Elizabeth Salter. Cultural Creativity in the Early English Renaissance: Popular Culture in Town and Country. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. xi + 248 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4039-9179-9.
Reviewed by Catherine Richardson (Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Kent)
Published on H-Albion (December, 2007)
Toward a Method for Discussing Creativity
Cultural Creativity in the Early English Renaissance, Elizabeth Salter states, does not represent a "fully articulated and defined" method so much as one in the making--a response to a crisis in the writing of history (p. 3). The book is a challenging read in every way--by turns, enlightening and frustrating, lucid and obscure. But the questions that it raises about method are certainly important ones.
Salter investigates the "cultural creativity" of individuals dying in the hinterland of London in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, their cultural creativity being defined as the use of "the texts and objects available to them in order to present and make statements about their own identity" (p. 2). The book's main source material is more than six thousand wills, from which the author seeks to establish the significance of testators' choices. It is divided into eight chapters that focus on inheritance and property, possessions, "the daily fashioning of identity," "attitudes to commemoration after death," and the creativity of reading (p. 1).
A notable feature of Cultural Creativity is the social focus of its study: individuals significant enough to produce a will but by and large below the level of the gentry. Salter argues for a considerable degree of agency on the part of these individuals. She contends that "[f]ocusing on the individuality and self-consciousness of non-elite subjects ... implicitly questions the notion that it is not possible to examine popular mentality in the early English renaissance without looking through the lens of high culture" (p. 10). She takes their self-consciousness as evidence of an earlier date than that generally given for ideas of "self-fashioning." Crucial to this project, then, is the context in which these individuals expressed individuality, and a key contribution of this book is the authority it gives to wills as sources. One might not agree with the way in which they are analyzed, but the central position they have here is very welcome.
A further significant contention lies in the conclusions drawn from this testamentary evidence. In one of her deceptively simple statements, Salter states, "I propose that individual expression is significant for understanding cultural process," and that "[i]n order to understand further aspects of large-scale cultural change it is necessary to examine the small-scale events and practices by which change is experienced" (p. 166). This focus on individual perception of change is thought provoking, and Salter's questions about "how and at what level change should be understood and recovered" will certainly reward further scrutiny (p. 167).
The book's disciplinary position is also novel. The analysis moves from testamentary discourse to narrative romance. The author insists that it is essential that the "uses of text and object discussed" in the chapter on reading "should be seen as integrated with, and integral to, the uses of text and object discussed in the remainder of the book" (p. 137). Salter sees patterns in the ways these very different kinds of text make their meanings, stating that "there exists in the reader's imagination numerous spheres of differing symbolic meaning; and that the modes of expression for such symbolism, such as inscription, can be the same for entirely different sets of symbolism" (p. 162). As a result, she sees different kinds of writing mediating one another's meanings. Again, this is a bold argument. But it is one that will require much more detailed investigation to prove its veracity, because the case presented here might well be thought to suffer from the method of analysis adopted. Of 170 pages of narrative, at least one-third is given over to questions of method and theory. They are hard going and make few concessions to readers. There is a kind of "disconnect" between theory and evidence: the impact of the former upon the latter--the ways in which theory might alter our interpretation of the wills, might make them mean differently for us--is never fully explored. Throughout the book, the author seems to be holding back something about how these testamentary practices signal or represent creativity. She argues at the start that she is interested in "how such people effected change" (p. 2), but this is never really explicated. What kind of change was effected by the actions and responses outlined in Cultural Creativity?
