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Joachim Frenk, Textualised Objects: Material Culture in Early Modern English Literature
by Rebecca Olson

Frenk, Joachim. Textualised Objects: Material Culture in Early Modern English Literature. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter Verlag, 2012. 281 pp. ISBN 978-3825359980. $54.00 cloth. 

 

Joachim Frenk’s Textualised Objects: Material Culture in Early Modern English Literature does not claim to redirect or revise the current critical conversation on Early Modern objects; instead, the author announces the project as one that ultimately lends support for the importance of that conversation, and for materialist studies in general. It will, he explains, “demonstrate that a sharpened and theoretically aware attention to early modern material culture, in the form of context-sensitive close readings of literature’s interest in objects, is a rewarding critical practice” (253). As Frenk acknowledges, the very pervasiveness of material culture in Early Modern literature makes this an overwhelming task: chiefly, how does one choose which objects to focus on? He therefore offers three ways to circumscribe the “borderlines” of his project, each of which provides the methodological frame for one of the book’s chapters: focus on a particular object/kind of object; limit to a group of texts or literary genre; and finally, focus on a “particular aspect (for instance a stage character) and analyse the complex relationship between early modern literature and material culture by means of such a case study” (39). Frenk’s analyses of the Royal Exchange, the sonnet form, and the Shakespearean figure of Falstaff, respectively, endeavor to recover what Douglas Bruster calls “material competence”—that is to say, contemporary materialist thought, as encoded in the texts—and in doing so, reveal insights not only about the texts in question, but also the larger issues of their period.

The book’s introduction provides a well-written and thorough overview of various critical approaches to material culture up to the late nineties, and includes some attention to important gendered studies of the early 2000s. The reader is left to wonder if the lack of more contemporary examples is due to a publication lag or—more problematic—a waning interest in material studies. If the latter, is Frenk’s study motivated by a desire to revive attention to the material represented in Early Modern literature? If the former, does the author see himself as redirecting the recent scholarly trajectory? Without a clear articulation of the project’s stakes, the introduction’s comprehensive summary of the field remains somewhat enigmatic.

The subtle argumentative threads of Frenk’s readings do come together, and compellingly, in the book’s conclusion, and it is with these final pages that I suggest more argument-oriented readers begin.  On page 243, for example, Frenk identifies two of the book’s “guiding theses.” The second of these—that “meanings attributed to material objects in and by Early Modern culture are to a large degree to be found in verbal texts, which are thus as suited for the study of material culture as other, much more ‘material’ texts”—is, though important, probably taken as a given by most readers drawn to the monograph. But the first thesis—“that a detailed and discriminating study of the ways in which early Modern English culture constantly reinscribed and reconfigured material objects can yield crucial insights into this culture’s signifying practices”—is more exciting, and it is this thesis that underlines the study’s most persuasive readings, as described below.

The first chapter, “Symbolic Exchanges: Building Overseas Trade,” provides a very helpful history for anyone working on the Royal Exchange or indeed, any Early Modern texts in which burses figure (and as the chapter makes clear, there are many). Frenk’s attention to Heywood’s 2 If You Know Not Me is particularly effective at conveying the political tensions surrounding the Exchange and illustrating the period’s interest in exotic objects and overseas trade; as Frenk puts it, “The ongoing negotiations at and around the Exchange were concerned as much with the space it demarcated as with the material splendor it flaunted” (76). Frenk’s interest in the actual space of the Exchange leads to a subsection on the exchange of women within the space, which is in turn followed by sections on the place of the exchange in Christianizing discourses of capitalism and, finally, Jonson’s representation of Britain’s Burse. Given such movement, the chapter would benefit from a direct explanation of Frenk’s working definition of “material object,” which includes not only the objects (and at times, people) within the Exchange, but also the very building itself. Frenk does helpfully unpack the etymological differences between “burse” and “exchange,” to present the latter as “a social process with material implications” (56), but the assertion that Britain’s Burse was a “a material object full of material objects” deserves at least a quick explanation of why we could—indeed should—imagine these spaces as objects in the first place.

The second chapter, “Sonneteering Objects,” examines not only the representation of objects in sonnets, but also the poetic form’s status as object or token. At times the chapter revisits ground already covered by Patricia Fumerton and others, especially in the sections devoted to Sidney. More persuasive and innovative, to my mind, is Frenk’s treatment of Drayton’s sonnet sequence, and specifically, the increasing emphasis on the material in his revisions of Ideas Mirrour (1594). Rejecting the claim that there is a “frustrated dialectic” at work in Drayton’s 1619 version, Frenk instead sees “the development of Idea as a series of attempts to combine opposites” (184). As he forcefully argues, the different versions also reflect changing ideas about the sonnet form. In this way, the sequence provides an especially nice example of Frenk’s interest in the reconfiguration of objects, or “the productive tension between stability and change” (186). Though the focus here is the way Drayton reproduces Petrarchan conventions but also “give[s] them new meanings through the revised sonneteering objects that surrounded them and him,” Frenk’s account of Drayton’s sonnets suggests that the poems themselves, as well as the material they represent, were objects that could be, and were, revised.

Frenk’s third chapter focuses on the character Falstaff, and this chapter’s strengths and weaknesses reflect those of the larger project. On one hand, without a clearly stated claim about Falstaff and the material, the chapter can at times feel more like a list of objects associated with the fat knight than a developing argument. Furthermore, having established the extent to which Falstaff is identified by the play’s other characters both with the material and as material, Frenk brushes all too quickly past the lack of material references in the renunciation scene (219). But on the other hand, Frenk’s comprehensive approach allows him to make valuable connections between the history plays and The Merry Wives of Windsor, including the excellent point that despite the preponderance of material objects that define Falstaff and are redefined by him, the character “manages to remain the same through constant change” (240). The astute observation that Falstaff paradoxically combines “a massive stage presence” with “protean mutability” is, I think, the best example of Frenk’s sensitive attention to the unfixed and often unexpected operation of the material in Early Modern literature.

This reading of Falstaff’s mutability provides an apt segue to the book’s conclusion which, in addition to articulating the book’s main theses, as described above, includes an account of Thomas Nashe’s representations of texts as themselves material objects. Again, the conclusion provides a helpful starting point for future conversations about how to approach material studies, not least because Frenk is sensitive both to the ways that writers self-consciously foreground their works’ own materiality and also to the ways they destabilize the palpable in their representations. As he states, “the objects referred to in the texts remain to a large degree phantasms” (246). More than demonstrate the value of a materialist approach, then, Frenk’s study suggests that the real future of this methodology will depend on our ability to recognize and honor the transformations staged by “textualised” objects. 

 

Rebecca Olson
Oregon State University

 

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44.1.14

Cite as:

Rebecca Olson, "Joachim Frenk, Textualised Objects: Material Culture in Early Modern English Literature ," Spenser Review 44.1.14 (Spring-Summer 2014). Accessed June 19th, 2018.
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