http://northernrenaissance.org | ISSN: 1759-3085

Creative Commons License

Published under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported Creative Commons License.

You are free to share, copy and transmit this work under the following conditions:

Ofer Gal and Raz Chen-Morris, Baroque Science (The University of Chicago Press, 2013)

Ofer Gal and Raz Chen-Morris, Baroque Science (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013). ISBN: 9780226923987, xiv + 333 pp. $45.

Reviewed by Fokko Jan Dijksterhuis


[1] Baroque Science is the central statement of the ‘Baroque Science’ project led by Ofer Gal and Raz Chen-Morris at the University of Sydney. The volume Science in the Age of Baroque (Springer, 2013), has been published simultaneously, after a number of workshops and several papers. The goal of the project is to show that the New Science of the seventeenth century – capitalized throughout the book – and the Baroque are not opposites but mirror images; products of the same cultural challenges. It aims to overcome the seeming contrast between the Baroque obsession with details, paradox, imagery and sensuality on the one hand, and the search for universal regularity of the New Science on the other. Baroque Science argues that three inter-related paradoxes are at the heart of the New Science, concerning the role and nature of observation, of mathematics and of objectivity. In all three cases the supposed straightforward rise of early modern science is revealed to have been a struggle with the contradictory implications of the new methods of observation – the employment of mathematics and the disciplining of the mind. The argument is lucid and precise, focusing on epistemic issues regarding the New Science, yielding an original view of the Scientific Revolution.

[2] The first three chapters, which comprise the first part of the book, show how observation became essentially mediated in early modern science: not simply because of the use of instruments but because the eye, itself, came to be seen as an instrument. In the Paralipomena of 1604 Johannes Kepler took the crucial step of recognizing that light forms a picture on the eye’s retina in a way similar to the creation of images by pinholes, cameras and telescopes. Juxtaposing Kepler’s conclusions with contemporary and earlier accounts of optics, vision and instruments, the authors make clear how fundamental the break with tradition was. Instead of being a ‘self-authenticating process of communication between object and reason through the eye’ (p. 27), vision became a mediated process of projection. Descartes fully addressed the epistemological challenge raised by Kepler’s optics, avoiding the pitfalls of skepticism and articulating the essence of sensual representation based on the analysis of image formation. Galileo and Hooke illustrate the resulting ‘radical instrumentalism’ that conflates art and nature and makes the telescope and microscope reveal the endless variety in nature. The authors’ argument regarding the epistemic implications of the telescope is searching and illuminating, making clear that it did not so much reveal the mathematical order of nature but necessitated a profound rethinking of the interaction between the natural world, observation and reason.

[3] This theme is continued in both chapters of the volume’s second section, discussing the equally challenging consequences of the ideal of a mathematical science of nature. The authors convincingly argue that mathematization was not the uncovering of the mathematical essence of nature, but the creation of mathematical tools for getting to grips with the messy richness of phenomena. They offer a new reading of the development of the inverse square law, liberating its history from the confines of astronomy by emphasizing the link with optics and showing how it expresses the Baroque sensitivity for disorder rather than a conquest of universality. In the single chapter which constitutes the final, third part of the volume, they discuss Descartes’ realization that the passions are crucial for warranting the proper employment of imagination and mediated sensation in arriving at legitimate knowledge. This concludes their argument that ‘Baroque paradox reversals’ (p.280) – of reason and passions, of art and nature, of order and complexity – were at the heart of the New Science of the seventeenth century.

