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Framing Authority: Sayings, Self, and Society in Sixteenth-Century England

Framing Authority: Sayings, Self, and Society in Sixteenth-Century England

by Mary Thomas Crane

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Writers in sixteenth-century England often kept commonplace books in which to jot down notable fragments encountered during reading or conversation, but few critics have fully appreciated the formative influence this activity had on humanism. Focusing on the discursive practices of "gathering" textual fragments and "framing" or forming, arranging, and assimilating


Writers in sixteenth-century England often kept commonplace books in which to jot down notable fragments encountered during reading or conversation, but few critics have fully appreciated the formative influence this activity had on humanism. Focusing on the discursive practices of "gathering" textual fragments and "framing" or forming, arranging, and assimilating them, Mary Crane shows how keeping commonplace books made up the English humanists' central transaction with antiquity and provided an influential model for authorial practice and authoritative self-fashioning. She thereby revises our perceptions of English humanism, revealing its emphasis on sayings, collectivism, shared resources, anonymous inscription, and balance of power—in contrast to an aristocratic mode of thought, which championed individualism, imperialism, and strong assertion of authorial voice.

Crane first explores the theory of gathering and framing as articulated in influential sixteenth-century logic and rhetoric texts and in the pedagogical theory with which they were linked in the humanist project. She then investigates the practice of humanist discourse through a series of texts that exemplify the notebook method of composition. These texts include school curricula, political and economic treatises (such as More's Utopia), contemporary biography, and collections of epigrams and poetic miscellanies.

Originally published in 1993.

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Framing Authority

Sayings, Self, and Society in Sixteenth-Century England

By Mary Thomas Crane


Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06947-0



LOGIC TEXTS are the logical place to begin this study because they furnish the most basic articulation of the grounds for gathering and framing. Of course, humanist logic treatises are not really logics at all. Instead, they constitute a kind of rhetoricized dialectic, a quasi-logical basis for the rhetorical program offered by humanists as a replacement for the Scholastic arts curriculum. In northern Europe and England, such logicians as Rodolphus Agricola, Thomas Wilson, Ralph Lever, Abraham Fraunce, and Dudley Fenner wrote texts designed to serve as pragmatically oriented guides to thinking, reading, teaching, speaking, and writing, and to establish the discursive practices of gathering and framing as the primary constituents of those activities. Although their treatment of the "places" is derived from the Aristotelian and Ciceronian systems of topoi or strategies of argumentation, they shift the concept of commonplace to mean, among other things, a fragment of text suitable for gathering. In addition, their texts themselves serve as commonplace books offering a collection of fragments from whatever sources each writer wishes to valorize. Indeed, the nature and goals of the humanist project are articulated in these commonplaces and analogies as well as in the more conventionally discursive passages of their texts; through them we can trace both the epistemological implications of gathering and framing as means of authenticating and controlling discourse, and also the ideological implications of gathering as a flexible posture for upward mobility in an intensely hierarchical society.

Terence Cave and Thomas Greene have described Continental humanists' anxious search for "authentic discourse" and their newly troubling perception of "the ungrounded contingency of language."4 The logical and rhetorical treatises of English humanists are manifestations of this more general desire to realize a stable and authoritative language, and the operations of gathering and framing are offered as the primary means of accomplishing this impossible goal. These writers instruct their readers to cull only those fragments of text that articulate elements of the prevailing cultural code, the usually implicit rules which govern a culture's "language, its schemas of perception, its exchanges, its techniques, its values, the hierarchy of its practices." By identifying and excerpting bits of texts where the writers of classical antiquity seem to accord with modern consensus, they made imaginable a stability transcending the contingency of language. And by reifying the code in the form of these fragments of text, individual readers and writers were able to appropriate its authenticity for their personal use.

In English logical and rhetorical treatises, anxiety about the authenticity of language can be traced to two separate but related problems: the problem of having nothing to say, and the inability to control one's language, or (and this is closely related) to control others with that language. The operation of gathering, represented in these texts under the rubric of "invention" and deeply involved in the concept of copia, is essentially a response to the first, while framing, associated primarily with arrangement or "disposition" but also with the "matter" of copia, responds to the second. Sayings provide a central means of resolving what might initially seem to be a conflict between a need for copia and a need for control by offering a source of matter that has already been framed, both by its accordance with the prevailing cultural code, and by its place in an organized system of thought.

