Curiosities and Texts

Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England

Series: Material Texts
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Curiosities and Texts
    Book Description:

    A craze for collecting swept England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Aristocrats and middling-sort men alike crammed their homes full of a bewildering variety of physical objects: antique coins, scientific instruments, minerals, mummified corpses, zoological specimens, plants, ethnographic objects from Asia and the Americas, statues, portraits. Why were these bizarre jumbles of artifacts so popular? In Curiosities and Texts, Marjorie Swann demonstrates that collections of physical objects were central to early modern English literature and culture. Swann examines the famous collection of rarities assembled by the Tradescant family; the development of English natural history; narrative catalogs of English landscape features that began to appear in the Tudor and Stuart periods; the writings of Ben Jonson and Robert Herrick; and the foundation of the British Museum. Through this wide-ranging series of case studies, Swann addresses two important questions: How was the collection, which was understood as a form of cultural capital, appropriated in early modern England to construct new social selves and modes of subjectivity? And how did literary texts-both as material objects and as vehicles of representation-participate in the process of negotiating the cultural significance of collectors and collecting? Crafting her unique argument with a balance of detail and insight, Swann sheds new light on material culture's relationship to literature, social authority, and personal identity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0317-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-15)

    In 1634 the indefatigable traveler Peter Mundy was between voyages, cooling his heels in London. He filled his time at one point by going to Lambeth “to view some rarieties” at the home of the elder John Tradescant. According to Mundy, he spent a “whole day in peruseinge, and that superficially,” the enthralling wealth of objects that Tradescant had accumulated, which included

    beasts, fowle, fishes, serpents, wormes (reall, although dead and dryed), pretious stones and other Armes, Coines, shells, fethers, etts. of sundrey Nations, Countries, forme, Coullours; also diverse Curiosities in Carvinge, painteinge, etts., as 80 faces carved on a...

  4. Chapter 1 Cultures of Collecting in Early Modern England
    (pp. 16-54)

    Collecting was a vital social practice during the early modern period because it served as a point of convergence for a wide range of cultural forces. Several distinct modes of collecting flourished in Stuart England, variously interacting and merging to create new, hybrid forms of the collection. The early modern English collector could thus inhabit a correspondingly diverse range of subject positions. The history of the collection of John Tradescant the elder affords a case study of the complex and changing web of social meanings which collectors created and negotiated in seventeenth-century England. To analyze the Tradescant collection, however, we...

  5. Chapter 2 Sons of Science: Natural History and Collecting
    (pp. 55-96)

    According to John Aubrey’s account of the death of Sir Francis Bacon, the former Lord Chancellor, after having been sent into political exile by James I for accepting bribes, perished in the pursuit of scientific knowledge:

    As he was taking the air in a coach with Dr. Witherborne (a Scotchman, physician to the King) towards Highgate, snow lay on the ground, and it came into my lord’s thoughts, why flesh might not be preserved in snow, as in salt. They were resolved they would try the experiment at once. They alighted out of the coach, and went into a poor...

  6. Chapter 3 The Countryside as Collection: Chorography, Antiquarianism, and the Politics of Landscape
    (pp. 97-148)

    According to the social theory of early modern England, a man’s identity and authority were, in large part, determined by his relationship to land. The social formation was understood as “a graduated ladder of dominance and subordination,” and within this patriarchal hierarchy of status, fathers were, on the basis of their gender, uniformly entitled to be the heads of their respective households. Outside the home, however, men’s differential “claims to land” in large part determined their standing in society.² As Steven Shapin observes, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English culture “laid great emphasis on how individuals were placed vis-à-vis wealth, work, and...

  7. Chapter 4 The Author as Collector: Jonson, Herrick, and Textual Self-Fashioning
    (pp. 149-193)

    A writer is not necessarily an author. In distinguishing between these two categories, Adrian Johns suggests that, “An author is taken to be someone acknowledged as responsible for a given printed (or sometimes written) work; that is, authorship is taken to be a matter for attribution by others, not of self-election. A writer is anyone who composes such a work. A writer therefore may or may not attain authorship.”¹ These definitions immediately elicit questions from the literary historian. In what ways might one be considered “responsible” for a written work? Or, to use slightly different terms, what characteristics have different...

  8. Epilogue: An Ornament to the Nation
    (pp. 194-200)

    When Peter Mundy entered John Tradescant’s “Ark” in 1634 to gaze, spellbound, at Tradescant’s collection of taxidermy, minerals, coins, art work, and plants, he unknowingly crossed the threshold of modernity. Possessive individualism, the concept of the self-as-owner which would later come to dominate Western culture, emerged in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries amidst a rapidly expanding world of physical objects. Shaped by the social, economic, and political conditions peculiar to the early modern period, collections of material things began to proliferate among the English, affording new opportunities for the construction and display of possessive identity. To understand early...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 201-244)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 245-272)
  11. Index
    (pp. 273-278)
  12. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 279-280)