[4] Baroque Science stands in a respectable tradition in the historiography of science. It has all the strengths and all the limitations of a classical history of ideas. The authors offer probing and original interpretations of a collection of texts of protagonists of the Scientific Revolution, taking seriously the aspirations and challenges they addressed within the intellectual context of their time. The New Science was hard-won and its epistemic substructure often defied the original expectations of its pioneers. Baroque Science shows how it was informed by early modern culture but it does not present it as a cultural phenomenon: the epistemic considerations underlying the New Science developed autonomously, seeking cultural legitimization afterwards. Consequently, the authors read the telescope exclusively as an astronomical instrument, passing over the vast array of cultural meanings that Eileen Reeves and others have revealed. Moreover, such an approach tends to obscure historical ambiguities and nuances that only later became definite. The telescope was, initially, an instrument for observing the physical features of the heavens; only half a century after its introduction it had become an instrument for positional astronomy. Hevelius had no problem employing the telescope for his selenography, but without an exact theory of the telescope he could not accept it as an instrument of precision. Ignoring distinctions like these, the argument of Baroque Science, at times, tends to the monolithic and linear. The authors lucidly explain how the particular branch of early modern natural philosophy epitomized by Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Hooke and Newton took shape, but they do not discuss its position within the myriad of conceptions and practices of the new philosophies of the seventeenth century or consider its reception and impact. At this point the argument is too narrow and generalizations are too broad. ‘The human observer gradually disappears from optical treatises’ the authors claim in their opening sentence (p. 16), but this only applies to the specific texts which they discuss. Outside the traditional canon of physical optics, perception remained important – understanding colorito, for example, required the active participation of the organs of cognition.

[5] Baroque Science does not offer a full history of science in the Baroque, and it need not. The penetrating analyses of texts offer a novel and inspiring view of the Scientific Revolution. The book is superbly written and perfectly accessible for the general historian. I highly recommend it. The focus on epistemology and the Baroque intricacies of man, nature and knowledge – the connection of scientific and artistic pursuits – has considerable relevance for other students of early modern culture. Although the authors do not explicitly make this ‘Baroque Science’ into a northern phenomenon, the story largely unfolds north of the Alps. It would be interesting to examine how, and to what extent, this specific cultural setting contributed to the emergence of a science of mediated perception and disciplined imagination.

University of Twente, June 2013


Boudewijn Bakker, Landscape and Religion from Van Eyck to Rembrandt (Ashgate, 2012)

Boudewijn Bakker, Landscape and Religion from Van Eyck to Rembrandt. Trans. By Diane Webb. (Burlington: Ashgate, 2012). ISBN: 978-1-4094-0486-6, 394 pp., 86 b/w ills. and 31 color plates. $134.95 / £70.

Reviewed by Alexandra Onuf

9781409404866.JKT_Layout 1

[1] Landscape and Religion from Van Eyck to Rembrandt provides an English translation of Boudewijn Bakker’s 2004 Dutch publication, Landschap en Wereldbeeld van Van Eyck tot Rembrandt, which formed the author’s doctoral thesis at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. Specialists in the field of Netherlandish or Dutch landscape are likely already familiar with Bakker’s exhaustively researched and eloquent book, which has received a great deal of well-deserved critical praise. It has also provoked its fair share of debate, as any new approach to the interpretation of Dutch landscape is wont to do. This English translation broadens the reach of Bakker’s book beyond the sphere of specialists to international audiences in a wide range of fields. It has been shortened from the Dutch original, which allows Bakker to communicate his argument as a more cohesive, succinct narrative.

[2] The title of the book’s English version already signals its main premise. Beginning around 1400, Van Eyck and other artists began to accord landscape an increasingly prominent place in painting. From this point right through to the end of Rembrandt’s career around 1670, Bakker believes landscape art is integrally linked to religion – by which he means a widespread, traditional Christian worldview as opposed to the theological dogma of any particular denomination. This runs counter to the position long championed by art historians, namely that the emergence of independent Northern landscape paintings was a triumph of pure artistic expression or aesthetic pleasure over meaningful content. As landscapes were freed from the confines of religious paintings, where they served as supposedly neutral backdrops, they became increasingly ‘pure’, a realm of art in which artists could showcase their virtuosity or experiment with the decorative effects of form and composition for their own sakes. Bakker rejects this interpretation wholeheartedly, arguing instead that landscapes were, in fact, never neutral backdrops and that they were never freed from the religious meanings that had always determined their form and function. In his formulation, the representation of the landscape that emerged in the North around 1400 grew out of a fundamental theological need to represent the ‘book of nature’. Contemplating the visible world could elevate the minds of the faithful to a spiritual appreciation of the divine Creator. This fundamentally theological outlook did not disappear in the early modern period, but rather continued to prevail and evolve over the course of the following three centuries, until a more causative Enlightenment worldview took root. Prior to that shift in mentality, however, artists and viewers alike would have viewed landscapes as essentially religious pictures, as they reflected the beauty of Creation, whether or not they included overt religious or Biblical content or references.

