Persian Petitioning and Serendipitous Research

As an eternal glutton for punishment, I was researching in the Archive Reading Room in the Houses of Parliament in January earlier this year. In the list of Petitions to the House of Lords in my period of research, there was one particular Petition which stood out from the others. Amidst the multitudes of petty disputes and unsettled debts, a Petition of the 8th May 1628 is unique; it describes a desperate plea for financial assistance for a disabled Persian man, Joseph Alley (Ali) and his wife. It is catalogued as the ‘Petition of Joseph Alley, son of the late Lord Steward to the Emperor of Persia. Being desirous of becoming a Christian, came to this country with the late ambassador, but is now sick and in great distress.’ The full Petition reads,

To the most Reverende and right honnorable: the Lords Spirituall & temporall in the highe house of Parliament assembled. The Humble Petition of Joseph Alley.

Humbly Sheweth,

That Whereas your subjects father beinge Lord Steward to the Emperor of Persia, the petitioner obtaining leave to come over with the late Ambassador, and for the greate desire wch hee had to become a Christian, and trulie worship and serve the true God, hath forsaken his parente countrie and frendes to live here.

And being nowe in that extreame miserie through wante of meanes that hee and his wyffe shall utterlie perishe unless yor Honnors clemencie bee extended for his ymmediate relief herin.

If we give whereof and for that the petitioner and his wife having been for so long tyme such that they had, and having goods better worth than £20: Money in pounds £6, wch wilbe forfetted for wante of money to redeeme it.

This most humble suite is that yor Lords in commiseracone of his moste miserable estate wilbe honourably pleased to sette sound course for his presente meanes and yearly supportacone, he having of late received such a bruse, as he cannot labor for his lyvnge being noble borne and not trained to merchante affairs, yet nowe wante means to buy his food.

And is in dutie bounde, he shall dailie praye for yor Lord’s live long and happie lives.


As I was transcribing this manuscript, in the unfathomably luxurious reading room in the Palace of Westminster, I recalled a Guardian article which I had read whilst travelling to London earlier that day. The article reported on the distressingly high number of migrant refugees – 539, many of which of Iranian descent – who had attempted to cross the English Channel and reach the safety and security of Britain’s shores in 2018. Reading this petition, in the very building in which it was delivered 391 years earlier, made me pause. The petition, which offered the briefest glimpse into the tragic narrative of Joseph Alley and his wife, felt all the more pertinent because of the paralleling circumstances of the faceless and nameless refugees which sparingly reached our daily news reel.

Since that day in early January, alongside more focused research, I have tried to uncover additional details of the fate of Joseph Alley and his wife. I’ve tried to do this, not because their story is particularly relevant to my thesis, but because it is a story worth telling, and one which has struck a very personal chord with me.

Unfortunately, six months had passed, and I had been unable to find out any further details of Joseph Alley’s plight, or that of his unnamed wife. Last week, however, whilst scouring through the Calendar of State Papers for an entirely unrelated purpose, the name of Joseph Alley appeared. The entry of the 24th January 1628 reads, ‘Joseph Alley, one of the late Persian Ambassador’s servants, received a hurt in the yard at Blackwall by a piece of timber falling upon him.’ It wasn’t much, but it did, however, unveil the nature and circumstances of his disability, as well as reinvigorate my desire to unearth his story.

After further research, in the Guildhall Library Manuscripts, the name of Joseph Alley appeared once more. The records state that ‘Joseph Alley, a Persian borne’ was buried on the 27th July 1630 at St Botolph’s on Aldgate. A church which, with bizarre serendipitous happenstance, I myself had inadvertently set foot in, not forty eight hours prior. The church of St Botolph, the patron saint of travellers, is the final resting place for a significant number of people, just like Joseph Alley, of Asian or African origin who had found their way to early modern London.

His burial at St Botolph’s was, undoubtedly, a sentiment designed to offer spiritual support for Joseph Alley’s body and soul. Unfortunately, however, the reality of the situation, as the Petition to the House of Lords lays bare, is that Joseph Alley’s body and soul were in dire need of help long before he died. This story of Joseph Alley and his wife must, ultimately, serve as a warning against the consequences of inaction. Although incomplete, it reconfirms the necessity of studying our collective human history in the twenty first century, as Joseph Alley’s plea for help resonates firmly out of 1628 and into 2019.

Thomas Collins

Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/35.

St Botolph Aldgate: 27 July 1630, burial of ‘Joseph Alley, a Persian borne’ (GL Ms 9222/2 p.87)

‘East Indies: January 1628’, in Calendar of State Papers Colonial, East Indies, China and Persia, Volume 6, 1625-1629, ed. W Noel Sainsbury (London, 1884), pp. 439-458. British History Online

[accessed 24 June 2019]



Spring 2019 Seminar Series

UntitledWednesday 6 February: Katherine Ibbett (Oxford), ‘Surface Writing: On the Seventeenth Century Saint Lawrence River’. 5pm, Silverstone 309

Wednesday 13 February: Emma Whipday (Newcastle), ‘“You see my sister’s yet at my dispose”: Brothers and Sisters on the Early Modern Stage’. 5pm, Silverstone 309

Monday 25 February: Work in progress: Flora Dennis, Nicole Mennell, Joanne Paul. 12.30pm, Arts B B217

Wednesday 13 March: Staged reading of The Politician. 5pm, Attenborough Centre

Monday 1 April: Tom Kowalczyk (Sussex), ‘‘‘In Sight of the World”? Writing Diplomatic Authority in 1590s Istanbul’. 5pm, Arts B B274

Monday 29 April: Matthew Champion (Birkbeck), Dove-Medcalf lecture, ‘The Shifting Sounds of Time: Europe, 1321–1600’. 6pm, Arts B B274

Friday 7 June: London conference, ‘Writing Islam’. Museum of the Order of St. John

The Fool and the Law in Early Modern England

Readers of early modern literature are well acquainted with the fool type, a stock character that is frequently to be found in the drama of the period and is generally renowned for his merrymaking and, in some cases, wise witticism. And yet, because he was a ‘fool’ there must have been some points of contact between the character, whether on stage or on the page, and the individuals whom the early modern society viewed as intellectually disabled from birth, whether according to legal, social or medical criteria. Alice Equestri is a current Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellow here at Sussex, and her project aims to recover narratives of disability that all too often have been neglected in favour of readings of folly as privileged wisdom or merry comedy alone. In this post, Alice explores how the English law viewed people born with intellectual disabilities.
court of wards


Court of Wards and Liveries (from Horizon Book of the Elizabethan World by Lacey Baldwin Smith, New York: American Heritage Publishing, 1967)

