Today’s blog post describes Dr. Debapriya Sarkar’s research trip to the Folger Shakespeare Library
Thanks to the support of the Early Modern Studies Working Group, I was able to return to the Folger for a short trip in Fall 2019 before the library closed for renovation. I am in the early stages of research on a new project on terraqueous spaces—islands, shores, riverbanks—in early modern romance, and I wanted to consult some maps at the Folger that would enable me to think further about how these spaces functioned across different representational media. The project asks how the liminal spaces that demarcate the boundaries between land and water not only provide physical relief from the maritime dangers, but also serve as symbolic escapes from nature’s unpredictable forces. Before going to the Folger, I had been tracking how the instabilities of the romance form provided writers with an ideal literary mode within which to use these thresholds—between inland and ocean, between calm and chaos, and even between life and death—to inquire about the struggles of humans to understand, control, and manipulate their natural surroundings. While I had consulted images available on LUNA, I hoped to study a few of the atlases in greater detail at the library. At the Folger, I decided to begin by looking at the physical copies of some of the same texts I had studied online, since I hope—as the project develops—to think more about how the maps were compiled and ordered, and if such organization follows other logics of collection and compilation prevalent in the period. During my visit, I focused on English translations and abridgments, but I plan to expand my archive in future archival trips.
Here, I want to highlight how the descriptions of islands in early modern atlases often become repositories of the complex entanglements of physical, socio-political, and environmental issues with which thinkers were grappling. In a 1603 copy of Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (STC 18856)—considered to be the first modern atlas—the dangers of an island’s coast are often mitigated by appealing to the ideality of its landscape, suggesting that the coast marks a limit-point for one’s experience of safety and precarity. For instance, describing the island of Tercera, the text notes that even though the “Ile is hillie, but yet very pleasant, braring greate stoore of ceader trees,” getting there is difficult: “the coasts are daungerous by reason of the flatts and shaloes.” In another example from this same edition, we see that the value ascribed to the land is inseparable from stereotypes about its inhabitants—describing the island of Sardegna in the Mediterranean, the text appeals to the “slouthfullnesse of the people” to explain why the island “yeelds no oile.” A 1635 copy of Historia mundi:or Mercator’s atlas (STC 17824) states that in the Molucco islands of the East-Indies, “The Ayre is very unwholesome, and many Merchants that come to trade, doe die here.” This is not a simple statement of fact about natural conditions; instead, it uses physical otherness of the island to depict the anxiety of the Europeans whose colonizing ambitions demanded they familiarize themselves with distant places for profitable ventures such as the trade of spices. This edition of Historia mundi also gives a detailed description of the Summer Islands, or the Bermudas, that highlights why literary scholars consider this territory a key intertext for Shakespeare’s late romance, The Tempest. Historia Mundi’s descriptions of the Summer Islands’s “stormes and tempests” offer a clear indication of why this space—different in climate and distant in location—captured the English imaginary, even as travelers attempted to domesticate a particularly intractable foreign environment. These examples offer a glimpse of the myriad issues these atlases invoke that can help us think about connecting scholarship on colonial encounters, environmental humanities, material texts, and related topics. For literary scholars, the atlases also offer a distinctly multimodal entry point into the question of how the simultaneously contained and unknowable terrain of the island was rich for exploitation by romance writers who were testing the boundaries of self and other, known and unknown, in their formal experimentations.
Today’s blog post describes Dr. Ken Gouwens’ research trip to the Folger Shakespeare Library
Thanks to the generous support of our Folger Committee, I was able to return to the library for a whirlwind trip just a few weeks before it closed for renovation. While a short-term fellow there years ago, I’d discovered its wealth of emblem books, a genre that now occupies a central chapter of my book manuscript on simian-human comparisons. I’d accumulated hundreds of photographs of emblems and transcribed quite a lot of the material, not knowing, of course, what would end up being useful. Now that the chapter’s taking shape, it was absolutely essential to get back to the Folger to be sure of my documentation and to choose the most useful images from multiple editions.