Although Derrida has established the universality in Western culture of both a fear of lacking voice or presence and an awareness of the difficulty of controlling language, these anxieties were, for a number of reasons, particularly intense in northern Europe in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The decline of feudalism and the Roman Catholic consensus of belief meant that accepted values and practices, and the linguistic structures that constituted them, were either disappearing or changing. In England particularly, as Henry VII and Henry VIII began to erode the feudal nobility's power and establish a powerful, centralized monarchy, these anxieties were accompanied by opportunities for new men from less than aristocratic backgrounds to move into positions of authority. But while the feudal magnates and Catholic clergy had possessed a well-developed system for establishing, manifesting, and protecting their powerful presence, would-be bureaucrats had no such technology. Humanist education—its logic, rhetoric, and pedagogy—was designed to supply that lack: to establish an authentic language and powerful presence for secular teachers and bureaucrats.

This sense of lack was also intensified by a basic tenet of the humanist program that originated in Italy. Northern European humanists established a need for their educational program in part by accepting and promulgating the idea that modern men ought to learn to speak and write classical Latin. Many humanist rhetorical and educational reforms were, in fact, aimed at achieving this ambitious goal. Few modern scholars have registered the fundamental strangeness of this project of reviving a difficult, dead, and thus essentially written language in contemporary speech. The Latin logic of Rodolphus Agricola and the Latin rhetorics of Erasmus all reflect and disseminate a quite understandable fear of having nothing to say in Latin, and an equally understandable fear of lacking voice or presence in discourse based on a written language. The proliferation of printed editions of classical texts in this period made the written ancient languages seem inimitably copious and impossible for the modern student to assimilate. The commonplace book was an aid to managing these multiplicitous texts, and the collection of idiomatic expressions in commonplace book collections such as Nicholas Udall's Floures For Latine Spekynge (1553) provided a means of gathering fragments of speech from written texts.

In England, poverty of expression becomes an issue in several different ways. Latin speaking never caught on there outside the schoolroom. Even at school, records show that much effort went into cajoling and even forcing students to speak in Latin alone, and to acquire the necessary store of matter and language for fluent Latin speech. As the sixteenth century got under way, humanist scholars in England increasingly wrote in the vernacular and addressed the use of the English language. Because the humanist project was heavily invested in the restoration of pure, authentic Latinity, the vernacular necessarily carried a taint of inferiority (even to its defenders) as a supplementary mode of speech for those who could not use the ancient language. English, specifically, was thought to be an impoverished and ineloquent language, lacking an adequate number of words to express the concepts found in ancient texts, and unamenable to rhetorical ornamentation. English logics and rhetorics play on the fears of those confined to the vernacular that they lacked the copious and authoritative voice of Latin speech, and here again the notebook provided an important way to enrich the vernacular by borrowing fragments from ancient literature.

The other central anxiety—that of lacking control—is raised and exploited by both Latin and English texts. In Latin, as Terence Cave has argued, there was persistent nervousness that too copious speech in this powerful language would get out of control. This is partly based on a fear that words (verba), ungrounded in matter (res) or in the authority of a speaking presence, would become empty verbiage. Anxiety about control was intensified in the case of the vernacular by the belief, current in sixteenth-century England, that English had no grammar and was thus by nature an "unruly" language. Also, as Thomas Greene has shown, humanists realized that the meanings of words were unstable, changeable over time, and thus difficult (if not impossible) to translate from Latin or Greek to the vernacular without loss of control over meaning. Because classical authors were pagan, they were operating under a cultural code that was in many ways radically different from that of Renaissance readers. As a result, classical texts were, at least in places, potentially dangerous to Christian readers, and some form of control had to be exerted over reading as well as writing. The notebook method offered a way to choose out only those fragments in which the cultural codes of pagan antiquity and Christian Europe intersected. And finally, although rhetorical texts promised to teach their readers how to achieve control over an audience through language, the fact that this control could be taught offered the possibility of subversion of the social hierarchy, and had itself to be hedged and controlled in various ways.

Social and economic conditions in early modern England may have contributed to the intensification of the two lacks upon which humanist discourse theory was based. As feudalism began to give way to early forms of capitalism, a number of changes took place.18 Estates were bought up and enclosed for wool farming, and peasants were physically dislocated and separated from their means of production. This "deterritorialization" of the peasantry was accompanied by the dislocation and deregulation of trade, as specific and carefully controlled marketplaces gave way to an abstract "market," which, as Jean-Christophe Agnew describes it, "now referred to acts of both buying and selling, regardless of locale, and to the price or exchange value of goods and services."19 This transition was accompanied by a phase of "primitive accumulation" of capital, when "the factors and products of production" were "monetized," and the market was increasingly based on exchange of that most "liquid" medium—money.

