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Microhistory and Cultural Geography: Ben Jonson's “To Sir Robert Wroth” and the Absorption of Local Community in the Commonwealth*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2018

Martin Elsky*
City University of New York, Graduate Center and Brooklyn College


The consolidation of England into a monarchical commonwealth in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries created the possibility of polyvalent geographic identity. Ben Jonsons country house poem, “To Sir Robert Wroth, “ was written from the vantage point of a shift in the politico-geographical borders that made local communities in the shires part of a centralizing monarchical commonwealth. Microhistorical examination of the Wroths and their village in the period preceding the composition of the poem reveals their insistent local identity and resistance to the monarchical commonwealth ruled from London. The immediate context of their resistance to the center was a Privy Council project to make the River Lea navigable in order to bringdown the price of grain in London. Economically threatened, the Wroths orchestrated sabotage against the project, but eventually acquiesced to the Privy Council and re-entered the centrally administered commonwealth fold. Jonsons poem is a testimony to this reaffiliation, a celebration of the Wroths as exemplars of commonwealth identity within local region. Only when they distanced themselves from local identity did the Wroths become suitable for Jonson as a poetic model of the country ideal. In Jonsons hands, the country house poem becomes the vehicle of multivalent identification with place.

Copyright © Renaissance Society of America 2000

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