Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Communities and Companionship in Early Modern Literature and Culture: Introduction

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Communities and Companionship in Early Modern Literature and Culture: Introduction

Article excerpt

This special issue on early modern literature offers a set of new essays that re-evaluate the inter-relationship between communities and companionship across a range of contexts and genres.

Recent criticism has tended to individualise different types of historical communities, through, for example, royalist allegiance;1 religious sectarianism;2 female alliance;3 and epistolary and manuscript exchange.4 While this approach is important and such research has enriched our understanding of early modern literary contexts, it has also been inclined to view each community in isolation without enabling the possibility for significant cross-reference between different types of communities. The ground-breaking Cambridge History of Early Modern English Literature is a notable exception in this respect.5 Providing the scope to expand across a broad spectrum of literary materials, it organises its discussions about literary texts and genres around the diverse range of institutional sites with which they interact (for example, the court, the city, the church, the household), thus highlighting how literary communities are often shaped by their connection to place. In line with this inclusive approach, this volume aims to highlight how different communities existed in close proximity to each other and to suggest how placing them in contiguity deepens our understanding of early modern community.

While early modern friendship has been given significant critical attention in recent years, the term 'companionship' implies a wider frame of reference as a relationship that signifies accompanying, associating or sharing with another (OED). In the letter to Peter Giles that prefaces his Utopia (1516), Thomas More identifies 'companions' in these broad terms: they incorporate those 'whom either nature hath provided or chance hath made or' those that one 'hath chosen' oneself, including friends and the members of one's household, but not necessarily intimate relations.6 As Cornelia Wilde's, Rosamund Paice's and Bronwen Price's essays indicate, the concept of friendship during this period often had quite specific implications of ideal classical amity. However, each of these essays shows how the concept of amity converges with other notions of affective companionship, such as marriage and Christian friendship, so as to complicate its terms. Moreover, companionship may also include other localised, specific relations, such as fellowship produced through mutual religious, social or professional values and links, as demonstrated in Stella Achilleos's and Wilde's essays, or shared experience that crosses social lines, such as that of female grief and mourning explored by Marion Wynne-Davies. The volume, therefore, examines a range of forms of companionship and considers their relationship to wider communities.

Such localised bonds may, indeed, become the basis of a wider set of ideas and shared values, and are often a means of working out, defining and identifying communal relations at a broader level. Indeed, as Price points out, Aristotle, a central reference point for early modern notions of community, views friendship as a building block for social cohesion more broadly, for 'friendship is based on community' and 'seems to be the bond that holds communities together ... because concord seems to be something like friendship'.7 Exploring this relationship in an early modern spiritual context rather than a classical political one, Wilde shows how seraphic friendship both arises from membership of a Christian community and signals the means of entry into the heavenly community.

However, as this volume also demonstrates in a variety of ways, companionship may sometimes work in competition with the broader community in which it is located and has the capacity to fragment and splinter as much as to unite and cohere (see Achilleos, Paice and Price, in particular). Inevitably, some of the essays focus more on community (Wynne-Davies, Achilleos) and others more on companionship (Wilde, Paice) in the attempt to explore the relationship between them. …

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