Renaissance Culture in Context: Theory and Practice. Eds. Jean R. Brink and William F. Gentrup. Aldershot: Scolar P; Brookfield, Vt: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1993. xi + 232 pp.
A.W. Johnson
Åbo Akademi University, Finland

Johnson, Anthony W. "Review of Renaissance Culture in Context: Theory and Practice." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.1 (1996): 9.1-6 <URL: http://www.library.ubc.ca/emls/02-1/rev_joh1.html>.

  1. As a discipline, Cultural Studies presents a number of problems which are clear enough to comprehend. In an area where anything may qualify as a suitable subject for examination; where approaches tend toward the interdisciplinary; and where a multiplicity of critical discourses may be brought into play, it becomes necessary for the cultural critic to engage in what is at least a three-way balancing act between the constraints of specialised knowledge, the cross-disciplinary imperatives of the area in which that knowledge is being contextualised, and the level of knowledge which may be assumed on the part of the audience.

  2. Even when it focusses on a particular stratigraphic area, such as that of the Renaissance, a volume of conference proceedings by different authors is likely to present such problems in a particularly acute form. In the face of fourteen papers subgrouped by the editors under the headings, "British Literature in Context," "Geography, Religion and History in Context," and "Imitation and Italy in Context"--with individual contributions on subjects as diverse as Shakespeare's dialogic imagination; the international gem trade from Columbus to James I; the Batavian tradition in Dutch humanistic historiography; or genre, harmony and rhetoric in the late sixteenth-century Italian madrigal--we may feel justified in asking which Renaissance, culture(s), context(s), theories and practices are being invoked, and in inquiring as to the rationale for their assemblage within the covers of a single volume. For what would be the purpose of presenting random samples from different cultural locations--each eked out with different tools in order to achieve a variety of ends?

  3. There is a sense in which such a sampling could be justified in a post-Lyotardian world where grand narratives have been abandoned and the density of the local in itself may be deemed sufficient as an object of scholarly investigation. In this case, the serendipities of the individual contributions themselves would tend to take on a foregrounded significance, and it is in the serendipitous that the value of Renaissance Culture in Context could be expected to reside. Seen from such a perspective the volume certainly has its findings: Bruce Lenman's elegant analysis of the relation between the economics of precious stones and the spread of geographical knowledge; Howard Brown's discursus on Giaches de Wert's splendid madrigalian setting of Tasso's Giunta alla tomba; or Zirka Filipczak's commentary on Jacob Matham's use of the three Graces (perhaps overlaying an allusion to the Fates), as a personification of printmaking in hismemorial engraving on the death of Hendrik Goltzius. Other felicities of the volume include Jacqueline Glomski's shrewd diagrammatic re-envisioning of the structure of Jan Kochanowski's Lyricorum libellus, and Norman Farmer's succinct case for the importance of the Pauline terms sarks and soma in an understanding of Spenser's Faerie Queene Book II . (Despite the clarity of his argument we may demur none the less--as Ralegh, Jonson or Sir Kenelm Digby surely would have done--at Farmer's attempt to foreclose the resonances of the allegory within the confines of a rigorously Hookerian reading. Those approaching Spenser with Book V of Trissino's Italia liberata in mind might, likewise, wish to take issue with the baldness of his suggestive assertion that "Du Bartas" Sixth Day--from the "stately Bowr" onwards--was Spenser's poetic model for the "castle of Alma.") Among the other contributions there is also mileage to be gained from Jozef Ijsewijn's exploration of the hinterland between imitatio and furtum in the Neo-Latin works of Erasmus's colleagues in the Netherlands, or Francis Higman's inquiry into the local forces at work determining the export or import of particular translations in the early Reformation. For these reasons alone, the papers in the present collection would have been well worth publishing.

  4. As a volume, however, Renaissance Culture in Context hangs together much more coherently than its apparent plurality of topoi may suggest. The original title of the 1990 conference on which the book is based was "The European Renaissance: National Traditions," and (with the aid of no more than a little editorial justification for Bart Westerweel's piece on Shakespeare's mature comedies), all the papers could have nestled to greater effect under this, or a similar, rubric. It is the construction of national identity--not so much through new myths of origin as through the intensification of details already sanctioned in the course of the humanist reconfiguration of classicism--which forms a focus for Karin Tilmans when she examines sixteenth-century Dutch appropriations of Tacitus' account of the Batavians. The same concerns re-emerge (this time in a mildly Gothicised inflection), when Karen Skovgaard-Petersen overviews the ways in which Danish and Swedish historians rewrote their narratives of state during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in order to accord with the demands of conflicting territorial interests. The dynamics of national identity inform Ijsewijn's, Filipzac's and Brown's investigations of the complex two-way dialogues between the culture of Italy and that of the Netherlands over the sixteenth century. The twists and turns of nationalisms are deeply implicated in Minna Skafte Jensen's tracing of the changing faces of the muses in their movement from the Germany of Celtis to the Denmark of Sadolinus and Franciscus; or in the case studies by Jacqueline Glomski and Paul Knoll on the dissemination of humanist thought into Polish culture. Behind the usual touchstones of the European Renaissance, as Francis Higman points out, there are a number of less than household names, such as those of Urbanus Rhegius, or Heinrich Bullinger--Zwingli's successor in Zurich--who were of considerable importance in the formation of local colours of thought or language and enjoyed, within the texture of their contemporaries' world, not only a large international readership but also a familiarity that is now largely lost on us. It is a virtue of the papers in this volume that they are interconnected by the narratives of these and a number of other minor figures--such as Erasmus Laetus, Reinier Snoy, or the disingenuous Aurelius Cornelius-- whose repeated appearances encourage at least some degree of deliberation on the processes of valorisation which sanction the creation, survival, or disappearance of particular cultural icons and voices.

  5. In the main, Renaissance Britain is represented in the present collection by five essays. In their discussions of Tudor culture, Norman Farmer emphasises the figuration of Reformed England as the "world's 'new' bodie" in the Faerie Queene Book II, while Bart Westerweel considers Renaissance space-time (through Bakhtin's figure of the chronotope), by way of a Shakespearian rather than Boiardan or Colonnan vision of Arden and Ilyria. Within the context of Jacobean culture--seen here from what in 1990 would have been a refreshingly Scottish perspective--Arthur Kinney closely documents an ultimately persuasive case for Macbeth as a critique of James VI and I's early imperial aspirations. The same play features--by way of Ralph Fitch's 1583 expedition to Aleppo on board the Tyger--alongside a discussion of Jacobean interventions in the gem trade in the closing pages of Bruce Lenman's paper. More generally, R. D. S. Jack begins the volume with a brief review of Scottish literary canons from the Renaissance onwards and calls for a revaluation of linguistically or culturally anglophilic Hibernians, such as Drummond of Hawthornden, who have suffered neglect on both "English" and "Scottish" syllabi. Indirectly, these papers fuel Robert Crawford's more recent argument that the concept of Britain and British Literature provided Scottish writers with a means of demarginalising their own endeavours, and demonstrate that Crawford's ideas could be fruitfully extended back to the early decades of the seventeenth century.

  6. Since 1989, the study of national cultures and constructions has been a growth industry in many fields. The essays in this volume--clearly written, complete with illustrative and musical examples, and attractively edited with a useful index of names and major topics by Jean Brink and William Gentrup--provide a welcome addition to this scholarly labour. At both Graduate and Undergraduate levels, Renaissance Culture in Context should prove both provocative and informative to students of Cultural Studies and the European Renaissance.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(April 19, 1996)