Medieval-Renaissance Studies Association

jointly with the English Department


9 March 2011 (WEDNESDAY)

Rabin Building, Mitzpor


Ema Vyroubalova

University of Haifa


Visions of Babel in Early Modern England


The book-length project from which this paper is taken argues that in the early modern period encounters and negotiations with foreign languages helped form a nascent sense of a distinctive English language, state, and national identity. The first part of the paper traces how the biblical Tower of Babel became a way of conceptualizing early modern Englands multilingual landscape.  Whereas medieval literature tended to find in the tower another sign of the general fallen state of humankind, in early modern literature the cautionary tale about the doomed tower was often read specifically in the context of Englands entanglement with other languages.  London and Babel and Saint Pauls Cathedral and the Tower of Babel thus frequently appear in this period as analogues of one another.

            At the same time, the moral and political signification of linguistic difference itself was becoming redefined. A 1620s print by the Puritan preacher Samuel Ward deliberately stages a visual Babel by bringing English and foreign languages into close conjunction with one another in the same pictorial space which schematically represents two instances of failed attempts at foreign-backed Catholic overtakes of England. I read the print more broadly as mapping early modern Englands linguistic entanglements and seek to show how the print's cartoon-like design combining images with multilingual text tries to envisage strategies for negotiating the relationships among the languages present in and around England. Works like Ward's print suggest that the very beginning of the emergence of English as a world language in the early modern period needs to be read as a long and intricate history of multidirectional interactions and exchanges rather than as a linear story of expansion and dominance.



Back to program