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Transmission and Transgression

Cultural Challenges in Early Modern England


Edited by Sophie Chiari & Hélène Palma


Collection Textuelles

Aix : Presses Universitaires de Provence, 2014

Paperback. 208 pages, with CD Album. ISBN 978-2853999403. 20 €


Reviewed by Michèle Vignaux

Université Lyon II-Lumière



The two notions under consideration here, transmission and transgression, have already been widely addressed separately, but this volume breaks new ground in setting out to investigate various forms of articulation between them. One rather extreme possibility, evoked by the arresting front cover painting by the French Romantic painter Paul Delaroche showing Cromwell looking into the coffin of Charles I, is aptly described as ‘a macabre scene of transmission of power and an awesome transgression’—although the word ‘transmission’ is not entirely appropriate in this case of violent transfer, or even seizure, of power which Cromwell is reported to have dubbed a ‘cruel necessity’! This prompts the question: ‘must transmission and transgression be always so radical in order to promote social and political evolution?’ [9]. The answer suggested by the book at large is in the negative, and the painting turns out to be rather atypical and somewhat misleading for a volume which on the whole is concerned with instances of transgression of conventions in the cultural sphere, closer to the ‘challenges’ of the subtitle than to outright political or moral transgressions.

From the initial assumption that ‘one can only transgress what has been received’ [11], the book stresses the importance of memory and tradition along with the need for renewal, and then proceeds to examine how transmission and transgression interacted in art, literature, and the history of ideas. In the process, challenge and innovation are revealed as means of progress across a range of cultural issues, in a narrative tracing a movement ‘from gullibility to modernity’ [13], with a particular focus on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a period of crucial, seminal changes that paved the way for the advances of the Enlightenment.

The volume offers extensive examination of textual and visual material illustrating various modes of transmission in ten chapters thematically arranged into three parts. The first part, devoted to ‘Religion, Ideology and Philosophy’, presents three different cases of transgression gradually merging into tradition. Relying on Catherine of Cleves’ splendid Book of Hours (c. 1440), Jean-Marie Maguin examines how an initial transgression in the visual arts, piled upon the archetypal moral transgression of the original sin, turned the mythical tree in the Garden of Eden from an unequivocally maleficent tree into a more ambivalent one, a symbol of both life and death (in Christ’s Cross and the tree of life) which gave rise to a tradition—unless, he cautions, this is a case of analogy (rather than transmission). Another possibility, examined by Margaret Jones-Davies, is that of a transmission cum transformation (rather than transgression), a gradual process involving a co-existence of the old and the new through a complex transformation, rather than suppression, of old beliefs, as in the case of the understanding of evil, which ceased to be simply equated with Satan, and gradually came to be secularised, attributable to human will and intention, through the faulty use of reason. Margaret Jones-Davies shows how the need to rely on tradition, which in an increasingly secular world acts as a form of transcendence, is balanced with the need for change, making for an ambivalence that is characteristic of Shakespeare’s world, in which transmission and transgression are essential facets.

The third case in this section, examined by Pierre Lurbe, is that of John Toland, a historian committed to Republican ideas who, in the fraught context of the late 1690s, sought to rely on the authority of the past as a basis for transgression. In his Life of Milton (1698), while claiming to write purely as a historian, he managed to smuggle a body of works of mid-seventeenth century ‘commonwealthmen’ which constituted particularly offensive political material. Moreover, by establishing a connection between Presbyterian gentry standing in favour of the Commonwealth experiment in the 1650s and their descendants who were supporters of the new Williamite regime, he sought to establish the transmission of a republican heritage into a tradition of its own. Thus, under the guise of a respectable editorial venture, his Life of Milton amounted to a downright republican assault against the existing constitution which, however, was sufficiently established by then to withstand the assault without suffering serious damage. Toland extended his transgression to the religious sphere, and his attack against the authority of the Canon of Scripture was a contribution to the debate over the authenticity of Scriptural canon. That he was never taken to court for his repeated transgressions is a sign of English toleration against the background of Continental Europe.

