Henrician politics

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’.  Having already blogged about the first day of the conference, I thought it was time to share my recollections of the second.

The first speaker on day 2 was Dr. Robert Stagg (St Anne’s College, Oxford), who talked about ‘Shakespeare’s “Stuff”’.  The word ‘nothing’ appears 32 time in King Lear, but its range of opposites also appear a lot, and more often towards the end of the play. The monosyllabic irreducibility of Shakespeare’s language is part of the atomic sound scape of King Lear.

Emily Rowe (University of York) continued the focus on language with ‘Words and things: Francis Bacon, Lingua, and New Materialism’.  She explained how Francis Bacon criticised the construction of knowledge based on rhetoric as based on words rather than things. He acknowledged that language was necessary to explain, but it was often overcome by what Erasmus described as a ‘wild and wanton flow of words’.  In Thomas Tomkis’s play Lingua, the only female character is Lingua, who  fights and tricks others in her attempt to become the 6th sense. Appetitus, Gustus’s servant, presents a long list of Lingua’s failings. One of these is her power of translation, because vulgar language and mixed tongues were a concern of the 17th century.  Her biggest problem, however, is that she is a woman. During the early modern period the unruly tongue is particularly associated with women, because it is associated with the destructive power of female speech.  Bacon challenges the need for affected, metaphoric speech to explain, so while he wouldn’t describe language as a vulgar whore as Lingua does, he would not support her claim to be a sense.

I opened the second panel on ephemerality with my paper on ‘The (im)material sixteenth-century ballad’.  I talked about ballads and the Pilgrimage of Grace, focussing on the way ballads were sung and experienced rather than their material, printed form.  As usual, I got the audience to sing.

Following me was Catherine Evans (University of Sheffield) who spoke on ‘Pleating time in early modern almanacs’. Almanacs were the most popular early modern cheap print, containing astrological and medical information and guidance for every aspect of life at a low price. Almanac annotations show a great variety of readership. The flexible function of almanacs shown by the fact that they often contain all three of Heidi Brayman Hackel’s categories of annotation.  Chronologies at the beginning of almanacs give potted national histories, often with transparent political agendas. Nevertheless, people personalised these timelines by annotating these calendars with personally important information. Also people made changes to the printed dates. Therefore almanacs had another role as diaries. People interleaved blank pages, so printers started introducing blank leaves.  These changes create books that are long lasting records of the self rather than a plan of the year.  Furthermore, users did not stick to the linear notion of time indicated by the almanac because they were creating their own topographical understanding of time by using almanacs in ways that they weren’t intended.

The final paper in our panel was given by Beth Cortese (Lancaster University) on ‘Exchanging places: witty transformations’, much of which concentrated on the play of the weekend, Albumazar.  Betha argued that thieves and tricksters in early modern plays are the place of subversive wit, revealing anxieties about identity. Their plots are to do with material wit – inequality made animate in performance. Wit is therefore a performative and transformative form of subversion. The trickster often overturns rank.

Next came ‘An Embryo of rare contemplation’: a special panel chaired by Dr. Rachel White (Newcastle University). Dr. Lucy Munro (King’s College London) raised the question ‘how does one fall in love on stage’ in her paper ‘The Insatiate Countess: Body, Text and Stage’.   Her paper concentrated on The Insatiate Countess, written by John Marston even though he seems to have objected to his name being added to the published script. There are several textual difficulties with the play. She pointed out that it can be hard to tell stage directions from speech and vice versa in early modern plays. Different editions of the play have different names for the same characters. Also there were problems with the printing of different editions, with a lovely mondegreen where ‘the boxe unto Pandora given’ appeared in the text as ‘the poxe is unto Panders given’.

The play exploits the rampant sexuality of women and might have had a particular resonance at the time. It opens with the scene of the countess in mourning, before any speech, so the first line ‘what should we do in this countess’s dark hole’ is deeply shocking, especially with the men being described as ‘unruly members’. At the end she is executed, ostensibly for ordering the murder of her lover, but as much for the fact that her rampant sexuality subverts the patriarchy. The social hierarchy in the play is desperate for her to make a good death by admitting that she was at fault.

