Culture of Accidents: Unexpected Knowledges in Early Modern England

Culture of Accidents: Unexpected Knowledges in Early Modern England

by Michael Witmore


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Collapsing buildings, unexpected meetings in the marketplace, monstrous births, encounters with pirates at sea—these and other unforeseen “accidents” at the turn of the seventeenth century in England acquired unprecedented significance in the early modern philosophical and cultural imagination. Drawing on intellectual history, cultural criticism, and rhetorical theory, this book chronicles the narrative transformation of “accident” from a philosophical dead end to an astonishing occasion for revelation and wonder in early modern religious life, dramatic practice, and experimental philosophy.
Embracing the notion that accident was a concept with both learned and popular appeal, the book traces its evolution through Aristotelian, Scholastic, and Calvinist thought into a range of early modern texts. It suggests that for many English writers, accidental events raised fundamental questions about the nature of order in the world and the way that order should be apprehended.
Alongside texts by such canonical figures as Shakespeare and Bacon, this study draws on several lesser-known authors of sensational news accounts about accidents that occurred around the turn of the seventeenth century. The result is a cultural anatomy of accidents as philosophical problem, theatrical conceit, spiritual landmark, and even a prototype for Baconian “experiment,” one that provides a fresh interpretation of the early modern engagement with contingency in intellectual and cultural terms.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804735568
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 09/01/2002
Edition description: 1
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Michael Witmore is Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Culture of Accidents

Unexpected Knowledges in Early Modern England

By Michael Witmore


Copyright © 2001 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-7991-3


Early Modern Accidents and an Aristotelian Tradition

In the final scene of Hamlet, Horatio delivers the murderous events of Shakespeare's play to posterity in the language of accident, asking those who remain to let him:

speak to th' yet unknowing world How these things came about. So shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause;
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fallen on the inventors' heads. (5.2.332 — 38)

Horatio knows that the story of what "came about" will be one in which deliberate actions are brutally severed from their expected results. Nature has been frustrated by unnatural acts, progress and plots defied by an indifference of the world to ready manipulation. The sense of causal disconnection and metaphysical drift that suffuses the play has finally, in this closing summary, found expression in a powerful cluster of adjectives : unnatural, accidental, and casual.

Of the three words used here, "accidental" has a special intellectual force in the early modern context: it is an Aristotelian diagnosis of events that defy human powers of calculation and foresight. Like arrows shot upward, "purposes" have been launched into the sky only to land on the "inventors' heads," a circular kind of disaster which parallels that which befalls the proverbial engineer who is "hoist with his own petard." Following the diagnostic cue, spectators are led to consider the ironic force of errancy in the play, one which assures that various schemes and devices will not only stray or miscarry but also that they will return to do the "inventor" some harm. Given the covert nature of the crimes that have been revealed here (beginning with the stealthy poisoning of King Hamlet), the conspicuous failure of plots on stage testifies to a diffuse brand of justice, ungraspable in its means but nevertheless obvious in its purpose.

The paradoxes surrounding this kind of accidental "purposiveness" had long been the province of philosophy, which may explain why Horatio would invoke that tradition at the conclusion of the play. But what exactly did the word "accident" mean to the audience listening to the scholar from Wittenberg's last words? How did this term from Aristotelian metaphysics help early modern spectators to grasp the larger poetic and religious significance of the accidents in Shakespeare's tragedy ? Such questions quickly lead us from the play to the cultural moment in which it was performed. If we fix our attention on that moment, we find that Shakespeare and his turn-of-the-century audience share a common sensibility: both are fascinated with the power of accidental events to frustrate or complete human desires, to create spectacular moments of human drama, and perhaps most important, to reveal some underlying order that links the theatrical and created worlds.

