Response to Craig Dionne

Patricia Fumerton

 

     1. In his thoughtful and thought-provoking reflections upon my essay -- an essay that focuses on the texts and woodcuts of one particular seventeenth-century broadside street ballad and associated texts/images -- Craig Dionne legitimately questions "how woodcuts so crudely rendered can lead to such a sensitive hermeneutics. . . . Is a woodcut of a courtyard with a fence always symbolizing an 'enclosed self'? Or is it sometimes just a courtyard?" Dionne is quite right that sometimes a fence is just a fence and a courtyard just a courtyard. But it depends on who's doing the looking, and when. Even the crudest of woodcuts can snowball-like accrue meaning -- and indeed a rather sophisticated set of meanings at that -- by virtue of its rolling mobility from broadsheet to broadsheet. It is not usually the isolated crude woodcut that provokes heightened sensitivity on the part of the viewer but rather its accumulated contextualized history on being reused by printers and being reseen by viewers in similar or very different contexts. This means that not everyone experiences the same thing in reading or looking at or hearing a broadside ballad; their impressions will have been shaped by previous readings/viewings/hearings as they wander the streets of London and its suburbs or frequent such public spaces as alehouses, marketplaces, or bookstalls -- all places where broadsides would be posted up or sung. In my forthcoming article, "Remembering by Dismembering," which I refer to in my current piece, I compare the partial assemblage of associations an early modern person might accumulate in a day or over a period of time to the various "hits" we moderns might bring up in internet searches. The individual gatherings are to some extent always random, fortuitous, and fragmentary. But that doesn't mean they aren't also meaningfilled.

     2. So someone looking at the iron-studded door or enclosed garden pictured in the woodcut of the hall in the ballad "Mock Beggar Hall" might indeed see just a closed door and a fenced yard. But they might be reminded of a sermon they heard one day that spoke in laymen's terms about the "porta clausa" and the "hortus conclusus" -- representations of the interior private space of Mary's virginity that was necessarily penetrated by the word/dove/flower of God as announced by the archangel Gabriel (both closed door and enclosed garden -- the latter penetrated by the lily held in Gabriel's hand -- are pictured in Dominico Veneziano's Annunciation, c. 1445; for more on such representations of the annunciation as figuring the mystery of interiority and its violation, see my Cultural Aesthetics, pp. 149-156). Or the viewer might have recently seen the very same woodcut used as the frontispiece to Michael Goodman's pamphlet about the famous whorehouse Holland's Leaguer, a seemingly impregnable fortress that was resolutely defended by its viragos against the authorities who stormed it about the same time the broadside ballad I discuss was issued. Or not. What Dionne's question shrewdly warns us against is presuming that our sometimes very inventive interpretations about early modern literature and culture would have been made by every early modern reader/viewer/listener. I stand by the possibility and even likelihood of some contemporaries making the associations I proffer in my essay. But I do not stand by the claim of all always doing so.

     3. As to the confusion Dionne notes that my discussion generates over identity in regard to the moment when the viewer's penetrating gaze into a restricted aristocratic private space makes the conscious link between such privileged self-enclosure and lowly prostitution, which leads back to a marketed and exchangeable self of the text of the ballad -- "Who is the prostitute, who the consumer?" Dionne asks -- I see his point. But I'm not sure I agree with the phrasing of the question. The problem with such phrasing is that it belies the aristocracy's double investment in prostitution as both consumer and middleman or bawd, to the extent that the upper sorts contributed to and profited from the trade, as did, for instance, Lord Stanley. But it also belies the potential for prostitution to function allusively or metaphorically in the ballad, of which I was perhaps not clear enough. The upper sorts' intimate and extensive involvement in the new fluid economy of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England can be seen metaphorically as a kind of selling off or "prostituting" of placed identity (and all its attendant social obligations) for the perceived profits of economic, social, and geographic mobility. In this metaphorical kind of self-prostitution, the upper sorts become dispersed, unsettled selves akin to the vagrant low which their involvement in the market produces, of which women vagrants (usually identified as prostitutes) are part.

     4. I would concede the resulting confusion, however. The ballad under discussion is in fact all about confusing apparent clear-cut distinctions: between male and female; between hospitality (and its adulteration into sex) and the market; between high and low; between private and public; between self-enclosed and self-dispersed; between placed and vagrant. I would add that street literature, and especially broadside ballads, embrace such confusions or doublings. Often, for instance, competing ballads issued by the same author or printer argue for opposite sides of the same position, and ballad woodcuts, texts, and tunes migrate from broadside to broadside without consideration of consistency or stable intent -- as happens when the woodcut announcing a pamphlet about an impregnable brothel becomes used to picture an inhospitable aristocratic hall. That very doubling or multiplication of meaning (and I guess I prefer these terms to "confusion") is what makes the broadside street ballad one of the most vagrant forms of the period, and also one of the most embraceable or, to quote a term used by Samuel Pepys, "promiscuous." There is something for everyone in ballads.

     5. That's also, to address Dionne's last concern, why for me it is not really problematic that the poor gazing upon a woodcut of an aristocrat in a ballad might see simultaneously a fantasy of elevated and stable place, an uncanny likeness to his or her own lowly unsettled self, and also a self-prostituting promoter (and I'm again here speaking metaphorically) in the unstable market that generates unsettled subjects. Certainly, today's mass public seem able to hold together simultaneously such conflicting associations in gazing at their posters of Hollywood stars such as Britney Spears (our equivalent to the high born of the early modern period).

 

 

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Form copyright © 2008 Early Modern Culture.

Content copyright © 2008 Patricia Fumerton.