A Libelous History of England, c. 1570–1688 (seminar)

For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.

Spring 2009

The history of libels–bitter, satirical, defamatory and sometimes obscene texts, in prose or verse, sung or chanted, illicitly printed or circulated in handwritten copies–offers a unique window into the political and literary culture of early modern England. Employing a multi-disciplinary perspective that approaches political history as cultural history, this seminar explored the various meanings of libelous political discourse from the late Elizabethan era to the Glorious Revolution. Working with the Folger’s rich collection of printed books, news diaries, and poetry miscellanies, as well as utilizing the concurrent Folger exhibition, Breaking News: Renaissance Journalism and the Birth of the Newspaper on the culture of news in early modern England, participants explored libels from two broad perspectives: as forms of political media, circulating in the early modern literary underground that constituted a crucial element of the emergent political public sphere; and as dynamic and complex political representations of monarchs and ministers, parliaments and policies, that reveal many of the ideological fissures and tensions that shaped the turbulent history of late Tudor and Stuart England.

This seminar was designed for participants working in a number of disciplines and in a variety of fields -- for participants interested in early modern English politics and political culture, and in early modern religion and religious polemic; participants interested in the history of the book, print culture and early modern reading practices; law and the practices of censorship; the history and theory of the public sphere; in literary culture (in particular prose and verse satire); and in gender studies and the history of sexuality. Ranging from the late Elizabethan to the late Stuart era, the seminar also offered participants an unusually broad prospective on early modern English history. Beginning with the classic Catholic prose libel Leicester's Commonwealth, the seminar moved chronologically, covering, among other topics, the Marprelate and anti-Marprelate writings of the late 1580s and -90s, the problem of court favourites and court scandal in the 1610s and 1620s, the role of "Puritan" underground print in the 1620s and -30s, the incorporation of insult and libel into the polemics of the civil wars and interregnum, and the political and literary significance of the proliferating pornographic and libelous attacks on the Restoration Monarchy. In short, libelous history provides a powerful and unique lens through which to reassess the conflicts and transformations that characterized England's century of revolution.

Director: Alastair Bellany is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University. Author of The Politics of Court Scandal in Early Modern England: News Culture and the Overbury Affair, 1603–1666 (2002), he is also the editor of Early Stuart Libels: An Edition of Poetry from Manuscript Sources (2005, with Andrew McRae).