Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England

Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England

Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England

Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England


A craze for collecting swept England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Aristocrats and middling-sort men alike crammed their homes full of a bewildering variety of physical objects: antique coins, scientific instruments, minerals, mummified corpses, zoological specimens, plants, ethnographic objects from Asia and the Americas, statues, portraits. Why were these bizarre jumbles of artifacts so popular?

In Curiosities and Texts, Marjorie Swann demonstrates that collections of physical objects were central to early modern English literature and culture. Swann examines the famous collection of rarities assembled by the Tradescant family; the development of English natural history; narrative catalogs of English landscape features that began to appear in the Tudor and Stuart periods; the writings of Ben Jonson and Robert Herrick; and the foundation of the British Museum.

Through this wide-ranging series of case studies, Swann addresses two important questions: How was the collection, which was understood as a form of cultural capital, appropriated in early modern England to construct new social selves and modes of subjectivity? And how did literary texts--both as material objects and as vehicles of representation--participate in the process of negotiating the cultural significance of collectors and collecting? Crafting her unique argument with a balance of detail and insight, Swann sheds new light on material culture's relationship to literature, social authority, and personal identity.


In 1634 the indefatigable traveler Peter Mundy was between voyages, cooling his heels in London. He filled his time at one point by going to Lambeth “to view some rarieties” at the home of the elder John Tradescant. According to Mundy, he spent a “whole day in peruseinge, and that superficially,” the enthralling wealth of objects that Tradescant had accumulated, which included

Beasts, fowle, fishes, serpents, wormes (reall, although dead and dryed), pretious
stones and other Armes, Coines, shells, fethers, etts. of sundrey Nations, Coun
tries, forme, Coullours; also diverse Curiosities in Carvinge, painteinge, etts., as 80
faces carved on a Cherry stone, Pictures to bee seene by a Celinder which otherwise
appeare like confused blotts, Medalls of Sondrey sorts, etts. Moreover, a little
garden with divers outlandish herbes and flowers, whereof some that I had not
seene elswhere but in India, being supplyed by Noblemen, Gentlemen, Sea Com
maunders, etts. with such Toyes as they could bringe or procure from other parts.

Mundy concluded his description of Tradescant’s collection with the ultimate compliment a seasoned traveler could bestow: “I am almost perswaded a Man might in one daye behold and collecte into one place more Curiosities then hee should see if hee spent all his life in Travell.”

Tradescants “rarieties”—and Mundy’s enthusiasm for such a conglomeration of objects—were typical manifestations of the interest in collecting which permeated seventeenth-century English culture. By the 1690s, collecting was an activity of such established social importance that John Evelyn could earnestly suggest that “Diligent and Curious Collectors,” including Tradescant, should be commemorated by having medals struck in their honor. the very terms “collection” and “collector” as we now use them were specifically products of late Elizabethan and Stuart England. By 1651 the word “collection,” used since the mid-fifteenth century to refer to gathered historical or literary materials, had also come to designate an assemblage of physical things (“scientific specimens, objects of interest, works of art”), while the term “collector,” first used in 1582 to refer to a literary compiler, similarly came to refer to an individual “who collects works of art, curiosities, etc.”

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