Category Archives: Seventeenth century

When sex goes wrong: Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Donmar Warehouse

Well, that didn’t disappoint. I booked Les Liaisons Dangereuses in some trepidation, though: not only is it up there amongst my favourite novels, but for anyone of my generation, a revival will always evoke memories of the 1985 production with Lindsay Duncan and the late, lamented Alan Rickman, and the celebrated Stephen Frears film starring John Malkovich and Glenn Close.

Happily, Josie Rourke’s production at the Donmar Warehouse measures up.

The plot is gloriously serpentine: it centres on the Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer) and the Vicomte de Valmont (Dominic West), former lovers whose favourite sport is sexual intrigue. Valmont wants to seduce the upright Madame de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy); Merteuil wants him to corrupt Cécile de Volanges (Morfydd Clark), in order to take revenge on her former lover, who has left her to marry Cecéile, who is in love with the callow Chevalier Danceny (Edward Holcroft). Cécile succumbs to Valmont. Merteuil agrees that she will spend another night with Valmont, but only if he provides written proof of his seduction of Madame de Tourvel. And then the intrigues unravel when despite himself, Valmont falls in love with Tourvel and is forced by a furious Merteuil to break with her. It ends with Valmont killed in a duel with Danceny, the exposure of their letters to the public gaze, and the pervading sense of a doomed aristocratic class on the eve of the Revolution.

Janet McTeer, Dominic West as Merteuil and Valmont

Janet McTeer, Dominic West as Merteuil and Valmont

Valmont and Merteuil exist in a series of masks, though their dissoluteness is tempered by self-knowledge and wit. But this is not just a play of surfaces; both are taken by surprise by their own emotions. Christopher Hampton’s superb adaptation, in which every line contains a dagger, more than does justice to Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary masterpiece, condensing four volumes into a couple of hours of theatre.

With such an eventful narrative there’s a danger it can tip into melodrama, so the casting is key. The leads have good chemistry. Dominic West’s Valmont is commanding and charismatic (though a couple of his lines are surprisingly shaky), while Janet McTeer is the right blend of deadly and charming, adept at playing the virtuous matron and counsellor who is trusted by Madame de Volanges (Adjoa Andoh) while at the same time helping to corrupt Cécile. Elaine Cassidy, in the difficult virtuous role as Madame de Tourvel, delicately articulates her inner struggle. The scene in which, confronted with her own desire for Valmont, she faints into his arms laces pathos with comedy and is particularly well done. There’s plenty of excellent work in the smaller parts, too: Jennifer Saayeng (last seen in City of Angels at the Donmar) as the courtesan Émilie, Una Stubbs as Madame de Rosemonde and Theo Barklem-Biggs as Valmont’s valet are all strong, though as Danceny Edward Holcroft is not so convincing.

Merteuil and Cécile

Merteuil and Cécile

Sex as a weapon, deceit as strategy, seduction as social practice: Les Liaisons Dangereuses is all about the perils of pleasure. There’s pleasure for the viewer, too in the gorgeous costumes and the candles, and we merrily go along with the intrigue – with the exception of the uncomfortable scene of Valmont’s rape of Cécile. Valmont’s letters present it as a seduction, but the Donmar production allows us to see it through her eyes and therefore neatly wrongfoots the audience, since we’ve all been rooting for the sexy villains.

There’s one oddity about the Donmar production. The ending of Laclos’ novel sees Merteuil exposed; Valmont’s last act of revenge is to have their correspondence published. In Stephen Frears’ 1988 film, Glenn Close is booed at the opera and the last scene sees her savagely removing her face-paint, suggesting the disfigurement of smallpox she suffers in the novel. In the Howard Davies staging in 1985 the last scene was played out against a projection of a guillotine, suggesting how libertine aristocrats will soon be swept away (and perhaps uncomfortably suggesting the Terror as a moral broom). Here, though, the final scene, in which Cécile’s fate is decided by the three older women, hangs ambiguously. There’s a shadow in McTeer’s eyes at that point, as if she realises she’s tiring of the power games, but there’s no overt suggestion that Merteuil will be disgraced. It’s almost as if the whole cycle will begin again with a new set of lovers.

Madame de Tourvel

Madame de Tourvel

I’d forgotten how much Laclos’ main characters group novel-reading disparagingly with sentimentality. Hampton retains these references throughout his adaptation; when Madame de Tourvel is struggling with her love for Valmont, she reads Clarissa – the latter being the novel to which Laclos’ work is most strongly indebted. Laclos’ text also defines itself against the feminocentric novels of Madeleine de Scudéry, whose idealising romances were still being read in the eighteenth century in both France and England, but were increasingly being satirised within fiction. In Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752) the heroine Arabella makes a whole series of misjudgements because of her reading of French heroic romance, much as Catherine Morland does with the Gothic variety in Northanger Abbey. Female agency in Laclos is verbal and calculated, and the witty dialogue between Valmont and Merteuil rests on the assumption of intellectual equality. Pierre-Daniel Huet’s 1670 A Treatise of Romances (translated into English in 1672, Wing H3301) makes the connection between high narrative art and gender power relations, arguing that French romances are superior to any other nation’s because of

‘the refinement and politeness of our Galantry; which proceeds (in my opinion) from the great liberty in which the Men in France live with Women: these are in a manner recluses in Italy and Spain, and are separated from Men by so many obstacles, that they are scarce to be seen, and not to be spoken with at all’ ( p.103).

