Author: spencejw

Reptiles, Amphibians, Herptiles, and other Creeping Things: Variations on a Taxonomic Theme

by Contributing Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

King Philip Came Over For Good Soup. Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. Few mnemonics can be as ubiquitous as the monarch whose dining habits have helped generations of biology students remember the levels of the taxonomic system. Though the progress of the field has introduced domains (above kingdoms), tribes (between family and genus) and a whole array of lesser taxons (subspecies, subgenus, and so on), the system remains central to identifying and thinking about organic life.

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Green anaconda (Eunectes murinus): a reptile, not an amphibian (photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo)

Consider “reptiles.” Many a precocious young naturalist learns—and impresses upon their parents with zealous (sometimes exasperated) insistence—that snakes are not slimy. The snake is a reptile, not an amphibian, covered with scales rather than a porous skin. Reaching high school biology, this distinction takes on taxonomic authority: in the Linnaean system, reptiles and amphibians belong to separate classes (Reptilia and Amphibia, respectively). The division has much to recommend it, given the two groups’ considerable divergences in physiology, life-cycle, behavior, and genetics. But, like all scientific categories, the distinction between reptiles and amphibians is a historical creation, and of surprisingly recent vintage at that.

When Carl Linnaeus first published his Systema Naturæ in 1735, what we know as reptiles and amphibians were lumped together in a class named Amphibia. The class—“naked or scaly body; molar teeth, none, others, always; no feathers” (“Corpus nudum, vel squamosum. Dentes molares nulli: reliqui semper. Pinnæ nullæ”)—was divided among turtles, frogs, lizards, and snakes. Linnaeus concludes his outline with these words:

the benignity of the Creator chose not to extend the class of amphibians any further; indeed, if it should enjoy as many genera as the other classes of animals include, or if that which the teratologists fantasize about dragons, basilisks, and such monsters were true, the human race could hardly inhabit the earth” (“Amphibiorum Classem ulterius continuare noluit benignitas Creatoris; Ea enim si tot Generibus, quot reliquæ Animalium Classes comprehendunt, gauderet; vel si vera essent quæ de Draconibus, Basiliscis, ac ejusmodi monstris si οι τετραλόγοι [sic] fabulantur, certè humanum genus terram inhabitare vix posset”) (n.p.).

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Sand lizard (Lacerta agilis), an amphibian according to Linnaeus (photo credit: Friedrich Böhringer)

In the 1758 canonical tenth edition of the Systema, Linnaeus provided a more elaborate set of characteristics for Amphibia: “a heart with a single ventricle and a single atrium, with cold, red blood. Lungs that breathe at will. Incumbent jaws. Double penises. Frequetly membranaceous eggs. Senses: tongue, nose, eyes, and, in many cases, ears. Covered in naked skin. Limbs: some multiple, others none” (“Cor uniloculare, uniauritum; Sanguine frigido, rubro. Pulmones spirantes arbitrarie. Maxillæ incumbentes. Penes bini. Ova plerisque membranacea. Sensus: Lingua, Nares, Oculi, multis Aures. Tegimenta coriacea nuda. Fulcra varia variis, quibusdam nulla”) (I.12). Interestingly, Linnaeus now divides Amphibia into three, based on their mode of
locomotion:

  1. Reptiles (“those that creep”), including turtles, lizards, frogs, and toads;
  2. Serpentes (“those that slither”), including snakes, worm lizards, and caecilians;
  3. Nantes (“those that swim”), including lampreys, rays, sharks, sturgeons, and several other types of cartilaginous fish (I.196).
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Smokey jungle frog (Leptodactylus pentadactylus), a reptile according to Laurenti and Brongniart (photo credit: Trisha M. Shears)

Linnaeus’s younger Austrian contemporary, Josephus Nicolaus Laurenti, also groups modern amphibians and reptiles together, even as he excludes the fish Linnaeus had categorized as swimming AmphibiaLaurenti was the first to call this group Reptilia (19), and though its denizens have changed considerably in the intervening centuries, he is still credited as the “auctor” of class Reptilia. The French mineralogist and zoologist Alexandre Brongniart also subordinated “batrachians” (frogs and toads) within the broader class of reptiles. All the while, exotic specimens continued to test taxonomic boundaries: “late-eighteenth-century naturalists tentatively described the newly discovered platypus as an amalgam of bird, reptile, and mammal” (Ritvo, The Platypus and the Mermaid, 132).

