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Saturday, April 15, 2006

"Inkhorn"; or, Did Nerds Have a Renaissance?

So, this whole vaguely nerdy enterprise, along with some navel-gazing contemplation of my chosen blog handle, has led me to a question: is "inkhorn" the Renaissance equivalent of "nerdy"? Is there some other word? And, more importantly, were there nerds in the Renaissance? Can we find them in Renaissance drama? (Or poetry, but that seems less likely: not in epic, I'm guessing, and not very likely in lyric either. Unless maybe Fulke Greville? He's sort of Sidney's nerdy, studious, over-serious friend... But even if he's morosely conscious of his own lack of sparkle, I'm not sure he intends to perform nerdiness in any real way).

Is the nerd an exclusively late twentieth / early twenty-first century phenomenon? Do you have to have video games and JRR Tolkien to have nerds? What about Gabriel Harvey? The scholars in Love's Labor's Lost are too much the fancy-pants aristocrats to fit the bill ... And anyway, once some ladies pass through, they forget about their books pretty quickly.

There are a lot of ways of being socially outré in Renaissance drama, but I'm not sure I can think of anything that quite qualifies as nerdiness.

(I was very happy once to notice a nail parlor in U.S. City, where I live, that called itself "Outré.")

A little time with the OED seems to indicate that "inkhorn" appears exclusively in the phrase "inkhorn terms" -- which was my own association with it -- and therefore isn't applicable to people. In other words, "nerdiness" was an activity, not an identity, in the Renaissance. (To paraphrase the old argument about "sodometry"). The only exception that I can find is 1 Henry VI, 3.1.101 (in Bevington), where the Third Servingman refers to Winchester as "an inkhorn mate," presumably because he's a member of the clergy. But I'm not sure that gets us very far at all.

  • At 4/15/2006 11:41:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    would inkhorn blogger be an okay phrase? I'm your newest, biggest fan. More inkhorn mate blogging.


  • At 4/16/2006 12:14:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    It's an interesting question. There are mockeries of scholars and pedants, of course--Nashe's taunting of Harvey, as you point out, or Holofernes in Love's Labors Lost--but that's not quite the same as nerdhood, is it? Then there's the stereotypical parvenu who tries to display deep learning and fails spectacularly, like Jack Daw in Epicoene. But obviously that's not a nerd, since he's not actually learned about anything (e.g., Middle Earth geography). Or, while we're on Epicoene (and since one of our co-bloggers takes his name from that play, after all), what about Amorous La Foole, since one of the characteristics of nerds is the attempt to be cool and the complete misunderstanding of how to do so. But he lacks the obsessive studiousness. And then there's the technological aspect of nerdhood--what's the equivalent in the Renaissance? Someone obsessed with the printing press, gunpowder, and the compass?

    Maybe humanism simply precludes nerdiness, since the integration of the vita contemplativa and the vita activa is its opposite, isn't it? It's like the nerd and the jock fused into one person. Like Philip Sidney. Or Hamlet: "The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword; /
    The expectancy and rose of the fair state, / The glass of fashion and the mould of form..."


  • At 4/16/2006 11:46:00 AM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    I have a fan -- awesome! Never had a fan before.


  • At 4/16/2006 11:53:00 AM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    The thing about mocking pedants (inkhorn pedants) is interesting; after my post, I started thinking about that thing that Bourdieu talks about, the distinction between knowing stuff like a gentleman and knowing stuff like a scholar. There's something there, about the eagerness, obsessiveness, and seriousness of the scholar, as opposed to "wearing your learning lightly" and not taking it too seriously, that might speak to nerdhood.

    The technology question is of course another thing. Maybe we would have to think about fake or failed technology: instead of video games and computers, alchemy and weird obsessions with magic. In fact, magic might just be the link: except that whereas today's Tolkien-obsessed nerd just wishes magic were real, people like John Dee (a Renaissance nerd?) really thought it was.

    Now that I keep thinking about this, I suddenly realize the obvious Renaissance nerd, possibly the archetype of all nerds, the Ur-nerd: Spenser.


  • At 4/16/2006 12:40:00 PM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    Flash forward 75-100 years and you have what I take to be the first institutional organization that structured the social position of the nerd: the Royal Society. Pepys? Nerd. Definitely. Obsessed with the details of popular culture. Collected comic books (well, ballads, which were effectively the same thing). Very clumsy with the ladies. Couldn't write about sex without lapsing into his private Spanglicized slang. It's also worth pointing out the RS/Bacon connection. I suspect Bacon, rather than Spenser, might qualify as Nerd Zero. In any case, once the 'natural philosophers,' the collectors, and the antiquarians (John Stow suddenly springs to mind as another Nerd Zero candidate) had their own Society, a space opened up in the cultural imaginary for the figure we now call nerd. See, for example, Susanna Centlivre's "A Bold Stroke for a Wife," which features a "virtuoso" named Periwinkle whose life revolves around his desire to collect natural artifacts, and who swears off women because they are much less beautiful than cockatoos, antelopes, and hummingbirds. Sounds a bit like Young Joyless in the Antipodes, come to think of it.

