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Renaissance Personhood: Materiality, Taxonomy, Process

My edited collection, Renaissance Personhood: Materiality, Taxonomy, Process, will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2019. It features essays by John Michael Archer, Amanda Bailey, Joseph Campana, Kevin Curran, Holly Dugan, David Goldstein, Colby Gordon, Wendy Beth Hyman, Stephanie Elsky, Gregory Kneidel, and Luke Wilson. Below is short description.

At the heart of Renaissance Personhood is a simple but neglected question: What did it mean to be a “person” in Renaissance England? We know there was a basic legal conception of personhood available at least since Magna Carta (1215), a baseline guarantee that no free man could be harmed save in accordance with the law of the land. The idea was, and still is, that humans possess some fundamental degree of liberty and that communities work better when that liberty is protected. But personhood does not simply enshrine liberty. More precisely, it instrumentalizes it through basic legal transactions such as litigation, property transfer, and contract. It also balances it off with a set of responsibilities and obligations. This means that personhood is never just about the individual subject and their freedom. Instead, personhood denotes a relationship to one’s lived environment; a form of liberty that only makes sense in a transactional context. Personhood describes an interface between self and world and provides scripts of consent, entitlement, and responsibility for managing that interface. With this argument as a common thread, this volume assembles an international team of leading scholars to generate a new account of personhood in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one that starts with the objects, environments, and physical processes that made personhood legible. Unfolding as a series of materially oriented studies ranging from land, trees, and animals to chairs, wax, and food, Renaissance Personhood reads one of our most cherished legal fictions from the outside in rather than from the inside out.

Taken together, the essays in this volume recover for the first time the way in which Renaissance personhood was shaped by ideas about the material world, both human and nonhuman. The volume reminds us that one of the core legal fictions of liberal modernity, a legal fiction that we now tend to associate with Enlightenment notions of agency, subjectivity, and individuality, has other sources in the physical experiences, creaturely lives, and material encounters of the Renaissance. Opening a variety of new research paths, both historical and theoretical, Renaissance Personhood will be of interest to a wide range of early modernists, as well as to scholars working on law and philosophy in other contexts.

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