It was not until 1825 that Brongniart’s compatriot and contemporary Pierre André Latreille’s Familles naturelles du règne animal separated Reptilia and Amphibia as adjacent classes. The older, joint classification survives in the field of herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians) and the sadly underused word “herptile” (“reptile or amphibian”).

“Herptile” is a twentieth-century coinage. “Reptile,” by contrast, appears in medieval English; derived from the Latin reptile, reptilis—itself from rēpō (“to creep”)—“reptile” originally meant simply “a creeping or crawling animal” (“reptile, n.1” in OED). The first instance cited by the Oxford English Dictionary is from John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (c.1393): “And every neddre and every snake / And every reptil which mai moeve, / His myht assaieth for to proeve, / To crepen out agein the sonne” (VII.1010–13). The Vulgate Latin Bible uses reptile, reptilis to translate the “creeping thing” (רֶמֶשׂ) described in Genesis 1, a usage carried over into medieval English, as in the “Adam and Eve” of the Wheatley Manuscript (BL Add. MS 39574), where Adam is made lord “to ech creature & to ech reptile which is moued on þe erþe” (fol. 60r). Eventually, these “creeping things” became a distinct group of animals: an early sixteenth-century author enumerates “beestes, byrdes, fysshes, reptyll” (“reptile, n.1” in OED). I suspect the identification of the “reptile” (creeping thing) with herptiles owes something to the Serpent in the Garden of Eden being condemned by God to move “upon thy belly” (Gen. 3:14). The adjective “amphibian” is attested in English as early as 1637, but in the sense of “having two modes of existence.” Not until 1835—after the efforts of Latreille and his English popularizer, T. H. Huxley—does the word come to refer to a particular class of animals (“amphibian, adj. and n.” in OED).

The crucial point here is that the distinction between the two groups, grounded though it may be in biology and phylogenetics, is an artifact of taxonomy, not a self-evident fact of the natural world. For early modern, medieval, and ancient observers, snakes and salamanders, turtles and toads all existed within an ill-defined territory of creeping, crawling things.

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Fourteenth-century icon of Saint George and a very snakelike dragon (photo credit: Museum of Russian Icons, Moscow)

The farther back we go, the more fantastic the category becomes, encompassing dragons, sea serpents, basilisks, and the like. Religion, too, played its part, as we have seen with Eve’s serpentine interlocutor: Egypt’s plague of frogs, the dragon of Revelation, the Leviathan, the scaly foes of saints like George and Margaret, were within the same “reptilian”—creeping, crawling—family. To be sure, the premodern observer was perfectly aware of the differences between frogs and lizards, and between different species (what could be eaten and what could not, what was dangerous and what was not). But they would not—and had no reason to—erect firm ontological boundaries between the two sorts of creatures.

When we go back to the key works of medieval and ancient natural philosophy, the same nebulosity prevails. Isidore of Seville’s magisterial Etymologies of the early seventh century includes an entry “On Serpents” (“De Serpentibus”), which notes,

the serpent, however, takes that name because it crawls [serpit] by hidden movements; it creeps not with visible steps, but with the minute pressure of its scales. But those which go upon four feet, such as lizards and geckoes [stiliones could also refer to newts], are not called serpents but reptiles. Serpents are also reptiles, since they creep on their bellies and breasts” (“Serpens autem nomen accepit quia occultis accessibus serpit, non apertis passibus, sed squamarum minutissimis nisibus repit. Illa autem quae quattuor pedibus nituntur, sicut lacerti et stiliones, non serpentes, sed reptilia nominantur. Serpentes autem reptilia sunt, quia ventre et pectore reptant.”) (XII.iv.3).

The forefather of premodern zoology, Aristotle, opines in Generation of Animals “there is a good deal of overlapping between the various classes;” he groups snakes with fish because they have no feet as easily he links them with lizards because they are oviparous (II.732b, trans. A. L. Peck).