[3] The first several chapters of the book offer a primer in the theological and Scholastic thought that forms the basis for this enduring traditional Christian worldview. This is not the type of material typically mustered by art historians and offers a very welcome new perspective on the period. Among other principles, Bakker highlights how theologians sought to reveal four layers of meaning (literal or historical, allegorical, moral or tropological, and finally anagogical or spiritual) within the texts of the Bible, suggesting that the same mode or habit of analogical thinking was applied to the interpretation of the created world and images of it. The sources he cites, from Aquinas and Augustine to Hugh of St Victor and late medieval mystics like Hendrik Mande of the Brethren of the Common Life, discuss the Book of Nature as a representation or likeness of God. Bakker convincingly demonstrates that this spiritual vision of the physical world was so pervasive and ‘common as to be a cliché’  (p. 25). It is a natural leap then to assume that painters, who devote themselves to making likenesses, would see it as ‘their duty to propagate divine revelation in visual form’ (p. 34).

[4] But it is worth pausing for a moment to take stock of the steps in Bakker’s logic here. In an effort to explain the emergence of landscape paintings, he takes as his starting point ‘not the painted landscape; instead I have taken contemporary ideas about the visible world and the real landscape as pars pro toto, in the assumption that these ideas are reflected in the visual arts’ (p. 1). (Bakker offers numerous examples of how he sees these contemporary ideas and methods of thinking reflected in landscape paintings in Chapters 5 and 6.) In other words, Bakker builds a framework for understanding paintings through an assessment of what theologians had to say about the significance of nature and the actual visible world. Landscape paintings, real landscapes, nature, and the visible world at its most inclusive are all, thanks to the contemporary mindset of symbolic thinking, essentially analogous; what an author wrote about nature is, mutatis mutandi, what he and others must also have applied to their thinking about depicted landscapes.

[5] Since there is such a dearth of contemporary sources on landscape painting, as Bakker acknowledges, it is impossible to know if early-modern people looked at nature and pictures of nature in exactly the same way and with the same expectations and experiences. But Calvin, who plays a crucial role in Bakker’s account, provides an instructive example. In Chapter 8, Bakker champions Calvin as one of the few sixteenth-century authors whose writing framed contemporary views about the created world, ultimately explaining nature as ‘both a God-created work of art and God’s self-revelation’ (p. 159) that can serve as an example to mankind of God’s goodness and perfection. If nature and pictures of nature are essentially analogical, then it stands to reason that Calvin would believe that landscape paintings held the same exemplary and spiritual functions. However, Bakker himself notes later in the book that Calvin ‘with regard to the portrayal of things in nature, including landscapes,… wrote that in his view their main purpose was to delight, thus implicitly admitting that he did not detect much (spiritual) use in such pictures’ (p. 242). If as subtle and careful a thinker and theologian as Calvin saw actual nature and painted nature in such different terms, what leads Bakker to think that the broader populace would have been more predisposed to conjoin them?

[6] If this example showcases the difficulty of bridging the distance between texts and images or reality and representation, Bakker faces an equally difficult obstacle in establishing convincing boundaries to his study. One such boundary is temporal: the traditional Christian worldview he describes, medieval in origin, does not begin in 1400, so it is difficult to account for the relatively sudden surge in pictorial interest in landscapes around that time in particular. On the other end, it is clear that the taste for landscapes continued beyond 1670, but Bakker offers no analysis of how landscapes painted after this cut-off compare to those produced according to the traditional Christian worldview.

[7] Another problematic boundary is geographic: if one assumes that this worldview extended beyond the regions of France, Burgundy, and the Netherlands to the rest of Europe, then it is unclear why the tradition of landscape painting flourished so particularly in this specific region. Do the landscapes produced in Germany or Venice, for instance, merit the same theological interpretation? There is good pictorial and material evidence that Netherlandish landscapes constitute a specific artistic tradition, but Bakker does not provide equally clear evidence that the worldview he relies on to interpret these works was so bounded, or how and why it impacted upon northern artists, in particular, the way that it did.