The only discipline which in the early modern period had been able to come to a univocal definition of what we could understand nowadays as anything similar to intellectual disability was the law. Not medicine or psychology, as we would expect.[1] Because medieval and early modern society placed a great importance on the preservation of wealth, property and land, the law was concerned with protecting those things from the carelessness of people who were supposedly unable to manage them with consideration. ‘Fools’ were indeed among those people. The law was concerned in particular with ‘natural fools’, a synonym of what it termed more specifically ‘idiots’. The 13th-century statute named Prerogativa Regis (King’s Prerogative) was the first document to start a legal conversation on issues of intellectual disability. A particular section of the Prerogative defined the provisions regarding ‘the Custody of Lands of Idiots’. It deemed that the king should acquire the possessions of the person with intellectual disability, and was entitled to any profit from their lands and property. He also formally became the official ward of the ‘idiot’, though he would often entrust his day-to-day care to a guardian. After the ‘idiot’’s death, the king would give back all of his possessions to the rightful heirs.[2] These provisions were still valid in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, when a number of lawyers commented on and reiterated the contents of the Prerogativa in matter of intellectual disability. Early modern law tracts, dictionaries and handbooks are particularly useful because they seem to spell out a clearer definition of how an ‘idiot’ could be recognised and what criteria the law regarded as exemplary of intellectual non-normativity. So for example Sir Anthony Fitzherbert reported in his legal tract New Natura Brevium (1534) that:

he who shall be said to be a sot and idiot from his birth, is such a person, who cannot accompt or number twenty pence, nor can tell who was his father, or mother, nor how old he is, etc., so as it may appear, that he hath no understanding of reason what shall be for his profit, or what for his losse: but if he have such understanding, that he know and understand his letters, and to read by teaching or information of another man, then it seemeth he is not a sot, nor a naturall idiot.[3]

Though Fitzherbert’s tract was published in the first half of the sixteenth century, his definition of the natural fool was repeated again and again in legal handbooks until well beyond 1640 (even into the nineteenth century). This signalled a substantial consistence in the criteria against which ‘fools’ were tested by lawyers throughout the two centuries. Reflecting the practical ways in which the Court of Chancery (until 1540) and the Court of Wards and Liveries (from 1540 to 1640) conducted their examinations of potentially disabled individuals, such criteria assessed skills such as numeracy, literacy, knowledge of basic information, and everyday autonomy. All of these capabilities were tested through a series of questions or tasks to be answered or carried out in front of a commission. It seems that counting and recognising the value of coins were were held as the most important abilities to determine an individual’s mental capacity:[4] this is because they would virtually function as a rule of thumb for examiners to judge the person’s ability to manage his wealth and property well and without wastes.



King Henry VIII and Will Sommer (from the Psalter of Henry VIII The Psalter of Henry VIII, London?, England, 1530-1547. Psalm 53 (52), BL Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 63v)

Foolishness in the early modern period was therefore defined mainly in economical terms rather than physiological: first, because the ‘idiot’ demonstrated his inability to belong to a society that placed more and more importance on a market economy and commercial activities.[5] And second, because at the exact moment he was declared an ‘idiot’, he lost forever any claim to his property, virtually becoming destitute. My research so far has made me realise the extent to which literary writers and playwrights of the period were acquainted with such a reality. Indeed, in many cases, literary fools portray, mock or question the financial destiny of natural fools in early modern England: we might even note how fools of all types (whether professional jesters, simple fools or even clowns as merry rustics) are generally described as penniless. We frequently see them complain that their master does not pay them, or they even wander around in search for tips, as for instance in the case of Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In Thomas Nashe’s Summer’s Last Will and Testament (1600) Will Summers, the legendary fool of Henry VIII, enters the stage undressed and contemplating on his own lack of possessions. He is ‘without money, without garters, without girdle, without a hatband, without points to my hose, without a knife to my dinner, and make so much use of this word without in everything’ (B1r). Or in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline foolish prince Cloten is remembered after his death as ‘a fool, an empty purse / there was no money in it’ (4.2.114-115),[6] which jests on his inclination to squander his money at dice and therefore at his poor money management skills. Some plays seem to interrogate even more precisely the exact dynamics according to which examinations at the Court of Wards and Liveries took place. One such play is Middleton’s The Changeling, where Antonio disguises himself as a natural fool and, on his entrance to the madhouse, undergoes a formal inquisition on the part of the keeper Lollio, who asks him to make simple mathematical calculations (‘how many is five times six?’ 3.3.162-163),[7] as well as to tell his name and to recognise whether or not Isabella is a member of his family. Antonio’s ability to simulate well a fool’s limited reasoning skills allows him to be accepted into the madhouse and carry on his farce in order to secretly woo Isabella.

To sum up, the legal connections between fools and money (or lack thereof) seem too pervasive and too precise among early modern literary texts to be taken as a mere coincidence. The legal provisions regarding natural fools at the time were probably well known by intellectuals, audiences and readers, who might have learnt about them not only through informed conversations with lawyers or similar professionals, but also perhaps through direct experience. This would have called for a tendency on the part of authors to achieve something of a legal realism on stage and on the page.

[1] See Buhrer, Eliza Marie, ‘Inventing Idiocy: Law, Land and the Construction of Intellectual Disability in Late Medieval England’. DPhil. Diss. (Cornell, 2013).

[2] Neugebauer, Richard, ‘Mental Handicap in Medieval and Early Modern England: Criteria, Measurement and Care’, in From Idiocy to Mental Deficiency: Historical Perspectives on People with Learning Disabilities, ed. by Anne Digby and David Wright (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 22–43.

[3] Fitzherbert, Anthony, The New Natura Brevium, of the Most Reverend Judge Mr. Anthony Fitz-Herbert, trans. by W. Hughes (London, 1652), 583-584.

[4] On commissions asking people to count, Neugebauer, p. 29.

[5] Buhrer, pp. 164-166.

[6] Shakespeare, William. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, Oxford University Press, 2005.

[7] Middleton, Thomas, and William Rowley. The Changeling. Edited by Patricia Thomson, Norton, 1985.


New Partnership with University College Dublin

Here at CEMMS we have just set up what promises to be an exciting and fruitful new partnership with University College Dublin (UCD). The Sussex-UCD partnership is funded by The International Research Partnerships and Network Fund at Sussex, and the School of English at UCD. It is for three years in the first instance but may be renewed. It provides funding for the journal, The Spenser Review ( edited by Jane Grogan (UCD) and Andrew Hadfield (Sussex), and involves an academic exchange of faculty. The Inaugural Sussex CEMMS-University College Dublin Partnership Lecture will be:


Miranda Thomas (UCD), ”Let shame say what it will: Shakespeare’s shaming gestures’, English Social Space (B264), 5-7 pm, Monday 21 May. All welcome: wine and snacks provided.

Prof. Tom Healy will be visiting UCD,, 28 May-1 June.

Next year we plan to have a staged reading of James Shirley’s Play, The Politician (published 1655), which was first performed in Ireland in the late 1630s.

We’ll post more updates on Sussex-UCD activities as and when they are arranged.

Zibellini as Animal-Made-Objects

This blog post was written by Sussex PhD student Nicole Mennell. Nicole’s works explores the connections made between figures of sovereignty and animals in early modern drama. She has interned with the National Portrait Gallery where she conducted research for a future exhibition on pets. Nicole is also the co-founding editor of Brief Encounters, an open-access journal which showcases research undertaken in the Arts and Humanities by CHASE-funded and affiliated individuals as well as non-HEI partner members. 


What are Zibellini?

