Theses Doctoral

Circulating Knowledges: Literature and the Idea of the Library in Renaissance England

Windhauser, Kevin Joseph

“Circulating Knowledges: Literature and the Idea of the Library in Renaissance England” pairs literary texts and libraries to illustrate how literary creation and library building in England from 1500 to 1700 were deeply invested in one another. The history of English Renaissance libraries has generally been analyzed from the viewpoints of religious history and historiography, seen by scholars as a story of Protestant librarians attempting to preserve (or invent) a history of Protestant England. Many literary critics —citing Thomas Bodley’s notorious distaste for “stage plaies”—have typically reduced institutional libraries to elitist boogeymen hostile to popular or vernacular literature. Revising these narratives, this dissertation brings together a large corpus, including works by Thomas More, John Lyly, Edmund Spenser, Robert Greene, Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, and Margaret Cavendish, to illustrate how literary depictions of England’s fledgling libraries shaped their creation and development, while the practices of these inchoate libraries in turn influenced literary texts.

“Circulating Knowledges” advances its argument on several fronts. First, I show that developments (or a perceived lack of development) in library organization, access, and use appeared in literary texts, which often depicted literary libraries in response to these developments. Second, I home in on moments when literary texts that seem not at all interested in libraries become unexpectedly fruitful texts through which to develop literary thinking about libraries. In the process of excavating this literary interest in libraries, I demonstrate that Renaissance literature concerns itself not only with depicting, commenting on, or objecting to the developments in library creation happening during the period, but also in imagining alternative possibilities for how libraries might function, conceptions of a library that often outstripped what was materially possible in the period: these conceptions I term “the idea of the library.” In detailing literature’s preoccupation with developments in Renaissance library systems, I offer new perspectives on the period’s literary attitudes toward the creation, transmission, and protection of knowledge, all questions which the building—or imagining—of a library brings to the forefront.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Stewart, Alan
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 18, 2021