Have You Lost Your OED?

Posted By on February 3, 2013

Our Revered Founder, Dr. James Murray, in a definitive moment, discovering the definition of ‘topology’ scribbled on a grocery list.

When you hang out on the internet you find stuff, and a recent trawl to see if I had made available anywhere online one of my 2000 Notes and Queries articles on Shakespeare and the Bible,  I found that Gabriel Egan, writing for the Year’s Work in English Studies 2000, had this to say about that my rather abbreviated article:

Finally from Notes & Queries this year, Roger Stritmatter argues that Shakespeare knew the Geneva Bible marginal notes to 1 Samuel 6:9 and 1 Samuel 14 (‘By Providence Divine: Shakespeare’s Awareness of Some Geneva Marginal Notes of 1 Samuel’, N&Q 245[2000] 97-100). Several people have shown that Shakespeare was influenced by marginal notes in the Geneva Bible, which shows that his biblical knowledge was by reading not hearing since marginal notes are seldom spoken.

This bolsters the view that, since he was familiar with Ecclesiastes (despite it being not widely used in Anglican or Catholic practices), Shakespeare did private devotional reading. Stritmatter thinks that when Shakespeare used the marginal notes in the Geneva Bible, it was to have a character elaborate an argument, one of “the traditional techniques of Renaissance topology”. Unless this is a misprint, Stritmatter would appear to think ‘topology’ is the art of using topoi, but topology means only three things: the botanical study of where plants grow, the study of a particular locality, and the branch of maths that deals with that which does not change when shapes are deformed.

Perhaps Stritmatter means ‘typology’, the study of symbolic representation. This illustrates the harm done by the misprints in this year’s Notes & Queries: one cannot properly criticize errors–here is another, ‘sortilege’ misspelled “sortilage”–since they might not be the writer’s fault’. (Here is another, ‘synergistic’ misspelled “syngergistic”.) In All’s Well that Ends Well, Helen argues for free-will over predestination (“Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, | Which we ascribe to heaven” 1.1.212-3) and then the other way around (“it is presumption in us when the help of heaven | We count the act of men” 2.1.151-2).

Both these speeches are indebted to the Geneva Bible’s marginal notes (i) and (r) from 1 Samuel 14. The connection is a concern with gambling. Just before the second quotation Helen refers to those of us “that square our guess by shows”, which Stritmatter thinks is about gambling on appearance, and there are references to sortilege (casting lots) throughout the play).

Now, in offering a response to this I should first of all like to thank Professor Egan for the attention he devoted to the argument made in the note. All too often these days what one gets on Shakespearean topics is the sort of unilateral brushoff that tells you that you must be on the right track — that, four hundred years go, you would be standing before the inquisition, but at this point your chiefest risk is being called the “Don” of a “minor” African American University that has a very proud heritage of giving the descendants of the slaves whose labor enabled the industrial revolution the chance for an education. I mean, really, people.

Given these sorts of circumstances it is always gratifying to see that someone of influence is at least trying to understand what you are saying in even one of your many publications.  And, so far as the review goes it does accurately summarize some of the primary threads of its argument, albeit interleavened by the reviewer’s own opinions on topics such as “being familiar with Ecclesiastes,” a book of the Bible that the article does not discuss.

I am quite sure, also, that Ecclesiastes is approved of by both Roman Catholics and Anglicans, so this really is a grand slam of confusion in the midst of an otherwise fine review. Unless this is a misprint, it would appear that there is some confusion over the difference between Ecclesiastes and Ecclesiasticus, a sign that does not bode well.

In Professor Egan’s words, “Stritmatter would appear to think that ‘topology’ is the art of using topoi, but topology means only three things…”

He then proceeds to prove that it can only mean one of three things by conveniently omitting from his list of possible definitions the only one that supports my usage:

“The art of assisting memory by associating the thing to be remembered with some place or building, the parts of which are still known” (Micro-OED 3354).

In case Professor Egan is confused on this point I ought to explain that the word “topos” is synomymous with “place,” but in the medieval and renaissance theory of the commonplaces, commonplaces were the “locations” of thought occupied by such proverbial mythmemes as “it is better to treat a possible friend kindly than to kick a gift horse in the mouth.” That’s just Ubuntu.  If Professor Egan were more acquainted with the secondary literature on this point he would even know that Aristotle’s chief contribution to the theory of the “commonplaces” was his Topica, or Places.