Zibellini are luxury fur pieces made from the pelts of animals belonging to the weasel family, most commonly sables and martens. These objects could be draped over the shoulder, carried in the hand, or worn on the girdle by a chain connected around the neck or to the mouth of the animal. More lavish examples of zibellini feature a jewelled head and paws, often made of gold, but sometimes of silver or crystal. There are very few surviving examples of zibellini today and information regarding their appearance and how they were worn is primarily ascertained from the portraits they feature in, for example, The Portrait of Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex (see Figure 1).[i]

Figure 1. Unknown artist, Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex, oil on panel, 193 x 111.1 cm, (c. 1570-75), Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge.

Unlike other fashionable fur items, it is unclear what zibellini were used for in this period, which has led Tawny Sherrill to conclude that they are ‘something of an enigma’.[ii] At present there are three proposed uses of zibellini: firstly, as part of the commodity culture of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they were worn to signify the wealth and status of the humans they adorned; secondly, due to the associations between weasels and childbirth, they were used as pregnancy amulets; thirdly, they were employed as ‘flea pelts’, a term coined in the nineteenth century by Wendelin Boeheim who claimed their purpose was to attract fleas away from the body of the wearer onto the fur of the dead animal. While the first two proposed uses are worth considering in greater depth, there are no known references to zibellini as ‘flea pelts’ or ‘flea furs’ in contemporary texts and there does not appear to be any evidence to suggest this was the primary function of the objects.[iii]

This post offers an alternative interpretation of zibellini by adopting a similar approach to Erica Fudge in relation to what she calls ‘animal-made-objects’[iv]. Within her discussion of commodities made from animal bodies (such as gloves and civet), Fudge states ‘[a]nimals, too often, are bound back, absented from the picture, made to seem unnecessary and inconsequential, with the result that the human emerges as the only necessary and consequential being in the frame.’[v] Reading zibellini through the lens of animal studies enables us to reconsider the underlying iconography of these jewelled fur pelts in early modern portraiture.


Signifiers of Wealth

In Edward Topsell’s The Histories of Foure-Footed Beastes, the entries for the marten and sable focus almost exclusively on the profitability of their fur: ‘Martin is the most excellent, for princes and great Nobles are clothed therwith, euery skinne being woorthe a French crowne, or foure shillings at the least.’[vi] The fur of the sable is described in similar terms: ‘the Garmentes of princes are only fringed and lined with these Sable skinnes, and honourable matrons, auncient Nobel Men and their Wiues does likewise vse two or three of these to weare about their Neckes, for its certain that a garment of these skinnes is much deerer then cloth of Gold.’[vii] The animals are defined by the wealth they bring hunters and tradesman, and the status they convey for the wearer. Indeed, it is in the inventories of royals and nobles that we find the majority of references to such extravagant pelts.[viii] For example, in Henry VIII’s 1547 inventory there is listed a ‘sable skinne with a hedde of gold conteineng in it a Clocke with a Coller of gold enamelled blacke set with foure Diamoundes and foure Rubies and with two perles hanging at the Eares and two Rubies in the eyes the same skinne also hauing feete of golde the Clawes thereof being Saphires.’[ix] These objects are obviously luxury items and the embellishment in some cases is astonishing, for example, see the Jewelled Marten’s Head in the Walters Art Museum collection (Figure 2).

Jewelled marten's head

Figure 2. Jewelled Marten’s Head (c.1550-1559), enamelled gold, rubies, garnets and pearls, 8.4 cm (height), Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.


Pregnancy Amulets

Despite the appearance of zibellini in the King of England’s inventory, it is usually assumed that they were mainly fashionable accessories for women due to a connection between the objects and pregnancy. To begin with, zibellini were often worn on girdles; an appropriate place for pregnancy amulets owing to their association with both marriage and child-bearing.[x] The connection between zibellini and pregnancy also arises from a belief that weasels conceived through the ear and gave birth through the mouth, which was recorded in various medieval and renaissance bestiaries that recorded the myth of Galanthis.[xi] According to this myth, the mortal Alcmena became pregnant as a result of her affair with Jupiter. Juno, Jupiter’s wife, sent the goddess of childbirth Lucina to prevent the child from being born. Lucina sat at Alcemna’s door holding her own knees shut. However, Alcmena’s maidservant Galanthis ruined Lucina’s scheme by announcing the birth of the child. The surprised Lucina let go of her knees, whereupon Alcmena gave birth to Hercules. Out of anger, Lucina turned Galanthis into a weasel, cursing her to give birth through her mouth.

Jacqueline Musacchio has analysed contemporary marital and childbirth practices in light of this myth to argue that zibellini were used to imply or foreshadow pregnancy.[xii] To support her argument, Musacchio examines Paolo Veronese’s Portrait of Countess Lucia da Porto Thiene with her Daughter Deidamia (see Figure 3). The painting is dated to 1552, when the Countess was pregnant with her daughter Emilia, which is indicated by her large form, loose clothing and the fur pelt draped over her arm. The zibellino painted by Veronese in this portrait bears a close resemblance to the Walters Art Museum metalwork head, which directly alludes to the myth of Galanthis through its large decorated ears and open mouth (see Figure 2).

Figure 3. Paolo Veronese, Portrait of Countess Lucia da  Porto Thiene with her Daughter Porzia (c. 1552), oil on canvas, 208.4 x 121 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.



Musacchio makes a convincing argument concerning the connection between weasels and pregnancy in the period, however, she does not acknowledge that zibellini were made from real animals. Unlike the abortive vellum discussed by Fudge in ‘Renaissance Animal Things’, zibellini are not animal-made-objects in which ‘the actual animal’s presence seems to have disappeared’, although this is still ‘overlaid by human culture’.[xiii] For example, the craftsperson of the Jewelled Marten’s Head went to great lengths to create a lifelike object — the mouth opens and closes, the tongue moves, and the natural whiskers of a marten were even inserted into the holes on either side of the snout.[xiv] It is also important to note that zibellini are usually listed in inventories under the names of the animals from which they were made: sables, martens and ermines. Indeed, ‘zibellini’ comes from the Italian for sable, and there are also instances where the term ‘martore’ is used, which is the Italian for marten. The fur pelts do not acquire names that define them as objects and thus distance them from the animal they once were.

Fudge outlines the inherent paradox in wearing animal skins and argues that they mark ‘humans as all-powerful (animals will be killed for them) and simultaneously as all-frail (they need animals to be killed for them)’.[xv] Unlike gloves and other furs, zibellini were not used for the warmth and protection they provide their human wearer, but for self-adornment. They consequently emphasise human dominion over nature; the animal is hunted, captured, killed and then displayed as an emblem of human prowess. In relation to this, Topsell identifies weasels as worthy opponents to humans; when recounting the story of Galanthis, he is not concerned with the associations between weasels and pregnancy but rather with their cleverness. Topsell observes: ‘although the body of it be very small, yet is the witte and vnderstanding of it very great; for which singular Art and subtilty it compasseth his prey, whereupon there lyeth this history of Galanthis the maide of Alckmena.’[xvi] He also outlines their viciousness and ability to escape capture, as sables are said to ‘bite most ireful, for their teeth are as sharp as Razors, and there is no beast in the World of their quantity so angry and terrible as they are.’[xvii]

Figure 4. Lorenzo Lotto, Portrait of Lucina Brembati (c. 1518-23), oil on wood panel, 52.6 x 44.8 cm, Accademica Carrara, Bergamo.

