ANZAMEMS Reading Group Summary: Session 3 ‘Representations of Crisis and Catastrophe’

The recent cyclone and floods that devastated parts of New Zealand prompted Emma Rayner (ANU), convener of the third meeting of the ANZAMEMS Postgrad/ECR Reading Group, to consider how medieval and early modern writers represent crisis and catastrophe. This field of inquiry has recently been enhanced and expanded by a special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies entitled ‘Forms of Catastrophe’ (2022). As editors Shannon Gayk and Evelyn Reynolds argue in their introduction, “[c]risis, disaster, and catastrophe were perhaps no more common in the Middle Ages and Renaissance than they are today, but premodern writers often engaged with the world’s precarity in strikingly different ways than we might now” (1). Expanding this claim, the essays in the special issue address a wide range of premodern texts, showing how catastrophes both “shape and are shaped by literary form” (1). The introduction to this special issue served as the selected reading, and two optional readings catered to both medievalists and early modernists in the ANZAMEMS reading group, namely Evelyn Reynolds’ ‘“They Saw Mute Creation Trembling”: Forms of Catastrophe in the Old English Christ III’ (pp. 41–67) and Ryan Netzley’s ‘Managed Catastrophe: Problem-Solving and Rhyming Couplets in the Seventeenth-Century Country House Poem’ (pp. 147–73). Although slightly fewer in number than in previous sessions, the reading group participants held a substantive, critically-engaged and enjoyable discussion on Tuesday April 11.

Reynolds’ article on Christ III, an Old English poem that narrates Christ’s Passion through the catastrophes of Judgement Day and the Crucifixion, illustrates the interplay between catastrophe and literary form. Offering an ecopoetic reading of suffering in the poem, Reynolds suggests that “Christ III leads the reader to experience the impossibility of fully understanding catastrophe, forcing the reader to question the individual’s role in catastrophe” (43-4). Recognising that current preoccupations shape our response to the past, participants reflected on Reynolds’ tentative connection to present climate concerns, questioning whether her reading was sufficiently political. However, participants also observed that Reynolds’ reading of catastrophe in Christ III as a mix of human responsibility and the unknowability of God’s will, (partially) decentres the human and foregrounds the ambiguity and uncertainty that inheres in catastrophe. This itself is a striking response to the contemporary impulse to reject the uncomfortable ‘grey area’ in favour of (often more polarising) black and white responses to catastrophe.

On the other hand, Netzley’s article on seventeenth-century country house poems and catastrophe, provoked considerable scepticism among reading group participants. Netzley reads the manor house as an “emblem of not just largesse, but moderation and well-managed husbandry” (147), asking whether management is a productive response to catastrophe or in fact part of the problem. In discussing Netzley’s article, reading group participants identified the need for more structural and argumentative clarity and were generally unconvinced by his reading of Ben Jonson’s “To Penshurst” as a catastrophe.

Nonetheless, recognising that catastrophe can be repurposed and interpreted in different ways, both by writers and readers, part of the discussion focused on the range of formal techniques deployed by premodern writers as they grapple with the difficulty of describing catastrophic events. Drawing examples from the two articles, some formal techniques that generated discussion included list-making, linguistic excess, and the inexpressibility topos. Some participants expressed doubt as to whether these techniques were explicitly indicative of crisis, noting for example, that the Book of Revelation uses the narrative accumulation of events rather than listing to depict the ultimate catastrophe and that Chaucer deploys the idea of having nothing further to say (i.e. the inexpressibility topos) as a mere turn of phrase to signal a change of topic. Other respondents emphasised that list-making, linguistic excess and inexpressibility were part of a broad spectrum of premodern literary devices that could be mobilised to represent and respond to catastrophe.

One of the crucial take-aways from the articles and corresponding discussion was a sense of the multi-faceted relationship between catastrophe and time. Drawing on the selected readings, participants discussed the deictic present or ‘nowness’ associated with representing catastrophe, the idea that catastrophic events may be located in memory even as the writer tries to conjure a sense of immediacy, and the affective, lived experience of catastrophe, including the potential for temporal rupture or distortion. Participants also drew attention to the difference between historical reporting and literary representation. While future crises and catastrophes are unfortunately inevitable, this lively discussion evidenced that attending to historical literature offers a dynamic means by which to critically examine the structural forms and affective responses that shape our understanding of precarity.  

By Anna-Rose Shack (University of Amsterdam), 11/04/2023

The next session of the ANZAMEMS Postgrad/ECR Reading Group will take place on Tuesday 2 May (10:00am Perth, 12:00pm Melbourne, 2:00pm NZ). The theme is “Slavery and Sexual Violence,” and we will be reading this article:

Tamar Herzig, ‘Slavery and Interethnic Sexual Violence: A Multiple Perpetrator Rape in Seventeenth-Century Livorno’, The American Historical Review, 127.1 (2022), pp. 194–222

A PDF copy of the above article as well as all other information (including an updated Zoom link) can be found on the group’s Google Drive folder. A reminder about this session will also be circulated via the ANZAMEMS mailing list along with the updated schedule a few days prior.

Please contact the convenors with any queries: Emma Rayner (ANU),, and Emily Chambers (University of Nottingham),