La Carte de Tendre

La Carte de Tendre

It’s a notion articulated strongly in Madeleine de Scudéry’s Clélie (1654), which introduced its readers to the Carte de Tendre, or the map of tenderness. Possibly a collective creation of Scudéry’s Paris salon, it’s a spatial representation of how heterosexual intimacy can and should progress. It begins at Nouvelle Amitié and presents three routes to ‘Tendre-sur-Reconnaissance’ ‘Tendre-sur-Inclination’ and ‘Tendre-sur-Estime’: gratitude, inclination and esteem. Along the way, the lover must pass through towns called Complaisance (obligingness), Petit Soins (small favours), or Obéissance (obedience), but there are dangers for the unwary traveller, who can wander to Negligence (neglect), Légereté (frivolity), Perfidie (treachery) and Orgeuil (pride) and potentially end up in the Mer d’Inimité (sea of Emnity). The most perilous endpoint, though is La Mer Dangereuse, a place of unbridled passion. The map still has the power to inspire now; Gucci’s head designer Alessandro Michele calls clothes ‘an atlas of the emotions’ and Gucci’s womenswear collection for spring this year included a print of La Carte de Tendre on a midi dress.

Gucci womenswear collection, Spring 2016

Gucci womenswear collection, Spring 2016

The Carte de Tendre regulates and authorises the emotional interactions between men and women, making them literally readable, though Boileau satirised this as a covert manual of seduction. Merteuil is with Boileau on this: she declares in the play:

‘I became a virtuoso of deceit. I consulted the strictest moralists to learn how to appear, philosophers to find out what to think, and novelists to see what I could get away with, and in the end, I distilled everything to one wonderfully simple principle: win or die.’

Merteuil’s philosophy of self-interest is diametrically opposed to Scudéry’s Carte de Tendre, but it gestures at a not dissimilar road map within relationships. What they both have in common is a horror of lack of control, or ‘la mer dangereuse’ of passion, and it is exactly that lack of control that forms Merteuil and Valmont’s downfall as they give in to love (or at least, a form of love). Les Liaisons Dangereuses not only figures the patterns of seduction as war, but also subverts the very notion of friendship – the highest possible relationship in Scudéry’s novel, which is presented as a form of perfect understanding. Valmont and Merteuil’s relationship is a twisted version of the friendship so valorised by Scudéry; there is only perfect understanding between Valmont and Merteuil when they share the same malicious objectives. Merteuil’s conviction that sex is the only power a woman can have is the cynical obverse of Clélie’s idealised view of negotiated relationships. Les Liaisons Dangereuses reverses the map of tenderness into a map of dazzling cruelty.



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Inventing Magna Carta /Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

In my day job as legal business journalist it’s been pretty difficult to avoid Magna Carta commemorations this year, particularly since it’s coincided with furious debates over the continued existence of the Human Rights Act (HRA). Partisans of the HRA have invoked Magna Carta as a precursor to the Act; by contrast, David Cameron used it this month to push his stance that the UK needs a Bill of Rights. It’s all highly tendentious and entirely predictable, so the antidote for those with Runnymede fatigue is to read Lord Sumption’s astringent dismissal of the whole jamboree, characterising it ‘a distortion of history to serve an essentially modern political agenda’ and ‘high-minded tosh’.


King John and the drama of Runnymede, in Ladybird

Jonathan Sumption is a medieval historian and silk whose brilliance led to his appointment to the Supreme Court without the inconvenience of ascending through the lower courts (not something that particularly endeared him to some at the bar, but that’s another story). His speech to the Friends of the British Library in March this year gave some welcome context to Magna Carta. Sumption argues that its effect was limited, that the charter was closer to a private contract than a constitutional document; it did not provide for an independent judiciary and was aimed at protecting the financial interests of a small aristocratic class. Even the famous clause that demands that freemen be tried by their peers, Sumption argues, is born of a narrow grievance of the baronage on jurisdiction.

Most interesting to me, though, was Sumption’s characterisation of our modern uses of Magna Carta as a distinctively seventeenth-century creation – and more specifically, one by the jurist Sir Edward Coke. Sumption doesn’t have much time for Coke, calling him the ‘chief sinner’ in the ideological appropriation of the charter through his Institutes of the Lawes of England, written between 1628 and 1634 and published in separate volumes up until 1644. The Institutes became a set text for mid-century Parliamentarians who wanted to challenge what they saw as the King’s untrammelled power. It was Coke, argues Sumption, who rescued Magna Carta from relative obscurity in order to underpin his argument for the sovereignty of Parliament.

Sumption’s argument that the seventeenth century created the Runnymede narrative is compelling, but begs wider questions. Why are we so obsessed with Magna Carta, and yet refer so little to the period that essentially created the myth of a high-minded revolt? While school students learn about the French and Russian revolutions, the English revolution is barely studied at all. I loathed the Civil War in history lessons in school because it was taught as a series of battles rather than an explosion of ideas; we spent a term on it, and the only thing that engaged me was hearing some bonkers Puritan names like Praise God Barebones. In fact, the first time I heard of the Diggers was not through alighting upon Christopher Hill but by listening to Billy Bragg’s first album.

I’m consistently baffled why our only period of republicanism barely features in the school syllabus. It’s a particular mystery that Michael Gove, that arch-proponent of ‘English’ history, didn’t insist upon it when he was Education Secretary. The mid-seventeenth century not only sows the seeds of our political system, but is so imaginatively accessible. The explosion of pamphlet culture so much like the cacophony of the internet; huge theatrical setpieces such as sporting opening ceremonies rivalling the masque in their elaborate hymns to power; the rise of identity politics paralleling the godly certainties of the Calvinist elect.

Even theatrical treatments of this time are few. Two, to be precise: 55 Days, a great Howard Brenton play at Hampstead Theatre a couple of years ago which featured the wonderful Mark Gatiss as Charles and Douglas Henshall as Cromwell. It focused on the trial of the king, and cutely, the auditorium was divided into two; on booking your seats, you were asked to pick the Royalist or Parliamentarian side.


Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

The National Theatre has recently presented a revival of Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, directed by Lyndsey Turner. Originally written in 1976, the play deliberately restages Civil War as history lived by the common people, and Royalists are barely referred to. The entire stage is turned into a giant banqueting table laden with fruit and candelabras (it’s a fantastic set by Es Devlin), and that table itself later turns into the ground that is being dug by the people appropriating land for the common purpose. The play loosely follows trajectory of Briggs (Trystan Gravelle) from raw Parliamentarian recruit to a man retreating into isolation and desolation on the collapse of the republic, and is peppered with scenes in which Ranters, Levellers and Diggers argue, prophesy and scrabble for existence in a world turned upside down.

