A Feasts Of Words; & More's Utopia

Lisa Jardine | Published in History Today
  • A Feasts Of Words: Banquets And Table Talk In The Renaissance
    Michel Jeanneret translated by Jeremy Whiteley and Emma Hughes - Polity Press, 1991 - viii+306pp. - £39.50
  • More's Utopia
    Dominic Baker-Smith - Harper Collins, 1991 - xvi+269 pp. - £40

These are exciting times for Renaissance text studies, and these two books help define the parameters within which much innovative and challenging critical work is currently being produced. On the one hand, Dominic Baker-Smith's work on Thomas More uses a revived respect for. history to shape and Colour the interpretation of a Renaissance classic. On the other, Michel Jeanneret's anthropologically grounded exploration draws together a plethora of textual material concerned with the consumption of food and the production of discourse, to produce Renaissance 'table-talk' in a vividly fresh, and altogether more sensual light.

At the end of the first book of More's Utopia, More and his new found friend, Raphael Hythlodaeus break off their conversation:

So we went indoors and had lunch. After the meal we returned to the same spot, sat down on the same bench, and told the servants we were not to be disturbed. Then Peter Gilles and I asked Raphael to keep his promise [tell his audience more about the island of Utopia]. Seeing that we really meant it, he took a few moments to collect his thoughts, and then began.

According to Jeanneret, we should particularly note the function of such conviviality in organising and structuring the text.

Before the meal, More and Raphael, acquaintances of only a brief duration, debate with measured formality. The meal (which in this case we do not, as readers, attend) is the occasion for a kind of discursive dismantling. Table Talk is bound by the rules of the table – it is fragmentary, allusive, eclectic, progressing by association of ideas, rather than according to the rules of narrative. After the meal, in a fresh mood of informality and relaxation, the fictional narrative of book two reconstitutes the formal thought of book one in a more sensually compelling way. This, at least, is how I understand Jeanneret to be using a wealth of textual information on social eating practices in the Renaissance to redirect our own reading attention.

Baker-Smith 'places' the discussion in Utopia in a very different way, but one which I find every hit as compelling in recasting the work. For him the work's occasion and location are importantly those of a particular corner of northern Europe around 1516, its preoccupations – for all their perennial resonance – crucially those of a small group of politically and doctrinally engaged individuals. He asks us to keep in mind as we read the fact that this was;

the first fully fledged Renaissance work to be written by an Englishman, and that the circumstances of its publication indicate an ambitious exploitation of the new conditions created by the printing press... It was directed at a European readership, one that had been defined largely by the writings of the friend who saw Utopia through the press, Desiderius Erasmus.

He also draws our attention to the inevitable involvement of such a text, published in 1516, in the Low Countries, with the controversies of the Reformation. After the appearance of the fifth edition of Utopia in Florence in 1519 there was a gap in publication:

This was the last [edition] to appear for almost 30 years. Now for a book which has had over 150 editions this sudden gap, so soon after its initial publication, is more than strange and can only be explained by those tensions which began to haunt the intellectual scene during the 1520s in the immediate aftermath of Luther's attack on the church... That is not to say Utopia dropped from sight, but simply that at a critical stage in its fortunes circulation became constrained.

The reading of Baker-Smith's Utopia is 'thickened' (to borrow Geertz's phrase), filled out with meanings and resonances no longer vivid to the uninstructed reader. The work once again becomes innovative and alive, freed once again as a text from the shackles of recent political theorists' monolinear, and largely anachronistic versions of its pre-occupations. It is a different sort of liveliness from Jeanneret's richly textured social fabric, but one which I find equally important for our understanding of the early modern past.

  • Lisa Jardine is the author of Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1989).
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