The staff was, as always, extremely helpful, paging dozens of books for me each day. and allowing me to juxtapose three editions at a time. My mission was a success: I cleared up ambiguities and mistakes in my transcriptions, decided upon the images I’ll use, and found a few related items while I was at it! I should close by mentioning that it was at the Folger that I found the emblem that will be my book’s frontispiece: a ruff-clad simian propping up a mirror in which one sees—you guessed it—a monkey. It’s accompanied by a bar of music that “the monkey sings” and by brief poems in five languages. What, I ask, could be more Shakespearean than the pithy representation of a multiplicity of meanings and the strategy of holding the mirror up to (human) nature?
Today’s Post is a Q&A with a new member of the EMSWG.Dr. Kathryn Moore is an Assistant Professor of Art History.
Can you tell us a bit about your background (academic and otherwise)? Where are you from? Where else have you taught, researched, etc?
I am from Virginia and did an interdisciplinary BA as an Echols Scholar at the University of Virginia. I studied Latin and Italian languages and literature, as well as the history of art and architecture. I then completed an MA and PhD in art history at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where I did coursework in Italian architectural history with Marvin Trachtenberg and Islamic art and architecture with Priscilla Soucek. While a graduate student, I studied Turkish at the University of Chicago. My studies at New York University were supported by a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Graduate Scholarship. In my last two years of graduate school, I was a Kress pre-doctoral Rome Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Rome. After finishing my PhD, I was a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh and an ACLS New Faculty Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley. With support from the ACLS fellowship, I completed the summer intensive program in Modern Standard Arabic at the Qalam wa Lawh school in Rabat, Morocco. I then taught as an assistant professor at both the University of Hong Kong and Texas State University. In my various positions, I have taught courses across medieval and Renaissance European art history and Islamic art history, with a particular focus on the Mediterranean research. My research has also spanned the medieval and Renaissance periods and has taken me to Turkey, Israel, North Africa, and much of Europe. Last year, I was a fellow at Villa I Tatti, Harvard University’s center for Renaissance studies in Florence, Italy.
Can you tell us about your previous works/projects?
My first book project, published by Cambridge University Press in 2017, explored perceptions of the sacred architecture in the Christian Holy Land, from late antiquity through the early modern period. The publication was based upon research in manuscripts and printed books relating to perceptions of the Holy Land, particularly in the context of real or imagined pilgrimages. My goal was to understand the role of books in both mediating the experience of Holy Land architecture and informing physical recreations of buildings like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
What are your current projects?
My second book project is focused on the concept of the arabesque, which first emerged in early modern Italy. I am exploring how the development of the visual concept of the arabesque within European art related to perceptions of Arabic culture, beginning in the twelfth century.
What sparked your interest in pursuing your current project?
Renaissance Italy and early modern Europe are often thought of as primarily oriented towards the legacy of ancient Rome. I have always been interested in reorienting European art history to consider engagements with the Islamic cultures of the Mediterranean region. The concept of the arabesque also has a rich and complex legacy within European culture of later centuries, in fields as diverse as German Romantic literature and French musical theory. I think that understanding the emergence of the concept might help illuminate this larger history.
What are your other interests? (As a scholar or otherwise—everyday preoccupations, hobbies, grand ambitions, etc.?) Do these other interests inform your research in some way and, if so, how?
As an amateur pianist, I am working on playing and understanding some of the complex arabesque compositions of nineteenth-century music. From my perspective, arabesques challenge perceived boundaries between media, senses (visual and auditory), genres, languages, and cultures. I am hoping to have the time to study eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cultures in depth in the future, in order to understand this larger history.
Ricardo Raúl Salazar Rey is a Assistant Professor at the Stamford Campus of UCONN. He visited the Folger with funding from the Early Modern Studies Group.
