“Tumbled into the dirt”

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This paper considers notions of “wit” in early modern England. It deploys quantitative methodologies to trace the term’s general discursive importance over time; it also looks at the use and conceptualisation of the term by canonical writers — Robert Greene and William Shakespeare in the 1590s, Thomas Hobbes in the 1650s, and the “libertines” of the Restoration era. The paper argues that whereas cultural and social historians have tended to regard impoliteness in the period as either the deliberate inversion or cultural absence of “civil” norms — “anti-civility”, in the words of Anna Bryson — wit provided a range of conventions and conversational repertoires outwith the normal bounds of civility. More to the point, in the hands of Thomas Hobbes wit demarcated a historicised theory of social practice.


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