Women and curiosity in Early Modern England
Paris (21-22 juin 2013)

Université Paris Ouest Nanterre (Quarto, CREA370)& Université Sorbonne Nouvelle ? Paris 3 (Épistémè, PRISMES EA4398)

The multiplication of cabinets of curiosities and the obsession with novelty are evidence of the development of a « culture of curiosity » in the early modern period. In Europe, the telescope, which soon became the instrument of curiosity, epitomized man’s desire to see beyond the pillars of Hercules. The physico-theological dimension of natural philosophy at the time led to considering curiosity as a wish to know God by reading the Book of Nature and unravelling its mysteries. In his article on ?Curiosity, Forbidden Knowledge and the Reformation in Early Modern England’ (Isis, 2001, 265-90), Peter Harrison argues that there was a « rehabilitation of curiosity? in the early modern period. While curiosity had long been considered as an intellectual vice, associated with hybris and the original sin, and described by Augustine as »lust of the eyes’, it became a virtue in the 17th century. One of the main reasons for this transformation was the continued efforts of natural philosophers to demonstrate that curiosity was morally acceptable in order to legitimize their scientific endeavour. Thus Francis Bacon and his followers insisted on the code of conduct of natural philosophers, the usefulness of the knowledge they were seeking and the discrepancy between their own research and occult sciences. All of them championed the « good curiosity« of the natural philosophers who followed the Baconian programme, as opposed to the »bad curiosity » of men and women interested in magic, and in trivial and superficial matters.

If there was indeed a « rehabilitation of curiosity? in the early modern period, did it have any impact on women’s desire for knowledge » The emergence of women philosophers at the time (Margaret Cavendish, Anne Conway, Lady Ranelagh, Elisabeth of Bohemia, Catherine of Sweden, Damaris Masham, Catherine Trotter, etc.) may indicate that their curiosity was now considered as legitimate and morally acceptable ? or at least that it was tolerated. Yet it has been suggested that the new status of curiosity in the early modern period led instead to an even stronger distrust for women, who were both prone to curiosity and curiosities themselves. A. Capodivacca thus argues that the legitimization of curiosity came with a « degendering? or »virilization’ of this faculty (Curiosity and the Trials of the Imagination in Early Modern Italy, PhD, Berkeley, 2007, p. 7), and therefore entailed a redefinition of good and bad curiosity along gender lines. Similarly, Neil Kenny states that in early modern Europe,« much male curiosity had become good’ and as a result ?a much larger proportion of bad curiosity was now female » (The Uses of Curiosity in Early Modern France and Germany, 2004, p. 385). The June 2013 conference on « Women and Curiosity« aims at assessing the impact of the alledged »rehabilitation of curiosity » on women in the early modern period, by analysing discourses on women as enquirers and objects of curiosity. Iconographic and fictional representations of curious women and female curiosity might also give an insight into the relations between women and curiosity in the early modern period (for example, Cesare Ripa« s allegory of curiosity as »a huge, wild-haired, winged woman’ in Iconologia (1593), or representations of emblematic curious women such as Eve, Dinah, Pandora, etc.). The origins of these discourses and representations, as well as their premises, might also be investigated: to what extent did the condemnation of women’s curiosity reveal a fear of disorder and transgression’ Did it betray male anxiety about female sexuality or about the mystery of birth? Was it justified by medical interpretations of curiosity, such as a specific humoural condition’

Women’s own conception of curiosity / curiosities in the early modern period might also be of interest, especially as it is rarely studied. The conference on « Women and Curiosity? will thus give us the opportunity to focus on what women themselves wrote about curiosity in their treatises, fictional works, translations, and correspondences. For instance, Queen Elizabeth I »s relation to curiosity, which was necessarily different from that of ordinary women, was revealed in several of her translations, in particular in her English version of Plutarch« s ?De curiositate » (based on Erasmus’ Latin translation) and her Latin version of Bernardino Ochino« s ?Che cosa è Cristo »; she also criticised theological and political curiosity in a 1585 address to the clergy, explicitly referring to Puritan preachers (Elizabeth I: Translations, 1592-98, eds. J. Mueller & J. Scodel, 2009). In her book The World’s Olio (1655), Margaret Cavendish gives a description of the ideal commonwealth, the ruler of which should ?have none of those they call their cabinets, which is a room filled with all useless curiosities, which seems Effeminate, and is so Expensive (?) almost to the impoverishing of a Kingdome« . Cavendish adds that it might be more useful to fill the room with books, which are »more famous curiosities’ (p. 207). The works of Aphra Behn (who, incidentally, was a spy for King Charles II) can also be seen as a testimony on women’s relation to curiosity at the time: while the story related in Oroonoko (1688) takes place in an exotic environment teeming with curiosities, The History of the Nun (1689) presents curiosity as being natural to women (?naturally (?) Maids are curious and vain’, p. 58). Did women writers consider curiosity as intrinsically female« How did they react to male discourses on women as enquirers and objects of curiosity » What representations of curiosity did they give in their texts’

Papers should not exceed 25 minutes and will be given preferably in English. Please send your proposal (a 500-word abstract with a title) as well as a biographical note to Sandrine Parageau (sparageau@hotmail.com or sandrine.parageau@u-paris10.fr) and Line Cottegnies (line.cottegnies@univ-paris3.fr) before January 31st, 2013.

Responsable : Sandrine Parageau

Adresse : 200 avenue de la République92001 Nanterre cedex