Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros35Medieval and Early Modern FramesIn and Out of the Frame: The Cons...

Medieval and Early Modern Frames

In and Out of the Frame: The Construction of Meaning in Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britanna (1612)

Du cadre au hors-cadre : construire le sens dans le Minerva Britanna de Henry Peacham (1612)
Cezara Bobeica


C’est en 1531 que le genre emblématique voit le jour grâce à l’illustration des Emblemata du juriste italien Andrea Alciato par l’éditeur Heinrich Steiner qui donnera au genre sa forme tripartite, une devise ou un titre, une image symbolique et un court texte. Pour comprendre l’emblème, le lecteur devait combiner ces trois éléments, généralement présentés sur la même page, mais aussi faire appel à des connaissances extérieures. Assemblage et composition de sources diverses, d’époques et parfois d’aires géographiques différentes, l’emblème invite le lecteur à sortir du cadre tripartite sur la page pour chercher ailleurs le(s) sens qu’il s’agit de reconstruire. Ce dialogue constant entre l’intérieur et l’extérieur du cadre de la page est parfaitement illustré par le recueil Minerva Britanna de Henry Peacham. Les 204 emblèmes de sa collection ont tous été gravés par l’emblémiste lui-même qui a pris soin de placer chaque image dans l’un des huit cadres différents qu'il a conçus. La superposition des éléments sur la page est complétée par une variété de sources explicites et implicites, principalement tirées de la Bible, de traités politiques et moraux, d’auteurs anciens, de bestiaires et de dictionnaires mythographiques. L’analyse des relations intertextuelles et intermédiales à l’œuvre montrera le processus sémantique comme étant le résultat d’un enchâssement de cadres. En outre, la convocation d’auteurs anciens en marge des emblèmes peut parfois donner lieu à des effets polyphoniques et polysémiques intéressants que j’analyserai. Dans les emblèmes, le sens n’est jamais donné ni fixé par les limites de la page et, au contraire, il est souvent disséminé. Dans certains cas, l’intrusion de l’extérieur peut même déformer le sens, une stratégie qui s’avère particulièrement efficace dans les emblèmes politiques, car elle permet des commentaires subversifs sans transgresser toutefois le cadre conventionnel de la pensée.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1 In the Renaissance, an “emblem” was not only the tripartite structure confined within the borders o (...)
  • 2 I refer here to intertextuality as the acknowledged or implicit intertexts present in the emblems, (...)

1The notion of “frame” is multifaceted and its terminology, especially in English, is diverse. Broadly defined, a frame is a structure that supports or encloses something and can be either real and tangible or metaphorical and imaginary. As a concept, frames have been used by scholars to reflect on paintings (Derrida 1987), on social constructions of reality (Goffman 1986), on linguistics (Fludernik 1993) and also more recently on literature (Genette 1997). Despite the variety of disciplinary fields, Werner Wolf has shown that scholarly analyses focus mainly on individual media, when frames are in fact “transmedial phenomena” (Wolf 2006, 10) and has called for an interdisciplinary approach to frames that would take into account “homo- as well as heteromedial works (mono- and plurimedial artefacts)” (15). Of particular interest in the study of frames from a transmedial perspective are emblems because they break down the borders of two different media. An emblem is a Renaissance literary form which combines two semiotic codes, text and image: a symbolical picture enclosed by a short title, usually in Latin, and a poem.1 Emblems are the result of various forms of framing that can be accounted for thanks to Wolf’s typology (15‑21). The paginal display of the three elements provides a salient framing which is further consolidated by paratextual (Genette 1997) and intertextual2 framings (Kristeva 1986, 35‑37) which in turn constitute the cultural and epistemological framework that condition the reception of the emblem. To understand it thoroughly, the reader needs to step out of the salient tripartite frame, commonly known as the emblema triplex, as an emblem calls either implicitly or explicitly upon other texts and images that constitute its cognitive frame. Indeed, the mode of composition of the emblematic genre is highly derivative in the sense that the authors use pre-existing materials: the mottos are direct quotations or rephrasings from classical, Biblical, patristic, or mythological sources; the pictures often represent scenes from the same sources and the plates of the engravings circulate among emblematists. The emblem could thus be defined as a space where visual, rhetorical, semantic and cultural frames from different eras and, at times, geographical areas, collide and coalesce in order to convey meaning.

2In what follows, I would like to discuss the manifold varieties of framing at work for the interpretation of emblems. To do so, I will mainly draw my examples from Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britanna (1612) whose collection is a partial illustration of King James’s Basilikon Doron (1599), a treatise on kingship dedicated to Henry, the heir presumptive. Peacham’s emblems are particularly suitable for my purpose because not only does the author make use of the mechanisms of embedding frames constitutive of the emblematic genre, but he uses them as an enunciative strategy in order to convey contentious, nay subversive comments regarding politics. To defend this argument, I will first analyse the interplay of structural, intertextual and paratextual framings in Peacham’s emblems in order to show how he uses these normative frames to suit his own enunciative agenda.

The Structural Framework of an Emblem: The Interaction Between Explicit and Implicit Frames

  • 3 “Naked” emblems also exist, they are poems without illustrations, such as in the case of Francis Qu (...)

