Crossroads of Knowledge: Literature and Theology in Early Modern England

14 February 2015

Trust Room, Fitzwilliam College

Registeration is now closed.

Please note: The event will start promptly at 9.45 am

This event is being held in the Trust Room at Fitzwilliam College. Please see here for location.

Literature and Theology in Early-Modern England is a one-day colloquium to mark the launch of our new, five-year interdisciplinary research project, funded by the European Research Council. The colloquium will look from a variety of perspectives at the intersection of theology and literature in early modern England, with a particular alertness to the project's overall thematic foci (doubt and unknowing, knowing and knowingness). Over the course of the project we are fortunate to have a number of Visiting Fellows. Our first such Fellow is Professor Debora Shuger (UCLA), who will work with us this term and give a plenary address to the colloquium. 


Plenary Speakers (45 minutes)


  • Professor Tobias Gregory (Catholic University of America) ‘Milton’s anticlericalism’
  • Dr Sophie Read (University of Cambridge) 'What the nose knew: Renaissance theologies of smell’
  • Dr Giles Waller (University of Cambridge) ‘Qui enim securus est, minime securus est': the paradox of securitas in Luther and beyond’
  • Dr Cassandra Gorman (University of Oxford) 'Crossing Calvinism and Lucretius: Lucy Hutchinson's soteriological materialism'
  • Christian Coppa (University of Cambridge) 'Resurrecting sense in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale'
  • Ross Lerner (Princeton University) ‘Allegory and religious fanaticism: Spenser’s organs of divine might'

Chair of Round Table

Accommodation for non-paper giving delegates

We are unable to arrange accommodation, however, the following websites may be of help:

Visit Cambridge
Cambridge Rooms
University of Cambridge accommodation webpage

NB: CRASSH is not able to help with the booking

For further information please contact the Crossroads Research Project Administrator .




Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge and by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ ERC grant agreement no 617849

Saturday 14 February

09.15 - 09.45


09.45 - 10.00

Welcome and opening address

Subha Mukherji (University of Cambridge) Introduction to Crossroads of Knowledge in Early Modern England: The Place of Literature 

10 00 - 11.00

Plenary Lecture

Debora Shuger (UCLA)  The absence of epistemology, or drama and divinity before Descartes

11.00 - 11.15

Coffee break 

11.15 - 12.45

Panel Session 1

  1. Sophie Read (University of Cambridge) What the nose knew: Renaissance theologies of smell
  2. Christian Coppa (University of Cambridge) Resurrecting sense in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale
  3. Ross Lerner (Princeton University) Allegory and religious fanaticism: Spenser’s organs of divine might
12.45 - 13.30


13.30 - 15.00

Panel Session 2

  1. Giles Waller (University of Cambridge) Qui enim securus est, minime securus est: the paradox of securitas in Luther and beyond
  2. Cassandra Gorman (University of Oxford) Crossing Calvinism and Lucretius: Lucy Hutchinson’s soteriological materialism 
  3. Tobias Gregory (Catholic University of America) Milton’s anticlericalism 
15.00 -15.15

Coffee break

15.15 - 16.15

Plenary Lecture

Ethan Shagan (UC Berkeley) How to do things with belief

16.15 - 17.15

Round-table discussion

Chair: Rowan Williams (University of Cambridge)

17.15 - 18.00

Drinks Reception


Dinner at d’Arry’s, King Street. 

Resurrecting sense in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale - Christian Coppa (University of Cambridge)

In this paper I investigate the significance of bodily communication in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. In this play, we encounter on stage a 'body-language' of touch and heat transfer, of blood flow and bloodlines, and of feeding and feasting. These discourses of communication through contact, circulation, and consumption mediate a knowledge that is at once embodied, sensory, and participatory, if necessarily partial and provisional. By mediating such knowledge, this 'body-language' tends toward interpersonal and interpenetrating communion; that is, toward love. Love, in The Winter's Tale, is thus marked by an intensive return to sense, to intercourse with the world and with others in flesh and blood. It is my contention that the recuperation of this sensory body-language offers hope for the redemption, if not resolution, of the tragic rupture of communication in the play caused by skepticism, violence, and rapacious (rather than restorative) consumption.

The body-language of loving communion, I argue, anticipates the 'secular' representation of resurrection with which this play ends. The love embodied in this body-language moves toward and is transfigured by Hermione's resurrectional embrace. Here, warmth and hospitality simultaneously irrupt into and reinvigorate Leontes' frozen and anesthetic world. Might this resurrection of sense, this embodied knowledge mediated through the language of the body, reconcile damaging dualisms between sensation and abstraction, body and mind, language and reality, nature and art, self and other? Bodily resurrection, Shakespeare seems to tell us, is both now and not yet, both here and still to come.

More Necessary to Us, Than the Existence of Angels': Thomas Traherne's Atoms and Souls  - Cassandra Gorman (University of Oxford)

This paper will reveal how Thomas Traherne (1637-74) expanded upon the common theological reception of seventeenth-century atomism to create a means for the obtainment of 'Felicitie' and grace. Traherne muses on the 'indivisible' atom as an object for the accommodation of divine mysteries, a rhetorical move that demands closer attention in the complexity of its interpretative possibilities. The driving force of his investigation is not so much on the atom as a means to deeper investigation of other unseen materials, but on the interior capacity of the individual atom itself. As an entity, he claims it encompasses the span of 'ALL THINGS'. His 'Atom' is more than a distanced literary symbol for the recognition of mortal frailty, or the greatness of God; it comes to function as a model for the 'insatiable' Christian soul, which in Traherne's theology is ever seeking to explore 'All in All'. By reconciling ourselves to the atom, he claims, we can know our soul: 'For Souls are Atoms too, and simple ones'.

