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Andrew Hiscock, Reading Memory in Early Modern Literature
by Rebeca Helfer

Hiscock, Andrew.  Reading Memory in Early Modern Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011. vii + 320 pp.  ISBN 978-0521761215. $98.40 cloth.


Andrew Hiscock’s Reading Memory in Early Modern Literature is an innovative and important account of memorial culture in Renaissance England, one that will be of great value to scholars of memory across a range of fields. Hiscock’s broad approach to his subject extends the work of scholars of the history of memory, most notably that of Frances Yates and Mary Carruthers, and joins the growing body of work on memory in early modern English literature by scholars such as William Engel and Garrett Sullivan. The parameters of Reading Memory are expansive, as Hiscock explains in the introduction to his work:

This present study not only explores the very different cultural appetites and motivations that governed the cultural perception of memory in the early modern period, it also seeks to throw light upon the ways in which more modern fixations with remembering (in terms of formulating an index to selfhood, consolidating structures of cultural ownership and privilege, or restoring collapsed mythologies of belonging, for example) may find analogues or counter-evidence when we travel back to the documents of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (5)

But such descriptions do not do justice to the ambitions and the accomplishments of Reading Memory, about which Hiscock could be far less modest. Hiscock’s examination of memory demonstrates the complex and contested ways that England remembered itself throughout the Renaissance, an era devoted to recollecting the past for the present in manifold ways. Hiscock avoids many of the usual suspects of early modern memory studies (such as Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare) in favor of less likely subjects (such as Katherine Parr and Mary Sidney, Thomas Nashe and Thomas Deloney), and when Hiscock does take up figures more often associated with memory studies (such as Donne and Bacon), he does so in novel and counterintuitive ways. Reading Memory thus offers a kind of meta-history of England that considers memorializing processes in literature from the perspectives of gender and class, as well as theology, epistemology, pedagogy, politics, and, of course, history, and which reflects upon the present as much as the past. That is, Hiscock’s work demonstrates how authors remembered the past, memorialized themselves in the process, and how their readers (then as now) continue such memorializing. As Hiscock’s implies, memory is a mirror with which to look both forwards and back, and the primary tool of shaping early modern identity, both individually and collectively.

The introduction to Reading Memory provides a superb overview of the varied critical approaches to memory studies in current scholarship—historical, literary, and theoretical—that includes such topics as materiality, pedagogy, and the body. The chapters themselves are divided by author, though the chapters are also linked thematically and chronologically. The first chapter, on Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, explores how Surrey’s poetic “acts of memory” offer an implicit but nevertheless sharp cultural critique of Henrician England and its legacy. This first chapter concludes with a section on “Surrey Remembered,” a pattern that Hiscock repeats in all of his chapters, where he skillfully considers the relation between Surrey’s memorializing of himself as well as others, and the way such reciprocal acts of memory inflect more modern readings of the author and his work. 

The second chapter, on the memorial elements of Katherine Parr’s devotional writing, is linked to Surrey’s, as both Parr and Surrey belong “to the very last, stress-ridden years of Henry’s reign when the textual business of remembering was a potentially dangerous undertaking” (68); here again, Hiscock reflects upon the remembrance of Parr (and the limits of her legacy) as well as her own acts of recollection. The third chapter focuses on Fox’s Acts and Monuments, considering the politics and perils—theological, in particular—of memory for this Tudor historiographer, who must selectively remember the past (including figures such as Henry Howard and Katherine Parr) in order to shape a collective memory of the English Reformation. The fourth chapter, on recollection in the work of Nashe, Deloney, and Gascoigne, represents a thematic shift and a chronological leap to the second half of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, to works that speak to broader reading communities and which offer more possibilities for “reader seduction” as well as radical “social critique” involving class and culture, much of which involves a remembering and reframing of the Henrician past (33). 

As in the chapter on Katherine Parr, the fifth chapter on Mary Sidney takes up the question of “female engagement” with “processes of cultural memory,” the poetry by which she not only extended her brother Philip’s literary legacy but also her own (138). Chapter Six examines Donne’s indebtedness to classical and medieval authorities of memory, most evidently Augustine, while focusing on how the topos of forgetfulness pervades Donne’s corpus and paradoxically defines his career as both poet and priest. The seventh chapter, on Jonson, pursues his memorializing endeavors in Timber, or Discoveries, and the place of classical conceptions of recollection therein, while simultaneously emphasizing the role that renewal and reformation—of a self and a culture—play in Jonson’s work. The final chapter on Bacon takes up the relation of memory and modernity, and the ways that Bacon’s ongoing concern with memory bridged his interests in both the old and the new, both tradition and innovation. This chapter at once points in the direction of futurity, toward the scientific discourse which Bacon helps to inaugurate, and brings the book full circle, through Bacon’s persistent investment in classical sources of discourse about memory. The final chapter thus serves as an implicit conclusion to Reading Memory as a whole.

Given the absence of an explicit conclusion to Hiscock’s rich and impressive study, what else might we conclude? We can recognize the pervasive role that memory plays in early modern English literature broadly conceived, as well as recognize that such remembrance was an activity fraught with both cultural perils and possibilities. We can observe the way that memory shaped identity for authors and audiences alike, always expanding reading communities in the process.  Finally, we can appreciate such activities as not only “early modern” but also “modern” or even “post-modern.” After all, to remember—as Hiscock subtly reminds his readers throughout Reading Memory—is not only to remake the past for the present, but also to reform ourselves in the process.


Rebeca Helfer
University of California, Irvine


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Cite as:

Rebeca Helfer , "Andrew Hiscock, Reading Memory in Early Modern Literature," Spenser Review 43.3.57 (Winter 2014). Accessed September 20th, 2018.
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