3It is commonly admitted that the creation of the emblematic genre was an accident rather than Andrea Alciato’s deliberate decision. For the third edition of his emblems that had until then circulated in manuscript form, the publisher Heinrich Steiner decided to combine the Italian lawyer’s epigrams with woodcut images that he purposefully commissioned for Emblematum liber which he printed in Augsburg in 1531. Steiner’s combination of texts and images not only launched the emblematic genre but also set the pattern commonly, though not unanimously,3 associated with the emblematic genre: a title or inscriptio, usually in Latin or Greek, a symbolic picture (pictura), and an epigram or subscriptio. This tripartite structure is one of the differences between the emblem and the impresa, or device, usually considered as the genre’s forerunner, which is composed of the pictura and the inscriptio only. Imprese and emblems differ in form but also in scope: the former deliver a message about an individual while the latter are addressed to a larger audience. In both impresa and emblem, the composing visual and textual elements need to be assembled in order to grasp meaning and in doing so, the generic borders between the two media are blurred to the point of merging into one another: the text invites us to look at the pictura which in turn must be read and interpreted.

  • 4 Etymologically, the word “emblem” is of Greek origins and refers to mosaic-works. In his Choice of (...)

4The aim of an emblem is to deliver moral lessons, these however are not directly accessible but rather hidden in the text and picture and thus require the reader’s active participation in uncovering them. Nevertheless, when assembling the emblem materials, one must be careful, as Paolo Giovio warns in his Dialogo dell’imprese militari et amorose (1555), about the necessity to balance clarity and obscurity so that the meaning obtained “be not so obscure, that it neede a Sibilla to interprete it, not so apparent that every rusticke may understand” (Daniel 1585). The three elements must enlighten one another: the poem explains the symbolic meaning of the picture which in turn illustrates the text and together solve the riddle posed by the enigmatic motto. This circular interaction between text and image further cements the unity of the emblem which functions therefore as a self-contained semantic framework. In emblems, meaning is thus not given but rather the result of a reading process which may at times prove difficult because of the blend of what could be regarded as miscellaneous elements. As such, emblem making recalls the art of mosaic to which it is originally related.4 The semantic unity of what may otherwise seem as a heteroclite composition is secured by the paginal framework which functions as a salient frame, to borrow from Wolf’s typology (Wolf 2011, 15), in the sense that the page physically contains the emblema triplex and marks its borders explicitly. The argument delivered by the emblem is thus visually rendered and configured by the frame which grants its validity and coherence.

  • 5 Peacham’s pictura is borrowed from Laurent Van Haecht’s 1579 collection, Microcosmos.
  • 6 While we cannot be sure which exact edition of Alciato’s Emblemata Peacham used for his collection, (...)
  • 7 Not all the pictures are framed in such ornamental frames. Peacham has designed himself 8 different (...)
  • 8 The rose motif seems to be purely decorative in the emblem since Peacham uses the same ornamented f (...)

5Henry Peacham’s Homo Microcosmus5 (“Man [is] a microcosm”, Peacham 1612, 190; see fig. 1) exemplifies the structural framework in emblems based upon Alciato’s tripartite model.6 Visually, the emblem gives the effect of frames within frames: in the middle of the page, between the motto and the two-stanza epigram, stands the symbolic picture, itself contained within an elaborate frame of Baroque inspiration.7 The rectangular wreath of roses8 is doubled by a simpler linear frame which encloses the symbolical design: the central sphere, an allegory of the cosmos, shows a naked man, surrounded with celestial bodies (the Sun, the Moon and the stars), pointing towards the firmament. The ornamented frame and the central position of the picture draw the reader’s attention to the visual part of the emblem. Nevertheless, the pictura is codified and not directly accessible and to understand it the reader needs to turn to the text. The motto and epigram explain the central position of man in the universe: the heavens are inscribed within man whose body is but a mirroring of the world. Man is indeed a “little world” (2nd line) and to look at man is to look at the cosmos and vice versa.

Fig. 1: Peacham, “Homo Microcosmus,” Minerva Britanna, 1612, 190.

Fig. 1: Peacham, “Homo Microcosmus,” Minerva Britanna, 1612, 190.

Image courtesy of the Minerva Britanna Project, used by permission of Special Collections, Middlebury College.

6The back-and-forth movement needed between text and image in order to grasp the meaning of the emblem shows the complementarity, rather than the superimposition of the two media. Indeed, an emblematic picture can say far more than the text and the text may add layers of interpretation to the picture. In Homo Microcosmos, the epigram completes the drawing by verbalizing what the picture is not showing: both man’s exterior body and interior organs are thus a manifestation of the cosmos:

Of heate and cold as is the Aire composed,
So likewise man we see breath’s whot and cold,
His bodie’s earthy: in his lunges inclosed,
Remaines the Aire: his braine doth moisture hold,
His heart and liver, doe the heate infold:
Of Earth, Fire, Water, Man thus framed is,
Of Elements the threefold Qualities.
(Peacham 1612, 190)

7The epigram, while adding layers of meaning to the pictura, does not account for it completely, nonetheless. Neither the clouds surrounding the spheric universe nor the man’s gesture are commented upon and to understand their meaning the reader has to make use of his knowledge of textual and visual sources exterior to the emblem. The symbolism of the clouds was for instance codified in Hieroglyphica from 1556 in which Valeriano explains that the clouds stand for God who is shrouded in a veil of mystery which makes him both present and absent according to the mystical tradition of the cloud of unknowing (Valeriano 1556, chap. XVIII). The gesture of the human figure was similarly codified in religious iconography to mean the source of all creation: God. The God alluded to is not necessarily the Christian God, however, since the epigram refers to pagan sources as well. The second stanza may refer to Plato’s description of the creation of the human body after the model of the cosmic body from the four elements – fire, air, earth and water (360 BC, 31b, 33a-b). Furthermore, the combination of the natural elements with their qualities – warm, cold and moist – seems to be an allusion to the Greek concept of humours which Hippocrates applied to medicine. The conflation of Christian and pagan traditions, characteristic of humanist culture, constitutes a multi-layered frame of reference thus further piling up strata of meaning. The naked figure at the centre of the pictura should therefore be read as the epitome of the Humanist whose body and mind are at the centre of the universe.

