Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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The Palgrave Handbook of Early Modern Literature and Science, ed. Howard Marchitello and Evelyn Tribble (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)

The Palgrave Handbook of Early Modern Literature and Science, ed. Howard Marchitello and Evelyn Tribble (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), ISBN, 978-1-137-46778-2, XLVI + 544 pp., € 213.99

Review by Katherine Walker

[1] An ambitious and timely resource, The Palgrave Handbook of Early Modern Literature and Science is a wide-ranging, multivalent collection covering the intersections of literature and science. Although most essays in the collection focus on English authors—Shakespeare, Donne, and Cavendish, for example—the authors draw from a broad swath of continental sources to capture the intra- and intertextual networks of knowledge production. Together these scholars remind us of the entangled relationship of literature to science in this pre-disciplinary period; practitioners and texts alike crossed modern disciplinary boundaries. In the process, as essay authors demonstrate, the stage becomes a “cognitive laboratory” (Jean E. Feerick 438), the languages of poesy move hearers in physical and philosophical ways (Jenny C. Mann 233), or the troubled confluence of curiosity and the occult meet in seventeenth century natural philosophy (Barbara M. Benedict). Indeed, although scholars will find the individual essays relevant to studies on, for instance, Galileo or Milton, the most valuable contribution of the collection is its larger performance of raising questions about the richly varied movements among literature, science, and science as literature.

[2] Editors Howard Marchitello and Evelyn Tribble devote a significant portion of the introduction to Galileo’s relationship to poetic discourse, particularly his writing “as method” (Intro. xxx). In beginning with one of the recognizable figureheads of the Scientific Revolution, Marchitello and Tribble uncover Galileo’s complex adoption of literary techne and past traditions in his writings. They thus foreground science and literature’s imbrication.

[3] Several essays discuss early modern authors’ rhetorical strategies in grappling with natural philosophical concepts. Liza Blake focuses on the notion of “grounds” in Cavendish’s philosophical and literary works, while Wendy Beth Hyman turns to metaphor “as a forensic device which yielded understandings of the natural world” (27). Similarly, Kristen Poole’s contribution offers a compelling reading of how allegory shapes Bacon’s understanding of methods for reading the natural world. Elizabeth Spiller and James J. Bono separately consider the process of reading, on the one hand Milton’s understanding of reading and matter as a transformative process. Bono, Spiller discusses, analyzes Boyle’s under-recognized notion of Scriptural methods for reading the Book of Nature. Crystal Hall analogously focuses on readerly processes, offering a detailed study of the books interlocutors read and cite in Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems and Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Concerning Two New Sciences.

[4] A significant strength of the collection is its engagement with a variety of primary sources. Mary Floyd-Wilson takes up plague pamphlets in the period to offer a new reading of Romeo and Juliet, arguing that “plague habits of thought” (402) inform the play’s concern with contagion, vitality, and death. Michelle DiMeo’s essay situates Boyle’s recipe collections in a larger discourse surrounding the production and dissemination of receipt books in the period. Focusing on a different genre with female contributors, Jacqueline D. Wernimont discusses the popular Ladies’ Diary of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, focusing on French contexts to read the almanac and considering the women readers who submitted mathematical and literary puzzles for each edition. Reading deeply across medical tracts, Kaara L. Peterson shows how Shakespeare adopts the bed-trick, placing it firmly within “the received early modern medical beliefs about virgins’ bodies that authorize it” (380). Like Peterson, Steven Mentz captures the ways in which positioning a text in alternative discourses and practices yields new insights, in this case with a focus on the experiences of sailors in their encounters with hurricanes across the Atlantic.

[5] Early modern authors borrowed freely from other natural philosophical discoveries. Ofer Gal provides a new reading of imagination in the period, an analysis in conversation with other essays in the collection focusing on how the early moderns understood the new science. Frédérique Aït-Touati, in the penultimate essay in the collection, turns to the related concept of invention in Bacon and Cavendish’s works. Mary Thomas Crane’s contribution situates Donne’s engagement with new natural philosophical insights in “the welter of new ideas and new anxieties about the configuration of the universe” (95) that extended beyond Galileo to Spenser, Gabriel Harvey, and vernacular scientific print authors such as Robert Recorde. Claire Preston also studies Donne but as an influence on Boyle’s recovery narrative in Occasional Reflections. In another essay that explores literary and linguistic relationships, Angus Fletcher considers Bacon’s solution to the entangled problem of religion as a divisive barrier to scientific utopia and argues that Bacon’s solution lies in his unique perspective on literature.

[6] Finally, several essays in the collection turn to understudied mechanical and natural philosophical practices, suggesting persuasively that our scholarly attention on the big precursors to modern scientific method—astronomy, physics, and chemistry, for example—occludes the early modern period’s equally invested understanding of other disciplines. Philip Schwyzer reads Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia alongside contemporary archaeological sciences and Louise Noble uncovers the wide-ranging early modern debate on hydraulic engineering through an examination of diverse authors and genres. Shankar Raman details Milton’s investment in changing conceptions of time and motion alongside Leibniz’s similar preoccupation, while Ian Lawson looks at another disciplinary and textual relationship: Cavendish’s trenchant reading and critique of Hooke. Peter Dear rounds out the collection with a brief consideration of the type of work we do as interdisciplinary scholars. As Dear points out, many essays in the collection not only engage in this interdisciplinary work, but also bring their close reading and archival methods to bear on surprising figures such as Boyle.

[7] The Palgrave Handbook of Early Modern Literature and Science should be on the bookshelf of any scholar interested in the shared histories of literature and science. But what is most significant about the collection is not simply the arguments offered about authors and texts, but rather the performance of the collection itself: it is a significant step forward in our interdisciplinary critical inquiries. Viewing literature and science as “two mutually sustaining and mutually informing systems for the production of knowledge” (Introduction xxiv), this collection equips us with the methodological tools for advancing the study of both systems in a range of historical eras.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, August 2017

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