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Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica), a reptile according to modern phylogenetics (photo credit: NOAA Photo Library—anim1991)

As it turns out, our modern category of “reptile” (class Reptilia) has proved similarly elastic. In evolutionary terms, this is because “reptiles” are not a clade—a group of organisms defined by a single ancestor species and all its descendants. Though visually closer to lizards, for example, genetically speaking the crocodile is a nearer relative to birds (class Aves). Scientists and science writers have thus claimed—sometimes facetiously—that the very category of reptile is a fiction (see Welbourne, “There’s no such thing as reptiles”). The clade Sauropsida, including reptiles and birds (as a subset thereof), was first mooted by Huxley and subsequently resurrected in the twentieth century to address the problem. Birds are now reptiles, though they seldom creep. If I may be permitted a piece of Isidorean etymological fantasy, perhaps this is the true import of the “reptile” as “creeping thing,” as they creep across and beyond taxonomic boundaries, eternally frustrating and fascinating those who seek to understand them.

 

 

 

Miscarriage, Auspicious Birth, and the Concept of Tulkuhood in Tibet

By guest contributor Kristin Buhrow

The selection of successors to political and religious leadership roles is determined by different criteria around the world. In the Himalayas, a unique form of determining succession is used: the concept of Tulkuhood. Based in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, Himalayan communities, especially in Tibet, operate with the understanding that gifted leaders with a deep and accurate understanding of Buddhist cosmology and philosophy will, after death, return to their communities and continue as leaders in their next life. Upon the death of a spiritual or community leader, his or her assistants and close followers will go in search of the next incarnation—a child born shortly after the previous leader’s death. When satisfied that they have found the new incarnation, the committee of assistants or followers will officially recognize the child, usually under five years old, as a reincarnation, and the child will receive a rigorous education to prepare for their future duties as a community leader. These people are given the title “Tulku.”

This system of succession by reincarnation is occasionally mentioned in Western literature, and is always lent a sense of orientalist mysticism, but it is important to note that in the Tibetan cultural sphere, Tulku succession is the normal, working model of the present day. While Tibetan religious and political leadership structures have undergone great changes in recent years, the system of Tulku succession has been maintained in the religious sector, and for some top political positions was only replaced by democratic election in 2001. Large monasteries or convents in the Himalayas, which often serve as centers of religion, education, and local governance, are commonly associated with a Tulku who guides religious practice and political decision making at the monastery and in the surrounding area. In this way, Tulkus serve a life-long (or multi-life-long) appointment to community leadership.

Like any other modern system of succession, Tulku succession is the subject of much emic literature detailing the definition of Tulkuhood, discussing the powers of a Tulku, and otherwise outlining the concept and process. And, like any other functioning system of succession, some details of the definition of true Tulkuhood are hotly debated. One indication given special attention is that Tulkus go through birth and death under auspicious conditions. These conditions include but are not limited to: occurring on special days of the Tibetan calendar, occurring according to a prophecy that the Tulku himself made previously, unexplainable sweet smells, music issuing from an unknown source, colored lights appearing in the sky, dissolving or disappearance of the mind or body at death, flight, or Buddha images visible upon cremation. While these auspicious conditions of birth or death may go excused or unnoticed, it is thought that all Tulkus are born and die in such circumstances, whether or not the people around them notice. Considering this common understanding, we now turn to one particular Tulku, who makes a controversial and easily politicized assertion: that one of his previous incarnations is that of a miscarried fetus buried beneath his monastery.

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A map showing the Pemako region (now called Mêdog) within Tibet

In the mountainous region of Pemako, to the east of Lhasa, there is a small town called Powo. According to Tibetan oral history, it was here, in 641 C.E., that the Chinese Princess Wencheng buried her stillborn child. After being engaged to marry the King of Tibet, Princess Wencheng was escorted from the Tang capital of Chang ‘An (present day Xi’an), to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, by the illustrious Tibetan minister Gar. Along the way, Princess Wencheng became pregnant with Minister Gar’s child—a union oral history remembers fondly as the result of a loving relationship that had developed over the course of the journey. Some versions of the history assert that Minister Gar intentionally took Wencheng on the longest route to Lhasa so that she could have the baby along the way, but she suffered a miscarriage in Powo. While there was no monastery in Powo at the time, Wencheng, who was an expert Chinese geomancer, recognized the spiritual power of the location. After carefully selecting the gravesite, Wencheng buried her stillborn child, then left to meet her intended in Lhasa.

