Crossroads of Knowledge in Chicago

At the end of March, hundreds of early modernists converged on Chicago for the Renaissance Society of America Annual Meeting 2017, among them the team from the ERC-funded project Crossroads of Knowledge in Early Modern England: The Place of Literature.

At the end of March, hundreds of early modernists converged on Chicago for the Renaissance Society of America Annual Meeting 2017, among them the team from the ERC-funded project Crossroads of Knowledge in Early Modern England: The Place of Literature. The conference is perhaps the largest in the world for interdisciplinary early modern studies, drawing hundreds of international participants at all stages of their academic careers to assemble for panels ranging from 'Jesuit Libraries' to 'Virginity in Song' to 'Early Modern Experience.'

Our project, based jointly at the Faculty of English and CRASSH, is funded by an ERC Consolidator Grant, and is led by Dr Subha Mukherji, Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of English. As you can see in greater depth from the CRASSH website, the Crossroads project seeks to uncover the interface between imaginative literature and epistemology in its wider sense in early modern England (1500–1700). In the words of our Principal Investigator:

This period of intense literary production saw the cultural forces of humanism and the Reformation collide; crucial shifts in the law; scientific advancement; and dramatic expansion in trade and travel. At stake across the board was knowledge: its theories and technologies, its excitements and anxieties. We examine intersections between literary forms and apparently disparate areas of thinking about ways of knowing; at the same time, we remain attentive to the thresholds between these more explicitly epistemic disciplines.

These themes motivated both our session and choice of the RSA for precisely the reasons outlined in Alison Searle's tweet:

This year, the RSA was held in the Palmer House Hilton in the neighbourhood of the city known as The Loop. Architecturally, Chicago is a pretty interesting place, and the Palmer House is certainly no exception. First built in 1871, the hotel fell victim to the Great Chicago Fire less than two weeks after it opened its doors only to be rebuilt in even grander fashion in 1873.

Fun fact: Palmer House co-founder Bertha Palmer's (née Hilton Honore) interest in and collection of works by French Impressionists later shaped the future of the Chicago Art Institute, helping to develop what became the largest collection of impressionist art outside of France. One perk of conference attendance was a 50% discount on the standard ticket price to stare for hours at Monet's sultry, muted portrayals of Westminster.

Our panel, set for the 8.30-10:00am slot on Friday 30th was, thanks to jetlag, surprisingly easy to make since we were all wide awake at 5:00am. We might not have anticipated hastily printing off copies of forgotten papers in the hotel's business centre, but one thing we remembered to pack was the English weather.

The combination of the time slot and the downpour meant our audience was packed with academics working in Europe for whom the charm of Dunkin' Donuts had already worn thin. Despite having to compete with Anthony Grafton (not to mention the customary umpteen concurrent sessions) we attracted an audience comprised of both friends of the project and other interested parties for whose sustained attention and generous questions we are very grateful.

Regina Schwartz, Professor of English at Northwestern and a previous Visiting Fellow at Crossroads, eagerly volunteered to chair our panel, while our PI was best placed to tie things together and to act as respondent. Three of our four post-doctoral Research Associates — Rachel E. Holmes (me), Tim Stuart-Buttle, and Rebecca Tomlin — presented papers from disparate disciplinary outlooks and, in line with the project methodology, resonances between them emerged.

Rebecca Tomlin, the Research Associate responsible for the strand of the project concerned with early economic thinking, started us off with an excellent paper called 'B(u)y the Book: the "Exquisite Art" of double-entry book-keeping.' Becky took up the writings of James Peele and Richard Dafforne about accounting and explored the tension between theory and practice. She used early modern double-entry book-keeping manuals as her point of entry, interrograting to what extent knowledge of a practical art can be textually communicated. Reading Cassio from Shakespeare's Othello as symbolic of this new-fangled practice, she opened out newness and difficulty as both productive and distrusted epistemic categories. In the course of her paper, she neatly integrated this into a broader narrative which mapped shifts in the way accounting pedagogy was discussed onto changing ways of knowing.

I then took the baton and opened out the focus from early modern England in tackling the transnational legal concerns with suspicion, proof, and private sexual matters. My paper, '"Hombres como yo / no ven, basta que [...] sospechen": Knowing Adultery in Renaissance Drama' drew from an article I have forthcoming in a special issue of Forum for Modern Language Studies and considered Shakespeare's Othello alongside Pedro Calderón de la Barca's El médico de su honra. In those plays, neither Shakespeare's Desdemona nor Calderón's Mencía have actually committed adultery, but the compromised situations in which they are represented illustrate the power of evidence – largely based in perception – to persuade. Given that I am responsible for the legal strand of the project, my focus was the epistemic challenges posed by adultery, and the role of proof and plausibility on stage and at law.

Our postdoc on the Theology strand, Tim Stuart-Buttle, gave the final paper of the panel, speaking about 'John Locke on Social Knowledge and Neighbourly Constraint,' and taking up the reputational thread that ran through mine and Becky's contributions. Tim was interested in discrepancies between public and self-knowledge, asking through his reading of Locke what societies know that individuals cannot. He recovered the importance of social knowledge to Locke, suggesting that men's concern for their reputation in the seventeenth century acted both as a form of self-policing and helped them to comprehend morality.

Subha Mukherji rounded things off with a characteristically wide-ranging and insightful response, drawing out questions of differing disciplinary investments and their productive thresholds, authenticity and withholding, legibility and representability, rationality versus affect, and the usefulness or vitality of performing the control of knowledge in various contexts.

Despite some conference-wide problems with internet connectivity, our panel was well-received on Twitter:

And Elizabeth Swann, our postdoc on the Natural Philosophy strand, was with us virtually:

After the session, we went for a group jaunt to a digital humanities panel, preparing for Crossroads own forays into the field as we take advantage of a Cambridge Humanities Research Grant this summer. Perhaps more on that soon.

For further information on the project and our activities, please contact Or find us on Twitter @EMCrossroads. Oh, and one more thing #CompulsoryBeanSelfie.


Photo Credits: Photos 1 and 4 by Rebecca Tomlin; Photos 2 and 3 by Rachel E. Holmes

Funded by the European Research Council under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ ERC grant agreement no 617849

Posted: Wednesday 10 May 2017

Contributor: Rachel E. Holmes

Crossroads of Knowledge in Chicago

Rachel E. Holmes, Research Associate at Crossroads of Knowledge, Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College