‘To distill golde out of inke’: ‘Touching the Past’ and Thomas Nashe

In July 2018 I took part in a one-day conference at Chetham’s Library in Manchester entitled ‘Touching the Past’, which featured a range of fantastic research on archival studies, early modern print, annotation, and early modern reading habits. The conference was part of the Communities of Print network, which is based at Manchester Metropolitan University and explores ‘the role of books in creating communities, and how books were used in communal settings’.

I gave a short paper on Thomas Nashe’s ‘metallurgical prose’, an edited version of the full paper I gave at the Thomas Nashe conference at Newcastle University later in July. I have written a short blog post for Communities of Print on the topic – discussing metallurgy, alchemy, and Nashe’s consistent linking of metallic and linguistic production. You can read the full blog post here.


Rethinking Objects 2019: Keynotes announced

Following on from the Objects, Extensions, Prosthetics symposium in May 2018, I will be chairing the organising committee for a 2019 conference on: Rethinking Objects: New Directions for Pre-Modern Materiality Studies – taking place at Newcastle University 12-13th September 2019. Here is a short excerpt from our project statement:

Rethinking Objects seeks to inquire as to where the field of pre-modern material culture studies now stands, and what we can do to critically progress it. The focus of the conference will be on postgraduate and early career research that offers novel, interdisciplinary, and original approaches to pre-modern objects. Speakers will have the opportunity to present work in an open and discursive setting, with established researchers responding to papers, offering keynotes, and interactive sessions with local archives and projects.

Like my own research, the conference aims to respond to the ‘material turn’ in pre-modern studies, and consider what new directions the field can take. We also had the pleasure of announcing our keynotes earlier this week, whose work will perfectly compliment the themes of the conference:

Dr Tara Hamling and Prof. Catherine Richardson

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Hamling and Richardson’s names have become synonymous with discussions of the ‘material turn’ in medieval and early modern studies, their individual works and collaborations have explored the everyday objects that populated the pre-modern world. We are all thrilled to have both on board to be giving a joint keynote responding to the themes of the conference.

Thin Ice Press

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Following on from their successful fundraising project, the York-based Thin Ice Press are in the process of reproducing an eighteenth-century printing press, based on one owned by York printer, Thomas Gent. With a team ranging from undergraduate to established scholars (including our Objects, Extensions, Prosthetics keynote, Prof. Helen Smith), they’ll be giving a exciting group keynote on the project, reproduction-as-research, and the materiality of texts.

You can see more info about the conference over on our website: rethinkingobjects.wordpress.com

Research symposium write-up: Objects, Extensions, Prosthetics

Last week I organised a research symposium on the topic: Objects, Extensions, Prosthetics: The body and subjectivity in the pre-modern period. This was an opportunity for postgraduates and early career researchers to come together and discuss ongoing research and ideas surrounding the themes of the seminar, and also included a keynote from Professor Helen Smith (University of York). The symposium was funded by Newcastle University’s Medieval and Early Modern Studies (MEMS), and affiliated with the Northern Premodern Seminar. You can read my full write up of the afternoon on the MEMS research blog.


The panels of the day were split into three broad areas: clothing and the self, devotional objects, and the body as object. Themes of gender, performance, and embodiment arose in papers throughout the day, many of which were discussed in the final round-table. Some scholars’ work centered on specific manuscripts and the way these material texts functioned as extensions of their writers and owners, whilst others explored the potential for the body, even when plagued or disfigured, to ‘make’ the subject.

The day was far away from a more traditional object-focused approach to the theme, with all speakers intertwined their object readings with wider contexts of the period and the interaction between self, mind, text, body, and object. Helen Smith’s paper perfectly intersected with these themes and responded to the afternoon’s papers by exploring the relation between the composition of the body and soul and that of metals in the period. She urged us to consider the not-so figurative analogies between the two, noting metal/mettle puns and emphasising the blurred line between subject and object, man and metal, in the period.

See link above for a full write-up of the days papers and click here to see speaker details and abstracts.

Tara Hamling: Discussing material culture and academic life

After months of working solely on early modern material culture, exploring the recent ‘material turn’ in the field, Dr Tara Hamling’s name has become synonymous with this surge in materiality studies, and her collaborations with Prof. Catherine Richardson such as Everyday Objects and A Day at Home in Early Modern England have been my constant desk-side companions. So I jumped at the opportunity to hear Tara talk at University of York’s Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies – a talk that discussed the material and visual culture of the period, and her own experiences within academia.

‘Material turn’, or ‘New Materialism’, have become commonplace terms in early modern studies in recent years, but for Tara Hamling, trained as an art historian, objects and visual culture have always been central to studying this period. The ‘material turn’ has found meaning in objects previously only granted to images and texts, and for Hamling this meaning can be found at the intersection of symbolic imagery on objects and the practical uses of the objects themselves. The engravings on a mantelpiece, woodblock image on a broadsheet, or decorative scenes on banquet trenchers all hold meanings that interact with their visual symbolism and the object itself.

