As the environmental humanities have gained traction, its practitioners have ventured beyond a predictable canon of modern nature writers and Romantic poets into earlier eras to better fathom the origins of our ecological predicament. It has become abundantly clear that the Renaissance (c. 1340–1660), often reframed as the early modern era (c. 1500–1800), marks a pivotal epoch in the history of the earth. Spurred by the rediscovery of classical learning to rival the grandeur of Ancient Rome and by Columbus’s plundering of the West Indies, European powers studied and exploited the environment with unprecedented zeal, while investing in resource extraction, overseas colonization, and technoscience. These developments left an indelible imprint on both the planet and the period’s literature. In tandem with the invention of landscape by Renaissance painters, writers in the generations between Francesco Petrarch and John Milton sought new ways—while reviving and adapting ancient ones—to capture the beauty, fragility, and animacy of the natural world. In the works of poets such as Torquato Tasso, Michael Drayton, and Mary Wroth, trees can bleed, rivers speak, and nightingales transform into violated maidens. As such conceits suggest, the prevailing views of nature can seem quaint or anthropomorphic by post-Enlightenment standards. Yet Renaissance literature has proven, in part because it enables us to interrogate those standards, surprisingly responsive to ecocritical concerns. Bringing these concerns to bear on the era has revealed startling new facets of familiar texts, thrown more limelight on undersung authors, unsettled complacent assumptions in environmental history, and greatly enriched eco-theory. Nature has always been a site of ideological contestation, but the historical distance afforded by the Renaissance can bring this into shimmering focus. If the label “early modern” underscores the era’s continuity with the present and its foreshadowing of ecological issues and sensibilities, the somewhat old-fashioned label Renaissance reminds us to keep sight of its alterity and to view its literature as an archive of radically different attitudes, epistemologies, and material practices that might help us to better understand and combat environmental problems. The urgency of the climate crisis makes it imperative to trace or insinuate parallels between then and now, but newcomers to the field would also be well advised to acquaint themselves with the contours of early modern cultural and environmental history so as to undertake ecocritical interpretations responsibly without peddling anachronisms or reductive caricatures. Early modern worldviews can be both familiar and alien, and its literature can jolt us into a greater awareness of these tensions. It is, for instance, ironic yet strangely apt that the same Francis Bacon reviled as an architect of the Anthropocene was one of the first to denounce the anthropocentric prejudice of the human sensorium and mind. Bacon also feared that language and an excessive reverence for the received knowledge of the past might warp our understanding of nature. Four centuries later, his words provide a cautionary reminder that we should not approach Renaissance literature as a repository of timeless, universal truths. Rather, insofar as studying Renaissance literature enables us to see beyond the shibboleths of our own culture and historical moment, it offers valuable cognitive training that might help us recognize and overcome species bias.
Renaissance Literature and the Environment
Todd Andrew Borlik
European Renaissance Archives
As well as sources for the study of the period, Renaissance archives are a subject of scholarly inquiry in their own right. Early modernists have increasingly appreciated the significance of a knowledge of record-keeping practices in research, and how an understanding of archives as contingent and culturally specific warrants reading their history, organization, and uses as mirrors (perhaps distorting ones) of culture, politics, and society. Renaissance archives make up a heterogeneous and dispersed panorama of sources ranging from administrative documents and official records to personal papers and private collections. Examples are the archive of the d’Este family, initiated in the mid-15th century and preserved in the 19th-century building of the Archivio di Stato di Modena, or the Archivo General de Simancas, founded in the 16th century and still located in the same 15th-century castle where it was originally established. The unprecedented development of public and private record-keeping during the Renaissance made archives ubiquitous and an inescapable part of the lives of many. The proliferation of archives must be connected with cultural and political changes such as the spread of literacy, the growth in size and complexity of states and institutions, and developments in the organization and management of the records. War, fires, and accidental destruction have severely damaged valuable materials, while dismemberment and reorganization have compromised entire collections; however, Renaissance archives have been reintegrated into modern institutions and still shape them in many ways. Focusing on archival practices rather than on archives as products enables us to view the history of archives in Europe as a series of transformations in which to identify elements of continuity and phases of rupture.
Literature and News in the Renaissance
The news culture of early modern England was complex and shifting: news moved via printed and manuscript texts, sometimes over wide distances and across national and confessional borders. “News” might cover a range of topics, from “high politics” and reports of military action, to grisly “true crime,” prodigies, and natural disasters—and even to the scandalous doings of one’s neighbors. News was (and is) difficult to delineate as a genre, slipping into gossip, rumor, propaganda, and history. England’s news market—especially its printed news market—changed markedly in the years before the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, and this was reflected in literary texts. Authors drew on topical events; they mocked and satirized figures associated with news dissemination and consumption, and they drew on the processes by which newsreaders acquired and evaluated information.
