Literary Texts and History


Obviously a great historian.

Remember the fun I was having with Thomas Corn’s edited collection, The Royal Image? It closes with an afterword by Kevin Sharpe, who naturally makes the case for the contribution of critics – literary and otherwise – to historical study. “What we now need,” he writes, “is to combine the skills of critics and historians in a full history of the relationships of courts and kings (and republics) to the images and representations of those courts and rulers over the period of the English Renaissance.” [pg. 290]  You could, if not constrained by the theme of a collection, make the wider point that critics, with their sensitivity for genre and mode, are well-placed to identify cultural contexts where the specifity of historians may not do so.

Sharpe himself wrote in his Criticism and Compliment, “it is my purpose to [re-read] literary texts as documents of the culture and values of Caroline England.” [pg. ix]  That book was published in 1987; The Royal Image, meanwhile, was published in 1999. Since then, we’ve had David Norbrook’s Writing The English Republic, but the use of seventeenth-century literary texts as historical sources still seems (with the possible exception of some writing on Milton, or the work of historians like James Loxley), in academic historical circles at least, to be a relatively niche activity. There are good reasons for this, of course, not least that such texts tend to prioritise artistic effect over fidelity to their particular age; but isn’t there a broader context yet, in which culture is generative as well as reflective, to which literary material might well be a useful guide?

I was struck by Blair Worden’s particular permutation of an old argument, in his Roundhead Reputations, that, “historians, like novelists, are makers of order.” [pg. 19]  Naturally, Worden wasn’t suggesting that this makes the two professions identical in method or intent, but there’s still a hint in those bon mots that the old walls are not as impermeable as they are often still taken to be. You might not be surprised to hear, then, that I’ll be trying to take part in Early Modern Underground’s collaborative reading of ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore. Probably mostly for the great beauty of Ford’s masterpiece; but, also, perhaps, for a bit of historical insight…


4 thoughts on “Literary Texts and History

  1. Jennifer says:

    How excellent to hear you’ll be joining the ‘Tis Pity group!

    As a literary scholar, I’ve had conversations about the overlap between English and history, particularly in a class on narrative theories, but I don’t think I’ve ever had one with a historian, so I was interested to see your comments above. Now I’m curious: is theorizing historiography and the construction of narrative something quite common in history studies? (Since you called it an “old argument,” maybe I should ask whether it’s really basic or more of a specialized theoretical question most people don’t worry about much.)

    To think about another issue, I’m used to literary editions where we have contextual materials in the back (contemporary texts that historians might commonly study rather than literary ones); are there common collections used to teach certain periods history profs use where there are supplemental excerpts from literary texts?

  2. danhartland says:

    How excellent to hear you’ll be joining the ‘Tis Pity group!

    Thanks. I shall certainly do my best!

    is theorizing historiography and the construction of narrative something quite common in history studies

    I think it’d be fair to say, and you must bear in mind that I have not a postgraduate qualification to my name, that the one thing post-modernists gave to historians was an acute awareness that they are liable to craft history as much as they ‘recover’ it. Worden’s recapitulation is of what is now an old saw amongst academic historians: that all historiography is provisional, and to one extent or another a narrative like any other, constructed to bring order.

    In my experience, there are very few common collections for history students which use extensively literary texts as supplemental sources. Where literary authors appear – Boccaccio on the Black Death, for example, or Jonson in relation to court masques – extra-textual prologues or letters are as often used as quotes from plays or poems.

    I’m painting too rigid a picture, though – there is crossover. I suppose my point is that such crossover is still, it seems to me, often treated as strangely provisional. And, as you suggest with those contextual materials, that provisionality is often far more on the historian’s side than the literary scholar’s.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Ah, I see. I guess my impressions were fairly accurate, then. It was just that once you brought up those points, I realized that they were impressions, or even just assumptions, more than information, so I thought I should double-check. 🙂

  4. Pingback: But A Plot To Train You To Your Ruin « @Number 71

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