Domestic Liminality, The Jamestown Massacre, and The City Madam

Sarah O'Malley


The ‘spatial turn’ in early modern studies has produced many insightful analyses of domestic space and the identities intertwined with it. Yet very few studies look at the relationship between domestic space in England and that of its New World colonies. This essay seeks to redress this and argues that the liminality of the early colonial experience in Virginia influenced how domestic space was understood and represented in England. The early colonial experience in the New World was inherently liminal. This colonial space was one in which colonists were forced to (re)negotiate the social structures and identities they left behind in England, often resulting in both intentional and unintentional transformations of these structures and identities. The creation of material infrastructure was an attempt by colonial authorities to banish this transitional, transformative liminal space and instead create a more familiar environment in which social order, hierarchies, and identities could be secured. However, this process often in fact revealed the liminality and disorder intrinsic to these more familiar spaces. This is nowhere more apparent than in the construction of domestic space and the discourse surrounding it in England’s New World colonies. Focusing on the 1622 ‘Jamestown Massacre’ in Virginia, in which local Powhatan Native Americans killed over 300 English colonists in their homes, this essay demonstrates that narratives of the massacre show colonial domestic space as a liminal site of permeability in which identities and control of space were under constant negotiation. I go on to argue that this event, and the representations of it, can offer new context to readings of later drama in England. Taking Massinger’s The City Madam as a case study, I argue that Massinger’s representation of the home as a threateningly liminal space was informed by colonial discourses. What becomes clear from the colonial experience at Jamestown and from The City Madam, is that domestic space was not a stable site through which social order, hierarchies, and identities are guaranteed, but rather a liminal site through which they were constantly negotiated.


Jamestown, Massinger, liminality, domesticity

Full Text: PDF


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.