Since the Renaissance of the 12th century (the real one), one of the exhilarating drivers of human innovation has been the collective learning enabled by conferences/universities/libraries, where scholars gather to discuss and sharpen their ideas. However, as a nontraditional, single parent, early career academic at a regional campus, the requirements to find, apply, and attend such academic gatherings can be a bit daunting. When my eagle-eyed mentor Mark Healey pointed out that Jennifer L. Morgan, one of my academic heroes, would be directing a yearlong colloquium on Finance, Race, and Gender in the Early Modern Atlantic World at the Folger Institute, I really wanted to participate. However, with time running out to finish my application I got stuck. In what would become a theme, the UCONN liaison Brendan Kane and others kindly reached out and helped me to understand what/how I could contribute and shepherded me through the process.
With their guidance and after a lot of revisions my application was accepted, and I gratefully took the opportunity to travel to DC over the course of a year to meet and discuss my work with scholars from intersecting disciplines. Our meetings took place in the delightful physical settings of the Folger Library while utilizing their expansive academic resources. Beyond my excitement to join the colloquium, on a practical level, my participation was made possible because of the well-run generosity of the Folger Institute. They are flexible with financial aid and the accommodations provided were comfortable and convenient. The Folger is an encapsulation of some of what I find great in the United States. The people associated with the Folger believe in it as an institution and through them it has transcended the limitations of its original purpose and their intellectual diversity keeps its programs funky and fresh. If you ever get a chance to apply to any of the Folger Institute’s programs, do yourself a favor and go for it. If it doesn’t work, you can always email to yell at me 🙂
On an academic and interpersonal level, the way that professor Jennifer L. Morgan directed the colloquium was a triumph. We had around a dozen participants, which provided plenty of points of view through which to examine the issues without becoming a cacophony. Discussions were robust and informative. The participants where at different stages in their careers and Jennifer modulated our points of view while not making a fetish of consensus. Bringing us into her selection process got solid buy-in for a mix of cutting-edge material tempered by underappreciated classics. The focus of both the readings and the majority of the participants in the colloquium fell within the Folger’s traditional remit of the British/Anglophone world, which provided productive points of contrast to my focus on slavery and freedom in Iberoamerica.
My interest and understanding of Iberoamerica is grounded in personal experience. I grew up on a farm in rural Guatemala and like most people who are exposed to pervasive and systemic governmental dysfunctionality I am fascinated by the social building blocks of good governance. Moving between El Tejar, Guatemala and Stamford, Connecticut I have come to understand that how a society works is largely the product of the narratives that frame what is right, wrong, and/or possible in the common imaginary. This is doubly true for early modern empires, where the coercive reach of the state was severely constrained by distance and the available technology. Just like good governance, gender is an immensely variable construct that I grew up thinking was set by nature/God. At 18, I left the farm and over the course of my travels and education it dawned on me that almost everything I knew about gender was false and much of it perniciously so. As a journeyman teacher and scholar, in my classroom and in my scholarship, I continue to confront my biases and blind spots and the colloquium was informative to say the least.
To set the stage, starting in 1492 the shattered pre-Columbian states became provinces of the expanding European empires. As European imperialism spread, the justification, form, and function of gender/family, community, trade, and polity changed radically, driven in large part by Africans and their descendants. Their participation was magnified in the tropical areas of the Americas where the original population was exterminated, few European peninsulares came and fewer survived, leaving Africans and their descendants to become the primary settlers of the Caribbean up to 1800. The rivers of humanity that disgorged into the Caribbean were there to produce tropical commodities (mostly drugs) to satisfy humanity’s growing addictions. Supplying humans with psychotropic substances was/is extraordinarily profitable, making the islands of the Caribbean the most valuable land of the Americas for European empires. In order to understand the lives of the people in these imperial zones, it is useful to conceptualize metropolitan policy as guided by imperial patterns of accumulation and limited by the infrastructures that made them possible.
