Shakespeare Quarterly 52.1 (2001) 161-164
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Renaissance Culture and the Everyday
Renaissance Culture and the Everyday. Edited by Patricia Fumerton and Simon Hunt. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Pp. vi + 366. $45.00 cloth, $19.95 paper.
Patricia Fumerton's introduction to this collection of essays is subtitled "A New New Historicism"--a shrewd coinage that promises the reader both brand-name continuity and innovation. This much is obvious from Fumerton's startling opening paragraph, which describes the early modern habit of torturing pigs as a prelude to eating them. While deliberately recalling the bizarre, deadpan accounts of atrocities that routinely preface the canonical new-historicist essays by Stephen Greenblatt, Fumerton's yarn about the "torture of animals in the service of gustatory gratification" (1) opens up to a different kind of analysis. Greenblatt's anecdotes are designed to furnish points of entry into a "cultural poetics" that usually entails a top-down, hierarchical conception of power. Fumerton, by contrast, uses her tale as a springboard into consideration of those beliefs, practices and institutions that can be grouped under the expansive rubric of the "common": "the low (common people) the ordinary (common speech, common wares, common sense), the familiar (commonly known), the customary or typical or taken-for-granted (common law, commonplace, communal)" (3). [End Page 161]
This rubric provides the framework for intriguing essays on a wide variety of "common" matters in early modern English and Continental culture. Although divided into sections on materials, women, and transgression, the essays share preoccupations across this tripartite structure. Deborah Shuger and Juliet Fleming, whose essays provide solid bookends to the other contributions, both focus on a familiar object or practice--Shuger the mirror, Fleming graffiti--each of which, in their early modern settings, functioned in very unfamiliar ways and presumed conceptions of identity very different from those of our present moment. Other essays look at less obviously common subjects, but they do so in order to foreground the everyday practices of élite classes: Karen L. Raber examines the horse-dressage manuals of William Cavendish; Shannon Miller considers the architectural structures of identity formation in Mary Wroth's writing. More demotic themes already touched on by the older new historicisms also get reworked here: coeditor Simon Hunt examines the carnivalization of rebellion on the early modern English stage; Ann Jensen Adams considers the cultural work performed by representations of prostitution in Dutch painting; and in a useful trio of essays Richard Helgerson, Lena Cowen Orlin, and Frances E. Dolan focus on the domestic as the site of fantasies of nationhood, women's embroidery work, and licensed female violence. What distinguishes all these essays from their predecessors is their reluctance to locate early modern texts, spaces, and practices within totalizing hierarchical structures or dialectics of subversion and containment. Instead they view their primary materials as the everyday points of intersection between myriad local constellations of power. By doing so, the essays succeed in fulfilling the volume's express goal of advancing "a new kind of new historicism that holds up familiar subjects of inquiry . . . to the ordinary, and sometimes quite extra-ordinary, light of the everyday" (15).
This turn signals a shift not only in focus but also in methodology. In contrast to the Foucauldian flavor of Greenblatt's more political (if not politically activist) historicism, Fumerton's introduction invokes the theorizations of the everyday by Henri Lefebvre (Critique of Everyday Life ) and, more significantly, Michel de Certeau (The Practice of Everyday Life ). Of course, social historians have long been preoccupied with bottom-up approaches to early modern culture, as the work of Peter Burke, Natalie Zemon Davis, Carlo Ginzburg, Christopher Hill, and countless others makes clear. What distinguishes the methodology of de Certeau from earlier approaches to social history, however, is its emphasis on the practice of the everyday--an emphasis that in effect disperses power from those who wield political authority to the diverse actors, both low and high, who reproduce and modify the common. As Fumerton stresses, "in his or her daily practices, the common person tactically and...