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Laëtitia Coussement-Boillot and Christine Sukic

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  • 1 We would like to thank Lynn S. Meskill for her reading of this foreword and her helpful comments an (...)

1Writing can be either a gesture of everyday life or a significant act, loaded with meaning. Signing one’s name, scribbling, crossing out words, writing a note, a letter…these are gestures that are common enough, or that were so until now, since writing, like reading or music, is becoming dematerialized with the age of the computer. We have arrived at an era when the act of writing is often an act of typing. Still, there remain quite a number of us who continue writing notes with pen and paper.1

  • 2 Raymond Klibanski, Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy. Studies in the History of (...)
  • 3 Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albercht Dürer, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 19 (...)
  • 4 Ibid.

2More significantly, “writing” refers to the activity of the professional writer, whose act of writing was sometimes interpreted as a sign of melancholy. The fundamental text about melancholy attributed to Aristotle, the famous “Problem XXX”, establishes a relation between melancholy and the philosopher or the poet. Klibansky, Panofsky and Saxl demonstrated the importance of this text on the representation of melancholy and its association with the creative arts2. In many early modern representations of melancholy, such as Dürer’s famous Melencolia engravings, the figure is most frequently depicted in a contemplative mood. Melancholy is related to creative “frenzy” and imagination, such as in Melencolia I (1514), where the act of writing is represented (in the words of Panofsky) by “a morose little putto who, perched on a disused grindstone, scribbles something on a slate”3. The act of writing is thus clearly one of the attributes of melancholy. This is confirmed in literature by the melancholy mood of the Petrarchan poet or many characters in early modern drama. However, it is to be noted that visual representations do not necessarily link the act of writing with melancholy: Panofsky opposes Melencolia I to another of Dürer’s engravings, St Jerome in his Study (also from 1514), in which the figure of the saint is “comfortably installed at his writing desk” and therefore represents an act of writing which is not a pathology or a symptom but “a life in the service of God […], the peaceful bliss of divine wisdom”4.

  • 5 David Cressy, “Levels of Illiteracy in England 1530-1730”, in Harvey J. Graff, Literacy and Social (...)
  • 6 Eve Rachele Sanders, Gender and Literacy on Stage in Early Modern England, Cambridge, Cambridge Uni (...)
  • 7 Ibid.
  • 8 Ibid., p. 142.

3The act of writing is necessarily gendered in the early modern period since most women were illiterate then. As David Cressy puts it, women “in Tudor and Stuart England were not normally taught to write, although there may have been some intermittent provision for some of them to learn to read. The fully literate woman was a rarity”5. The writing woman was most of the time an aristocrat, such as Lady Anne Clifford, whose life materializes on the page through the act of writing, whether it be in a diary or an autobiography. There are few examples of women writers of other social classes: Rachel Speght, who was the daughter of a Calvinist minister, wrote the famous A Mouzell for Melastomus (1617), part of her controversy on women with Joseph Swetnam, in which she systematically fought all of Swetnam’s violent misogynistic attacks. In early modern literature, and especially drama, there are many writing female characters. Even paintings of the early modern period testify to the emergence of the female writer. The illustration chosen for this volume is a painting by the studio of Artemisia Lomi Gentileschi, the baroque Italian painter (1593-1652). Dated around 1650, it is entitled “The Allegory of Rhetoric”. Holding a quill in her right hand, a blank sheet of paper on her desk, the woman is waiting for inspiration. It is noteworthy that Artemisia Gentileschi – or her collaborators, since the painting may have been a collective work she had supervised in her studio in Naples – chose to represent a woman about to start writing. If the woman’s expectant gaze evokes the immateriality of inspiration, the various objects present on the desk testify to the very materiality of the writing process: two quills, paper, an ink-stand, and what looks like a half-hidden paper knife, maybe symbolizing figures of speech as potential weapons. A few years earlier, around 1638-39, another work entitled “The Allegory of Painting”, which was a self-portrait, also represented a woman practising her art. Beyond the auto-biographical dimension of both paintings, which demonstrate Artemisia Gentileschi’s assertion as an artist, these two works may also testify to the possibility, in the early modern period, for some women to be recognized as autonomous creators, and, for our specific purposes, as writers. However, as Eve Rachele Sanders has shown, it is a commonplace of Tudor-Stuart drama criticism to see men as writers and women as texts to be inscribed, as when Othello asks: “Was this fair paper, this most goodly book? / Meant to write ‘whore’ upon?”6. She also shows that the notion that writing was essentially masculine (“the Renaissance pun on pen and penis”7) reflects the cultural difference between men and women and the different degrees of literacy according to gender, except that in the early modern period, this was seen as a fact of nature, not of culture8.

