I designed a Keywords assignment based on the TIDE Keywords resource in an undergraduate Senior Research Seminar at Michigan State University. This seminar served as a ‘Capstone’ course designed for graduating seniors, to bring together the various skills they have learned in English courses thus far (close reading, engaging with secondary sources and literary theory, interpreting a literary text from within historical contexts, structuring a literary essay and developing a solid thesis). They were required to deploy different critical approaches and specific methodologies, working towards more extensive research on a particular critical problem in early modern literary criticism through some primary research of contextual early modern texts in the Special Collections (MSU Libraries) or on Early English Books Online.
The research methods covered both primary and secondary texts, leading up to some critical questions that students addressed more fully in their final essay. Their initial task in developing their thesis was to explore some broad issues relating to early modern literary and cultural texts from roughly 1590 to 1625. These included some shared themes that cohered together to form a discourse or a set of ideas and perspectives on the period. Based on those explorations, students were asked to expand them into a Final Research Essay, developing it through two earlier drafts based on primary sources. I begin by reproducing the assignment below:Keywords Assignment Please follow the steps below and write a 3-4-page, single space essay, divided into 2 coherent sections.
- 1. Begin by studying the list of keywords on the TIDE online resource
- 2. Choose any 3 words from the list and briefly summarize the history of their usage, and identify and describe any 2-3 themes around which they cohere. Choose words that (preferably) are applicable to your final research project. Pay some attention to how the words may have evolved and accrued a range of meanings, via a “complex history of usage."
- 1. Identify 3-4 words (not included in TIDE Keywords) from your FINAL research essay that illustrate the main themes of your thesis. Following the models and structures of the TIDE Keywords, write a description of each word, including a short bibliography for each entry.
Rationale and Student Responses:
In order to establish a discursive framework for their final essay, students identified and defined Keywords around which each individual argument cohered (assignment defined above).
Why examine Keywords within the context of a research essay format?
Through their analysis of Keywords, students learn that meaning and knowledge do not only take shape in a linear and chronological sequence, as they follow specific points of time. Rather, they deploy a diachronic approach through which they consider the development and evolution of a word (and its related connotations) through history. The examples in the TIDE Keywords project demonstrate such a diachronic approach with historical depth and rigor.
For example, the TIDE editors offer fascinating insights into the words ‘translation’ and ‘interpretation’. They note how the word ‘Englishing’ is used to describe the process in which translators took foreign texts and made them publicly available. Immigrants and refugees from different parts of Europe would take texts from their native tongue and, with a level of cultural authority, produce an English document for others to read. Religion also played a key role in the field of translation: the King James Bible was published in 1611, and European missionaries would translate Christian texts into the cultural contexts of regional Indian dialects.
Interestingly, the TIDE Keywords resource also makes a note in their study of the word ‘translator’ that in early texts the words ‘interpreter’ and ‘translator’ were often used interchangeably. In a sixteenth-century translation of the Holy Bible, for instance, the word ‘interpreter’ is used when talking about communication of different languages through dialogue. And another text from roughly the same time used ‘interpreter’ as a way to describe religious figures that analyzed the Bible. By the terms of seventeenth-century England, though, the general description of both words is similar, but the contexts ultimately differ. According to Italian-born Elizabethan State official (and translator of Cinthio) Lodowick Bryskett, the translator is more of an academic, while the interpreter is more colloquial. That is, the translator deciphers not just the language, but also the context in which the language ‘resides’.
This account of ‘interpreter’ and ‘translator’ highlights the significance of the shifting nature of contextual variants. For my students, following the journey of specific keywords added depth and nuance to their research essays. Their exercises point to the contingency of language and the shifting currencies of meaning, often with varying moral (or immoral) connotations. For example, in one essay on the ‘Surveillance of Women’s Bodies in Early Modern Theatre,’ a student, Cortney Cox explored the representations of prostitution in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and for her Keywords assignment, examined the words, ‘whore,’ ‘brothel,’ and ‘stew’ (‘stews’), with varying details.
Whore: Today, the word is used as a blanketed term for a woman who sleeps with many men or who has ‘loose’ morals. The word is also used during the Early Modern period in the King James translation of the bible where the Whore of Babylon is mentioned in the last book, Revelations. This ‘whore’ is supposed to represent the Catholic Church but it is still important to note that the whore is also associated with the antichrist and the downfall of mankind.
