January 5-8, 2017
“The ‘Divine Service’ of Astronomy: Cotton Mather’s Almanac”
Cotton Mather’s New England sat on the cusp of the North American Enlightenment, a period of transition from a medieval understanding of the world as held within God’s firm and perhaps wrathful grasp, to a new conception of the world as a place that man might better understand through the so-called “new science,” which embraced astronomical study as a means of predicting weather for agricultural purposes. Recent scholarship on Mather examines his reconciliation of his Puritan beliefs with his interest in Enlightened science by looking to his sermons alongside his involvement in the Boston Philosophical Society. Yet Mather’s first and only published almanac, the 1683 Boston Ephemeris, has been overlooked by Mather scholars because of its use of astronomy. While the Boston Philosophical Society promoted and even anticipated Enlightenment modes of thought, it focused on natural history and the use of the compass and microscope; in other words, the society focused on knowing more about the fallen human world and did not dare to comprehend the heavenly realms. Yet, as Mather explains in his almanac, astronomical understanding was not a heathenish turn away from submission to God’s ultimate authority, but instead led to a fuller understanding of His glory and design beyond the realm of the earth. The almanac thus did not take away God’s agency, but instead rendered Him more spectacular. Mather’s almanac deserves attention because it provides solid evidence for his early implementation of Enlightenment tendencies by combining a learned understanding of astronomical patterns with Christian Puritanism. I argue that Mather’s early interest in astronomically charting and cataloguing the weather in his almanac displays his premonitory understanding of the coming Enlightenment movement, an understanding that he reproduces and develops throughout his later writing. In this early publication, Mather successfully renders his “sorry Almanack” an item of “Divine Service,” demonstrating that there was not some great divide between religious modes of thought and the budding new science.
Sixteenth Century Society Conference
August 18-21, 2016
“Feral Speech in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene”
Spenser’s knights are bad speakers. This may seem an odd statement to make about a poem as poetically masterful as The Faerie Queene, especially in light of critics who view the poem’s knights as rhetorical instructors to Spenser’s student-readers. But, to cite only a few examples, Britomart ultimately chooses silence over speech whenever she cannot comprehend the trickiness of language, and Calidore never completes his quest of taming the Blatant Beast (the poem’s allegorical embodiment of rampant slander). These two knights often do not learn how to read or use language; their attempts prove ineffectual. They learn to cope, rather than conquer, in the rhetorical language funhouse of Faerieland. The poem does not attempt to teach its readers how to tame language. Instead, its lesson parallels its ending: language, like the Blatant Beast, always elides capture and stability. Performative speech runs rampant through Spenser’s poem; these knights must navigate a minefield of performative language. Furthermore, I argue that their journey often mirrors the experience of early modern individuals after the English Protestant Reformation, when language’s role in personal spirituality was newly scrutinized. Public prayers or testimonies were increasingly distrusted and viewed as performative rather than authentic. Sacraments and the words of a ceremony could be construed as false and suspicious. Early modern individuals, like Spenser’s knights, could not hope to stabilize or fully know language; like the Blatant Beast, language remains feral.
January 7-10, 2014
“Erasing the Self in George Herbert’s Poetry”
This paper discusses salvation and self-suspicion in Herbert’s Temple, arguing that Herbert attempts to erase himself from his own poetic creations in order to reconcile the roles of action and language when relying on God’s grace for provision. Herbert often questions the purity of his motives in devotion, coming to the conclusion that he cannot trust his words to be an authentic display of his aspired holy self. Herbert’s answer to the problem of trusting the self is to simply remove it from his poetry. Instead, Herbert often channels communal prayers as the most authentic expressions of devotion, ending many of his poems with lines from Scripture or The Book of Common Prayer. Herbert realizes the futility of his actions and words, relinquishes any sense of self and instead finds himself and his salvation by losing himself within the larger Church community.