It’s intermittently engaging. The most successful sequence is a piece of verbatim theatre that occurs just before the interval with the dramatisation of the Putney Debates of 1647. The Putney Debates were put on by soldiers of the New Model Army and chaired by Oliver Cromwell (Daniel Flynn) and included such radical notions of one man, one vote and a complete rethinking of the English constitution. It was during the Putney Debates that Thomas Rainsborough, the soldier and Leveller, famously declared: ‘It seems to me that the smallest Hee that is in this kingdom hath a life to live as the greatest Hee’. In Churchill’s play, the radicals are matched in passion and rhetoric by General Ireton (Leo Bill), who defends property as a cornerstone of suffrage and of social stability. The scene doesn’t just work because it is adversarial; it works because the ideas are still exciting now.

Ordinary people – the rank and file of the New Model Army – were actually working through new ideas about how society should be shaped. Even now, rereading excerpts from the Debates fills me with awe. It was a time when everything was up for grabs; in eighteen months there would be a republic, and in 12 years the republic was gone. Magna Carta seems very wan in comparison.






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The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

I missed The Duchess of Malfi, so my trip south of the river last week was my first time at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which has been built to put on the sort of plays that weren’t originally staged at the Globe but at the indoor Blackfriars theatre. It’s a lovely intimate space, lit only by candles. The repertoire is non-Shakespearian– next up is Marston’s The Malcontent, and running right now is Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle performed at the Globe Theatre

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is proof that the post-modernists didn’t invent post-modernism. The play announced onstage is ‘The London Merchant’, in which Jasper the apprentice (Alex Waldmann)  is courting Luce (Sarah MacRae), the daughter of his master (Giles Cooper), but their love is forbidden. Sitting among us in the auditorium are the Citizen (Phil Daniels), the Citizen’s Wife (Pauline McLynn – yes, Mrs Doyle from Father Ted) and their apprentice Rafe (Matthew Needham). The grocer and his wife interrupt the play and demand that London characters – specifically Rafe – should appear and be given heroic roles. The apprentice duly joins the action on stage and the rest of the play is accompanied by a very funny running commentary by the Grocer and his wife – Neil Rhodes’s piece in the programme likens it to a Jacobean Gogglebox. The commentary and occasional direction from the Citizens – who now and then invade the stage – constantly take the plot of The London Merchant into random directions. Rafe’s noble deeds in Waltham Forest scare away Jasper’s mother (Hannah McPake), who, fed up with her drinking and prodigal husband, has run away with Michael, her favoured son. After various adventures in which Rafe defeats the giant Barbaroso (who is really the barber), Jasper pretends to be dead and then impersonates his own ghost, and all sorts of slapstick, the two young lovers win the merchant’s approval.

It’s probably a bit long at three hours, but it’s actually very funny.  It’s not just knockabout stuff, either; it’s terribly meta. The Knight of the Burning Pestle is actually three plays in one – the original play put on by the company, the chivalric play urged on by the grocer, and the ensuing final production that we, the real audience, enjoy, which is a comic synthesis of both of them. There’s explicit comedy of register too; Luce’s approved suitor Humphrey (Dickon Tyrrell, in a Michael Fabricant wig) speaks in high-flown rhyming couplets that are far removed from the demotic speech of the lovers and particularly the grocers. ‘The London Merchant’ plot is straight out of the cynical City comedies of Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, which usually involve spirited lovers outwitting their merchant fathers. But City comedies don’t offer heroism; what the grocer couple really want to see on stage is escapist chivalric literature, and they want to get involved.

Imagine Harry Potter rolled into Jason Bourne and you’ll get an idea of the stories that the grocers are after. These are the so-called Iberian romances, probably best filed under early modern guilty pleasures. They include the Palmerin series and the granddaddy of them all, Amadis de Gaule, which originated in Spain, were elaborated upon in French and translated for the first time into English by Anthony Munday in 1590. We had our own homegrown tales too, like Guy of Warwick, whose provenance goes back to the fourteenth century.

knight barber

Beaumont is having a lot of fun at the expense of the grocers and their insistence that they no longer be passive consumers of romance but active purveyors of it. You can see how much he is tapping into the satirical, anti-romance tradition personified by Cervantes. The Knight of the Burning Pestle is thought to have been performed in 1607; Don Quixote, which had been published in Spain in 1605, had its first English printing in 1612. By the time Cervantes is writing at the beginning of the seventeenth century, there’s enormous amounts to satirise. The Iberian romances are full of heroic battles, magic potions, jousts with masked knights, vicious giants, and the insistence on knightly honour and duty. Although chivalric romance is often pretty sexy (Amadis gets it on with the heroine Oriana before getting married) Rafe is modelling himself on the chaste Christian hero – rejects the advances of the princess of Moldavia. In this context the syphilitic overtones of the ‘burning pestle’ are particularly amusing given our hero’s obvious sexual innocence. What’s more, when Don Quixote and Rafe transplant their understanding of heroism into a ‘real’ context of innkeepers and barbers rather than knights and princes, their rigidity in the way they read the genre usually ends in their getting beaten up. The fight scenes in this production, by the way, are genuinely hilarious.

There’s not just fighting – there’s a lot of music , too, The songs are often fragments, primarily sung by Merrithought (Paul Rider), who’s clearly modelled on Falstaff but without the coherence or the ruined majesty. Some are from pretty more elevated musical sources – ‘Down, Down, down’ is a reference to the ‘Sorrow Stay’ in John Dowland’s Second Book of Songs and Ayres (1600), and ‘Sing wee, and chaunt it’ is from Thomas Morley’s First Book of Balletts (1595) But the majority of them are popular ballads.  ‘Nose, nose, jolly red nose’, and ‘Trole the black bowle’ end up in Thomas Ravenscroft’s songbooks – respectively, Deuteromelia and Pammelia (both 1609), where they nestle against a large collection of drinking songs, catches and theatre tunes. The theatre and the alehouse were central social spaces, and inevitably both were attacked by the godly. Mirth was a loaded concept in Stuart cultural politics; James I’s Book of Sports in 1618 sanctioned leisure activities on holy days, much to the disgust of strict Puritans.