8The multi-layered meaning in Homo Microcosmus perfectly exemplifies the mechanism of embedding frames at work in all tripartite emblems: text and image merge into one another and borrow each other’s modus operandi: the visible is above all legible and its legibility endows it with a certain form of narrativity. In turn, the text becomes an image and commands us to look. The emblem also shows that the stability of the semiotic framework is granted both by the interaction between the visual and textual elements on the page and by their dialogue with other implicit or explicit sources which are activated or not by the readers, depending on the extent of their cultural background and ingenuity.

Intertextual and Paratextual Framings

9In the address to the reader, Peacham admits:

I have herein but imitated the best approved Authours in this kind: as Alciat, Sambucus, Junius, Reusnerus, and others: they being such, as either in regard of their transcended dignitie, and vertues, deserve of all to be honoured: to others whom for their excellent parts and qualities, I have ever loved, and esteemed. (Peacham 1612, 6)

  • 9 His typology goes from amplification, annotation, appropriation, correction, emphasis, evaluation, (...)

10Peacham’s indebtedness to a variety of authors, some of whom he quotes in the margins of the emblems and others he only alludes to without mentioning their names, must be replaced within the epistemological frame of the Renaissance. The culture of the Humanists was founded upon and mediated by books which structured the way they understood and looked at the world (Grafton et al. 2000). The authority of canonical texts set a cognitive framework that shaped the Humanists’ mindset to the point of imprisoning “even the most original thinkers” (Grafton 2016, 9). Renaissance texts were thus replete with elaborate paratextual notes which paid tribute to these texts while endowing at the same time their authors’ work with auctoritas (Compagnon 2016, 269). The paratextual notes were placed either in the margins or below the text as footnotes and were, in any case, separated from the main text. Genette defines the paratext as an “‘undefined zone’ between the inside and the outside, a zone without any hard and fast boundary on either the inward side (turned toward the text) or the outward side (turned toward the world’s discourse about the text), an edge […]” (Genette 1997, 2). Although they are placed outside of the frame of the text, the paratextual notes interfere nonetheless with it. W. E. Slight’s typology identifies fifteen different ways9 in which the paratext – which he refers to as marginalia – interacts with the text (Slights 2001, 25–26). In the 377 paratextual notes occupying the margins of the emblems in Minerva Britanna, Peacham refers to 102 authors and 192 titles (Tung 1992, 106). Most of these marginal notes are used either to amplify, lay emphasis on, or clarify the meaning of the tripartite structure of the emblem. The paratext requires encyclopaedic and intertextual skills especially as most of the quotations are only partial and to complete them, the readers must recollect their knowledge of these canonical texts.

11The construction of meaning in emblems accompanied by paratextual notes is thus based on the intertextual dialogue between the central tripartite frame and its margins. The explicit intertextual networks are completed by other, more implicit, ones. One example from Peacham’s collection will suffice to show the intertextual dialogue between the emblema triplex and its many explicit and implicit sources. Undique flamma (“The flame [burns] everywhere”, see fig. 2) builds on the metaphor of the monarch as a “Torch upon a hill” which sets an example for his subjects (Peacham 1612, 52). The meaning emerges from the combination and interaction of its three parts, motto, pictura and epigram. Two paratextual notes are added to the emblema triplex and at least two other implicit sources need to be summoned in order to have the complete array of meanings.

Fig. 2: Peacham, “Undique flamma,” Minerva Britanna, 1612, 52.

Fig. 2: Peacham, “Undique flamma,” Minerva Britanna, 1612, 52.

Image courtesy of the Minerva Britanna Project, used by permission of Special Collections, Middlebury College.

12For the learned reader, the emblem proves to be a vast accumulation of textual sources the knowledge of which emphasizes the role of the monarch as a political, religious and moral guide to his people. Cicero’s quotation, situated in the margins of the English epigram, is taken from his Philippics and insists upon the burden of kingship:

Magnum est personam in Repub: tueri Principis, qui non animis solum debet, sed oculis servire civium. (Cicero 2007, 277).

How hard it is to sustain the role of a leader in the Res publica! That role demands concern not only about what the citizens think but also about what they see. (Cicero 2007, 277)

13Peacham’s Latin epigram under the English text is based on James VI’s Basilikon Doron:

Quo fugis imperii, quisquis moderaris habênas?
Ceù procul illucens flamma benigna tuis,
Lumina quae reddas hinc inde imitamina morum
Regis ad exemplum plebs numerosa rapit.

Wherever you flee, and whoever you are who guide the reins of authority, you are like a fire giving light from afar and beneficent to your own people, and the radiance which you give off in every direction is seized by the multitude of commoners as a spur to their own behaviour after the example of their king. (Young 1998, 5.152)

14James VI’s quotation states that:

For the people are naturallie inclined to counterfaite (like Apes) their Princes manners According to the notable saying of Plato expressed by the poet [Claudian]: The world shapes itself after its ruler’s pattern, nor can edicts sway men’s minds so much as their monarch’s life. (quoted in Craigie 1944, 1.53)

15The hardships of power are due to the subjects’ inclination to ape their ruler’s behaviour. A dizzying superimposition of sources is called upon to prove Peacham’s point: the Latin epigram rephrases one quotation from Basilikon Doron in which James quotes Claudian who was himself quoting Plato. The result is thus a palimpsestic polyphony (Ducrot 1984).

16Besides the paratextual notes, the allusions and implicit sources may have been used to channel the meaning of the emblem. The emblem is rife with Biblical allusions and the comparison “as Torch upon a hill” in the second stanza is a potential rephrasing of the “city on the hill” in the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. […] Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5.13-16).

