The Fellowships Committee is pleased to announce Duncan Frost and Luke Prendergast have been awarded Postdoctoral Fellowships for 2021-2022. We received 54 applications this year and, as ever, the field was exceptionally strong.
Duncan Frost, ‘Songbirds and Social Distinction in the Seventeenth Century’
In the boom of consumer culture in the early modern period, objects and commodities were important to the ways in which people defined themselves and negotiated social hierarchies. However, these commodities were generally static objects obtained through production and sale. This project examines the practice of keeping and training songbirds to analyse how ownership of a living creature shaped social dynamics. The uniqueness of the insight offered by studying songbirds is that, unlike more exotic animals, the ownership of an indigenous species was not restricted by monetary income or social standing. The same species of bird could be found in a variety of homes and communal settings across the social spectrum. A means of establishing social difference, therefore, was required by those who wished to set themselves apart by their esoteric knowledge of, and consequent mastery over, their songbirds. Printed manuals drew upon the new scientific method as well as the weight of intellectual tradition to explain how to achieve the best song quality from a bird and iron out its natural imperfections. As a result, printed manuals helped establish rhetorical social distinction between those who could afford to raise birds ‘correctly’ and those who could not. The marker of someone who possessed this esoteric knowledge, the manuals claimed, was the ability to elevate a songbird above its natural abilities through training and medical care. The aims of this project are, firstly, to analyse the ‘professional’ model of songbird training, asking how the practice differed across the social spectrum and investigating the impact of the rhetorical discourse of distinction. Secondly, through its case studies, the project continues recent trends in environmental and animal histories to assess how non-humans had active agency in shaping social situations. This project hopes to recover the lives and voices of these songbirds who were so often physically at the centre of everyday life in early modern England.
Luke Prendergast, ‘The Pharmakon: Medical Hermeneutics in Early Modern England’
In the Phaedrus, Plato describes the art of writing as a pharmakon, a word meaning both ‘poison’ and ‘cure’. This double-edged expression neatly captures language’s double-edged nature — its potential to be ambivalent, multiply interpreted, or mistaken — but more than that, language’s operation is rendered in medicinal terms: in all its ambivalence, the written word might harm or heal, poison or cure. This project is the first full-length study of how the pharmakon is absorbed — via ancient and neoteric philosophical paradox, as well as Augustinian semiotics, and the ‘bittersweet’ dynamics of Petrarchan poetics — into early modern literary culture to occupy a space in the collective imagination as important as that of other better-known terms such as catharsis or mimesis. This research aims to trace the pharmakon’s appearance throughout the period’s medical, exegetical, legal, and philosophical writings, establishing the contexts in which it comes to shape both theoretical discussion around the form of function of literature, as well as the literary output of the period. Focusing on the pharmakon as its chief motif, this project aims to reveal an early modern medical hermeneutics that considers the activity of reading to have serious and material consequences upon individual health, political wellbeing, and the fate of souls.