Indeed, the semantic and philosophical resonances of "accident" during this period suggest that this closing scene of Hamlet taps into a widespread early modern interest in the unexpected and unforeseen, an interest that extends far beyond the appetite of Elizabethan and Jacobean playgoers for sudden dramatic turns of events on stage. The word itself had a wide range of uses in the early modern lexicon. Lamentable "accidents" of fire, earthquake, flood or storm could befall any human enterprise. There were "accidents" of war, "accidental" meetings of friends, "accidental deliverances" from enemies and "accidental judgments" on sinners. Lovers, courtiers, and philosophers made sudden discoveries of infidelity, intrigue, or the secrets of nature on "accidental occasions." The "accidents of the times" could bode well or ill for a king surveying the historical physiognomy of his reign. When Shakespeare's audience heard Horatio's evocation of "accidental judgments and casual slaughters," it would have recognized several of the key events in the play — the meeting with pirates at sea, the chaude melée exchange of rapiers, the detour of the poisoned cup, perhaps even Hamlet's murder of Polonius — as being part of this broader category of accidental events.

The next two chapters offer an analytic account of that category, exploring first the contemporary meanings of the term Horatio uses and then situating these meanings within a learned tradition that assayed the accident's place in organized schemes of knowledge, causality and providential governance. My initial move in this chapter on the Aristotelian genealogy of the "accident" will be to explore the semantic range of this word around the turn of the seventeenth century, a range of use which suggests that "accident" could refer to any noteworthy or astonishing event which had not been predicted in advance. This type of event was associated with at least two other traditions besides the philosophical one: that of Fortune and the romance on the one hand, and a rhetorical-legal tradition on the other. A brief examination of these other traditions below will suggest that both the law and the romance (with its local goddess Fortuna) tended to resolve the accident into either an action or an event, eliminating the amphibious quality of "spontaneous contrivance" that made accidents such a provocative object of philosophical analysis. Moving on to a discussion of Aristotle, we find that it is precisely this amphibious quality of accidents that comes into focus when he attempts to exclude them from his metaphysical scheme. In isolating an orphaned, hypothetical purpose that gets attached to accidental events, Aristotle provides us with a more precise understanding of the accident's value as a theatrical device and a narrative artifact, both of which emerge when the concept is subjected to analytic pressure.

Beginning with "Accidents"

One meaning of the term "accident" in the early modern period was generic, similar to the word "event" as it is used now. Modern use of the word "accident" elides this sense, for which the Oxford English Dictionary supplies the following definition: "an occurrence, incident, or event." "Accident" is derived from the Latin verb accidere (to fall down), which was itself used in classical, medieval, and subsequent Latin texts with the sense of "to happen" or "to occur." The earliest recorded use of the term in English appears to be circa 1374, in Chaucer's Troilus and Creseyde: "This accident so petous was to here." The word is still used in this way during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, as we can see from the titles of several books and broadsides. One book published in 1601, for example, promises A true report of all the proceedings of Grave Mauris before the towne of Bercke: with all the accidentes that happened in the besiedge of the same, since the 12. day of June last. A similar generic sense for the word "accident" appears in the title of Edward Hake's, Newes out of Powles Churchyarde now newly renued and amplifyed according to the accidents of the present time.

Many of these books qualify the word "accident" with adjectives such as "strange," "wonderful," and "memorable." In 1599, for example, we find a book entitled: A strange and miraculous accident happened in the cittie of Purmerent on New yeeres even last past 1599. Of a yong child which was heard to cry in the mothers wombe before it was borne, and about fourteene dayes of age, spake certain sencible words, to the wonder of every body. The "accident" here is an occurrence, but it is more precisely the kind of occurrence that is worth representing to someone else because it is sudden or unexpected. This sense of "accident" as noteworthy event seems quite common in the late sixteenth century. For example, in 1598, J. de Serres produced An historical collection, of the most memorable accidents, and tragicall massacres of France, and five years later H. Timberlake used the word in a similar way when he advertised a book describing the "admirable accidents" that "befell" two English pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem.

