Monday, December 7, 2015

Bonnie Lander Johnson's "Chastity in Early Stuart Literature and Culture"

Bonnie Lander Johnson is Fellow and Lecturer at Selwyn College, Cambridge.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Chastity in Early Stuart Literature and Culture, and reported the following:
Is modern science the bastard child formed in an act of unchastity? The 1663 poem that features on page 99 of Chastity in Early Stuart Literature and Culture suggests that it was. Abraham Cowley’s ode to his friend William Harvey draws on the classical literary tradition of chastity in order to praise the great anatomist as a plunderer of nature’s secrets and a methodological trail-blazer. Harvey’s empiricism was rebellious: the medical establishment at the time focussed on disputation and looked for truth in its philosophical tradition. Instead, Harvey investigated the body on the slab before him. Cowley’s poem describes this new approach as a glorious rape of nature, a conquest of both nature herself and of Harvey’s competitors, who had failed to properly advance upon the truths hidden in the body. The poem goes on to argue that the rape is redeemed because the truth it reveals is God’s design. Cowley’s Harvey may have performed an act of unchastity upon coy nature but ultimately his investigation revealed those truths written on the body by God himself. In an inversion not unlike Donne’s ‘Batter my heart three-person’d God’, the sanctifying revelation enabled by Cowley’s Harvey undercuts the violence of the doctor’s search, turning ravishment into the revelation of God’s truth.

Cowley’s Ode playfully pushes against a number of early modern definitions of, and concerns about, chastity and unchastity. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the intersection between medical innovation, theological reform, and representations of chastity (both popular and literary) were numerous. However, the abiding interest in Elizabeth I as chaste icon of the British monarchy has obscured the fact that the decades following her death were crucially concerned with the virtue and how it shaped both private and public life. Chastity in Early Stuart Literature and Culture explores this concern through literature and drama, sermons and political tracts, court ceremonies (including birthing rituals), legal trials, architectural theory, and plague writing. It concludes that chastity was a key consideration in the conflicts that led up to the Civil Wars and shaped the way literary genres were understood.

For those contemporary westerners who do not observe chastity for religious reasons, the virtue has all but faded into obscurity. It is perhaps for this reason that we have forgotten its crucial historical importance. This book seeks to remind its readers that for centuries chastity mattered – not just as a way of personal sanctity, but as political policy, literary trope, medical imperative, and revolutionary force.
Learn more about Chastity in Early Stuart Literature and Culture at the Cambridge University Press website.

Cover story: Chastity in Early Stuart Literature and Culture.

--Marshal Zeringue