What does the poetry of the disadvantaged people of the Renaissance tell us about the culture of that time?

New research project examines the complaints of a culture past

Tuesday, 22 August 2017


What does the poetry of the disadvantaged people of the Renaissance tell us about the culture of that time?

UON Associate Professor Ros Smith, Deputy Director and co-founder of the Early Modern Women Research Network.

That’s the question that will be answered by a new $115,000 research project called Early modern women and the poetry of complaint, 1540-1680 led by the Centre for 21st Century Humanities’ Deputy Director and co-founder of the Early Modern Women Research Network, Associate Professor Ros Smith.

The project brings together three leading scholars from Australia, New Zealand and England, with complementary expertise in genre, textual transmission and digital humanities projects.

“I’ll be working alongside Associate Professor Sarah Ross from the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and Professor Michelle O’Callaghan from the University of Reading in the UK. Both are foundational members of the Early Modern Women Research Network, and both were part of an earlier research project we completed on The Material Cultures of Early Modern Women's Writing: Editing, Reception and Mediation,” Associate Professor Smith said.

This new project aims to discover, for the first time, how early modern women used the widespread, powerful and diverse mode of complaint to voice expressions of protest and loss across the English Renaissance. The Australian Research Council funded Discovery Project will ascertain how Renaissance literature voiced the experience, emotions and histories of its least powerful subjects.

“The literature of the period was dominated by Shakespeare and his male contemporaries. However, we are delving into a lesser-known area and what we might find is a very different experience of early modern culture from a female perspective. The women we are looking at were often in extreme circumstances: in prison, on death row, or in times of war,” Associate Professor Smith said.

The research team met for the first time in Oxford in July and soon after presented papers at the Early Modern Studies biannual conference run by Professor O’Callaghan at the University of Reading. The conference theme this year was ‘Complaints and Grievances’ with particular strands on literary, medical, political and religious complaints.

“Complaint as we know it today is popular in country music, for example when a singer is abandoned by their lover. However in this project we aim to uncover other forms of complaint than the usual bemoaning of a lost love. It’s a broader set of expressions which include protest, grief, disappointment, desire for change and retribution,” Associate Professor Smith observed. “By examining this topic we hope to produce a new account of how the voices of women, railing against their circumstances, shaped the literary and political cultures of the English Renaissance.”

Associate Professor Smith says the poetry of complaint is one of the most powerful rhetorical modes in the English Renaissance, voicing political, religious and erotic protest and loss across a diverse range of texts.

“This project will interrogate new texts including the confessions of those about to go to the gallows, and songs sung by women who were illiterate. We’ll also include anonymous complaints that are often overlooked in historical literature research,” she said.

“By isolating new texts by women, analysing their connections and divergences, and then gathering together these multiple different examples in a literary history examining the cultural function of complaint, this project will produce a broader and more nuanced perspective on Renaissance culture.”

“In this process, it will become clear how much of early modern literary history has been written from elite viewpoints - from those with access to power, success, and status – and how the normative effect of such accounts continues to privilege some texts and authors over others,” Associate Professor Smith noted.

A major output of the project will be a digital index that will list the all the text the researchers classify as complaints for future researchers working in the field.

“We want to open up what we think of as complaint,” Associate Professor Smith said.

"The index will provide ways to search the material, including by type, gender and author. It will cover 140 years of literature from 1540 – 1680.

"This will be an open-access digital resource showcasing the project’s discoveries of the extent and reach of early modern women’s participation in complaint poetry for future scholarship."

Research findings from the project will be presented during a series of panels at the Renaissance Society of America in March next year. The project team has also been invited to deliver a workshop at the Shakespeare Association of America conference in 2018, which will bring leading international scholars together and position complaint as one of the most important topics of study in early modern literature.