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Research Assignment–Primary Texts

Taught by Professor Huston Diehl at the University of Iowa

This assignment requires students to analyze primary sources by picking titles from EEBO and discovering particular aspects and themes of the text.

Renaissance Literature and Culture

Assignment 2: Primary Texts

“The perception of the distance [that separates us from the people of pre-industrial Europe] may serve as a starting point of an investigation, for anthropologists have found that the best points of entry in an attempt to penetrate an alien culture can be those where it seems to be most opaque. When you realize that you are not getting something–a joke, a proverb, a ceremony–that is particularly meaningful to the natives, you can see where to grasp a foreign system of meaning in order to unravel it.”

–Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre

This assignment is designed to give you practice reading and interpreting primary texts from the sixteenth-century and early seventeenth-century. For the purposes of this assignment, you may use any text printed in England between 1558 and 1642 that is not a work of poetry, fiction, or dramatic literature. Ideally, you will choose a text that will be relevant to the topic of your final, research paper. Once you have chosen your text, complete the following exercises:

    1. First, identify and describe at least ten distinguishing characteristics of the primary text you have chosen. You may want to describe the organizing principles of your text; the prefatory materials (e.g., title page, frontispiece, dedicatory verses, introduction); the illustrations; the marginalia. You may want to take note of some distinctive aspects of the author’s style or argument (e.g., striking metaphors, allusions, puns; appeals to authority; kinds of arguments; types of supporting evidence). Or you may want to describe the way the text constructs its readers and its author and locates itself in its culture. Feel free to present these characteristics as a simple list.
    2. Next, try to state, in a couple of sentences, the central goal or purpose of your text. Please do not summarize the actual content or specific arguments of your text.
    3. Then, identify two to five things about your text that strike you (an American undergraduate in the year 2002) as puzzling, strange, illogical, perhaps even incomprehensible. What are you not getting? What seems alien to your contemporary way of seeing the world?
    4. Finally, write a brief essay in which you speculate about how the things that puzzle you about your text may provide “a point of entry” into early modern culture. How might you use this text, and whatever it is that you are not “getting” about it, to help you “grasp a foreign system of meaning in order to unravel it”? You need not at this stage come up with a full explanation of what puzzles you or make any breakthrough discoveries, but do try to see how what strikes you as strange may open up some aspect of early modern culture for your examination.

Your essay should be about two or three typewritten pages, double spaced. Base your discussion solely on your own analysis of your artifact; do not consult outside sources. Feel free to follow your hunches, raise questions you’re not sure you can answer, advance hypothetical arguments, take risks. As an informal exercise, your essay need not be polished or fully realized; it should be exploratory–and fun.