This broad sense of "accident" as occurrence exists alongside other more precise connotations, but there is no reason to assume that even this generic use of the term did not include our contemporary sense that the accident is "something unforeseen." Several books written in the first decades of the seventeenth century chronicled disastrous "accidents" with hidden or unforeseen causes. Sometimes those disasters were brought about by nature, as this title describes in 1607: Lamentable newes out of Monmouthshire and Wales. Contayning, the wonderfull and most fearefull accidents of the great overflowing of the waters in the saide county. ... The sequel, published the same year, promises the names of ruined towns, the numbers of those lost, and "other reports of accidents that were not before discovered." Such news was also sought abroad. In 1618 a book entitled Newes from Italy promises to deliver an account of: A prodigious and most lamentable accident lately befallen: concerning the swallowing up of the whole citty of Pleurs ... by a strange and hidious shaking and opening of the earth. France too had its share of disastrous "accidents." In 1621 Newes from France relates "the great losses which happened by the lamentable accident of fire in the citie of Paris," along with the parliamentary decrees designed to "prevent the like mischance in time to come." In this and other early modern texts, the word "chance" is often associated with accidents; here it helps us see that "accident" does not have the generic force of occurrence, but specifically designates an event whose cause could not have been foreseen.

Such unforeseen accidents were just as newsworthy when they occurred in England, often generating intense curiosity about their providential meaning. In 1620, for example, A warning for all murderers describes: A most rare, strange, and wonderful accident, which by Gods just judgement was brought to passe ... and showne upon three most wicked persons. The murders are "revenged" for their secret crime "by a childe of five yeeres old, which was in his mothers wombe, and unborne when the deed was done." The sense that such accidents were not "meere chance" occurrences, in William Perkins's well-worn phrase, but events that revealed God's judgment is common in the early seventeenth century. The Blackfriar's "accident" of 1623 mentioned in the previous chapter, for example, provoked a wave of providential speculation and prompted at least one Protestant writer specifically to rule out attempts to credit the "accident" to "chance." In such cases, the word "accident" did double work, preserving a sense of contingency around the unforeseen occurrence without explicitly invoking the pagan concepts of chance and fortune.

The term "accident" also had various technical meanings in astrology, medicine and philosophy. Astrologers, for example, understood an "accident" to be any event that was caused by the stars. In 1624, G. A. Magini's A strange and wonderfull prognostication predicted "those accidents which shall, or at least are likely to happen, as may be conjectured by the rules and directions of astrology." Alternatively, "accident" was used in medical discourse to describe symptoms. In 1625, T. Thayre's An excellent and best approoved treatise of the plague contains "the nature, signes, and accidents of the same." Finally, in philosophy the term had the technical meaning of a cause or event that could not be foreseen or explained according to some general rule. We see evidence of this particular usage as early as 1490, in the following description of a woman's death: "[H]ir deth naturalle oughte not to haven comen yet of longe tyme, but by accydente and harde fortune." A better-known example of this use of the word comes from an early Shakespeare play, Love's Labour's Lost, where the pedantic Holofernes shows his knowledge of the philosophical meaning of "accident" when he describes how Berowne has "framed a letter to a sequent of the stranger Queen's, which, accidentally or by the way of progression, hath miscarried" (4.2.137 — 38).

While the usage is not directly related to the subject of this book, the term "accident" also referred to one of the four predicables or modes of belonging described in Aristotle's Categories and analyzed in the Metaphysics. The word "accident" taken in this sense designated an attribute that was logically unrelated to the substance it belonged to — what the Scholastic tradition would describe as that which inheres in a subject, but which could cease to exist without the subject's ceasing to exist as well. This was a crucial concept for early modern theologians analyzing the miracle of the Eucharist, but the theological debates surrounding this definition of "accident" as predicate unfolded along different theological lines than did those surrounding accidental events. In the Eucharist debates, the concept of an "accidental" predicate helped theologians isolate a potentially miraculous substance in the host, whereas in discussions of accidental events, the term focused attention on the generative causes of a temporally unfolding event.