Puritans were not all your black-hatted Zeal-of-the-land Busy types satirised by Jonson in Bartholomew Fair. They also made up the sober, God-fearing, Protestant commercial class that ended up being the backbone of Parliamentarian support in London during the Civil War – in other words, the class to which the Citizen and his wife belong. But mirth, Beaumont is suggesting, is available to all of us, and it doesn’t have to be anarchic; it can be creative. For example, the fun he has dismantling playgoing conventions of the fourth wall creates another play before our eyes. At the same time, drinking does not have to entail prodigal disintegration. Instead, it can be an agent of sociability.  The Knight of the Burning Pestle ends with a speech not from a hero but from the Citizen’s wife, who takes charge of the epilogue. She says to the audience directly: “I would have a pottle of wine and a pipe of Tobacco for you’ and pretty much invites everyone back to hers. It’s certainly not The Duchess of Malfi.

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Inner beauty and a grisly test of love

The papers are currently full of all the new year, new you plans; you can’t move for supplements on detox diets, eight-minute workouts and toned abs. Sometimes I wonder what future cultural historians will make of the 21st century obsession with the body. All this manufactured angst is making me think again about neoplatonism’s attempt to transcend the physical (see my post on the kick-ass shepherdesses, below). In particular, I keep coming back to a striking story in the second volume of L’Astrée (1610) that involves a fraught love triangle on which the shepherdesses have to pronounce judgement.

Celidée was orphaned at just nine and has been brought up by her relative Thamire, who is 30 years older. Thamire has always secretly loved her (in a pure way, of course), but later the household is joined by Calidon, the sort of youth who immediately conceives a great passion and doesn’t stop banging on about it. Thamire selflessly proposes to give her up in favour of the younger man, but after the trio have related their tale, the shepherdesses pronounce in favour of Thamire. Cue high drama as Calidon and Thamire collapse. In an effort to break the triangle, Celidée disfigures herself with a diamond. When Calidon sees Celidée’s scarred face, he abandons his passion completely, but Thamire is steadfast. Thamire has proved himself worthy, and Calidon has turned out to be a rotter.

Celidée, Thamire, Calidon

Celidée, Thamire, Calidon

It’s kind of difficult to read this subplot of L’Astrée without thinking of Molière’s splendid L’École des Femmes (1662) in which he inverts the paradigm whereby old age is equated with goodness and wisdom and youth with inconstancy. In Molière’s play, Arnolphe is the guardian of the much younger Agnès, whom he wants to keep hidden from the world in order to marry. The comedy in Molière is precisely because an old man feels desire and because his efforts at exerting control of his ward are endlessly thwarted. In L’Astrée, desire is precisely what is critiqued; Calidon’s is fleeting and based on exterior beauty, while Thamire’s motives are neoplatonically pure.

When I was thinking about English neoplatonism I kept returning to Francis Quarles’s Argalus and Parthenia (1629). It’s a narrative poem based very closely on a story from Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. In it, Parthenia is pursued by Demagoras but he is thwarted by the fact that she and Argalus are in love. Incensed, Demagoras smears her face with poison and disfigures her. Parthenia, wanting to release Argalus from his romantic obligation to her, flees. Here the heroine’s disfigurement is involuntary, but like Thamire with Celidée, Argalus proves his constancy to Parthenia. It’s a happy ending (until Argalus has to fight at the castle of Amphialus, but I digress…).

I quite like what Quarles did to Sidney’s story – he added a fantastically villainous mother who schemes with Demagoras to poison Argalus, and a maid, Athleia, who is initially in on the plot, but who ends up taking the poison herself out of remorse. It was an publishing sensation; the first publication of the poem appeared in 1629 and there were 16 editions between then and 1692 – and even a stage version in 1639 by William Glapthorne (it looks like the 1661 production of the play used a William Lawes song but I haven’t tracked that down yet). I do think, though, what made it so popular in the Caroline era was this neoplatonic version of perfect love that disdained the shell of the body. Argalus declares to Parthenia:

’Thy beauty was but like a Christall vase,

Through which, the Jewell of admired grace

Transparent was, whose hidden worth did make

Me loue the Casket, for the Jewel’s sake’

I have a hunch that we can link Quarles’ explicitly neoplatonic take on Sidney’s tale with the extraordinary successful import into England of the ideas in L’Astrée and the story of Celidée. The worth of the woman does not reside in the beauty of the face but the beauty of the soul. Even more striking, in both L’Astrée and Argalus and Parthenia, the disfigurement of the woman is the moral test of love that proves the worth of the man.

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Don’t mess with the shepherdesses: L’Astrée in England

It’s a classic quiz question: who was the first woman to make a living from writing? Answer: Restoration dramatist and poet Aphra Behn.

What’s perhaps less well known is that she consistently referred to herself as ‘Astrea’ in her writing.  ‘Astrea’ carries a whole host of associations in seventeenth-century England. There are traces of Astraea, the name often identified with Elizabeth I, but its most resonant derivation is from L’Astrée, a pastoral bestseller written by Honoré D’Urfé in 1607 and first translated into English as Astrea in 1620.


Aphra Behn, 1670

Set in Forez, a region near Lyons, L’Astrée recounts the stories of groups of nymphs and shepherds in a forest divided by the river Lignon. On one side of the river are the shepherds and shepherdesses; on the other, nymphs and nobles. As with all pastoral romance, it’s about aristocrats with leisure time yearning for a simple life and philosophising about social, ethical and erotic behaviour. Farmers’ Weekly it ain’t.

