Study Questions Seminar on Prose Forms of the 17th Century, 2019

Study Question 1

So far, we have discussed the historical background of our seminar and the development of a ‘proto-literary’ sphere in London from the middle of the 17th century. When Ingo Berensmeyer wrote that some aspects of the 17th century appear as astonishingly similar to some aspects of our 21st century situation today, even though this was a completely different culture, what do you think he had in mind? And which aspects, on the other hand, are completely foreign to you, especially after your first encounter with original texts from the time?

  • 600 words
  • Deadline: 13 November 2019


  1. To refer to the cultural situation in England in the 17th century, Ingo Berensmeyer uses the expression “Proto-literary” discourse field, in order describe that abstract “dimension” in which middle-class people began for the first time in modern history to form their opinion through the act of reading, which became gradually more than passive consumption: a real and proper tool by which men could give a personal orientation to the world around them.
    With time, the public of readers widened and very soon people were surrounded, disoriented and fascinated by the enormous number of pamphlets, articles, treaties, novellas and, a little bit later, novels, which gave finally voices to different opinions never expressed before among the lower classes.
    This cultural scenario, of huge growth of communicative tools, is not very much different from today’s society of cyber-interactions and mass-media bombings.
    In our contemporaneity, we are constantly overcrowded by messages, emails, commercials, books, news, fake news, status updates, pictures and we have to manage to get through this communicative chaos using only our critical thinking. Reading, and most of all, a careful reading is now become too much important, because we cannot believe whatever we read, and now more than ever, every information must be passed under a detailed critical analysis.
    However, free thinking and free expression both now and then have fought for their life, and sometimes this fight came with a heavy price, because of the many obstacles in their path, whose one of the greatest was Censorship.
    Censorship is a plague still well spread even at our times, typical not only of the 17th century, as one may think. According to “Reporters Sans Frontières”, “the number of countries considered safe, i.e. countries in which journalists can work without risking their life, has been decreasing year after year, whereas authoritarian governments continue to increase their control over media”.
    A very tragically famous censoring Institution in 1600 was the ecclesiastical court “Inquisizione del santo Offizio”, responsible for condemning free thinkers who dared fight the church of Rome and its dogmatic truths. For example, Giordano Bruno was burnt alive on the 17th February 1600 in Campo de’ Fiori in Rome for having postulated the infiniteness of the Universe, while Galileo Galilei was tortured, imprisoned, and forced to retreat his theories. All these thinkers were clashed for having tried to break the traditional beliefs and spoil nature from his veil of esoteric mysteries. Their works carried a fatal strike to what at those time was the paradigm of seeing life, as it happened with the astonishing scientific discoveries of the 20th century and our contemporary ones.
    The new-established cosmological system conveyed also dramatic philosophical, scientific, historical, and social repercussions for the 1600 society which however were not perceived at best by common people, who were too much linked to a magic-occult and religious vision of nature and life, as we can see in the “Black Munday”’s terrible predictions for the solar eclipse of 1652, which was probably more read and well-known among the humble people of the British Isle’s than Kopernigk’s “De rivolutionibus orbium coelestium”. And that is where the different between the present and that past lies, where the crack broadens.
    Our 21th century society has inherited all the critical knowledges to identify and analyse the extent of the past changes but also of the present ones. Therefore, we all are fully capable of understanding how our reality is constantly changing and evolving around us, and it is then our duty to teach the ones who are not so, providing them with the tools our past has gifted us.
    Reading and thinking were and still are the best compass for not getting lost in our kaleidoscopic reality.

