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Review Essay: Maps, Memory, and Early Modern London
by William J. Humphries

Gordon, Andrew. Writing Early Modern London: Memory, Text and Community. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. viii + 264 pp. ISBN: 978-1137294913. $81.00 cloth.

Batchelor, Robert K. London: The Selden Map and the Making of a Global City, 1549-1689. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2014. vi + 334 pp. ISBN: 978-0226080659. $38.20 cloth.

At the heart of Andrew Gordon and Robert K. Batchelor’s respective treatments of early modern London are the themes of transcription and translation. Gordon traces the former in Writing Early Modern London: Memory, Text and Community by examining the textual voices of London’s population as they attempt to describe the city in which they reside; while Batchelor, in London: The Selden Map and the Making of a Global City, 1549-1689, explores the latter by noting the economic, social, and cultural interactions between London and the Far East. There is a tendency in each work to isolate London from the larger English nation, and though this is unsurprising given their topics, contextualizing the city against the broader project of state-building that emerged during the early modern period would only have augmented their assessments of the uniqueness of the capital itself. Nevertheless, both authors make useful contributions towards understanding how the growth of England’s capital in the sixteenth and early-seventeenth century helped to reconfigure European and, according to Batchelor, global politics.

In reading Gordon and Batchelor’s books together, we are provided with two stories of London: one told through an inward-looking examination of the city itself and the other branching outwards towards the extremities of the capital’s global networks. Indeed, Writing Early Modern London focuses primarily on the works of five resident writers: the clothier and diarist Henry Machyn; the haberdasher and city chronologer William Smith; the maid and poet Isabella Whitney; the tailor and chronicler John Stow; and the playwright Thomas Middleton. Each author has been carefully selected by Gordon, as he works his way chronologically from 1550 to the 1620s, to provide a literary picture of London. Gordon’s literary focus is sufficiently narrow to allow a deep exploration of some of his core themes: oral and textual memorial; public rituals of funeral and punishment; literary and material inheritance; and urban memory and forgetfulness.

By contrast, Batchelor’s temporal scope is wider and, as a historian rather than a literary critic, he is less concerned with locating his history in specific literary productions rather than offering a more expansive narrative to describe the evolution of London into a globally-minded city. To achieve this, London: The Selden Map begins its story with Sebastian Cabot’s printing of London’s first world map in 1549, and continues to the Glorious Revolution and the coronation of William and Mary in 1689. Along the way, Batchelor offers an extended reading of John Selden’s sinology and his eponymous map—as well as providing an extremely thorough collection of references to China and its interactions with European nations.

While a comparative reading of Gordon and Batchelor’s books offers greater perspective of London than either monograph could alone, the depictions do not always lie together smoothly, as each author lays claim to the importance of his own set of literary and historical guides. Indeed, the “communities,” to use Gordon’s word, that are established in these accounts, whether they be linguistic, political or otherwise, become a central means by which the city can be described—and how we choose to reconcile the apparent differences in the two authors’ readings is a matter of deciding the relative significance of these textual and social communities. Of course, the two accounts of London are not mutually exclusive and any reader will acknowledge that these authors are offering only a slice of the whole city. Nevertheless, a comparative reading of these books allows us to evaluate their contributions to early modern urban scholarship with greater clarity.

In his introduction, Batchelor acknowledges that the inception of his book came in 2008 with the rediscovery in Oxford’s Bodleian Library of John Selden’s Map of China. The finding of a map that had not been viewed in over a century was remarkable and prompted Oxford sinologist Timothy Brook to produce his own history, Mr Selden’s Map of China: The Spice Trade, a Lost Chart and the South China Sea (2014). Selden’s map looms large in Batchelor’s book and, having been drafted in around 1619, sits at the center of the author’s timespan—nevertheless, the history that he discusses is more interesting and less dependent upon the map than the book suggests. If Batchelor had been content to use the object simply as a springboard into a wider discussion of early modern globalization then it might have found a useful function; however, his labored return to the map as the key to understanding Anglo-Chinese relations in the seventeenth century elicits a skeptical response from the reader. The rediscovery of the Selden Map is certainly significant in terms of archival research but its place in the nexus of global trade and international cartography could have been more sensitively contextualized.

