Custom’s Oppositional Evocations


Review of Custom, Common Law, and the Constitution of English Renaissance Literature, by Stephanie Elsky

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020


In Custom, Common Law, and the Constitution of English Renaissance Literature, Stephanie Elsky offers a prescient study of historical continuity, one that challenges notions of epistemic change, periodization, and even historical consciousness. Custom, Elsky writes, “does not rely upon—even rejects—the possibility of historical consciousness because it refuses to recognize the pastness of the past” (14). This challenge to the “pastness of the past” undermines the breaks and ruptures—the epistemic shifts—that we usually associate with periodization. Grounding her study in an extensive excavation of the uses of custom, Elsky illuminates the surprising range of possibility—specifically literary possibility—within this familiar concept. 

In contrast to an emphasis on historical change through innovation, novelty, and revolution, Elsky insists upon the generating power of customs, commonplaces, traditions, patterns, and forms. She deftly weaves this insight on custom through her project’s chapters, approaching an eclectic range of texts, from drama, poetry, and fictional narrative, to letters and political tracts. In each chapter she studies custom’s possibilities in relation to a different political, legal, or literary arena: the ancient constitution in Thomas More’s Utopia, colonial conquest in Gabriel Harvey and Edmund Spenser’s letters and Spenser’s writings on Ireland, unwritten performance in Sir Philip Sidney’s Old Arcadia, communal property in Isabella Whitney’s A Sweet Nosgay, and political rebellion in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Sir Thomas More. Through insightful pairings of the work on custom, law, and history, Elsky argues for the humanist underpinnings of early modern literature. 

The “past-as-present” is a key phrase for Elsky’s understanding of the common law and its impact on early modern English literature. Thomas More’s work lays the foundation. Her study of More at the opening and closing of the book smartly illuminates the tensions she plays with throughout: between performance vs. codification, consent vs. decree, communal vs. private life, and between custom as commonplace vs. custom as private property. Elsky writes that “common learning suggests a process of accumulation that does not draw attention to the past as past, and in this way imagines it on a continuous plane with the present” (32). 

Indeed, as her final chapters reveal, this past is not only on a continuous plane with the present, but with the open-ended future as well. The past is not distinct, a place left behind in the rupture of a revolution or civil war. This insight might seem entirely straightforward. And on one level it is: the past continues into the present as a constant source of knowledge and inspiration. Yet the productive results of this suspension of temporality are indeed surprising, at least as surprising or arresting as Milton’s Chaos, that space of dark materials from which new worlds are formed: 

. . . this wild Abyss
The womb of Nature, and perhaps her grave—
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds (Paradise Lost, Book II, lines 910-916)

While custom might seem entirely opposed to chaos and chance, for the writers Elsky studies it nevertheless offers these “dark materials” from which to “create more worlds.” This is because custom is, Elsky writes, “a source of poetic creativity and political possibility. It was an engine for literary production, justifying a startling array of fictive and formal experiments” (2).

Elsky’s book draws attention to what is generative about custom. She also illuminates the ways in which it is unpredictable. In its challenge to historical consciousness, rupture, and breaks, for instance, custom maps along both progressive and reactionary lines. Thus, for Thomas More, custom, figured in the commonplace, is available to all. If this openness of the commonplace might gesture toward the possibility of shared, communal knowledge and property, Elsky carefully teases out how More’s application of commonplaces, such as proverbs, in fact undermine notions of common property. The commonplace is not, in the end, available to all. Instead, in its connection to private friendships and its increasingly sparing use, the proverb comes to uphold a system of private ownership and even colonial enterprise. 

If the hope of a discursive commons is not sustained in More, it comes under even greater pressure with Edmund Spenser’s application of custom as a nativist strain employed in the conquest of foreign lands. The British Isles, as the site of multiple invasions, finds its long history compressed in at least one of its languages: English bears the traces of Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman conquests. Yet this history of conquest, born in the English language, also anticipates England’s future as an imperial power: “Spenser turns the flexibility of the political past into a tool of colonial rule” (102). He articulates “the coercive potential of custom” while also asserting “the consensual possibilities in a moment of conquest” (102). This latter formulation seems like compromised consent, and in some ways the balancing act around custom is engineered to draw out subtly within a brutal colonial enterprise. One might argue that Spenser distrusts custom in favor of conquest of both land and, as Elsky reveals, meter. 

