In the classes I teach, I often make a version of this proclamation: to understand the world today, you have to study the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is, I say with considerable grandeur, irresponsible and even damaging to emphasize contemporaneity at the expense of the relatively recent past. Typically I appeal to some kind of metaphor to express how important the early modern period must be to those who want to consider themselves educated, literate, critical, informed, thoughtful, wise, woke, smart, insightful, engaging, engaged, and so on: the early modern world is the foundation on which the contemporary world is built. It is the wood in which the fires of postmodern society burn. It is the roux that makes the twenty-first century soup taste as it does. It is the violence that precedes the, well, violence. It is the stage on which the actors of the last four-hundred years performed the play of modernity. I won't pretend that each of these metaphors makes the same claim about the importance of early modernity. Part of the fun is that they model the situation differently. The response is usually a mix of annoyance (is that why we have to read Shakespeare?!), skepticism (that simply can't be!! This stuff is so old!!) and ignorance (wait, there was a Civil War in England?). The latter response is most common.
If asked, of course, most people would agree that the Renaissance is a crucial period in human histories and cultures. But values and priorities come out most clearly in the hard choices: curriculum (pre-1800 writing and Shakespeare have been given less and less emphasis in recent years), hiring (there used to be six early modernists at my university; now there are two), and what we might call marketing (emphasizing contemporaneity and skills rather than a historically-oriented body of knowledge). In what I'm told was a controversial essay in the Chronicle (and in American Affairs before that), Justin Stover recently pointed out that the humanities is being "squeezed on both sides." I don't think it's untrue to observe that this has become especially true of fields like mine, which for a long time were considered "central" to the humanities. My own experience tells me that folks are more indifferent than hostile, though in both cases, as I suggested, ignorance underlies the response.
There are very good reasons why “Renaissance English Literature” is no longer considered the central point of literary and cultural history, but here are a few equally good reasons to keep studying early modern English literature and history. In no particular order, and with no commentary. The exclamations are my way of indicating that the importance of these should be obvious to you.
What shall I saye? Wee had rather bee whole sinners than halfe Christians. White is counted no colour: so zeale is counted no vertue. But meere hypocrisie is counted true Christianitie: and true Christianitie is counted but hypocrisie. Our wealth is in an Epha, our zeale is in a Gomer. Our sinne like an Oake, our faith like a Mustard seede. They which haue no religion are counted honest men: for they count it as easie a mater to be a Christian as to saie the Lordes prayer, the Apostles Creede, the tenne Commaundementes, and goe to the church, this is countrie Diuinitie, this is Citie Diuinitie, and I say Saint Clements Diuinitie. He which can sweare that the Pope is Antichrist, and that flesh is good on Fridaies, is a protestant at least, a Christian everie inche: hee hath zeale, knowledge and religion in Folio (sig. Hhh5r).
This is "silver-tongued" Henry Smith discussing zeal in a sermon (printed in 1593). This passage comes from Smith's sermon on "The Dialogue betweene Paul and Agrippa" in Acts 26:26-29. The sermon is a great example of Smith's ability to turn single words into powerful displays of exhortation and admonition. In this case, he picks up on the words "almost" and "altogether" in the passage--Agrippa says to Paul, "Almost thou perswadest me to become a Christian" and Paul replies, "I would to God, that not onely thou, but also all that heare me this daie were both almost, and altogether such as I am." Smith works his way into arguing that folks in his time are content with "almost." This lack of zeal leads to the situation described in the somewhat confusing passage above.
What interests me here is the final phrase, Smith's claim that in the present, almost-oriented situation, someone who merely swears the Pope is antichrist and that flesh is acceptable to eat on Fridays is a "Christian euerie inche" and has "zeale, knowledge and religion in Folio." Smith of course doesn't think such a thing; he is calling attention to the wrongheadedness of the "almost" culture, in part by reference to the folio format. As I have been working on the language of books, I have found that most writers use "X in folio" in surprising ways. Specifically, they frequently use the folio format (as Smith wryly does here) to signal something other than fullness and richness. Typically, the end point of a reference to the folio format is to minimize or reduce, rather than to enhance or enlarge. Smith's reference to folio here resembles Shakespeare's in Don Armado's line, "I am for whole books in folio." In both cases, a big book functions, ultimately, as a sign of intellectual poverty.
The blog is a dying medium. It peaked several years back and is now in something like decline. Except for a few exceptional cases, it's difficult to reach readers with a blog. At least, this is what I intuit from the present media ecosystem. I recall a moment, sometime around 2010, when I realized I could spend my entire day, every day, reading the blogs of people I knew personally. (It calls to mind similar moments in the past, noted by scholars like Roger Chartier and Andrew Piper, when a surfeit of books made reading everything feel as impossible as it actually was.)
So, why blog? I have a few reasons.