Over the weekend of 25-26 February 2017, I attended a conference in Lancaster which looked at new materialist approaches to the pre-modern  period: ‘Embodiment and New Materialism in Premodern Literature and Culture 1350-1700’.  The first day of the conference was held in the lovely city of Lancaster itself, at Lancaster Castle and the Storey Institute.

Dr Rachel White introduced the conference with a brief description of how Thomas Tomkis’s play Albumazar had inspired the organisers to bring people together who might take a New Materialist approach to their work. She pointed out that, despite the emphasis on transformation in Albumazar, the physical world itself doesn’t change – just our perception of it. It therefore raises questions of agency and liminality.

Claire McGann (Lancaster University) presented the first conference paper on ‘Prophetic text, and prophetic body: divine constraint and seventeenth-century religious prophecy’. She described how the seventeenth-century saw a considerable increase in the production of newsbooks and revelatory texts. Both men and women turned to producing prophecy.   She commented that women’s part in such publications was interesting, because (as Smith and Purkiss have pointed out)) religious prophecy was divinely inspired, produced by God through human agency and therefore a role associated with men.  The  prophet is in fact dehumanised. Prophecy was an unseen cerebral process but also a physical process in which the body  suffered physical consequences.

Claire talked about the case of Francis Wilde, who petitioned Charles II because he’d printed a work prophesying that Charles woud return to his rightful throne. But Wilde began his petition by saying that he was bound by God to make his prophecy, thus undermining his claim of loyalty to the king. He also claimed to have suffered physically, through  deafness and unemploymen, as a result of his obedience to God and king.

She suggested that the frequent images of pressing in prophetic texts suggested that prophets were forced to obey the need to publish.   They provided authorial liberation from physical constraint. But it is wrong to assume the physical was just an image. The real body suffered the consequences of public prophecy.  This embodied materiality appeared similarly in the texts of men and women.

The second paper was given by Imogen Felstead (Lancaster University) on ‘“[W]e are gripped by God, and his grip upholds us”: the hand of God in premodern literature and culture’.  Imogen explored the ways in which hands communicate –silently.  Her work examines the iconography of the divine hand, including visceral experiences as well as the physical, following Bruce Smith’s work on phenomenology.  Early modern people believed that God’s hand was the creator and upholder of the self and that all people weregripped by God. God’s touch transcended the physical so mankind must put their trust and bodies in God’s hand. Chirologia contains many images of hand gestures and their meanings – pre-Modern face palm! Holding the hands to heaven allows the person to transcend the earthly to the spiritual.  Imogen reminded us that there was believed to be a direct link between hand and heart.  She pointed out that hands play a central role in pre-modern selfhood. It is only the hand that can translate thought into deed and action.

The final paper of the first panel was given by Jonah Coman (University of St Andrews) on ‘No strings attached: emotional interaction with animated sculptures of crucified Christ’.  He started by telling the story of the nun who wanted to go out to meet her lover and was struck by the crucified Christ. Jonah’s research concerns animated sculptures which are capable of movement. They are usually seen as multi-purpose props for processions but  because they are large they place demands on the spatial environment. The crucifixion images are bodies in motion. Any crucifix can be ‘mobile’ in personal encounters with a true believer.  Jonah commented that acutely embodied experiences such as terror and arousal help to remind the Christian of Christ and drive home the main Christian truth – the incarnation.

The second panel opened with my colleague from the English department at Liverpool Hope University,  Dr. Louise Wilson, talking about ‘“Keeping his bodies close and still after supper, setteth his mind a walking”: Reading, eating, and health in early modern England’. Louise explained that Plutarch describes suitable recreations for mealtimes: discourse was not suitable because in effect it causes indigestion.  It was better to read pleasurable tales, make light conversation and listen to music. Usually pleasurable tales are seen as bad for people, so Plutarch’s attitude is quite different. Plutarch suggests that it’s good to set the mind walking,  demonstrating the symbiotic relationship between mind and body. This was a common 16th century notion.  Louise pointed out that in the absence of records of reading light material, we might reconstruct them from the accounts of after-dinner reading in the very stories we are considering.

We rarely concentrate on mealtimes to show how people ate and read recreationally. Recreation is a type of action, a pause from more vigorous mental and physical activity. Rather than being seen just as reading for pleasure, it ds a utility in mental, physical and spiritual activity.   Puritans attacked light reading, but there was also an explosion of this sort of print. Short popular prose fiction itself suggests that it was an important leisure activity – aiming to legitimise its use.

Next came Erin Thompson (Lancaster University) whose paper was entitled ‘“The Bellye of the Land”: Utopia and the Formation of a Nation’.  In the early modern, the stomach was a primary organ for understanding the self. The disposition of body and mind was a product of the surroundings. Unlike their southern neighbours, the northerners’ thick humours were believed to cloud their minds.  Northerners therefore felt the need to rehabilitate their image and recuperate an English identity. More’s text uses the stomach as a national signifier for military ability. English superiority rested on their strong stomachs which provided the soldiers with a physical and mental upper hand.

Kibrina Davey (Sheffield Hallam University) gave the final paper in the set: ‘“Thou Didst Eat My Lips”: Swallowing Passion in William Davenant’s The Tragedy of Albovine.  I must admit that I have never read the play, but at least I knew about the court of James I and Charles I.  Kibrina described how Davenant was criticised for the shocking violence in his plays. Albovine is a play concerned with passions and influenced by Galenic doctrine.

Passions in the play are infectious, transmitted not only from person to person but the nature of the court, with Verona mirroring the court of James I. When the play was published, James had just died. He had been criticised for his relationship with his favourite Buckingham. Praise of the Elizabethan state in the play in fact can be read as criticism of the Jacobean court, which was too passionate a place. The passions of the king and his favourite are breathed out through hot air and infect the rest of the court.  Passions are also represented by eating. Parasites and earwigs represent the court favourite as a disease eating away at the king’s brain, but there is also a lot of sexual cannibalism representing the relationship between passion and eating.

