Ruff Draughts

Report from the Folger: Enslaved and Freedwomen; Creators of the Atlantic Economy

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.

Afroiberians controlled transport on the river Magdalena. Enslaved crew usually operating under the supervision of enslaved or freed captains.

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.”[1] 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.[2]

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

In this image from the Folger archives we can see some of the assumptions and narratives that framed slavery in Angloamerica. Contrary to received history where slavery is an unfortunate blemish, which once acknowledged can be safely ignored, people throughout the Atlantic world came into contact with slavery, thought about slavery, and used it as a metaphor.

 

[1] Susan Unger, “Priorities of Law: A Conversation with Judith Scheele, Daniel Lord Smail, Bianca Premo, and Bhavani Raman,” Comparative Studies in Society and History (2017).

[2] See the introduction in David Wheat, Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean, 1570-1640 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

Q&A with Katie Beene

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
2018.

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
American colonies.

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
meaningful ways.

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
horizons.
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.

Folger Research Report: “My Experience in the Folger Orientation to Research Methods and Agendas Skills Course, Summer 2019”

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

Folger Library

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.

 

Guillim’s Book on heraldry

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.

 

Bedingfield’s Questions of Honor and Arms

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.

 

Collotype reproduction of The Great Tournament Roll of Westminster

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 statutes and ordinances of the Order of the Garter c.1517-1559

Announcing The Early Moderns Works in Progress Writing Group

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.

 

We hope to see you at our meetings!

Early Modern Signal Boost: foinsí Ghaeilge (Irish sources) at The National Archives

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.

foinsí Ghaeilge (Irish sources) at The National Archives

Scandal and Murder in the Folger Archives

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.

Figure 1: This portrait may be of Sir Thomas Overbury. It is currently hanging in the reading room at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Figure 1: This portrait may be of Sir Thomas Overbury. It is currently hanging in the reading room at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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.

Figure 2: Manuscript transcription of the arraignment of Anne Turner, including Frances Howard’s letter to Turner.
Figure 2: Manuscript transcription of the arraignment of Anne Turner, including Frances Howard’s letter to Turner.

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.

Figure 3:Page from A True and Historical Relation of the Poysoning of Sir Thomas Overbury (B4) with marginal commentary.
Figure 3:Page from A True and Historical Relation of the Poysoning of Sir Thomas Overbury (B4) with marginal commentary.

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.

Upcoming Events: Talk by Professor James Rice, “‘Early Modern’ and ‘Indigenous’ Histories”

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.

 

Scandal and Murder in the Folger Archives

Today’s 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.

Figure 1: This portrait may be of Sir Thomas Overbury. It is currently hanging in the reading room at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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.

Figure 2: Manuscript transcription of the arraignment of Anne Turner, including Frances Howard’s letter to Turner.

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.

Figure 3: Page from A True and Historical Relation of the Poysoning of Sir Thomas Overbury (B4) with marginal commentary.

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.

From New Zealand to New England: Evelyn Tribble joins the UConn English Department in Fall 2017.

Today’s Post is an interview introducing Professor Evelyn Tribble, a recent addition to the UCONN early modern community and active member of the Early Modern Studies Working Group

Evelyn Tribble (Lyn)  is Professor of English at the University of Connecticut, having come from the University of Otago, Dunedin, NZ. She is the author of Margins and Marginality: The Printed Page in Early Modern England (Virginia, 1993), Writing Material: Readings from Plato to the Digital Age (with Anne Trubek, Longmans, 2003), Cognitive Ecologies and the History of Remembering (with Nicholas Keene, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), and Cognition in the Globe: Attention and Memory in Shakespeare’s Theatre, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). She has also published articles in Shakespeare Quarterly, Shakespeare, Shakespeare Survey, Shakespeare Studies, and Textual Practice, and ELH, among others. Her most recent book Early Modern Actors and Shakespeare’s Theatre: Thinking with the Body was published by Bloomsbury in 2017, and will be published in a paperback edition in 2019.

 

As a scholar, your specialization is in cognitive theory.  For those who might be unfamiliar, can you explain this theory and your particular approach?