The romance begins when Astrée banishes her lover Celadon from her sight. She believes him to have been unfaithful, but the blameless shepherd has been a virtuous and constant lover. Distraught, he throws himself into the river Lignon and is rescued on the other side of the bank by Galathée and her nymphs Léonide and Sylvie. Galathée falls in love with Celadon and keeps him comfortably imprisoned for most of the first volume before he escapes with the help of Léonide to the other side of the forest where he constructs a temple to his beloved.  Love, avowedly chaste, becomes the central force of the text as the characters variously discuss their dilemmas and pass judgement on the ethics of lovers’ actions.

L’Astrée is barely studied at universities now. Its length militates against it, so if it’s examined at all it’s through excerpts or as an exercise in narratology (though check here for a University of Paris project on D’Urfé) since it uses a variety of discursive forms: letters, tales, poems, debates. It’s a remarkably lively read; the individual stories of romantic predicaments that fan out from the central narrative are skilfully woven together, and there is considerable craft in leaving clues that later stories pick up. Myriad different characters are delineated: the proud Astrée, who begins to doubt herself and is tormented by regret for having banished Celadon,  headstrong Galathée daughter of the king, the haughty Sylvie, the patient and suffering Celadon, the wise druid Adamas, Sylvandre the judicious intellectual and the amusing libertine Hylas, to name but a handful.

In my next few blogposts I want to discuss its enormous cultural impact. L’Astrée ported Neoplatonic ideas into a readily accessible fictional form. Those ideas, with a little help from St Francois de Sales’s Devout Humanism, dominated aristocratic French culture and the English court. L’Astrée even inspired a equally well-known parody by Charles Sorel, Le Berger Extravagant.

Soul food: The rise of cultural Neoplatonism

L’Astrée is soaked in Neoplatonic philosophy, which holds that all the universe is one being and that different levels of existence work in unity. This is overt throughout the text: to give just two examples, the druid Adamas declares in volume three that God creates the universe out of love and gives man reason, which teaches him to love God in the world. The ideal of love is a manifestation of God. The intellectual Silvandre states in volume two that love is not an abstraction whereby man unites in the love of God but where the lover and beloved unite their souls and wills.

It’s worth stepping back for a moment to examine Neoplatonism’s illustrious Renaissance pedigree. Marsilio Ficino, the Italian metaphysician who represented Plato as the philosopher of unity and order, was a major influence on the gentle theology of St Francois de Sales, who believed in the goodness of human nature. Love and beauty become a way to experience the divine, since to adore the beloved is to be directed to contemplate spiritual things. Uniting souls, not the bodies, is what distinguishes Neoplatonism, which takes as a source text Plato’s Symposium.

Neoplatonism in England is evident from the middle of the sixteenth century, though it’s less a philosophical movement than a literary one.

Jayne Sears argues that although Ficino is influential on the Continent, he is not the primary source for Neoplatonism in England at this time, and certainly an EEBO search reveals that neither Ficino nor Plato was published in English during this period.  Prose writers up to 1570, such as Elyot and Ascham, engage with these ideas, but between 1570 and 1610 the influence of Plato’s Symposium is evident in poetry (especially in Spenser and Drayton) and after that mostly in drama, particularly Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess (1608) and other tragicomedies.

The Neoplatonic literary version of love is not Petrarchan. You simply don’t get the frustrated blazon of the female body, where physical parts are parcelled out. This is rife in the sixteenth century both in France and England; check out Pléiade writers such as Ronsard or the erotic epyllions by Inns of Court poets such as Barnabe Barnes and Thomas Lodge. However, from the second decade of the 1600s, just after L’Astrée was published in France, the lover contemplates the whole being of his adored. The feminine is still the object of the masculine gaze, but the masculine is yearning to mesh with and subsume itself into the beloved in Platonic unity. Drayton’s valorisation of chastity is a typical example, but Donne’s Valediction Forbidding Mourning (1611) best fits the Neoplatonic template:

Our two soules, therefore, which are one, 

Though I must goe, endure not yet

A breach, but an expansion, 

Like gold to ayery thinnesse beate.

But we can’t let the poets hold the floor; what’s missing from Sears’ analysis is romance. On the Continent, Urfé’s L’Astrée had become a central transmitter of Neoplatonic ideas, and Catholic Neoplatonists such as St Francois de Sales recognised its cultural power in the promotion of a virtuous life. J-P Camus, who wrote a biography of de Sales shortly after his death, says in his Esprit de St Francois de Sales (tome VI, p 119) that anyone who reads it must acknowledge that its narration of love and chastity are exemplary, just as its author D’Urfé is: “Et certes qui considérera bien l’Astrée et en jugera sans passion recognoistra qu’entre les romans et les livres d’amour, c’est possible l’un des plus honnestes et des plus chastes que so voient, l’autheur estant l’un des plus modestes et des plus accomplis gentils-hommes que l’on puisse figurer..” (quoted in McMahon, fn p233.)

In mid-seventeenth century England, cultural production was dominated by the stage, but romance increasingly helped shape its norms (yes, that’s a sweeping statement, but the traffic between Jacobean and Caroline tragicomedy and romance is too big a subject to elaborate on here). It wasn’t long before a recognisable Neoplatonic culture emerged that was notably feminocentric – and that coincided with a L’Astrée ‘s publication in English in 1620 by an anonymous translator.

The injunction that women should be silent simply does not exist in L’Astrée, either implicitly or explicitly. Shepherdesses and nymphs speak as much as the shepherds and knights.. They relate their own stories and give judgement in the love debates. Near the end of the first volume the shepherds and shepherdesses discover the Temple D’Astrée, where The Laws of Love (“Loix d’Amour”) are engraved. This erotic manifesto posits a submissive (male) lover who must serve his lady, but whereas medieval courtly love had an adulterous subtext, the Astréen lover must serve without necessarily hoping for physical reward. Love must be pure.