The final panel was opened by Bethany Jones (Lancaster University), whose paper was entitled ‘Tracing the premodern textual waive: introducing Long Meg of Westminster’.  She suggested that the outlawed man is inside a text in order to be outlawed. Outlaws are embedded in popular culture over centuries and adapted for a variety of genres. The woman’s terminological equivalent is the waive, but there is little evidence of them in popular culture. More flexible terms such as ‘unruly’ mean they are usually included under the umbrella term ‘transgressive’ women.

Bethany explained that a woman could not be outlawed because she was not under the law. She was only a person as part of her husband. But there was a paradox: the existence of a text means that women  were recognised as being able to break a law that they were not actually under! The waived woman can be considered one abandoned – claimed by no-one, she was abandoned property. John Cowell, however, described a waive as a woman who ‘contemptuously refuseth to appear’. So she was not one left behind, but one who had taken a decision to flee from the consequences of her actions in court.

Lancashire’s Long Meg of Westminster is portrayed in many competing ways. She is a female of Robin Hood (the definitive textual outlaw) who takes from the rich to give to the poor and is willing to violate law to implement her own brand of justice, often using domestic objects. Household objects, in fact, often appear in accounts of female violence. Long Meg also provides patriotic services, attacking with her women soldiers some French men. Again the women are described as using household or simple objects, not traditional weapons. Nevertheless, he is also a commodity, someone who can be impregnated to produce a generation of soldiers. Bethany finished by comparing Long Meg to a twenty-first century super hero, figuring Long Meg as an Elizabethan Wonder Woman.

The theme of martial women continued in the next paper, ‘Behold the Warrior Women: The Gendering and Embodiment of War through Martial Objects in Three Restoration Plays’,  given by Josje Siemensma (Radboud University Nijmegen).  The warrior woman was ubiquitous in Elizabethan literature. Nevertheless, how to portray these women on stage was a problem, because they were played by men. For women, chastity was a shield in itself, and a weapon. But by the Restoration, their social worth was valued in their ability to reproduce, and their fragility was also important. Women were fragile and delicate and therefore not suited to join the army.

The warrior women in the 3 plays that Josje studied show that women had the physical ability to use weapons and be a soldier. They need to be trained to use them and how to behave, but the weapon itself does not discriminate the wielder on the basis of gender. Although the women win, the fighting isn’t seen on stage and the victory is relayed by men.

Emily Soon (King’s College London) talked on ‘“by the influence of her beauty”: Transforming Eastern bodies in Davenant’s The Temple of Love’.  The play was intended to show how much Henrietta Maria could do to improve Britain and clearly aimed to speak on many levels. The fact that she brings the Temple of Chaste Love shows her household was not loose, as had been wracked by scandal. Emily argued that  it also shows her as submissive to her husband in the face of rumours that she didn’t support Charles I’s policy towards France. But Henrietta Maria played her role as an Indian in a time of particular xenophobia. Indians were bestial. Narsingar was presented as a place where girls were brought up to be concubines of the king. It was also a place where something like elephantiasis was rife, and the disease was portrayed in England as a divine curse on the Indians for their poor behaviour and lack of Christianity. It was  therefore odd to portray Henrietta Maria as queen of this place. Why then did they do it?

Emily suggested that it was unlikely that Henriettta Maria didn’t know about the  reputation of Indians and Narsingar in particular.  Davenant’s play acknowledges and subverts common tropes. The queen has the power miraculously to  transform anything with which she is involved.

The plenary was  given by Professor Lisa Hopkins (Sheffield Hallam University) on the play that inspired the conference: ‘“Run slow, run slow, ye lobsters of the night”: literary and material transformation in Thomas Tomkis’ Albumazar’..

The nature of transformation and how it is effected is one of the central themes of the play. Costume can only change the outward apparel because they are inanimate and therefore true transformation is much more than this. She suggested that early modern plays raise 4 questions:

• By whom is the transformation effected?

• For how long?

• To what end?

• What is transformed?

Usually transformations are from human to animal, but in Albumazar it’s human to human, and what’s more, it’s not just what they are going to get from transformation that interests the characters – they are really interested in the process itself. They assume it will involve some form of cooking, and Trincolo is worried that he will be so transformed that his drinking and lechery will be affected. He also doesn’t want his immaterial emotional attributes such as his love for Armellina messed with. Other descriptions of the transformation include sculpting, or moulding like wax. Like acting, or self-fashioning, he believes in himself – he is told that he is changed and looks exactly like Antonio and he. believes, even though if he just looked down he would realise that he hasn’t changed at all. All the audience (real and in the play) sees is new clothes and self-confidence but everyone believes it including the real Antonio himself. It depends on confident acting, just as any play acting does in the first place –the ultimate transformation is theatre itself.

But questions remain. The play raises dangerous ideas about the soul. If there is a soul, where does it come from and how can you be changed without affecting it? Is it possible that things (without soul) can be transformed into men?

The day finished with a very amusing Albumazar Performance Workshop with The Rose Company, held in the beautiful surroundings of the Shire Hall at Lancaster Castle.   Each group experimented with performing a short section of the text.  I was involved in the section where Trincalo is robbed by Ronca. We decided to have two delegagates read the text while I mimed the part of Trincalo and Claire Egan played Ronca, because the section hinged on physical comedy  that would have been difficult if not impossible while holding a script.   It was great fun to try out different interpretations and possibilities then perform before the other delegates.  Sadly,  I have no photographs of this part of the conference because the Shire Hall is still a working court room, but it was an unusual and particularly interesting way to end the first day.