Over the last decade, I have painstakingly tracked down, transcribed, and reassembled 54 legal cases spanning from the first half of the sixteenth century to the War of the Spanish Succession (1700-1715). They show all the brutality inherent in a slave-powered empire of conquest complicated by the House of Hapsburg’s self-conscious attempts to consolidate its power by providing Catholic buen gobierno, through an ecosystem of interdependent, yet mutually supervising, institutions. Exemplifying the tension between social cohesion and exploitation is the life of Juana de la Rosa and her children. Juana de la Rosa was born in Africa, but the exact place, even the region, is impossible to determine. During the 1670’s she was brought to the great Atlantic port city of Cartagena de Indias in bondage. In common with other talented and “lucky” people, over the next 20 years she became a successful merchant in alliance with her owners, the Copete family, eventually buying her freedom and that of her two daughters.
During the colloquium, I used what I’ve been able to find out about her life as a way to ground our discussions, comparing my interpretation of the documents to that of my colleagues, deepening my awareness of the special role of Afroiberian women in the shaping of the Caribbean world. Discussing the cases, I was able to appreciate the ways that Afroiberians exercised their agency, the way that gender was coded and how Afroiberians incorporated this code into their self-presentation in order to navigate the legal system. The legitimacy that the Spanish Empire enjoyed among the residents of its overseas possessions was a fundamental factor in its ability to control the vast territory it claimed, far beyond what could have been achieved with the limited military heft of the Iberian Peninsula. As a byproduct of this need for consent, Iberoamerica developed a legal system in which the enslaved could operate as independent agents separate from their owners. In the much more compact British Empire slavery and race combined to deny the enslaved the possibility of acting outside the control of their owners.
During the colloquium, our discussions engaged the roots, form, and consequences of the control enslaved African women and their descendants exercised over sectors of the urban economy in the Spanish and British Indies. While largely extractive, the system in Cartagena created spaces where semi-independent businesswomen like Juana de la Rosa could buy their own freedom, and then sometimes hire or buy other enslaved women. By then end of her life, she was an experienced factor working the Spanish Atlantic economy. As Juana de la Rosa achieved her freedom, and her daughters defended their freedom, we can see glimpses in the documents of their social networks—a cloud of people supporting and guiding their efforts to engage and direct the officials charged with enforcing the law. Africans and their descendants strategically allied themselves with the imperial government/Catholic Church to prevent those that would harm them from evading the rather short arm of the law.
The Spanish empire provided good governance not only because it accorded with its organizing philosophy but also because it was surrounded by powerful and voracious enemies. Early modern European empires, including the Spanish and British, engaged in cooperative competition as they fought to establish themselves as the preeminent brokers of the emerging global economy. Interlocutors and fixers arose in the Atlantic port cities of all empires, including cohorts of successful enslaved businesswomen. These women were sophisticated operators—literate, numerate, and legally savvy enough to effectively engage with the paper technology that powered early modern empires. The financial system and the legal ecology of each polity diverged and so depending on where they were enslaved, we see variations in the functioning and influence of women’s business networks.
My teacher, Daniel Lord Smail has convincingly argued that fitting together the legal systems that radiated out of these vibrant trading hubs requires a more “ecological understanding of the law.” In Smail’s conception, “we should treat the law as a coral reef” where “individual laws and statutes are ever so many calicle-forming polyps, gradually assembling a structure that is both living and dead.” Law functions then as an organizing superstructure, “a habitat for an extraordinary diversity of practices and unintended functions that grow up in its nooks and crannies.” Building on this conception, my first book argues that within the early modern Spanish Empire, such a legal ecology became a significant platform upon which Africans and their descendants navigated, negotiated, and contested their enslavement and manumission. In doing so, an emergent “black majority” affirmed their humanity, established their membership in society, and pushed back against the dehumanizing tide of racialized slavery.
