BSR Online Lecture | The evolution of a sounded book in the seventeenth century


Jennifer Richards (Newcastle)

Society for Renaissance Studies Lecture

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It is a truism that there are few insights we can safely apply from the past. Their contents are of historical interest only. This paper will take a different position, arguing that animating early books – that is, sharing the information they contain in a new way – can provide unexpected insights that can help us think differently today. It proposes that the knowledge early printed books offer is not simply contained in them, but that it is also integral to their experience when sounded. This is largely true of all books in an orally-literate culture (Richards, 2019), but it is knowingly true of the book that provides my case study: Charles Butler’s The Feminine Monarchie of the Bees (1609, 1623, 1634). Butler’s attribution of meaning to the sound of bees is a product of the humanist curriculum that it is easy to denigrate. Specifically, it is an adaptation of the voice-training that was part of that curriculum, and which is both grammatical, rhetorical and musical in origin. In the mouths and ears of its readers, Butler’s book offers a unique opportunity to understand animal cognition and communication, and to rethink animal-human relations.  This paper will also consider how Butler’s imaginative experiment might help us to understand that the sound-awareness of early modern print is an inextricable feature of its materiality, and how, in his hands, the sounded book became a tool to understand not just the natural world, but the human world too, giving new life to old analogies: the beehive as a feminine monarchy. 

Jennifer Richards is the Joseph Cowen Chair of English Literature, Newcastle University and the Director of Newcastle University’s Humanities Research Institute. She is the author of  Rhetoric and Courtliness in Early Modern Literature (2003), Rhetoric: A New Critical Idiom (2007), Voices and Books in the English Renaissance: A New History of Reading (2019). She is a General Editor of The Complete Work of Thomas Nashe and the lead on AHRC-funded The Thomas Nashe Project.