Panel description

This special session takes on the profoundly interactive relationship among diverse media in early modern England. Bringing together young scholars who specialize in Renaissance literary studies and the digital humanities, the panel uses new media to reflect on early modern media hybridities. Our presentations show how sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature is at once biological and technological – how actors, printers, musicians and needleworkers participated in literary processes that cannot be limited to writing.

There is a need for new work on inter-mediation in the early age of print. The history of the book has provided a model for tracing the discontinuous physical inscriptions that we call texts. This panel outlines the importance of a history of all literary media, not just books, including ephemera that elude the early modern archive. Historical phenomenology has helped to uncover the acoustic and other perceptual worlds in which literature was embedded. Our panel reveals how embodied interactions not only surrounded early modern literature but constituted it, enmeshing drama and verse in their environment. Media studies has described the process by which literature is “remediated” – that is, incorporated or represented in other media. We show how remediation is not enough, preferring the term “media ecologies” to refer to the continuous feedback loops between technological formations, cultural protocols, environmental surroundings and literary forms.

In presentations lasting eighteen to twenty minutes each, three panelists will use online tools, recorded sound and digital visualizations to reflect on the distinctive types of mediation at stake in the Renaissance period. The presentations will be followed by fifteen minutes of open discussion.

In her presentation, Whitney Trettien will trace the cycles of mediation that twined together nature, needlework and the ecology of print in Elizabethan England. During her imprisonment, Mary Queen of Scots worked collaboratively with Bess of Hardwick on several pieces of needlework, including a set of small octagonal panels. Each octagon contains a floral motif, adapted from botanical woodcuts and surrounded by an Erasmian adage. These juxtaposing visual and verbal commonplaces are also marked with a monogram cipher of Bess’s initials. Written in a pattern of superimposed letters that mirrors the strapwork adorning other contemporaneous embroideries, as well as plasterwork and designs for Tudor gardens, Bess’s initials weave together material threads with verbal wit in a process of embroidery. Using new digital research tools such as image-matching software, Trettien will show how the exchange between needleworks and botanical woodcuts in the late sixteenth century offers a new perspective on the many as-yet obscure ways women writers engaged with and responded to print culture.

Scott Trudell’s visual and audio presentation will examine the “contrafactum” lyric – verse that fits the tune of previously existing music – as it was practiced in the Sidney Circle, showing how poetry need not begin, nor end, with writing. One-third of Philip Sidney’s Certain Sonnets, half of his verse paraphrases of the psalms and numerous poems of his cohort (including a number by his brother Robert), are contrafacta. Even as they adopt the acoustic structures of French, Spanish and Italian music, these lyrics are not readily performable: they embody and transmit their tunes without musical notation, “measuring” verse by line and page. Yet these contrafacta emerge in musical performance again later, showing up (for example) in settings by William Byrd and John Dowland. Sidney and his Circle thus produce a distinctive type of verse that embeds or encodes music within manuscript and print. They adapt Continental musical traditions in order to outline an extreme form of imitatio, whereby scriptive practices are continuously exchanged and inter-mediated with music.

In his presentation, Adam Hooks will look at the commercial, conceptual, and material connections between early modern plays and ballads. Ballads were fundamentally multimedia forms: they were sold in shops, posted on walls, sung in the streets, and were composed of interchangeable tunes and texts—texts often based on current cultural events (crimes or scandals) or other literary forms (such as plays). Ballads were a locus in which the cultural, material and even criminal aspects of the media environment intersected. Ballads also existed as textual artifacts that were fundamentally popular, in all the senses of that term: financial, practical and intellectual. Hooks focuses on the career of an infamous printer who published several ballad versions of Shakespeare’s plays. By attending to the printer’s skill in manufacturing multimedia events, and his exploitation of Shakespeare’s reputation in the popular market, Hook will show how exchanges among systems of value (financial and ethical; ephemeral and aesthetic) and systems of media force us to rethink how we define concepts (authorship, literary and cultural status, intellectual property and remediation) that remain vital in the media environment we now inhabit. He will also show how current digital tools have transformed our understanding of the place and function of ballads in early modern culture.

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