The religious question provides a transition with the second section, devoted to ‘Art and Science’, which opens on Pierre Iselin’s thought-provoking paper examining the traditional topos of the praise of music in the polemical context, created by the Reformation, of two conflicting conceptions of the role of art in social and religious life. While the defenders of music praised it in the name of an older tradition, referring to the authority of the Bible and of the Church fathers, the reformers denied the adequacy of the authoritative past to the ‘degenerate’ present time and launched violent attacks against what they saw as a transgressive practice. As a result, the traditional discourse of praise evolved into a militant, self-advertising mode of defence against ethical attacks from the pulpit and the government, producing the paradox of a polemical topos. However, the fact that ideologically opposed readings relied on identical sources resulted in a lack of clear divide in the arguments used in either school of thought in this controversy about art (particularly music) and church liturgy. Iselin duly recalls the context of political threats after the Spanish Armada [71], at a time of crisis when the transmission of tradition could operate as transgressive support of the old faith, which accounts for Elizabeth’s persecution of Catholics [14]. In an Appendix, he examines a further paradox, that of music on Shakespeare’s stage, which he sees as both traditional and supremely transgressive, and provides an introductory commentary to the music recorded in a CD album, ‘Shakespeare in Music’, containing music alluded to, or incorporated in, the plays : 15 pieces especially recorded for the volume by the acclaimed Sorbonne Scholars conducted by Pierre Iselin himself, who explains how music in Shakespeare’s plays increasingly acquired a dramatic function, sometimes diametrically opposed to the original function.

The two remaining contributions in this second part deal with attitudes to science. Mikaël Popelard examines the discrepancy between on the one hand the medieval alchemists who cultivated a sense of secrecy and mystery on which their success and aura depended, and who therefore saw transmission as transgression, and on the other hand the early modern scientists who sought to share their mathematical knowledge with a wider section of the population. In spite of this, men of science continued to be perceived as subversive and did not acquire respectability until the rise of scientific societies in the second half of the 17th century. By contrast Pierre Carboni shows how, after the triumph of science in the Age of Reason, James Thomson (the poet of The Seasons) used the traditional poetic genre of encomium and the allegoric apotheosis transgressively in his Poem to Newton, ostensibly a panegyric of Newton, which is turned into an even greater praise of the medium, Poetry. This makes it an implicit poetic manifesto providing a link between Sidney’s Apology for Poetry and Shelley’s Defence of Poetry.

In the third Part, entitled ‘Travelling and Circulation’, transgression is located abroad (particularly in Italy) and examined in association with the practice of translation from various points of view. William T. Rossiter shows how Wyatt’s translations of Italian poetry contain transgressive potential which is left for the reader to actualise. In this way, Wyatt shrewdly manages to transfer the responsibility for the act of transgression onto the reader. In the third paper of this section, Christophe Camard examines popular translations of Italian tales and the consequences on England’s perception and representation of Italy as a place of transgression. In between, Anne Geoffroy examines still another use of translation with Thomas Greene’s Royall Exchange (1590), an ostensible translation of an Italian collection of aphorisms and moral maxims coupled with lavish authorial commentaries as well as an unobtrusive insertion of two aphorisms of his own, and a forged imaginary dedication to the city of Venice which in the ‘translation’ becomes a praise of London. Here, translation no longer serves the purpose of transmission of knowledge, but becomes warped into a means of defence of London’s thriving economy under cover of moral philosophy. The Venetian paradigm is appropriated and reoriented to provide a mirror to the economic success of London, which was also a notorious place for cheaters. Thus, a subtle but unmistakable link is established between translation and cheating.

The final instance of circulation in the third Part is to be understood in the figurative sense. Johann Gregory, writing about John Taylor, a boatman and poet, explores a case of transgression of social expectations of class, labour and authorship, which Taylor turned into a performance on the theatrum mundi, at once promoting a new image of the writer and seeking to legitimate his vocation.

The general conclusion underlines the importance of printing and translation in the transmission of transgressive views, the dialectics of repression, dissent and transgression that led to a gradual recognition of the usefulness of critical and transgressive views, and opens onto further aspects, such as the temporary transgression associated with festivals or carnival. The various contributions, most of them by well-established scholars, are highly valuable, and together offer an impressive range of facets of transgression and its connections with transmission in the fields of ideas, literature, science and the arts—although some of the questions raised in the Introduction, such as the promotion of science and the improvement of the condition of women in the 17th and 18th centuries, are left pending. Perhaps the book could have been more tightly organised around the various types of articulation between the two terms, transmission and transgression, which would have helped bring out some aspects that remain implicit: how transgression can be incorporated into a new tradition, or how transgression can be turned into an aesthetics of its own and a tradition of sorts (as in the case of satirical pamphlets), or even how, in certain contexts, past traditional practices could become transgressive or be put to serve transgressive purposes. Such as it is, however, this is a rich volume which as a whole makes rewarding and stimulating reading, and will no doubt encourage further investigations along these lines: as such, it is both useful and welcome.


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