[8] Finally, the difficult boundaries of genre and medium: on the one hand, Bakker takes a wide view of landscapes across media, incorporating paintings, prints, maps, and an occasional drawing into his argument. That said, he treats these as essentially interchangeable pictorial statements, without engaging the tremendous visual, practical, experiential and epistemological differences between, say, an easel painting and a print. Several scholars have argued that the technology of printing produced a defining shift in worldview from the medieval period to the Renaissance. In bypassing any analysis of the impact of medium on the message, Bakker represents both the religious worldview and the landscapes it produced as more stable and monolithic than seems merited in light of this scholarship. If he treats artistic medium indiscriminately, he is perhaps a bit too selective when it comes to genre. He offers a rather narrow selection of artists and works to demonstrate the unifying religious framework encompassing all landscapes. Bakker proceeds methodically from illuminated manuscripts and the early work of Van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Petrus Christus, and Gerard David in the fifteenth century, to Hieronymus Bosch, Joachim Patinir and Pieter Bruegel in the sixteenth, and Claes Visscher and Rembrandt in the seventeenth. But this trajectory leaves to the side so much of the diverse variety of landscape imagery, both in paintings and in prints, particularly as the genre exploded in popularity in the sixteenth century. The reader is left to wonder how the rustic rural landscapes of an artist like Abel Grimmer or the prints featuring violent attacks on peasants and travelers in the countryside after Hans Bol or David Vinckboons would fit within the schema he sets forth. He acknowledges that some maps and topographic landscapes served political and civic rather than religious purposes (pp. 125-132), but there are certainly a range of other interpretive possibilities beyond these two that could be profitably considered in a more inclusive assessment of the full range of landscape imagery across this time period.

[9] Despite these reservations, Bakker’s book is an extremely useful and engaging addition to the scholarship on Netherlandish and Dutch landscapes and to the early modern period more generally. He puts forth a powerful and comprehensive interpretation not just of landscape pictures, but perhaps even more compelling, of an enduring theological mentality operating throughout these centuries. He seeks to highlight the continuity and coherence of this period over time, a continuity that persisted in the face of dramatic economic, social, demographic, and political changes. This condensed English edition, beautifully illustrated and carefully translated, is especially welcome as it offers the rich results of Bakker’s combined theological and art historical research to a wider circle of scholars and will, as a result, continue to inspire further thinking in the broad field of Netherlandish studies.

 University of Hartford, June 2013

Rayne Allinson, A Monarchy of Letters: Royal Correspondence and English Diplomacy in the Reign of Elizabeth I (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

Rayne Allinson, A Monarchy of Letters: Royal Correspondence and English Diplomacy in the Reign of Elizabeth I (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). ISBN: 978-1-137-00835-0, 270 pp. £58.

Reviewed by Guillaume Coatalen


[1] Rayne Allinson’s engaging and lively monograph is a timely contribution to our knowledge of Queen Elizabeth I’s foreign letters, a field which has attracted growing, if limited, attention since the publication of the Chicago edition of her collected works both in translation and in the many original languages which the Queen mastered.

[2] As she notes, paradoxically enough, more literary scholars than historians have concentrated on the queen’s letters as material objects, even though a historian like James Daybell has pursued this line of inquiry for early modern letters in general. Henry Woudhuysen and Jonathan Gibson, for instance, have examined the Queen’s handwriting and Heather Wolfe, the curator at the Folger Library in Washington, has brought to light the various ways in which the letters were folded and presented. Until recently, the traditional position of historians has been to dismiss the material side of letters as irrelevant and to mine the vast correspondence for significant passages suiting their various purposes. They have often done this admirably, with the help (or not) of extensive databases, such as those provided by Gale or British History Online, supported by the Institute of Historical Research. Allinson’s approach is different. She chooses instead to focus on the impact which the Queen’s correspondence with other monarchs had on diplomatic relations, by weighing the contents of the letters with their physical aspect. In terms of historiography, the book marks a return to the analysis of the monarch’s personal and public power to fashion history, for centuries the main historical paradigm which was undermined by the growth of social and cultural history. One of the virtues of the study is to make possible a balanced and nuanced view of Elizabethan history as being the joint product of both rulers and subjects, high and low.

[3] Like Woudhuysen, Allinson rightly contends that the use of the Queen’s own hand was significant in itself and crucial to her diplomatic and personal goals. Consequently, holographs play a major role in her narrative. The study covers the entire reign and a vast territory from Scotland to Constantinople. The material is so rich that entire monographs could be written on the individual chapters.

