Literature Review

Mapping Space and Movement in Early Modern London

This literature review will organise the preparatory research for my digital humanities project on early modern London and three city comedies: Bartholomew Fair, Eastward Ho, and The Roaring Girl. One of the broadest proposed definitions of the genre ‘city comedy’ is “that they are plays set in the contemporary London of their audiences” (Mardock 45): thus the interplay between London’s geography and the imagined city space on the stage is hugely important for any analysis of these plays. My project will involve the creation of a digitised interactive map that will be used as a platform for reading these three plays. The importance of space and place to any reading of city comedy has been the subject of much of the recent criticism on this genre, and yet any significant use of mapping technology or digital media has been conspicuously absent. I will be analysing the current critical discourse surrounding the study of early modern culture and the city of London, as well as demonstrating where and how my reading of these city comedies can intersect with this scholarship.

The Early Modern City

Some of the earliest scholarly work to recognise and investigate the importance of the city of London in the early modern period was in the field of social history. Christopher R. Friedrichs’s book The Early Modern City 1450-1750 traces the effects of living in a city on the social lives of early modern city dwellers, and provides a useful context for the social landscape in which city comedies are set. It has become commonplace to depict London during the early modern period as a locus of revolutionary topographical and social change, due to the massive population increases at this time. However, Friedrichs warns against straightforwardly accepting this argument, arguing that the early modern European city was not actually the location of considerable social and architectural change: he states that “the entire emphasis on change in the early modern period can be misleading. For in many of its most important aspects, the early modern city remained remarkably unchanged” (Friedrichs, 9). Friedrichs’s attitude is partly as a result of his study’s broad focus on cities all over Europe, rather than just London, which did experience significant growth and change during the early modern period. However, it is also important to note that early modern London had far more in common with its medieval past than with the Victorian industrial city of its future.

Friedrichs usefully identifies London as an unusual example of urban growth, in contrast to most of the other early modern European cities, because while “the City of London was still a compact, clearly defined area at the centre of the metropolis, […] the outer districts formed a dizzying tapestry of archaic boundaries and overlapping jurisdictions” (25). This mostly unregulated growth outside the medieval boundaries of the City of London contributed significantly to changing perceptions of London, and the interactions between the new and old areas of the city often inform the city comedies that my project will be using. Friedrichs’s text is particularly useful for placing London’s rapid growth and social change in dialogue with the other major cities of early modern Europe: thus making it clear that London’s rate and mode of growth was unique during the early modern period. Although his conclusions are rather conservative, Friedrichs provides a very useful analysis of the landscape and routines of early modern urban life.

A work that bridges the gap between social history and literary analysis is Imagining Early Modern London: Perceptions and Portrayals of the City from Stow to Strype, 1598-1720. This collection of essays is structured around John Stow’s publication of Survey of London in 1598, and John Strype’s new edition of that work produced in 1720, and this focuses the essays on the changes that were enacted in the city of London during that time period. One drawback of this is that the emphasis is more on the emergence of the eighteenth-century London throughout the seventeenth century, rather than period of change at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Despite this the text does provide some useful analysis of seventeenth-century London, as well as making the important point that the early modern city was in a continual state of flux. London’s fluctuations throughout the seventeenth century can be obscured when considering the city from the point of view of a one map, as the project of mapping is to capture and comprehend the city in static moment. However, Friedrichs’s warnings about the dangers of subscribing to the rhetoric of progress towards modernity when discussing the development of cities should also be kept in mind. The use of Stow and Strype’s surveys as an organising system for this text is a good example of early modern scholarship’s reliance of texts, even when the organising principle of the collection is supposed to be imagining the space of London. The space of the city is subordinated to the textual creation of Stow and Strype.

