Wit and Wordplay:  Verbal Ingenuity and the Making of Literature in Early Modern Europe

26 September 2017 - 27 September 2017

Barbara White Room, Newnham College

Convenors: Tim Chesters and Raphaële Garrod with Alexander Marr, José Ramón Marcaida and Richard Oosterhoff.

Rationale: This multilingual and interdisciplinary conference concluded the third year or strand of the Genius Before Romanticism: Ingenuity in Early Modern Art and Science ERC project dedicated to ‘ingenious making’. In 2016-2017, the project team focused on the material and practical cultures of ingenuity in early modern Europe -- on the spirited matter and materials used by artisans and artists alike, and on the crafts, skills, and techniques of artisans and artists. Words are one such spirited material, and the deployment of ingenuity or wit found a particularly apt expression in wordplay. The early moderns in turn praised or criticized wordplay -- puns, conceits, coinages and the like -- as a social display of wit; they also theorised this social, then literary practice. Early modern wordplay thus provides a fresh perspective onto the European practical cultures of ingenuity and their impact on national literatures.  The programme booklet for the event is available here.



Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge. Funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ ERC grant agreement no 617391.


Tuesday 26 September

12:30 - 13:45

Registration Lunch (for Speakers and Chairs only)

13:45 - 14:00


14:00 - 15:00

Latin (Chair: Richard Serjeantson)

Raphaële Garrod (Newnham College, University of Cambridge) Daedali opera: Erasmus on obscurity

Anthony Ossa Richardson (University of Southampton): Elegantia in Early Modern Criticism and Rhetoric

15:00 - 16:00

Spanish (Chair: Caroline Egan) 

Rodrigo Cacho (University of Cambridge): Quevedo's Black Humour

Christopher Johnson (Warburg Institute, University of London): "Es como hidra bocal": On witty wordplay in Gracián and Góngora

16:00 - 16:30


16:30 - 17:30

Italian (Chair: Alexander Marr) 

Raymond Edward Carlson (Columbia University): Michelangelo at Play in Words and Images

Ita Mac Carthy (University of Birmingham): Untranslatable Wit: Ariosto's Innuendo in the Hands of Harington and Gay


Dinner for Speakers and Chairs 

Wednesday 27 September

10:00 -11:30

English (Chair: José Ramón Marcaida)

Kathryn Murphy (Oriel College, University of Oxford): Quips, Quibbles, and Conundrums: Early Modern Puns and Scholastic Style

Will Poole (New College, University of Oxford): Logical Fallacy and Some Seventeenth Century Poetry

David Francis Taylor (University of Warwick): Puzzle Pictures: The Arrival of the Satirical Rebus in Britain

11:30 - 12:00


12:00 - 13:00

German (Chair: Richard Oosterhoff)

Sundar Henny (University of Bern): Calling Names: Puns on Proper Names in Early Modern Zurich

Tobias Bulang (University of Heidelberg):"A Book full of Pantagruelisms" – Images and Emulations of Ingenuity in Johann Fischart's German Translation of Rabelais

13:00 - 14:00

Lunch (for Speakers and Chairs only)

14:00 - 15:00

French (Chair: Tim Chesters)

Nicolas Kies (centre Saulnier, Université Paris IV Sorbonne): Is there a Feminine facetudo? Women and Wordplay in Late Sixteenth-Century French Narratives

Jean-Alexandre Perras (Jesus College, University of Oxford): The Equivocal Pun in Light of Classical Theories of the Sign


Raphaële Garrod: Daedali opera: Erasmus on Verbal Ingenuity and Obscurity In his Adages, Erasmus concludes his survey of classical references to the Daedalic works by mentioning both the logodaedalus as the 'artificer of polished speech' (Adagia 1262), and the Platonic view that poor arguments are like the works of Daedalus. This paper unpacks this adage in relation to other Erasmian writings on style, in particular the De conscribendis epistolis, the De copia and the Lingua. In so doing, it brings forth the Erasmian view on the merits and pitfalls -- be they stylistic, philosophical, or ultimately ethical -- of wordplay as a specific form of verbal obscurity.

Anthony Ossa Richardson: 'Elegantia in Early Modern Criticism and Rhetoric' Elegantia was one of a cluster of early modern terms associated with wit and wordplay; this paper looks at its role in evaluating deliberate ambiguity in commentaries on Scripture and classical poetry, including textual criticism; I then offer a detailed analysis of its use in Gerard Jan Vossius's Commentaria rhetorica of 1606. What we find here is a foregrounded but unresolved tension between the enjoyment of ambiguity and an Aristotelian hostility to it, a tension symptomatic of a broader contrast in early modern thought.


Rodrigo Cacho: Quevedo's Black Humor In his burlesque ballad "Boda de negros" [A Blacks' Wedding] Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645) displays some of the most typical tricks-of-the-tray of Baroque word-play (puns, equivoques, paronomasia, etc), as well as underscoring racist stereotypes which were widespread in early modern Spain. Quevedo's parodic description of the wedding between two people of African ethnicity is written using one of the most popular metrical forms of its time, the Spanish ballad, the roots of which are found in folklore and oral tradition. However, all that seems conventional in this poem, conforming to well accepted ideological and rhetorical discourses, is challenged by Quevedo's imagination and intoxicating wit. The author pushes his text beyond the limits of verbal communication by blurring the boundaries between the five senses. Wordplay becomes thus the key to open a Baroque Pandora's box where res and verba seem to question each other, producing a text of harmonious contradictions.