The vicious appearance of the zibellino in Lorenzo Lotto’s portrait of Lucina Brembati, in which its razor-sharp teeth are clearly visible, seems to demonstrate the weasel’s allegedly untameable nature (see Figure 4).[xviii] This particular animal, however, has been subjected to the ultimate taming; it has been killed and turned into an accessory. The animal’s objectification is further accentuated by the zibellino, which has a gold chain attached to a collar around its neck, being firmly held under the sitter’s hand, completely in her control. This portrait arguably provides a representation of zibellini being chained to girdles as a symbol of domestication and human superiority.


Momento Mori

I suspect that Fudge would resist this reading, as she argues ‘[a]nimal skin is […] much more than simply a product and thence illustration of human dominion […] the wearing of pelts becomes necessary for humans, and in this being necessary the non-human becomes dangerously potent.’[xix] I agree with this assessment and would argue that it still applies to zibellini, as the inclusion of fur pelts in early modern portraiture may also act as a reminder of the mortality of humans.

Beatrice d'Este tomb monumentFigure 5. Cristoforo Solari, Tomb Monument of Beatrice d’Este and Lodovico Sforza (begun 1497), marble, Certosa, Pavia.

When describing the appearance of fur pelts in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century portraiture, Musacchio states ‘the limp body of the lifeless animal plays a prominent role’.[xx] By extending her reading, we might wonder whether the representation of zibellini in portraits reminded observers of the dangers of child-bearing in the early modern period, especially when we consider the significant number of women and infants who died during pregnancy and childbirth.[xxi] Beatrice d’Este was one such woman, as she died following the stillbirth of her third son in 1497, at the age of 21. Following her death, Beatrice’s husband, Lodovico Sforza, commissioned a tomb monument for himself and his wife in which Beatrice is featured with a fur pelt draped over her clasped hands (see Figure 5).[xxii] If the zibellino depicted here represents the cause of Beatrice’s death, it consequently acts as a reminder of the inherent risks of pregnancy. Zibellini may therefore be used to symbolise the ultimate fragility of the human — the weakness they share with animals — the inevitability of death.

To Conclude…                                                                                                                            

Although the reading I have offered of zibellini will not neatly apply to every example from the early modern period, this post has given an account in which the animals from which these objects were made are put back into the frame and given an agency of their own.


[i] Karen Hearn identifies the zibellino in this portrait as a ‘flea cravat’ or ‘tippet’, and suggests it was ‘intended to attract the offending vermin.’ See Karen Hearn (ed.), Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630 (London: Tate Gallery, 1995), p. 95

[ii] Tawny Sherrill, ‘Fleas, Furs and Fashion: Zibellini as Luxury Accessories of the Renaissance’, in Medieval Clothing and Textiles, ed. by Robin Netherton and Gale R. Owen-Crocker, Volume 2 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2006), pp. 121-150 (p. 140).

[iii] For further discussion, see Jacqueline Marie Musacchio, ‘Weasels and Pregnancy in Renaissance Italy’, Renaissance Studies, 15 (2001), 172-186 (p. 176); Sherrill, p. 133.

[iv] Erica Fudge, ‘Renaissance Animal Things’, New Formations, 76 (2012), 86-100.

[v] Fudge, p. 88.

[vi] Edward Topsell, The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (London: Printed by William Iaggard, 1607), sig. Vv2v.

[vii] Topsell, Xxx6r.

[viii] See Sherrill, p. 128; Joseph Robertson (ed.), Inventaires de la Royne Descosse Douairiere de France: Catalogues of the Jewels, Dresses, Furniture, Books, and Paintings of Mary Queen of Scots: 1556-1569 (Edinburgh: Bannatyne Club, 1863), p. 112, 109.

[ix] David Starkey (ed.), The Inventory of King Henry VIII: Society of Antiquaries ms 129 and British Library MS Harley 1419 (London: Harvey Miller, 1998), p. 430.

[x] Musacchio, p. 183.

[xi] Musacchio, pp. 181-182, 134.

[xii] Musacchio, p. 172.

[xiii] Fudge, p. 86.

[xiv] Sherrill, p. 130.

[xv] Fudge, p. 92 (emphasis in original).

[xvi] Topsell, sig. Ttt5r.

[xvii] Topsell, sig.Xxx6r.

[xviii] Musacchio also analyses this portrait and suggests that it plays upon the woman’s name and its associations with the goddess of childbirth, p. 182.

[xix] Fudge, p. 14.

[xx] Musacchio, p. 176.

[xxi] Musacchio, p. 177.

[xxii] Musacchio, p. 186.

A visiting scholar’s perspective

After spending a year as a visiting scholar at CEMMS, Yinghua Zhao (Lecturer at the School of Foreign Studies, Minzu University of China) shares her experiences of Sussex.

I spent one year at the School of English as a visiting scholar studying Early Modern literature. Upon my arrival I felt the welcoming and vibrant atmosphere of the School. The curriculum at the School is based on modules, which gives students great flexibility to customise their learning experience and choose from a wide range of interdisciplinary topics they’re interested in. Attending a series of courses given by Professor Hadfield and other teachers in the field of Early Modern study, I was greatly impressed by the faculty’s expertise, professionalism and dedication. Most of these teachers are also active participants in the events hosted by the Centre for Early Modern and Medieval Studies. Thanks for the invitation from the Centre’s director Professor Hadfield, I had the opportunity to participate a variety of its events. The Centre held lectures regularly, with the speakers coming from across the country and the world. Their lectures covered diverse topics, and from the lectures and the exchanges with the academics I came to be inspired by many new ideas and perspectives on Early Modern study. Besides, the library of the University is an exciting place. I was particularly impressed by the library’s Special Collections where I attended a course on Renaissance and for the first time in my life I came into a direct contact with medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. Being able to access these first-hand materials is absolutely an exciting and cherishable experience for me. Now back in China teaching and studying English literature, I’m still benefiting from what I learned at Sussex. I believe the days I spent at Sussex will be a shaping influence in my personal and professional life.

Yinghua Zhao

“Prosthesis in Medieval and Early Modern Culture” – a special issue of Textual Practice

Following the recent publication of a special issue of Textual Practice, “Prosthesis in Medieval and Early Modern Culture” , Katie Walter (co-editor of the special issue with Chloe Porter and Margaret Healy) talks us through the origins of the special issue and the conference that inspired it, and gives us a brief introduction into the fascinating world of prosthesis studies.

Katie is a Lecturer in Medieval English Literature at Sussex and a member of Sussex’s Centre for Early Modern and Medieval Studies.


from Beinecke MS 229, f.108r 13th c. from:

When did you first become interested in the idea of prosthesis, and how did the symposium come about?

