Richard Helgerson
University of California, Santa Barbara

Helgerson, Richard. "Introduction." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.2 / Special Issue 3 (September, 1998): 1.1-14 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-2/intro.htm>.

  1. Literature and geography. Both terms in the title of this special issue of Early Modern Literary Studies should be thought of as shadowed -- or, better, illuminated -- by the same adjective: "new." What we address here is a self-consciously new literature and a still more self-consciously new geography. In both areas, the early modern sense of fundamental innovation was intense. Nor is the conjunction of these two novelties an accident of modern scholarship. Already in the sixteenth century, the newness of one was both enhanced and authenticated by its association with the other. New geography called forth a new literature, and a new literature illustrated, propagated, and confirmed the new geography.

  3. As an example of this reciprocity, consider what, so far as I know, is the first English work in which the two broadly intersect, John Rastell's New Interlude and a Merry of the Nature of the Four Elements (c. 1518). Though Rastell's drab didactic verse gives off none of the golden glow that would shine from the poems and plays of his Elizabethan successors -- works that can still feel new to us -- his interlude nevertheless declares its own pioneering ambition, and not only in the "new" of its title. Its introductory "Messenger" laments that, while "toys and trifles" abound in English, the language has so far not been made to bear much in the way of "matter substantial."[1] Rastell proposes to take the lead in filling this gap. He does it by turning his play into a lesson in "cosmography," under which heading what we would call "geography" claims the largest part. First Nature and Studious Desire -- allegorical characters, like all the others in the play -- give a lecture on the rotundity of the earth, its place in the firmament, and the order of the four elements, and then Experience comes on to describe at length the distribution of the earth's various lands and seas, all with the help of a "figura," a large globe or world map, based, a recent editor reasonably conjectures, on Martin Waldseemüller's 1516 Carta Marina.[2]

  5. Rastell's cartographic world tour makes it clear why he feels such a pressing need for a serious English literature. England provides both his starting and his ending point. All the world arranges itself in relation to England. And English ambition colors much of what he shows, particularly the "new lands," unknown "sith the world began, / Til now, within this twenty year." "O what a thing had be then," he exclaims,
  6. If that they that be Englishmen
    Might have been the first of all
    That there should have take possession
    And made first building and habitation,
    A memory perpetual! (49)
    Imagining, as the new geography prompts Rastell to do, a much expanded role for England in the world puts new pressure on the English language and its literature. Like Greek and Latin before it, English must now be made fit for an imperial destiny, for cultural sovereignty at home and eventual dominion abroad.
  7. Rastell was well placed to feel these demands. The brother-in-law of Sir Thomas More, whose Utopia had already responded to the sudden enlargement of the world and had already included a map, even if only a map of Noplace, Rastell was attuned to the humanist values that More and his friend Erasmus had been championing. And Rastell shared More's legal training and political involvement. But he was also a printer, an investor and participant in overseas ventures, a theatrical impresario, and a supporter of religious reform. Unlike More's, his intellectual orientation was more national than international, more practical than theoretical. It is thus no wonder that he gives such a prominent part in his interlude to "Experience." The experience on which Experience relies was in significant measure Rastell's own. Rastell not only wrote, staged, and printed plays, he also undertook the (unsuccessful) New World expedition of which Experience speaks. Whether one thinks of new print technology, a new theatrical medium, new learning, the new monarchy, a new religion, a new world, or a new economy, Rastell was there, either in fact or in ambition.

  9. Given their multifaceted engagement with both literature and geography and with the various early modern innovations that fostered both, Rastell and his play nicely suggest the nexus of mutually reinforcing novelties from which the texts and cultural practices discussed in this special issue arose, matters that many of our essays take up. But in attending to the newness of early modern geography and literature, we should not ignore the answering twentieth-century newnesses that have shaped this collection itself.

  11. Most obvious is the electronic medium through which these essays are being published. Rastell's Four Elements appeared early in the age of print. This special issue appears still earlier in the electronic age. One may, however, doubt whether our collection participates as fully in the newness of the net as Rastell's book did in the newness of print. "There cannot," wrote Marshall McLuhan nearly forty years ago, "be nationalism when there has not first been experience of a vernacular in printed form," and Benedict Anderson has more recently underlined the importance of print to the formation of those "imagined communities" we call nations.[3] Through its use of print, its invention of a readers' theater, and its evocation of the new geography, Rastell's book actively and deliberately works to bring into being a new national audience, "As well of noblemen as of mean estate, / Which nothing but English can understand" (31). We can make no comparable claim. Though the hot links scattered through this special issue, concentrated especially in Rhonda Lemke Sanford's hyperlinked guide, do things impossible in print, neither the discursive form of these essays nor their expected audience differs significantly from those of a printed journal. We may communicate by e-mail, write on computers, and publish electronically, but we remain -- at least in the context of this publication -- printfolks hitchhiking on an electronic vehicle. If the internet is transforming the world, it isn't happening here.