I found J. F. Merritt’s characterisation of London in his introduction as “a place permeated by meanings, a theatre of memory” (5) to be particularly suited to my project, as it speaks to the function that the city and its specific locations perform in early modern drama. The essays within this collection tend to make more radical claims about the experience of living in London during this period than Friedrichs, emphasising the increasing fragmentation of the city and the depersonalised existence that its inhabitants were beginning to live there. This sense to alienation can be perceived at times in the city comedies, particularly with characters who are lost or unfamiliar with their surroundings; however, many other characters, such as Moll Cutpurse, display a familiarity and affinity with their surroundings that give them power. Power derived from knowledge of the city is only possible when it has become commonplace to characterise the city as unknowable, but the city comedies are playing with multiple emerging ideas of what the city is, rather than defining it as an amorphous and impenetrable metropolis. The theatre is an idea space to explore the intersections between alienation and familiarity in the city because an audience member is able to identify with an individual actor on stage at the same time as belonging to the audience’s group identity.

The Theatrical City: Culture Theatre and Politics in London, 1576-1649 is another collection of essays that bridges the gap between social history and literary and cultural analysis. The two essays on Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair are the most relevant to my project, and they discuss the ‘theatrical city’ in fairly broad terms, although their chief theme could be said to be the dialogue between the theatre and culture and politics of London. The first essay by Patrick Collinson examines Jonson’s portrayal of Puritans in Bartholomew Fair, particularly the relationship between stage and ‘real’ Puritans. His argument that the vocabulary that came to define the seventeenth century Puritan was produced by the theatres themselves is persuasive, and sets up an interesting relationship between the theatres and popular culture. He argues that “paradigms such as Puritanism, which were deployed to construct and manipulate a semblance of reality, soon became part of the reality on which they imposed themselves” (169). If this is the case for Jonson’s portrayals of Puritans, I hope to show that a similar connection can be made between dramatic representations of the city and perceptions of it in reality. A good example of this might be the canting scene in The Roaring Girl, which was solely based on fictional information pedalled in pamphlets: Moll’s knowledge of the city of the theatre is itself theatrical. It is unclear how conscious dramatists and their audiences were of the reciprocal relationship between the theatre and the city, but the existence of the Masters of the Revels suggests that the state was concerned about the theatre’s effect on the population. Collinson’s article uncovers a murky and confused relationship between the theatres and the city around them.

The second essay is Leah Marcus’s “Of Mire and Authorship” which argues that Bartholomew Fair “constructs an elaborate set of equivalences between Bartholomew Fair, under control of the City of London, and the Jacobean theatre, under the control of James I and cleverly presented as coterminous with the fair” (173). The relationship between the City and the Court within Bartholomew Fair is made clear by the separate introductions of the play, one of the public theatre, and one of the performance at Court. Thus, the Court functions as a frame for the glorious scatology of the fair. Considering that Bartholomew Fair is a play that constantly references locations all around London in order to situate both the play and the audience in a real, lived space, it seems important to acknowledge the critical relationship and dialogue between the spaces of the City and the Court.

Material London, ca. 1600 is another wide-ranging collection of essays dealing with the material consequences of London’s spatial and economic growth at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The contributors to this collection hail from a wide range of disciplines, and so, unlike The Theatrical City, the essays do not focus so much on individual literary works. The two essays that I found most helpful in this volume were Derek Keene’s “Material London in Time and Space”, and John Schofield’s “The Topography and Buildings of London, ca. 1600’. Keene considers London’s development through the sixteenth century in the light of population growth and economic development in northern Europe. Keene’s work also provides an important caveat to scholarly narratives that emphasise London’s significance at the beginning of the seventeenth century: He comments that “in some obvious material ways London in 1600 was still a city of the past and of the European periphery, presenting a striking contrast to Antwerp, Venice, or even Paris” (Keene 69). These concerns are similar to those voiced by Friedrich that I noted earlier, but Keene provides some useful details about the balance of economic power that existed between Venice, Bruges, Antwerp, and London. This is an important perspective that I need to keep in mind for my project so that I do not overstate the significance of London’s growth through the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Schofield’s essay on the topography of London at the beginning of the seventeenth century is particularly useful for my project as it provides a detailed summary of the different areas and types of structures that made up London in this period. He roughly divides the city into three distinct zones: the West End, which “functioned as a political and cultural focus around Westminster” (297); the City and Fleet Street suburbs, where “financial and legal services were concentrated” (297); and an area to the east of the city “of industrial activity, warehousing, and maritime activities” (297). While Schofield’s essay mainly deals with documenting the neighbourhoods and buildings of London, he also covers the building boom, generated by the availability of urban land following the dissolution of the monasteries, which began the process of London’s transformation from medieval to modern city. As well as providing useful context for my work on the space of early modern London, Schofield’s essay stresses the importance of viewing London as an unstable entity: it can be tempting to rely too heavily on the static image of a city that a map portrays, but my project should emphasise that London’s topography was in a state of almost constant flux throughout the seventeenth century.

