Jessica Wolfe. Humanism, Machinery, and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. xi+305pp. I SBN 0 521 83187 3.

Scott Maisano
University of Massachusetts-Boston

Scott Maisano. "Review of Jessica Wolfe, Humanism, Machinery, and Renaissance Literature.".  Early Modern Literary Studies 14.2/Special Issue 17 (September, 2008) 11.1-7<URL:>.

  1. In James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter (1966), Henry II says of his most conniving son, “Geoffrey… there’s a masterpiece. He isn’t flesh, he’s a device. He’s wheels and gears.” Jessica Wolfe’s fascinating survey of “the ideational role that machines play in sanctioning or condemning [courtly and political] instrumentality and artifice” throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries is studded with such human “masterpieces,” ranging from the totally obscure Thomas Dallam, an organ-maker and unlikely ambassador to the Ottoman Sultan Mahomet III in 1599, to the seemingly familiar (but here newly estranged) Hamlet, who not only proclaims “what a piece of work is man” but also refers to himself as a “machine” in his love letter to Ophelia (124). If at first glance the wary reader suspects that the middle term in Wolfe’s Humanism, Machinery, and Renaissance Literature will necessitate the kind of fetishistic reading of material culture which has come to dominate some quarters of early modern studies in the wake of the New Historicism, that same reader can take heart from the emphasis that Wolfe places, throughout the book, on the aforementioned “ideational” component of mechanics.

  2. Indeed, Wolfe so expertly connects the theory of courtesy with the study of mechanics in this book that, in her first chapter, she enables us to see the textual underpinnings of an immaterial culture at Castiglione’s court of Urbino: the ostensibly disparate discourses of Archimedean mechanics and Neo-Platonist philosophy, as it turns out, share a gradualist account of the emergence of ideal forms from the lowliest physical operations. It is no accident, then, that Pietro Bembo is not only an “impassioned portavoce of Platonic love” (38) but also an erstwhile student of Niccolò Leonico Tomeo, one of several Archimedean enthusiasts at the court who rhapsodized about the unique ability of mechanics “to reconcile and even ‘intertwine’ physical and mathematical being” (36). The second chapter uses original archival materials to illustrate how this profound interconnectedness of mechanics and courtesy travelled north with the peripatetic John Dee from Urbino to London, where it burgeoned at the turn of the seventeenth century into the “keen interest in machinery” (17) characteristic of the English nobility. Robert Dudley (Earl of Leicester), Robert Devereux (Earl of Essex), Henry Percy (ninth Earl of Northumberland) and, prior to his premature demise, Henry, the Prince of Wales, all discovered in mechanics an aristocratic aesthetic, a royal recreation for the improvement of “intellectual dexterity in noble men” (78): such ingenious technologies as stage machinery and clocks only “worked,” liked courtiers, so long as they were able to translate difficult operations and brute force into shows of effortless ease.

  3. Chapter Three, “Inanimate Ambassadors: The Mechanics and Politics of Mediation,” is full of examples of mechanical devices that become “objects of diplomatic exchange” (93) between rival Renaissance courts. Machines are in some ways the ideal ambassadors for long-distance trips because, free from temptations to deceit or emotional changes of heart, they embody the Stoic virtues of constancy and apatheia. Nonetheless, the reader’s own nerves bristle as, in the Sultan’s palace, Thomas Dallam readies his automated organ to “repeat—verbatim—a score set down by the Queen” (115) miles away from, and months prior to, its ultimate performance at a foreign court. While Dallam’s travelogue makes for a wonderful complement to Wolfe’s analysis in this chapter of two canonical works, Holbein’s The Ambassadors and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the next chapter devotes itself almost exclusively to a single writer: Gabriel Harvey. What saves Wolfe’s reading of Harvey’s marginalia from being derivative of her precursors—Jardine, Grafton, and Sherman—is not merely the attention she pays to the “interplay between books and instruments in the sixteenth century” (145), particularly in the case of John Blagrave’s Mathematical Jewel (which contains a working astrolabe), but also her sense of humour. For instance, Wolfe notes how Harvey “grows palpably more insistent after around 1580 that books are of no further use to him, even as he voices these objections in the margins of those books” (143).

