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Reviewed by:
  • Shell Games: Studies in Scams, Frauds, and Deceits (1300-1650)
  • Siân Echard (bio)
Mark Crane, Richard Raiswell, and Margaret Reeves , editors. Shell Games: Studies in Scams, Frauds, and Deceits (1300-1650) Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies. xiv, 334. $53.00

Shell Games is a collection of thirteen essays concerned with lying and truth-telling in western Europe in the medieval and early modern period. The many different kinds of lies - deceit, perjury, fraud, impersonation, playacting - all serve to throw ideas about truth into high relief. The earliest case dealt with is Robert of Artois's ultimately unsuccessful attempt, in 1329, to claim the county of Artois through an elaborate edifice of perjured witnesses and forged letters; the latest concerns the fabrication of the story of the Yorkshire prophetess Mother Shipton, examining the layers added to her myth from the seventeenth century to the present day. The essays range across borders and centuries in their pursuit of liars both historical and literary. Inevitably there is some disorientation for a reader trying to track these ne'er-do-wells across so broad a canvas, but the individual essays generally make for fascinating reading.

Richard Raiswell's introduction unpacks the exposure of the Boxley Rood in 1538 to show how frauds can offer a window into mentalités. After an overview of ideas about truth and lies in the medieval and early modern period, the essays follow, grouped into five thematic sections. There are three essays in the first section, 'Knowledge for Sale.' Tara E. Nummedal ' s discussion of fraud in early modern alchemy centres on practitioners and their patrons in the Holy Roman Empire. Both this essay and Paul M. Dover's study of diplomacy in late fifteenth-century Milan argue that we must abandon present-day assumptions - that alchemists were charlatans, [End Page 250] or that early modern Italian court culture was characterized by deception - in order to understand what German princes expected of alchemists, or how Italian resident diplomats went about the business of collecting information. The section's theme, the commodification of learning, is seen most clearly in Sarah Knight's study of the scholar-mountebank of Jacobean satire. She shows how competition for economic advantage produced both academic impostors and vitriolic literary criticism of those impostors.

The second section, 'Reputation and Honour,' is less thematically cohesive. Michael Cichon reads the deceptions in Titus Andronicus through the lens of anthropological theory about feud. Steven Bednarski's examination of two cases of fraud prosecuted in Provence in the late fourteenth century considers how the constraints upon the women involved produced their frauds and governed the reactions to those frauds. Roni Weinstein ' s account of courting games between unmarried Jewish youth in early modern Italy shows how game-playing could shade into reality. The third section, 'Government of Women,' links fraud to issues of gender. Georgia Wilder examines the impersonation of the voice of female petitioners in the pamphlet wars of the English Revolution, while Núria Silleras-Fernández explores the attempts of two late fourteenth-century Aragonese queens to take some control over their destinies through fraud.

The essays in 'An Idle Press' deal with the opportunities and anxieties presented and represented by the transition to print. Allyson F. Creasman shows the many tricks used by the printers of Augsburg in the mid-sixteenth century to circumvent the censors, while Michael Long explores the connections between the shady practices of seventeenth-century English popular printers and the negative reputations of those who wrote for the popular press. Finally, 'Inventing the Past' offers three essays which consider the wilful reinvention of history: Johannes C. Wolfart's study of the Lindau archives; Dana L. Sample's essay on the Robert of Artois case; and David A. Wilson's excursion through the development of Mother Shipton's myth.

It is not always clear why some essays appear in one section and not in another - a slightly different articulation of the relationship between gender and fraud would have grouped Bednarski with Silleras-Fernández, for example, while Wilder's piece would fit well with other essays particularly concerned with print culture. Because so many of the early modern essays...


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