  13. But in another way this special issue does express a genuine newness. Twenty years ago -- to take the span that separated Rastell from ignorance of the New World -- literary scholars knew almost as little of early modern maps as we did of the still undeveloped internet. Except for a rare fact-grubbing foray, we assumed, if we thought of them at all, that maps were of interest only to antiquarian collectors and cartographic historians, practitioners of a discipline that gave no scope to the interpretive skills we were accustomed to using on works of imaginative literature. Since then, there has been significant movement in both directions. The cartographic historians, led by the late Brian Harley, have come our way in search of methods, and we, in far larger numbers, have gone theirs, looking for material. Just in the last few years, maps and geographical learning have been a featured element in John Gillies's Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference (1994), Frank Lestringant's Mapping the Renaissance World (1994), William Sherman's John Dee (1995), Andrew McRae's God Speed the Plough (1996), Tom Conley's The Self-Made Map (1996), Lesley Cormack's Charting an Empire (1997), Jerry Brotton's Trading Territories (1998), Garrett Sullivan's The Drama of Landscape (1999), and my own Forms of Nationhood (1992) -- and these books have been complemented by numerous articles, dissertations, conference papers, and even a half-dozen interdisciplinary conferences. This collection itself began with a special session, organized by Joanne Woolway Grenfell, for the 1996 Modern Language Association Convention in Washington, D.C. In response to her call for papers, Woolway Grenfell received so many interesting proposals that she thought a collection should be put together. Twenty years ago -- even ten years ago -- there would, in all likelihood, have been no response at all.

  15. Why this change? Is anything going on in early modern literary and historical studies that would bear comparison with the sixteenth-century transformations to which Rastell's Four Elements contributes? Without greater historical distance, it would be hazardous to say. But to judge by the noise coming from the "culture wars" of the last few years, an impression of radical mutation -- threatening to some and welcome to others -- is widespread. And maps are once again in the thick of it. As early modern maps and mapping practices had their part in national consolidation, overseas expansion, humanist and Reformation historicism, emerging agrarian capitalism, scientific revolution, and a general abstracting of time and space, so the map has become a preeminent figure for the postmodern revision of these now aging orders, including the academic order that has kept "aesthetic" literary study separate from "scientific" geography. Whenever we speak of boundary crossing or the erasure of boundaries, we are speaking cartographically. Nor is cartography's role only metaphoric. In tracing out the interrelated complicities of maps and literary works in the making of the modern world, cartographically oriented literary scholars and historians are inevitably disrupting the seemingly natural divisions and hierarchies on which that world depends. Though our sense of the future toward which these efforts are tending may not equal the clarity of Rastell's nationalist ambitions, the transformative potential of our undertaking -- not of course on its own but rather in concert with related scholarly and critical innovations across the disciplinary and historical spectrum -- does rise to a similar level.

  17. The specific issues addressed by the essays we present here suggest the preoccupations recent literary and historical scholarship shares with Rastell and his successors, though we often unsettle matters they were working to fix. The collection begins with Swen Voekel's overview of cartographic genres from the medieval mappa mundi to the early seventeenth-century estate survey, an overview that asks of each mapping practice how it served particular systems of economic and political power. The five essays that follow this introductory survey focus on national consolidation: on Britain, its constituent parts (which could also be its antagonistic others), and the larger empire to which it once belonged. Taking off from Imogen's question in Cymbeline about the distance to Milford Haven, Garrett Sullivan examines relations of England and Wales, of Britain and Rome, in terms especially of the Roman roads that bound and divided these overlapping polities. Britain's ancient Roman connection also resurfaces in the last of the essays in this group, Huw Griffiths' study of ruins and translatio imperii in Spenser's "Ruins of Time." Though deployed in a project of national authentication, ruins and the "translated geographies" to which they testify disrupt, Griffiths argues, as much as they enforce the nation's identity, its enabling myth of self-likeness.