CEMMS has a strong research focus on materiality and bodies – Chloe Porter’s work on completion and incompletion in early modern drama, Margaret Healy’s on medicine, and my own on skin and flesh all intersect with notions of prosthesis. The symposium offered us an exciting opportunity to think collaboratively about it, but also to bring together and build links with scholars doing new work in this area elsewhere in the UK. Since the interest in CEMMS in materiality and the body intersects with other work going on in the School of English – Peter Boxall is working on prosthesis and the novel, for example – Sussex is generating a lot of new work in this area, and so was a good place to host a conversation about this.


Can you tell us a bit about the symposium?

There was a fascinating array of papers  variously treating noses, knees, stumps, statues, words, corsets and skin! The idea of prosthesis, and bodily modification more generally, can shift our attention to and give a means of understanding the significance of body parts, as well as textual passages that are sometimes marginalised in other approaches to the body or to literature. Our symposium speakers showed that ideas of prosthesis – from the medical to the philosophical – can be really productive in opening up readings of medieval and early modern literature and culture. What was striking was that these medieval and early modern examples provoked similar questions to those raised by contemporary discourse on prosthesis, but in ways that also remained distinctive from them. In particular, as we hope the special issue shows, premodern examples disrupt some of the periodised claims about prosthesis, as well as contribute to shared understandings of it.


Man using walking aids, from Royal 13 B VIII, f. 30v (see:

What senses of “prosthesis” does the special issue engage with?

The symposium was primarily concerned with prosthesis as a broader category of premodern practices of bodily modification – so it engaged with prosthesis principally as “the replacement of defective or absent parts of the body by artificial substitutes” (OED, s. v. “prosthesis”). As the symposium highlighted, however, instances of physical prostheses in premodern contexts always lead elsewhere, into considerations of – and, very often, into controversies over – the linguistic, figurative, rhetorical, philosophical or theological. So the special issue understands prosthesis in quite fluid terms – as historical practice and literary or theoretical tool – but all the essays are rooted in material, bodily examples. In recent literary criticism, prosthesis has been used in wide-ranging ways: for example, to think through the relationships between text and the act of criticism, between narrative and the act of reading, and between the body and the book, in ways that resist or challenge our critical fantasies of (bodily and textual) wholeness, completion, or containedness.


The Foreword of the journal mentions that critical explorations of prosthesis often focus on technological, rhetorical and philosophical conditions “understood to be unavailable to the pre-modern” – in what ways does this special issue challenge periodised assumptions?

Contemporary work on prosthesis partly has been motivated by developments that seem distinctly modern – medical, bionic and virtual technologies that allow transplants and implants, that change, enhance and extend the human body, and that challenge the boundaries between human and non-human. These developments are seen to provoke questions, states and interrelationships peculiar to contemporary experience. Another motivation for the critical interest in prosthesis arises from its linguistic and rhetorical senses, which mark its first appearance in the English lexicon in the sixteenth century. This has been taken as a transitional moment when new ideas emerge and become possible. Yet another impetus comes from twentieth-century theory and philosophy – Freud uses prosthesis to think about the interactions of mind and body, Derrida to think about the relation of speech and writing, for example. While we can bring contemporary philosophical and critical discourse on prosthesis to our readings of premodern texts, the assumption has been that premodern periods (perhaps for want of the word) don’t, or can’t, “do” the same kinds of prosthetic thinking. Essays in the special issue show the artificiality of these periodised boundaries, and allows us to rethink some of the claims – about the Reformation, about theological debate over idolatry, about transplants and implants and the limits of the self, and about the absence of premodern prosthetic thought – that have been predicated on the idea of prosthesis. Chloe’s essay, for example, highlights the ways in which, in some accounts, Reformation anxiety over idolatry has been coupled to a periodised understanding of prosthesis as other or artificial – an understanding, in turn, founded on the OED’s citations showing the earliest appearances of the word. Giving earlier evidence for the use of “prosthesis” in English, Chloe shows, however, that prosthesis has plural and nuanced connotations in this period that cannot be made simply to support standard narratives of historical change. Similarly, Isabel Davis’s piece on the Reformation re-writing of the meanings of kneeling – as mediated principally through an addition, known as the Black Rubric, to The Book of Common Prayer in 1552 – exemplifies how the concept of prosthesis itself can be used to bridge and move beyond, at the same time as it marks and exposes, cultural and historical ruptures and differences that have been attached to the early modern period.


from Les oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré (1633 edn)

You, Chloe and Margaret mention disability studies in your Foreword, and Julie Orlemanski addresses the ways in which the “subfield of medieval disability studies calls for complex negotiations of temporality and historicist interpretation” in her contribution. How does the idea of prosthesis relate to disability studies? Does this special issue provide any new ways of negotiating this relationship?

Disability studies has been particularly attentive to prosthesis in part because it highlights the disabled and impaired bodies still often in need of being brought in from the margins of literary, historical, and art historical scholarship. Ideas of prosthesis have also been used by disability studies to theorise the relation of bodily health/illness, wholeness/impairment to narrative structures – David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s influential work on narrative prosthesis is one example of this. Much of the focus for this kind of work, however, has been on literary forms, genres, and modes of characterisation that are seen to be particular to the modern period, and especially to the novel, and so, by default, not available (or perhaps only very nascent in) premodern texts. Julie’s piece exemplifies the ways in which premodern genres and reading practices can (and should) contribute to and invigorate disability studies’ uses of prosthesis, advocating a prosthetic reading practice as one means of performing that “complex negotiation” of historicist interpretation. Other essays, like Margaret’s, similarly contribute to pushing back against the privileging of the novel in recent accounts of the relationship between health and literature by showing how premodern charms worn on the body could function as forms of narrative prosthesis, giving sense and meaning to the experience of illness and pain.


Your essay on “incarnatyf” medicine and the regenerative properties of flesh in particular discusses “the relationship between the animate and the inanimate” and the ways in which this kind of medical theory complicates binary distinctions between, e.g. natural/artificial, human/non-human, etc. What kind of responses does the issue as a whole provide in relation to the potential of prosthesis to act as a bridge, uniting or even moving beyond these binaries?

The concept of prosthesis is interesting is this regard because, of course – as something added on or to, supplementing, substituting or replacing something – it marks, inscribes, and exposes precisely these kinds of binary differences: a wooden stump attached to a human leg; a parchment charm or a green girdle worn on the body; artificial means of replacing or restoring lost “original” material. What is interesting about flesh in the tradition of “incarnatyf” medicine, however, is that it always already incorporates these binaries: it is at the same time both natural and artificial, it is original and supplementary, dead and alive, and so on. As a result, medieval understandings of flesh prompt us to think outside of or beyond simple binaries. But the concept of prosthesis more generally invites a rethinking of the relationship between the “original” and the “supplement”, for example, and works to complicate binary thinking. Rick Godden’s essay, on what he terms “prosthetic ecologies”, makes clear the importance of thinking outside of binaries for our characterisation of what it means to be human: prosthesis in this essay prompts us to think about our relation with others (human and nonhuman) in terms, not of hermetic individuality, but of interdependency and of shared vulnerability. The idea of prosthesis can, in other words, resist the models of normativity so often bound up in binary categories. This is something that Naomi Baker shows through her discussion of characters with prosthetic limbs on the early modern stage: playwrights use prostheses in order to explore models of community that offer an alternative to the capitalist societies emerging in this period. Allison Hobgood’s essay on The Merchant of Venice challenges normativity from another quarter, by bringing a queer consideration of the agency of objects (in this case rings) to bear upon the question of the relation of self and other. In many ways, this need to move beyond binaries is what the collection as a whole both urges and hopes to perform, especially in invoking the premodern/modern binary and the periodised uses to which prosthesis has been put.


from Les oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré (1633 edn)

Why do you think that this idea of prosthesis is particularly relevant/interesting to scholars right now?

