2017 - 2018 Critical Witness Sessions

Below are the descriptions for the Critical Witness sessions that took place during the 2017-2018 academic year. These include the title, author, and a brief description of the book selected along with the specific sections that were read.

November 1, 2017

Book: Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600-1830

Author: Jonathan Eacott

Sections Read: Introduction and Chapter 1

Brief Description: Linking four continents over three centuries, Selling Empire demonstrates the centrality of India--both as an idea and a place--to the making of a global British imperial system. In the seventeenth century, Britain was economically, politically, and militarily weaker than India, but Britons increasingly made use of India's strengths to build their own empire in both America and Asia. Early English colonial promoters first envisioned America as a potential India, hoping that the nascent Atlantic colonies could produce Asian raw materials. When this vision failed to materialize, Britain's circulation of Indian manufactured goods--from umbrellas to cottons--to Africa, Europe, and America then established an empire of goods and the supposed good of empire. Eacott recasts the British empire's chronology and geography by situating the development of consumer culture, the American Revolution, and British industrialization in the commercial intersections linking the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. From the seventeenth into the nineteenth century and beyond, the evolving networks, ideas, and fashions that bound India, Britain, and America shaped persisting global structures of economic and cultural interdependence.

December 6, 2017

Book: A History of European Literature: The West and the World from Antiquity to the Present

Author: Walter Cohen

Sections Read: Introduction

Essay: “The Politics of Mobility: Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Jan Vos’s Aran en Titus and the Poetics of Empire” in Politics and Aesthetics in European Baroque and Classicist Tragedy

Author: Helmer Helmers

Brief Description: In A History of European Literature: The West and the World from Antiquity to the Present, the history of European literature and of each of its standard periods can be illuminated by comparative consideration of the different literary languages within Europe and of the relationship of European literature to world literature. The global history of literature from the ancient Near East to the present can be divided into five main, overlapping stages. European literature emerges from world literature before the birth of Europe—during antiquity, whose classical languages are the heirs to the complex heritage of the Old World. That legacy is later transmitted by Latin to the various vernaculars. The distinctiveness of this process lies in the gradual displacement of Latin by a system of intravernacular leadership dominated by the Romance languages. An additional unique feature is the global expansion of Western Europe’s languages and characteristic literary forms, especially the novel, beginning in the Renaissance. This expansion ultimately issues in the reintegration of European literature into world literature, in the creation of today’s global literary system. It is in these interrelated trajectories that the specificity of European literature is to be found. The ongoing relationship of European literature to other parts of the world emerges most clearly at the level not of theme or mimesis but of form. One conclusion is that literary history possesses a certain systematicity. Another is that language and literature are not only the products of major historical change but also its agents. Such claims, finally, depend on rejecting the opposition between the general and the specific, between synthetic and local knowledge.

Politics and Aesthetics in European Baroque and Classicist Tragedy is a volume of essays investigating European tragedy in the seventeenth century, comparing Shakespeare, Vondel, Gryphius, Racine and several other vernacular tragedians, together with consideration of neo-Latin dramas by Jesuits and other playwrights. To what extent were similar themes, plots, structures and styles elaborated? How is difference as well as similarity to be accounted for? European drama is beginning to be considered outside of the singular vernacular frameworks in which it has been largely confined (as instanced in the conferences and volumes of essays held in the Universities of Munich and Berlin 2010-12), but up-to-date secondary material is sparse and difficult to obtain. This volume intends to help remedy that deficit by addressing the drama in a full political, religious, legal and social context, and by considering the plays as interventions in those contexts.

February 7, 2018

Book: Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World

Author: Michael Guasco

Sections Read: Introduction and Chapter 4

Brief Description: In wide-ranging detail, Slaves and Englishmen demonstrates how slavery shaped the ways the English interacted with people and places throughout the Atlantic world. By examining the myriad forms and meanings of human bondage in an international context, Michael Guasco illustrates the significance of slavery in the early modern world before the rise of the plantation system or the emergence of modern racism. As this revealing history shows, the implications of slavery were closely connected to the question of what it meant to be English in the Atlantic world. Presented by

March 7, 2018

Book: Power of Gifts

Author: Felicity Heal

Sections Read: Chapters 1 and 2

Brief Description: The Power of Gifts is aboutgifts and benefits - what they were, and how they were offered and received in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It shows that the mode of giving, as well as what was given, was crucial to social bonding and political success.'The volume moves from a general consideration of the nature of the gift to an exploration of the politics of giving. In the latter chapters some of the well-known rituals of English court life - the New Year ceremony, royal progresses, diplomatic missions - are viewed through the prism of gift-exchange. Gifts to monarchs or their ministers could focus attention on the donor, those from the crown could offer some assurance of favor. These fundamentals remained the same throughout the century and a half before the Civil War, but the attitude of individual monarchs altered specific behavior. Elizabeth expected to be wooed with gifts and dispensed benefits largely for service rendered, James I modeled giving as the largess of the Renaissance prince, Charles I's gift-exchanges focused on the art collecting of his coterie. And always in both politics and the law courts there was the danger that gifts would be corroded, morphing from acceptable behavior into bribes and corruption. The Power of Gifts explores prescriptive literature, pamphlets, correspondence, legal cases and financial records, to illuminate social attitudes and behavior through a rich series of examples and case-studies. Presented by long-term Folger-Mellon Fellow Julianne Werlin.

April 4, 2018

Book: Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science

Author: Richard Yeo

Sections Read: Introduction and Chapter 5

Book: Sociable Knowledge: Natural History and the Nation in Early Modern Britain

Author: Elizabeth Yale

Sections Read: Introduction and first half of Chapter 4

Brief Description: The selections from these two recent books address important "paratexts" for the study of natural philosophy in 17th-century England: scientific correspondence (in Elizabeth Yale's Sociable Knowledge) and notebooks (in Richard Yeo's Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science). Both of these studies have been enormously helpful to Folger Fellow Dr. Jessica Wolfe in her work on the physician and naturalist Thomas Browne, who bequeathed to posterity a sizable correspondence with fellow natural philosophers including John Evelyn, Henry Power, and George Ent, as well as a dauntingly voluminous (and often indecipherable) collection of notebooks, mostly held at the British Library. Dr. Wolfe is interested in how both of these recent studies at once extend and complicate prior scholarly arguments about the nature of scientific authority and the establishment of truth claims. That is, how do the particular kinds of primary materials under investigation here help us to understand more fully and with greater subtlety key terms and concepts employed by historians of the "scientific revolution", such as "experience," "observation," "experiment," "practice," and "collaboration"? (We can also discuss why she’s putting the term "scientific revolution" in quotation marks, whether it was a discrete event and if so, where and when that event took place).