    • Dear Francesco, thank you for your thoughts, which read a bit like a pamphlet for free speech themselves, good job.
      Actually, censorship was lifted in England by the anti-royal parliament in 1641, because they (rightly) thought that would stoke anti-royal anger in the public. On a much much larger scale, maybe the way in which social media have developed into partial hate stoking machine, should also give us thoughts about the way in which we can handle the friction between freedom of expression and a rule-bound social sphere today…

  2. Reading texts from the 17th century is very interesting, as it not only gives us an insight into historical events but also social norms that are reflected in the texts and ways of using the medium of the written text that are sometimes similar, sometimes completely different from what we are used to. First of all, it is important to state that there are some obstacles in reading texts from such a different time period. Not only is the font of original documents sometimes hard to decipher, but the language authors used and the references they make to other texts or events can be confusing to contemporary readers. Therefore, it is unlikely that readers today have a similar response to the texts as readers at the time did.
    In many texts and text forms of the 17th century, we as readers can find familiar structures or approaches. This is because many of what we nowadays consider literary genres were starting to develop during that time. So while there were no novels or short stories in the modern sense, different sorts of texts already contained some of their characteristic features. Despite using extremely eloquent language, Elizabethan novellas for example provided the reader with a seemingly realistic narrative and characters with rich inner lives. Furthermore, there were jest books with humorous short paragraphs that similar to modern short stories had a very condensed plot, although modern short stories tend to also focus on the inner lives of their characters. Consequently, modern readers can often find seemingly modern aspects in 17th century texts, although no “genre” of that time exists in its exact form in contemporary literature.
    Additionally, the concept of separate genres as a system of categorizing different kinds of texts was not as developed as it is today. Therefore, many texts show aspects of what we would today consider very different genres. A good example for that is the text “Black Munday” (1651). The author presents it as a prediction of the future, but the methods that are used are a mix of what today we would call scientific facts, like the time and duration of the solar eclipse in 1652, but also sometimes belong more in the realm of astrology and religion. In the context of the time period, this is not very surprising, as religion still played a bigger role in most people’s lives. If a scientific paper today told readers that a solar eclipse and its socio-political effects were a punishment by god, it would raise a lot of eyebrows. Likewise, astrology was used in the 17th century to predict everything from small, everyday events to big political events like wars or changes in government. I find it hard to judge whether readers at the time took texts like this literally, but the number of pamphlets produced that were similar to it does suggest that it was taken more seriously than it would be today.
    On the other hand, texts that were explicitly fictional were not very common, as they were often considered a form of lies. This can be seen in the way some authors prefaced their fictional texts. Margaret Cavendish for example prefaces The Blazing World (1666) with a two-page explanation as to why she wrote a fictional text, which she concludes by writing, “I have made a world of my own: for which no body, I hope, will blame me, since it is in every one’s power to do the like.” (Cavendish, 124). The fact that she has to justify her writing this way indicates that she was breaking writing conventions at the time. Today, authors do not have to excuse themselves like this for writing fiction and reading Cavendish’s explanation was very surprising to me.

    • Dear Jasmin, thank you very much for your thoughts. I like the idea of reading a paper and finding a prediction like black munday in it 😉
      If you, or anyone in the course for that matter, are interested in the history of astrology, and how it changed from a powerful knowledge system into this trifling, fortune-cookie like “horoscopes” at the back of the newspaper, there is a good short documentation called “astrology explained” on that streaming platform that starts with “N”.

  3. The 17th century was a time, in which astonishingly many things happened. There was a lot going on, politically, in Europe; the English being the first European people to behead their king. A middle class slowly began to emerge, which was educated and literary. In the literary field also many things began to change and to develop. Not only writing concerned, but also the readership received a new importance.
    Many things from then didn’t change to how literature works today, and I think that this is what Berensmeyer was thinking of.
    No author could know how their works were being perceived by the people. In the 17th century people wrote about their opinions of other texts, so they could influence other people with their stances. Some authors actually wrote for a living, so they needed the readers to like and buy what they wrote.
    Berensmeyer also mentioned that interpretation is always dependent on the own point of view, which makes it difficult to analyse work from the 17th century. But no one can read a book and know exactly what the author had in mind while writing it. Besides, nowadays as in the 17th century are so many different political, social, and cultural points of view that one has to do a thorough research on the author’s life to be able to understand the work better. I’m not saying that this wasn’t the case in the other centuries too, only that this didn’t change until now.
    It is clearly seen over the period of the 17th century how different situations influence the literary field, and that still happens nowadays. Rules to specific genres can change, and completely new genres can emerge.
    The style of writing also changed during the 17th century. Authors started to write how things could really happen, and how characters would really perceive situations. Berensmeyer used the term of contingency to describe this phenomenon. It is not something similar to our time, since we’ve practised contingency now for centuries, but it certainly survived all the other literary changes over the time.
    It surprised me pretty much to find so many things from the 17th century which are similar to our time, since I’ve read that this century stands out of all the others, because it would was so different.
    But with having all the background knowledge, things started to make sense to me.
    Of course, people would not want their king anymore, if he’s not treating his people well, so they are dreaming about getting rid of him, are interpreting his soon downfall from celestial events. And of course, they would want to write what they wanted to write about the way they wanted to write it. There were brave people, slowly changing things towards modernity. There were curious people, wanting to learn how to read to be able to know things.
    Aspects about the 17th century might have seemed foreign at first, but while gathering more knowledge it became easier to understand them, and to find them logical in the end. Clearly, things were different back then, but the people were still humans. The only thing which made them act differently than is what had already happened in the past. The 16th century had just ended, and since they had no idea of what other things people would do in the future, they could only act like people of the 17th century. We know there had been three other centuries after that, and we know what had happened then, and these centuries have also changed many ways and societies, but we’re still the exact same as the people from the 17th century. How we live is because of what we know of the past. We can only be people of the 21th century, and of no other.

