Cities of Strangeness

11 May 2018

University of Manchester

Callan Davies


Strangeness is an increasingly significant topic of discussion in early modern studies. The past few years have seen a conference on strangeness in Saarbrücken, Germany (2016), and seminars broadly covering questions of exile, immigration, and strangers at the Shakespeare Association of America. The University of Manchester’s “Cities of Strangeness, 1350-1700” conference (11 May 2018) invited a broad reflection on the umbrella notion of “strange” urban environments, covering strangeness, strangers (which is also an early modern term for somebody from outside the given parish), and estrangement. The conference consequently boasted papers on a lively range of people, places, and subject matters, from metaphysical poetry to Italian chroniclers. Joel Swann’s paper on Herbert and Donne explored people in cities, and his reading of urban heterogeneity in Herbert as a “mass of of strange delights” can stand as a description of the day itself.

Speakers demonstrated how strangeness is both built into and reflected in a host of literary writing from the period. Charles Cathcart showed us its work in satirical writing for both stage and page, particularly in John Marston. Swann’s paper revealed it in the “blocks” to which Donne refers when he tries to articulate the busy city. Todd Pettigrew’s and Iman Sheeha’s papers formed a panel on dramatic space; Pettigrew thought through what Shylock’s faith might have meant to early modern audiences who internalised ideas about the Jewish “error” in rejecting Christ, working towards a nuanced reading of the play’s relationship to anti-semitism. Sheeha’s paper took us into, and out of, the early modern home by reading the relationship between house and city in Arden of Faversham; the house, she pointed out, is the the only space in which a murder attempt succeeds, and her paper threw up an inversion of the city/home dynamic in which London becomes (for Arden) a safer space than a household filled with fatal dangers. This estrangement of the familiar, safe, domestic space reflected contemporary anxieties about female dominance and control in the household. Adam Hansen’s keynote finished the day by asking us to consider Marlowe as a playwright interested in London, reflecting on cities, strangeness, and belonging; Dido, Queen of Carthage is a play overflowing with identity crises, from the moment Aeneas arrives on the island “amaz’d”: “Methinks that town there should be Troy [. . . ] For we are strangers driven on this shore, / And scarcely know what clime we are.” Hansen teased out the play’s complex and shifting ideas of “home” and hospitality and left us with the urgent topicality of these issues today, in a world of Daily Mail headlines and Home Office “Go home” vans.

The conference also treated early modern strangeness beyond literary forms to physical objects and the geographic imagination. Elena Escuredo introduced us to a fascinating series of strange objects from sixteenth-century Seville, primarily collected and curated by noble women; these items formed early Sevillian wunderkammers but also had various practical uses and extended to the keeping of pets such as civet cats for their value as perfume-producers. The discussion pointed us towards a European and new world network of strange “things” with political, social, and medicinal power that circulated throughout the century. Francesco Barbarulo explored the fourteenth-century chroniclist Giovanni Villani’s Universo Mondo, a vast chronicle that covers the Tower of Babel to wars in Flemish towns, and he discussed his representation of foreign vernacular speech and violent rebellions within the context of quattrocento Florence and its political and religious landscape.

This geographic expanse took on literally gigantic proportions in Anke Bernau’s keynote paper, which reread the role of giants in British history and its origins story. From being part of the landscape to being the landscape, the island’s prehistoric (in all senses) giants complicate narratives about the founding of Britain and London by Brutus; these giants form a crucial role in the British cultural psyche across the medieval and early modern periods, signs of both the beginning of history and the end-time; they have been traced back to Cain, the first founder of a city and the first murderer, aligning them with urban identity and technological craft. They continue to be associated with England’s largest city, present as guarders of London, as referred to in Lydgate’s verse welcoming Henry VI to the city. In many respects, Bernau noted, they are more fitting than humans as foundational icons of a large city like London: they’re brutal, big, bursting with incontinent hunger and desire.

Matthew Dimmock’s keynote paper took us from the huge leaps of giantkind to the flight of man across the globe. When Robert Burton was asked in the seventeenth century what he would do with the power of flight, he answered that he would use it to fly to China and see the great city of Quinzai. An amalgamation of early reports (far out of date by the sixteenth century) and the investment of the imagination, Quinzai represented the ideal city for early modern European writers from Marco Polo to Burton—set within a lake with plenty of channels for trade and exchange, populated with huge numbers of bridges and over an expanse of hundreds of miles (so reports went), the city was set up as the ideal place of commerce. Dimmock showed us how China sat within the European cultural imagination as the space of technological ingenuity and urban magnificence, whose strangeness prompts us, like early modern antecedents, to reimagine ideas of Eurocentricity, innovation, and geographical imagination. For those in early modern England, Quinzai showed that the strangeness of the global metropolis was the future.

Cities of Strangeness lastly touched on ideas of community, from the shifting post-Reformation cityscapes of Yorkshire to trading communities across Europe. Sam Bromage’s paper took us down the road from Lancashire to Beverley in Yorkshire; tracing the shift in ownership of monastic land from 1500 to 1600, Bromage identified the major changes that once familiar spaces underwent in this century and implications for charity, hospitals, and other forms of social provision. The “informer” Griffin Flood was the central figure in Lena Liapi’s paper, and she showed us how a pamphlet on his life and death inverted jest book and rogue literature tropes to demonise not the lawbreaker but the man aligned with government legislation and enforcement. Liapi observed that such commentary—which saw informing (acting as an agent to enforce, for instance, government and City legislation) as itself a danger to the social fabric—points to different early modern ideas about the relationship between justice, the law, and support of one’s neighbours. Katrina Marchant took these issues to an international scale, thinking about the relationship between foreign “trifles,” imports, and questions about economic protectionism in a paper that traversed a wonderful range of material from pamphlets on commerce to Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London.

Thanks must go to the organisers, Annie Dickinson and Laura Swift, of what was a thought-provoking, collegial, and accessible conference. The discussion underscores how central strangeness is to medieval and early modern discourse—and how instrumental it can be for our own study of the period. It had a pervasive presence, both implicit and explicit, in the cultural imagination that stretched from literary forms to the fabrics of objects. Thinking “strangely” can also serve to sharpen our own critical and historical approaches. The word, as exemplified by this conference, brings together disparate material and subject matters and draws a variety of methodological approaches into productive and fruitful conversation. It can estrange the past and make us look anew at familiar material, while also allowing us to see and think about what seemed “strange” to individuals in the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries. In turn, it can make us think about the future. This conference has shown that futures are always uncertain but that they are also always “strange.” We should continue to contemplate what that can mean—for historical scholarship but also for identity, community, and innovation in the twenty-first century.


Callan Davies spoke at the conference about recreational activity and “strangers” in the Elizabethan Blackfriars—one of London’s earliest recreational complexes—and he has recently completed a monograph on Strangeness in Jacobean Drama (under consideration). He blogs as part of the Before Shakespeare project at