Brothel: This word is commonly known in contemporary times as a place where prostitutes reside, but it was not always used to describe a place but a person. According to the OED, there are two definitions that fall under the word: ‘A worthless abandoned fellow, a wretch, scoundrel, scapegrace, good-for-nothing’ and ‘An abandoned woman, a prostitute.’ The first definition is very significant when looking at how the history of the word has changed through time. ‘Brothel’ was not a word that was exclusively about women’s sexuality. Instead, the word ‘brothel’ is noted by OED as stemming from the Old English word Broden which means ruined, degenerate. The word once was used to describe immoral men which can be traced back as early as the 1300s. The change from this meaning to the one we know today had occurred with the close association to the French word for a prostitution house, bordel. In a blog post from Oxford University Press, etymologist Anatoly Liberman argues that the confusion between the French word bordel and the English ‘brothel’ seems to have happened because ‘Words for sex and prostitution move easily from language to language.’ Liberman suggests that some of the connotations from ‘brothel’ linked well with those who dwelled in bordels. The prostitutes and their clients were seen as immoral ‘scoundrels’ which is what the word ‘brothel’ described. These words were used interchangeably thus making ‘brothel-house’ which was commonly used throughout 1530-1599 according to The Historical Thesaurus of English. The ending was soon dropped and the word ‘brothel’ is now solely meant to label the place where prostitutes dwell.
Stew: Although ‘brothel’ is not specifically used in Measure for Measure, other synonyms are chosen to describe the place such as the word ‘stew’. Looking up the OED definition of ‘broth’, some interesting words seem to appear that help connect these words to the themes of appetites and lascivious desires within plays and other forms of literature: ‘The liquid in which anything has been boiled, and which is impregnated with its juice; a decoction; esp. that in which meat is boiled or macerated; also, a thin soup made from this with the addition of vegetables, pearl barley, rice, etc., as Scottish ‘broth’.’ The word ‘impregnated’ is commonly used to evoke women’s sexuality and the ‘juice’ that is mentioned could also be easily connected with the bodily fluids women and men produce during sex. In the same light, the word ‘stew’ also associates heat and boiling. Some of definitions found in OED define ‘stew’ as: ‘A heated room used for hot air or vapour baths: hence, a hot bath.’ Stews/ Brothels were also synonymous to bath-houses as the OED has noted. Partridge’s Shakespeare’s Bawdy, describes the ‘original sense of stews [as] ‘bath’-room or –house, hence ‘hot bath’…‘a turkish bath’... Public baths were formerly, in many other countries, the resort of persons of ill-fame’ (Partridge, p.191). Hence, it is easy to see how words such as ‘stew’ or ‘broth’ fit into the frame of prostitution. The heat described in the two words reinforces the spreading of bacteria and disease while also describing how the broth/stew are mediums that soak up the juices of meat. Similarly, women’s bodies are viewed as vessels that take in sperm and carry children. In this, we see how the prostitutes’ use of their bodies is threatening to the social order because this must be regulated by people such as Angelo and the Duke in Measure for Measure: ‘My business in this state made me a looker-on here in Vienna, where I have seen corruption boil and bubble till it o’errun the stew’ (5.1 317-320).
Other student’s keyword choices – as below – helped to animate their arguments and representations of their research essays. The Keywords resource on the TIDE website offers a productive pedagogical model, especially in courses on early modern literature, history, and culture as it enables scholars to metaphorically ‘mine’ selective words and concepts, illuminating a discursive field of interconnected meanings. Thus, an analysis on witchcraft becomes more complex when viewed through the varied lenses of the word ‘magic’, or an essay on travel narratives to Africa reveals emerging European biases through their deployments of categories such as ‘Negro’.
Student Choices (SECTION II)
- 1.Topic: Ghosts, Religion, and Anti-Catholicism
- Keywords chosen: superstitious, supernatural, ghost
- 2. Topic: The Surveillance of Women’s Bodies in Early Modern Theatre
- Keywords chosen: whore, brothel, stews
- 3. Topic: The Discourse Around Women and Witchcraft in the Literature of the English Renaissance
- Keywords chosen: demon/daimon, magic, occult
- 4. Topic: The Rape of Lucrece: Criticism of Roman Morality through Female Autonomy, Metaphor, and Characterization
- Keywords chosen: virgin, rape, ravish
- 5. Topic: Travel Narratives about Africa in the Early Modern Period
- Keywords chosen: negro/negroes, virtue, vice
- 6. Topic: Navigating Women’s Spaces in Early Modern Drama: The Tragedy of Mariam
- Keywords chosen: dumb, blush, chaste
- 7. Topic: Martyrdom in English Renaissance Drama
- Keywords chosen: martyr, virtue, persecute
- JYOTSNA G. SINGH
- Professor, Department of English
- Michigan State University