JCB Talk

July 9, 2014 - 4:00pm

Surekha Davies, Western Connecticut State University. "Sir Walter Ralegh’s Headless Men: Wonder, Observation and Credibility in the Renaissance."

This informal talk will take place in the MacMillan Reading Room, with display of important books. The talk will end at 5 p.m.

Selling colonial ventures in sixteenth-century England was far from simple. While the sun never set on the Spanish empire, the English Crown, court and merchant investors remained largely unconvinced that the capital required to finance such voyages was likely to be profitable. Sir Walter Ralegh’s Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana (London, 1596) promised that its author could present England with a gold-rich empire. A fair copy of Ralegh’s first draft, annotated by Sir Robert Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, survives. Cecil removed material he deemed likely to damage Ralegh’s credibility, and yet left untouched the discussions of Amazons and of a headless people with faces in their chests.
Why did Ralegh and Cecil include these beings? This paper interrogates the work that these spectacular claims performed, how and why Ralegh and Cecil might have expected them to perform it, and the reception of accounts of headless folk among mapmakers, the first artisans to illustrate them. It illuminates broader concerns about evaluating testimony about wonders. Comparing the strategies of Ralegh, Cecil, and mapmakers for producing reliable knowledge about wonders while preserving—even enhancing—their own reputations prompts us to rethink the relationship between wonders and credibility in the Renaissance.