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Aiqing Pan and Zhao Li, “Wencheng and the Tibetan Envoy,” from He Liyi, The Spring of Butterflies and Other Folk Tales of China’s Minority Peoples.

 

While some sources assert that Princess Wencheng constructed the Bhakha Monastery on top of the grave with her own hands, another origin story exists. Over one thousand years after Wencheng and Minister Gar passed through, a Buddhist teacher who had risen to prominence came to Powo near the time of his death. This teacher was recognized as a reincarnation of the powerful practitioner Dorje Lingpa, who was himself a reincarnation of Vairotsana, a Buddhist intellectual and influential translator. When this teacher came to Powo, he found the same spot where Wencheng had buried her baby, and he planted his walking stick in the ground, which miraculously grew into a pine tree. It was then that the Bhakha Monastery was built in the same vicinity. Regardless of the accuracy of these oral histories, it is clear that the presence of the infant grave was a known factor when the monastery was named, as Bhakha (རྦ་ཁ་ or སྦ་ཁ་) means “burial place”. The teacher whose walking stick demonstrated the miracle became known as the first Bhakha Tulku. We are now, as of 2017, in the time of the tenth Bhakha Tulku, who still has influence over the same monastery, as well as related monasteries in Bhutan and the United States.

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The Tenth Bhakha Tulku (photo credit: Shambhala Center of New York)

In addition to the list of renowned former lives mentioned previously, the Bhakha Tulku has also claimed Wencheng and Minister Gar’s child as one of his past lives. While this claim to such a short and seemingly inauspicious life is unusual for a Tulku, it is not an impossibility according to the standards of Tulkuhood in the Nyingma sect, to which the Bhakha Tulku belongs. In the Nyingma tradition, and all other Vajrayana sects, life is considered to begin at conception. By this principle, a stillborn fetus constitutes a life, making it possible that that life could have been part of a Tulku lineage. According to a description by Tulku Thondup, a translator and researcher for the Buddhayana Foundation and contemporary Tulku associated with the Dodrupchen Monastery, in Incarnation: The History and Mysticism of the Tulku Tradition of Tibet, the primary role of a “Birth Manifested Body Tulku” is “to serve others […] in any form that leads a being or beings toward happiness, peace, and enlightenment, either directly or indirectly” (13). With this perception of Tulku leadership, the controversy surrounding the idea that a life culminating in miscarriage could be worthy of the title of Tulku is easily understood.

Some individuals participating in this debate assert that a miscarried fetus could not fulfill the requirement of compassionate servitude. Cameron David Warner goes so far as to argue that the emotional pain that miscarriage necessarily brings to the mother renders the life of that child devoid of any positive outcome—its only effect being a mother’s grief. However, one key idea posited by Tulku Thondup is that a Tulku’s life can help the spread of Buddhism and compassion, not only directly, but also indirectly. When viewed in the context of history, it is possible that the death of this child, for this life to go no further, was a course of events that allowed Buddhism to spread further into Tibet.

At the time of Wencheng’s arrival in Tibet, Buddhism was fairly uncommon in the area, the most common religion being a form of animistic shamanism called Bon. Both Tibetan and Chinese historiography cite Wencheng among the first foreigners to bring Buddhist artifacts into Tibet (see Blondeau and Buffetrille, Slobodnik, Kapstein). It is possible that if Wencheng were to arrive in Lhasa with a child that the Tibetan king, Songstan Gampo, would have reacted negatively, potentially harming Wencheng herself or the larger relationship between the Tibetan Empire and Tang China. While this is merely conjecture, it does present an argument in which a Tulku could have demonstrated compassionate servitude in this unusual form.