  • 9 See David Cressy, Literacy and the Social Order. Reading and Writing in Tudor and Stuart England, C (...)
  • 10 Ibid., p. 58.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 169.
  • 12 Anne-Marie Christin (ed.), A History of Writing. From Hieroglyph to Multimedia, translated by Jacqu (...)

4In the early modern period, acts of writing took on a special significance at a time when only a very small portion of the population could write. As David Cressy has shown in his numerous studies on the subject, it is not easy to evaluate literacy in early modern England. We know that people who could not write used marks as signatures. However, those who actually signed their names were not necessarily able to write anything else9. We know that Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, did not sign his name but left a mark in all official documents. Many biographers of Shakespeare have been reluctant to admit that Shakespeare’s father was illiterate, by inventing all sorts of obscure reasons for his use of a mark. But the fact is, as Cressy insists, using a mark instead of signing one’s name “was a question of capacity, not of choice”10. On the contrary, we do know that John Shakespeare’s son signed his name and that he made part of his fortune through his writing. Cressy explains that the first two decades in Elizabeth’s reign saw an extraordinary development in “educational excitement” in schools or philanthropic foundations and concludes that it “may be no coincidence that Shakespeare and his talented literary contemporaries were of school age at this time and that part of his audience was uniquely well educated”11. That generation is therefore part of a great cultural change with regard to the education of the population. For example, the moment when most people learnt how to sign their names instead of leaving a mark (or an image, as it was sometimes the case in the Middle Ages) on a piece of paper could be seen as historically significant. Béatrice Fraenkel talks of a “cultural upheaval” when written words created “new signs of identity, new graphic habits, new means of acting”12. The early modern period could be seen as one of those historical moments when writing became, if not widespread, at least more common, and illiteracy was substantially reduced. But we must not think of the early modern act of writing as a stable and standardized, as it is nowadays. There was no standard spelling, but various forms of writing. Writing accompanied the development of print culture thanks to the rapid spread of the printing press in the fifteenth century, even though many early modern works were not actually printed but circulated in manuscript form, such as Sidney or Shakespeare’s sonnets, Donne’s profane poetry or Herbert’s. It was another form of circulation which did not prevent a relatively widespread reading of their poetry. As we know, Shakespeare’s sonnets were well-known before their first 1609 publication.

5The first section of this volume will be devoted to the materiality of acts of writing. Focusing on Lady Hatton’s letters, Emily Ross tackles the issues of authorship and textual ownership. Both illiterate and aristocratic writers benefited from secretarial help with their correspondence in the early modern period. Taking this fact as her starting point, Emily Ross, focuses on the collaboration that might have taken place between Lady Hatton and her secretary, Sir John Holles. She reminds us that the verb “penn’d” could mean simply copying a text, but could also imply a more active involvement in the composition of the letter. The tests applied to texts written by Hatton and Holles separately and together show that Hatton definitely benefited from Holles’ secretarial help in terms of spelling, lexicon and knowledge of epistolary conventions. Finally, Emily Ross probes the symbiotic relationship which existed between the secretary and his patron, the latter’s success allowing the former to advance his carreer as well. Jean-Christophe Mayer explores Shakespeare’s early modern readers’ “work of renovation” of the printed text through their acts of writing. He looks at how human beings interacted with texts as material objects. Those early modern readers of Shakespeare rewrote Shakespeare but also “wrote themselves” through Shakespeare’s texts. The analysis of “traces” left inside printed books (see the various illustrations reproduced in this volume) shows how readers invented a new life for the book. Early editions of Shakespeare become places of intellectual and critical transaction or to take up Jean-Christophe Mayer’s words “forums for readers to express and, to some extent, share their views”. What with the development of print culture in the early modern period, the link between acts of writing and printing had to be taken into account. Anne-Marie Miller-Blaise’s contribution on George Herbert’s trajectory from pen to print examines how Herbert gradually dissociates himself from the modes of circulation of his milieu (the Herbert-Sidney-Pembroke coterie), turning towards the horizon of print even for his private, devotional verse. The printed letter better responded to Herbert’s aesthetic and theological design. Herbert’s experience as a country parson led him to value the culture of print and the possibilities for a better circulation of the curative word.

  • 13 See Joel Fineman, Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye. The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets, (...)

6The act of writing is often an act of re-writing in the early modern period. Literature is a palimpsest, a borrowing, an imitation, at a time when authors are trying to find their own style and their originality through their personal act of writing. The act of writing becomes then a subjective act, a way of finding one’s original signature13. In Sonnet 76, Shakespeare is aware of this paradox of writing as both imitation and invention:

Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods, and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth, and where they did proceed?
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent (sonnet 76, l. 3-8 and 11-12).

