Objects, extensions, prosthetics: the body and subjectivity in the pre-modern period

Wednesday 16th May 2018

Newcastle University

Claire McGann


Responding to the “material turn” in premodern scholarship, a number of recent events have provided academics with opportunities to talk “things” through in new ways. For example, in February 2017 Lancaster University’s Embodiment and New Materialism conference combined discussions of new materialist criticism and premodern bodies with theatre performance workshops. Looking forward, in June 2018 the seminar Literary Form After Matter will invite scholars to Queen’s College in Oxford to ask, “What do we mean by literary form now, and has the material turn helped or hindered us in figuring out what it is?”.


In May 2018, Emily Rowe contributed to this growing conversation by arranging a seminar at Newcastle University entitled Objects, Extensions, Prosthetics: The Body and Subjectivity in the Pre-Modern Period. Rowe opened the seminar with a paper that introduced her commitment to rethinking materialist scholarship’s traditional investment in “making objects speak”. Instead, Rowe’s research considers how speech and the written word might possess their own kind of materiality. In her seminar paper, Rowe described the ways in which language was often presented as a form of clothing in premodern texts. Drawing on examples from the writing of the silk-weaver Thomas Deloney, Rowe illustrated how rhetoric and regional dialects could be interpreted as “dressing up” or clothing a speaker in meaningful ways.


Rowe’s creative rethinking of materialist criticism set the tone for the day and led seamlessly in to Kimberley Foy’s illustrated discussion of the diplomatic importance of shared styles of dress. Foy (Durham University) explained how popular lace collars and cuffs were produced during the period using needles or wooden bobbins, and then dyed using saffron. The completed lace work then featured prominently in portraiture from 1560-1620. In addition to noting lace’s popularity amongst Europe’s elites, Foy’s paper also made a powerful case for considering the people and skills responsible for making this delicate status symbol. This emphasis on attending to labour and production was an idea that was returned to throughout the day.


The second panel focussed on “devotional objects”. Catherine Evans (University of Sheffield) began with a discussion of the varied places in which writing could be encountered in the premodern period. In particular, Evans’s paper outlined the evocative materiality of writing on window panes. Poems by both John Donne and George Herbert discuss letters scratched or annealed in to glass. Responding to this poetry, Evans observed that glass-scratching was perhaps one of the most permanent modes of textual inscription available during this period. Lettering on walls could be easily whitewashed, and writers frequently kept a knife close at hand to scratch out slips of the pen.


Luckily for us, many of the names of the owners of Durham Priory’s Library books were not scratched from their pages. Elizabeth Biggs (Durham University) has used these inscriptions to trace the ways in which the priory’s books became “talismanic” objects for recusant Catholics in the sixteenth century. In her paper, Biggs encouraged us to examine how an object’s significance might be heightened or changed according to the historical moment in which it was (re)encountered. For example, Biggs noted that a recusant reader inscribed his name in one of the priory’s old monastic texts at the start of Queen Mary’s reign in 1553, perhaps in the hope that the book was soon to be newly relevant.


Following a short tea break, we reconvened for a panel on “the body as object”. Seeking our forgiveness for putting us off the final bites of our breaktime biscuits, Jenny Hunter (Northumbria University) opened with an exploration of the dire material and embodied realities of the plague. Hunter’s paper highlighted the fraught interplay between body and subjectivity in premodern plague epics, for example in Thomas Clark’s Meditations in my Confinement (1666). Confined to self-imposed quarantine, Clark drew comparisons between his house and his body, which could both become unexpected and alienating prisons during a plague outbreak.


Mary Odbert (The Shakespeare Institute) continued the panel’s gory tone with a paper on the complex relationships between dismemberment and subjectivity. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus provided plenty of grist(le) to Odbert’s mill as she discussed the play’s many acts of “corporeal fracturing” and amputation. In her paper, Odbert observed that a severed hand might become a site of condensed meaning, which allowed audiences to contemplate the significance of this singular body part away from the anatomical whole.


The seminar’s keynote lecture was delivered by Helen Smith (York University). Smith generously shared some of her new research on “Men and Metals” in early modern culture. As well as examining the use and study of “metal” in this period, Smith outlined her interest in exploring the cultural associations surrounding this oft-referenced material. Smith cautioned that abundant puns on metal/mettle might have operated on a literal, as well as figurative, level since the human body does contain different “metals”. This was particularly true according to premodern medicine and the period’s much broader definition of the term “metal”. In this way, Smith exemplified the necessity for studies of premodern objects to engage very closely with the complex nuances of metaphor and analogy operating during this period.


Following Helen Smith’s keynote, we held an informal round table to consolidate the many ideas raised during the day. Amongst other things, we discussed our mutual concern over how to attend to issues of gender in our studies of premodern materiality. How might we discuss the gendering of premodern objects, as well as endeavour to analyse premodern materials used and produced by different kinds of bodies? We also considered how a form of feminist “aesthetic” may underpin premodern scholarship’s material turn more generally, as our shared commitment to attending to the marginal and “voiceless” is practiced through studies of objects and materials.


In a sun-drenched room, gathered around a table spread with cheese straws, cups of tea and (later) glasses of wine, the atmosphere throughout the seminar was engaged, open and friendly. The afternoon’s organiser, Emily Rowe, fostered a welcoming space in which we could discuss where we wanted to take our research and how “thinking materially” might help us to get there. I look forward to watching how the community Rowe has begun to establish with this seminar develops, and would encourage everyone to keep an eye on her blog for updates: https://imagesofmatter.wordpress.com


Claire McGann is a PhD student at Lancaster University. Her work on the material texts of seventeenth-century women’s prophecy is supervised by Professor Hilary Hinds and Dr Jo Carruthers.

At this seminar, Claire presented a paper on Grace Cary’s manuscript prophecy, which dates from 1644 (British Library, Egerton MS 1044). Claire’s paper discussed the rhetorical impact of the material features of Cary’s text (including those that might be considered “unintentional”), and the particular significance of the prophecy’s handwritten format.