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Watermen, Petermen, and Mermaids: Creatures of Conversion on the Early Modern Thames
November 5, 2018 @ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm
Solmsen Fellow (2018-2019)
English, University of British Columbia
Thames’ “mermaids” (the prostitutes who inhabited its banks), “petermen” (the fishermen who clogged the river with illegal and dangerous nets), and watermen (the necessary but notoriously dishonest ferrymen of the river) were cast in early modern Londoners’ popular imagination as agents of transgressive transformation. These amphibious creatures’ moral flexibility and their disquieting facility for circulation of bodies, fluids, and disease made them subject to suspicion as well as fascination. They were crucial inhabitants of the city: they supplied necessary transportation to citizens and served their less respectable appetites for off-market fish and out-of-wedlock sex. They were referenced in plays and poems whenever writers wanted to evoke “local colour.” Yet these pivotal riparian figures remain unexamined by literary critics. They appear in studies as asides, when they appear at all: snapshots of itinerant groups that relied upon the river for their livelihoods. This seminar will introduce a portion of my monograph, Watermen, Petermen, and Mermaids: Creatures of Conversion on the Early Modern Thames. Employing eocriticism and the discourses of conversion as a lens, I argue that these roguish creatures’ consistent association with unlawful activity reveals something about their ability to dissolve moral boundaries as well as physical ones. They enact their transgressions in a state of incomplete conversion – half-human, half-water – reconfiguring our understanding of London’s legal, political, and social limits. I explore how these creatures’ riverine traversals unmade boundaries and exposed Londoners’ fears that they themselves were riverine creatures.
Sarah Crover received her Ph.D. in English at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in 2016. Her dissertation was entitled “Theatrical Water Shows and the Cultural History of the Early Modern Thames.” Her research focuses upon London civic pageantry, the Thames, conversions of the body, and ecocriticism. Her work has appeared in Performing Environments and Early Modern Culture and is forthcoming in Studies in the Age of Chaucer, Premodern Ecologies(University of Toronto Press), and Civic Performance (Taylor and Francis). Her research has been supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Canada), the Society for Theatre Research (UK), and the Early Modern Conversions project (McGill University). Before coming to Madison, she taught English literature and composition at UBC.