Much of the book's analysis rests on a few examples. The assertion that they "are taken from a range of other possible examples that occur sporadically if not frequently in the surviving evidence across the period" (p. 95) may well make readers ask what exactly sporadically and frequently mean. Many who come to this book wanting to know about individuals' choices will want to know not only that it was possible to make such statements about identity, but also how common it was to do so. The author insists that the large number of wills which comprise the study should not be treated quantitatively. She states, "if the will text is used to access individual perceptions and experiences, it is quite irrelevant to abstract a single aspect from a thousand texts with the hope of finding patterns, as such patterns would have borne no relation to the individual understanding of this aspect for the text's producer and recipients" (p. 14). The texts are to be interpreted holistically, as coherent testamentary strategies, and yet any connection between a conception of customary practice and individual choice is denied. And this is despite the fact that the analysis of creativity, the book's central thesis, apparently rests on the discrepancies between formulaic and "personal" representations of choice. Salter states that "it is the very formulaic quality of these texts that permits glimpses of personal choice and individual perception" (p. 17)--a distinction that has an assessment of typicality at its heart. In her wish to avoid an aridly statistical approach to choice that denies individuality, the author also rejects a wide variety of potentially more subtle quantitative analyses and combinations of quantitative and qualitative methods.
Throughout the study, there is a curious lack of interest in the actual words in which identity is formed. Despite the fact that "the use of detailed description indicates sensitivity to the aesthetics of consumption" (p. 77), there is only analysis of the categories of choice, and not the language in which it is expressed. At points, this makes the argument little more than a list of examples. Furthermore, the wills are bald without context of any kind. Surely, some mention of sumptuary legislation would have helped to contextualize the gifts of clothing by indicating their intended social significance. Presumably, a man who leaves "half a dosyn of silver spones of them that be occupied daily" (p. 84) would have expected those hearing his wishes to pass comment on the daily use of such objects. These questions of the impact of choice are part of cultural creativity too, central to its capacity to effect change?
For this reader, the sections where this kind of impact is explored are by far the most satisfying. Where Salter examines the bequests made by personnel of the royal court, for instance, we hear that "relationships between hosts and the household affinity represent a site for cultural transmission specific to these palace communities" (p. 102). The explicit examination of the relationship between giver and receiver makes the argument much stronger, as does the engagement with specific communities. But the author insists elsewhere that the idea that such structures as jurisdictions, topography, and economy "convey the nature of a place, particularly the experiences of living in a place, is a fiction" (p. 7). Again, this sounds overly dogmatic. Concepts of place based on "sites for the flow of ideas" are set against "distinct entities with fixed boundaries" (p. 8) as though there was no connection between the two. The temptation to consider how bequests made within the same community relate to one another is therefore largely resisted. Such a polarity denies the notion of a material community in which objects, ideas, and testaments were discussed. It denies the visual and verbal transmission of ideas that must have gone on alongside the "meta-structures for the representation of ideas and experiences," which Salter identifies and which she claims "transcend geographical boundaries" (p. 169).
Although I disagree with the complete abandonment of quantitative analysis, I have a great deal of sympathy with preserving the integrity of individual testamentary strategies. But this book also indicates how hard it is to achieve that goal within a monograph narrative. Of course, to make points about the different kinds of bequests through which testators are creative, their wills need to be divided into bits. So we read that "in 1529 Robert Rogers, a yeoman of Ewell in Surrey, made a testament with an unusual opening, which is discussed further below" (p. 123)--not in the spirit of the thesis, but hard to avoid in a qualitative analysis, unless each testament is examined individually. The will of John Aunsell, an especially rich example, is, however, quoted in full, running for nine pages. But even here, Salter could have set the reader up to approach it. Without introductory comments about how to "read for strategy" the passage is fairly impenetrable, and the tendency might well be to skip it in its entirety, which is surely not Salter's intention. A crucial question to arise from this book, then, is how we might accurately reflect individual strategies in a way that makes space for analysis.
So cultural creativity, "activity that produces something new through the recombination and transformation of existing cultural practices or forms" (p. 45), remains at the end of this book a very interesting and thought-provoking idea. What is not so clear is its practical application to the evidence. The questions that Salter asks along the way are important ones ("Did a commercialising society stimulate cultural creativity? Is any such stimulation particular to the metropolitan hinterland?" [p. 92]), but the method that is needed to answer them should, as the author suggests, be the subject of further debate.
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Catherine Richardson. Review of Salter, Elizabeth, Cultural Creativity in the Early English Renaissance: Popular Culture in Town and Country.
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