I draw upon the cognitive sciences in my work on memory, skill, and embodiment in the early modern theatre. It’s important to realize that the cognitive sciences are a highly diverse interdisciplinary endeavor: there is not one unified theory of cognition that unites them, so there isn’t really one ‘cognitive theory’ that I employ. It’s not like there is some inert, settled background of science that we can invoke to explain, say, how an actor approaches a role. Critics from outside the field sometimes still identify ‘cognitive science’ with some stereotypical assemblage of rationalist, individualist, universalist, essentialist views, but I don’t agree with this assessment. Why would we rule such rich areas of research out of court as, say, too reductive? I’ve found research in the sciences of memory, attention, and perception to be extraordinarily useful in my research into early modern acting. Just to take one example, I think that research into memory degradation over time – the process by which we forget verbal material  – can help to understand which texts in Shakespeare are likely to be mnemonic reconstructions of a forgotten written text. Similarly research on how easily attention is manipulated can help us understand how Shakespeare’s players managed overlapping entrances and exits, and how audiences track, remember, and forget the unfolding action of the play.

 

Your latest book, Early Modern Actors and Shakespeare’s Theatre: Thinking with the Body, seems (at first glance) to center more on skill and embodiment than cognition.  What drew you to study the relationship between bodily skill and cognitive processes, and can you explain more about that relationship?

This is a great question that follows directly from the previous discussion. If we posit that cognition is simply ‘thinking,’ then what do we mean by thought? Thinking does not just happen in the head, but is distributed across brain, body, and world. This model helps us to understand how early modern players coped with seemingly overwhelming cognitive loads, performing up to six different plays a week.  It was often said that players could only have managed by using stock practices or routines, pandering to the groundlings, and so forth. But a model of distributed cognition can help us see that they succeeded by creating and embedding themselves within physical, social and material smart structures: the playhouse itself, governed by shared conventions of movement across the stage; cognitive artefacts such as the part and the plot; the strong social bonds fostered by the system of sharers in the playhouses; and the regimes of training and education that undergirded their practice.

In my latest book, I was particularly interested in how skills are sedimented in the body. So to study skill, we examine, amongst other matters, the training the nervous system with habituation and practice; the role of attention, memory and perception; and the extension of the body through a range of instruments and objects, including tools, treatises and social and material practices such as apprenticeship.

 

How were early modern actors different than the actors we know today?  Why is it important for students and scholars of early modern drama to attend to these differences? 

It takes enormous intelligence and commitment to be an actor, no matter what era you are living in. One of the ideas I have sought to combat is that the actors of Shakespeare’s eras were using stock routines and gestures to manage their workload. Another misconception is that the boys who played the female roles were sending it up and weren’t taken seriously. On the contrary, actors, men and boys alike, had a reputation throughout Europe as highly skilled. Yet they were working within a particular ecology – a particular set of material practices, social bonds, physical environments, and the like. Contemporary actors work in very different systems: their training is different; regular repertory work is rare; they work with a very different set of materials and artifacts; and the economics of theatre is completely different today. I think attending to these differences is very important, but it can be done without denigrating either historical or contemporary actors.

  

What appeals to you about the early modern period, and why should it be a presence in curriculum and research today?

There’s a lot about the early modern period that resonates with our world today. I think there was simultaneously a sense of great possibility and of great anxiety. One reason I love the early modern theatre so much – especially the earlier periods, that 1580s and 1590s – is that this was a genuinely new form. Theatre itself isn’t new, of course, but the idea of purpose-built commercial theatre, with multiple companies competing for urban audiences, really was an innovation. In many ways, the media ecology of the early modern period has many analogues to our own. Shakespeare in particular continues to resonate with students today because it is such an open form. I like to teach through performance so that students can become aware of the many choices he builds into his plays and thus can bring their own experiences into the playworld.

 

What aspect of your scholarly work and teaching on early modern studies are you most excited to share with the UConn community?

I’m really enjoying being a part of the English department, and it’s been great to get involved in the early modern group. I’m been working on a project on early modern magic – especially its relationship to affect and altered states – that I’m looking forward to sharing in the spring.