    In any case, the point of this ramble: when the collector gets his Society, the Nerd emerges.


  • At 4/16/2006 01:20:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    You're on to something, Truewit.

    I thought about Bacon too, but the problem I see with that is that he's way too central in the culture: high government positions, the subject of parliamentary impeachment, etc. Nerds are more marginal--even when they succeed spectacularly like Bill Gates, they still occupy culturally marginal industries (computer programming, not politics or sports, e.g.).

    With Spenser, I'm not sure the author of an ur-Nerd-text can himself be the nerd. Is Tolkein himself a nerd, for instance, or only those who obsessively read him and overgo him in their knowledge of Middle Earth?


  • At 4/16/2006 04:35:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    There are also variations in nerd-dom: a) the sci-fi-dressing, Tolkein-reading, Star Wars-watching, SCA-participating nerd vs. b) the dry as dust, thoroughly unexciting, uber-conventional nerd. The first at least has passions and weirdness in his favor, whereas the second lacks even those attributes: he's the guy who dutifully pursues his studies of Ramist logic without even recognizing the world of magic out there. (Imagine if Takahashi from Revenge of the Nerds were white.)

    I'm sure there were plenty of dry-as-dust clergymen out there whom the Dees and Brunos and Fludds dismissed contemptuously as beneath their notice.


  • At 4/16/2006 05:35:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Yeah, that's the Casaubon type, I guess -- though isn't he too complacently convinced of his own importance? I guess that's another distinction we'd have to make: the nerd who's weirdly confident of his/her own capacities, and thus strangely unaware of his/her nerd-dom, versus the nerd who trembles at the slightest human contact, and is painfully aware of being marginal and odd.

    I want to preserve Spenser for nerd-dom. I'll back off on the Ur-nerd thing, but I agree with hieronimo that Bacon was too much of a power player to quite count. Spenser wanted to be exactly that, but instead he just sat at home and wrote long chivalric-romance-allegories about it, coded with all kinds of inkhorn learning and esoteric numerology. Not to mention bungling (by mis-timing) every political move he actually tried to make. Then there's the obsessively archaizing private language he constructs out of Chaucer...

    I think the Royal Society thing is totally spot on. But that's the techno-nerd. Spenser is the Dungeons & Dragons nerd.

    As for Tolkien? Total nerd. His family apparently had to lock him in his study to make him write his books -- and even then, instead of writing the actual books, he sat around devising elaborate linguistic rules for his imaginary languages. He would've had Klingon down by heart, if it had existed. He was probably the model for the people who wrote up Klingon, anyway.


  • At 4/16/2006 05:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    This whole discussion is fascinating! And a just a little nerdy. I do like how it ranges forth in time and back again, looking for possible nerd lines, etc.


  • At 4/16/2006 08:59:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    That's an awfully convincing case for Spenser's nerd-dom, which I'll probably use the next time I teach FQ--anything for a laugh--because it actually makes a lot of sense.

    I also want to believe Samuel Daniel was kind of thought of as a nerd, what with his history of the Civil Wars without a battle, his lampooned sonnet sequence Delia, and his (overly) prolific publishing of his poetry. Jonson thought he was ridiculous, which is no surprise, but I suspect he was more widely considered the Nerd of the Poets.

    One other issue worth factoring in: nerds are usually the creation of an academic environment, so maybe we should be looking for nerds in the period's university drama. Any come to mind?


  • At 4/16/2006 11:38:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    I'm glad you appreciate the Spenser thing. Yes, perhaps good for classroom laughs. Never underestimate the power of classroom laughs. I'm always amazed at how much a joke or two can do. Even with grad students.

    As for university drama -- "Return to Parnassus," anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

    I don't know anything about Daniel, though I've recently discovered a very mysterious note I wrote to myself some time ago, reminding myself that I need to look up something about "Philotas." Why? Why do I care about "Philotas"? It appears to have something to do with Essex, but I have no idea what it all means anymore. But, apparently, at some point I wanted to know something about Daniel.


  • At 5/16/2007 04:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Don Quijote for the first medieval reenactment nerd?


  • At 5/20/2008 09:45:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    the nerds were into Natural History. see deborah harkness The jewel House


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