[4] The first chapter offers historical background on ‘Writing in English Royal Diplomacy’. By the mid-sixteenth century, letter writing was no longer seen as a chore delegated to secretaries and had become ‘an integral part of a monarch’s job description’ (p. 1). This was largely due to the influence of Erasmus in England and the unique combination of humanism and the Reformation which promoted the monarch’s written words as a power for good. The Queen’s humanist italic hand and classical learning were taught by Roger Ascham.

[5] The second chapter looks at ‘The Making of Elizabeth’s Correspondence’, which was a complex process often involving the queen’s secretary Burghley, clerks of the signet, members of the privy council, secretaries for foreign tongues, scribes and, at times, merchants. Burghley would typically write a draft in English and then have it translated into the appropriate language. Other members of the Queen’s inner circle such as Windebank or Beale could contribute, as well as other experts on certain countries. What is quite clear is that the Queen kept close control on the actual wording since she dictated the letters and, when she did not, revised copies carefully. Unfortunately, the chapter was written before Angela Andreani completed her informative and thorough PhD dissertation on the making of the Queen’s letters in the 1590s.[1] As it is, the chapter skillfully describes, however, all the stages involved in the Queen’s correspondence from draft to delivery. Such details as the size of the seal, the colour of the ribbon, or the way the letter was folded, held a precise significance which could be wrongly interpreted and cause diplomatic tensions.

[6] The first two chapters are introductions to the following eight ones which present case studies in a chronological order. The reign’s internal and external affairs are seen through the lens of the letters themselves. Chapter Three focuses on the early reign, 1558-1559. Very quickly, Elizabeth distinguished between two ‘separate but interlinking levels’ (p. 44) of diplomatic exchanges, one involving ambassadors, and the other monarchs. During this period, she wrote the greatest number of letters to France, the Holy Roman Empire and Spain, the countries she feared most. These letters’ main purpose was to strengthen bonds of amity and by so doing, to avoid war. Many drafts bear evidence of Burghley’s involvement in penning them. Chapter Four examines the tense correspondence with King Philip of Spain, 1558-1584. Philip noted the signature ‘Soror et perpetua confederata [sister and perpetual ally]’ the Queen used in a letter dated December 28, 1558 reporting the death of Mary I, revealing that the level of attention paid to such details may be wrongly dismissed by modern readers as simply formulaic. Intriguingly, in 1576 the Spaniard wrote a letter in French on the appointment of Don Juan as the new Governor of the Low Countries. The hundred or so letters Elizabeth and Philip exchanged served to check various tensions, often due to their respective ambassadors. One of the most fascinating rhetorical strategies is provided by the use of two letters varying in tone according to the Queen’s immediate response to the messenger.

[7] Chapter Five is entitled ‘Silent Diplomacy: Queen Mary I of Scotland: 1559-1587’. This was a holograph exchange but unfortunately most of Elizabeth’s early letters have been lost. The main paradoxical point of the chapter is the part played by Elizabeth’s delaying responses or more radically not writing back in their tortuous relationship. It is quite clear that Mary valued the queen’s holograph letters, one of which she ‘reverently kissed’ (p. 91) in 1563. Chapter Six explores the correspondence with Catherine de Medici. This is the ‘longest sustained communication with a French ruler besides Henry IV’ (p. 94). The correspondence with her sons, the Dukes of Anjou, is eclipsed by this remarkable relationship and, though this is justifiable, one might regret Allinson did not write more on the holographs sent to the brothers, themselves.

[8] Chapters Seven and Eight deal with correspondences with non-Western rulers and stress the significant cultural differences in how letters were made and read. Both Tsar Ivan IV and Sultan Murād III failed to understand and appreciate signs of intimacy in the material presentation of the Queen’s letters. Instead, they much preferred great seals and lavish decorations to bare holographs. These are possibly the most groundbreaking chapters in the book. Elizabeth’s correspondence with Henry IV is the subject of Chapter Nine. It is quite extraordinary since it survived the King’s conversion to Catholicism. In these letters, many of which were holographs, Elizabeth spoke to an equal and offered tantalizing glimpses of her private persona. In contrast with Chapters Seven and Eight, Chapter Ten grapples with her epistolary exchanges with her closest ally in many ways, King James VI of Scotland. What makes their correspondence unique is its nature. James was not quite a foreigner and Elizabeth wrote to him in English, not in Latin or French.