Tying back into the organizing ideas of the colloquium, the early modern Spanish Empire forged a broadly inclusive, hierarchical, and flexible understanding of race modulated by gender and potentiated by the emerging Atlantic economic system. For example, a person’s unfree legal status or African descent did not preclude them from forming state-sanctioned marriages under Catholic Iberoamerican law. Universally accessible marriage was a core organizing belief espoused by the church and state amalgam that held together the Spanish Empire. The Catholic Church in Cartagena promoted families as a means of righteous social control. Amidst the cases, we can see evidence for enslaved women leveraging this support to protect their families and develop their businesses, often one and the same. People married strategically, using their spouses to anchor themselves in the community. Legal stability gave Juana de la Rosa the chance to build her social capital, participate in established and self-reinforcing networks of knowledge and trust—the very building blocks of human society. Echoes of this same dynamic enabled me to find work and establish myself in a strange land and this same social dynamic guides my path today
Today’s Post is a Q&A with a new member of the EMSWG. Katie is a first year history PhD student who specializes in early modern Irish history.
1. Where are you from originally?
I am originally from a town called Evans, GA, it is just outside of Augusta, GA. For the
past seven years I have been living in Villa Rica, GA, just outside of Atlanta, GA.
2. Where else have you gone to school?
I started school at the University of Georgia but switched to Georgia Southern University
because it offered a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management. I graduate from
Georgia Southern in 2011 and worked in the restaurant industry for several years before
coming back to school. I then went to Georgia State University for an undergraduate in
history and religious studies. After I graduated with my BA in history I continued at
Georgia State and earned my MA in Early Modern European History in December of
3. What are your research and/or teaching interests?
I love almost all early modern history but I specifically study early modern Irish, English
and Scottish history, especially in the colonial context. I am interested in identity
development and how cultures remain unified or how their development differs
depending on location, i.e. Irish communities in Ireland, the Caribbean and North
4. What are your current projects?
I am currently still doing course work but I hoping to continue my previous work on
identity development into the next 150 years following the period I focused on in my
master’s thesis. I am looking at 1650-1800 Ireland, Caribbean and North American Irish
communities and their similarities and differences. I am especially interested in how they
react to major events during that time period.
5. What sparked your interest in pursuing your current project?
I believe community identity development is very interesting and important to study
especially considering current events. With immigrant communities being spread
throughout the globe, I believe it is important to examine how these communities remain
connected to each other and how they differ so that we can help and support in
6. What scholarly intervention will your project be making, and why should it be a presence in research today?
I think it will help with the current climate in the US and throughout the world because
we interact with refugee and immigrant communities on a daily basis and it is important
to understand that these communities have global connections and develop in very unique
ways because of these connections.
7. What are your other interests? (As a scholar or otherwise—everyday preoccupations, hobbies, grand ambitions, etc.?) Do these other interests inform your research in some way and, if so, how?
I love to study new languages, although I am terrible at speaking them. I do well reading
new languages so this is very helpful to my work and it has helped me expand my
I am constantly reading and normally have multiple books, all of different styles and
genres, going at once.
I love teaching and have been teaching in some capacity for about ten years. This is
probably the most influential interest I have because it is what led me down this path
towards my doctorate. I love watching my students learn and I feel like I constantly learn
from my students. This give in take between teaching and learning influences my work
in multiple ways, most importantly it helps me broaden my views.
Kristen Vitale is one of the Early Modern Studies Working Group’s New Co-coordinators and received a travel grant last spring to conduct research at the
This past July I participated in the Folger Orientation to Research Methods and Agendas Skills Course. The Library hosted twenty-six scholars from around the world to develop “a set of research-oriented literacies,” navigate the archive, and enhance our understanding of early modern book history. I left the Folger with thorough knowledge of the promised objectives and so much more. I now have a better grasp on my intended thesis project, refined paleographic proficiency, and a range of research skills that will aid in developing my ever-looming dissertation. I also gained a number of professional and personal relationships which formed with such ease that I, along with many others, viewed our meetings as pure serendipity.
