Wednesday, May 20, 2009

It Sounded Good at the Time

Last fall, as my senior seminar was finishing, I had a short chat about what senior seminar I might offer this fall. I was thinking of a seminar on Marlowe, and mentioned that.

But the students really liked the idea of doing something more thematic, and when one of them mentioned a seminar on death (in early modern England, if I'm teaching it), they all jumped on that bandwagon. And it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Now, it's seeming less wonderful. I have some ideas, really.

But before I share those, I'd like to open up the comments and see if folks have texts they'd teach for sure?

I'm thinking of texts broadly. I'm game to look at art, maps, etc. I'm willing to take early modern from 1475-1660 or so. (I really don't want to get too far into the restoration, though.) I'm also looking to search and find stuff rather than order an anthology and just go from there. And I'm thinking of primary and secondary stuff.

So here's the challenge: what would you teach and why?


  1. I know it isn't literary material, but preambles to wills have been a big part of the scholarship on death for the early modern period. I'd also recommend that you pick up David Cressy's "Birth, Marriage and Death" mega-volume and paw through the last third. He uses a lot of early modern texts to illustrate the experience and understanding of death in England for the time.

    Also, Danae Tankard's "Defining Death in Early Tudor England" _Cultural and Social History_ 2006 (3), 1-20 is a great introduction to the medical and devotional literature as well as legal materials of the time.

    My winter seminar course (January to April) is on the life-cycle so I am going to be diving back into this subject, myself, in March. Enjoy!

  2. I know you said 1475, but I'd feel compelled to preface things with the Black Death and either *Pearl* or *Book of the Duchess*.

  3. If you keep in mind that most "medieval" drama was either performed through 3/4 of the 16th century or survives in 16th c. (and sometimes 17th c.) manuscripts (or print eds., in the case of Everyman), you've got a lot of death-oriented things you can include:

    -all of the "morality" plays, esp. Castle of Perseverance (which, btw, pairs nicely with Donne's "Batter my heart," since suddenly students get the soul-as-besieged-castle metaphor) and Everyman, but also Mankind (it's not an ars moriendi play as much as the others, but there's death and near-death in it, and it's funnier than the others)

    -Crucifixion and Last Judgment plays (I prefer York for the former and Chester for the latter, but York for the latter is good, too)

    -Abraham and Isaac plays

    -Massacre of the Innocents plays

    In non-dramatic texts, given your 1475 cutoff, you've got the Morte Darthur (esp. the part actually called the Death of Arthur).

  4. How about one or two of the English Artes Moriendi--Jeremy Taylor, The Rules and Exercises of Holy Dying, would be a late (1651) example.

  5. How about a class on murder on the early modern stage? Murders abound in Shakespeare, Marlowe, Webster, and the like?

    Maybe you could do a CSI postmortem kind of thing...


  6. Following Janice's line of thought, what about scaffold speeches? There are several good articles on them (an old one by Lacey Baldwin Smith, I think, and a more recent one by Kit Royer), and you could undoubtedly get some published ones on EEBO. Ditto pamphlets on murder, including infanticide. (Good listing of them in Randall Martin's new book, but I would not use the book itself for teaching). You could compare the pamphlets with plays like Arden of Faversham. Charles I's execution would be a good ending, and you could even compare Eikon Basilike and Eikonoklastes. Also, about ten years ago the V&A did an exhibition on Death. Can't find the book right now -- that is the peril of moving -- but that would be good.

    Anyway, that's a historian's take. If I find the V&A book, I'll let you know the reference.

  7. Anonymous4:37 PM

    How about Milton's "When I Consider How My Light is Spent" and Donne's "Death be not proud..."? (Lots of Donne, actually.)

  8. Found the book -- The Art of Death, by Nigel Llewellyn (1991). Alas, probably not available to buy, but there are good images, and ideas in it.
    It seems to me that "death" is a great framework for a broad cultural history. So putting the canonical texts in conversation with art and more ephemeral texts would be good.

    You could also use liturgical texts -- the burial service of the Book of Common Prayer, for instance.

    Depending on how far you'd like to go with the broad cultural history, lots of women who are about to go into labor talk about death. It's kind of neat, that.

  9. Anonymous5:27 PM

    I don't know what I would teach, because I don't know that much about early Modern. But from a Victorianist's perspective, what interests me is the women who were killed for political gain -- Anne Bolyne, Lady Jane Grey, etc. I know a lot of depictions of them were done in the 19th century, but is there anything from the early modern period? I also think stories of martyred saints, esp. women, are interesting.

  10. Well, going for the obvious, I'd say Hamlet, but since it's taught so much in other classes, I'm not sure it would stand out as much as you'd like.

    I'm currently writing about Ford's Tis Pity She's a Whore, which I love. I think that would be very interesting to study from the angle of death -- not just of people, but the death of a moral society. And it's late enough in the period to balance out all that medieval reading mentioned above.

    Although... if I were going to teach a death/dying class and include something medieval, I think I might include Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Beheading games? So much fun. But again, this might be something that is taught so often that it might not be worthwhile to you - unless you know that it's not taught that often at your school.

  11. "I am like a black ship, driven I know not whither!"

    yeahhhh! Fun fun fun!

    Tombstones, tomb statuary, charnel-houses, grave sites! You can "read" them as a text, right? (or the funerary poetry inscribed on them) And all them memento moris!

    Also, ballads --- those pamphlets that announce the news of deaths of traitors and whatnot, with music!

    Someone's already pointed out the fun of early modern murder, but what about suicide?

    Changing tack again, Anne Bradstreet has a bunch of poems meditating on the death of her children, as does Donne or Jonson or somebody.

    Ooh I like this topic, but then I always got all excited about the revenge tragedies!

  12. Anonymous9:13 AM

    Someone mentioned Donne's poetry, but what about his Meditations or Sermons. Of the latter, the "Last enemy that shall be destroyed" is particularly good.