The gender politics of L’Astrée and English proto-feminism

L’Astrée marks a radical restatement of the status and agency of aristocratic women. This blossomed in Paris salon culture and préciosité, and it’s most famously exemplified by the Hôtel de Rambouillet, which was the centre for the literary lions of the day. Discussion of love and literary topics in the salons were self-consciously modelled on the debates in L’Astrée. And this is where life mimics fiction; Laurence Gregorio argues that it should not be read as a consistent text that advocates a particular form of Platonic love, but one that sets how to talk about it: “What we see emerging is not a concrete philosophy of love, but rather a kind of theatre of rhetoric, destined for the general divertissement and consistently ending in general merriment.” L’Astrée therefore provides a model for French and English salonnistes in which men and women could take an equal voice.

In England, any analysis of the success of these discursive conventions converges on two central proto-feminists or précieuses and their circles: Queen Henrietta Maria and Lucy Percy Hay, the Countess of Carlisle.While Erica Veevers and Julie Sanders have sought to differentiate these circles – the court’s préciosité had a strong religious accent, while the Countess of Carlisle’s salon was considerably more secular – most critical attention has nevertheless been focused on Charles I’s wife, the French Henrietta Maria. Her expensive court masques were strongly politically encoded and her defiant Catholicism was controversial, not least because of a series of high-profile conversions to Rome by English nobles. (Erica Veevers and Karen Britland have done wonderfully detailed studies on how her political allegiances played out culturally.) In Henrietta Maria’s court productions, women were seen on stage for the first time. Her brand of Neoplatonism was intertwined with Catholic theology, fusing Astréen pastoral romance with de Sales’s Devout Humanism and just a sprinkling of Mariolatry.

To say that the Puritans didn’t like it would be an understatement. William Prynne’s 1000-page diatribe against the theatre Histriomastix (1632) rails against the “amorous pastoralls” at court and attacked women on stage as “notorious whores”. Given that the queen was one of the women who appeared on stage (albeit at court, not in public) publishing Histriomastix was considered a criminal act; Prynne’s ears were cut off and he was branded a seditious libeller.

Yet in many ways, Prynne’s views would prevail. Among many Parliamentarians Neoplatonic culture became associated with extravagance, idleness and emasculation. In the next couple of decades even English romance was reacting against it; Richard Brathwaite’s Panthalia (1659) is particularly critical of court Neoplatonism, and Herbert’s The Princess Cloria is decidedly ambivalent.

And so L’Astrée‘s promotion of the eternal feminine faded in the years just after the Civil War. How neat, then, that it took a woman to bring it back. Aphra Behn didn’t just use Astrea as a poetic alter ego: when she was exiled on the Continent during the Interregnum and working as a spy for Charles II, it was her code name. Royalism and female agency rolled into one.


Karen Britland, Drama at the Courts of Queen Hnrietta Maria (Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Laurence Gregorio, ‘Implications of the Love Debate in L’Astree’, The French Review, Vol .56, No. 1 (Oct. 1982) pp. 31-19

Sister Mary Catherine McMahon, ‘The Astrée and its influence’, The Catholic Historical Review, Vol.12, No.2, (Jul. 1926) pp. 225-240

Julie Sanders, ‘Caroline Salon Culture and Female Agency: The Countess of Carlisle, Henrietta Maria, and Public Theatre’, Theatre Journal, Vol. 52, No. 4, Women/History (Dec. 2000) pp. 44-464

Jayne Sears, ‘Ficino and the Platonism of the English Renaissance’, Comparative Literature, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Summer, 1952), pp. 214-238

Erica Veevers, Images of Love and Religion: Queen Henrietta Maria and Court Entertainments (Cambridge University Press, 1989)

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Erotomania and bodily decorum

o-REAL-LIFE-VAMPIRE-facebookMy last post discussed wounds and surgeons in the first volume of Roger Boyle’s romance Parthenissa (1651), in which I argued that the hero’s body was being medicalised in a distinctively modern way. But there’s plenty more to say about the function of wounds in this romance. The hero’s body in Parthenissa is not just a patient’s, submitting to the ‘plaisters’ of the surgeon; the hero is also an active desiring subject who has been overcome with physical passion for the heroine.

So far, so conventional; the wound representing love stretches all the way back to Cupid’s arrow. However, clichés become clichés for a good reason; just because the wound is now hackneyed as a metaphorical construction of passion it shouldn’t blind us to its effectiveness. The wound conveys a loss of control, the absolute physicality of the body confronted with the object of desire. What emerges from a reading of Parthenissa is the insistence that passion is not simply a meeting of minds at all. In their first erotic encounter with the heroines, the heroes’ bodies always bleed. Artabanes is near death following his joust defending Parthenissa’s honour; Artavasdes is close to expiring after defending the city of Artaxia from attack; and Perolla, whohas just fended off assassins, is broken and bleeding  when he first meets Izadora and falls in love with her.

Parthenissa reclaims the body in all its fleshiness and reworks the conventional metaphorical construction of the wound. In this romance, passion is literally embedded in the bodies of Artabanes, Artavasdes and Perolla.  And where the hero desires, there must he bleed. It’s a marked reaction against neo-Platonic ideas of chaste union between lovers; that conception of marital harmony was dominant at the Caroline court and enshrined within masques of Charles II and Henrietta Maria, notably in Carew’s Coelum Britannicum where the king and queen are united within the mythography of Carlomaria.

There’s plenty to say here about Boyle’s displacement of the sexualised bleeding body from a female one to a male one (more on that another time) but for the moment I want to remain with the physiological elements of blood and sexual desire in the early modern period. We’re back to the surgeons again.


“Barber-surgeons…were responsible for phlebotomies: common but sometimes spectacular bleedings, considered necessary on the strength of the notion that noxious humours had to be literally expunged from the organism,” notes Noga Arikha. “These bleedings were performed with a selection of somewhat alarming tools, such as lancets and scarificators, as well as cups that, when heated, drew blood to the surface by creating what, in the seventeenth century, would eventually be recognised as a vacuum.”

But why might a surgeon-phlebotomist be required to bleed a healthy male? To understand this, you have to tackle the Galenic theory of humours that held sway up until the late seventeenth century.

