‘Fame and Fortune: The Mirror for Magistrates, 1559-1946’
An International, Interdisciplinary Conference
14th-15th September 2012, Magdalen College, Oxford
Participants: Scott Lucas, Mike Pincombe, Liz Oakley-Brown, Jennifer Richards, Angus Vine, Jane Griffiths, Jessica Winston, Kavita Mudan Finn, Cathy Shrank, Paulina Kewes, Harriet Archer, Gillian Hubbard, Meredith Skura, Matthew Woodcock, Bart van Es, Tom Davies, Michelle O’Callaghan, Anthony Martin, Andrew Hadfield.
The first major conference on the Mirror for Magistrates, ‘Fame and Fortune’ will bring together scholars from around the world to explore what’s next for this rich and undervalued work. Broadening investigation into the Mirror’s development during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, papers will take in the intellectual and political contexts of the Mirror’s inception, the later editions which appropriated and reconfigured the original text, and the profound influence the collection had on prose fiction, verse historiography, tragedy and complaint. We will consider the impact of successive editorial strategies on our interpretation of the text, while a range of interdisciplinary critical approaches will extend the framework within which the Mirror has been analysed, and prompt new directions for research.
The Mirror for Magistrates (1559) looks like a collection of verse complaints by unfortunate figures from England’s past. These complaints catalogue the fates of kings and rebels, for whom ambition, envy and betrayal have led to violent deaths, and a tendency to moralise.
But the verses alternate with a prose narrative which describes how they came to be written and collected. William Baldwin, and the poets he enlisted to help him, run into problems as they try to reconstruct late medieval history from the chronicles they have to hand: who do we trust when sources disagree? Should a bad character’s complaint be badly written? Is it right to rebel against a corrupt ruler, and is it the poet’s business to get involved in politics? Cutting to the heart of early modern debates on tyranny, duty and free speech, and critiquing contemporary historiographical practice, the hubbub of voices must be kept at a safe fictional remove to avoid the censor, or worse.
Part encyclopaedia, part project blog, the text keeps the Mirror we are promised tantalisingly out of reach as Baldwin and his band of co-authors rampage through British history, bickering about art, impersonating headless corpses, and uncovering the risks we take when we surrender the written or spoken word to interpretation.
The 1559 Mirror grew as it was reprinted in expanding editions between 1563 and 1578, to satisfy huge popular demand. Meanwhile, John Higgins and Thomas Blenerhasset wrote prequels to Baldwin’s late medieval material, extending the scope of the project back into ancient British legend and capitalising on its commercial success. The texts were read by Spenser, Shakespeare, Harvey, and Jonson; they are named-checked in Bartholomew Fair, and underpin the plots of Cymbeline and King Lear, as well as inspiring countless imitations in poetry and prose, on and off the early modern stage. In 1610, Richard Niccols brought almost all of the disparate Mirrors together in the final early modern edition; Joseph Haslewood edited the collection in 1815. Most recently, Lily B. Campbell published critical editions of Baldwin, Higgins and Blenerhasset’s work in 1938 and 1946. Unwieldy and unconventional, the Mirror has always evaded firm definitions. This conference aims to celebrate its complexity, innovation and vast influence, which even today continue to surprise.
This conference is generously supported by the Royal Historical Society and the Society for Renaissance Studies.