Interestingly, while the Bhakha Tulku’s claimed past life has inspired controversy, this particular assertion is not mentioned in official profiles or other monastic materials. This decision to avoid such a sensitive topic in public texts could be an attempt to smooth over controversy within the religious community (where the debate continues). Alternatively, this choice could be motivated by a desire to avoid politicization by Chinese government officials, who have been altering the historical narrative surrounding Wencheng’s life in Tibet to model a positive relationship between the generous paternal state of China and Tibet, its vassal. While the Bhakha Tulku currently devotes his energies to other issues, this unusual past life serves not only to symbolically connect China and Tibet, but also challenges the traditional notion of what it means to be a benevolent public servant.

Kristin Buhrow is a graduate student at the University of Oxford pursuing a Master’s degree in Tibetan & Himalayan Studies.

“Towards a Great Pluralism”: Quentin Skinner at Ertegun House

by contributing editor Spencer J. Weinreich

Quentin Skinner is a name to conjure with. A founder of the Cambridge School of the history of political thought. Former Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge. The author of seminal studies of Machiavelli, Hobbes, and the full sweep of Western political philosophy. Editor of the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Winner of the Balzan Prize, the Wolfson History Prize, the Sir Isaiah Berlin Prize, and many others. On February 24, Skinner visited Oxford for the Ertegun House Seminar in the Humanities, a thrice-yearly initiative of the Mica and Ahmet Ertegun Graduate Scholarship Programme. In conversation with Ertegun House Director Rhodri Lewis, Skinner expatiated on the craft of history, the meaning of liberty, trends within the humanities, his own life and work, and a dizzying range of other subjects.

Professor Quentin Skinner at Ertegun House, University of Oxford.

Names are, as it happens, a good place to start. As Skinner spoke, an immense and diverse crowd filled the room: Justinian and Peter Laslett, Thomas More and Confucius, Karl Marx and Aristotle. The effect was neither self-aggrandizing nor ostentatious, but a natural outworking of a mind steeped in the history of ideas in all its modes. The talk is available online here; accordingly, instead of summarizing Skinner’s remarks, I will offer a few thoughts on his approach to intellectual history as a discipline, the aspect of his talk which most spoke to me and which will hopefully be of interest to readers of this blog.

Lewis’s opening salvo was to ask Skinner to reflect on the changing work of the historian, both in his own career and in the profession more broadly. This parallel set the tone for the evening, as we followed the shifting terrain of modern scholarship through Skinner’s own journey, a sort of historiographical Everyman (hardly). He recalled his student days, when he was taught history as the exploits of Great Men, guided by the Whig assumptions of inevitable progress towards enlightenment and Anglicanism. In the course of this instruction, the pupil was given certain primary texts as “background”—More’s Utopia, Hobbes’s Leviathan, John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government—together with the proper interpretation: More was wrongheaded (in being a Catholic), Hobbes a villain (for siding with despotism), and Locke a hero (as the prophet of liberalism). Skinner mused that in one respect his entire career has been an attempt to find satisfactory answers to the questions of his early education.

Contrasting the Marxist and Annaliste dominance that prevailed when he began his career with today’s broad church, Skinner spoke of a shift “towards a great pluralism,” an ecumenical scholarship welcoming intellectual history alongside social history, material culture alongside statistics, paintings alongside geography. For his own part, a Skinner bibliography joins studies of the classics of political philosophy to articles on Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s The Allegory of Good and Bad Government and a book on William Shakespeare’s use of rhetoric. And this was not special pleading for his pet interests. Skinner described a warm rapport with Bruno Latour, despite a certain degree of mutual incomprehension and wariness of the extremes of Latour’s ideas. Even that academic Marmite, Michel Foucault, found immediate and warm welcome. Where many an established scholar I have known snorts in derision at “discourses” and “biopolitics,” Skinner heaped praise on the insight that we are “one tribe among many,” our morals and epistemologies a product of affiliation—and that the tribe and its language have changed and continue to change.

Detail from Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s “Allegory of the Good Government.”

My ears pricked up when, expounding this pluralism, Skinner distinguished between “intellectual history” and “the history of ideas”—and placed himself firmly within the former. Intellectual history, according to Skinner, is the history of intellection, of thought in all forms, media, and registers, while the history of ideas is circumscribed by the word “idea,” to a more formal and rigid interest in content. On this account, art history is intellectual history, but not necessarily the history of ideas, as not always concerned with particular ideas. Undergirding all this is a “fashionably broad understanding of the concept of the text”—a building, a mural, a song are all grist for the historian’s mill.