Here is how I summarized this question in my dissertation:

Originating in the Aristotelian theory of topoi set forth in the Topica, by the age of Shakespeare the theory of the loci communes had been promulgated in dozens of popular textbooks and instruction manuals such as Erasmus’ De Copia or Agricola’s De Inventione Dialectica Libri Tres (1515).

Things, argued Aristotle, possess attributes other than being: among them substance, quantity, relation, quality, place, time, situation, state, action, and passion. Such qualities became, with additions and substitutions, the places by means of which the matter (res) of things could be discovered and analyzed — and these became known as the “seats “of arguments. Such topical logic, argued Aristotle, was different, but by no means inferior to, the demonstrative logic of the syllogism. As Trousdale shows in her book, however, after the enlightenment influence of Descartes, topical logic ceased to be a conscious mode of rationality. Demonstrative logic, the utility of which was shown over and over again by a scientific method which sought to reduce all reality to mathematical symbols, went on to colonize the epistemé of the commonplaces.

It is true, if I am not mistaken, that my use of the term topology in the article that has so exorcised the good Professor’s wrath as to think the correction worthy of inclusion in an essay designed to review and summarize an entire year of publications by three thousand Renaissance and Shakespeare scholars, varies slightly from the correct definition of the OED on which it depends.  The OED refers to topology as comprising the set of the practices described in such classic works of criticism as Marion Trousdale’s Shakespeare and the Rhetoricians.  To it, “topology” refers to the actual practices employed by early modern readers to reinforce memory by analogy with the physical world, referring to “places” as the “seats of learning” (thus, topos + logos).

I used it with a lemon twist of difference, namely by inversion to apply it to the process by which modern scholars may actually penetrate the obscurity of the English literary renaissance by paying some attention to the lost art of the use of “commonplaces” as a mode of early modern thinking.

Apparently in my attempt to introduce this topic for common study I used an unauthorized word.

I deeply regret this and promise never to do it again.

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, and renaissance literature, the latter a field in which he has published extensively


2 Responses to “Have You Lost Your OED?”

  1. kenkap says:

    I find this thought provoking “small” article a pointed critique of the relationship of conventional Shakespeare (and English Renaissance studies) vis a vis the “Anti Stratfordian view” in a nutshell.

    I have been reading much of Stephanie Hughes’ blog lately and one of her strengths, as is here, is the intersection of the literary art of the period with its political culture and history. This seems to be an arena in which literary critics frankly are clueless. As i remember Norhrop Frye declared “definitively” that “NOTHING in Shakespeare had any meaning in relationship to anything outside the works.” Famous idiotic last words.

    So recently so many fine “non traditional” researchers deal in areas, such as yours, that the academics are just lost in the woods about. Interesting that Stanley Wells recently admitted that Andrew Werth’s work on Shakespeare’s knowledge of Greek demonstrated that the 400 year old meme of Ben Jonson (and everyone who followed) that Shakespeare had “Little Latin and lesse Greek” was either wrong or Jonson’s comment was deeply misunderstood. I happened to be in Oregon when Werth made this presentation. Glad to see it took Wells only over a cdecade to catch up.

    It does get aggravating When Bate claims that the plays had to be written by an actor because of the theater knowledge and because certain parts were apparently written for specific actors, is he so mindless as to not understand that someone like the Earl of Oxford had extensive theater and writing experience, and that to write for particular actors would not be a stretch? Hank Whittemore’s blog has three excellent articles on Oxford’s theatrical presentation before the Queen as the “Knight of the Tree of the Sunne”, imo an exceptional anecdotal off the radar look at Oxford’s theatrical propensities and flair.

    Its kind of like the old joke about the man and his keys. They’re not under the “traditional light”. But the grasp of much of what a chorus of researchers is saying goes unnoticed because as you put it, it doesn’t fit the narrative.

    But the needle seems to be moving. If Shapiro would only reject his horrible book, admit that Polonius represented Burghley (with all its political implications), and drop his theft of “discovery” of the Willmott forgery (which John Rollett did-and I was at that conference also), then we might get farther along.

  2. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Hi Ken,

    Yes, the crisis approaches. Stephanie Hughes is very good on that nexus between the literary and the historical, as you say. Her website, for anyone interested, is: http://politicworm.com/

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