In her talk, Hamling stressed how difficult it could be to access these objects – with restored walls and fireplaces often found in private homes and even shops. Despite problems identifying owners, the poor condition of objects or even seeing them, any opportunity to see these objects firsthand is vital since, as Hamling argues: ‘Encoded meanings can be determined by close object analysis’. Like analysing complex written sources, or deciphering pre-modern handwriting, exploring objects requires a level of de-coding and contextualising. Hamling goes on to argue that ‘transcription [is] the bridge to interpretation’, and ‘description is akin to transcription’, echoing material culture studies’ roots in anthropology and Clifford Geertz’s belief that providing ‘thick description’ of culture’s and their objects (that went beyond the factual and interpreted their meanings) is a central task of cultural anthropology. The likening of objects to texts that can be de-coded, transcribed, and interpreted has lifted their status to that of language – as complex sites of meaning to be explored.

a new-yeeres-gift forthe PopeHamling went on to discuss her upcoming work, exploring the role of ‘visual memory’ and how motifs ‘migrate’ across media and culture. Her examples included a series of  Protestant propaganda images, particularly one that displayed the Bible ‘outweighing’ the many treasures and trinkets of the Pope. This image appeared on fireplaces and in woodcut illustrations (see broadsheet image offered by Hamling right), among other sources, and this soon becomes a ‘catchy’ image that appears again and again across periods. The image itself is of course metaphorical, but also highlights the possibility for that which is not typically seen as an ‘object’ (the teachings and language of the Bible) take on their own hefty materiality. I look forward to seeing more of this work, and understanding the role of memory and motifs in visual and material culture!

Screenshot 2018-04-30 at 14.32.12Hamling’s talk was delivered to an audience of mostly MA and PhD students, and so its second half offered an opportunity to discuss academic life and the role of the early career researcher that many in the room aspire to. For many there are anxieties over when and what to publish, what hiring universities might be looking for, and how can we develop as researchers without over-burdening ourselves? Hamling’s final Q&A session provided advice, some consolation, and examples from her own experience navigating the world of academia, stressing the value of not rushing to publish and collaboration.

Sasha Handley: Emotional objects and a very special bed-sheet

We all have objects that lie close to our hearts, objects that we have an emotional connection to that we wish to preserve and keep close to us for our whole lives. These objects have stories behind them, those we write for them and those they can tell us themselves. A ring, an old toy, a photograph – such objects are often tokens of love and marriage, reminders of family and childhood, or memorials for loved ones lost. The themes of marriage, childbirth, and death similarly converge on objects in the early modern period, and as Dr Sasha Handley (University of Manchester) brilliantly explored in her talk on ‘Objects, Emotions, and an Early Modern Bed-sheet’ at Newcastle University (6-Dec-17), one such object was the bed-sheet.

Following on from her recent work Sleep in Early Modern EnglandHandley positions early modern bed-sheets as sites of deep personal connection and emotional expression. She explains that linen bed-sheets were popular throughout the period, with one sheet being made at home, given as gifts to congratulate births and marriages, and kept even for multiple generations. The association of the early modern bed-sheet with childbirth, the marital bed, and the shroud, made it a place of, as Handley puts it, ‘bodily and spiritual transformation’. Objects such as these are not divorced from their owners, inert ‘things’ with no life of their own, instead they are invested with meaning – emotional, religious, and even political.

Handley’s talk focused on one especially interesting object discovered in the Museum of London – a bed-sheet belonging to Anna Maria Radcliffe, Countess of Derwentwater (1693-1723). The bed-sheet was embroidered by the countess in memory of her husband, James Radcliffe – who was beheaded as a Jacobite rebel in 1715. With detailed stitch-work, there are also interlocked strands of hair woven into the fabric, uncovered by Handley and her colleagues at the Museum of London. I have taken the following image of the bed-sheet’s inscription from Handley’s blog post, which also provides more detail on this object and its history:


The historical and scientific work on this object has provided it with its own life, as it passed between owners for centuries after it owner’s death. I look forward to reading more on this fascinating object in Handley’s forthcoming article, as it is an object that both ‘speaks’ through its own history, and was embroidered and kept as an emotional ‘text’ by its maker.

The bed-sheet here is very much like a text not only due to the actual embroidered text found on the sheet, but in that it provides a narrative (one of emotional and spiritual creative outlet from a woman who may not so readily have been able to express herself in literary form), and as, like a historical book, its material elements all come together to form one text that can be ‘read’ for meaning. Explorations of objects such as these provide us with a whole new range of ‘literature’ – textiles, home-wares, sacred items, crafts. Handley’s work shows how the process of making is not unlike the process of writing, but in material objects we have the benefit of encountering stories from those whose self-expression would never make it into print: historically marginalised figures such as women, children, and illiterate lower classes. Even when objects are not as overt as this bed-sheet in its role as a site of creative expression and ability to tell a story, Handley’s work exemplifies how when positioned as texts with a history of composition (production), ownership, and interpretation, objects can be read as texts as well.