17The pictura itself points to a source outside the emblema triplex frame and could be a visual representation of the seven branched candlestick described in the Book of Exodus 25.31-33: “Then you are to make a lampstand of pure, hammered gold. It shall be made of one piece, including its base and shaft, its cups, and its buds and petals. Six branches are to extend from the sides of the lampstand – three on one side and three on the other.”

18The many intertexts which must be summoned by the reader are necessary to get access to the complete meaning and to understand that the monarch’s role is inscribed within human and divine laws. Furthermore, James’s text alluded to in the margins is given the same status as that of Cicero’s quotation: the king’s authority and exemplarity is hence supported by his own literary auctoritas.

19Undique flamma proves that the many visual and textual intertexts not only challenge the reader’s education but also invite him to go back and forth between the main text and the margins. In most cases, the paratext is complementary to the emblema triplex in the sense that it completes or reinforces its meaning. But in some emblems, the confrontation between the two creates a discordance, even a dissonance, since the paratextual notes invite the reader to look at the emblem from a new perspective. The meaning of the emblem in those cases is reconfigured from outside the central emblema triplex frame.

The Channelling of Meaning From Outside the Emblema Triplex Frame

20To “excise” (Compagnon 2016, 20) another author’s words and graft them into your own work with quotation marks shows both an awareness of the historical and ideological distance between present and past but also a reframing of the meaning of the original text so as to suit one’s own enunciative purpose. In some of his emblems, Peacham uses the marginal quotations in order to channel the meaning of the emblema triplex and convey subversive comments without transgressing the conventional frame of thought. The emblem Labor viris convenit (“Labor is suitable for men”, see fig. 3) exemplifies the way in which the networks of intertextuality and intermediality can channel the reading of the emblem and introduce a discordant note with political implications.

Fig. 3: Peacham, “Labor viris convenit,” Minerva Britanna, 1612, 33.

Fig. 3: Peacham, “Labor viris convenit,” Minerva Britanna, 1612, 33.

Image courtesy of the Minerva Britanna Project, used by permission of Special Collections, Middlebury College.

21The emblem stresses the importance of labour in winning honour and fame and originates in Typotius’s collection of imprese, Symbola, probably in the 1603 edition which contains all three volumes (Typotius 1679, I.75). Peacham introduced some modifications in the original pictura designed by Egidius Sadeler: he used the hand only and added both foreground and background scenes thereby setting the emblem in the context of the court, which we can guess in the upper left corner. The original impresa was dedicated to Hugo Capet, King of France, with the same motto, as reminded by the note in the left margins of Peacham’s emblem. Typotius’s impresa is converted into an almost perfect emblem: from the impresa, Peacham retained the personal application to “The most honourable Lord Dingwell,” who is compared to Hannibal and Caesar, both renowned for their military achievements, while in the epigram, the author generalizes the message to all who seek honour and fame:

WHO thirsteth after Honor, and renowne,
By valiant act, or lasting worke of wit:
In vaine he doth expect, her glorious crowne,
Except by labor, he atcheiveth it;
And sweatie brow, for never merit may,
To drousie sloath, impart her living bay. (Peacham 1612, 33)

22The marginal quotations are used to amplify the emblem’s message regarding the necessity of effort and virility. Silius Italicus’s and Lucan’s quotations insist on Hannibal’s exploits which are but briefly mentioned in the epigram:

primus sumpsisse labores ; Primus iter carpisse pedes.

[Hannibal] was ever first to undertake hardship, first to march on foot, and first to bear a hand when the rampart was reared in haste. (Italicus 1934, 22)

Ipse manu sua pila gerens, præcedit anheli. Militis ora pedes, monstrat tolerare laborem, Non iubet.

Carrying his javelin in his own hand, he marched on foot in front of his gasping soldiers; issuing no order, he taught them by his example to endure hardship. (Lucan 1928, 549)

23The third quotation is placed bellow the English epigram and is taken from Virgil’s Æneid:

Disce puer virtutem e me verrumq[ue] laborem
Fortunam ex aliis: nunc te mea dextera bello
Defendum dabit, et magna inter præmia ducet.

Learn fortitude and toil from me, my son,
Ache of true toil. Good fortune learn from others.
My sword arm now will be your shield in battle. (Virgil 1990, ll. 595–597)

24The fourth quotation in the margins gives the origins of the motto as being a partial quotation taken from Sallust’s War with Jugurtha: “Munditias mulieribus laborem viris convenire […] I learned from my father and other righteous men that elegance is proper to women but toil to men […]” (Sallust 1931, 321). The paratextual notes exemplify and emphasize the general meaning of the emblem and thus make up for the concision of the emblema triplex.

25The many visual and textual intertexts contribute to building the idea of honour as a result of labour and severely criticize those who do not deserve their title. These explicit and implicit references to important historical and mythical figures of masculinity introduce nevertheless an ironical note as they stand in contrast with the emblem’s dedicatee, Lord Dingwell who was Sir Richard Preston, one of King James’s courtiers. The second stanza denounces the “carpet knights” who were granted their title by the king on a holiday occasion, as opposed to knighthoods acquired on the battlefield. King James had considerably multiplied the number of knighthoods: during her forty-five-year reign, Elizabeth had appointed only 878 knights whereas James had named 906 in the first four months of his reign (Stone 1967, 41). Lord Dingwall, first a page at the King’s court in Edinburgh, was knighted and made groom of the privy chamber shortly after James I’s coronation. He was thus one of these carpet knights whom Peacham abhorred.

26We can even push further the reflection on the innuendos at play in the emblem Labor viris convenit considering the persistent rumours regarding James’s relation with his male courtiers. Indeed, besides accusations of favouritism and unjustly earned titles, Peacham seems to allude to debauchery, effeminacy, and same-sex desire in his emblem. In that regard, the phallic spear becomes the visual epitome of what Peacham execrates. The effeminate “carpet knights” shared the king’s Bedchamber, which James revived as an institution, thus provoking libel and gossip regarding his intimate relationships with his courtiers (Peck 1993, 33–36).

