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The Disappearance of Agnes Bowker: Reconstructing Nature in Reformation England

Thursday, March 19, 2015
12:00 AM
202 S. Thayer, Room 1022

Part of the Early Modern Conversions speaker series

On 22 January 1569, Anthony Anderson, commissary to the Archdeacon of Leicester, began inquiring into the state of affairs surrounding the bloody cat – or ‘monster,’ according to some – a midwife had discovered protruding from Agnes Bowker earlier that month. Shortly thereafter, two local justices of the peace launched their own examination into the incident. Pamphlets detailing the circumstances of various monstrous births proliferated throughout the 1560s, but Secretary of State William Cecil and Bishop of London Edmund Grindal exhibited an unusual interest in Bowker’s case, corresponding about the examinations in August 1569. This presentation explores key silences in and discrepancies between Anderson’s ecclesiastical examination and the justices’ criminal examination, the latter of which has been much less discussed by scholars. These silences and discrepancies, I argue, may shed light on the distinct religiopolitical agendas at stake in each examination. To a significant extent, what distinguishes the examinations is how they treat the possibility of a monstrous birth, depict Bowker’s character, and present Bowker’s testimony. The content of the examinations also suggests Bowker provided Anderson and the justices with different accounts of her life before she delivered the creature in question. Although distinct agendas likely motivated the composition of each examination, Anderson and the justices evinced a comparable disregard for Bowker. Similarly, while Cecil and Grindal were interested in the implications of Bowker’s case, they seemed unconcerned with Bowker herself. Drawing from the examinations and contemporary literature about monstrous births, I suggest that at a time when monstrous births were often interpreted as portents of extensive communal catastrophe, what allowed the authorities to disregard Bowker and her purported progeny was England’s growing faith in an emergent schematic of natural order, an order in which creaturely kinds or species were becoming increasingly separate and fixed. According to this order, a human woman might beget a monster with a cat but could not just beget a cat.

This presentation is based on a current project of mine that grew out of my work as a research assistant for Professor Steven Mullaney. Professor Mullaney introduced me to Bowker’s case and asked me to transcribe the black-letter records of the examinations. In this talk, I will review an early presentation that Professor Mullaney and I gave on the examinations before discussing how the process of transcribing them compelled me to continue inquiring into certain aspects of Bowker’s case.

Sarah Linwick is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Michigan. Her research examines a variety of intersecting challenges to categorical thinking in early modern England. In her dissertation, “Ecologies of Kind in Early Modern England,” she explores how drama, poetry, and prose romance – performances and texts that we may comfortably classify as “literary” today – participate in the period’s sociopolitical and scientific discourse about nature. Specifically, she attends to how these works complicate categorical distinctions between nature, society, and art and, in doing so, how they negotiate the deconstruction and reconstruction of class, gender, race, sex, and species kinds (kinds being variously construed as categories of nature, society, and art). A primary goal of her project, then, is to elucidate how some of the period’s unstable, contingent notions of nature contribute to the transformation of certain identity categories.

This talk is the second in a series presented by University of Michigan graduate students affiliated with the inter-institutional Early Modern Conversions initiative. Join us on April 14th for a presentation by Lauren Eriks.

Sarah Linwick