The next paper was given by Dr. Rachel Reid (Queen’s University Belfast) on ‘(Re)reading John Dee: Exploring Polytemporal Identities in his Collection of “Rarities”’.  Rachel showed that the placement and context of the object was what informed its meaning and focussed on polytemporalities as reaching across time rather than periodisation. John Dee had many roles and assembled the largest library in Elizabethan England. Although the Glindoni painting of ‘John Dee Performing an Experiment before Elizabeth I’ contains lots of things related to Dee, but it is not the image of a necromancer. However, in a fantastic animated slide that switched between the two images, she reminded us that the original painting had Dee surrounded by skulls.

I was particularly interested in the paper by Dr. Clare Egan (Lancaster University), ‘”By the singular operations of your excellent preparations”: Material Bodies and Medicinal Words in the Libel Case of Edwards v. Woolton (Exeter, 1604)’.  She pointed out that the difference between libel and slander was not so clear cut in the early modern period. One reason for the concern about libels might be that their epidemic nature made them more dangerous. This is illustrated by the move of libel trials from ecclesiastical to criminal courts, because disorder is the problem and can cause more scandal if it IS true than if not. The truth of the matter is not the issue – it’s not the content that matters, it is the manner in which they are spread.  Clare placed the emphasis on performance suggesting that  hearer is implicated in the performance by consenting to listen.

Matthew Blaiden (University of Leeds) talked about ‘Shakespeare’s Masks’, showing that masks in plays were structural devices which provided material splendour. Masking is mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays from very early on. First accepted appearance of masking within a play is in Love’s Labours Lost. Examples mentioning or including masks run the gamut of Shakespearean genres. The classic Elizabethan mask consisted of an entrance and a dance, but there are other types during the period. Much of the evidence Matthew uses for revels comes from revels accounts, but they were not exclusive to court, also taking place at the Inns of Court and also in towns where Queen Elizabeth went on progress.

The final event of the conference was a roundtable discussion, which developed the idea that the metaphor and the material occur simultaneously.

All in all, it was a very interesting weekend and much credit is due to the organisers of the conference for bringing everyone together.


This afternoon I had my mock viva, which was an interesting experience. It was reassuring, in that I survived and there was only one question that I felt I completely flunked. That said, there were several others that brought home to me the need to be certain of my own position, which of course is only possible if you’re completely in command of your material and of what others have said about it.

So I’ve come home armed with two bag-loads of books and a lot on my mind – which is not to say that it’s all bad. The first job when I got in was to have a brew (this thesis was definitely fuelled by tea and chocolate, in a way that perhaps Huw and Tony Williams would have appreciated), the second to have a chat with my Fiend to take my mind off things and the third, to write my ‘to do’ list. You can see it above. I have another Fiend (yes, I manage to have more than one Fiend despite the fact that I spend a lot of time in the company of dead people and their preoccupation with death) who is the Queen of Lists. She would approve, I’m sure. That was once the wall on which my huge list of 16th century ballads used to hang. Now it holds all the things I need to do in the next ten days. I think I’ve got my work cut out. I have to admit that they aren’t all viva-related – there’s a section on research proposals, on articles and on the lecture I’m preparing for A level students on Henry VIII’s break with Rome, as well as for the Bolton Historical Association work that I need to get on with and for family matters. Happily, the conference proposal for Reading is nearly ready and the one for Voices and Books has gone (thanks, Una!).  But I’ve certainly got plenty to keep me occupied. Which is good.

I have finally sent off my commonwealth chapter to my panel, ahead of my meeting with them next week.  I’m in a slightly different position to normal in that I was able to send it with a message telling them where I wanted help and where I hoped to expand it when I come to re-write it in the summer.  I identified two sections where the writing was flabby and repetitive, where some serious editing will be needed, but on the whole, I think it has something to say, at last.  That something is about radical ballads and the activities of ballad collectors, which isn’t how I expected the chapter to turn out when I started work on it last September.  It has been the hardest chapter I’ve had to write by far.  I’m glad that it turned out to be about the manuscript collections of ballads, because compared to the broadside ballads they’ve had much less attention.  I think that they are interesting in their own right, because someone chose to collect them and made the effort to write them down.

