Literary Form After Matter, 1500-1700

Literary Form After Matter, 1500-1700 was held at The Queen’s College, Oxford on 22 June 2018. It was organized by Katherine Hunt and Dianne Mitchell (both of The Queen’s College), and generously sponsored by The Society for Renaissance Studies, The Oxford Centre for Early Modern Studies, and The Queen’s College.

What does form mean at a time when the materials of Renaissance literature “matter” more than ever? This conference gave scholars working at the fraught interface of formalism and the study of the material text a chance to consider the role of form in the wake of the “material turn.” Sophie Butler’s opening keynote on the relationship between messy manuscript sheets and the intellectually flexible essay exemplified a recurring theme of the conference: materiality’s capacity to shape literary forms. But as our respondent, Adam Smyth, noted, questions of form quickly became questions of materiality. Literary ‘texts’ such as Renaissance ‘characters,’ satirical portraits sometimes inscribed on dishware for after-dinner performance, challenged our capacity to distinguish between the effects of form and matter. Participants also demonstrated tensions between form and matter, as when installments of serialized romance were read in the “wrong” order, or when our own or early modern readers’ expectations about what Elizabeth Scott-Baumann, our second keynote speaker, has called “the work of form” affect how literature is materialized on the page. Conversations continued over an exhibition of rare materials in the library, while questions drawn from a “casket of inquiry” at the conference’s end raised further issues to be explored, we hope, in new settings.

Report by Dianne Mitchell and Katherine Hunt.