City Comedies

Jean E. Howard’s Theatre of a City: the Places of London Comedy, 1598-1642 is an excellent recent work which directly analyses the intersections between early modern London and city comedy. Howard uses each chapter of her book to focus “on a particular place within the city and examine… the way in which the stage created significant stories about it” (3), and to argue that the places of London “became a powerful resource in complex and socially significant renditions of urban life” (3). An important aspect of Howard’s argument to note is the role that city comedies played in reading the city for their audiences: “in invoking the places of the city and filling them with action, the plays also construct the city and make it intelligible for those unfamiliar with its places or the uses to which they can be put, and they parse the permissible and impermissible actions attendant on those places” (23). I have already noted Merritt’s suggestion the experience of urban living in London during the seventeenth century was increasingly alienating and depersonalised, and Howard identifies the theatre as an educational space where that sense of alienation could be remedied. On the most basic level the profusion of place names and references in city comedies functions to instil in the audience a sense that they have privileged insider knowledge about their city: city comedies achieve some of their effect from congratulating their audience on how well they know their city. This could be seen as the beginnings of the formation of a specifically urban identity based on the possession of privileged knowledge that will have become commonplace by the end of the seventeenth century, and satirised in plays like William Wycherley’s The Country Wife.

The most useful chapter of Howard’s book for the purposes of my project is her analysis of London’s debtor’s prisons, as the space of the Counter is explored in both Eastward Ho and The Roaring Girl. Howard shows how Eastward Ho in particular is playing with its audience’s notions of the Counter as a performative space: both because it was represented on the stage, and because Quicksilver is able to use the space to dupe Touchstone and Golding into forgiving him, precipitating the end of the play. The Counter is the logical location for Quicksilver and his dissolute friends to end up, as “in the drama’s lexicon of London, the story of greed and prodigality run amuck follows a geographic and moral trajectory that ends in the shabby debtor’s prison where the usurer, the prodigal, and the knight adventurer are all incarcerated” (Howard 101). However, Eastward Ho disrupts the conventional prodigal narrative by turning Quicksilver’s confession of guilt and remorse into a performative refutation of the Puritan values of Golding and Touchstone. The implication is that it is the performative manipulation of dramatic space that is valued within the play, and the need for a morally sound conclusion is subordinated to that.

James D. Mardock’s Our Scene is London: Ben Jonson’s City and the Space of the Author takes up the challenge of exploring Jonson’s relationship to the city of London through his dramatic work; consciously inserting itself into conversation with the recent profusion of studies “exploring the intersections between London’s urbanisation, changes in the early modern spatial paradigm, cartography and other practical spatial arts, and English dramatic practices” (Mardock 1). As two of the plays I will be focusing on, Bartholomew Fair and Eastward Ho, are at least partly authored by Jonson, this study of Jonson and his dramatic relationship with the city of London is extremely pertinent to my research. Mardock attempts to provide a new perspective on Jonson studies have “tended, understandably, to produce a narrative of Jonson’s career that centres on its most lasting textual achievement” (2), his 1616 Folio. The conventional narrative of Jonson’s professional life tends to elevate his textual achievements over his dramatic endeavours: and while it is undeniable that “Jonson was, if not the first playwright to insist on seeing his plays through publication, certainly the most vociferous when it came to protecting his proprietary rights to his work, and the meticulously prepared 1616 Folio is his most overt attempt to create a lasting monument to his achievement as a poet” (Mardock 2), this narrative tends to cast Jonson as an arrogant egomaniac who eschewed the theatre in favour of more respectable textual pursuits. Mardock argues that, although the concerns of recent Jonsonian criticism “with the production of the material text” (2) are valuable, “Jonson exercised as much care in establishing control over the spatial laboratory that the playhouse provided, and over the theatrically represented space of his city, as he did in shaping the textual presentation of his work” (2). Mardock does not dispense with the popular image of Jonson as self-promoter and self-fashioner, but he demonstrates how this kind of analysis does not have to exclude his dramatic output.

