Matter at the Crossroads: Literature and Natural Philosophy in Early Modern England

25 November 2016

Graham Storey Room, Trinity Hall

This conference explored the intersections between natural philosophy and literature and was part of the research project, Crossroads of Knowledge in Early Modern England: the Place of Literature, a five-year ERC-funded project based at the Faculty of English and CRASSH, University of Cambridge. The programme booklet for the event is available here.


Subha Mukherji, Rachel E. Holmes, Elizabeth L. Swann, Tim Stuart-Buttle, Rebecca Tomlin


Stephen Clucas (Birkbeck, University of London), Katherine Hunt (University of Oxford) Scott Mandelbrote (University of Cambridge), Claire Preston (Queen Mary University of London), Jonathan Sawday (Saint Louis University), Helen Smith (University of York), 


ERC Logo and EU Flag


This project, KNOWING, has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7-2007-2013). Grant agreement No. 617849.

For further information please contact, but be aware that this project has closed and emails are not monitored frequently – we apologise for any delay in replying to you. 

Friday 25 November

09.00 - 09.30

Registration and coffee

09.30 - 09.45

Welcome - Elizabeth L. Swann (Research Associate, Crossroads of Knowledge)

09.45 - 10.45

Scott Mandelbrote (University of Cambridge) - The Art of Writing Unintelligibly: Literature and late seventeenth-century English natural philosophy

10.45 - 11.45

Claire Preston (Queen Mary University of London) - Topographia and the Rhetoric of Compilation

11.45 - 12.15

Coffee break

12.15 - 13.15

Stephen Clucas (Birbeck, University of London) - Fulke Greville and the Limits of Natural Philosophy

13.15 - 14.00


14.00 - 15.00

Helen Smith (University of York) - Circulating Matter

15.00 - 16.00

Katherine Hunt (University of Oxford) - John Donne, Thomas Adams, and the Matter of Metal

16.00 - 16.30

Coffee break

16.30 - 17.30

Jonathan Sawday (Saint Louis University) - The Other Side of Paper: Investigating Early-Modern Absence

17.30 - 18.15

Roundtable led by Richard Serjeantson (University of Cambridge)

18.15 - 19.15

Drinks Reception in the Leslie Stephen Room, Trinity Hall

Fulke Greville and the Limits of Natural Philosophy - Stephen Clucas (Birkbeck, University of London)

In his Treatie of Humane Learning (c. 1618) the poet Fulke Greville contemplated the limits of human knowledge imposed by man's fallen nature and idle Curiositie. This paper will look at Greville's riposte to the Baconian project in the light of Pyrrhonian scepticism and the Augustinian and Thomist conceptions of curiositas. Greville's poem teases out the religio-political implications of contemporary natural philosophy, and seeks to place limits and restraints on it by appealing to 'Church-censure', reformation, and law. Greville's ideal is "wisdom with sobriety": a philosophy which would submit itself to the dictates of both Church and Sovereign.

John Donne, Thomas Adams, and the matter of metal - Katherine Hunt (University of Oxford)

Bells toll through Donne's poetry and prose and the sermons of his contemporary Thomas Adams. Here, bells in church towers become the sounds they make; heavy metal is refigured as a nimble speedie Messenger (Adams), and bells as agents who dig out afflictions and associations in their hearers (Donne). The transformation of metal into sound is done by exploiting the properties of bell-metal that allow it to be broken down—atomised, itemised, or melted—and, in its re-formation, re-figured as new bodies and as sound. Although bells could of course be melted down and re-formed, in fact many pre-Reformation church bells remained, surviving in remarkable numbers into the seventeenth century. Donne and Adams draw on metallurgy and the properties of bronze to reveal changing perceptions of these old objects. In their work, bells of the old church are heard and not seen; as sound, their metal becomes mutable, subject to 'matter's multitemporality' (Jonathan Gil Harris), so that the Roman Catholic history of their bronze is overwritten. By interrogating the interplay of sound and metal in the metallurgic metaphors of Adams and Donne, this paper proposes ways of thinking about the palimpsests of the old religion in the writing of seventeenth-century England.

Circulating Matter - Helen Smith (University of York)

An obsession with materiality is scarcely unique to the recent material turn. For early moderns, from natural philosophers to theologians, artisans and domestic workers to dramatic authors, matter and its motions was a central concern. And ideas about matter circulated in material forms: as books and papers, as objects, and as embodied practices. This paper seeks to trace the piecemeal and partial circulation of matter theory in the English Renaissance, investigating how and where ideas about matter were reproduced, and wrestled with. I attend to the complexities and challenges of translation and citation, and explore the extent to which literary authors (most obviously Virgil and Ovid) were read for their philosophical content, and vice versa. Central to the paper are the imaginative connections that tied together physical matter and the substance matter of the text; I argue that literary debates around Ciceronian substance not only drew on the terms of matter theory, but participated in its elaboration and reception in England.

The Art of Writing Unintelligibly: Literature and late seventeenth-century English natural philosophy - Scott Mandelbrote (University of Cambridge) 

By the early eighteenth century, several writers had commented on the lack of intelligibility in contemporary scientific writing. This talk will explore some of those criticisms and consider how accurate they were as reflections of contemporary scientific practice and what prompted writers to make them. It will also ask to what extent intelligibility of style in fact mattered to contemporary natural philosophers.

Topographia and the Rhetoric of Compilation - Claire Preston (Queen Mary University of London) 

The culture of collecting generates lists, enumerations, descriptions, and described settings of its objects. This paper considers accounts, in seventeenth-century poetry and prose, of collections and the places and spaces of their display -- galleries, museums, laboratories, and closets. These rhetorical compilations feature several distinctive figures by itemising and locating the collected objects in time and space. Topographia, ekphrasis, and meronymy are essential descriptive tools that deliver absent books, paintings, and curios to the reader; but they also rehearse and enact the ontology of the collection. What do such rhetorical figures tell us about how collections were understood? How do writers move through collection-space, what kinds of observation (learned, empirical, aesthetic) do they perform, and what are their polemical purposes in walking, looking, noting, describing? The paper will discuss Thomas Browne’s Musaeum Clausum in particular detail along with works by Anonymous, John Aubrey, Robert Boyle, Marie Burghope, John Evelyn, Mildmay Fane, Richard Fanshawe, Richard Lovelace, Giambattista Marino, Andrew Marvell, William Somervile, and Henry Wright.

The Other Side of the Paper: Investigating Early-Modern Absence - Jonathan Sawday (Saint Louis University) 

The paper will be about how to make sense of otherwise inscrutable gaps, elisions, and absences in early-modern visual and textual culture.