Prosthesis is a capacious concept, and it seems to be pliable enough to be put to work in addressing the preoccupations of any number of critical fields. Within these, I think questions of how modern technologies are changing and reshaping human bodies and our experience of them is one of the most important preoccupations driving an interest in prosthesis. But this “modern” embodied condition in turn speaks to other lines of thought, such as those central to animal studies, to ecocriticism or the new materialism, about the relations of the human and animal, of the human and the object, and, perhaps most urgently, of the self and “other” or the world. The questions asked in medical humanities and disability studies converge with some of these preoccupations, but also drive a different interest in thinking about how prosthetic technologies interact with, say, ideas about books and reading. Of course, scholarship on the medieval and early modern periods makes it very clear that these are not just modern preoccupations, or questions that only modern texts can be used to address. There is perhaps a danger that this very capaciousness, and, dare I say, faddy-ness, risks emptying out the meaningfulness or usefulness of the word “prosthesis”, but this is what I think the essays on medieval and early modern examples in this special issue help guard against. In directly engaging with the myths of origin for contemporary discourse on prosthesis, refining and revising them, the issue reminds us of the need to keep historical specificity and terminological precision to the fore.


It seems as though this special issue could certainly have an impact on the field, and it also feels like there is more to be said on the subject of prosthesis. How do you see prosthesis studies developing in the future? How do you hope the issue will impact the field?

I think we’d be very pleased if the invitation extended in the issue for cross-period conversation about prosthesis were taken up. I hope too that the essays encourage both further work on the earlier histories and theories of prosthesis, and greater openness to premodern examples in work being done in the field more widely. There is, it seems to me, still quite some mileage in the idea of prosthesis for literary and historical study, and this may not be the last word on the topic from CEMMS either. The issue will hopefully generate new interdisciplinary, cross-period offshoots of its own, so watch this space!

“Plum pottage was mere popery”: the ups and downs of Christmas in the 17th century


Image from The Vindication of Christmas (Printed for G. Horton, London: 1652)

Despite the persistent belief that Christmas was effectively invented by the Victorians and barely bothered with by anyone before the 19th century, a bit of a delve into the literature of the 17th century yields much in the way of interesting Christmas-related curiosities.

Performance has a long association with Christmas, from medieval mummers plays to Henry VIII’s “guising” games to the Elizabethan masque. Even today we gather to watch Christmas specials of TV dramas and take our children to see pantomimes. A Jacobean masque which is particularly relevant to this blog is Ben Jonson’s Christmas his Masque performed 1616 but first published in the second edition of Jonson’s Workes (London: 1640). The masque features the personification of Christmas himself, “attir’d in round Hose, long Stockings, a close Doublet, A high-crownd Hat with a Broach, a long thin beard, a Truncheon, little Ruffes, white Shoes, his Scarffes, and Garters tyed crosse, and his Drum beaten before him”. Christmas is accompanied by his ten “sons and daughters” who present us with a beguiling glimpse into 17th century Christmas customs, some of which sound very arcane. Along with familiar “children” of Christmas such as  Minced-Pie, Wassail and Gamboll (“like a tumbler, with a hoop and bells”) comes New Year’s Gift “In a blew Coat, serving-man like, with an Orange, and a sprig of Rosemarie guilt on his head, his Hat full of Broaches, with a coller of Gingerbread, his Torch-bearer carrying a March-paine, with a bottle of wine on either arme” and Baby-Cake “Dressed like a Boy, in a fine long Coat, Biggin, Bib, Muckender, and a little Dagger; his Usher bearing a great Cake with a Bean, and a Pease”. The “great Cake with a Bean” is in the same vein as the tradition of stirring a sixpence into a Christmas pudding – whoever finds it will receive good luck.

Carol is another custom mentioned by Jonson. A blackletter book entitled Christmas Carols (Printed by P. Treveris, London: 1528) published in 1528 reveals a typically pre-reformation focus on the acts of various Saints, particularly St Stephen. whose feast day is 26th December – hence the mention in Good King Wenceslas. One carol recalls his stoning in rather unpleasant detail:

The cursyd Iewes at the last
Stones at Stephan they gan cast
They bette hym and bounde hym fast
And made his body in foule aray
Blessyd Stephan we thee pray

Another carol deals with the slaughter of the innocents by Herod. Over a century later, in the 17th century there appeared in 1642 a book called Good and true, Fresh and New Christmas Carols (Printed by E.P. for Francis Coles, London: 1642). These carols have a decidedly more secular feel to them, presumably eschewing any potentially risky associations with the perceived extravagances of the medieval church and its penchant for celebration. Even Jonson’s Christmas makes sure to point out that “I am no dangerous person, and so I told my friends o’ the Guard. I am old Gregorie Christmas still, and though I come out of Popes-head-alley, as good a Protestant, as any i’ my Parish.” Instead of focusing too intently on the religious elements of Christmas, carols such as All you that are Good Fellows, for example, tell of the generosity of the rich towards the poor. Christmas is praised as “a time of joyfulness, and merry time of year, When as the rich with plenty stor’d, doth make the poore good cheere;”. The carol refers to the Christmas custom of the rich “feasting” the poor – the apparent death of which is much bemoaned in pamphlets in the latter half of the 17th century. The carol relates that “Plum-porridge, Roast-beefe, and Minc’d-pies, stands smoking on the board, With other brave varieties,our Master doth afford”. The timing of the publication of the carol book is somewhat at odds with the message – in 1642 it is clear that not everyone was entirely sold on the idea of the beneficent and generous “Masters”. In fact, with the advent of the Civil Wars and subsequent protectorate, Christmas, famously “banned” by Oliver Cromwell due to its lack of Biblical precendent, became something of a political tool. A few Royalist propaganda pamphlets appeared playing on nostalgia for Christmas past and holding it up as a symbol of the proper social order, where tradition and nobility were respected. One such pamphlet is The Vindication of Christmas: His Twelve Years Observations upon the Times, concerning the lamentable Game called Sweep-stake: acted by General Plunder and Major General Tax (Printed for G. Horton, London: 1652). The tract is written from the point of view of Christmas, who states that “all Christians did, do and will celebrate it, and acknowledge it, for no Christian will blot or scrape christ’s day out of the calendar” and accuses the Puritans of “infusing heretical opinion into the hearts of the people, to wit (or with little wit) that plum-pottage was mere popery, and Roast beef Antichristian”. Christmas goes on to plead:

“may I say to England, what harm have I ever done unto you? I am sure I never persuaded you to be so uncharitable as to cut one anothers throats and to starve and famish the poor (as you have done continually)”

Christmas laments the terrible state of the country, where everyone is obsessed with wealth rather than charity, with money rather than religion. The pamphlet seems to play on nostalgia for an imagined time of celebration and generosity, where you could drop into a house and received some nice plum pottage and ale.

