A version of this story originally appeared in The Words.

By Laura Berglund ’20

Early Modern Literature and Shakespeare Professor Penelope Geng was recently awarded the Francis Bacon Foundation Fellowship from the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. This nearly one-hundred-year-old private institution is open to both scholars and the general public; its collection of seven million manuscripts and 430,000 rare books includes the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a fifteenth-century illustrated edition of the text. One of the twelve remaining vellum copies of the Gutenberg Bible and editions of Shakespeare’s plays published during his lifetime can also be found in the library.

The Francis Bacon Foundation Fellowship offers grants for between one and five months for scholars to pursue research on Renaissance and British literature. The Huntington offered Professor Geng a two-month grant, which the college matched so that she can spend a full semester at the institution. Professor Geng plans to take this opportunity to work on her book Communal Justice in Shakespeare’s England.

She explained the book’s premise during a recent interview:

“It’s an attempt on my part to reconstruct a cultural moment in which the law as we know it was still very much in its nascent state as a profession, still sort of thinking through what does it mean to be a legal professional, what does it mean to claim legal expertise, or legal authority through one’s training in the law schools.”

At the moment, Professor Geng is especially interested in assize sermons, which were preached at legal trials. These texts illustrate some of the intersectionality that was present in England during Shakespeare’s time.

“What really intrigues me about these sermons is that it brings together a very popular, general understanding of law and morality and state power and also this issue of lay magistracy.”

Also, the opportunity to engage with these texts in their physical form, rather than as electronic facsimiles, has the potential to bring out the contextual significance of the work. Professor Geng offered an anecdote to illustrate the significance of a text’s physicality:

“A few years ago I was researching Protestant polemics, and these were sort of pamphlets with short treatises written by Protestants during the Counter-Reformation in England, during the reigns of Mary I and Philip II, who were Catholic monarchs. It was illegal to print these books and to circulate them, but I didn’t appreciate the furtive nature of this kind of reading until I saw a copy of one, and it was tiny, it was like the size of my cell phone, or even smaller. It could easily be slipped into a pocket or hidden in a backpack, which reinforced the sense that this was dangerous literature. When you look at the book in facsimile it’s not really possible to get that same sense of the book’s materiality.”

Other texts in the Huntington’s collection, such as manuscripts, are inaccessible outside the institution because they are not available online. Commonplace books in particular are a type of manuscript Professor Geng is planning to study. Because they are similar to diaries, Professor Geng described how commonplace books are valuable to her work:

“[T]hese lawyer’s commonplace books offer some insight into what lawyers wanted to keep for memory’s sake, kind of like day journals or diaries but arranged thematically. These are very personal objects and they give us a sense of how lawyers were understanding their own profession, how they were listening to sermons, and what they found most useful for their work.”

On behalf of The Words and the English Department, congratulations to Professor Geng on having received this fellowship!


May 16 2018

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