[9] The conclusion is particularly useful since it offers a graph on the distribution of her letters over time. Notwithstanding the many letters which have not survived, the Queen’s correspondence grew exponentially in her reign. Allinson might have done more on her Italian letters and perhaps written a chapter on the Low Countries, but these are just oversights, certainly not defects. The book opens up numerous avenues of research and is extremely stimulating; there is no doubt whatsoever that it constitutes a landmark in the field. The reader’s only regret is the lack of copy editing, ‘between the England and Russia’ (p. 116), ‘1562-1553’ instead of ‘1552-1553’ (p. 155). Still, this is a work of the highest scholarship from which historians, literary or not, students and laymen should benefit enormously.

Université de Cergy-Pontoise,  June 2013


[1] Angela Andreani, ‘The Letters of Queen Elizabeth I, 1590-1596, Weighing Archival Evidence’ (Unpublished PhD dissertation, Università degli studi di Milano, 2012). [back to text]

Siobhán Collins, Bodies, Politics and Transformations: John Donne’s Metempsychosis (Ashgate, 2013)

Siobhán Collins, Bodies, Politics and Transformations: John Donne’s Metempsychosis (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013). ISBN 978-1-4094-0635-8, 212 pp. £49.50.

Reviewed by Alan James Hogarth


[1] The critical reception of John Donne’s Metempsychosis has, historically, been rather negative. From Ben Jonson’s claim that the poem’s final purpose was never realised, to Herbert Grierson’s damning assessment of the work as exhibiting a ‘vein of sheer ugliness’ (156), responses have ranged from the confused to the disparaging. Part of the reason why the poem has met with such negativity can be attributed to its generic instability, seeming to be both epic in its use of Spenserian stanza and thematic ambition, yet satirical in its fondness for the grotesque. By judging the poem according to standards to which it doesn’t seem to conform, previous criticism on Metempsychosis has succeeded in obscuring the qualities which make the poem what it is – a site of textual and philosophical negotiation. Siobhán Collins’ book provides an antidote to this fractured critical heritage and suggests that both the form and the intellectual basis of Metempsychosis are, necessarily, concerned with change and process as defining features of self-knowledge. Donne’s purpose, Collins argues, is to ‘interrogate notions of selfhood’ (138) by charting the human being’s complex physical and metaphysical participation in the created universe.

[2] Pythagoras’ doctrine of Metempsychosis posits that the soul migrates from one body to another following its host’s death, and this idea forms the governing conceit of the poem. Over 52 stanzas the soul is embodied by twelve hosts and ‘is increasingly subject to bodily passions as it moves through a hierarchical scale of earthly being’ (2), beginning with the apple in the Garden of Eden and ending in the female human form of Eve’s daughter, Themech. An important and recurring observation of Collins’ study is that the physical bodies inhabited by the wandering soul are essentially permeable and that the boundaries between earthly and spiritual things are considered by Donne to be fluid. In this respect, the book builds upon recent critical work on Donne’s theological conviction that the soul cannot be privileged above the body, nor the body above the soul. Collins makes this fluidity or tendency towards transformation, in the poem and in nature, the organising principle of the book’s seven chapters. So, for example, Chapter 3, entitled, ‘Separation: Genesis and the Fall’, addresses the poem’s ambivalent attitude towards gender in the originating story of creation, and Chapter 5, ‘Liminality: Plant/Human’, engages with the continuity of earthly matter, the qualities of the ‘vegetative soul’ shared by human, animal and plant, embodied in the poem’s repeated image of the mandrake.

[3] A particular strength of the book lies in Collins’ detailed close readings which tease out the multivalent meanings of Donne’s imagery, an imagery rooted in theology, moral philosophy, contemporary science, alchemy and classical medicine. Because the poem was written in 1601, at a time of new developments in natural philosophy and religion, Donne’s sources, Collins suggests, are understandably eclectic and reflect the heterogeneity of knowledge in this period. Her reading of the mandrake episode, for example, taps into the plant’s rich symbolic history as medicinal, an emblem of sexuality, ‘an image of Adam’ (88), according to Origen, and, in the poem, a type of Christ. Donne also describes his anthropomorphic mandrake as having hair, a detail which Collins links to Galen’s observations on the similarities between plant roots as they emerge from the ground and human hair as it grows from the skin. With such a close emphasis upon the constitution of different bodies, Collins maintains that nowhere in Metempsychosis does Donne suggest transcendence of the physical.