7The frequent use of self-reflexive devices in the literature of that era testifies to the importance of the act of writing. Writers write about writing. The second section of this volume will focus on acts of writing within a specific work, namely on the various manifestations of self-reflexivity. In his study on “subscription and proscription” in Marlowe’s Edward II, Yan Brailowsky starts with Mortimer’s amphibolic letter to Edward’s gaoler which will both kill and save the king. He argues that the play is littered with letters and decrees being written, received, exchanged, read, or torn on stage. The various references to acts of writing in Edward II are borrowed from Marlowe’s narrative sources which lend the play some historical verisimilitude. However, they also serve a host of specifically dramatic purposes, contributing to underline key structural elements in the play and serving as props capable of inflicting physical wounds. Brailowsky shows how acts of writing can be divided between those destined for personal use (private correspondence, love letters), and those which define public policy. Claire Labarbe’s analysis of the “mise-en-abyme” in “character books” of the 17th century will provide another instance of self-reflexivity. She demonstrates how authors of “character books” theorized the act of writing by discussing the rules and complexities of literary composition in their prefaces and introductions. They also illustrated the process of writing in the body of their texts by representing diverse “characters” of writers, meant as a reflection of the authors themselves. While their works and style were then presented as instances of artistic achievement, conversely, hack writers, practising other genres than that of character-writing, were satirized along with cheap poems, ballads, diurnals, libels or pamphlets. Finally, Lindsay Reid’s study of “The Passionate Pilgrim”, in Jaggard’s third edition of 1612, focuses on the paratext and intertexuality. Reid addresses the putative acts of writing advertised in The Passionate Pilgrime’s 1612 paratextual apparatus and contends that Jaggard’s miscellany creates an internal sense of coherence amongst its lyrics by presenting readers with a fictitious narrative of its own literary origins. Jaggard’s decision to augment the earlier version of The Passionate Pilgrime with translations by Heywood of two pieces from Ovid’s metatextual Heroides highlights even more the fictive acts of writing between the various mythological characters of the volume and invites a reading of the miscellany’s opening sonnet sequence as a quasi-epistolary exchange in the vein of Ovid’s Heroides.

8Our third section will consider the act of writing and its link with authorship. Christine Sukic’s article on Sir Philip Sidney demonstrates that Sidney asserts his authorial identity as a poet through contradictory acts of writing : at the same time as he stresses the concrete dimension of poetic composition he also claims the impossibility to write. Even though, like many of his European contemporaries, he writes love poetry that imitates Petrarchan sonnets, and that supposedly places the woman at the centre of his poetry, it seems that the poet himself is the centre of his own poetry while Stella is erased from the page. Complementing Christine Sukic’s article, Laetitia Coussement-Boillot’s contribution focuses on Sidney’s niece, Lady Mary Wroth, in order to assess the complexity of authorship for an early modern woman writer, caught between assertion and concealment. The prose romance Urania is peppered with various acts of writing, such as inscriptions on the barks of trees. letters and numerous poems inserted in the narrative. Paradoxically, most of these acts of writing are related to strategies of concealment, sometimes even to strategies of destruction. The last article in that section is Guillaume Fourcade’s on John Donne’s love poems. In spite of Donne’s relative authorial secrecy, the act of poetic creation does appear as an underlying trace in some self-referential poems. Through a series of close readings, this study demonstrates how the self-reflexive, metapoetic comments in “Negative Love”, “The Will” and “The Undertaking” translate at a further remove into remarks whereby the act of writing reflects upon its own features. All three poems revolve around a void core or essential nothing which becomes a mode of self-definition. All along Fourcade underlines the playfulness with which the texts and the act of writing ironically confess their nothingness.

  • 14 Peter Stallybrass, Roger Chartier, J. Franklin Mowery and Heather Wolfe give numerous examples of t (...)
  • 15 Pierre Bourdieu, “Intellectual field and creative project”, Social Science Information 8 (1968), p. (...)
  • 16 Margaret Cavendish, A true Relation of my Birth, Breeding and Life, in Natures Pictures Drawn by Fa (...)
  • 17 Oxford English Dictionary, sv Act, n. sense 5a.

