The triennial University of Reading conferences on early modern literature and history have become a focal point for interdisciplinary work, and their themes have helped to galvanize interest around certain issues, including the relationship between patronage and literature, and literary engagements with political culture. This volume collects ten essays originally presented at the 1995 Reading conference. Its title, Texts and Cultural Change in Early Modern England, does not adequately reflect the volume's clear objectives and impressive achievements. For the authors of the chapters, as Brown and Marotti note in their strong introduction, are alike in being more empirically oriented, perhaps, than many who do historicist literary study: they are eager to draw on the riches of the archive for their cultural evidence, ready to examine the material characteristics of print or manuscript texts for what they can specifically reveal about the historical semiotic encoding of the texts' production and reception (3). The book thus represents a movement towards a newly historicized approach to bibliographical analysis. Its results provide some evidence of the pitfalls of such approaches, but much more evidence of their potential value.
The essays in Texts and Cultural Change span a period from the mid-sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries. Oddly, the two with the least in common with the aims of the volume are two which have previously been published: Janel Mueller's curious tracing of a resonant figure of speech, "the book of the crucifix," through the writings of a male Catholic and a female Protestant in Henrician England; and Richard Dutton's stimulating reassessment of Shakespeare's authorial practices, suggesting that he attended far more closely than has previously been thought to the written texts of his plays, and also to their circulation. The others are more consistent in their attention to particular texts, their histories of publication and reception, and the cultural milieux within which they operated. Lori Humphrey Newcomb, for example, examines the history of Robert Greene's romance Pandosto, considering the apparent contradiction between "scarce and even unflattering anecdotal traces" and "an edition count that signals great popularity" (96). Like several other pieces, Cedric Brown's approach is more particular, as he interestingly compares the context within which Milton first wrote "Lycidas" (1637/8) with that in which it was published in its best-known form, eight years later.
Such analytical strategies promise to extend our appreciation of both texts and their contexts. Peter Lindenbaum's engaging study of the history of Sidney's Arcadia within early modern culture provides a signal example. He explores changes in the physical presentation of the text over its many successive editions, and also examines marginal annotations made by contemporary readers.The essay concludes that while Sidney's text remained popular with readers into the eighteenth century, "the nature of that appeal is changing: as the Arcadia is conceived less as a compendium or bearer of high Renaissance cultural values, at bottom aristocratic in nature, it is read more and more simply for its story and, in effect, as a novel, a genre more usually associated with middle-class readers" (87). Issues of cultural change also underset Paul Hammond's outstanding study of "sensitivity to homosexual implications in adaptations of Shakespeare, 1640-1701." Hammond identifies "a shift in the way that passionate male relationships are conceptualized," as seventeenth-century writers consistently reject "the ambiguities of Shakespeare's erotic imagination," in an attempt "to preserve the clarity and stability of the definition of masculinity in the face of the new world of homosexual self-definition" (245-6).
The essays also provide occasion to reflect upon some of the difficulties inherent in bibliographical analysis. Such approaches raise problems of infinite labours and inevitable lacunae; as Newcomb concedes, the literary scholar assessing a collection of hard-won scraps of data may be "reduced to ingeniously interpreting evidence so thin and contradictory as to seem unreliable" (95). It is perhaps no coincidence that one of the most convincing essays in the volume is that by a historian and bibliographer: Pamela Neville-Sington's analysis of Richard Hakluyt and his influence. The assurance here derives largely from the extent of her research; it is apparent throughout that Neville-Sington has sufficiently familiarized herself with multiple copies of Hakluyt’s works, to be able to justify some fascinating conclusions about the operation of censorship, and the ways in which certain printers and readers resourcefully responded to its challenge. Other essays are slightly less convincing. Some people, for example, might question Lindenbaum's decision to base his analysis of marginalia in the Arcadia only on one (albeit excellent) collection. Marotti's essay, "Southwell's Remains: Catholicism and Anti-Catholicism in Early Modern England," suffers rather from a lack of material. He presents some highly suggestive analysis of the cultural place of Robert Southwell's writings; however, these few striking pages are pinned to a lengthy and merely informative survey of Catholicism and anti-Catholicism in Elizabethan England.
Sasha Roberts's fine contribution, "Editing Sexuality, Narrative and Authorship: The Altered Texts of Shakespeare's 'Lucrece'," is worthy of further consideration in this context. Roberts identifies a "chastening" of Shakespeare's text in the course of the seventeenth century, as a series of editors and publishers seek to "emphasize Lucrece's innocence in her rape and validate her suicide" (132). Yet when Roberts turns, in accordance with the brief of the volume, to broader issues of cultural change, she is suggestive yet uncommitted. For example, she situates the textual alterations in relation to changes in the perception of women, and posits them further as "an intervention that betrays enxiety about declining sexual morality and the growth of a libertine culture" (140). But ultimately she concludes, with a subdued sense of despair, that such claims "cannot be determined without much more precise information about relations between text, publisher, readership and cultural change" (141).
Roberts is not alone in her intelligent consideration of the limitations of her analysis; however her essay, like every other contribution to this excellent volume, also demonstrates the great potential held by bibliographical approaches to the study of early modern texts and culture. Texts and Cultural Change therefore marks an important development in historicist methods of interpretation, and helps to direct scholars towards a wealth of research opportunities in the archives.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.