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Sophie Chiari et Hélène Palma (eds.), Transmission and transgression: Cultural Challenges in Early Modern England

“Textuelles, Univers Littéraires”, Aix-en-Provence : Presses Universitaires de Provence, 2014, 208 p, ISBN : 9-782853-999403. 20 €.
Guillaume COATALEN
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Sophie Chiari et Hélène Palma (eds.), Transmission and transgression: Cultural Challenges in Early Modern England. “Textuelles, Univers Littéraires”, Aix-en-Provence : Presses Universitaires de Provence, 2014, 208 p, ISBN : 9-782853-999403. 20 €.

Texte intégral

1The volume is divided into three parts, “Religion, Ideology and Philosophy”, “Art and Science”, “Travelling and Circulation” and contains ten chapters and an appendix followed by a general bibliography and an index. The title of the third part is not as straightforward as the other two and while religion, ideology, philosophy, art and science belong to spheres of knowledge or types of discourse, travelling and circulation are almost synonymous terms both concrete and abstract. It turns out that the third part centres more accurately on the circulation of English translations from the Italian. Excluding the appendix, the text amounts to roughly 150 pages, which account for a fairly slim volume. This is both a strength and a weakness, for certain contributions remain a bit frustrating because of their sizes.

2Chronologically, the contributions go from the Middle Ages to the beginning of the eighteenth century. By the end of the seventeenth century religious tolerance had grown and consequently transgression had lost most of its sting, which was certainly a sign of political and social progress, as noted by Pierre Lurbe. Unsurprisingly, a majority of the studies gathered in the collection are concerned with the sixteenth century and, more specifically, the end of the century, when transmission and transgression in both the religious and political arenas experienced the greatest tensions.

3The book bears a catchy title with its two “trans” prefixed terms while the suitably all-encompassing subtitle “Cultural challenges in early modern England” points to “cultural studies”, probably to appeal to a greater readership than literary historians. The humble price of 20 euros for an attractive and well-illustrated publication, even if it is a paperback, is a pleasant surprise in an academic market where most books are beyond the purses of specialists and lesser known libraries. The theme of the book is not particularly new, as acknowledged by the editors themselves (12) and the obligatory references to Greenblatt, Foucault and Derrida sometimes make the collection sound slightly passé.

4The chapters cover a lot of ground, perhaps too much ground, and beyond the topic no real unity transpires, but this is to be expected in proceedings of a conference. No single thesis binds the chapters, which are written in different styles. These, however, ask multiple highly stimulating questions such as the place of analogy in literary criticism, a topic on which several monographs could be written. The book seeks to promote early modern English studies, which is praiseworthy but too modest a goal. Some contributions are extremely short, and some only tenuously related to the theme of the book.

5That being said, the book gathers interesting contributions, notably on translation, which lies at the heart of the dialectics of transmission and transgression. Specialists and non-specialists alike would agree that to translate is to transmit and to transgress even when the strictest accuracy – a tricky notion in translation studies if ever there was one – is sought after, which was rarely the case in the sixteenth century. The book might have been structured differently with a part devoted to translation, since it’s the concern of three contributions.

6In part I, Jean-Marie Maguin briefly explores the tradition of the fatal tree or hanging tree and relates it to both the tree of knowledge and Christ’s cross. He warns against an excessive reliance on intertextuality and encourages critics to consider “anthropological and cultural patterns” (27), which comes across as a return to the type of criticism produced by Bachelard in the 1940s. Why not? But the problem which he does not address is that of boundaries. Where is the critic supposed to draw a line? In an engaging chapter on “Shakespeare and Modern Evil”, Margaret Jones-Davies, who spent many years working on Ockham, shows that Shakespeare developed a conception of secularized transcendence based on the nominalist definition of evil being not in the act but in the intention. Pierre Lurbe examines the type of response John Toland’s 1699 transgressive Life of Milton had among Anglican clergymen. He recalls that the private ownership of Milton’s Defensio pro Populo Anglicano and of his Eikonoklastes was forbidden in the Restoration. Not only did Toland voice Republican ideals, he ironically cast doubt on the miraculous healing powers of Charles I, and of all kings by extension, when he refused to mourn the king’s beheading on St Charles’s day.

7In part II, Pierre Iselin considers the apology of music in English pamphlets from 1579 to 1601. This is a decisive period for both English music and vernacular plays. Ultimately, music boosted national pride and while the most intransigent Puritans condemned it, musical settings of the psalms played a central part in the liturgy of the newly founded Church. Mickaël Popelard ponders on the changing image of mathematicians and scientists in general, from dubious conjurors to established gentlemen. Gradually, science became socially acceptable in the course of the seventeenth century with the rise of reason and a flourishing trade which rested on accelerating technological change. Pierre Carboni offers a fresh reading of James Thomson’s Poem to Newton (1727). He convincingly proves that Thomson’s piece is not just a conventional panegyric but a full-blown poetic manifesto which turns the poet into a demiurge whose limitless powers transcend the distinction between poetry and science. Thus, central Romantic tenets as found in Shelley’s Defence of Poetry already appear a century earlier, perhaps signalling the birth of English Romanticism.

8Part III starts with William T. Rossiter’s essay on “Translatio and Imitatio in the Poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt”, which is the longest and most thought provoking contribution in the collection. The starting point of Rossiter’s reflexion is Wyatt’s 1541 Defence in which he distinguishes between authorial intentions (intentio autoris) and the reader’s hermeneutical work or construction of meaning (intentio lectoris). This is not just a clever way to repel accusations but a fundamental critical distinction articulated four centuries before, say, Paul de Man. Rossiter deftly applies in potentia borrowed from scholastics to Wyatt’s attention to minute details in his own verse to prove that the poet’s transgression is in potentia, as it were. Wyatt’s place in the canon as one of the most subtle poets seems to be ever expanding. Anne Geoffroy’s analysis centres on Robert Greene’s Royal Exchange (1590), a disguised translation of an Italian collection of proverbs by Orazio Rinaldi, a Bolognese humanist, to which he adds a description of Venice. The English were fascinated by the Republic, with its skilful courtesans and refined culture. The translator’s deliberate transgressions of the original text served the praise of London. In a related contribution, Christophe Camard tries to understand why Italy had such a negative image in England and argues it was due to the numerous popular translations of novellas, which were originally moral tales for the Italians themselves, taken out of context and understood too literally by English readers. The last chapter looks into “The Publicity of John Taylor, the Water-Poet”, a truly transgressive writer who managed to transcend his lowly origins through a series of marketing coups. What singles him out is his uncanny ability to create an attractive public image which makes him far more than an author of trotting nonsensical verse.

9A few typos and clumsy wordings, among them “…at the service of a transgressive form of literature at the service…” (16), “ascend (with speculative wigs) in spirit” (81), “The correspondence […] has been edited […] in 2003” (157), mar the otherwise competent editing. At first, I thought the pages were unpaginated before I discovered the grey rectangles in the middle of the right margin. But these are of course negligible grievances in a welcome publication.

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Guillaume COATALEN, « Sophie Chiari et Hélène Palma (eds.), Transmission and transgression: Cultural Challenges in Early Modern England », E-rea [En ligne], 13.2 | 2016, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2016, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL :

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Guillaume COATALEN

Université de Cergy-Pontoise

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