Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros34Genre Trouble in Early Modern Eng...Introduction: Genre Trouble in Ea...

Genre Trouble in Early Modern English Writing (1500–1800)

Introduction: Genre Trouble in Early Modern English Writing (1500-1800)

Emma Bartel et Katie Ebner-Landy

Texte intégral

1Early modern writings frequently resist neat or easy generic categorisation. Subject to interpretation, pastiche and modification, generic categories offer flexible guidelines rather than a strict set of rules. In the words of Tzvetan Todorov, genres “function as ‘horizons of expectations’ for readers and as ‘models of writing’ for authors.” (Todorov 1976, 123). Genres help readers situate a text, giving them a means to imagine how it will unfold. Genres also help authors structure and form their material: providing a mould into which a story can fit. In this, genres regulate the literary world, shielding us from surprise, and shaping our imaginative instincts into recognisable products. The shared word for both gender and literary genre in French, genre, makes this regulatory aspect of genre eminently clear. What then happens when genres are troubled? When, as was the case in early modern England, the norms regulating texts are in a period of transition, due to both technological transformation (from manuscript to print culture), and to the reception of literary texts from continental Europe and ancient Greece? This special issue investigates generic experimentation, hybridity and innovation in early modern writing in order to further our understanding of the period’s multiple and evolving conceptions of genre.

50 Years of Renaissance Genre Trouble: 1973-2023

2When Rosalie Colie wrote her 1973 lectures on genre theory in the Renaissance she worried that her “protracted discussion of literary form and forms, in a period long past, may seem at best antiquarian and at worst irresponsible” (Colie 1973, 1). A focus on genre would depart from the dominant literary fashions: from both the strictures of New Criticism – Croce and Wimsatt having “excoriated the idea of genre” – and from the marriage of rhetorical criticism and linguistic discourse analysis, which remained uninterested in “the actual genres” of texts (ibid., 1). Instead of genre, the watchwords of the grandest literary criticism were either form or context. Genre fell awkwardly between them, and so commanded significantly less attention. Colie’s erudite and stylish lectures did much to dust off genre and show how, as its own frame of analysis, genre could illuminate Renaissance literary criticism. Genre was a crucial part of Renaissance rhetorical education – “always a model-following enterprise” (ibid., 4); it was central to classical poetics, with its penchant for classification; and, in spite of its seeming conservatism, genre became “a factor for literary change and imaginative experiment” across early modern Europe (ibid., 8).

3In the years that followed, Alastair Fowler continued to unspool many of these threads, and begin new paths of investigation. His 1979 essay on “Genre and the Literary Canon” collects nine different writers’ classifications of “main genres,” from Cicero’s list of “tragedy, comedy, epic, melic, dithyrambic” to Dryden’s “epic, tragedy, satire, epigram, ode, elegy, pastoral” (Fowler 1979, 103). Fowler’s piece also underscores how far the professional mechanisms of studying and teaching English literature are shaped by genres, with there being a close relationship between the canonisation of a work and it becoming a genre; and with entire historical eras themselves defined by the dominant genres of literary production – the era of the sonnet, the epic, the dream vision, the satire, the romance (ibid., 97-98). But, for Fowler, as for Colie, though the concept of genre may at first sight seem static, or conservative, it contained thrilling variety. Genres, he would later write, should not be thought of as permanent classes but “families subject to change” (ibid., v). It is time, Fowler wrote in 1982, “to enlarge the critical repertory: to recover a sense of the variety of literary forms” (Fowler 1982, v). The status of genre within the critical repertory gained its formalisation with the publication of David Duff’s Modern Genre Theory in 2000, bringing together essays by Colie and Fowler alongside Derrida, Croce, Propp and Bakhtin.

4In the last two decades, an increasingly contested early modern literary canon and its subsequent widening as well as the expansion of our textual frame of reference (through digital technologies and editions of early modern texts) have continued this trend of finding more and more hybridity and variation, where previously we might have seen neat classifications and stasis. In the last ten years in particular, scholars have come to accept and even embrace generic complexity and variety as a common feature of many early modern texts. The question has moved from whether genre is relevant, to whether genre is rigid or diverse, to at precisely what point the interest in generic mixture began. Gerd Bayer, reviewing Gary Schmidt’s 2013 Renaissance Hybrids: Culture and Genre in Early Modern England summarises this well. He writes that Schmidt’s monograph – like Marcie Frank’s 2003 Gender, Theatre, and the Origins of Criticism, Jeff Dolven’s 2007 Scenes of Instruction, John Scheckter’s 2011 The Isle of Pines, and Wolfram Schmidgen’s 2013 Exquisite Mixture before it – exposes that “generic categories were applied in highly creative and uninhibited ways by early modern authors, with his focus on the Renaissance setting the starting point for these developments further in the past than other scholarship has done” (Bayer 2015, 1).

5This interest in hybridity has been of particular interest to a number of types of writing, including autobiography, miscellanies, epic, biblical verse paraphrase and romance. In Autobiography and Gender in Early Modern Literature, Sharon Cadman Seelig, for instance, notes that imposing rigid and anachronistic schemes onto women’s autobiographical texts prevents us from understanding the contexts in which they were read and written since “a single text may partake in a number of generic models that were available and useful, though not definitive and determinative for early modern women writers” (Seelig 2006, 8). Such a flexible and multi-generic approach has been taken up by scholars, in particular in the field of women’s writing where many texts do not fit into conventional literary genres. In Romancing the Self in Early Modern Englishwomen’s Life Writing, Julia Eckerle draws attention to how overlapping generic models enable a text to be read as both a romance and a devotional text, forcing us to pay attention to both secular and spiritual models at work in writings of the self (Eckerle 2013). Sarah C.E. Ross uses the term “generic variegation” (designating a text’s capacity to simultaneously belong to multiple genres) to offer a reappraisal of Lucy Hutchinson’s Order and Disorder in her 2015 essay “Epic, Meditation, or Sacred History? Women and Biblical Verse Paraphrase in Seventeenth-Century England” (Ross 2015). Katherine Austen’s manuscript “Book M” (1664) provides a further example through which to illustrate the variety of critical responses to the hybrid nature of many seventeenth-century texts and the questions such a response raises in terms of authorial designation. Although clearly described by Austen herself as “this book of my meditations,” it has been read as a diary, a mother’s advice book, a literary miscellany, a commonplace book, and poetry by different scholars since the 1980s.

6Generic variety has also been championed in particular by advocates of the ever-widening category of life-writing. Aware of the need to avoid applying anachronistic generic features onto early modern texts, literary scholars and historians of the early modern period have looked for new categories to designate and make sense of often diverse and hybrid texts such as conversion narratives, letters, diaries, commonplace books, poetic miscellanies, remembrances, self-examination, spiritual journals and meditations. The term “life-writing” to designate the autobiographical aspect of these varied forms has ushered in a more inclusive way of thinking about early modern texts which includes non-elite writings and a wider variety of lowbrow literature. Embracing generic fluidity and experimentation as defining traits of life-writing – defined broadly as “written records of a writer’s experiences” – Adam Smyth explores a variety of forms such as almanacs, diaries, commonplace books and financial accounts in Autobiography in Early Modern England (Smyth 2010,13). A recognition and assessment of the flexibility and fluidity of life-writing by scholars in the last two decades has laid the groundwork for enquiries into previously neglected early modern genres which resist easy categorisation (Mayer and Woolf 1995; Dragsta et al. 2000; Bedford et al. 2006; Smyth 2008, 2010).

7However, a renewed attention to genre is not limited to life-writing scholarship but pervades early modern studies more broadly. This is illustrated in recent companions to early modern literature and to women’s writing that have established a more specific and varied classification to better represent the generic engagements of writers in the period (Hiscock and Wilcox 2017; Berensmeyer 2019; Scott-Baumann et al. 2023). The material turn and methodologies from the field of book history have also been generative for genre criticism. In archival research, it has now become common for literary scholars to pay closer attention to the genre ascribed to manuscripts – on bindings, title-pages, flyleaves, or in catalogues – with these initial descriptions increasingly thought to be of crucial value.

Into the Present: Genre Trouble Today

8This issue aims to take stock of these recent developments in order to further current research on genre hybridity, to investigate new work on the interactions between genre and gender, and to gain a sense of the most recent scholarship on understudied genres, and on how varied methodologies might help us better understand them. As editors, we came to this project from different disciplines and points of focus: one of us is a scholar of early modern women’s writing who focuses in particular on the problematic “genre” of the written meditation; and the other an intellectual historian of early modern Europe, with an interest in the reception and fortuna of forgotten genres, such as dialogues and character sketches. The papers in this special issue are in line with our own hybrid approaches to early modern texts. They offer us insight into a little-studied classical source for generic mixity, as well as the striking embodiment of generic hybridity in Spenser. They present us with two original perspectives on life-writing. And, they show how successfully methods derived from material culture and from digital humanities can clarify deep questions about all aspects of literary texts, from dedication letters to epilogues. Genre, that is, remains a live problem: raising questions of interpretation, formal development, kinds of contextualism and literary value – with its capacity to bring about new categories of understanding, which appear, evolve and disappear, often leaving early modern texts unfamiliar and strange. The six essays in this special issue are testament to that fact.

9The special issue begins with Javiera Raty’s “Rhetorical Mixture: Hermogenes and Hybridity in English Renaissance Literary Criticism,” which offers one answer to the origin of the generic mixity that characterises English Renaissance literature. The hybridity of early modern English literature, and its larger cultural imperatives, has been the focus of recent studies by Georgia Brown (2004), Wolfram Schmidgen (2013, 2021), Catherine Nicholson (2014), Colleen Ruth Rosenfeld (2018), and a special issue on Theories of Mixture in the Early Modern Period, edited by Lucian Petrescu (2015). However, while all of them discuss the mixture of English literature in light of its rhetorical culture, none mentions the work of Hermogenes. This surprising source is the 2nd century CE Greek rhetorician Hermogenes of Tarsus whose work Raty shows to be the most neglected, yet most influential rhetorical foundation of stylistic and generic hybridity. Tracing the early modern reception of his On Ideas, with its theory of mixture as a dignified form, Raty argues that Hermogenes legitimated stylistic experimentation across the English Renaissance, including the most innovative literary developments of the period: tragicomedy and the mixed poetics of epic. Following this reappraisal of mixed genres, Abigail Shinn’s “Spenser’s Popular Pastoral: Hodgepodges and Genre Trouble in The Shepheardes Calender” asks what happens to the genre of classical pastoral when it is commingled with English popular culture in Spenser’s Calender, when the Virgilian form encounters colloquial and regional vocabulary and references to festival culture and almanacs. For Shinn, this mix has significant ramifications for how we read the poem’s claims for a new English poetics, offering a highbrow poetics inspired by the richness of popular culture, in a moment where boundaries between social classes were being policed with increased fervour.

10Certain hybrid genres that develop in the sixteenth- and seventeenth- centuries pose interpretive challenges for modern readers. This is especially apparent in the work of life-writers, which subverts readers’ horizons of expectation of what an autobiography should look like, and how it should be read. Two essays in this special issue offer new ways of understanding often enigmatic early modern autobiographical acts of writing. In “Early Modern Exemplars: Reading Strategies in the Life-writing of Mary Ward, Dionys Fitzherbert and Elizabeth Isham,” Martin Thompson argues that these authors do not position themselves as authors of their own lives but rather as readers of their lives as texts, a shift commensurate with these authors’ advice to readers not to imitate the actions of their lives, but to adopt similar forms of self-examination. Emma Rayner’s “Matriarchal Exemplarity in Elizabeth Isham’s Booke of Rememberance,” continues this line of argument by revealing how one female life-writer upturns generic expectations by writing an autobiography that includes a biography of her grandmother, mother and sister. This article understands Isham’s autobiographical act as a means of giving expression to multiple lives bound into one multi-generational matriarchal consciousness.

11Genre trouble can be made by subversion, as much as by collision. Both Béatrice Rouchon and Emily Smith examine the outcomes of different kinds of early modern literary clash. Rouchon investigates one kind of genre collision that emerges in the period: when the genre norms of a paratext – such as a dedication letter, or preface – confront those of the main text. By looking at the interplay of paratext and text in a series of sonnet collections, Rouchon’s article “‘I Feare to Prefixe to These Few Poems a Long Epistle’: Dedications, Addresses to the Reader and Generic Influences” argues that the move to print disturbed existing norms of dedicatory epistles, by virtue of the new presence of an anonymous mass of readers. This shift led to dedicatory letters being written in closer and closer dialogue with the text that followed. While it has become commonplace to think about the early modern technological transformation from manuscript to print in relation to the current shift from print to digital, investigations of what this means for genre studies have been harder to come by. Emily Smith’s “‘His Comedie vnto his Theatre’: Genre in the Early Modern Dramatic Epilogue” uses linguistic corpora to examine what we might think of as an opposite paratext to Rouchon: not the dedicatory epistle but the epilogue. Like Rouchon, Smith finds that early modern dramatic epilogues follow a set of internal generic constraints, and develop close connections with the works that they follow. This is most striking when considering the different epilogues found after tragedies and comedies. Where epilogues to tragedies refuse to capitalise upon their play’s emotional impact (instead emphasising their concern for how the play will be received from an intellectual perspective), epilogues to comedies relish in describing a play’s tickling effects.

12The methods used across this issue – reception studies, book history, close and contextual reading and computational analysis – give it a kind of hybridity equivalent to the traditions it recovers in early modern England. In this, it aims to participate in a long line of genre troublemakers: rhetoricians, life-writers, poets and dramatists, who knew that art and life on the boundary is always more fun.

Haut de page


Bayer, Gerd. “Review of Renaissance Hybrids: Culture and Genre in Early Modern England, by Gary Schmidt.” Early Modern Literary Studies 18.1-2 (2015): 1-4.

