Exam Reading – Nostalgia and Elizabethan England

In residence at the Folger Shakespeare Library for the month of July and already finding some fascinating connections between the semi-random assortment of manuscript materials I’m pulling and my exam reading. In one of those rare moments when weekly reading seems to approach thematic overlap nirvana, I spent part of last week looking at Saxton’s Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales and Drayton’s Poly-Olbion in the reading room, while rereading More’s Utopia, several first-hand accounts of travels/voyages published in England between 1590 and 1640, and Helgerson’s Forms of Nationhood. What became increasingly interesting to me as I read through these various texts was spurred by a tiny reference Helgerson makes to the role of nostalgia in 17th-century texts, nostalgia specifically for an English nation with Elizabeth at its head. Here’s the quote from Helgerson: “an intensely patriotic attachment to the land and its depiction and an equally intense nostalgia for the age of Elizabeth went hand in hand with a disdain for the Stuart monarch and his court…forced to choose, these men took the side of the country – a country they identified with the memory of the great queen” (130). Helgerson plays with these ideas – patriotism, nostalgia, memory, and country – in passing, in service of his larger argument in this chapter regarding the conceptual gap maps like Saxton’s opened up between the land and its ruler (114).

Using this interplay between memory, nostalgia, and land as the lens for my primary source texts last week generated some interesting questions about the role of space and intimacy (here manifested as something like patriotism, affect(ion) for nation) on a much larger scale. Saxton’s atlases, in particular, helped lay the foundation for the others. First, based on what I’ve read, Saxton is really the first to break England up into very specifically separated areas. The first six or so pages of his Atlas consist of various categorizations and indexes for the county breakdown that is then fully realized in his folio-spread maps of each county on the subsequent pages. Commissioned by Elizabeth herself, Saxton’s maps become, according to Helgerson, both the most extensive cartographic and chorographic project on the English nation completed up to that point, but also the way Parliamentarians during the Civil War were able to map their military progress and collapse the monarchical system. The retroactive tension inherent in these maps makes them difficult objects through which to filter nostalgia for the English nation-state under Elizabeth I. If these maps signal both the overarching arm of monarchy and also the subsequent marginalization and ultimate collapse of monarchical power, how can they be wrapped up in nostalgia for that very same system of power?

My tentative hypothesis is that the nostalgia of Saxton’s maps resides more in the indexing work Saxton does than the actual mapping and bounding of the nation itself. In defining Saxton’s “indexes,” I’m including the very detailed place/family naming within the maps themselves. Each county map includes a crowding of places, all identified with the aristocrats and noblemen who owned those spots of land. As Helgerson notes, “chorographies are repositories of proper names. Saxton’s wall-map of 1583 contains some four thousand of them” (133). This crowding of proper names on the maps does, as Helgerson eventually suggests, divide up the authority over the land in important ways, but it also provides the audiences for Saxton’s Atlas (who would, no doubt, be the people named on the maps) a cameo of sorts. Saxton’s Atlas functions, perhaps, like an early modern “Where’s Waldo” – each nobleman given the chance to find his name and associate it with a very particular area of the English nation. For the first time, or at least one of the first times, it becomes possible to associate one’s land holdings with an actual written, bounded and drawn space rather than on-the-ground, lived space that seems much more difficult to measure and comprehend quantitatively.

What Saxton’s maps come to represent in this reading, then, is the first time English landowners are able to measure and point to their small spaces of England and this, it seems to me, is potentially the catalyst for nostalgia. Nostalgia and affection for country arise more through recognition of one’s “ownership” over part of that country than they do through bounding off the larger nation itself and the monarch’s role in that nation forming.

Here, then, is where More’s Utopia and Drayton’s Poly-Olbion may come to bear on these ideas. In More’s text, he writes his own nation of sorts. Utopia is both an oddly defined nation on its own terms and a paradigm for fixing the problems of the English nation. More, then, is setting up his own boundaries – figuratively bounding off what it means to be a productive and successful nation within the limits of his text. The bounded text of Utopia, as many scholars have argued, becomes a “nation” space of its own for the humanist circles of More and Erasmus. Consequently, the nostalgia that could be associated with this kind of project – it is a kind of retrospective nostalgia for what England could be (or could have been).

Drayton’s text is meant to serve as a nostalgic look back at a Golden Age of England and, in the frontispiece in particular, the country/land itself gets memorialized in a very particular way. Mapped onto the robes of an allegorized persona of England itself, Drayton positions several layers of national representation at the very center of his frontispiece, in the space traditionally reserved for the monarch (it is the space, for instance, where Elizabeth sits in Saxton’s frontispiece). The poems themselves then serve almost as extensions of Saxton’s cartographic work, each of Drayton’s songs is a very detailed chorographic description of several English counties, but with each also tied to England’s deep history and memory in the figures of Brutus, Arthur, and the Druids.

Without jumping too deep into the content of these texts, the fact that both authors have literally written their own Englands, bound in the pages of their books and including fantastical maps of each area, I wonder if More and Drayton’s texts aren’t functioning similarly to Saxton’s Atlas in their relationships to nostalgia? If Saxton’s counties and proper name indexes are speaking to a desire from English landowners to associate their names and ownership with very particularly bounded, written areas of the nation, then perhaps More and Drayton are speaking to an extension of that desire. On some level both rewrite England according to their own specifications – they “find their names on the English map” in a much more intimate and complicated way than Saxton’s noblemen. Written before and after Elizabeth’s reign respectively, More and Drayton’s text serve as loose bookends to the creation of Elizabethan English nostalgia that then reaches a major peak during the end of James’ reign. Ultimately, these connections raise several questions that I’ll continue to think through:

1. What’s the relationship between country, memory/nostalgia, and affection (national affect, affection for country)?

2. Are memory and nostalgia the same thing? Does each term have a slightly different relationship to time and/or space?

3. What is the relationship of memory and nostalgia to intimacy? How might “intimacy” work to help build affection for a nation that leads to something like nostalgia?


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