2012: Practical Knowledges and Skill in Early Modern England

The Early Modern Thought Research Theme is sponsoring the University of Otago colloquium on “Practical Knowledges and Skill in Early Modern England.” The colloquium will be held on 27-28 August, with the first day devoted to natural philosophy, science, and religion, and the second day to theatre and performance. Speaking at the colloquium will be Sorana Coreanu (Bucharest), Peter Harrison (Queensland), Peter Marshall (Warwick), Paul Menzer (Mary Baldwin College), John Sutton (Macquarie), Michael Neill (Auckland), Tom Bishop (Auckland) David Carnegie (Victoria), and Evelyn Tribble (Otago).

On the afternoon of 28 August, we will hold a roundtable on “Theatrical Skills Then and Now,” with participation from Paul Menzer, Roslyn Knutson, David Carnegie, Lisa Warrington, John Sutton, and Evelyn Tribble.


Sorana Corneanu: “The Parts of Prudence and the Virtues of Experimental Knowledge”
In the early Royal Society context of experimental philosophy, knowledge derived from experience is valued for its practical and useful qualities. These qualities characterize not only the outcomes of such knowledge, but also the very process of its acquisition; as such they are not only relevant in methodological and social-ethical terms, but also bound with an account of the education of the mind in inquiry. Both the prerequisites and the fruits of this education are equivalent to what can be called virtues of the mind in an early modern guise. The aim of this paper is to inquire into the ‘virtue’ status of these qualities and to discuss their relationship with the traditional (Aristotelian) account of the intellectual virtues. I will propose that to a large extent the experimental virtues of the mind draw on what in the traditional account were known as the parts of prudence, while at the same time using the resources of the Platonic and Stoic traditions. Such revaluation and syncretism are visible in moral-religious works of the second half of the seventeenth century (e.g. Peter Du Moulin, Theophilus Gale, John Hartcliffe), which both shape and are shaped by the new experimental thought.


Terence Doyle: “Pharmaceutice Rationalis: Patterns of Medical Treatment in the Seventeenth Century”
The proper way of treating patients was a contentious issue in Restoration England. Galenic methods, ultimately derived from an Aristotelian world view, were on the wane and Helmontian methods, related to the new physico-chemical view of bodily function, were on the ascendant. Thomas Willis epitomized this dichotomy since his training was in the traditional Galenic mould and yet he was a keen researcher in the group of experimental physiologists, which included Boyle and Lower, active in Oxford during the mid 1600s. He lectured as Sedlean Professor of Medicine at Oxford and later conducted a busy practice in London where he appears to have combined the two therapeutic approaches. This paper analyzes Willis’s ‘Pharmaceutice Rationalis’ of 1674 which provides a systematic overview of current therapy toward the end of his career, comparing this with his case notes of 1650-52 which show how he treated patients as a younger physician. These are also compared with similar therapeutic notebooks by Robert Boyle, Thomas Sydenham and John Locke to identify similarities in therapeutic approaches to particular conditions. Boyle, although a brilliant theoretical researcher, recommended medical remedies in quite a random fashion. Sydenham did not value research or theory highly, preferring an empirical approach to therapy. While many of Willis’s theories proved incorrect, his energetic combination of experimentation with practical treatment paved the way for future advances in medicine.


Peter Harrison “Contemplation and Creation: Some Theological Motivations for the Pursuit of an Experimental Natural Philosophy”
Aristotle had sharply distinguished between speculative and productive activities, with the natural philosophy being assigned to the former. A number of seventeenth-century thinkers asserted that natural philosophy should be experimental rather than speculative, and had linked productive activities to natural philosophy, thus repudiating the face of Aristotle’s long-standing distinction.   This paper explores a number of the theological justifications that were deployed in support of the new alliance of the productive and the philosophical.