9Finally, writing is also a way of creating memory. This is the case if the act of writing is an inscription on a funeral monument, for instance. Hamlet, the melancholy prince, uses an instance of writing in order to keep the memory of his father alive and to remember the meeting with the old king’s ghost, when he exclaims, “My tables, my tables; meet it is I set it down” (I. 5. 107-8)14. Writing is a way to be remembered, such as in Donne’s “Valediction: Of my Name in the Window”, when the persona asserts that the engraving of his name on the glass will “contribute [his] firmness to this glass”. Literature in itself, and the act of writing it, is an act of memory. In that sense, it is a way for a writer to create his / her own social place as an author. Writing can lead to fame and posterity, or at least to the impression of fame and posterity. It also represents the writer’s place in society. In that sense, the act of writing is a social gesture, a “creative project”, to use Bourdieu’s famous phrase15. When she defines herself as an “Authoress” in her autobiography A true relation of my Birth, Breeding and Life (1656), Margaret Cavendish uses her acts of writing as defining tools of her own identity as an author in the most material sense, saying for instance, “I pass my time rather with scribling than writing” or commenting on her own handwriting: “some have taken my hand-writing for some strange character”16. For many writers, especially if they did not come from aristocratic families, the act of writing could thus be seen as a form of social inscription. In the funerary monument to Shakespeare in Stratford, the poet can be seen, quill in hand, writing, thus testifying to the fact that most of his fortune had been acquired through this activity. The last section of this volume explores how acts of writing may lead to that process of monumentalization. Dirk Weidmann argues that the act of writing can become an alternative for political commitment. He investigates possible reasons for Sidney’s important biographical turn, which took place roughly between 1578 and 1580. Philip Sidney was educated to serve the state, but contrary to his high expectations he remained unemployed for extended periods of time. As a consequence he relied increasingly on his own writings to express his socio-political aims. Writing allowed Sidney to turn his material into a literary monument for the edification of the reader. In the last article of this volume, Anne Dunan-Page analyses “Church books” or “Church records” in order to show how these acts of writing contain complex and extended narratives that the members of the Churches clearly regarded as constitutive elements of their foundation and growth. Some Congregations explicitly called their records “act(s)” which was in accordance with a long-established and Latinate usage of “act” to mean “A record of transactions, actions, or decrees; a document which verifies facts”17. Anne Dunan-Page suggests these texts, made up of a juxtaposition of different genres, should be read as literary texts and as part of a self-conscious reflection on the writing of Church history. One of the aims of these acts of faith was to built a physical and permanent “monument” that traced the fortunes of the Churches of Christ.

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1 We would like to thank Lynn S. Meskill for her reading of this foreword and her helpful comments and suggestions.

2 Raymond Klibanski, Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy. Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion and Art, Nendeln, Liechtenstein, Kraus Reprint, 1979.

3 Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albercht Dürer, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1955, p. 156.

4 Ibid.

5 David Cressy, “Levels of Illiteracy in England 1530-1730”, in Harvey J. Graff, Literacy and Social Development in the West. A Reader, Cambridge Studies in Oral and Literate Culture, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1981, p. 105-124, here p. 111.

6 Eve Rachele Sanders, Gender and Literacy on Stage in Early Modern England, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 138.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., p. 142.

9 See David Cressy, Literacy and the Social Order. Reading and Writing in Tudor and Stuart England, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1980.

10 Ibid., p. 58.

11 Ibid., p. 169.

12 Anne-Marie Christin (ed.), A History of Writing. From Hieroglyph to Multimedia, translated by Jacqueline Bacon, Deke Dusinbere, Ian McMorran and David Stanton, Paris, Flammarion, 2002, p. 317.

13 See Joel Fineman, Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye. The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1986.

14 Peter Stallybrass, Roger Chartier, J. Franklin Mowery and Heather Wolfe give numerous examples of those “writing-tables” on the English early modern stage in their article “Hamlet’s Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England” (Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 4, Winter 2004, p. 379-419).

15 Pierre Bourdieu, “Intellectual field and creative project”, Social Science Information 8 (1968), p. 89-119, translation of the 1966 French article “Champ intellectuel et projet créateur”.

16 Margaret Cavendish, A true Relation of my Birth, Breeding and Life, in Natures Pictures Drawn by Fancies Pencil to the Life, 1656, p. 384. On Cavendish’s acts of writing in her autobiography, see also Line Cottegnies, “The ‘Native Tongue’ of the ‘Authoress’: The Mythical Structure of Margaret Cavendish’s Autobiographical Narrative”, in Line Cottegnies and Nancy Weitz (eds.), Authorial Conquests: Essays on Genre in the Writings of Margaret Cavendish, Madison, N.J., London, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, Associated University Presses, 2003, p. 103-119.

17 Oxford English Dictionary, sv Act, n. sense 5a.

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Electronic reference

Laëtitia Coussement-Boillot and Christine Sukic, ForewordÉtudes Épistémè [Online], 21 | 2012, Online since 01 April 2012, connection on 17 April 2021. URL:; DOI:

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