These questions of sovereignty and custom persist in Elsky’s next chapter on Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. Here she asks, “Does the sovereign submit to custom or is the monarchical appeal to custom simply a canny political expedient?” (105). This question is hard to answer, since Arcadia’s Euarchus solves the romance’s conflict by taking on Arcadian customs, thereby preventing conquest even as he, in effect, enables it. Euarchus is, Elsky argues, an ideal leader, the “Protestant sovereign” that practices “limited sovereignty rooted in custom” (105). Sidney “understood the productive power of an origin to which one had no desire to recover—or return” (132). This chapter on Sidney is thus, in comparison to those on More and Spenser, more optimistic about custom’s applications. Through poetic meter and political uses of custom, an opportunity for political participation might be negotiated. 

Finally, the brilliant chapter on Whitney excavates an evocation of commonplaces in relation to the garden, a timeless space in which the interpenetration of materials makes the extraction of one a challenge. This final chapter is especially illuminating because Whitney is such a contrast to the other authors considered in the book. More, Sidney, and Spenser are all participants on England’s national stage. Thus, the consideration of custom in their written works stands next to their dedication or challenge to custom in their national roles—as Lord Chancellor, wartime hero, or imperial settler. Whitney approaches custom differently, in all ways. She draws out, as Elsky carefully demonstrates, the “democratizing possibilities of custom’s literary properties” (19). Whitney brings out the fullest opportunities of the commonplace book, making the locations of London, its topoi, available to all.

While the Whitney chapter, with its democratizing possibilities, contrasts starkly with those that precede it, it also neatly connects. When paired with the Spenser/Harvey chapter, this penultimate chapter exposes the slipperiness of this word “custom.” Custom, in the hands of Whitney, offers a liberatory, communal, and proto-feminist poetics while custom, in the hands of Elsky’s Spenser, becomes a tool for colonialist poetics. And when paired with Thomas More’s, Whitney’s commonplaces insist upon democratized commonality and deny the enclosure of the common within the private realm.

Ultimately, do More’s Utopia, or Sidney’s Arcadia, or Shakespeare’s Hamlet prove arresting in their reworking of old, familiar materials? Yes and no. No because, as Elsky argues, the past-as-present in the case of the common law and its attendant literary figures—commonplacing, common meter, and common language—“refuses to recognize the pastness of the past” (14). But Elsky insists, in the arguments that weave through almost all of the book’s chapters, that the authors she considers strategically inhabit two positions at once: Sidney asserts both the manipulation of custom to effect change, and the persistent idea of continuity; Spenser and Harvey, as noted above, find in custom the contradiction of coercive custom and consent in conquest, preserving the past and justifying innovation. In More, this process of holding contradictions, or having it both ways, encompasses the “voluntary union” on the one hand, and then circumscribed island community on the other, a gesture toward commonality and an awareness of private property. In Hamlet, Shakespeare stages the antithetical concepts of revolution and custom as “endemic to one another” (162). Revolution, in Elsky’s approach, does not engender a period break; nor is custom always familiar. Instead, she argues, “it turns out that custom is revolutionary—or potentially revolutionary—in its peculiar combination of unpredictability and sustainability” (193). 

The possibility of custom, as suggested above, is neither radical or progressive. Custom, as current political landscapes reveal, shores up retrograde politics through nostalgic yearnings: white nationalist crowds attempt to celebrate, at once nostalgically and violently, past eras in present times. Yet a rejection of custom can be, as Supreme Court deliberations expose, equally reactionary. Custom in the fictive world might be, as Elsky writes, “the basis for interrogating the meanings and limits of sovereignty” (194). Or it might simply shore up sovereign power. Such oppositional evocations of custom are part of the concept’s subtle unpredictability, and help shore up its political utility not only in the early modern period, but also today. 



Posted on 16 June 2022

REBECCA LEMON is Associate Professor of English at the University of Southern California and author, most recently, of Addiction and Devotion in Early Modern England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).