Licensed by Custom: The Poetics of Conquest and Consent in Early Modern England


Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships




Although early modern literature is often celebrated for its ingenuity, sixteenth– and seventeenth-century English writers struggled to reconcile the claims of literary history with a desire for generic novelty. This project argues that by appealing to custom early modern writers ironically found a means to justify and ground innovation. In doing so, they also signaled an investment in contemporary legal debates—about the source of the law’s authority and the status of England’s land and history—that centered on common law concepts of custom. This dissertation thus sets the works of Edmund Spenser, Thomas More, Philip Sidney, and Anne Clifford in dialogue with legal thinkers such as the first compiler of English common law, Sir Edward Coke. Each chapter shows how different writers deployed custom to authorize their own work, even as they re-evaluated its political and legal uses.