Mardock is strongly invested in portraying Jonson as a playwright who was invested both in constructing the space of the city on the stage, and constructing his own authorial persona within the dramatized city. In this way Mardock is taking some of Collinson’s ideas about the influence of the stage on the city around it and exploring them more deeply. He argues that the early modern stage was an ideal arena for this kind of self-construction: “the conventions of stages both public and private in early modern London – bare of all the but the most portable scenery, with setting entirely established by dialogue – foreground the role of the individual in producing and interpreting space” (4). We are used to thinking of the early modern theatre as a far more communal space than the proscenium arch theatres that we are accustomed to; however, Mardock’s emphasis on the author, with the actor as his conduit, as the creator of space on the early modern stage suggests a privileging of the status if the individual over the masses. We can see this attitude displayed in all of the plays that I will be using: they tend to value the exceptional individual who is able to differentiate himself from the seething masses of the urban crowd.

A crucial aspect of Mardock’s argument is that Jonson’s drama is engaged in a “performative relationship with London, and a corollary conception of London and its spaces as fundamentally theatrical” (7): this attitude towards the way that space is created and inhabited in city comedies is hugely important for a project that is investigating the dialogue between lived London space and theatrical space. Both Mardock and Howard’s work make considerable contributions to the field of early modern London studies; however, despite their overt acknowledgements of the importance of the city and of space to the analysis of city comedy, neither scholar makes any use of maps in their work. Howard uses some images of the specific places that she is examining, but the reader has no visual aid for determining the spatial relationships between those places. It seems extraordinary that these two excellent scholars should not have made use of maps to visualise the importance of space and place that is so stressed in their arguments.

While Howard and Mardock provide insightful commentaries on the significance of space and the city of London in two of my plays, Eastward Ho and Bartholomew Fair, Kelly J. Stage’s essay “The Roaring Girl’s London Spaces” examines The Roaring Girl in the context of movement through urban spaces. Stage argues that Moll Cutpurse, the play’s titular protagonist, is distinguished by “her ability to navigate the city, suburbs, and in-between spaces of London [which] demonstrates her urban competency” (417). This analysis moves away from the kind of recent criticism on The Roaring Girl that has focused almost exclusively on the ways that the play explores issues of gender. As a result, The Roaring Girl can be read in relation to other city comedies, rather than Renaissance cross-dressing comedies.

Stage examines three key urban spaces that appear in The Roaring Girl: the market-place in Act II, scene 1; the space of the street, as it appears in Act II, scene 2; and the open spaces of Gray’s Inn Fields. All three of these spaces are open and exposed urban spaces, and they were also problematic spaces in the early modern period, because “although legitimate women worked in open streets, markets, alleys, and fields, their presence could not negate the fact that prostitutes and criminals also occupied such contested spaces” (Stage 425). However, Moll is able to manipulate these spaces for her own ends, and her “tactics disrupt and reconstruct space according to her exploitation of expectations [and…] her footsteps are neither those of a city wife nor of a whore; they follow not patterns travelled exclusively but cutpurses, by gallants, or by aristocrats” (Stage 430). According to Stage, it is this movement through the city’s spaces that performs most of the work in forming Moll’s character.

Digital Mapping

Finally I would like to address the scholar who has contributed most significantly to fusing digital humanities and the study of early modern London together, Janelle Jenstad in her essay “Using Early Modern Maps in Literary Studies: Views and Caveats from London.” Jenstad is chiefly writing about her experiences with the Early Modern Map of London project and she provides an extremely useful synthesis of its aims and methods. MoEML is huge and wide ranging project currently being conducted at the University of Victoria: it has four “distinct, interoperable projects: a digital Map and gazetteer based on the 1560s Agas woodcut map of London; and Encyclopedia of London people, places, topics, and terms; a Library of marked-up texts rich in London toponyms; and a versioned edition of John Stow’s Survey of London” (“About MoEML”). The MoEML seems to be moving away from literary analysis and becoming an encyclopaedic reference source for information about early modern London. Obviously this project has a far broader scope than mine, but I will be exploring the ways in which keeping my project limited and specific will open new avenues of analysis that the MoEML does not address.