If we are to make a distinction between the history of ideas and intellectual history, or at least to explore the respective implications of the two, I wonder whether there is not a drawback to intellection as a linchpin, insofar as it emphasizes an intellect to do the intellection. To focus on the genesis of ideas is perhaps to the detriment of understanding how they travel and how they are received. Moreover, does this overly privilege intentionality, conscious intellection? A focus on the intellects doing the work is more susceptible, it seems to me, to the Great Ideas narrative, that progression from brilliant (white, elite, male) mind to brilliant (white, elite, male) mind.

At the risk of sounding like postmodernism at its most self-parodic, is there not a history of thought without thinkers? Ideas, convictions, prejudices, aspirations often seep into the intellectual water supply divorced from whatever brain first produced them. Does it make sense to study a proverb—or its contemporary avatar, a meme—as the formulation of a specific intellect? Even if we hold that there are no ideas absent a mind to think them, I posit that “intellection” describes only a fraction (and not the largest) of the life of an idea. Numberless ideas are imbibed, repeated, and acted upon without ever being much mused upon.

Skinner himself identified precisely this phenomenon at work in our modern concept of liberty. In contemporary parlance, the antonym of “liberty” is “coercion”: one is free when one is not constrained. But, historically speaking, the opposite of liberty has long been “dependence.” A person was unfree if they were in another’s power—no outright coercion need be involved. Skinner’s example was the “clever slave” in Roman comedies. Plautus’s Pseudolus, for instance, acts with considerable latitude: he comes and goes more or less at will, he often directs his master (rather than vice versa), he largely makes his own decisions, and all this without evident coercion. Yet he is not free, for he is always aware of the potential for punishment. A more nuanced concept along these lines would sharpen the edge of contemporary debates about “liberty”: faced with endemic surveillance, one may choose not to express oneself freely—not because one has been forced to do so, but out of that same awareness of potential consequences (echoes of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon here). Paradoxically, even as our concept of “liberty” is thus impoverished and unexamined, few words are more pervasive in present discourse.

Willey Reverly’s 1791 plan of the Panopticon.

On the other hand, intellects and intellection are crucial to the great gift of the Cambridge School: the reminder that political thought—and thought of any kind—is an activity, done by particular actors, in particular contexts, with particular languages (like the different lexicons of “liberty”). Historical actors are attempting to solve specific problems, but they are not necessarily asking our questions nor giving our answers, and both questions and answers are constantly in flux. This approach has been an antidote to Great Ideas, destroying any assumption that Ideas have a history transcending temporality. (Skinner acknowledged that art historians might justifiably protest that they knew this all along, invoking E. H. Gombrich.)

The respective domains of intellectual history and the history of ideas returned when one audience member asked about their relationship to cultural history. Cultural history for Skinner has a wider set of interests than intellectual history, especially as regards popular culture. Intellectual history, by contrast, is avowedly elitist in its subject matter. But, he quickly added, it is not at all straightforward to separate popular and elite culture. Theater, for instance, is both: Shakespeare is the quintessence of both elite art and of demotic entertainment.

On some level, this is incontestable. Even as Macbeth meditates on politics, justice, guilt, fate, and ambition, it is also gripping theater, filled with dramatic (sometimes gory) action and spiced with ribald jokes. Yet I query the utility, even the viability, of too clear a distinction between the two, either in history or in historians. Surely some of the elite audience members who appreciated the philosophical nuances also chuckled at the Porter’s monologue, or felt their hearts beat faster during the climactic battle? Equally, though they may not have drawn on the same vocabulary, we must imagine some of the “groundlings” came away from the theater musing on political violence or the obligations of the vassal. From Robert Scribner onwards, cultural historians have problematized any neat model of elite and popular cultures.

Frederick Wentworth’s illustration of the Porter scene in Macbeth.

In any investigation, we must of course be clear about our field of study, and no scholar need do everything. But trying to circumscribe subfields and subdisciplines by elite versus popular subjects, by ideas versus intellection versus culture, is, I think, to set up roadblocks in the path of that most welcome move “towards a great pluralism.”