Christopher Johnson: "Es como hidra bocal": On witty wordplay in Gracián and Góngora My paper compares the central role ingenious wordplay has in Baltasar Gracián's Agudeza y arte de ingenio (1648) with how Luis de Góngora subtly employs it in the Soledades (1613). Gracián's ground-breaking treatise takes witty wordplay seriously, making it one of the cornerstones of his poetics of agudeza (wit) and the concepto (conceit). By grounding its different kinds in the intellectual faculty of ingenio (ingenuity), he promises a superior way of knowing the world and the self's contingent relations to it. But Gracián also underscores how the inherently material nature of language itself generates wit: "Es como hidra bocal una dicción, pues a más de su propia y directa significación, si la cortan o la transtruecan, de cada sílaba renace una sutileza ingeniosa y de cada acento un concepto." This "hydra", the second part of my paper argues, not only generates all manner of subtle expression in Góngora's experimental poems, but it also confirms, in ways that Gracián was never willing to accept, that ingenious wordplay need not always be brief and compendious. Instead, through the syntactical thickets of Góngora's two long silvas, extended wordplay helps to forge a more self-referential, anachronic, and expressive vision of poetry that would shake language loose from its referential or representative task and, I would argue, forge a new kind of reader.


Ray Edward Carlson: Michelangelo at Play in Words and Images In his classic essay "The Poetry of Michelangelo," Walter Pater suggested that one could achieve an intimate familiarity with the Florentine artist by reading his verse: "It is a consequence of the occasional and informal character of his poetry, that it brings us nearer to himself, his own mind and temper, than any work done only to support a literary reputation could possibly do." To the extent that many of the poems of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) survive in autograph form, sometimes on sheets with his drawings, Pater was right to point to the unique proximity they give to the famed artist's workmanship. Nonetheless, composing lyric poetry was a social endeavour. The presumed informality of such sheets obscures Michelangelo's concern to hone both his literary reputation and craft. Treating Michelangelo's poems not as private outgrowths of personal genius but rather within the context of a literary culture that demanded writers take sides in contemporary linguistic and textual debates, this paper shows how Michelangelo navigated this terrain with recourse to his artistic skills. The production of lyric verse necessitated a familiarity with source texts, metrical forms, and poetic lexica that Michelangelo would have worked to acquire. Michelangelo's ability to manipulate and play with these conventions in his poetry was a conspicuous means of demonstrating his literary wit with close parallels to his artistic production. This paper will scrutinize a particular instance from Michelangelo's earlier poetic output to explore the constantly changing relationship between his visual and literary genius.

Ita Mac Carthy: Untranslatable Wit: Ariosto's Innuendo in the Hands of Harington and Gay Praised by fans for the fertility of its ingegno, Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso was simultaneously criticised by detractors for being derivative and di poco ingegno. Defending the poet against those who accuse him of lacking wit and of stealing his ideas from others, near contemporary Lodovico Dolce pointed out that imitation is the mainstay of good poetry and that part of Ariosto’s genius lies in his ability to plunder the hive of antiquity to bring forth new sweetness. The Fiordispina episode of cantos 22 and 25 provides one amongst many paradigmatic examples both of Ariosto’s ingenious appropriation of his sources and talent for original wit and wordplay. Following a brief close reading of some of its most inventive and witty moments, my paper will highlight the challenges posed for translators into English by the metaphors, puns, innuendo and risqué similes in which the Fiordispina episode abounds. Focusing on translations by Sir John Harington (1591) and John Gay (c.1720), in particular, I examine the ingegno required to ensure Ariosto’s original wit continues to hit its mark. 


Will Poole: Logical Fallacy and Some Seventeenth Century Poetry This paper, drawing on previous work on the role of rhetorical vices in early modern poetic theory and practice, will extend that idea into the area of logic. Students were as versed in the vices of logic as they were in the vices of style, perhaps more so, and yet criticism tends to focus on rhetoric more than logic. This paper will review theories of logical fallacy in the period and then seek to apply some of these conclusions to examples of poetic practice, chiefly from academic centres.