Even after the Restoration this nostalgia for the true meaning of Christmas didn’t go away. In a 1687 pamphlet called “Poor Robins hue and cry after Good House-Keeping, or, A dialogue betwixt Good House-Keeping, Christmas, and Pride”, “Poor Robin” rails against the erasure of festive hospitality, including feeding the poor (Printed for Randal Taylor, London: 1687). He claims that Pride has “made to fly the said Good-Housekeeping from his Ancient Habitations, and Places of residence, together with his old friend Christmas, with his four Pages, Roast-Beef, Minc’d-Pies, Plumb-Pudding, and Furmity, who used to be his constant Attendants, but now are grown so invisible they cannot be seen by poor People, nor good Fellows as formerly they used to be”. Hospitality and generosity towards the poor was the sadly lamented custom that was considered to have died out, nobody was serving up plumb-pudding (a meat and dried fruit stew) or furmity (a kind of wheat or barley porridge) anymore. One might be inclined to argue that complaining about how Christmas isn’t what it used to be is really the oldest Christmas custom of all.

This blog post was written by Maria Kirk, recent PhD and Associate Tutor at Sussex University (amongst other things). 

The Life and Adventures of Meredith Hanmer, Anglican Divine

This blog post was written by Dr Angela Andreani, Marie Curie Intra-European Research Fellow in English at Sussex University. As her two year project investigating the “life and adventures” of Meredith Hanmer comes to a close, she shares some of the highlights of her research with us…


St Mary’s church, Youghal, where Hanmer was warden 1600-1602

The project ‘Meredith Hanmer’, carried out at the University of Sussex, School of English (November 2014-November 2016) received funding from the Marie Curie Actions of the European Union FP7 as a project to reconstruct the life of this familiar yet elusive figure of early modern England.[1]

An Anglican divine of the Church of England, with subsequent preferment in the Church of Ireland, Meredith Hanmer (c. 1545-1604) is only apparently a lesser figure of Elizabethan England. He lived at a time of religious reform, ecclesiastical experiment, and debate of fundamental theological questions; he was one of the few English Protestant ministers to arrive in Ireland in the 1590s and witnessed the Nine Years War as a chaplain in the army; Hanmer made a substantial contribution to the Protestant religious identities inaugurated by the Reformation in England through his rich track record as a translator, polemicist, converter, and antiquarian.

The research project charted archives in England and Ireland to retrieve, collect and assess information on Hanmer’s origins, education and preferment. The support of the EU made it possible to travel to several archives and follow Hanmer’s itineraries from native North Shropshire to Oxford, London, Dublin and Southern Ireland to Cork and Youghal. A re-examination of the early sources of Hanmer’s life has suggested that his date of birth ought to be reconsidered. Research at The National Archives has brought some further light to the contradictory information handed down regarding his preferment in Ireland.

Although Hanmer has been treated in a piecemeal manner, his name dots histories of the book, of literature, of the church and religion.[2] Some scholars have significantly highlighted his importance and connections in early modern circles.[3] Furthermore, his appearance in the Dictionary of National Biography and in the Dictionary of Irish Biography foregrounds his relevance across national boundaries. For such an apparently marginal figure, Hanmer was strangely everywhere, and this alleged marginality is in fact what makes him such an interesting gateway into the Elizabethan world.

His published works were all engaged with key aspects of the Reformation: The Auncient Ecclesiasticall Histories was a monumental enterprise and a major resource for Protestants, which provided the first English translation of early Church fathers (1577); two refutation of the Jesuits made him emerge as an early vociferous advocator of English Protestantism in the London of the 1580s (The Great Bragge and Challenge of M. Champion and The Iesuites Banner, 1581); the sermon preached at St Katherine by the Tower in 1586, A Sermon on the Baptising of a Turk, was a pioneering elaboration of Muslim-Protestant conversions.

A critical contribution to Hanmer’s legacy was made by the 17th c. antiquary and historian James Ware who printed Hanmer’s Chronicle of Ireland alongside Edmund Spenser and Edmund Campion in his collection The Historie of Ireland. The publication of Hanmer’s Chronicle was apparently an illustrious collaborative enterprise too, between an antiquary of high standing like James Ware, and no less than the Archbishop of Armagh James Ussher (1581-1656), and the Bishop of St Asaph John Hanmer (1574-1629), nephew to our Hanmer.[4]

A particularly compelling aspect emerged in the way Hanmer complicates our idea of post-Reformation England and Ireland as places of spiritual division. Hanmer makes an extremely complex and rich case as a man who moved across geo-political and social contexts and had a varied history of encounters and debates with prominent Jesuits.[5] In the process of reconstructing his life and bringing back together Hanmer’s many facets, we are confronted with the story of the ambitious abusive clergyman and the one of the serious scholar of unprecedented intellectual achievements.

st-marys-church-selattynSt Mary’s Church, Selattyn

Hanmer was the second son of a family of Pentrepant in the parish of Selattyn, North Shropshire. The family line was continued by his older brother David, the father of the future Bishop of St Asaph. The Shropshire Archives store an impressive amount of deeds and indentures which make clear that the buying, renting and selling of land in th area was the family business for generations.[6] Hanmer studied at Shrewsbury School in the wake of the arrival of Thomas Ashton, the enlightened headmaster responsible for the flourishing of the grammar school that in the 1560s was attracting pupils from neighbouring counties. Philip Sidney and Fulke Greville were also taught there in the 1560s. Hanmer studied at Oxford and gained fame as a controversialist in London in the 1580s. In the early 1590s he moved to Ireland, where we find him amongst an illustrious circle of colonists, clergymen, and soldiers. His Irish career gravitated at different stages to Munster and it enables us to look at the linkages between the different social and professional groups inhabiting 16th century Ireland: the clergy, the undertakers of Lord Burghley’s campaign for resumption, and royal officials like the Norreys brothers.

The comparatively rich evidence that survives allows us to examine Hanmer as a representative of the Elizabethan clergy in the very different contexts of England and Ireland; to learn more of the relationship of the clergy with the establishment, with religion and with other social and professional groups. A study of this complex figure opens a possible new perspective on the age by throwing light on under-explored clergy, their linkages, careers, and lives.

The research has been carried out in archives in Dublin National Library of Ireland, Trinity College Library (Dublin), National Archives of Ireland (Dublin), Representative Church Body Library (Dublin), and England  The National Archives (Kew), Corpus Christi College archives (Oxford), Bodleian Library (Oxford), Chatsworth House (Bakewell), Oswestry Library Local Studies Collection (Oswestry), Shropshire Archives (Shrewsbury), Lambeth palace Library, London Metropolitan Archives, British Library (London). The research included work with administrative records; legal deeds; indentures; records of the Exchequer; Muniment books; Act books and visitation registers; parish registers; State Papers; personal papers; wills, funeral and testamentary records; diaries and historical notes. The rich material in terms of literary, cultural, political and social significance has required a multidisciplinary approach, which was nurtured and supported superbly by the scholars, fellows and students of the Centre for Early Modern and Medieval Studies and by the academic community of the Schools of English and History at the University of Sussex.

