James Waddell (UCL) - 2019-20 Students

‘The dangerous division of men’s minds’: Attention and distraction in lAnxieties about mind-wandering and attention failure were pervasive in early modern Europe. Humanist pedagogues fretted over scatter- brained students, and religious thinkers obsessed over the elimination of disturbances from their devotional regimens. In late Elizabethan England, popular romance narratives became the target of particular concern about distraction. Tiffany Werth has shown how the pedagogical and clerical establishments associated the romance genre with Catholicity, dissipation, and seductive femininity. However, there has been little discussion of the phobia of distraction which characterised anti-romance discourse. Romance reading was accused of inducing devious mental straying, absorbed reverie, and lax attention to worthier materials. Conversely, as Grafton and Jardine note, serious humanist reading required “strenuous attentiveness.” Romances were also maligned for being intrinsically distracted, with their absent-minded protagonists and digressive narrative strands. My research investigates how anti-romance discourse was bound up with early modern ideas about the psychosomatic nature and ethical valences of attentive and distracted states of mind, and how romances playfully engaged those ideas. I suggest that romances by Spenser, Sidney, Wroth, and Ariosto (via Harington) find a ludic, subversive potential in failures of attention. The later, 18th-century history of distraction has been investigated by Natalie Phillips (Distraction, 2016) and Patricia Spacks (Boredom, 1995). However, excepting the work of Gary Kuchar on Herbert and Raphael Lyne on Shakespeare, 16th-century distraction remains relatively unexplored. Situating early modern distraction within a nexus of pedagogical, religious, political, and even medical contexts, I aim to bring the history of reading—and romance’s position therein—into mutually illuminative dialogue with the history of mind.

Anxieties about mind-wandering and attention failure were pervasive in early modern Europe. Humanist pedagogues fretted over scatter- brained students, and religious thinkers obsessed over the elimination of disturbances from their devotional regimens. In late Elizabethan England, popular romance narratives became the target of particular concern about distraction. Tiffany Werth has shown how the pedagogical and clerical establishments associated the romance genre with Catholicity, dissipation, and seductive femininity. However, there has been little discussion of the phobia of distraction which characterised anti-romance discourse. Romance reading was accused of inducing devious mental straying, absorbed reverie, and lax attention to worthier materials. Conversely, as Grafton and Jardine note, serious humanist reading required “strenuous attentiveness.” Romances were also maligned for being intrinsically distracted, with their absent-minded protagonists and digressive narrative strands. My research investigates how anti-romance discourse was bound up with early modern ideas about the psychosomatic nature and ethical valences of attentive and distracted states of mind, and how romances playfully engaged those ideas. I suggest that romances by Spenser, Sidney, Wroth, and Ariosto (via Harington) find a ludic, subversive potential in failures of attention. The later, 18th-century history of distraction has been investigated by Natalie Phillips (Distraction, 2016) and Patricia Spacks (Boredom, 1995). However, excepting the work of Gary Kuchar on Herbert and Raphael Lyne on Shakespeare, 16th-century distraction remains relatively unexplored. Situating early modern distraction within a nexus of pedagogical, religious, political, and even medical contexts, I aim to bring the history of reading—and romance’s position therein—into mutually illuminative dialogue with the history of mind.

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