Milton’s anticlericalism - Tobias Gregory (Catholic University of America)

John Milton, by his own account, intended as a young man to enter the ministry. We don’t know exactly when and why he decided against it, but his antipathy to professional clergy emerges in his first polemical writings, the “antiprelatical” tracts of 1641-2, and remains salient in his thought for the rest of his career. This paper traces the development of Milton’s anticlerical views, from “Lycidas” to the antiprelatical tracts’ fierce hostility to the Laudian bishops (a common Puritan sentiment in the early 1640s) to the more radical position of his later writings: that professional ministers of any stripe, even his fellow Independents, are but “hirelings,” and their maintenance at public expense an assault upon the free conscience. It argues that anticlericalism was a stronger and more consistent motive for Milton than any of his political commitments, and sketches how our broader sense of Milton’s thought might change in light of this fact.

 Allegory and religious fanaticism: Spenser’s organs of divine might - Ross Lerner (Princeton University)

This paper interprets Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene as an engagement with religious fanaticism and demonstrates that the poem is fundamentally uneasy with divinely inspired action. If allegory in The Faerie Queene works by analysis, parsing complex motives and essences into their discrete parts, religious fanaticism proposes an undifferentiated divine violence that threatens to obliterate the poem's allegorical distinctions. The unmediated entrance of divine will into the poem questions allegory's analytic strategies, which typically function in the poem as a mode of meaning-making discrete from divine intervention. If, in Book I, The Faerie Queene momentarily achieves an allegorical representation of Redcrosse as an "organ" of divine might, the poem grows progressively more worried about its capacity to distinguish between true instruments of the divine and false prophets like the Anabaptist Giant of Book V. Representations of fanaticism in the poem suggest that allegory in its purest form, void of all difference, may itself be a form of fanaticism, the emptying out of a character so that it might incarnate divine will.

What the nose knew: Renaissance theologies of smell - Sophie Read (University of Cambridge)

We ought to attend, first of all, to the metaphor in the verb smell, which
means that Christ will be so shrewd that he will not need to learn from
what he hears, or from what he sees; for by smelling alone he will
perceive what would otherwise be unknown.
(Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah 11, 1-16)

From the earliest times, and well into the Renaissance, the sense of smell was seen as an index of truth, irresistibly revelatory of the essence of things; it was thought to bypass cognitive processes, and register its wordless impressions directly on the brain. There was danger as well as enlightenment, of course, in this unmediated sensory pathway to knowledge: danger of infection from evil smells, of seduction from sweet ones. But despite its potential hazards, smell remained an important mode of theological understanding: it allowed the apprehension of divine intelligence though the created world, and offered a way of knowing things that might be immediate, transcendent, devout. This paper will start to explore some of the beliefs surrounding smell in early modern religious contexts, their origins, and the uses to which they were put by poets and other writers seeking a trope for the experience of communion with the divine. Herbert will be the primary literary focus, but Shakespeare and Herrick will almost certainly feature too.

How to do things with belief - Ethan Shagan (UC Berkeley)

This paper challenges the scholarly commonplace of “Protestant interiority.” Rather than imagining the Reformation turn from ritual participation to individual belief as a turn inward, I argue that Protestants developed and deployed new understandings of beliefs as performative actions that did things in the world. Part of a larger study of how the category of “belief” itself changed over time, by analyzing how English Protestants tried to do things with belief rather than merely believing things, I elucidate the paradox that the very people usually charged by scholars with turning religion inward—English puritans—were also the people who most sought to use religion to change the world.

The absence of epistemology, or drama and divinity before Descartes - Debora Shuger (UCLA)

There is very little sacred drama in post-Reformation England, but there are two popular Jacobean conversion plays (Massinger’s Renegado and Dekker and Massinger’s Virgin Martyr) first staged little more than a decade before Descartes’ Discourse on Method. As conversion dramas, the plays should (one would think) engage, however superficially, epistemic questions: e.g., how do you know, or why do you believe, that there is a heaven? that the Bible is divinely revealed? It seems hard to imagine how these stagings of conversion could avoid such questions—and yet they do; and by so doing they allow us to see the conception of reason/belief/knowledge from which the epistemic turn turned.

Qui enim securus est, minime securus est': the paradox of securitas in Luther and beyond - Giles Waller (University of Cambridge)

This paper traces the literary, grammatical, and epistemological complexities of Martin Luther’s use of the term securitas - a term which encompassed both a spiritual attitude and a theological position. Where many interpreters have been tempted to see only the negative aspects of this term - as ‘smugness’ or overweening certainty (as it is often understood by later 16th-century English writers) – Luther exploits the possibilities afforded by its contradictory positive and negative valencies. For Luther, it is neither wholly positive nor negative, but a term undermined by its own self-contradiction, a paradoxical simultaneity of security and insecurity. By paying careful attention to Luther’s knotty Latin constructions, which often serve to resist straightforwardly propositional readings, I trace the literary qualities of his uses of irony and dense intertextual scriptural allusion, and the poetic syntactical compression of jarring contraries. I will show that this paradoxical simultaneity of contrary senses of securitas crystallizes the logic of Luther’s theology of the cross, in which grace can only be found sub contrario: here in a single, self-defeating word. In Luther’s Romans Lectures of 1515-16, securitas (and its opposite) is not so much a concept as a habitus. In its adverbial form, secure, Luther uses it to denote a mode in which other activities – including interpretation – are undertaken. This paper traces the ways in which Luther’s uses of securitas and its cognates resist straightforward and unitary readings, and thus effect the instability and insecurity in his readers that renders them open to divine, alien grace. I will end by considering some instances of this idea in later sixteenth and seventeenth-century writers, to demonstrate its long and powerful afterlife.