Ruth Ahnert: Postdoctoral Fellow (2009-10)

Following the completion of my doctoral studies at the University of Cambridge in October 2009, I was fortunate to be awarded a Society for Renaissance Studies Postdoctoral Fellowship. The fellowship provided me with crucial support in my transition from graduate student to lecturer, and it allowed me a year to undertake the further research to turn my thesis into a monograph, present my work at conferences and seminars, and publish on areas related to my thesis.

My doctoral thesis was concerned with the large body of prison literature that emerged in England as a result of the particular religious and political pressures of the sixteenth century. It examines what kinds of writings these prisoners produced, from trial narratives to Psalm translations, Pauline epistles, poetry, polemic, devotional treatises and graffiti; and it explores what such texts can tell us about the conditions of early modern gaols, prisoners’ activities in their cells, the nature of prison communities, and how these writings were smuggled out of the prison and disseminated. One of my key concerns when writing the thesis was that the texts I was consulting should be as close to what the prisoners originally wrote as possible, and so, where available, I consulted manuscript copies of prison writings alongside the early modern printed editions. Indeed, in some cases I was lucky enough to have access to autograph copies of works: the presentation copy of Edward Courtenay’s translation of Tratatto utilissimo del beneficio di Giesu Cristo crocifisso verso i Cristiani, which he made for the duchess of Somerset, is now held at Cambridge University Library; and many letters of Protestant prisoners who were martyred under Mary I are now held at the British Library and Emmanuel College Library, Cambridge. But whilst my doctoral research was strongly concerned with fidelity to the handwritten word, the SRS Postdoctoral Fellowship provided me with the opportunity to examine the ways in which the transition of prison writings into print affected how they were read and received, and to explore the impact of such publications on literature more broadly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – in other words, the prison writings’ afterlives.

During the period of the fellowship my research followed two main avenues. The first was an analysis of the editorial policies behind the printing of Protestant prison literature up to and including the second (1570) edition of John Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’. The compilation of the massive anthology, which collected prison writings alongside many other documentary witnesses to martyrdom, was undoubtedly a product of its time. In the 1550s and 1560s the anthology had emerged as a new supragenre; everyone wanted to produce the definitive book on a subject, and in these decades we see the emergence of a number of continental martyrologies that take an ambitious and anthological approach to narrating the history of martyrdom in the western world. Foxe’s, though, was by far the biggest and most ambitious of these martyrologies, covering a huge chronological span (from the first century AD up to the end of Mary I’s reign), and collecting together a colossal number of prisoners’ writings (mostly from Mary I’s reign). This, however, was not the inevitable way of publishing prison writings. In the early days of the 1530s publishers had brought prisoners’ writings to press as and when they received them, which usually resulted in the printing of single texts that were minimally edited and had few paratexts. Presumably the reason behind this policy was that the texts might bring immediate comfort and edification to the persecuted Protestant community. This changed somewhat in the 1540s with the emergence of John Bale as an editor of Protestant trial narratives written by prisoners. Unlike his predecessors, Bale had an agenda with these writings: to establish their authors as martyrs that shared a heritage with the early Christian church. And so these texts are accompanied by, sometimes excessive, paratexts (especially The Examinations of Anne Askew) and there is strong evidence that he edited these writings to fit his own doctrinal position on issues such as transubstantiation. Critics agree that Bale’s editorial approach and his friendship with Foxe had a profound impact on the shape of the ‘Book of Martyrs’, the compilation of which began in the 1550s when both men were working for the printer Johann Oporinus. During this time Foxe and his associates – who were collecting prisoners’ writings that had been smuggled over to the Protestant communities on the continent – actively sought to hold these writings from the press in order to protect the writers while they lived, but also to allow time to create a full collection of works, and edit them to eradicate doctrinal schism and hints of controversy. But even at this time the anthological approach to the publication of prison writings was still by no means inevitable: during Mary’s reign the Hill/Ctematius press in Emden sought, like printers in the 1530s, to get texts printed fast and faithfully.

I presented this research in a number of arena during the fellowship. I was invited to give a paper on the posthumous publication of protestant prison writing at the IHR’s seminar series ‘Religious History of Britain, 1500-1800’; I gave a paper on the competing publication policies behind the printing of Nicholas Ridley’s prison writings at Cambridge University’s Centre for Material Text’s inaugural conference and at the RSA in Venice; and I presented a paper entitled ‘Foxe’s forebears’ at the SRS conference in York. Subsequently this work has been shaped into a chapter, which questions the idea that printing texts necessarily ‘liberates’ them. This will form the final chapter of my monograph, provisionally entitled The Rise of Prison Literature in the Sixteenth Century.

The other main avenue of enquiry that I pursued during the fellowship was the ubiquity of prison metaphors and prison scenes in early modern drama. This took the form of an article entitled ‘The Prison in Early Modern Drama’ (Literature Compass, forthcoming in 2011). The prison is hard to escape in early modern drama. It is a setting for numerous comedies, history plays and tragedies, from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure to his Richard III, John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, Ben Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour, and George Chapman, John Marston and Jonson’s Eastward Ho, to name but a small sample. It also appears to have been a metaphorical destination that early modern playwrights were powerless to resist. In Shakespeare’s works, Hamlet famously states that ‘Denmark’s a prison’ (2.2.243); Prince Edward makes the Platonic lament, ‘Now my soul's palace is become a prison’ (3 Henry VI, 2.1.74); and in Romeo and Juliet the trope of love as imprisonment occurs repeatedly (e.g. 1.2.54-6, 2.2.176-81). This article considers the reason for the early modern obsession with incarceration, providing a survey of the influence of contemporary prison legislation and conditions on city comedies; the use of chronicles and martyrologies in the writing of history plays; and the linguistic traces of prison literature and other literary tropes of imprisonment. In so doing, it demonstrates that many of the recurring features in those plays deemed to be influenced by contemporary London prisons – including the representation of the prison as corrupt and variable in its administration, as unjust or lacking in power – have analogues in earlier literary and historical works.

During the year of the fellowship I also became interested in the concept of literary afterlives more broadly. I was invited to write about one of the literary afterlives of Henry VIII in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, which is forthcoming in an edited collection entitled Henry VIII in History, edited by Thomas Betteridge and Thomas S. Freeman (Ashgate, 2012).

In September 2010, at the end of my fellowship, I was made lecturer in Renaissance English Literature at Queen Mary, University of London. I am in no doubt that research undertaken, and the additional experience I gained, during the fellowship contributed to me getting this job. And the fruits of the work undertaken during the fellowship are evident in my teaching: on the second year course, ‘Early Modern Drama and Social Process’, I teach students about representation of imprisonment, martyrdom, and execution on the early modern stage; and in a new course I will be offering from this October, ‘The Court of Henry VIII: Then and Now’, my students will be comparing the representation of Henry produced during his lifetime with the images propagated by literature, popular history, film and TV in the modern era.