We entered the program with research topics that ranged from the Middle Ages to Milton. My work investigated the changing codes of conduct in the early Henrician tournament to gain insight into the transformation over time in the courtly spectacle. I had a pretty straight-forward objective when I began the program: explore and, in a way, prove that the cultural evolution of the tournament from 1485 through the Henrician Reformation followed the decline of chivalry and the flourishing of Renaissance codes of “gentlemanly” conduct. This is a long-term project, thus to make the most of my week at the Folger I began by examining manuscripts concerning chivalry in martial combat. Notably, the “Questions of honor and arms,” translated by Thomas Bedingfield (c. 1580, originally an Italian treatise on Renaissance dueling laws and customs, entitled De duello, vel De re militari in singulari certamine by Peride del Pozzo c. late 1470s), John Guillim’s “Book on heraldry” (c. 1560), and “The statutes and ordinances of the Order of the Garter” (c.1517-1559) contributed to my understanding of idealized codes of chivalric conduct and knighthood in the early modern world.
To further my newfound knowledge of Henrician chivalry, I headed to the Folger’s modern stacks and stared in awe at the historiographical compendium at my fingertips. I requested a range of secondary sources, such as Francis Henry Cripps-Day’s The History of the Tournament from England to France, Leon Gautier’s Chivalry, Diane Bornstein’s Mirrors of Courtesy, and a collotype reproduction of The Great Tournament Roll of Westminster with an introduction by Sydney Anglo. After hours of researching both primary and secondary sources in the Bond Reading Room, I began to realize that the chivalric code itself changed between its inception to the sixteenth century. This realization was exciting, but it also complicated my entire theory. After a defeated sigh that was loud enough for those at my table to hear, followed by a collective muffled laugh, I accepted my first real lesson in the art of letting the sources guide my project.
My findings were only part of the successful trip; each day was packed with a number of fun and beneficial activities. These ranged from directions on how to handle, describe, and observe rare materials to guided instructions on how to use the Library’s search engine, Hamnet. Some events were interactive by breaking us into groups to explore and share our research, while others were instructional round-tables on the history of the book and bookmaking. One of my favorite activities was practicing paleography and writing in Tudor secretary hand, followed by making (and writing with) our own quill. Finally, regardless of our busy schedules, the Folger staff made certain that we made it to three o’clock tea each afternoon.
It is impossible to describe my experience in this program without mentioning its participants. There was an obvious chemistry in this group of scholars; we immediately became an intellectual community that supported each other’s scholarly pursuits and fostered the palpable, instantaneous friendships that emerged. This warm environment was encouraged by the Folger staff who patiently answered our sometimes random inquiries and enthusiastically welcomed us into the glorious world of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
The week went by much too quickly, and as I said farewell to Capitol Hill I recognized that this program greatly impacted my academic self. I made research breakthroughs, learned invaluable information about the early modern world, became part of a brilliant intellectual community of scholars, and new friends, from around the globe, and gained confidence in my abilities to network in the academic sphere. For this I cannot thank the Folger staff enough. The Folger Orientation to Research Methods and Agendas Skills Course is an absolute must for scholars who are looking to advance their academic career, expand their early modern network, entrench themselves in the wonder of the Folger archives, and discover a sense of their academic self, which the Folger staff and program participants (even if inadvertently) help you find.
The Early Modern Works in Progress Writing Group—part of the UCHI-sponsored Early Modern Working Group and Folger Consortium Committee—brings together faculty members and graduate students with interests in early modern / Renaissance literatures, art, and history. Our purpose is to support and promote the research of Early Modern Community members by providing them an occasion to present work in progress and receive constructive feedback and criticism on that work. We also seek to foster an intellectual, interdisciplinary community, particularly in the hopes of bringing together graduate students and faculty members from UConn’s main and satellite campuses.