Bedford, Ronald, Lloyd Davis, and Patricia Kelly, eds. Early Modern Autobiography: Theories, Genres, Practices. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006.

Berensmeyer, Ingo, ed. Handbook of English Renaissance Literature. Berlin & Boston: De Gruyter, 2019.

Brown, Georgia. “Marlowe’s Poems and Classicism.” The Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe. Ed. Patrick Cheney. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 106-26.

Colie, Rosalie. The Resources of Kind: Genre Theory in the Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

Dolven, Jeff. Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Dragsta, Henk, Sheila Ottoway, and Helen Wilcox, eds. Betraying our Selves: Forms of Self-Representation in Early Modern English Texts. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Eckerle, Julia. Romancing the Self in Early Modern Englishwomen’s Life-Writing. Farnham: Ashgate, 2013.

Fowler, Alastair. “Genre and the Literary Canon.” New Literary History 11.1 (1979): 97-119.

Fowler, Alastair. Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Frank, Marcie. Gender, Theatre, and the Origins of Criticism: From Dryden to Manley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Hiscock, Andrew, and Helen Wilcox, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern English Literature and Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Mayer, Thomas F. and D.R Woolf, eds. The Rhetorics of Life-Writing in Early Modern Europe: Forms of Biography from Cassandra Fedele to Louis XIV. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Nicholson, Catherine. Uncommon Tongues: Eloquence and Eccentricity in the English Renaissance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2014.

Petrescu, Lucian. “Theories of Mixture in the Early Modern Period.” Special issue of Journal of Early Modern Studies 4.1. (Spring 2015).

Rosenfeld, Colleen R. Indecorous Thinking: Figures of Speech in Early Modern Poetics. New York: Fordham University Press, 2018.

Ross, Sarah, C.E. “Epic, Meditation, or Sacred History? Women and Biblical Verse Paraphrase in Seventeenth-Century England.” The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in Early Modern England, c. 1530-1700. Ed. Kevin Killeen, Helen Smith, and Rachel Willie. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Scheckter, John. The Isle of Pines, 1668: Henry Neville’s Uncertain Utopia. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011.

Schmidgen, Wolfram. Exquisite Mixture: The Virtues of Impurity in Early Modern England. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

Schmidgen, Wolfram. Infinite Variety: Literary Invention, Theology, and the Disorder of Kinds, 1688-1730. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021.

Scott-Baumann, Elizabeth, Danielle Clarke, and Sarah C. E. Ross, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Women’s Writing in English, 1540-1700. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023.

Seelig, Sharon Cadman. Autobiography and Gender and Early Modern Literature: Reading Early Modern Lives 1600-1680. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Smyth, Adam. “Almanacs, Annotators, and Life-Writing in Early Modern England.” English Literary Renaissance 38.2 (2008): 200-44.

Smyth, Adam. Autobiography in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Todorov, Tzvetan. “The Origin of Genres.” New Literary History 8.1 (1976): 159-70.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Emma Bartel et Katie Ebner-Landy, « Introduction: Genre Trouble in Early Modern English Writing (1500-1800) »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 34 | 2023, mis en ligne le 30 juin 2023, consulté le 11 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Emma Bartel

Emma Bartel is a graduate student at Sorbonne Université (VALE) and is currently writing a doctoral thesis titled “Women’s Interpretive Engagement with the Art of Meditation in Seventeenth-Century England”. Her research interests include intellectual history, lived religion, book history and gender studies. She is the co-organiser of the interdisciplinary Graduate Gender Seminar at Sorbonne Université (Philomel) and a member of the Graduate Committee of the Renaissance Society of America. She is part of the editorial team of the academic journal Angles (New Perspectives on the Anglophone World) and has two forthcoming book chapters with Classiques Garnier and Presses universitaires Blaise Pascal.

Katie Ebner-Landy

Katie Ebner-Landy is a Junior Fellow at Harvard’s Society of Fellows. Her research deals with questions about the political and moral effects of literature. Her first book Ethical Icons: Sketching Character in Early Modern Europe (Harvard University Press, forthcoming 2025) uncovers a forgotten way of reading, derived from the ancient philosopher Theophrastus, and widespread across Renaissance Europe, in which sketches of character types were used as an unlikely tool to shape the ordinary behaviour of citizens. She is currently working on a new book project, Beyond Liberal Aesthetics, which questions the way in which liberal philosophers – from Adam Smith to Martha Nussbaum and Richard Rorty – have understood the arts’ moral and political role. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in Renaissance StudiesIntersezioni: Journal of the History of IdeasIride: Journal of Philosophy and Public Debate, Philosophy and Social Criticism, Cambridge Classical Journal and Classical Quarterly.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search