Indeed, Batchelor is at his best when he offers localized readings of particular historical moments. The detail given to figures such as the sixteenth-century explorer Sebastian Cabot creates a lively picture of the period and the competing concerns surrounding the interactions between London and the rest of the world. Cabot’s own world maps of 1544 and 1549 helped to reframe England and Europe within a far larger geographic sphere than many had previously considered and Batchelor rightly asserts that “through Cabot, London merchants had their own printed world map before they had a printed map of England or the city of London itself” (49). Similarly, Batchelor’s description of the formation of the first joint-stock company in 1553 to finance an international venture without the limiting constraints of a royal patent helps to demonstrate the increasingly mercantile nature of London society and the diffusion of monarchal power. This provides a useful counterpoint to arguments that under Tudor and an early Stuart monarchy there was a coherent and consistent centralization of state sovereignty, and we may place Batchelor’s argument that “sovereignty increasingly became a question of image” (152) much earlier than the 1661 date that he suggests.

Nevertheless, an isolated reading of Batchelor’s book would leave one with the impression that Anglo-Chinese interaction during the early modern period dominated the political discourse of the nation. The author rightly acknowledges the importance of America and increasingly India in London’s global vision, and yet the nature of his book frames these as peripheral to interactions with China. It is easy to forget in Batchelor’s account that the first Chinese man to visit England (Shen Fu-Tsung) did so as late as 1685 and this was such a novelty that James II commissioned a portrait of him which hung in his bedroom.

The dominant note underpinning Batchelor’s study is the desire to illustrate “patterns of exchange and translation” (19) between London and China. The nature of “transaction” is clearly defined in chapter three, with Batchelor’s detailed exploration of the “roots of the silver trade” (105) and the legal frameworks for maritime expansion proposed by Hugo Grotius and John Selden. Unfortunately (and frustratingly for the literary critic), Batchelor’s concept of “translation” is less well defined.

London: The Selden Map relies heavily on the word “translation,” often pushing it to uncomfortable limits. At various times, the author seems to employ “translation” to mean: the linguistic translation of a text; the interaction of different cultures; or, at its extreme, the physical crossing from one space to another. This is not a problem when dealing with the specific. In chapter five, Batchelor offers a reading of Thomas Hyde’s two books on Asian games, published in 1689 and 1694 respectively (220). In a discussion of the game Sheng guan tu, in which the players compete for court promotion without skill but through the luck of dice throw, we discover Thomas Hyde and his companion Shen Fu-Tsung “came to the efforts at translation with a set of metaphoric associations that linked the tabular sciences of cartography with the strategic and classical mappings of the game” (226). Here “translation” is given a deliberate purpose when we discover that both the linguistic material of Sheng guan tu as well as its political critique of unmerited court promotion are mapped by Hyde onto late-seventeenth-century English culture through the medium of a quasi-cartographic board game.

However, despite occasional moments in which playful reading and critical clarity converge, Batchelor’s work is sadly littered with generalizations, and the term “translation” becomes his most problematic concept. When he moves away from localized readings, we encounter statements that confuse rather than elucidate. To introduce his thesis, Batchelor concludes that “it is not clear that as a whole early modern Londoners were particularly cosmopolitan in their outlook, but in some cases proactively and often by necessity Londoners translated, and in many ways did so successfully, to make their city work in dynamic and innovative ways” (26). This statement does little to advance Batchelor’s argument and the lack of clarity around his key terms is the problem. A similar frustration emerges from the author’s overly generalized use of the term “Londoners.” Used throughout the book, the word mistakenly gives the impression that the entire city of London was formed of a single community and that this community was united in endorsing and promoting Anglo-Chinese relations.

In Gordon’s Writing Early Modern London, the nuances of the city’s multiple communities are treated with greater subtlety as the author charts the way that they evolved across his eighty-year span. After acknowledging a debt to Raymond Williams, Zygmunt Bauman, and Anthony P. Cohen, Gordon advances his thesis that “the study of community […] requires attention to experiences of community membership, to representations, and to practices, through which meanings of community are negotiated” (3).

The opening chapter examines what has become known as The Diary of Henry Machyn—although, as Gordon notes, the word diary is somewhat anachronistic and should be replaced by the term used in Machyn’s will, where he called the work “my Cronacle” (12). The chronicle meticulously notes the funerals and public acts of punishment that took place in the city across the religiously turbulent years of 1550 to 1563. As the religious mood of the city shifted with the changing monarchy, Gordon asks us not to think in terms of a conflict between Protestant and Catholic ideals but between “contrasting conservative and reforming poles of religious affiliation” (38). Machyn, we discover, stands at the conservative end—a silent Catholic whose allegiance can be deduced through his enthusiastic support of pre-Reformation funeral rites and his disapproval of the French reforming preacher Jean Veron.

