The Voice of Conscience, 1375–1613 (seminar)

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

This was a late-spring 2010 seminar led by Paul Strohm.

The starting-point of this seminar was the transition from medieval to early modern conscience. The former tends to speak in the voice of collective or general knowledge, declaring what is generally known; the latter in the more particularized and potentially even idiosyncratic voice of “my” or “your” conscience. Participants considered this transition, and its implications, within literary history. They began with several key medieval works (most particularly, Langland’s Piers Plowman) and continued into texts of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, including More’s prison letters, writings of Luther and Calvin, excerpts from Foxe, and Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. The seminar’s reading concluded with Hamlet, a text in which all previous meanings of conscience seem to wash up, jostle, and contend. Among questions posed were: In whose “voice” does conscience speak in a given literary work? Can, and should, scholars speak of a distinctive “Reformation Conscience”? If conscience dwells in the body, does it risk assimilation as an organ or body part? If conscience plays a role in founding the subject, is it to be blamed for the inauguration of an irremediably split subject? What are the implications of such a subject for voice in poetry and for character in drama?

Director: Paul Strohm is Anna Garbedian Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University, and was formerly J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of Medieval Language and Literature at the University of Oxford. His books include: Social Chaucer (1989); Hochon’s Arrow: the Social Imagination of Medieval Texts (1992); England’s Empty Throne: Usurpation and the Language of Legitimation (1998); Theory and the Premodern Text (2000); Politique: Languages of Statecraft from Chaucer to Shakespeare (2005).