[1] The research leading to these results has received funding from the People Programme (Marie Curie Actions) of the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under REA grant agreement n° [PIEF-GA-2012-327060].

[2] Hanmer has a place in the history of the Religious Controversies of the Elizabethan Age by Peter Milward (London, 1978); in the Oxford History of the Irish Book edited by Raymond Gillespie and Andrew Hadfield (Oxford, 1997); he features regularly in studies on British scholarship, religion and identity (James Ussher: Theology, History, and Politics in Early Modern Ireland and England, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007; F.J. Levy, Tudor Historical Thought, SanMarino CA, 1967; Hilary Larkin, The Making of Englishmen, Leiden / Boston, 2014).

[3] Dimmock, Matthew and Andrew Hadfield. “Meredith Hanmer and Edmund Spenser.” Notes&Queries vol. 59, no. 4, 2011, pp. 523-524; Hadfield, Andrew, Edmund Spenser: A Life, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012; Ford, Alan. The Protestant Reformation in Ireland 1590-1640, Four Courts Press, 1997.

[4] A letter from Dr John Hanmer to the Archbishop of Armagh dated at Pentre Pant, May 28, 1627, printed in Charles Richard Elrington, The Whole Works of the Most Reverend James Ussher, D.D., Dublin, 1864.

[5] From the influential refutation of Edmund Campion’s Letter to the Privy Council, to the brief encounter with the Jesuit missionary Henry Fitzsimon in Dublin’s Castle, and the posthumous publication of his historical view of Ireland side by side with Campion’s.

[6] I gratefully acknowledge the staff of the Shropshire Record Office (SRO) in Shrewsbury for their assistance.

Beyond academia


The dissemination and interpretation of research outside academia is, or at least should be, high on the agenda of any academic researcher. For those of us working in early modern and medieval studies, sharing our research with a wider audience has some rather specific ups and downs. Interest in the period is rarely lacking: people are endlessly fascinated with Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Shakespeare and other “big names” from the 16th and 17th centuries. Books and TV productions set in the Middle Ages, such as The White Queen, are endlessly popular. The point being, drumming up interest in the medieval and early modern period, or at least select parts of it, is generally fairly easy. But once you have the attention of an audience outside of academia, what do you do with it?

I completed my PhD earlier this year, and during and after it I have, alongside academic study and teaching, used what I have learned in a number of non-University settings. I hope that sharing these experiences will give some food for thought to anyone in a similar position wondering what they can do with their own skills and research.

Widening participation

One of my first experiences with outreach, or rather widening participation, was through the charitably organisation The Brilliant Club. If you enjoy teaching and want to see what it’s like working with a younger demographic than the usual undergraduates, this is a good place to start. The work involves travelling to schools to deliver university style seminars to groups of high achieving students in low participation schools. If you do several placements you usually get the chance to design your own course – very useful experience. The main challenge here is convincing students that they want to talk about strange texts from, say, the 17th century that they have never heard of. My course had the overarching theme of conspicuous consumption, and consequently I added a smattering of images modern analogues throughout my course booklet (bejewelled iPhone, anyone?) and regularly pulled the discussion back to the present day for contrast and comparison. Ultimately, it was quite surreal reading several essays discussing the finer points of a 1630s broadside ballad that literally nobody else has ever written (or cared) about, but in a very good way. One year 9 student even included a paragraph in her essay which was effectively a gentle reprimand to me about my question, which included the phrase “early modern people”, reminding me that a) there are a variery of thoughts and opinions among the populace in any period and b) the concept of an historic period is somewhat flawed anyway. She was absolutely right – that was me told, and I learned a good lesson there about oversimplifying things for a younger audience.

Performance and exhibition

My PhD focussed on a collection of early modern plays kept at Petworth House, a National Trust property in West Sussex. From the outset, I knew I wanted to find some way of performing something from the collection, not personally of course as I am certainly no actor. But I wanted these obscure and neglected plays to come to life somehow, in their “natural environment” so to speak. After a few false starts this was eventually achieved in collaboration with the Petworth Festival and The Guided Theatre Company. I selected and edited extracts from eight of the plays, and the theatre company worked their magic to turn this into a cohesive promenade performance staged in Petworth House itself. The performance was accompanied by an exhibition of the volumes themselves. When dealing with drama, performance is a (deceptively) simple and direct way to bring it to the public: it is both immediate and affective, and if you are dealing with obscure plays leaves the audience feeling like they have experienced something a bit unusual and special, which of course they have.

The heritage sector

My most recent foray into interpretation is certainly the most substantial of the bunch – I am currently working as a Heritage Education Officer at a medieval house in East Sussex, Bridge Cottage. This job is hugely varied and involves leading school visits and group tours, coordinating talks on local history, and helping to stage “Living History Days”. I am constantly learning, mostly through trial and error, how to balance the need to give correct and accurate information with keeping things relevant and interesting. It is important not to fall back on received wisdom and half-remembered facts, and it is rewarding in itself to correct errors where they are to be found, but at the same time nobody wants to hear a long lecture starting “well I think you’ll find it’s a little bit more complicated than that” in response to a simple question while on a family day out with the kids.

The historic environment, as at Petworth House, plays a big part in my interpretation of research. At Petworth, the vistas of the deer park or the paintings in the Long Gallery helped to create an atmosphere of ostentation which lends itself to the performative mode. At Bridge Cottage, the quiet intimacy of a family residence, inhabited for centuries from 1436 until the 1970s lends itself to an exploration of the domestic, and the everyday. Food, clothing, medicine, husbandry: these are the subjects we explore. Research techniques behind the scenes are manifested in a different sort of performance on the front line: cooking demonstrations and discussions, handling materials and trying on clothes – exploring history with the senses as well as the mind.

What’s in it for us?

So, what do researchers get out of this kind of public engagement? Well, it is liberating to step out of the office, library or archive for a start. Seeing your research “in action” is always a positive thing. Sharing things you have discovered or observed with others, and getting their immediate feedback, is hugely beneficial too. Often working in the heritage sector means working in the beautiful surroundings of an historic building, and I defy anyone to say they wouldn’t enjoy that. For me personally, it is a good outlet for my pet interests such as historic food (about which I once wrote a blog, another way in which researchers can take their interests and work outside of academia). A group of school children visiting the Cottage recently enjoyed watching me make pease pottage from a 17th century recipe, although they didn’t get to try it. The stuff looked horrible, but bizarrely, they were very disappointed that they couldn’t eat it and indicated this on their feedback forms.

I gave them all a printout of a recipe. Maybe some of them will try it at home. With a bit of luck, I’ve inspired a few budding early modernists to try a bit of practice-based research. I can’t guarantee it will taste good, but hopefully they’ll learn something and have fun doing it. What more can any of us ask for?

This blog post was written by Maria Kirk, recent PhD and Associate Tutor at Sussex University (amongst other things).