Kathryn Murphy: Quips, Quibbles, and Conundrums: Early Modern Puns and Scholastic Style  Writing in the Spectator on Thursday, 11 May, 1711, Joseph Addison claimed that ‘the Age in which the Punn chiefly flourished, was the Reign of King James the First’. The irony of this assertion, as is well known, is that the Jacobean pun was flourishing avant la lettre: the OED’s earliest citation of the word is from 1644. In its place, Elizabethan and Jacobean English writers used a variety of words to refer to witty word-play, and the exploitation of double meaning: quips, quibbles, conundrums, clinches, and equivocation, alongside the technical rhetorical terms of paronomasia, antanaclasis, and other figures of resemblance and repetition. This paper explores the use and origins of early modern terminology of punning, and the ways in which the application of these terms, often during invective and pamphlet controversy, involved implicit accusations of association with Roman Catholicism, scholastic philosophy, or at least the opacity of pedantic fustian. In so doing I will suggest ways in which attitudes to confessionalism and education could be expressed as objections to language and style, in ways which have ramifications for the development of ideas of taste and the literary across the seventeenth century

David Francis Taylor: Puzzle Pictures: The Arrival of the Satirical Rebus in Britain This paper focuses on the first satirical rebuses published in Britain between 1700 and 1710. It will trace the tradition back to Rome in the 1570s and Germany in the early 17th century; consider why this kind of pictographic satire suddenly made an appearance in the first decade of the 18th century in Britain; and briefly conclude by noting how and why this mode of satire comes to be taken up as an opposition discourse in the 1740s-60s.


Tobias Bulang: "A Book full of Pantagruelisms" – Images and Emulations of Ingenuity in Johann Fischart's German Translation of Rabelais. The Alsatian author Johann Fischart (1541–1591) translated François Rabelais’ Gargantua into German (Geschichtklitterung 1575; 1582; 1590). In doing so, he added copious material and countless echoes of his own time and context to the French original. With a clear notion of what Rabelais’ ingenious poetry entailed, the translator aimed to deliver even more examples of wit and wordplay, thus enlarging Rabelais’ novel by more than one third. Fischart’s so called "Pantagruelisms" emulate Rabelais ingenuity. His parody is accompanied by reflexive, poetic comments, and displays overwrought uses of the German language.

Sundar Henny: Name-Calling: Puns on Proper Names in Early Modern Zurich Names mattered in the early modern State of Zurich. Coats of arms were omnipresent in the republic and a means for rising families to fashion themselves as noble. By way of folk etymology, proper names provided the imagery for such heraldry. In congratulatory poems, proper names could help to consolidate power, as dignitaries were praised for the virtues their names evoked. The mayor Salomon Hirzel, for example, was hailed as a wise king and emblematised as a Hirsch (deer), a heraldic beast that suggested both piety and nobility. That names were not just understood as contingent or nominal can be seen also by the fact that historians of the time thought that a person’s nomen et omen were the natural starting point of every biography. While it was dangerous to make fun of the political order and religion, the means to safeguard them could be playful. Especially during the seventeenth century chronograms, palindromes, and Kabbalah-inspired notations of names abounded. Even though Zurich had no university the biblical and classical languages were studied and taught on a fairly high level. Accordingly, many of the more elaborate puns were authored by the polyglot clergy. The clergy would also make use of puns in confessional controversies and thereby continue a tradition that was thriving already in the sixteenth century.


Nicolas Kies: Is there a Feminine facetudo? Women and Wordplay in Late Sixteenth-Century French Narratives By coining the neologism facetudo in his 1509 De sermone, the humanist scholar Giovanni Pontano attempted to define facetious wit, characterized by one's ability to utter jokes and enliven the conversation. A fundamentally masculine ability, the art of joking (mottegiare) is exploited by women, particularly in courtly, polite traditions (Castiglione, Guazzo). Yet in late sixteenth-century French narratives and collections of puns and jokes, women are usually excluded from the framing conversations (Du Fail, Cholières, Poissenot). As protagonists in the fables, their utterances are less subtle puns than comical naiveties, often intended to fuel ironically the facetious verve of men. In light of Etienne Tabourot's Escraignes dijonnoises (1588), this paper will sketch the lineaments and explore the aporias of feminine facetudo in its attempt to rival men's speech while remaining mediated by it.

Jean-Alexandre Perras: The Equivocal Pun in Light of Classical Theories of the Sign In the French classical period, equivocation has been considered both as a (bad) poetic figure and a defect inherent in the very nature of language, considered as a representation of the ideas in the mind. Also called ‘amphibology’, it is a vicious construction, which, deliberately or not, plays with the ambiguity of what we can call the ‘mediality’ of language: the richly imperfect materiality of its production. Whereas every French grammar recalls the dangers of equivocation (especially the Port Royal’s Logique, ou l’art de penser), many critiques like Boileau condemn the bad taste (and mores) connoted by its poetic uses. In both cases, what is at stake is the impossible transparency of the sign, supposed to limpidly refer to a single and clear idea (cf. Louis Marin). Equivocal puns therefore challenge the classical theory of the sign: equivocation is considered as a tension which needs to be resolved in a comprehension/disambiguation process. Even among theoreticians who are relatively opened to shimmering, ingenious wordplays -- like Dominique Bouhours in his 1685 La Manière de bien penser dans les ouvrages d’esprit -- equivocations somehow mask a singular idea which needs to be clarified and uncovered. These theories, however, do not appreciate the full extent of equivocations which is at stake in some poetic practices like that of Cyrano de Bergerac for instance, whose works exploit the ‘poietical’ potential of this ingenious figure. Language is a meeting space, not only because it allows people to communicate, but also because its mediality allows new ideas to emerge, in what was called a rencontre <encounter>. This talk will try to understand what particular truth is incidentally discovered during this process.