27The term “homosexual” was coined only in the late 19th century and using the term for the early modern period is not only an “anachronism,” Alan Bray warns, but can be “ruinously misleading” since “the terms in which we now speak of homosexuality cannot readily be translated into those of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (Bray 1995, 16-17). The early modern term used was “sodomy” or such appellations as “effeminate,” or “Ganymede,” the young Trojan boy with whom Jupiter fell in love and whom he abducted to serve as his lover. Bruce Smith observes that “the story of Jupiter and Ganymede was the best-known myth of homoerotic desire in early modern England” (Smith 1991, 192) and the term “Ganymede” stood for “homosexual” (Bray 1995, 13). The various terminologies show that as a sexual category, sodomy, to quote from Michel Foucault, was “utterly confused” (Foucault 1978, 101). In what follows, I will use the terms “sodomy” to refer to male same-sex desire or sexual acts.

28The corruption at court goes beyond that of honorary titles, moral, religious and political corruption was rife and crystallized in the figure of the sodomite king. This type of gossips and concerns over deviant sexuality documented in plays, illicit pamphlets and libels was not new and already denounced Elizabeth’s favourites. Under James, the novelty was the exponential increase of such accusations of sodomy, almost always combined with the idea of political disorder. In the literature of the time, sodomy was perceived as a religious and moral transgression. In his Basilikon Doron, James warned his son against sodomy as one of the few “horrible crimes” that a king was “bound in conscience never to forgive” (Craigie 1944, 1.64). The contradiction between the king’s words and deeds has puzzled historians. Alan Bray’s path-breaking book Homosexuality in Renaissance England (1982) barely mentions that James himself was suspected of practicing sodomy and, as Michael Young writes, “[e]ven the best scholars have stumbled when dealing with James’s sexuality” (Young 2000, 1).

29James’s softness of character stood in stark contrast with Queen Elizabeth’s manly power asserted during her famous speech in Tilbury. “Queen James,” as he was sometimes referred to by his critics, suffered from the stigma of effeminacy and accusations of intimate relationships with his youthful favourites (Saslow 1986, 243, no. 31). Anxiety over deviant sexuality at court was coupled with a growing concern that the nation as a whole “was becoming soft” (Young 2000, 5). Of course, rare were those who dared to make direct references to sodomy in relation to the king. Exposing the king’s sexual behaviour was a dangerous endeavour, and those who expressed direct criticism of James’s sodomy were either imprisoned or exiled. For that reason, as Michael Young points out, most of the accounts on James’s homosexuality were printed after the king’s death and, for that reason, most of them are considered today as unreliable sources (6). Contemporaneous accounts are rare and never made explicitly and unambiguously, authors used “coded speech” to refer to “what they were not supposed to name” (39). Peacham, a keen observer of the court, was among the few who dared to expose the king’s sexuality, albeit surreptitiously.

  • 10 Foucault reminds that “[as] defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category (...)
  • 11 I reiterate here some of the analyses made in a previous article (Bobeica 2020).

30The emblem Crimina gravissima, (“The gravest of crimes,”10 see fig. 4) is a good example of coded speech as it denounces sodomy as a sexual deviance through the story of Jove and Ganymede.11 The meaning one gathers from the emblem is a condemnation of homosexuality similar to what could be found in the literature of the time. As a whole, Peacham’s emblem perfectly reflects the mental frame regarding homosexuality in the Renaissance: the motto reminds that the practice of sodomy was considered to be a crime, the picture shows Ganymede riding a cock (the sexual pun is evident), the epigram describes the picture and offers a moral reading of it. The paratextual references introduce nonetheless a discordant note.

Fig. 4: Peacham, “Crimina gravissima,” Minerva Britanna, 1612, 48.

Fig. 4: Peacham, “Crimina gravissima,” Minerva Britanna, 1612, 48.

Image courtesy of the Minerva Britanna Project, used by permission of Special Collections, Middlebury College.

31Peacham chose to alter Tibullus’s original quotation which reads: “O fuge te teneræ puerorum credere turbæ; / Nam causam justi semper amoris habent” and is translated as: “O flee! Don’t trust yourself with throngs of callow boys, / for they will always offer grounds for love” (Tibullus 2012, 21). Peacham changed “justi” into “injusti,” in order to support the emblem’s argument regarding sodomy as being a deviation from the social and natural laws. Tibullus’s rephrased quote is in line with the message of the emblem and grants it the authority of the canonical voice. But in order for the speaker’s voice to be in accordance with that of the classical poet, Peacham had to considerably modify the meaning of Tibullus.

32Beneath the English epigram, the second note attributed to Cyprian is one of those instances that require the reader’s expertise in identifying the intertextual networks at work in the emblem. Cyprian’s line, as quoted by Peacham is : “Ista a te puniantur (ô Rex) ne tu pro illis puniaris. Ciprian, De utilitate Pœnitentiæ,” and could be translated as: “Let those be punished by you (Oh King), so that you may not be punished in place of them,” (adapted from Lipsius 2004, 391). Scholars failed to identify the source of this quotation, and understandably so since Cyprian never wrote any text entitled De utilitate Pœnitentiæ and nowhere in his writings is this quotation to be found. The unknown reference is in fact one of Peacham’s many borrowings from Justus Lipsius’s Politics (1589), a book in which the Dutch author uses a mosaic of quotations and sententiæ to comment upon the art of good government. Similarly to the Tibullus note, Peacham alters the original quotation by adding “Oh King” into brackets, the effect this time being to direct Cyprian’s words and hence his emblem at James VI/I. Even though the quote is placed outside of the emblema triplex frame, it nevertheless channels its meaning and invites us to reinterpret the epigram as a warning aimed at the king himself whose homosexual penchant stood in stark contrast with the condemnation he voiced in Basilikon Doron:

But as this severe justice of yours uppon all offences would be but for a time (as I have alreadie saide) so is there some horrible crymes that yee are bounde in Conscience never to forgive: Such as Witch-crafte, wilfull-murther, Incest (especiallie within the degrees of consanguinitie) Sodomie, Poysoning, and false coyne […]. (Craigie 1944, 1. 64)

33The implicit reference to Basilikon Doron further multiplies the intertextual frames, as Peacham aptly incorporates images and metaphors from James’s text into his epigram, thus subtly inserting the king’s own voice into the emblem. The marginal voice takes then the king at his own words and points to the disparity between his declarations and his presumed sexual practices.

34The book from which Cyprian’s quotation is supposed to be derived also deserves further attention. It is, in fact, the title of one of Augustine’s sermons, “De utilitate pœnitentiæ”, in which Augustine advocates for a general and ongoing penitence (Augustine 1869, 8.113–52). This reference not only adds another layer of intertextuality but also implies a political, religious and moral condemnation of the king’s sexual practices. For James, confessing his crimes before God might therefore be his only means of escaping damnation. The result of the embedded textual frames at work in Crimina gravissima is to produce a multi-layered message and to conceal the identity of the addressee in the margins. Peacham does not hesitate to alter the original quotations in order to have King James’s grave crime of sodomy condemned by the voices of the auctoritas.

35Such ironical discrepancies as those identified in Labor viris convenit and in Crimina gravissima show the potential channelling of the meaning of the emblema triplex from the outside. The semantic destabilization of the central frame leads to a multifocal perspective similar to that in mirror anamorphoses commonly produced in the Renaissance, an example of which is offered on the frontispiece of Minerva Britanna, and it proves to be an efficient enunciative strategy. The marginal quotations not only amplify or clarify the meaning of the central emblem, but they can also redirect its reading. In those instances in which the marginal quotations destabilize and reframe the meaning of the emblem, there seems to be a reversal of hierarchies between the central emblema triplex and its marginalia. The mechanism of this reversal is similar to that described by Derrida between parergon and ergon in his seminal work The Truth in Painting, first published in French as La Vérité en peinture in 1978. Originally a Greek philosophical concept, parergon is broadly defined as that which is supplementary or subsidiary to a work of art-ergon. Derrida shows that the parergon, seemingly secondary and inessential at first sight, is on the contrary fundamental to the ergon (1987, 9). As part of his general theory of deconstruction, Derrida likens parergon with the frames and the borders which outline the work of art against its surroundings and make it complete in a way that the work itself cannot achieve. The parergon, as defined by Derrida, is not merely ornamental, but is rather a frame which interacts with the work (ergon) and challenges its defining binary structures, blurring the inside/outside opposition:

Parergon: neither work (ergon) nor outside the work [hors d’oeuvre], neither inside nor outside, neither above nor below, it disconcerts any opposition but does not remain indeterminate and it gives rise [donne lieu] to the work. It is no longer merely around the work. That which it puts in place – the instances of the frame, the title, the signature, the legend, etc. – does not stop disturbing the internal order of discourse on painting, its works, its commerce, its evaluations, its surplus-values, its speculation, its law, and its hierarchies. (Derrida 1987, 9)

36While Derrida used the concept of parergon in the context of paintings which have tangible borders, the term has been successfully applied to literature as well (Heller-Andrist 2012). In the case of emblems in which the paratext reconfigures the meaning of the whole, we could speak indeed of parergon and ergon because the boundary between what could be regarded as central and that which is secondary is reversed. The parergon – the paratext – sheds an oblique light on the ergon (emblema triplex), helping to reveal the hidden meanings possibly intended by the author. The paratexts seem to constitute a liminal space, neither included in, nor excluded from the emblema triplex, but necessary for its functioning nonetheless because they make up for an internal lack in it and serve the emblematist’s enunciative agenda.

37In the address to the reader, Peacham alludes to fetters imposed upon free expression and, to get rid of them, he confesses to having elaborated some strategies in terms of enunciation:

The true use hereof from time to time onely hath been […] to feede at once both the minde, and the eie, by expressing mystically and doubtfully, our disposition, either to Love, Hatred, Clemencie, Justice, Pietie, our Victories, Misfortunes, Griefes, and the like: which perhaps could not have been openly, but to our prejudice revealed. (Peacham 1612, 6)

38The authoritative voices in the margins seem therefore be part and parcel of his tactic to emancipate from the restrictions imposed: the poetic voice uses the paratextual notes as a front in the sense that it places the controversial statements into the mouths of canonical authors. The polyphonic interplay of voices is an efficient strategy which aims at covering the tracks of the poetic voice. By destabilizing meaning from the margins, Peacham seems to have found a clever way to avoid censorship and express contentious thoughts while within the frames of decorum. The use of paratextual notes to de-centre the gaze of the reader in order to re-centre the meaning is similar to that used in cento, a form of writing from Antiquity. Cento-writing consists in using quotations from other authors, altering their meaning when necessary, in order to convey ironical or parodic statements; this manipulation of other people’s words allows to sustain ambiguity and to deliver controversial messages without taking too many risks. Justus Lipsius himself used this strategy in his Politics, a source Peacham borrows from extensively in his collection. As such, cento-writing is a very astute enunciative strategy that Peacham himself resorts to.