Gordon does not neglect the details of the literary critic even as he expounds his more historical and theoretical thesis. When discussing Machyn’s chronicle, he notes the varied used of pronouns to denote participation and identification either with or without a particular community. We are told that Machyn “introduces a discordant note into the image of social cohesion” (55) when he writes of the congregation at a “Geneva-wise” funeral how “they sang, all old and young, a psalm in meter” (The Diary of Henry Machyn, fol. 120v). In Gordon’s reading, this is not simply an idle description of a 1561 (and decidedly Elizabethan) funeral service but a moment in the text where the disapproving and conservative attitude of the author towards the reform of funeral rites and the broader project of Reformation is implicitly revealed. The use of the pronoun “they” to describe the congregation necessarily denotes that Machyn is “now isolated from his fellow Londoners” (55). There is a sense of loss in Macyhn’s work even as he tries to reassemble the splintering communities of his city. Ultimately, in Gordon’s reading, the chronicle becomes a “book of remembrance” (59) that records the debts owed by the city and its communities to the past.

In the next chapter, Gordon extends this view of memorial debt by examining the literary inheritance enjoyed by William Smith and Isabella Whitney. Smith’s Breffe description of the Royall Citie of London (a 1575 precursor to John Stow’s Survey a generation later) is read in the context of sixteenth-century travel writing and wider projects of urban chronology; while Whitney’s poetic “Wyll and Testament” (1573) to London is seen as an important advance in the mock testament poem but one that locates its roots in the traditions established by Heresyes Wyll and Testament (1547?) and The wyll of the Deuyll and last Testament (1548). Meanwhile, in chapter three, Gordon challenges what Ian Archer has called the purely “nostalgic” (113) vision of John Stow’s Survey of London (1598) to show that Stow’s engagement in the chronicle was “more directly connected with the politics of the past as an urgent contemporary issue” (114). In this way, The Survey “supplies a textual memory for a forgetful city” (154).

Forgetfulness is the theme of Gordon’s final chapter on Thomas Middleton and the“politics of urban memory” (155). Here we see London’s communities finally breaking down under the weight of a growing population arriving both from within England and from the Continent. Middleton’s contribution to plays such as A Trick to Catch an Old One, Timon of Athens, and Michaelmas Term sees that “friendship is discredited” (164). The old community ties and oral contracts were becoming less stable in a seventeenth century society in which “debt was secured via written agreements that could be more readily proved at law” (164). For Gordon, Middleton highlights a willful forgetfulness on the part of his characters as they seek to shake off old community ties. From Michaelmas Term, Lethe (a name that evokes the mythic river in which souls were stripped of memories before returning to the world) becomes a recurrent character throughout Middleton’s work, denoting a “newcomer whose denial of family and origins creates the improvisational space within which to forge a new identity in the metropolis” (159). Unlike the rites of urban community that Henry Machyn’s chronicle both recorded and performed, which served to calcify identity in the midst of social and religious upheaval, the London of Middleton and the seventeenth century permitted a person’s identity to be remolded to suit their needs. Gordon concludes his work by noting that “community deserves to be re-inscribed in the memory” (204) of the city—a project that his book admirably attempts.

Robert K. Batchelor’s London: The Selden Map will divide readers, though all will agree that it is a remarkably brave attempt to advance our understanding of Anglo-Chinese interaction during the early modern period. Unfortunately, it seems that the history is not quite as full as Batchelor’s ambition, and though he does much to elucidate this topic he fails to establish that it was central to the growth of London. Andrew Gordon’s Writing Early Modern London will appeal to the literary critic, early modern historian, and social anthropologist alike. The book makes a sensible selection of material and is consistently sensitive in its readings of it. His treatment of Henry Machyn and John Stow yield particularly interesting conclusions, but those with a more literary focus will also find his contribution to the scholarship of Isabella Whitney and Thomas Middleton particularly useful.

William J. Humphries
University of Oxford

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45.1.16

Cite as:

William J. Humphries, "Review Essay: Maps, Memory, and Early Modern London," Spenser Review 45.1.16 (Spring-Summer 2015). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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