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Compte rendu: Emily Butterworth, 'A Stopper for a Mustard Pot'

posted 28 Jan 2015, 08:33 by Cambridge EMS   [ updated 28 Jan 2015, 08:38 ]

Emily Butterworth’s discussion of materiality and reputation in the Renaissance began with an eighteenth-century mustard pot. This was an expensive receptacle for what was, in the early modern period, a relatively common commodity: cheaper than pepper and indigenous to England, mustard could both improve tough meat and inflame those of a fiery disposition.

However, the condiment also had a metaphorical significance, with the phrase ‘en aller à la moutarde’ meaning ‘to be the subject of scurrilous rumour’; an individual’s name being passed through the streets like saleable merchandise. Mustard and reputation are further linked in a commonplace contemporary trope relating to the materiality of the printed book: Butterworth identified several examples in which authors imagine that the pages containing their words will be used to wrap or preserve foodstuffs, ranging from tuna to mustard.

This concern over the future fate of the authorial name, expressed in such a specifically material fashion, suggests – Butterworth argued – an odd process of subject/object conflation, in which the author becomes not only his text, but the physical book in which he writes, and where he might survive in posterity not as a great name in the annals of literary history, but in a far more domestic, utilitarian (and – the audience added – feminine) setting.

Finally, Butterworth suggested that this slippage might relate to an even broader contemporary discussion regarding the links between the physical and the psychological, particularly in accounts of the humours. When the name of the author shares a substance with the self, metaphors for slander that employ very physical terms (bite, stab etc) suddenly become more significant: words, in damaging a name, might materially affect the bearer of that name. Authorial body, name, text and printed page are, to some extent, one and the same.

Images:; wikicommons (David Bailly, 'Self portrait with vanitas symbols', 1651)