Galenic medical theory was largely concerned with purging excess or imbalances. Those imbalances could be affected by internal dispositions or external factors. Human temperaments were divided into four, corresponding to four different fluids: sanguine (blood), melancholic (black bile), choleric (yellow bile) and phlegmatic (phlegm). Bodily imbalances could also be fostered by external  influences such as air, seasons or diet.bloodletting

Fluids, in Galenic humoralism, were fungible within the body. Ambroise Paré, in his great medical textbook, which appeared in English editions in 1617, 1625, 1631 and 1634, says: “All things which we eate or drink are the materialls of blood”.  Food was turned into blood, and blood, semen, sweat and tears could turn into one another.  The liver was thought to manufacture copious quantities of blood continuously; an overabundance was thought to be harmful as the circulation of the blood was not understood.  Bloodletting therefore evolved to relieve the patient of excess; in Gail Kern Paster’s words, it was the “cultural inversion of menstruation”, which purged the woman of noxious humours.


Which brings us to Erotomania. Originally written in French by Jacques Ferrand in 1623, it is a textbook that discusses the diagnosis and treatment of lovesickness. Translated into English in 1640, Erotomania is prefaced by a series of poems by various Christ Church wits. Rather in the tradition of Coryat’s Crudities, these poems are largely performative, a communal university game that ironises the text they preface and which jokingly frame the book itself as a prophylactic. The first poem, by W. Towers, plays on the conceit that the lovesick reader must have made a mistake in buying the volume, that (s)he has picked it up not for medical reasons but has mistaken it for a pleasurable romance: “Thou, that from this Gay Title, look’st no high’r/Then some Don Errant, or his fullsome Squire”. F. Palmer mock-prophesises the world turned on its head: “The World will all turne Stoicks, when they find/This Physick here”… “Men, as in Plagues, from Marriage will be bent/And every day will seem to be in Lent”

Prefatory material aside, Erotomania consists of 39 detailed chapters discussing the treatment of love melancholy from surgical remedies to potions. It’s less of a manual than a quasi-conduct book – there are no diagrams, unlike in Ambroise Paré’s works. The physician must devise remedies that are not just physical but moral. Ferrand declares in his introduction: “My chiefest purpose is, to prescribe some remedies for the prevention of this disease of Love, which those men for the most part are subject unto, that have not the power to governe their desires, and subject them to Reasons Lawes: seeing that this unchast Love proves oftentimes the Author of the greatest Mischiefes that are in the world (p4)

Therapeutic bloodletting, the letting go of a plethora of blood and heat, as much about the control of a patient’s desire and therefore his (usually his) behaviour. In Chapter 38, entitled Chirurgicall Remedies for Love-Melancholy, Ferrand advises: “If the Patient be in good plight of body, fat and corpulent, the first thing wee doe, we must let him bleed, in the Hepatica in the right arme, such a proportionable quantity of blood, as shal be thought convenient both for his disease, complexion, and strength of body…. Phlebotomy makes those that are sad, Merry: appeaseth those that are Angry: and keeps Lovers from running Mad.”

In other words, bloodletting regulates social behaviour. The unruly humoral body must be tamed. Gail Kern Paster’s The Body Embarrassed is the key critical work here; she has brilliantly drawn on Norbert Elias’s theories of the way that violence, bodily functions (including sexual) are ‘civilised’ by ever-increasing thresholds of shame. Paster makes the connection between the disciplining of humoral fluids and the way that the Bakhtinian grotesque and carnivalesque becomes tamed by the classical body. Her study of Middleton’s city comedies and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar explores the inflections of gender. Anxieties around the ‘leaky vessel’ of the female body, whether through menstruation or urine, underlines the increasing ideological investment in female intactness that becomes a system of control and decorum. (Nowadays the female body is disciplined by the baby diets in Closer magazine and the Daily Mail sidebar of shame. But I digress.)

Back to romance

Ferrand’s Erotomania and Paster’s study of the early modern humoral body open up a reading of Artabanes, Artavasdes and Perolla, the bleeding, leaking heroes of Parthenissa, as partly feminised and verging on the uncontrollable. Their desiring bodies must be regulated by bloodletting.

Parthenissa’s high-minded heroes may display their desire through martial acts but must bleed because they have a surfeit of that same desire. It’s notable that Artabanes and Artavasdes speak of their passion for Parthenissa and Altezeera as ‘criminal’ – not so much because it is transgressive in a Montague-Capulet kind of way, but because the very admission of (sexual) passion is framed as disruptive to the bodily and social balance. You can see traces here of how English mid-seventeenth century romance was influenced by its French cousin, a product of the Paris ‘précieux’ salons, in which ‘bienséance’, or propriety, was privileged – the latter being both an aesthetic system as regulated by the Académie française and a physical/social one, as regulated by the classical body.

It seems that in Parthenissa bodily fluids are therefore enlisted into a wider ideological cross-Channel discourse of decorum within fiction. In other words, you can put the body centre stage, but you have to punish it. It is a physical purging but also a moral one; blood becomes both a display of passion and its control mechanism.


The Workes of that famous Chirugion Ambrose Parey, Translated out of Latine and compered with the French, tr. Thomas Johnson (London, 1634)

Jacques Ferrand, Erotomania or A treatise discoursing of the essence, causes, symptomes, prognosticks, and cure of love, or erotique melancholy (Oxford, 1640)

Noga Arikha, Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours (New York: Harper Collins, 2008)

Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993)

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Bedside manners: surgeons and the wounded romance hero


The first part of Roger Boyle’s multi-volume romance Parthenissa, published in 1651, tells the interwoven tales of the Parthian nobleman Artabanes and his passion for Parthenissa, and the Armenian nobleman Artavasdes and his love for the princess Altezeera. It’s a romance that is full of battles, heroism and desire, and it would take me about a dozen blogposts to summarise the astoundingly complex plot, so I’m going to be coming back to Parthenissa a lot in the future. Suffice to say that when they’re not sighing and lovelorn, the heroes are invariably fighting; at tournaments, in duels, on the battlefield, with pirates, in ambushes, in sieges and on one occasion struggling with street assassins.  And they get wounded. A lot.

