Reading the Plot Forward: December 9, 2005: An interdisciplinary seminar at the Folger Institute examines terrorism — historical and contemporary — on the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot
When scholars gathered in the basement of the Folger Shakespeare Library on November 4 for a workshop examining the Gunpowder Plot, many of them were alert to the ironies of the occasion.
Earlier that same day, the Folger had hosted the Prince of Wales and his wife, Camilla. That the heir to the British throne was perusing the library's collection as scholars prepared to talk about a foiled plot to blow up King James I and his entire government in London 400 years ago was not lost on anyone. Nor did it escape notice that more than 40 scholars were packed tightly in a basement conference room, much like the 36 barrels of gunpowder placed in a cellar under the House of Lords by the Gunpowder conspirators and discovered there on the eve of the opening of Parliament on November 5, 1605.
The workshop was organized by Chris R. Kyle, an associate professor of history at Syracuse University, as part of a continuing series of such events hosted by the Folger Institute, a center for humanities research sponsored by the Folger Shakespeare Library and a consortium of 40 universities.
Eminent scholars specializing in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, including David Cressy, a professor of history at Ohio State University at Columbus, and Ian W. Archer, a fellow in modern history at Keble College, University of Oxford, gave detailed talks on the history of the plot's commemoration and on what London was like in 1605. Historians and literary scholars batted around questions about the era's political and religious discord and about how the Gunpowder Plot may have affected the staging of William Shakespeare's Macbeth.
But Mr. Kyle and Kathleen Lynch, executive director of the Folger Institute, had bigger ambitions. The organizers asked presenters to offer brief informal papers to spur discussion and brainstorming across disciplines about new approaches to the texts being studied.
"We want to intervene in people's research projects at a point when it matters," said Ms. Lynch. "We didn't want to hear polished papers."
And then there was the ambition to have the workshop push past history and into the present. The event was provocatively titled "Early Modern Terrorism?," and in an introductory e-mail message to participants, Mr. Kyle noted that "without delving into the minefield of drawing direct and ahistorical parallels between the notion of early modern terrorism, the actuality of the Plot, and the world in which we inhabit, we are presented with an opportunity to discuss the impact of religious violence on society, its reaction to this event, and what happened/happens next."
It is those discussions that pique the interests of a broader public fixated on issues such as terrorism, torture, and religious violence. But scholars often fear that making such connections sacrifices academic rigor.
So if the plotters of 400 years ago who piled gunpowder in a basement failed, would Mr. Kyle and Ms. Lynch's plot to widen the scholarly discussion into combustible contemporaneity succeed?...