  4. The same humour is evident in the book’s fifth chapter, a tour de force and this reviewer’s hands-down favorite, wherein one finds the following eminently quotable sentence: “Raising its subject aloft, Harington’s mock encomium functions in a similar manner as his toilet” (193). Wolfe is here incorporating Sir John Harington’s A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, or the Metamorphosis of A JAX, a “Rabelaisian… proposal for the invention of a flush lavatory” (192), into an extended discussion of the various ingenious ways that Homer’s epic poetry was mechanically mediated in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Entitled “Homer in a Nutshell: George Chapman and the mechanics of perspicuity,” this chapter begins with a simple question: “How do two men chiefly occupied with manufacturing telescopes and globes, rather than literary interpretations, come to serve as such ‘incomparable’ readers of Homer?” (161). The question pertains to George Chapman’s selection of Thomas Harriot and Robert Hues as the first readers for his translation of the Iliad, men chosen for their familiarity with problems posed by the science of optics: problems of magnification, distortion, and stereography (the art of rendering a three-dimensional image in two dimensions and/or the reverse). The latter technique comes in handy not just for detailing the surface of a globe but also for transferring the entirety of the Iliad onto a parchment “able to be couched in a nut-shel” (181), a curiosity first recorded by Pliny but legendary by the time of the Renaissance as the epitome of multum in parvo or “infinite riches in a little room” (185).

  5. Whereas Wolfe obviously has a firm grasp on Chapman’s purposeful obscurantism, she appears less confident and comfortable when confronted in her final chapter with Spenserian allegory, particularly the ‘iron man,’ Talus, in Book V of The Faerie Queene. If ever there were a mechanical ambassador, though his “Terminator-like approach” (213) is hardly diplomatic, it is Artegall’s steely sidekick, a figure from Greek legend who really isn’t flesh but is truly a device made of wheels and gears. Wolfe sounds a bit alarmist as she worries that “that the experience of war, or the demands of Stoicism, or the legal and political instrumentalism of the age have conspired to rupture the barrier between the vital and the mechanical”; and she ups the stakes still higher by adding that “as machinery perfects humanity, it threatens to dismantle the very category of the human” (226). Nowhere else in Wolfe’s book have machines approximated perfection. It is hard to understand, therefore, why Wolfe, who has gone to so much trouble to remind readers of the “radical polyvalence of machines in the pre-machine age” (241), would suddenly succumb to an attack of technophobia so acute that she would desperately seek to shore up “the barrier between the vital and the mechanical” and preserve “the very category of the human.” Such barriers and categories are not “ruptured,” “threatened,” or in the process of being torn down in texts such as Spenser’s; to the contrary, they are, as Wolfe knows, barely in-the-works, under construction, and about to go up, with “the advent of a systematic mechanical philosophy in the middle of the seventeenth century” (6).

  6. This odd sense of anticipating the future occurs in a couple of other places as well. For example, the first sentence of Chapter 2 informs readers that “In Elizabethan and Jacobean England, the discipline of mechanics is reconstituted as an instrument of civility and of intellectual and moral discipline by humanists and scientists alike” (56). Would anyone have bothered—or been able to—distinguish between “humanists” and “scientists” in Elizabethan England? Since the cutting-edge disciplines of physics and mechanics owed much of their advancement to the recovery and translation of classical texts, it is hard to isolate scientists or “scientific learning,” “scientific instruments,” “scientific patrons,” “scientific texts,” “scientific manuscripts,” or “scientific interests,” as Wolfe does (all citations from page 37), from the wider culture of humanism in the sixteenth century. On occasion, Wolfe’s book seems to posit these “two cultures”—the humanists and the scientists—anachronistically in order to demonstrate the obvious conclusion as if it were her own discovery: these two groups (not surprisingly) were in constant "interplay" throughout the Renaissance.

  7. Missing entirely from Wolfe’s discussion of “the ideational role that machines play” in early modern culture, however, is a consideration of religion. Though doctrinal disputes might seem an unlikely obstacle to the translation of mechanical subtlety and sprezzatura from the Italian courts to Elizabethan England, many strict reformers viewed such seemingly mechanical gestures as bowing at the mention of Jesus’ name to be the result of Popish innovation and idolatry. Touching on the role that technique and technology played in religious devotion might also enable Wolfe to discuss the familiar mechanical conceits of compasses, battering rams, and pulleys—the stuff of physics—in the so-called ‘metaphysical’ poetry of Donne and Herbert. But, of course, the applicability of Wolfe’s ideas to cultural practices and literary texts which she does not directly discuss is only evidence of her book’s clear contribution to Renaissance studies. To leave it at that, however, is to understate the significance of Humanism, Machinery, and Renaissance Literature. Like Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, this book, for all its original archival materials, is far from a simple ‘period piece.’ To the contrary, by exposing the pipes behind the organ music, and the artifice of the organ itself behind the subsequently naturalized discourse of the “organic” (114), Jessica Wolfe ultimately supplies a timely reminder of how the humanist fictions and conceits of Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare have been and will remain “instrumental” to our own post-humanist fantasies of silicon, cyborgs, and intelligent machines.