Dr. Nelson Investigates Lives of Women and Civilian Heroes in Siege Literature

Authors Dr. Holly Nelson, left, and Dr. Sharon Alker, right.

Langley, B.C. — Trinity Western University’s Dr. Holly Faith Nelson, together with her sister Dr. Sharon Alker, a Professor of English at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, make important observations about the sacrifice, heroism, and value of everyday civilians in the literature of siege warfare. The two authors explore narratives of urban warfare in early modern British literature, in their forthcoming book, Besieged: Early Modern British Siege Literature, 1642-1722 (forthcoming McGill-Queen's University Press).

Learning from the Literature of Siege Warfare

Alker and Nelson note that “siege literature has existed since antiquity, but it has not always played a prominent cultural role.” They explain that their book Besieged: Early Modern British Siege Literature, 1642-1722 (forthcoming McGill-Queen's University Press) “brings to light the popularity and potency of British siege literature between the British Civil War and the Great Northern War, focusing on its magnetic or ‘talismanic’ force in this period.” Their study “weaves together an exploration of the siege in canonical works by Shakespeare, Davenant, Cowley, Milton, Cavendish, Dryden, Bunyan, and Defoe with the siege in rarely studied diaries, memoirs, letters, plays, songs, poems, and fiction on military and civilian experiences of siege warfare.”

Dr. Alker and Dr. Nelson state that they “draw on theories of space and place to theorize how early modern Britons feverishly worked to make sense of the immediacy, horror, and trauma of urban warfare.” They argue that “the siege, in its liminality, became a formidable way to engage with the fragility of urban space, unstable social, political, and religious structures, developing technologies, and heroic martial models that were inadequate for a rapidly changing society.” 

The study concludes by “reflecting on how these early modern literary works shed light on contemporary articles, novels, poems, films, and video games on urban sieges, highlighting works that focus on building walls and keeping people out of given spaces or places, whether a city, nation, or region.” Besieged contends “that to understand how besieged spaces and a growing siege mentality are culturally mediated in our own age, we must grasp how they were represented in siege-fixated periods in the past.”

Stories of Violence and Trauma: A Conversation with the Authors

In a recent conversation, Dr. Alker and Dr. Nelson discuss what it was like to dissect the accounts of siege warfare, violence and trauma in early modern life writing, drama, poetry, and prose. Reflecting on today’s world, they observe the similarities and differences between the experiences of people who lived during early modern siege warfare in Europe and the experiences of people who lived during twenty-first century sieges in Iraq and Syria, as well as of people living today during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are grateful to Dr. Alker and Dr. Nelson for their responses, below.

* Please note: Some details below, quoted from historic first-hand accounts, describe graphic violence. Please be forewarned.

You studied the diaries, memoirs, letters, and other personal writings of early modern Britons living through siege warfare. What was it like to read their intimate thoughts and experiences?

What is most fascinating about studying the autobiographical writings of soldiers is how they largely attempt (on the surface) to avoid addressing the trauma of siege warfare. The life writing of early modern soldiers tend to focus on facts, often communicated through numerical information, rather than on expressing personal thoughts and feelings. However, feeling still forces its way to the surface in their prose here and there, given the horror of urban warfare. The ‘wound’ cannot be completely silenced despite the desire to embody martial stoicism.   

What struck you the most, or what was most interesting, as you read the experiences of people living through urban warfare?

We were shocked and horrified by some of the experiences of soldiers and civilians during siege warfare, which reminded us of newspaper accounts of twenty-first century sieges in, for example, Iraq and Syria. The level of violence, starvation, and sickness endured by the besieged in particular often rendered us speechless. Urban warfare, sadly, stands as a testament to what the Scottish poet Robert Burns calls “Man’s inhumanity to man” which “[m]akes countless thousands mourn” (“Man Was Made to Mourn: A Dirge,” 1786).

By way of an example, the soldier Nehemiah Wharton describes one act of ‘inhumanity’ carried out by his enemies during the British civil wars: “Our wounded men they [the Cavaliers] brought into the city [of Worcester], and stripped, stabbed, and slashed their dead bodies in a most barbarous manner, and imbued their hands in their blood. They also at their return met a young gentleman, a Parliament man, as I am informed – his name I cannot learn – and stabbed him on horseback with many wounds, and trampled upon him, and also most maliciously shot his horse.”

In John Mitchelburne’s drama Ireland Preserv’d, on the Siege of Londonderry (1689), we also witness the destruction inflicted on the city and its inhabitants during a siege: “The Market-House with several others lay in Rubbish, the Roofs broken, shatter’d and until’d, the Streets plowed up with Bombs, which made it dangerous passing in the Night, occasion’d by the great number of Pits made by the Rebound of the Bombs. The Water and the Excrements of the Town made an insufferable Stench: Dead Bodies lay, several of them, half cover’d in their Graves. And when the Cellars and Out-Houses came to be cleansed, the dead Carcasses of starv’d people, and those kill’d with the Bombs, were found in obscure places.”

One aspect of siege literature we studied that encouraged us was the growing cultural emphasis on civilians as important and heroic in wartime. In earlier siege literature, typically a great military man is placed in the foreground and is lauded by all and sundry, while the civilians, presented as a mass of insignificant characters, are situated in the background and often represented as weak or in a state of panic. However, from the seventeenth century onward, the sacrifice, heroism, and value of everyday civilians, including women, in siege warfare slowly begins to come to the fore.

What are the best lessons you learned for application in today’s society?