16th- and 17th-Century English Sermons
The continental and English Reformations had a profound impact on the development of the sermon, precipitating a decisive shift from sacramental forms of worship to a Scripture-centered piety. The Henrician Reformation of the 1530s tied preaching to the politics of religion, as the monarch sought to consolidate the Royal Supremacy. The sermon continued to play a crucial role in the promulgation and defense of royal policy for one hundred fifty years, until the Toleration Act of 1689 granted freedom of worship to dissenters and nonconformists. But the pulpit was equally important as a forum in which foreign and domestic affairs could be subjected to scrutiny and criticism, in often fraught and complex attempts to fulfill the Christian mandate to speak truth to power. Preaching did not simply reflect or articulate public opinion, but actively contributed to its formation. The early modern sermon, especially when it was delivered at large and popular venues such as Paul’s Cross or Saint Paul’s Cathedral, was not merely an occasion for the formal exposition of Scripture but a major social event that attracted significant numbers of spectators and listeners. Preachers were keenly attuned to the demands of homiletic decorum: if a sermon was to reach the hearts and souls of the audience, it needed to adapt to the time, place, and circumstances of performance. Places of preaching reflected the primacy of decorum in their architectural layout: the chapels royal embodied the idea of royal supremacy by seating the monarch in an elevated royal closet, for instance. Sermons were preached in a wide range of settings: parish churches and cathedrals; chapels at the Inns of Court and the universities; outdoor pulpits and private meeting houses; and before Parliament and on the judicial circuit. And they existed in a variety of forms and media: in their original performance context, animated by voice and gesture; as manuscript notes, summaries, or illicit copies for further circulation; and in printed formats ranging from expensive folios to penny chapbooks. These different modes of transmission were in turn associated with different architectures of cognition: print culture helped preserve a sermon’s message, but at the cost of sacrificing the spiritual bond with the congregation. In a culture that saw the sermon as the primary means of communication with God, and therefore as the main path to salvation, retaining a connection with the living tradition of apostolic preaching was vital, and preachers sought to augment their printed sermons with features of orality and dialogue in order to compensate for the absence of an immediate rapport with the audience.
Literature, the Book, and the Bible in the Renaissance
In response to the politics of the Reformation, the 16th and 17th centuries witnessed a proliferation of bibles translated into vernacular languages. Owing to a ban on translating bibles in England without express permission, English Bible translation was especially connected to Protestantism. English bibles were influenced by Protestant bibles printed in continental Europe, were legitimized through Welsh translation, and went on to inform translation in Ireland and New England. Bible translation was a transnational and transhistorical endeavor that influenced literature and everyday life.
Literature and Disability in the English Renaissance
Disability—whether physical, mental, or sensory—is widely represented in Early Modern literature, and as such it has been attracting attention from 21st-century literary scholars, who apply the theoretical and critical tools of disability studies to Renaissance narratives and literary characters. Literary disability in its various forms can be analyzed in the light of various models of disability, including medical, social, moral, or cultural. This helps in understanding early modern representations and experiences of disability in culture and history and making sense of reactions to disability in the period: including stigma, mockery, proud identification with the disabled identity, or also a desire for it. Physical disabilities in the Renaissance encompass anything from deformity to bodily mutilation to dwarfism or monstrosity, and they are especially prone to be emphasized, explained, or scrutinized in search of their meaning. Sensory disabilities, including blindness, deafness, and mutism, prompt interpretations that connect physical impairment with the character’s inability or surprising ability to understand reality—whether in a pragmatic or spiritual sense. Intellectual and mental disabilities have many ramifications in early modern literature, some of which, such as fools and madmen, are staple types of drama. Intellectual and mental disabilities are often described in medical terms, but literary texts tend to differentiate between them, whether in technical or narrative terms. Foolishness normally turns into comedy, whereas madness is often connected with tragic characters undergoing mental breakdowns. Renaissance disability studies are also concerned with less obvious types of disability: disabilities that were disabilities in the past but not in the 21st century, concealed disabilities, and disabilities that are not actually disabilities but do foster a conversation that excludes the character who does not embody what society regarded as the ideal physical shape. Finally, instances of counterfeited disability and disability attached to concepts rather than people help understand how Renaissance culture often viewed the nonstandard body not only as something to beware of or reject but also as an image of empowerment.