    • Dear Onisha, thank you for your thoughts. I think “contingency” is referring to another concept here – it correlates more with the German idea of “zufällig”, so that in the 17th century people realised more strongly than previously that social order was not god-given, and that circumstances – your own one’s as the ones of the country – could change rapidly. Do you really think that “people are the same” through centuries and cultures? Doesn’t our culture, the ways we live and the systems in which we are embedded, make us who we are as human beings? Are there things within us that are universal, unconnected to culture, and if yes, how much do they mean in our personal lives?

  4. It is very important for us, as students of literature, to know about which forms of literature there were in the past, in order to better understand its evolution and the final result that corresponds to our era.
    In the 17th century the first newspapers arrived to England. As you may imagine, this supposed a huge impact in the society, as the people were informed about what it happened around them, not only in their own country, but also abroad. In this way, people were able to start thinking about those facts, and form a consistent opinion about them. Human beings need external stimuli to start reflecting, and in that time they began to do it in a more open-minded way, because they could start to know about other countries, which may have provoked them to make themselves many questions.
    However, with the information comes the censorship, and this new phenomenon was an opportunity for the upper class to have the people under control and manipulate what they wanted them to know. This aspect from the early modern writing is better explained in Randy Robertson’s book: Censorship and Conflict in Seventeenth-Century England.
    This consequence of the expansion of information has a lot to do with our current society, especially because we are boomed by information all the time, not already only for the news, but for much more. Social media have had such an influence in the society that nowadays they even offer a job, a very different type one from what we had known until now. Moreover, the access to information is immediate: all of us have a mobile phone in our hands, no matter where we are, we can be aware of what is going on in the world nearly live. Unfortunately, censorship has not gone forever and the more we know, the more critical sense we have to apply to that knowledge.
    On the other hand, there is an aspect which can be both, similar or different comparing the 17th century reader society to ours. Firstly, the similar question is an undeniable fact. Every reader has a personal interpretation from the text, no matter its nature, genre or structure, since we start from the knowledge that we have (which is different in everyone) related to the information we are reading. Nevertheless, this previous knowledge is what differences us from the 17th century society. In that time, people were just starting to read and to reach some kind of cultural value, therefore, it was more difficult to get what the author wanted to transmit, as he would probably be in a higher educative level. Although in that time the middle class began to educate themselves in a more popular way, we cannot compare it with what we are now. Nowadays, thanks to the education that we receive since we are a child, we do have a lot of more cultural references in our minds that can help us to arrive to the conclusion that the writer wanted to.
    Finally, another aspect that took my attention and seemed foreign to me was the structure of the text, specifically the one from Black Munday. Although it pretends to be a text of scientific nature it is written like a novel. The different elements of the natural event are not classified or separated like it would be today in a scientific article, and it looks more like a fantasy short story. However, we cannot ignore the religious elements that are really present along the text, which are very related to the way in which they perceived life and the events that surrounded them. Definitively, each period of our history contributes and defines what we are in the 21st century.

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