This isn’t entirely usual. Romance heroes tend to be almost impervious to assault. Amadis, the eponymous hero of Amadis de Gaule – a Continental best-seller translated into English by Anthony Munday in 1590 – is constantly battling with knights and the odd giant but is rarely knocked out by his opponents for long. In one incident he is fighting the Irish forces of King Abies outside the castle of Perion. The battle takes place outside the city walls with the Irish driving Perion and Amadis’s soldiers back into the city. Abies then challenges Amadis to combat with ten knights on each side. Just before the encounter, the queen sends for Amadis, at which point “she perceiued he was sore wounded, which she shewing to the King, he said, I meruaile Gentleman, seeing you are so hurt, that you tooke no longer time for your Combate. It had been needlesse, answered the Prince, for I haue no wound (I thanke God) that can keep me from the Combate”.

In Parthenissa, though, the heroes really are laid low. I want to explore the martyrological undercurrents of the wounded hero and the erotic undertow of the prone hero in later posts, but for the moment I want to focus on a hitherto undiscussed feature of injuries in Parthenissa. Constantly hovering, dressing the wounds and applying plaisters (not, as I first assumed, a sort of bandage but type of ointment) are surgeons.

The first hero, Artabanes, nearly dies within the first twenty pages of the romance when he defends Parthenissa’s honour in a tilt against a visiting knight Ambixules:  “[King] Arsaces did mee the honor to walke a foote by my Litter, and to see the first dressing of my wounds, where hee receiv’d an assurance from the Chyurgions, that I had none which were dangerous, that the losse of blood was the greatest harme I had sustained, and that rest was one of the best remedies they could prescribe.”

Artavasdes is almost left for dead defending the city of Artaxes against the rebel forces of Phanasder. Artavasdes recounts: “Some able Chyrurgions … having search’t my wounds and drest them, found they were very dangerous, yet to console my Mother, told her they were curable, & having given me some Cordialls which brought me to my selfe againe, they withdrew themselves.”

In the romance’s long Roman subplot, Perolla is grievously wounded after saving Blacius, the enemy of his father, from assassination: “Though the Chyrurgions came hastiy to binde [my wounds] up, yet they could not vndertake for my life, ’till they sawe what operation that dressing would have, and to free me from all noyse that I might take a litle sleepe.”

The wounds just keep on coming. Even when Artabanes flees west across the Mediterranean and his ship is captured by pirates, the outlaw vessel has a surgeon on board – handy, really, since Symander, Artabanes’s trusted companion, gets a javelin stuck in his back. He is prescribed strong cordials and eventually recovers.

What is striking here is that at all times these heroes are receiving a third-party diagnosis of their prospects. The fictional body is being authenticated by science. Not only does the surgeons’ determination of how long the hero should rest imposes specific time periods within the narrative, but in the case of Artavasdes’ brother Amidor, the doctors metaphorically don the black cap, pronouncing the situation hopeless:

“My poore Brother mortally wounded, carying unto his Lodging: so sad an object soone clouded all my Ioy, and made me retourne with him to knowe what I might expect of his fate. The ablest Chirurgeons being sent for, searched his wounds and found they were incurable for their Art.”

1651, the year of Parthenissa’s original publication, saw the printing of numerous medical books, from Robert Record’s treatise on urine The Urinal of Physick to Thomas Vicary’s The Surgeon’s Directorie. Ralph Williams’ Physical Rarities functions as user-friendly manual  with an alphabetised index that runs from A for ague to Y for yard. (That’s as in a ‘man’s yard’ and which includes a remedy for being “burnt by a harlot”.) Medical publications that year were already aiming at a variety of audiences; Richard Elkes’ Approved Medicines of Little Cost…For the Soldier’s Knapsack has military men as its target audience, while  the anonymously written A Closet for Ladies and Gentlewomen and A Book Of Fruits And Flowers both combine advice on conserving and candying with recipes for poultices and salves.

Alongside these was the increasing production of surgical textbooks. The granddaddy of this was Ambroise Paré’s Method of Curing Wounds Made By Gunshot, originally published in French the previous century. The frontispiece to the 1617 translation (see picture) displays a body variously attacked by lance, sword, hatchet, arrow, dagger, cannon ball and gun. This is not an erotic St Sebastian, for inside is the promise of recovery: within the following pages, and looking remarkably similar to the weapons on the front, is a parade of surgeons’ tools.

]ohn Woodall’s The Surgeons Mate (1639) takes the surgeon’s chest as an organising principle, detailing all the instruments necessary from knives to bandages before moving on to discuss actual conditions such as plague and gangrene. Like the textbook itself, the chest is designed to be portable and to be taken on board coach or ship. Meanwhile, Dr Alexander Read’s Tuesday lectures on surgery at the Barber-Surgeons’ Hall were collected and printed in 1650, which bespeaks  an appetite amongst the reading public for this medical knowledge. In turn, it can’t be altogether surprising that the seepage of this technical discourse into lay reading is having an effect on the way wounds are being represented in fiction. And this isn’t even taking into account the aftermath of the Civil War, a conflict so bloody and widespread that few families would not have known someone killed or wounded in siege or field battle.

Parthenissa is an intriguing evidence as to when the body starts to become medicalised. The hero is now a patient; no longer a vigorous subject, he becomes the object of treatment. Foucault explores this separation of the body from personal identity in The Birth of the Clinic, but he locates the birth of the ‘medical gaze’ to the eighteenth century. My reading of Parthenissa hints that this is happening a century earlier; in projecting the surgeon into the role of the gatekeeper and diagnostician romance is acknowledging that the body is not just the emblem of valour but an object of study, even a site of experimentation.  The hero has been handed over to the medics.


PS There’s an enormous amount to say about the rhetorical construction of medical knowledge: thanks to Mike Leahy, a doctoral student at Birkbeck, for his paper last year on the literary readings and reception of a medieval surgical manual.

I’ve also come across a couple of medical history blogs which make good reading:

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