Peter Marshall “How to Recognize a Heretic in Sixteenth-Century England”
This paper addresses a dangerous and uncertain aspect of “practical knowledge” in the religious life of the period: it seeks to ask how people could know, or form a judgement, that a neighbour, clergyman, stranger or relative held wrong beliefs, and to investigate what the practical implications of that knowledge might be for all parties concerned. The verb which instinctively attaches itself to the noun “heresy” throughout this period is “to detect”. Heretical belief, like a disease of the soul or the wider body politic, was an objectively discernible condition whose presence could, in theory, be established using trustworthy criteria of investigation and discernment. Truth in religion was, in no-one’s opinion, a matter of opinion. Yet as a social, cultural or political category, historians can only regard heresy, like orthodoxy, as fundamentally ascriptional, a reflected presence in the eye of the beholder. It was therefore both capacious and malleable. The distinguished medievalist Alexander Murray has recently written that in the later middle ages “everybody in Christendom was, in someone’s eyes, by some definition, potentially or actually, a heretic”. This potentiality was significantly inflated by the circumstances of the English Reformation, as authoritative formulations of true doctrine shifted in response to political and dynastic developments. The concern of this paper, however, will not be with shifting official definitions of orthodoxy per se, as with how English people navigated these changes, and how they deployed traditional and evolving understandings of heresy and orthodoxy in daily social relations. While historians regularly contend that ordinary people were “confused” by the changes of the English Reformation, I will investigate the possibility that official reform in fact promoted the dissemination, and creative appropriation, of potentially powerful forms of practical knowledge linked to new patterns of social identity.


Paul Menzer: “Sophistication”
Academic work on early modern acting was dominated for much of the twentieth century by Whig tales of progress that saw the crude excesses of the medieval stage yielding to the precision personation of Shakespeare and Co.  “Sophistication” is often the catch-all to account for this process, and a scholar is merely characteristic when describes Hamlet’s warning to the clown as “the popular native tradition of drama…run[ning] up against the later, more sophisticated form.”  What “sophistication” generally means in such accounts is a more complex representation of subjectivity than was previously possible on the “popular” stage.  In this paper, I argument instead that if acting became more “sophisticated” with the growth of the theatre industry, it was due to an increased demand upon the player’s ability skillfully to manage an array of theatrical accessories: complex plots and scripts, certainly, but also properties, weapons, furniture, architecture, and special effects. Increasingly, affects became a product of effects, and required of players the ability to distribute subjectivity among an array of theatrical accessories.


Michael Neill: “‘A book where one may read strange matters’: Envisaging Character on the Shakespearean Stage.”
The Chorus to Henry V famously celebrates the power of dramatic verse to compensate for the deficiencies of visual representation by dazzling the inner eye with the imaginary splendour of a ‘swelling scene’. But it would be a mistake to take the Chorus’s parade of self-deprecation too literally; and while the relative paucity of scenic spectacle may seem to have privileged poesis over pictura, it also gave peculiar prominence to the actor’s body, and above all to the expressive power of the countenance and to the physiological inscriptions known as ‘character’. In the face, as one physiognomist declared, ‘[Nature] hath expos’d [the] soul, to be observ’d on the out-side, so that there is no necessity of any window, to see [the] Motions, Inclinations and Habits.’ It is no accident that, in one of the rare first-hand accounts of theatrical experience from the period, it was the emotion registered on a boy-actor’s face, rather than the power of his impassioned language, that especially moved the spectator. Nevertheless there were obvious practical constraints on how much facial detail audiences could be expected to register. In this paper I explore the ways in which Shakespeare’s dramaturgy seeks to address this limitation by the use of what we might call ‘virtual close-ups’.




2012: Post-Graduate Seminar “Interdisciplinarity in Medieval and Early Modern Research”

In conjunction with “Practical Knowledges and Skill in Early Modern England” the Theme will be hosting a post-graduate advanced training seminar on “Interdisciplinarity in Medieval and Early Modern Reseach.”  Facilitating the workshop will be Peter Harrison (Queensland), Stephen Clucas (Birkbeck College), and John Sutton (Macquarie).  Bursaries are available for post-graduate students traveling to the seminar. If you are interested, please apply before 31 July 2012.


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