39Is it possible to explain Peacham’s motivations in conveying such subversive comments which, although voiced obliquely, were easily accessible to the learned reader? It seems puzzling that Peacham would take so many risks in a work dedicated to Henry, the heir presumptive, especially when we know that he was anxious about securing a patron. The study of several emblems which testify to this problematic polyphony seems to suggest that Peacham’s bitterness is due to the corruption of patronage at the court of King James. Scholars such as Curtis Perry have shown indeed the close links between discourses of sodomy and concerns about corrupt royal favouritism (Perry 2000). Peacham’s audacity could also be motivated by a more profound, more personal reason, and that could be his quest for freedom in a society which confined him within rigid borders. Minerva Britanna supports the claim written on the very frontispiece of the collection: “Vivitur ingenio cætera mortis erunt:” his mind will set him free from bondage to political and ideological fetters. Similarly, Jean-Jacques Chardin thinks that Peacham’s emblems “tend to express the author’s impatience with the ideological discourses at the heart of the culture he inhabits” (Chardin 2014, 652). And indeed, a few years after the publication of Minerva Britanna, Peacham wrote:

For mine owne part I affect freedome so much, and I have found such happinesse therein, that I had rather dine even at a three peny Ordinary, where I may be free and merry, then to bee a dumbe tenant for two houres at a Lords table, preferring health and liberty, bone corporis, before those of Fortune, and all the wealth the greatest Usurer hath in the world, and will ever say, O bona libertas pretio, pretiosior omni. (Peacham 1638, 52–53)

40To conclude, in this article I have shown that the interplay of structural, intertextual and paratextual frames at work in emblems is fundamental to the construction of meaning and Peacham does not hesitate to make use of these normative frames constitutive of the genre in order to deliver subversive comments in an oblique way. Meaning is thus not given by the emblematist but rather disseminated on the page and requires the reader’s active participation in putting together the multi-layered frames at work and finding the right angle to read the emblem. The reader’s active role does not mean however that he emancipates from the emblematist’s authority altogether. The porosity between the emblema triplex and the marginal notes and the resulting discordances in meaning are intentionally created. Therefore, the reader of an emblem uncovers, rather than creates, the meaning or rather the meanings intended by the author. As such, the reader is very much dependent upon the emblematist’s interweaving of frames and his hermeneutical freedom can be only expressed within the borders set by the author. The paratext materializes this semantic confinement and, as Slights writes, “[c]rucial and unpredictable as readers are in completing the hermeneutic circle, they require careful management from the margins” (Slights 2001, 26). Even though in emblems the reader is not totally emancipated from the authorial stance, the possibility they are given to achieve some hermeneutical freedom greatly contributed to modernizing reading in the Renaissance and to breaking away from the constricted frames of the medieval model (Russell 1985, 179–80).

Haut de page


AUGUSTIN. Œuvres Complètes. [c. 400]. Trans. M. Raulx. Bar-le-Duc: L. Guerin & Cie, 1869.

BOBEICA, Cezara. “Channelling Meaning from the Margins: The Hermeneutical Potential of Paratextual Quotations in Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britanna (1612).” XVII-XVIII 77 (2020). Accessed October 5, 2023.

BRAY, Alan. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

CHARDIN, Jean-Jacques. “The Emblem and Authenticity: A New Historicist Reading of Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britanna (1612).” Poetics Today 354 (2014): 635–58. Accessed October 5, 2023.

CICERO. Philippics 3-9. [44-43 BCE]. 2 vols. Trans. Gesine Manuwald. Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 2007.

COMPAGNON, Antoine. La seconde main ou le travail de la citation. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2016.

CRAIGIE, James, ed. The Basilicon Doron of King James VI [1599]. Vol. 1. Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1944.

DANIEL, Samuel. The Worthy Tract of Paulus Jovius [1585]. London: S. Waterson, 1585.

DERRIDA, Jacques. The Truth in Painting. Trans. translated by Geoffrey Bennington and Ian McLeod. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

DUCROT, Oswald. Le Dire et Le Dit. Paris: Minuit, 1984.

FLUDERNIK, Monika. The Fictions of Language and the Languages of Fiction: The Linguistic Representation of Speech and Consciousness. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

FOUCAULT, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

GENETTE, Gérard. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

GOFFMAN, Erving. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986.

GRAFTON, Anthony. Canonical Texts and Scholarly Practices: A Global Comparative Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

GRAFTON, Anthony, et al. New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.

HELLER-ANDRIST, Simone. The Friction of the Frame: Derrida’s "Parergon" in Literature. Tübingen: Schweizer Anglistische Arbeiten, 2012.

ITALICUS, Silius. Punica. [c. 28- c. 103 AD]. Trans. J. D. Duff. London: Loeb, 1934.

KRISTEVA, Julia. “Word, Dialogue and Novel.” In The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Julia Kristeva, and Toril Moi. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. 35–59.

LIPSE, Juste. Politica: Six Books of Politics Or Political Instruction [1589]. Trans. Jan Waszink. Assen: Royal Van Gorcum, 2004.

LUCAN. The Civil War - Pharsalia. [c. 61 AD]. Trans. J. D. Duff. London: Loeb, 1928.

PEACHAM, Henry. Minerva Britanna. London: Walter Dight, 1612.

PEACHAM, Henry. The Truth of Our Times: Revealed out of One Mans Experience, by Way of Essay. London: James Becket, 1638.

PECK, Linda Levy. Court Patronage and Corruption in Early Stuart England. London: Routledge, 1993.

PERRY, Curtis. “The Politics of Access and Representations of the Sodomite King in Early Modern England.” Renaissance Quarterly 53.4 (2000): 1054–83. Accessed October 5, 2023.

PLATO. Timaeus and Critias. [360 BCE]. Trans. Thomas Kjeller Johansen and Desmond Lee. London: Penguin Classics, 2008.