This process, like most contemporary changes, carried both opportunity and danger: on the one hand, the possibility of accumulating new power and resources, and on the other, nervousness about the dislocation and motility of what had previously seemed to be established and controlled. English humanists frequently used economic or monetary language to talk about their discursive practices, and they apply similar commonplaces to discussions of the economy as to discussion of language and education. It seems clear that "gathering" was meant to be a version of primitive accumulation that was based on the liquidity of printed texts but which "rematerialized" itself through the concept of content as "matter," and which "reterritorialized" itself through the system of logical and rhetorical "places." By inventing a less threatening form of capital to accumulate, humanists attempted to create for themselves a stable place in society between the landed nobility and the deterritorialized merchant class. Thus Pierre Bourdieu's concept of "cultural capital" is not quite accurate to describe the humanists' conscious and literal attempt to find an intellectual counterpart, or replacement for, contemporary economic processes.

However sincerely humanist logicians and educators felt these anxieties about language and society, they also learned to exploit them for their own benefit. Unless kings could be convinced of their need for educated advisers, and unless subjects could be convinced of their need for humanist teachers, there could be no place in society for such people. The humanists who wrote the most important logics and rhetorics in this period were engaged in constructing a place for themselves in society by establishing their ability to teach others how to have something authoritative to say, how to control it, and how to use it to control others.

Their project was, however, complicated by a number of constraints. As several critics have recently shown, rhetoric and other artes could not be considered authentic unless they were in some sense natural, perfect, and God-given, while at the same time they could not be taught as skills unless they were also artificial, and unless the natural, God-given state was in need of completion by artificial means. These critics point out the logic of supplementation in the Derridean sense at work in sixteenth-century rhetoric; according to this scheme, rhetoric is depicted as a natural faculty of divine provenance, both complete in itself and at the same time in need of supplementation by the artificial techniques taught by the rhetorician.

These critics, however, have not explored in sufficient detail the usefulness of supplementation to the rhetoricians' own attempts at self-empowerment. Teaching and writing treatises on logic and rhetoric are, after all, valid activities only if such supplementation is necessary. Indeed, the social roles that humanists fashion for themselves all involve supplementation: as advisers they supplement the powerful authority of the monarch; as teachers, they supplement the existing perfection of the material they teach as well as the natural gifts of (often) socially superior students; and as writers, they supplement the existing body of literature inherited from classical antiquity. The humanist writer could not present himself as the source of the authority he promised to convey without subverting the hierarchy into which he wished to insert himself. Supplementation allowed these men to present a double face to power, claiming that they were simultaneously both essential and inessential to its assertion.

"Gathering" and "framing," as described in the logic and rhetoric texts written by sixteenth-century English humanists, reflect these writers' reliance on supplementation even on a textual level. As a gatherer, the writer does not produce his own matter; instead, he supplements his natural ability with fragments borrowed from existing literature. These fragments are in turn supplemented by acts of selection, rearrangement, and assimilation (all part of the process of framing). The fragments he borrows are themselves delineated by their supplementarity; that is, they stand out both as the essential matter of the text and as excerptible excrescences—as Geoffrey Bennington has put it, "the best of the text and the rest of the text." Through the collection of such fragments, the authority of the source is maintained while the production of new texts is made possible. These new texts, as we shall later see, are strongly marked by their author's position as supplemental gatherer; they are best described not in terms of an author-centered imitative model, but as the products of a true intertextuality of fragments.

* * *

Rodolphus Agricola's De inventione dialectica (ca. 1479) has long been recognized as the preeminent humanist "logic." Walter Ong describes in detail how Agricola replaced more rigorous medieval logic with what is essentially a method of rhetorical invention based on the topoi, loci, or "places," a list of categories of relationship that could be used to analyze a topic and come up with ideas or arguments suitable to it. He suggests that the De inventione might more accurately be entitled "Thoughts on Discourse and How to Teach It." Agricola's treatise was extremely influential in England, where traces of its attitudes and methods show up in virtually all logic texts (and some rhetorics) written in both Latin and English in the first two-thirds of the sixteenth century.


Excerpted from Framing Authority by Mary Thomas Crane. Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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