The Group meets once or twice each semester at times announced in September and January respectively. Presenters are chosen each semester by members of the subcommittee who solicit nominations from the community at large. Presenters will typically be UConn faculty members and graduate dissertators working on any aspect of early modern / Renaissance cultures.
Presenters are expected to send their work in progress (no published or “accepted” essays will be workshopped) to the group committee chair no later than two weeks prior the scheduled event. The chair will disseminate the essay to all group members, who will read the work in advance of the meeting. On the day of the 90-minute workshop, community members will gather to discuss the essay in a lively, collegial conversational format—with the primary goal of helping the presenter to refine the essay for eventual publication submission. Essays should be between 15 and 30 pages of double-spaced prose.
A post written by our very own professor Brendan Kane, along with Greenhouse Studios’ Wes Hamrick and Deidre Nic Chárthaigh, was recently featured on the blog of The National Archives. This fascinating read, which details the importance of The National Archives’ Gaelic sources, can be found below or through this link.
This post comes from the Early Modern Studies Working Group’s Co-Coordinator, Melissa Rohrer. Melissa is a PhD Candidate in the English Department.
In October of 2018, I visited the Folger Shakespeare Library with generous funding from the UConn Early Modern Studies Working Group and the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute. My dissertation investigates how playwrights of the early modern period adapted notorious true events for the stage—events such as true crimes and scandals. I already had access to the plays which adapted these events, so I my trip to the Folger was centered largely on learning more about how these events were understood, circulated, and commented upon, both at the time of their unfolding and in the centuries after they transpired.
The archival materials I investigated during this trip centered on a scandal known as the Overbury Affair, a bizarre murder conspiracy that unfolded between 1613 and 1616 and which implicated one of the most powerful royal couples in King James I’s court. Sir Thomas Overbury died in 1613 while imprisoned in the Tower of London, and two years later it came to light that he had been murdered at the behest of the Countess of Somerset. Enraged that Overbury had tried to thwart her marriage, the Countess (Lady Frances Carr née Howard) enlisted several co-conspirators of lower birth to poison him during his imprisonment; though poison was slipped into several tarts and jellies sent to Overbury, a poison-laced enema is what eventually killed him. The revelation that Overbury had been murdered caused an uproar in both in the royal court and in larger society; Robert Carr, the Earl of Somerset, was James I’s great favorite, and it was unclear to what extent Carr—or even the King himself—were complicit in the murder. Large crowds turned up to attend the trials of all who were associated with the conspiracy, and transcripts of these proceedings were circulated contemporaneously in manuscript.
The first part of my research was examining some of these manuscript copies, particularly those which transcribed the arraignments of Frances Howard’s co-conspirators: Richard Weston (an assistant jailor), Anne Turner (Howard’s confidante), and Gervase Helwys (Lord Lieutenant of the Tower). These manuscripts demonstrate contemporary interest in the court proceedings, which could not be published and so were circulated via manuscript. Whoever transcribed these documents took great care to recreate these arraignments as closely as possible. For example, the manuscript of Anne Turner’s arraignment includes a word-for-word copy of a letter Frances Howard sent to Turner, including the instructions “Burne this.” Transcripts such as these acted as a kind of news report about the trial, and for those who could read or copy them, it was the best way access the real accusations against and confessions of those who were involved in the Overbury Affair.
During my time at the Folger, I also examined the 1651 quarto, A True and Historical Relation of the Poysoning of Sir Thomas Overbury, With the Severall Arraingments and Speeches of those that were executed thereupon. This tract was published at the close of the English Civil War, when it was no longer prohibited to publish content that presented a critical view of the monarchy and aristocracy. Without these restrictions, the pamphlet gathered together a multitude of official and legal documents—such as arraignments, confessions, and royal speeches—concerning both Overbury’s murder and the divorce Frances Howard orchestrated in order to marry Robert Carr. While the materials included in this pamphlet include no commentary by the compiler, the original owner of the Folger’s copy made several comments and corrections in the margins. These marginal comments are what make this pamphlet useful to my project, as they demonstrate how ordinary citizens engaged with the scandal of Overbury’s murder. The owner’s careful correction of errors suggest that the scandal was still well-known nearly 40 years after it occurred, and his comment of “preposterous” alongside an opinion given by King James in Frances Howard’s divorce trial suggests that ill feeling about the scandal and its participants still lingered in the public consciousness.
