Introduction: New Lamps for Old?

By Pincombe, Mike | Yearbook of English Studies, January-July 2008 | Go to article overview

Introduction: New Lamps for Old?


Pincombe, Mike, Yearbook of English Studies


The term 'Tudor literature' is increasingly being used to denote a new period, but it has not yet become certain when this period begins or ends. This chapter argues that there are two ways of interpreting the term: a 'long' Tudor period, which tracks the royal fortunes of the house of Tudor from 1485 to 1603; and a 'short' period, from roughly 1530 to 1580, which might be designated 'mid-Tudor literature'. This central period witnessed the catastrophic termination of medieval literature as a result of the Henrician Reformation and its immediate aftermath in the tumultuous decades of the mid-sixteenth century.

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Periodization is a practical necessity as an aid to reading and study, but the forms of periodization that we have become accustomed to need to be constantly challenged so that they do not become part of the history to which they refer.

(Derek Pearsall) (1)

The modern history of Tudor literature begins (it might be argued) in 1987, with John Pitcher's essay on 'Tudor Literature, 1485-1603' for The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature. (2) This is not an essay that many people seem to have read, but I think it is the first time that this particular formulation was used in the title of an essay devoted to what is evidently meant to be understood as a literary period. It may surprise some readers to learn that the phrase 'Tudor literature' has been used relatively rarely in the titles of essays and books; I count about a dozen in the electronic archives of the MLA. It is not, then, to use the language of the modern corporate academy, a 'brand'.

It may seem vulgar to use such a term in the context of the sequence of scholarly and critical essays on Tudor literature that make up the present volume; but the charge may be countered by the observation that this collection has a particular importance in bringing the term 'Tudor literature' to a much wider readership than the only other such volume with that phrase in its title: The Anatomy of Tudor Literature (2001). (3) This was a set of seventeen essays representing the proceedings of the First International Conference of the Tudor Symposium in 1998, and it was aimed--and marketed--at a readership of early modernists. But the present volume has its place in a distinguished series that takes the whole of English studies as its remit, and the title Tudor Literature will stand on the shelf between volumes devoted to Science Fiction and Literature and Religion. As such, it is an important advance in 'establishing the brand', or, to use a more polite expression, in making other scholars and students of English literature--and the bodies that fund them--aware that there is indeed such a thing as 'Tudor literature'.

By the time this collection of essays is ready to read, two other volumes with the phrase 'Tudor literature' proudly emblazoned in their titles will be in press: The Blackwell Companion to Tudor Literature, 1485-1603, under the editorship of Kent Cartwright; and The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature, 1485-1603, edited by Cathy Shrank and myself. So by 2010 there should be no doubt that Tudor literature will have 'arrived'. If we compare these titles to that of the earlier but equivalent volume in the Cambridge Companion series, we will note a marked difference. Arthur F. Kinney edited a collection of essays on what this volume calls 'Tudor Literature' as The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1500-1600. (4) That was in 2000; but it may be that we are now witnessing the early stages of a paradigm shift in the way we conceive of this period (if such it is) of English literature.

But what exactly is 'Tudor literature'? To put it another way: What is the 'Tudorness of Tudor literature'? This was the theme of the 1998 Tudor Symposium. As it happened, none of the speakers actually addressed this question. People spoke on topics they were interested in and wanted to share with their colleagues--and that is how it should be, of course. …

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