(Prison) Note(book)s Toward a History of Boredom

by guest contributor Spencer J. Weinreich

Act III, scene iii of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (c.1596) sees the imprisoned Antonio following his creditor, Shylock, through the streets, in hopes of mercy. Unmoved, Shylock expostulates, “I do wonder, / Thou naughty gaoler, that thou art so fond / To come abroad with him at his request” (III.iii.8–10).

But sixteenth-century English audiences would not have been surprised at Antonio’s freedom, for early-modern prisons “were not hermetically sealed sites of discipline; they were instead physically and socially enmeshed with the surrounding city” (Freeman, “The Rise of Prison Literature,” 135–36). Friends, relatives, and servants could come and go with relative ease. Moreover, prisoners might purchase from their jailors whatever luxuries they could afford: the Catholic printer Stephen Vallenger’s cell contained, inter alia, “a feather bed, silver and pewter spoons, money, jewelry, and a library of 101 books” (141). Texts circulated within and through prison walls—even into printing presses.

Faced with such evidence, it is understandable that the abundant recent scholarship on early-modern prisons sees these institutions as defined by contact, both personal and textual. Peter Lake and Michael C. Questier regard the prison as “the venue for the most exciting and imaginative battles” between Catholics and Protestants, whether in interrogation, proselytization, or disputation (196). Molly Murray and Thomas S. Freeman have both gone so far as to call it “a site of culture, one that ought to be considered alongside the court and the university as a place of significant textual, and literary, production” (150).

If we regard the prison as characterized by contact, we are predisposed to regard prison writings as the products of contact, and as fundamentally discursive. That is to say, as communicating something to someone, some audience beyond the author’s cell. Thus, scholars have concentrated on letters, life-writing and other forms of self-presentation, and polemics or apologetics. Even ostensibly private or non-discursive forms of writing, such as personal poetry or graffiti, are interpreted along these lines, as directed (if obliquely) to jailers, future inmates, or God.

Yet to normalize the prison as a site of cultural production risks glossing over a critical feature of its intellectual landscape: constraint. Rivkah Zim identifies constraint as the commonality unifying “prison writings” as a category: “though the experience of different centuries and regimes varies greatly and there is no single category of space implied […] being a prisoner or captive in any period means being cut off and kept apart from the continuities of normal life” (2). Even the most lenient carceral regimes included controls on communication and the movement of texts and persons, circumstances absent at court or within the universities. But if we take seriously the isolation Zim places at the heart of the carceral experience and look for its presence in the early modern English prison, new approaches to literary history, and the history of ideas more generally, become possible.

My case study is Stephen Gardiner, Tudor bishop of Winchester. In the reign of Edward VI, Gardiner was twice imprisoned for resisting the radical Protestant agenda of the young king’s regents. In September 1547, he was confined to the Fleet, probably to prevent him attending the coming parliamentary session. Released in January 1548, Gardiner was not to enjoy his freedom for long: in June, after months of more or less open defiance, he was again arrested and sent to the Tower,

“a dankish and uncomfortable house,” as his servant Wingfield called it, for one ‘much given to rheums’—and lodged for the first month “in a place called the Garden Tower… fast locked in, without coming abroad in all that space.” Then […] he was removed to “a place in the same Tower called the King’s Lodging.” Here he was kept no less closely, not even being permitted to exercise in the gardens. For eleven months more he saw no one save the Lieutenant of the Tower, the jailors, a physician who came when he was sick of a fever, his chaplain, William Medowe, who was permitted to visit him once in his fever and again on Easter Day, and two servants of his household, who waited on him and who were not allowed to leave the Tower confines. (James Arthur Muller, Stephen Gardiner and the Tudor Reaction, 183)

As we have seen, this was severity entirely out of keeping with sixteenth-century English norms. In October 1549, Gardiner protested to the Privy Council,

[I] have continued heere in this miserable prison now one yeere, one quarter, and one moneth, this same day that I write these my letters, with want of aire to relieve my bodie, want of books to releeve my minde, want of good company, the onely solace of this world, and finally, want of a just cause, why I should have come hither at all. (442)

Although eventually permitted occasional walks in the gardens, Gardiner’s systemic isolation continued. He was to be denied books, paper, and writing implements, but this stricture, at least, was not observed—as evidenced by the six treatises and numerous letters produced during his captivity. Gardiner also kept notebooks, two of which survive as Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Parker MS 127, fols. 167–342. He filled page after page with quotations from Desiderius Erasmus’s Adages, Plautus, Martial, Juvenal, and Virgil, as well as his own Latin elegiac verses (mostly biblical paraphrases).

These notebooks are not easily read as the product of interpersonal contact and or as a medium of communication—they do not cohere into a message or reveal an intended audience. To take the pages of Plautus as an example, to all appearances Gardiner is simply copying out lines from the playwright’s collected works, as edited by the French humanist Robert Estienne and published in Paris in 1530 (identifiable by textual variants). The quotations are ordered according to their appearance in each play, the plays according to the arrangement of the edition. As a result, adjacent verses seem to bear little relation to one another. An excerpt from folio 177, drawn from Pseudolus (191 BCE), gives a sense of the organizational incoherence:

“Imbrem in cribrum gerere” (“pouring water into a sieve,” l. 102)
“supercilium salit (“my eyebrow is twitching,” l. 107)
“dictis facta suppetant” (“your deeds support the words you speak,” l. 108) (all translations by Wolfgang de Melo).

Some lines could be interpreted as responses to Gardiner’s situation (“Animus equus optimum est arumne condimentum” [“That’s why self-possession is the best seasoning for sorrow,” Rudens, l. 402]), but others seem irrelevant at best (“meas opplebit aures sua vaniloquentia” [“she’ll fill my ears with her idle chatter,” Rudens, l. 905]) (fols. 172, 185). Some quotations are abbreviated past the point of potential relevance: from the line “so that I’d be treated a little bit more neatly at last” (Pseudolus, l. 774), Gardiner has copied only the word “gnitiudscule” (“a little bit more neatly”) (fol. 179).

Perhaps the apparent absence of a message simply is the absence of a message; perhaps the content of these pages was of no more than incidental interest to Gardiner. Instead, I suggest the key to understanding these compilations lies in the prisoner’s own words: his continued “want of books to releeve my minde, want of good company, the onely solace of this world.” Gardiner was a celebrated scholar of canon and civil law, the master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, a distinguished diplomat, and, until his deposition in 1551, a prominent bishop. He was a man at the center of English intellectual and political life. And, locked away in the Tower, he was bored. Copying out quotations occupied his eyes, hands, and mind, at once ameliorating the tedium of endless hours alone and distracting him from the frustrations and anxieties of his isolation. In this instance—and in many others as yet unidentified—the act of writing was more important than what was written.

Apart from renewed attention to the isolation that did exist in early-modern English prisons, Gardiner’s notebooks beckon toward the possibilities of a history of boredom. Scholars are not unnaturally attracted to the firmly-held conviction, the engrossing passion, the fascinating and the fascinated. But these are often exceptional cases, and their more ordinary fellows are no less deserving of our attention. What of the listless student alongside the prodigy, the listless churchgoer alongside the zealot? Disinterest, tedium, and rote are the mirror images of intellectual history’s more usual fare, and offer a very different way of thinking about the production, dissemination, and uses of knowledge.

Spencer J. Weinreich is an M.Phil. student in ecclesiastical history at the University of Oxford, where he is an Ertegun Scholar. His dissertation examines the prison writings of Stephen Gardiner in the context of early modern intellectual history. His work has appeared in Early Science and Medicine, Names, and The Journal of Ecclesiastical History.

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