RUSSELL, Daniel. The Emblem and Device in France. Lexington, Kentucky: French Forum, 1985.

SALLUST. War with Jugurtha. [c. 41 BCE]. Trans. J. C. Rolfe. London: Loeb, 1931.

SASLOW, James M. Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986.

SLIGHTS, William W. E. Managing Readers: Printed Marginalia in English Renaissance Books. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.

SMITH, Bruce R. Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England: A Cultural Poetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

STONE, Lawrence. The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.

TUNG, Mason. “A Reference Index to Peacham’s Manuscript Emblem Books and Minerva Britanna.” Emblematica: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Emblem Studies 6.1 (1992): 105-46.

TYPOTIUS, Jacobus. Symbola Divina & Humana Pontificum Imperatorum Regumo. Vol. 1. Arnheim: John Fridericum Hagium, 1679.

VALERIANO, Giovan Pierio. Hieroglyphica sive de sacris Ægyptiorum litteris commentari. Basel: Isengrin, 1556.

VAN HAECHt, Laurent. Microcosmus, Parvus mundus. Antwerp: Gerardt de Jode, 1579.

VIRGIL. The Æneid. [c. 29-19 BCE]. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York; Vintage Books, 1990.

WHITNEY, Geffrey. Choice of Emblemes and Other Devices. Leyden: F. Raphelengius, 1586.

WOLF, Werner, Framing borders in Literature and Other Media. Ed. Werner Wolf and Walter Bernhart. New York: Rodopi, 2006.

YOUNG, Alan R. The English Emblem Tradition: Henry Peacham’s Manuscript Emblem Books. Vol. 5. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

YOUNG, Michael B. King James and the History of Homosexuality. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Haut de page


1 In the Renaissance, an “emblem” was not only the tripartite structure confined within the borders of a page nonetheless but could also refer to a mental composition which resulted from the active contemplation of two media.

2 I refer here to intertextuality as the acknowledged or implicit intertexts present in the emblems, whether identical to the source or transformed.

3 “Naked” emblems also exist, they are poems without illustrations, such as in the case of Francis Quarles’s Divine fancies (1632) composed of 400 naked emblems.

4 Etymologically, the word “emblem” is of Greek origins and refers to mosaic-works. In his Choice of Emblemes (1586), Geffrey Whitney recalls the decorative origins of the genre: “To set in, or To put in: properlie ment by suche figures or workes, as are wroughte in plate, or in stones in the pavementes, or on the waules, or suche like, for the adorning of the place: havinge some wittie devise expressed with cunning woorkemanship, somethinge obscure to be perceived at the first, whereby, when with further consideration it is understood, it maie the greater delighte the behoulder.” p.IX

5 Peacham’s pictura is borrowed from Laurent Van Haecht’s 1579 collection, Microcosmos.

6 While we cannot be sure which exact edition of Alciato’s Emblemata Peacham used for his collection, what is certain is that he used an illustrated edition, probably the more widely circulated editions, Chrestien Wechel’s (1536) or Guillaume Roville’s (1579).

7 Not all the pictures are framed in such ornamental frames. Peacham has designed himself 8 different frames for his 204 emblems. In Steiner’s edition of Alciato, the pictures are contained within a simple rectangular frame.

8 The rose motif seems to be purely decorative in the emblem since Peacham uses the same ornamented frame for several emblems of his collection with no apparent semiotic link between the frame and the content of the emblem.

9 His typology goes from amplification, annotation, appropriation, correction, emphasis, evaluation, exhortation, explication, justification, organization, parody, preemption, rhetorical gloss, simplification, to translation.

10 Foucault reminds that “[as] defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them” (1978, 43). For more information regarding the criminalisation of homosexuality in the early modern period, see Bray 1995, 38-39 and Foucault 1978, 36-43.

11 I reiterate here some of the analyses made in a previous article (Bobeica 2020).

Haut de page

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: Peacham, “Homo Microcosmus,” Minerva Britanna, 1612, 190.
Crédits Image courtesy of the Minerva Britanna Project, used by permission of Special Collections, Middlebury College.
Fichier image/jpeg, 360k
Titre Fig. 2: Peacham, “Undique flamma,” Minerva Britanna, 1612, 52.
Crédits Image courtesy of the Minerva Britanna Project, used by permission of Special Collections, Middlebury College.
Fichier image/jpeg, 220k
Titre Fig. 3: Peacham, “Labor viris convenit,” Minerva Britanna, 1612, 33.
Crédits Image courtesy of the Minerva Britanna Project, used by permission of Special Collections, Middlebury College.
Fichier image/jpeg, 212k
Titre Fig. 4: Peacham, “Crimina gravissima,” Minerva Britanna, 1612, 48.
Crédits Image courtesy of the Minerva Britanna Project, used by permission of Special Collections, Middlebury College.
Fichier image/jpeg, 360k
Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Cezara Bobeica, « In and Out of the Frame: The Construction of Meaning in Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britanna (1612) »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 35 | 2023, mis en ligne le 14 novembre 2023, consulté le 25 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Cezara Bobeica

Université de Strasbourg

Cezara Bobeica defended her PhD dissertation in January 2021 at the University of Strasbourg. Her interest lies in the iconography and the symbolism of the Renaissance with a particular interest in emblematic figures both in printed form and in material culture. Her publications include “The Motif of the Phoenix in Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britanna (1612): A Political Reappropriation,” (Cahiers Shakespeare en devenir, 2022) and “Genèse et fonctionnement d’un symbole emblématique : l’exemple de la chandelle dans quelques recueils anglais de la première modernité (1566-1638)” (Polysèmes, 2023). A former recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Grant, she is currently pursuing her research on applied emblematics in foodways and material culture.

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