The rest of the week has been split between secondary reading for my final chapter on ballads and the news; cataloguing and analysing more ballads; and preparing my paper for the Print and Materiality Seminar Series at the John Rylands Library next week.  The paper should be fun because for once, I actually get to sing!  On Sunday last week I recorded a couple of the ballads I’ve been working on recently, one of which took three and a half minutes and the other was more than twelve!   I’m going to keep recording them as I work on them from now on, with the aim of having them all recorded by July.

Next week is half term, so I expect to have some days out if the weather permits, instead of working all week.

I was warned on Wednesday that my luck will have to run out eventually.  That may not sound too much like good news, but the converse is, of course, that,  in order to provoke the comment, things must be going relatively well at the moment.  Work on the commonwealth chapter continues, with some quite major revisions to the opening of the chapter and smaller changes to individual sentences.  It’s getting closer.  I still need to check a couple of references and make some alterations to one of the musical examples, but it’s certainly getting closer. (And about time too, I might add, considering that it’s taken the best part of six months!)

I spent almost all of yesterday just working on the footnotes, trying to get Endnote to play ball.  Don’t get me wrong, I do like Endnote.  I used to enjoy writing my footnotes by hand, but the way that Endnote does it for me is, usually, enormously labour saving.   But for some reason, yesterday, it got its knickers in an almightly twist and started putting in references to whatever manuscript it felt like.  It wasn’t a problem with the books, or the journal articles, or the webpages: just the manuscripts.  Since the chapter is  based around manuscript collections, it caused a bit of a problem.  I have no idea  what caused the glitch, but I ended up typing in the manuscript references  manually.

I’ve also started secondary reading for my concluding chapter on the news.   If anyone has any suggestions of things I should read on early modern news, I’d be very glad to hear of them.  The reading that I’ve done this week surprised me by giving me several ideas for  my first couple of chapters on ballad music.  In fact, I had to leap out of bed at 11 one night this week to write down an idea!  It’s the first time that that’s happened for a very long time, so I think I can safely say that the thesis is out of the doldrums and on the move again.

This afternoon I briefly revisited my chapter plan, taking into account some of the comments that my supervisors made when they looked at it last and writing an abstract for the commonwealth chapter now that it’s completed.  The rest of the afternoon I spent  transcribing documents in the State Papers.  For once, the handwriting is relatively easy to read.  Unfortunately, the digital scan of one page is so dark that it is illegible in places – I suppose a girl can’t have everything.

On Wednesday evening I went to the committee meeting for the Historical Association in Bolton.  A very productive meeting and plenty of things to work on in the coming months, not least of which is putting together the programme of lectures for next season.

After a couple of dodgy days at the beginning, the week has definitely ended on a high.  I spent quite a lot of time at the beginning of the week consolidating the ideas that my trip to the British Library generated and I wrote a thousand words in a couple of hours, bringing together my thoughts .  It was very satisfying, especially in the light of the 6 months I’ve been struggling with the 7000 words of the commonwealth chapter.  In a sense, it made the chapter all the more frustrating.  Although the chapter had improved, I was still really struggling  to make it flow.  Everything was there, in vaguely the right order, but with no grace and no flow.  Cue accusations that the naughty child in me didn’t want it to flow yet.   My response was along the lines of ‘get lost’.  There is nothing fun about spending six months messing with the same set of words.  But at least writing about London proved to me that I hadn’t lost it (whatever ‘it’ is) completely.

On Wednesday night I did something a bit different.  I read the chapter aloud.  Perhaps I should have done it a long time ago, because it was so obvious when I thought about it, but it simply hadn’t occurred to me.  I printed the chapter out and attacked it with a red pen and scissors.  And it worked.  Bashing it out line by line, aloud, showed exactly where the  problems were and what didn’t make sense, what needed more explanation and what would be better broken down into more sentences.   Thursday I spent typing up all the changes that I had made and by 2.30 that afternoon, I was a very happy girl.  It’s not ready, by any stretch of the imagination, but it will do as a first draft.  What’s more, it has lost its hold on my nightmares and no longer causes me feelings of guilt and insecurity.  Maybe it won’t be the best chapter in the thesis (who knows, maybe it will), but at least I’ve now got something down that I’m confident about.

I celebrated by unpacking a box-load of books.  I’ve inherited another library, he second in three months, so my brand new shelves are now groaning under the weight of scholarship I could never have afforded to buy.

