CALL FOR PAPERS: An Anatomy of England: Material culture and early modern character sketches


Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines – Paris Saclay, Laboratoire DYPAC (Dynamiques Patrimoniales et Culturelles) EA 2449

The early 17th century vogue for the literary genre of the character sketch reached a height in England after the Protestant humanist Isaac Casaubon published his Latin translation of Theophrastus’s Characters in 1592. Many authors engaged in the challenging formal and stylistic constraints of the character sketch and contributed anatomies of early modern English society. While the golden age glorifying the early Stuarts was celebrated in masques, and the iron age was castigated in pamphlets, character sketches turned out to be precious tools, either to celebrate ideal types and the Christian-Stoic ethos, or to shed light on the alteration process within a changing world, if not a poisoned world, as testified by the sensational Overbury murder case in 1613.

From John Hall’s didactic vein in Characters of Virtues and Vices (1608) to the less satiric tone of John Earle’s Micro-cosmographie(1628) or Brathwaite’s Whimsies (1631), not to mention the witty Overburian Characters, a collective work which went through four editions in 1614 alone, the authors of books of characters compiled miscellanies of juxtaposed fragments, at a time when art collecting was becoming fashionable.

Compared to Egyptian hieroglyphs in the final piece (« What a Character Is ») of the Overburian Characters, given their ability to concentrate many layers of meaning within a few linguistic signs, character sketches inherit from both the epigram and prosopographia, thus providing a gallery of moral types or social positions.

Following the 2017 conference on « objects of travel and travel objects », this project aims to reassess the genre of the character sketch, by shifting the focal point from the study of individuality and psychological features (characterization) to material culture, as suggested by the Greek etymology (“engraving tool”) of the word “character”. The way the representation of objects contributed to an idiosyncratic characterization of types, whether exemplary or satirical will be explored. What links can be traced between commodities and identities? In what way does the inlay of textualised household objects or consumer goods shed light on the social or religious practices of types? To what extent does material culture within character sketches convey anti-materialistic Protestant discourse, or contribute to an alteration of proportions and perspectives inherent in the mannerist artifice of these vignettes?

Participants will for instance address the following issues:

Typology and taxinomy of objects
  • Socio-cultural context and social practices, commodities and market forces.
  • How does material culture engage in the anatomy of English society in character sketches? Which objects participate in the anatomy? (everyday objects, religious, exotic, urban, courtly objects...)
Iron age topoï : dissection, alteration, adulteration
  • To what extent does the association of artefacts to idiosyncratic types point to the process of social change and political corrosion indicative of the early Stuart “iron age”?
Character sketches, letters, the written word and “imprese”
  • Representation and mise en abyme of textual objects, manuscript or printed artefacts (books, letters, legal documents), connection to engraving, imprinting, inscription, discourse on print, medals.
Objects and the dramatisation of writing
  • Affinities of character sketching with dramatic writing, playwrights’s interest in character sketches. In what way may objects/props help characterization of dramatis personae or/and enhance their impressive status? 

Submissions (title and short summary of 250 words), as well as a short biography of the author should be sent to Anne Geoffroy by June 1, 2019. Participants will be notified by the end of June 2019. Presentations should not exceed 20 minutes.

Advisory board:
Susan Baddeley, Université Versailles-St Quentin-en-Yvelines
Sophie Chiari, Université Clermont-Auvergne
Anne Geoffroy, Université Versailles-St Quentin-en-Yvelines
Anne-Marie Miller-Blaise, IUF et Paris 3, Université Sorbonne-Nouvelle