Helen Hackett on The Elizabethan Mind

The Elizabethan historian is interviewed by fellow writer Steven Veerapen
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Helen Hackett, The Elizabethan Mind is the product of an enormous amount of research, comprising study of a variety of texts, from plays to printed prose works, to poems, and of course dramas. I’m curious as to whether you think the medium can tell us something about the popularity (or otherwise) of particular beliefs. Does a popular drama, for example, indicate to you that a certain attitude was well-known and widely accepted, whereas a translation with a limited print run indicates another belief wasn’t widely shared?

Works in translation were not necessarily more obscure than the plays of the period which are more familiar to us now. They were widely read, especially as literacy spread, and were hugely important for disseminating both revived classical ideas and new thinking from continental Europe. Many of the works in translation that I discuss – like The French Academy, a compendium of philosophical and scientific knowledge – went through multiple editions.

Alternative intellectual systems were in tension and in conflict across all genres. For example, Neostoicism was very influential, teaching that the passions (or emotions) should be suppressed; but religious writers retorted that the passions are part of our humanity, and we must open ourselves to emotional turmoil to work towards spiritual certainty. So, many different beliefs were supported in different quarters, and even within individual writers who struggled to reconcile incompatible positions.

The book covers a whole range of contemporary early modern theories of the mind and body – not least the stubborn humoral theories. These of course have long been disproved; but what value do you feel the study of these theories has today? And does any of the terminology persist?

I was struck while writing the book by how we still like to categorise people, and even to use four types, as in humoral theory (which identifies people as melancholic, choleric, sanguine, or phlegmatic). I happened to do a professional training course which classified participants as predominantly ‘air, fire, water, or earth’ – the same elements that were the basis of humoral theory! This tells us something about our need for systems for making sense of ourselves.

We still use humoral terminology when we describe people as ‘saturnine’ (Saturn was the ruling planet of melancholy), or sanguine, or phlegmatic; so, while the medical theory may have disappeared, it still gives us some useful vocabulary for describing different types of people.

People often think of history as being progressive – things were on a march towards something better. But this is certainly not the case, or at least not always. Do you have any examples from this ‘Golden Age’ period of thinking being, in your view, regressive?

I find Elizabethan views on the female mind dismaying. Women were constantly told that their bodies and minds were unstable, and that they lacked the reason needed to govern themselves. Yet a number of educated women of the period achieved remarkable things in the fields of scholarship and translation.

The Elizabethans also thought that those of higher social status had higher intellectual gifts, and even had more meaningful dreams. So in many ways Elizabethan ideas about the mind were constrained by their social prejudices.

The book exhaustively covers a whole variety of early modern theories of the mind and how it worked in conjunction with the body. For example, you point out that ‘witty melancholy’ was a perceived medical ailment which actually had benefits – to men of suitable rank – in terms of promoting their intellect and artistic abilities. How do you feel Elizabethan ideas of the mind contributed to later views – whether medical or philosophical.

Elizabethan ideas about the imagination were mostly very different from ours: it was seen as sensual, unruly, and deceptive, needing strict government by reason. But in the theatre, especially in Shakespeare’s works, the concept was emerging of imagination as an exciting creative power to be celebrated. Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream speaks about ‘shaping fantasies’ and how ‘imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown’. These lines were radical in their time, but were a huge influence on the Romantic poets, who in turn laid the foundations of our modern ideas about the imagination as exhilaratingly fertile.

I was interested especially in your chapter on race. To what extent do you think Elizabethan ideas about the minds of Black Africans shaped later centuries’ thinking about race and identity?

It was thought that the hot sun had evaporated the heat and moisture from African bodies and minds, leaving them cold and dry – hence, melancholic, and hence highly intelligent. Yet the Elizabethans already made racist associations between blackness and evil, so they presented Africans as using their intelligence to be devious, cruel, and evil, like Aaron the Moor in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Over the next century, of course, the pernicious growth of the slave trade and colonialism sadly meant that the idea of the intelligence of Africans was suppressed, while the idea of their moral depravity was reinforced.

The late-Elizabethan edicts ordering Black people out of England were, I’d always thought, an unsuccessful but still deeply prejudiced means of pacifying racist public opinion. Yet you recognise there are other interesting factors at play. Could you say a bit more about these documents?

Miranda Kaufmann and Emily Weissbourd have shown that these documents were part of an attempted small-scale dodgy deal for the Elizabethan government to repay its debt to a Lübeck merchant, Caspar van Senden. Nevertheless, the documents attest to the increasing presence of Black Africans in Elizabethan England, and of some hostility towards them. Most significantly, they treat Africans as commodities to be sold in Spain and Portugal, demonstrating growing English involvement in the international slave trade. All of this has disturbing implications for emerging attitudes to Africans as less than fully human.

Bright’s 1586 Treatise of Melancholy is a fascinating text that crops up often in your study. Can you tell us a little about the difference between melancholy in its modern sense and in the sense it was understood in the period?

Melancholy was an affliction of body as well as mind, being caused by an excess of black bile. The work of Bright and others offers detailed description of a complex array of symptoms, ranging from elevated intellect to disturbed digestion to bizarre delusions. Black bile was thought to be a congenial habitat for the Devil, who could invade body and mind through this medium. At the same time, melancholy was becoming increasingly distrusted as a fashionable and merely performative posture.

The Elizabethan mind was under perennial threat from astrological (or as they would have it astronomical) and malign (or benign) spiritual forces. Did you come across any beliefs about madness or possession in your research that were incredibly alien? And conversely did you come across any that are still subscribed to?

Thomas Whythorne

Elizabethan accounts of demonic possession can seem deeply strange to us. Sufferers had seizures, lost the use of their senses, and spoke in distorted voices; yet there are some similarities to modern-day cases of unexplained ‘psychosomatic disorders’. There’s a lot about the relation between mind and body that we still don’t understand, and we need to recognise that the Elizabethans were simply grasping at the explanatory frameworks that were available to them. As for astrology, we no longer use it as a serious diagnostic tool as Elizabethan physicians did, but there are still plenty of people who enjoy reading their horoscopes.

Did you come away from writing this book with any new favourite text – of any genre or medium? If so, what did your research and writing encourage you to appreciate about it?

I loved getting to know Thomas Whythorne, an Elizabethan composer and music-tutor who wrote an account of his life. He wanted to understand and convey ‘What I am of mind myself’, so he recorded his shifting state of mind in different situations and phases of his life. He also describes having his portrait painted four times – unusual for a man of his class. As he ages he notes ‘the wrinkles on my face, and the hollowness of mine eyes’, and that ‘as my face was altered so were the delights of my mind changed’.

Finally, after the mammoth task of this book: what are you planning for your next project?

I’m fascinated by shifting Elizabethan ideas about time. Time-keeping was still largely by sun-dials or clocks with only an hour-hand. Minute-hands were beginning to appear, and must have brought a new sense of urgency and time visibly ticking away. On a larger scale, towards the end of the period there was an intense and anxious sense of the century and the reign both drawing to a close, with an uncertain future. I’d like to explore how the distinctive Elizabethan conceptualisation and experience of time was reflected in their literature.

Helen Hackett is the author of The Elizabethan Mind, published by Yale University Press.

Steven Veerapen is an academic and writer and author of Of Blood Descended.