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Curiosities and Texts

The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England

By Marjorie Swann

Publication Year: 2001

A craze for collecting swept England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Aristocrats and middling-sort men alike crammed their homes full of a bewildering variety of physical objects: antique coins, scientific instruments, minerals, mummified corpses, zoological specimens, plants, ethnographic objects from Asia and the Americas, statues, portraits. Why were these bizarre jumbles of artifacts so popular?

In Curiosities and Texts, Marjorie Swann demonstrates that collections of physical objects were central to early modern English literature and culture. Swann examines the famous collection of rarities assembled by the Tradescant family; the development of English natural history; narrative catalogs of English landscape features that began to appear in the Tudor and Stuart periods; the writings of Ben Jonson and Robert Herrick; and the foundation of the British Museum.

Through this wide-ranging series of case studies, Swann addresses two important questions: How was the collection, which was understood as a form of cultural capital, appropriated in early modern England to construct new social selves and modes of subjectivity? And how did literary texts—both as material objects and as vehicles of representation—participate in the process of negotiating the cultural significance of collectors and collecting? Crafting her unique argument with a balance of detail and insight, Swann sheds new light on material culture's relationship to literature, social authority, and personal identity.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Material Texts


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p. vii

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pp. 1-15

In 1634 the indefatigable traveler Peter Mundy was between voyages, cooling his heels in London. He filled his time at one point by going to Lambeth "to view some rarieties" at the home of the elder John Tradescant. According to Mundy, he spent a "whole day in peruseinge, and that superficially," the enthralling wealth of objects that Tradescant had accumulated, ...

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1. Cultures of Collecting in Early Modern England

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pp. 16-54

Collecting was a vital social practice during the early modern period be- cause it served as a point of convergence for a wide range of cultural forces. Several distinct modes of collecting flourished in Stuart England, variously interacting and merging to create new, hybrid forms of the collection. The early modern English collector could thus inhabit a correspondingly ...

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2. Sons of Science: Natural History and Collecting

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pp. 55-96

According to John Aubrey's account of the death of Sir Francis Bacon, the former Lord Chancellor, after having been sent into political exile by James I for accepting bribes, perished in the pursuit of scientific knowledge: As he was taking the air in a coach with Dr. Witherborne (a Scotchman, physician to the King) towards Highgate, snow lay on the ground, and it came into my lord's ...

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3. The Countryside as Collection: Chorography, Antiquarianism, and the Politics of Landscape

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pp. 97-148

According to the social theory of early modern England, a man's identity and authority were, in large part, determined by his relationship to land. The social formation was understood as "a graduated ladder of dominance and subordination," and within this patriarchal hierarchy of status, fathers were, on the basis of their gender, uniformly entitled to be the heads ...

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4. The Author as Collector: Jonson, Herrick, and Textual Self-Fashioning

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pp. 149-193

A writer is not necessarily an author. In distinguishing between these two categories, Adrian Johns suggests that, "An author is taken to be someone acknowledged as responsible for a given printed (or sometimes written) work; that is, authorship is taken to be a matter for attribution by others, not of self-election. A writer is anyone who composes such a work. A writer ...

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Epilogue: An Ornament to the Nation

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pp. 194-200

When Peter Mundy entered John Tradescant's "Ark" in 1634 to gaze, spell-bound, at Tradescant's collection of taxidermy, minerals, coins, art work, and plants, he unknowingly crossed the threshold of modernity. Possessive individualism, the concept of the self-as-owner which would later come to dominate Western culture, emerged in England during the sixteenth and ...


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pp. 201-244


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pp. 245-272


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pp. 273-278

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pp. 279-280

Friends and colleagues have helped me immeasurably as I worked on this book. I have been privileged to join a department with great strengths in both early modern literature and the mentoring of junior faculty. Richard F. Hardin has made many acute suggestions about this project throughout its development, and during his term as Chair of the Department of English ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812203172
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812236101

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 10 illus.
Publication Year: 2001

Series Title: Material Texts
Series Editor Byline: Series Editors: Roger Chartier, Joseph Farrell, Anthony Grafton, Leah Price, Peter Stallybrass, Michael F. Suarez, S.J. See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 759158239
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Curiosities and Texts

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • English literature -- Early modern, 1500-1700 -- History and criticism.
  • Curiosities and wonders -- England -- History -- 17th century.
  • Natural history -- England -- History -- 17th century.
  • Antiquarians -- Great Britain -- Biography.
  • Collectors and collecting -- England -- History -- 17th century.
  • England -- Civilization -- 17th century.
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