Literature and Carceral Institutions in Early Modern England
Beginning in the 1550s, ‘houses of correction’ opened a new era in England’s efforts to punish and reform its poorest and most criminalized subjects, centuries before the penitentiary. Although these early reformist prisons were quickly and widely seen as cruel failures, nevertheless the ideas, arguments and stories they promoted about the means of changing human behavior — what I call in this study the rhetoric of correction — proved an enduring success. By examining how writers like More, Shakespeare and Milton engaged with these institutions and these ideas, Making Correction offers a new story about the rise of correctional punishments in England.
The connections that interest me in this project are often surprisingly direct. London’s Bridewell, the first prison of its kind in early modern Europe, was originally overseen by a printer. Bridewell was located next door to Shakespeare’s indoor stage at the Blackfriars—a gallery bridge connected the two—at a time when workshops in the prison’s complex were making puppets and instruments for early modern entertainments. The first English translation of More’s Utopia, with its famous ideas about penal reform, was commissioned and promoted by some of the house of correction’s strongest propagandists. Later on, Milton pushed reading as a means of self-discipline while his associates in the Hartlib Circle re-imagined houses of correction as “Literary worke-houses.”
In the juxtaposition of canonical texts alongside prison archives, Making Correction finds a distinctive account of the so-called “Golden Age” of English literature. At the same time, by working upwards from the practices, philosophy, rhetoric and even the syntax of early modern culture, Making Correction provides a historical re-thinking of “correction” itself, from the perspective of the centuries before this objective became one of modernity’s most powerful obsessions.