Today I checked through the results of some searches that I ran on State Papers Online and found a perfect little nugget to help with one of my arguments, so I am very happy indeed.

Finally, I’d like to pass on my very best wishes to Glyn Redworth who retires from the University of Manchester this week after more years than either of us probably cares to think about.  Time to start a new chapter, in more ways than one.

An interesting week.  I’ve spent most of it smoothing out the  wrinkles in my  epitaph ballad article.  I think it’s nearly ready to go, which is quite pleasing.  The process of refinement is interesting and one that I really quite enjoy, as it brings out the pedant in me.  I’ve spent most of the week trying to marry together the three elements of the article – the research, the historiography and the background information.  I think, now, that I’ve been fairly successful.  I have a supervision meeting later in the week so the first job for Monday (when I’ve been to visit a possible new hall for the Historical Assocation in Bolton) is to send it off to my supervisors to see what they have to say, then I have to decide where to send it.

I’ve also been rewriting the paper on ‘Knowingness and the Mid-Sixteenth Century Ballad’, mainly about the flyting on Thomas Cromwell.   I hope to be able to do away with the script by Tuesday evening, when I give the paper at the Postgraduate History Seminar Series at the University of Manchester.  There will be a repeat performance in Lancaster on Wednesday for the North West Early Modern Seminar Series.  At the beginning of last week, I wasn’t entirely looking forward to it, but having thought it out again I’m much happier about it.  I was trying to cram too much information in, but having taken a lot of examples out and replaced them with ideas, it seems to work much better.  I’m rather looking forward to the chance to discuss my work with everyone on both days. I plan to go out on something of an academic limb, so I hope that there aren’t any people clinging to the tree trunk with chainsaws!  I still have a handout to finish to go with it, so that will have to be a job for Monday too.  Oh…  Monday is tomorrow.  Hmm.  Busy day then.

On Wednesday I went into Manchester.   I spent a nice day working in the John Rylands Library and then went to the Print and Materiality in the Early Modern World seminar, where I heard Angela McShane give her paper on ‘The Seventeenth Century Political Ballad as Subject and Object’.  We had an interesting conversation afterwards, too, which was great.

Then today I started again on the secondary reading that’s been backing up for weeks.  M. L. Bush on the Government Policy of Protector Somerset, but I’m finding it slow and heavy going, if I’m honest.  There’s not going to be much time this week to catch up.


You may have noticed that I didn’t post a blog last week.  This was mainly down to the tremendous amount of stress I was under – several problems, nothing to do with my PhD and way beyond the scope of this blog, came together to make last week the week from hell.  What few attempts I made to do some work mainly consisted of staring at the screen, writing a couple of sentences, staring at the screen some more and then deleting the couple of sentences.  One step forward, one step back.  On Wednesday evening I went to the Willows Folk Club in Kirkham, where I had a lovely chat with an old friend, Sue Bousfield.  Sue has worked with the EFDSS on their Full English project, so it was nice to talk about my work with someone who is familiar both with the material and the style of English folk songs.  Hard to know whether it was the music (and herewith I attach Steve Tilston singing the traditional song ‘Courting is a Pleasure’, simply because I can’t find a video of him singing ‘Martin Said to his Man’, which is known to late Elizabethan or early Jacobean – I forget which) or the conversation with Sue about the extent of source material from the mid-Tudor period, but on the Thursday, for the first time in weeks, I managed to write 1000 words.  And what’s more, I didn’t feel the need to delete them.  Writer’s block demolished?  It seems so.  Still, I have an enormously long list of things to do and although I am slowly ticking things off it, it gets longer and longer all the time.  The latest addition is to explore the Full English Digital Archive.

On Saturday I went Hebden Bridge for the afternoon , to the Trade Roots Festival.  I spent Sunday afternoon working on my ballad epitaph article, then on Monday I went into Manchester to read a book by Steve Hindle and have lunch with a friend.  By Monday evening, I felt much better.  My plan this week was to get the first draft of the full length version of my ballad article complete by yesterday afternoon, and thankfully, I managed.  That meant that today I was able to turn my attention to the seminar paper that I will be giving in a couple of weeks, on the Thomas Cromwell ballad flyting.  By just after lunch I was happy with the skeleton I’d constructed.  I will practise it over the next couple of weeks, but I have no intention of fleshing it out any more than it already is.

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