I spent the rest of my research time looking at various other materials related to the Overbury Affair, including responses to the scandal written centuries after Overbury was murdered. I transcribed a handwritten theater review, supposedly written by David Garrick, for the 1777 production of Sir Thomas Overbury: A Tragedy by Richard Savage. My dissertation is largely concerned with scandals that were adapted for dramatization in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but Savage’s play and Garrick’s review of it indicate that these scandals remained relevant and of interest to theater audiences over a hundred years after they occurred. A similar interest inspired Andrew Amos to write his 1846 book, The Great Oyer of Poisoning: The Trial of the Earl of Somerset for the Poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury. Amos is one of the first writers to treat the Overbury Affair as a subject of significant legal and scholarly inquiry, and his book remains an important source on the trials for historians and legal scholars.
In their own way, all these materials hint at the lingering impact scandals can have on a society and its culture. We may think of scandals as phenomena of the moment, events which inspire outrage while current, but which fade from importance once resolved. My study of the Folger’s holdings which relate to the Overbury Affair suggest that this is not the case; scandals can linger in a society’s collective memory for many years, serving as cultural touchstones and points of societal self-reflection. As our own society looks back on the scandalous crimes of the 1990s and adapts these events into movies and television dramas (American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson, Casting JonBenet, Lorena, Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders), we can look back on the Overbury Affair and its legacy in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century culture for an important precursor.
The Early Modern Studies Working Group has a few exciting events in the next few weeks.
On March 7th, we are please to announce that Professor James Rice will be giving a talk titled “‘Early Modern’ and ‘Indigenous’ Histories.” The talk begins at 1pm and will be preceded by a lunch at 12:15. The talk will explore the intertwining questions of periodization, theories of historical causation, and identity. The ways in which scholars have traditionally periodized the ‘Early Modern’ match up with certain important turning points in Native American history, and that’s not a coincidence. Yet any attempt at marking the beginning and end dates of the Early Modern also serves to elide important continuities in Indigenous histories – elisions with significant consequences for the politics of today.
Professor Rice is the chair at the Tufts History Department and the Walter S. Dickson Professor of English and American History. His major publications are Tales from a Revolution: Bacon’s Rebellion and the Transformation of Early America (2012) and Nature and History in Potomac (2009). Currently, the Early Modern Cross Cultural Interactions Reading Group is reading Tales from a Revolution on Tuesday’s between 12-1 in the UCHI conference room. All are welcome to join.
On February 21st we will be holding our first transcribathon meeting in the UCHI conference room at 11am. As always, we will be transcribing John Ward’s diary along with a guest transcription. All are welcome.
UConn Humanities Institute
Homer Babbidge Library, 4th Floor
369 Fairfield Way, Unit 1234
Storrs, CT, 06269 Maps & Directions
Alexander Chee is the bestselling author of the novels Edinburgh (2001), The Queen of the Night (2016), and the essay collection How To Write An Autobiographical Novel (2018). A contributing editor at The New Republic, and an editor at large at VQR, his essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, T Magazine, The Sewaneee Review, and the 2016 and 2019 Best American Essays. He is a 2021 United States Artists Fellow, a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow in Nonfiction, and the recipient of a Whiting Award, a NEA Fellowship, an MCCA Fellowship, the Randy Shilts Prize in gay nonfiction, the Paul Engle Prize, the Lambda Editor’s Choice Prize, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Leidig House, Civitella Ranieri, and Amtrak. He teaches as an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College.