Medieval Media at Quadrivium XII

Durham Cathedral’s stony interiors, relic-filled spaces, and halls echoing with choir song was a fitting setting for Quadrivium‘s twelfth event, which focused on how we can explore the medieval period through material media. Stepping inside, the cathedral flaunts the richness of its past through the visual and material, as you gaze up at its carved stone arches, and explore the libraries and collections that are contained within.

The day began with a session on vellum led by Aditi Nafde. Vellum is prepared animal skin that is cleaned, bleached, and stretched to form writing material for manuscripts in the medieval period. This material was by no means cheap, and its use in books, especially once the cheaper and more easily printed upon paper emerges, denoted the quality and social status of the object itself.

We clustered into a room in Durham Cathedral’s Palace Green Library, and were set the task of leafing through several vellum manuscripts before us, asking ourselves what we can tell about these objects without looking at the text, only the materiality of the book itself. Some key clues might be the size and shape of the manuscripts and the text written on them, the collation of the pages, handwriting and annotations, and the binding. We had before us texts ranging from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde to a 14th-century recipe book. One material aspect of these texts that illuminated their production and meaning was the use of space – where a devotional poem compiled by John Lydgate, with its precise clerical hand encased by wide margins, might indicate the luxury nature of this object, the worm-holed collection of recipes had every corner crammed with words.

This session was followed by a tour of Durham Cathedral, which included its Open Treasure exhibition. Here we saw the fragmented wooden coffin of St Cuthbert, alongside the treasures retrieved when his shrine was excavated in the 19th-century, including a stole, a gold pectoral cross, and even a wooden comb.

The afternoon was spent with Magnus Williamson as we explored the medieval voice through the medium of music books. These books ranged from the 11th- to the 16th-century, and we observed the changes in notation and layout as production of these items and their uses developed over the centuries. These objects are clearly performative and social, and one fragment of a table book had four vocal parts that were pasted adjacently on the page so that each singer could stand on one side of the paper and see their part (see below left-hand image). Such books and sheets are physically organised for a specific material use, a use that is often social, even allowing men and women (whose parts were often together on one sheet) to share physical contact as they share and sing from these books.

That evening we returned to Newcastle and met at Blackfriar’s Restaurant where we had a talk from Giles Gasper on food, as we discussed medieval ‘recipes’ discovered in Durham Cathedral’s medical collections from the period. The gastronomical and the medical see much overlap in these texts, with many early ‘recipes’ being for aphrodisiacs. The texts themselves were found hidden amongst other ‘recipes’ for ointments and remedies, giving both food and these recipe books a dual identity in how they were used. These recipes were for sauces, often bitter to taste with a heavy reliance on vinegar and garlic, and even more international flavours such as coriander and ginger. These books also pre-date the popularity of sugar cane that would transform Western diets, creating a preference for the sweet, in the early modern period. This final session was followed by a medieval banquet, including pork, beef and raisin pie, saffron butter beans, fig rolls, and traditional mead.

I was unable to attend the second day of the conference, which included talks from Rob Collins on stone, and from Johanna Green on digitising medieval materials and medias. The theme that runs across all sessions, though, is how much we can gain when we consider materiality alongside text. The layout of a music sheet, the binding of a religious poem, a hidden recipe, can all denote meaning beyond what is found in the words themselves. Here we see objects speak for themselves, allowing us to piece together history, ‘reading’ their materiality for clues, using all our senses to analyse their meanings.

Materiality, the early modern, and words…

Early modern studies have seen a wave of ‘material’ and ‘object’ related articles, conferences, books, and edited volumes over the last two decades. This has opened up an entire field of ‘material culture studies’ within the discipline, something that was once the sole study of archaeologists and anthropologists. Some have even dubbed this as a ‘Material Turn’. From the more literary materials of books, manuscripts, paper and parchment, and printing presses, to the early modern ‘everyday’: clothing, food, tableware, tobacco, clocks, and chocolate. No object can now be deemed as ‘unimportant’ to historical and literary study, for all provide insight into the early modern world not before offered by text alone.

My research seeks to examine the role of language in early modern material studies by exploring how words were conceived as ‘objects’ of exchange in the literary and cultural market place, with a special focus on Elizabethan and Jacobean prose and drama. It rejects any split between the word and the object, instead seeing the intersection between the two.

An interest in the material is not just for early modernists, or even academics. Materiality and the themes it entails appears in art, history, theatre, film, and culture. Materiality has become a buzzword for all explorations of objects, materials, embodiment, and consumption, and this blog will cover a range of topics to understand what the materiality of language might mean across disciplines.


Image: Frans Fracken the Younger, Chamber of Art and Curiosities (1636) —- Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna