Michelle O’Callaghan. The English Wits: Literature and Sociability in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. 234pp. ISBN 978 0 521 86084 0.

Michael J. Redmond
University of Palermo

Michael J. Redmond. "Review of Michelle O’Callaghan, The English Wits: Literature and Sociability in Early Modern England.".  Early Modern Literary Studies 14.2/Special Issue 17 (September, 2008) 8.1-4<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/14-2/revocall.html>.


  1. The subject of Michelle O’Callaghan’s stimulating monograph is the historical trajectory whereby the term ‘wits’ came ‘to denote a distinct speech community inhabiting a particular geographical and social space – the West End of London, around the Inns of Court, St Paul’s and Blackfriars, with their fashionable taverns and other meeting places’ (44-5). When Ben Jonson dedicated the 1616 folio edition of Every Man Out of His Humour to the Inns of Court, commended as ‘the Noblest Nurseries of Humanity, and Liberty, in the Kingdom’, he was acknowledging the extent to which a generation of legal students had come to dominate the social, literary, and political debates of the capital (‘Dedication to the Folio’, 384). It is telling that in the Prologue to Jonson’s original 1599 text the satirist Asper invites his judicious companions Cordatus and Mitris to serve as an on-stage chorus for his ensuing mockery of vice and ignorance. For what stands out in the play, apart from the legal diction, is the representation of satire as a collective experience that demands the approbation and participation of an exclusive interpretive group. The oft-proclaimed desire of such aspiring wits to correct error went hand in hand, as O’Callaghan makes clear, with building a personal reputation and gaining the attention of useful professional contacts. After partaking in the creative ferment and controversies of the Inns at the end of the sixteenth century, a milieu which gave them notable ‘ideological resources and intellectual capital’, celebrated lawyer-wits like John Donne, John Hoskyns, and Christopher Brooke used the extended social networks they had created to gain prestige and power during the reign of James I (8).

  2. Given the difficulty of recreating the improvised verbal play of fashionable men about town in their favourite taverns and clubs, The English Wits focuses on widely circulated textual accounts of specific incidents which introduced the practices of the coterie to a broader audience. One of the sources of Every Man Out was a famous extempore mock-oration that John Hoskyns made at the 1597-8 Middle Temple Revels. In his ‘Fustian Answer to Tufftaffeta Speech’, mocking the unrecorded contribution of a rival speaker at the festivities, he displayed an ‘absolute mastery of rhetoric’ that gave him the authority to produce his own volume of Directions for Speech and Style (25). During James’s first parliament, Hoskyns distinguished himself again with his contribution to the so-called ‘Parliament Fart’. The original spontaneous group display of wit in the House of Commons, as members of his social circle ridiculed a breach of decorum by an unfortunate parliamentarian, began to circulate amongst the elite in manuscript copies ‘with much internal variation’ before it was finally published in royalist miscellanies after the Restoration (83). Even though the subsequent printed versions of the works that O’Callaghan considers here may have secured the posthumous reputation of prominent coterie figures like Donne and Hoskyns, it is clear that their social standing at the time depended upon much more exclusive verbal and scribal transactions.

  3. In light of the potential methodological complications, O’Callaghan is astute to devote most of the second half of the book to the involvement of the wits in the controversy surrounding the publication of Thomas Coryate’s 1611 travel narrative Coryate’s Crudities. While Coryate’s account of his journey across Europe tends to be read in terms of its formative place in the travel-writing tradition, marked by the author’s outspoken defence of his project to document the customs and monuments of the continent, O’Callaghan concentrates on the sheer mass of mock-panegyric verses by noted wits that prefaced his self-financed volume. The conflict between coterie reputation and public fame comes to the fore in the verses, as elitist contributors like Donne and Hoskyns mock the author for abandoning the restrictive ‘sociality of manuscript culture’ to seek open fame through a printed book (103). The ‘social event’ of the composition and publication of the verses succeeded in its goal of ensuring Coryate’s fame at court and amongst the London wits (105). The problem was that, like an ambitious Hollywood actor who gets into the tabloids for the wrong reasons, the traveller soon lost control of his public image and found himself mocked in a pirate edition of the verses, omitting his own text, and a long series of insulting references in Stuart popular culture by upstarts like the water poet John Taylor. What is missing here, however, is any consideration of Coryate’s own claims that Prince Henry intervened in the publication of the panegyrics and compelled him to include even the most slanderous verses. The absence is striking, given that O’Callaghan documents the manner in which the resolutely Protestant heir to the throne co-opted the Inns of Court wits to pursue his own political agenda in other contexts like ‘his promotion of the Virginia enterprise’ in their entertainments for the wedding of his sister to Frederick, Elector Palatine (16). For although it may have been easy to dismiss Coryate as a buffoon, the continual emphasis of the contributors to the prefatory verses on his transgression of the well-known proscriptions against travel to Italy locates the debate about the Crudities within the context of deep seated domestic anxieties about the cultural and religious threat posed by the Catholic nation.

  4. At the end of the book, tracing the growth of more democratic literary fraternities like Ben Jonson’s ‘Tribe of Ben’, O’Callaghan makes a convincing case for the lasting influence of the modes of satire and drollery established by the elite social circle emerging from the Inns of Court at the end of the sixteenth century. With its detailed survey of a milieu that influenced some of the most renowned writers of the period, The English Wits will prove a useful reference for students of early modern English literature.