Despite broad use of the term, accidents constituted a recognizable subgroup of contingent events for which any foreseeable natural or human cause was lacking, but which were not miraculous either. It was these events, the apparent purposes they served, and the causes that brought them about that came under renewed scrutiny during the early modern period, in part because Reformation theology raised these issues to a new level of importance. Not only had Calvin's theory of special providence asserted that God was conspicuously active in every unexpected turn of events, but the Protestant insistence that the age of miracles had ceased gave accidents and "contingencies" an increased value as expressions of God's worldly action. As the theologian Thomas Gataker argued, "casualties" can be a direct expression of God's will precisely because their natural causes are so minute; they are divine and natural at the same time. Changing conceptions of causation would also have made accidental events more curious to the philosophically minded: Bacon's theory of forms, for example, transformed accidents from an intellectual dead end into an occasion for discovery — even a model for the experiment itself. Contemporary interest in natural anomalies, such as monsters, prodigies, and the "jokes of nature," moreover, established a realm of "epistemic things" that the category of the accident might help explain.

On an experiential level, life in London around the turn of the seventeenth century would also have encouraged active reflection on accidental events: the flood of individuals mixing randomly in the city would have made unexpected encounters in the streets or in the marketplace an inescapable fact of cosmopolitan life. An emerging merchant economy would have thrived on such a welter of bodies in motion, since it meant that buyers and sellers were capable of circulating in the public spaces of the city at ever greater speeds, presumably to engage in ever more lucrative transactions. The possibility of civic disaster, meanwhile, would never have been far from urban consciousness, a consciousness that habitually framed accidents and mishaps in theatrical terms. As Keith Thomas has noted, London was an extremely dangerous place in which to live in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In a city that lacked an effective fire brigade but was full of wooden structures, a moment's carelessness with lamp or candle could end in "tragedy." Finally, as more and more English merchants "adventured" their fortunes abroad, news of ships being wrecked by tempest or worse — waylaid by a sudden encounter with pirates — would have transformed the sea into a zone of chances, a place in the cultural imagination for accidental occasions or sudden turns of fortune.

Clearly there were other traditions besides the learned one that sustained and enriched this lively early modern encounter with contingency in both its philosophical and material forms. Perhaps the most obvious of these is Fortuna, or Fortune, the pagan goddess and poetic abstraction whose resurgence in early modern iconography and poetic imagery has been extensively documented over the course of this century. Gendered female because of her unpredictability, Fortune presided as a deity over the seas and war but could also be invoked as the cause of any outcome that could not be predicted in advance. The literary and philosophical appeal of Fortune stems, in part, from her capacity to become the object of an address: because it is she who sends the storms, she who trips the man in battle, Fortune assumes the narrative position of an agent or actor who can be credited with events that have no immediate organizing caused. This agent is not simply a quasi-mechanical entity that stands in allegorically for some abstract principle that must be systematically unfolded. When viewed as a narrative device, the trope of Fortune also represents the potentially inscrutable nature of causation in a real or imagined world: to the extent that causes are not available for inspection in a particular narrative context — indeed, to the extent that they do not need to be — Fortune can stand in for some pervasive agency outside the narrative frame that guides the fateful paths of ships, individuals or weapons.


Excerpted from Culture of Accidents by Michael Witmore. Copyright © 2001 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Note on Modernizationix
Introduction: A Narrative Wonder1
1Early Modern Accidents and an Aristotelian Tradition17
2Exemplary Accidents from Cicero to Jean Calvin42
3The Avoidance of Ends in The Comedy of Errors62
4Hamlet Interrupted82
5Accident and the Invention of Knowledge in Francis Bacon's Natural Philosophy111
6Wonders Taken for Signs: The Blackfriars Accident of 1623130

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