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Conference Report

‘Thinking Space in Early Modern England’ (Saturday 5th March, 2005)


‘Thinking Space in Early Modern England’ was a one-day interdisciplinary conference held at the University of Warwick, supported by the university’s Humanities Research Centre ( and organised by James Brown, a PhD student in the department of history. Five speakers from UK departments of history, archaeology and English studies were invited to address space in a variety of early modern manifestations, with a particular emphasis on its material dimensions. The day attracted over forty delegates from a broad range of institutions (including Oxford, UCL, Manchester, Reading and York), and a wide variety of research interests and disciplinary backgrounds were represented.

Professor Matthew Johnson (Archaeology, University of Southampton) provided the keynote address. In a thoughtful and wide-ranging paper entitled ‘Making and Remaking Early Modern Space and Culture’ he reflected on the problematic relationship between space and text, delineated some reasons for the elision of space in much traditional scholarship and advocated an ‘empathetic’ approach to the experiences of actors in everyday spatial contexts. The morning session was concluded by Dr Amanda Flather (History, University of Essex), who in a paper on ‘The Influence on Gender on the Use and Organisation of Sacred Space’ used court records of pew disputes to recover the ways in which early modern women mobilised church space as a weapon in community disputes and as a means of defending the honour of their households.

The afternoon session was opened by Dr Ross Parry (Museum Studies, University of Essex) and Mike Gogan (The Virtual Experience Company) with a joint paper entitled ‘Visualising Early Modern Space: A Role for Spatial Theory and Digital Media’. In an ambitious and stimulating presentation, Dr Parry described how Henri Lefebvre’s concept of the ‘spatial triad’ in combination with new visualisation techniques had informed his doctoral work on the Whitehall Banqueting House. The paper was followed by a lively exchange about the academy’s failure to incorporate such virtual reality technologies into teaching and research practice. Late medieval and early modern attempts to regulate the urban fabric formed the subject of Dr Dave Postles’ (History, Leicester) paper on ‘The Politics of the Early Modern English Urban Built Environment 1500-1640’, while the final speaker, Dr Bernhard Klein (English Studies, University of Essex), identified some decorporealising and desacralising tendencies in early modern cartographic discourses in a paper entitled ‘The Body in the World: Sacred Space, Cartography and Marlowe’s Tamburlaine’.

The well-attended closing plenary, chaired by Dr Beat Kümin (History, University of Warwick), synthesised themes that had emerged strongly from the papers while confronting some limitations of the ‘spatial turn’; in particular, speakers and participants were asked to reflect on what an emphasis on early modern space might obscure as well as reveal, and on the problems of evidence that attend attempts to recover the spatial experiences of illiterate groups such as children and the poor.