways of situating the body within the representational structures of early- modern Europe.

Richard Wistreich brought the conference to a close with his keynote on singing and voices, thinking about the relationship between the boundaries of the human body and


Richard Wistreich

the ‘surface of sound’.

A central theme for much of the conference was the reminder that surfaces are never purely superficial in how they create, convey, and complicate meaning. It was fascinating to see the themes that emerged from scholars in a range of disciplines responding to the conference brief: human and animal bodies, buildings, books, and material culture interacted across their many surfaces, with the complicated nature of depth, folds, cuts, flesh, sound, text and language never far from the surface.

Laura Swift and Annie Dickinson, PhD candidates in English Literature at the University of Manchester

Annie Dickinson’s current research focusses on the expression of the malcontent attitude in early modern literature and culture, particularly in drama and verse satire. She aims to examine the ambivalent position that the malcontent occupies in the early modern imagination, its place at social, hierarchical and national borders, and the threat to political and social order that the malcontent and malcontented speech represent, as well as its relation to interconnected debates around subjectivity, individuation, and melancholy.

Laura Swift’s research explores the ways in which the body and the city are represented through discourses of monstrosity and fragmentation in the works of Ben Jonson and his contemporaries. She aims to demonstrate how these discourses represent a way of navigating pervasive cultural anxieties about the rise of early capitalism and related issues including science, commerce, travel, gender, and disease. By reading early modern London as an early capitalist society, she uses Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the schizophrenic subject to explore the corporeal experience of urban space.