We learned that urban warfare, including sieges, is perhaps the cruelest or most inhumane form of warfare since it involves civilians, including children and seniors, enduring unspeakable atrocities with little hope of escape and with no way of protecting themselves. War permeates their domestic space and their bodies only to systematically destroy them over time.  And because they have experienced the transformation of their domestic space into a war zone, survivors carry that sense of vulnerability forward with them. It is hard to feel safe again. 

We also learned that there is a fear in human beings of being besieged in a whole range of ways that fosters a destructive siege mentality that can lead to uncharitable and exclusionary behaviours such as enacting policies and building structures to keep the perceived stranger or foreigner out of our societies.

You describe the siege motif in literature during the period between the British Civil War and the Great Northern War as having a “magnetic or talismanic” force. What do you mean by this?

We theorize that from the mid-seventeenth to the early eighteenth century in Britain, following civil wars plagued by sieges, this spatial motif acquired a distinctive presence and significance in literature. Literary siege space helped early modern men and women capture and work through the residual trauma of siege warfare, especially urbicide, and served as an imaginative instrument through which to wrestle with related anxieties, tensions, and transitions in the period. For example, the siege motif became a way to examine the dynamic but fragile nature of cities in general, to highlight the significance of the voices, experiences, and concerns of ordinary citizens, and to negotiate a shifting national identity as Britain moved toward modernity.

You touch on how old models became inadequate as society rapidly changed. Do you see any parallels between the experiences of your book subjects and modern people’s experiences today in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic?

We rely on existing cognitive frameworks to process and comprehend our current experiences. Sometimes, however, these frameworks are insufficient to make sense of the complexity of contemporary existence. In a recent article in Wired, “Metaphors Matter in a Time of Pandemic,” Virginia Heffernan explains the danger and limitations of working with certain literary tropes when trying to make sense of the COVID-19 epidemic. Referencing the work of Dr. Scott Knowles, she claims, in particular, that “[w]arfare may be a rousing way to speechify, but it’s perilous when used to describe disasters from hurricanes to viral outbreaks” (May 19, 2020). The spread of COVID-19 has been routinely described in the language of siege warfare in particular, as seen in Adam Geller’s headline on April 9, 2020 in CityNews— “24 hours in the life of a besieged New York City.” However, with, for example, advances in medical knowledge about the nature of such viruses and their methods of transmission and mutation, older models of siege space as something that can be cordoned off and eventually relieved, for instance, are no longer ideal ways of communicating our modern experience of the pandemic.  

However, having said this, certain aspects of early modern siege literature are shockingly relevant to past and present pandemics. Although we did not have time to address it in our book, it became clear to us as we were writing that Daniel Defoe’s account of the plague in his Journal of the Plague Year had a great deal in common with seventeenth and eighteenth century siege narratives in the way it foregrounded and figured urban suffering. There is an initial sense of disbelief in sieges and plagues, and a preference to continue to think of change as short-term. Sieges and plagues make intently visible the vulnerability and fragility of our life. But they are also events in which people step up regardless and learn to cope. This is what we are doing with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.  

If your book were to have a sequel, what topics would you explore?

In the epilogue to our book, we suggest that scholars should continue to explore the significance of war motifs to see how they have shaped and continue to shape our culture. Another follow-up project might involve examining other spaces of war (the naval battle, for example).  However, after studying the trauma of siege warfare for nearly a decade, and observing how early modern British women and men managed to work through this trauma, we are ready to turn to the subject of resilience in early modern literature in the same time period. We want to know how ‘resilience’ would have been understood in the period (given that the term did not acquire its current meaning until the 1850s) and what resources (material and immaterial) allowed those who suffered various traumas in the period not only to survive but eventually to thrive.

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Besieged: Early Modern British Siege Literature, 1642-1722 is forthcoming by McGill-Queen's University Press.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Sharon Alker, Professor of English and General Studies and Chair of Humanities and Arts at Whitman College, has co-edited several books and published articles on subjects ranging from Scottish literature and disability studies to the representation of warfare in the long eighteenth century.

Holly Faith Nelson, Professor and Chair of the Department of English and Creative Writing and Co-Director of the Gender Studies Institute at Trinity Western University, has published widely on literature of the seventeenth and long eighteenth centuries, most recently co-editing Games and War in Early Modern English Literature: From Shakespeare to Swift (Amsterdam UP, 2019). 

FUNDING IN SUPPORT OF THE RESEARCH AND THE PUBLICATION OF THE BOOK

This project was completed with the generous funding, by way of a Standard Research Grant, of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. This book will be published with the help of a grant from the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, through  the Awards  to  Scholarly  Publications  Program, using  funds  provided  by the  Social  Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. 

ACTIVE TWU RESEARCH ASSISTANTS

The following TWU undergraduate and graduate students helped with this project over the years in their role as research assistants: Chance Pahl, Mackenzie (Sarna) Balken, Jason Ewert, and Anne Hill. Dr. Pahl is now an Assistant Professor of English at Briercrest College and Seminary and Dr. Balken now lectures at Bethlehem College & Seminary. 

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About Trinity Western University

Founded in 1962, Trinity Western University is Canada’s premier Christian liberal arts university dedicated to equipping students to find and fulfill their purpose in life. It is a fully accredited research institution offering liberal arts and sciences, as well as professional schools in business, nursing, education, human kinetics, graduate studies, and arts, media, and culture. TWU emphasizes academic excellence, research, and student engagement in a vibrant faith community devoted to supporting godly leaders seeking to have a transformational impact on culture.

For media inquiries, please contact media@twu.ca.

Photo provided by Dr. Holly Nelson.

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