  19. Similar ironies haunt the efforts described in the three intervening essays to fix national and imperial borders cartographically. A "Greater Cambria," in the phrase Philip Schwyzer invents to recall the Greater Serbia, Greater Albania, Greater Bulgaria, &c. of our own time, made claims that shrunken Wales could never satisfy, while rebellious Ireland, discussed by Bernhard Klein and Joanne Woolway Grenfell, vigorously contested the claims of a distended England. Both Klein and Woolway Grenfell are keenly aware of the disjunction between imperial pretensions and lived reality, but where Klein emphasizes "the violent transfer of political authority in Ireland from native Irish to English colonizers," as that transfer was registered cartographically, Woolway Grenfell shows that even maps and map-inspired views, like Spenser's, contained perspectives at odds with the panoptic imperial gaze.

  21. With the help of the world maps that followed Waldseemüller's, the sixteenth-century imperial gaze could of course look much farther abroad than neighboring Ireland -- and it did. As early as 1518, Rastell's Four Elements gives evidence of this expanded view, and still more copious evidence can be found in the later documents taken up by Lesley Cormack and Mark Koch in essays grouped toward the end of the collection. Cormack shows how the imperial imagining that maps inspired was expressed in the frontispiece designs of Elizabethan geographical works, and Koch describes the gaze itself as an ideological instrument used both in overseas ventures, like Sir Humphrey Gilbert's Newfoundland expedition, and in prospects closer to home. The power of such an elevated gaze is to represent the world or any part of it as both knowable and eventually subject to a control that would not be merely cartographic.

  23. Between the uncertainties of national self-definition in the early essays and the imperial ambitions of the later ones, Andrew McRae and Lisa Gorton, with the help of Ben Jonson and John Donne, offer perspectives that fit neither. In Jonson's "Famous Voyage," a shit-besmirched mock-epic account of a trip through London's principal sewer, McRae finds the traces of a carnivalesque socio-geography, while Gorton shows how Donne's idealist cosmography relies more often on the old philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas than it does on either the new philosophy that was calling "all in doubt" or the equally unsettling new geography. Though neither Donne nor Jonson was immune to the thrill of the new, each gives it a notably ironic turn, Donne in his exultant proclamation of sexual conquest ("O my America, my new found land!") and Jonson in his mock-heroic celebration of urban and bodily filth.

  25. But for a still more radically anti-geographic perspective, Robert Appelbaum, in the collection's concluding essay, directs our attention to Joseph Hall's Mundus Alter et Idem, where the age of discovery is declared over and where the imaginary monsters in the antipodes are revealed to be no other than foolish Englishmen. In Rastell's Four Elements, Sensual Appetite lures Humanity -- a very English Humanity -- away from the lessons of Nature, Studious Desire, and Experience. Rastell has no doubt that the new geography is worth learning. By the time we reach the anti-geography of Joseph Hall, the new geography is itself identified with sensual appetite, with the foolish worldliness that would distract men from the memory of their own sinfulness and their absolute dependence on God. Yet, as Appelbaum argues, even this anti-geography, like the positive geography described in so many of the other essays, does significant political work. It functions as part of an argument for authoritarian government in both church and state.

  27. Guided by the by the institutional separation of literature from geography, we may think of Hall's dystopian satire, Donne's metaphysical verse, Jonson's scatological mock epic, Spenser's nostalgic lament, or Shakespeare's historical drama as fundamentally unlike fact-bound maps and geographic descriptions. That, these essays suggest, would be a mistake. Instead what they reveal is a deep, if unexpected, likeness between them. Not only do both literature and geography respond to the same set of historical conditions, conditions we first saw converging in Rastell's Four Elements, but they also draw on many of the same materials, engage many of the same issues, and serve -- however equivocally -- many of the same causes. They can even express similar ironies and afford similar pleasures, including the pleasure of newness. No wonder then that so many scholars are now studying both. The only surprise is that it took us so long.
    1. Three Rastell Plays: Four Elements, Calisto and Melebea, Gentleness and Nobility, ed. Richard Axton (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1979) 31. Thanks to Michael O'Connell for pointing me in the direction of Rastell's interlude. [Back]

    2. Rastell, ed. Axton, 6-7. [Back]

    3. Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1962) 218, and Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983; revised London: Verso, 1991) 37-46. [Back]

    Acknowledgments:  The editors would like to thank all who helped in the preparation of this issue, and especially the editorial assistants, Jennifer Lewin (Yale University) and Laura Bonikowsky (University of Alberta).

    Note on the illustrations: Thanks are due to the following institutions for permission to reproduce illustrations in this issue: the British Library (Klein, figures 1-7, and Cormack, figure 2), the Huntington Library, and Trinity College, Dublin (Woolway Grenfell, Figure 1). No further reproduction is permissible without the consent of the copyright holders. All efforts have been made to contact copyright-holders for the remaining images. For further information, please contact the Managing Editor: M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

Works Cited

© 1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).