Fig. 1
Fig. 1

In this essay Jenstad makes the connection between city comedy and the geography of London explicit, arguing that “to understand the basic moves of this dramatic sub-genre [city comedy], which flourished from the 1590s to the 1630s, we need an intimate knowledge of the streets, buildings, and markets of early modern London” (“Using Early Modern Maps” 112), and characterising the contemporary student as a foreigner in need of a guidebook. Her argument that the “sense of the space in which Londoners lived, worked, and played” (“Using Early Modern Maps” 113) is essential for reading these plays is convincing; and it is clear that a digital map is able to convey a sense of that space far better than the notes in teaching editions of plays. However, I also feel that Jenstad is inclined to emphasise the MoEML as a teaching tool can help students understand city comedies, at the expense of exploring how an emphasis on the locations that these plays centre themselves on can facilitate new interpretations. She also discusses how the map will help those who are unable to visit London themselves, which seems to imply that a knowledge of contemporary London is comparable to a knowledge of early modern London. A map of early modern London is obviously cannot convey a sense of space in the same way that walking around a city can, but at the same time, walking around twenty-first-century London has little in common with walking around early modern London.

Jenstad’s interpretation of the map as a text in its own right is a particularly important point that I will explore further below, as well as her theory that interaction with the map should be a playful and spontaneous experience. An example of this kind of interaction with the map might be to look at two sections of the Agas map (Fig. 2 and Fig.3) and note the diverging representations of crowded, densely populated urban space and open pastoral urban space. Merrit asserts that as “as the built environment [in London] became more dense and congested, the spatial obscurity of new dwellings may actually have obscured the identity of the men and women who lived there” (Merrit 12). We can see this interplay between areas of dense and sparse population being expressed in Fig.2 and Fig. 3 of the Agas map: in the image of Moorfields, which was located just beyond the city walls, we can see people working on the land, animals grazing, and people interacting socially. However, when we look at the image of Cheapside we do not see any people at all, only buildings densely crowded together. These map images betray a sense that people and the activities of their daily lives are obscured in the crowded heart of the city, and that they can only be properly seen outside the city walls. The presence of people performing their daily activities is only revealed when the reader dives deeper into the map: at this point the reading experience becomes immersive and exploratory, in complete contrast to scanning a map for geographical information. The Agas Map also resists certain readings that we might want to impose on it, for example perversely only showing us the bull-baiting arena and the bear garden, when we would rather see the Globe or the Rose (Fig. 4). I think that these kinds of readings are what Jenstad is encouraging to when she states that “the digital map permits users to travel purposefully or spontaneously” (“Using Early Modern Maps” 115).

Fig. 2
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 4

Jenstad’s also acknowledges the limitations that the MoEML has encountered by only using the Agas map, and this has made me consider my own approach to my digital mapping project. I am considering using multiple maps in order to attempt to disrupt the ways that “maps of London work to express a stable image of the city” (“Using Early Modern Maps” 115), and convey an impression of London as an unstable and changeable city. While the focus of Jenstad’s project seems to be to naturalise her audience of “metaphoric ‘foreigners’” (“Using Early Modern Maps” 117) through knowledge of the geography of early modern London, I would like my project to have a greater focus on literary analysis, and explore the ways that mapping early modern London can facilitate a new kind of dramatic reading.

I hope to have given a useful overview of the state of the debates surrounding the study of early modern London, and shown the areas in which my project can intervene in those debates. In short, I feel that the topic of space in early modern London at the beginning of the seventeenth century has been well researched, and that research has been usefully applied to the study of the city comedy as a genre. However, I feel that, despite the emphasis that is repeatedly placed on the importance of space in this research, attempts to visualise that space by scholars has been conspicuously absent. Jenstad’s Early Modern Map of London project has begun the task of visualising the early modern city using digital tools, and I would like to contribute to that task while shifting the focus away from archiving and towards literary interpretation.