[4] Transformation and process belong, not only to the poem’s themes, but also to its form. Donne’s riddling and seemingly unfulfilled promise that the soul’s final inhabitant, a well-known contemporary figure, will be revealed by the poem’s end, has contributed to the prevailing assumption that Metempsychosis is a poetic fragment, lacking closure. But a significant claim of the book is that the form of the poem is indeed complete in its mirroring of the historical human condition which is, by nature, always evolving. ‘The possibility of future regeneration’ Collins argues, ‘informs the deliberate lack of closure … and reflects both the poet’s aesthetic and his sense of self and time as unavoidably being in media res, unfinished, always in process’ (35). Throughout the book, Collins demonstrates convincingly the extent to which the poem is loaded with a sense of potentiality. Indeed, the text’s Latin dedication, ‘Infinitati Sacrum’, glossed by the Variorum editors as ‘consecrated to infinity’ (29), is taken as early evidence of the poem’s unity of design. This dedication, Collins suggests, draws from ‘Aristotle’s notion of infinity as imperfection, as something that is not fully realised in the actual physical world’ and thus hints at ‘Metempsychosis’s narrative of seemingly endless transmigrations’ (31). The first two Chapters of the book seek to resolve the twin conundrums of the poem’s generic eccentricity and incompleteness which have so troubled previous critics. Reader participation, the book concludes, is the key to understanding the text, which encourages moments of self-analysis. Accordingly, by the poem’s end, readers, ‘instead of discovering another particular historic individual embodying the soul in the final stanza, are called upon to reflect on their own inherited corrupt identity, which the previous fifty-one stanzas have detailed’ (78).

[5] Although largely concerned with formal analysis and the poem’s philosophical resonances, the book also makes space for biographical links and political context. Donne’s troubled religious convictions during this period are, therefore, aligned with the poem’s frequent ‘alterations of perspective’ (77), whilst his ‘vivid and grotesque images of the devoured and devouring body throughout the poem’, are taken as satirical barbs against the ‘Catholic doctrine of real presence’ (110) in the Eucharist. Previous critics have suggested that allusions to Essex, Bacon and Cecil are embedded in the poem’s references to the Whale, Elephant and Mouse, but, for Collins, Donne does not allow ‘the particular to overwrite the universal’ (120). Instead, he focuses on the general political follies of the Elizabethan age, embodied by ‘appetitive desire’ (137) and negative individualism.

[6] For readers, not immediately familiar with Metempsychosis, the book, helpfully, supplies two appendices; one deals with the poem’s textual history in manuscript and print and the other with critical interpretations. Since the subject matter of the book requires some familiarity with religious and scientific discourses, these appendices are particularly useful for getting to grips with the textual and critical history of the poem itself. This, in turn, affords readers the space to engage more fully with the ideas at the heart of the book. In its rehabilitation, unification and scholarly reading of Metempsychosis, Bodies, Politics and Transformations, is a significant contribution to Donne studies. In its wide reaching exploration of self-hood, embodiment and textuality, it will also be of interest to historians of early modern medicine, natural philosophy and the material history of the book.

University of Strathclyde, June 2013

Conference Announcement: A New Platform for Scottish Renaissance Studies

A conference in honour of Professor Charles McKean‌

Sat 26th – Sun 27th Oct 2013
Perth Concert Hall Complex & the Royal George Hotel, Perth

This conference is by way of a celebration of the contribution of Professor Charles McKean to the field of Scottish Renaissance Studies, on the occasion of his retirement from the University of Dundee.

The purpose of the conference is to set a new platform for research by bringing together the last decade of Scottish Renaissance research into a coherent whole. In addition to the five  papers sessions there will be two site visits, one to the privately owned Megginch Castle on the Carse of Gowrie and the other to Huntingtower to the west of Perth, ancient paternal seat of the earls of Gowrie which Historic Scotland has recently reinterpreted.

There will also be a champagne reception and celebratory dinner on the Saturday night which it is hoped all delegates will attend.