Stephanie Elsky received a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania and joined the Rhodes faculty in Fall 2017. Her research and teaching focuses on the poetry, prose, and drama of the English Renaissance (c.1500-1700). She is particularly interested in law and literature; the history of political thought; gender and women’s writing; the origins of colonialism; the reception of the classical past; and the history of the material text.
Prof. Elsky first book, Custom, Common Law, and the Constitution of English Renaissance Literature, was published by Oxford University Press in 2020. It argues that the concept of custom, the basis of England’s common law, sparked a startling array of literary experiments in sixteenth-century England and Ireland, including genres such as utopian fictions, romances, and stage drama; imitations of classical meter; and the use of rhetorical figures. Custom ironically justified change in a period when innovation was considered suspect, and even insurrectionary. A key concept of legal and political thought thus shaped sixteenth-century literature, while this literature, in turn, transformed a legal-political concept into an evocative mytho-poetics. With this focus on the centrality of custom to Renaissance literary production, this book also questions the dominant understanding of the period as the birthplace of “historical consciousness.”
A second project looks at a range of inanimate objects that are central to women writers, from books to chairs, from objects that circulate within England to those that leave it. The project asks: how do these objects come to function, affectively and aesthetically, as inalienable possessions? How does women writers’ attention to the legal status of objects change our understanding of early modern global expansion? How do these objects, whether fictive or real, enable women writers to imagine alternative models of political and legal authority to those based in real property, or land?
Prof. Elsky has received fellowships for her research from the American Council of Learned Societies, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Henry E. Huntington Library, and the Volkswagen Foundation.
Custom, Common Law, and the Constitution of English Renaissance Literature (Oxford University Press, 2020)
Reviews of Custom, Common Law, & the Constitution of English Renaissance Literature
"This stunning and substantial book combines historical study, literary analysis, and theoretical reflection. … Throughout the book, Elsky nimbly handles custom's immemorial resistance to the impulse to periodize, making the work we do as scholars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a little more challenging-and a lot more interesting." - Julia Reinhard Lupton, UC- Irvine, Law and Literature
"In Custom, Common Law, and the Constitution of English Renaissance Literature, Stephanie Elsky offers a prescient study of historical continuity, one that challenges notions of epistemic change, periodization, and even historical consciousness ... Grounding her study in an extensive excavation of the uses of custom, Elsky illuminates the surprising range of possibility — specifically literary possibility — within this familiar concept." - Rebecca Lemon, The New Rambler
"[Elsky's] book offers a new, compelling and optimistic framework for reading English literature's conceptual debt to law in the early modern period, as well as for thinking about its legacy for our own times." - Lorna Hutson, Law and History Review
"Custom, Law, and the Constitution of English Renaissance Literature provides the most wide-ranging account to date of the conceptual machinery of custom and custom's key place in the legal imaginary of the period. . . . Elsky's book . . . will be required reading for anyone interested in the intersections of literary and legal culture in the early modern period. " - Kevin Curran, Professor of Early Modern Literature, University of Lausanne
“Daughters, Chairs, and Liberty in Margaret Cavendish’s The Religious.” Object Lessons in Legal Personhood, ed. Kevin Curran (in progress)
“Ernst Kantorowicz, Shakespeare, and The Humanities’ Two Bodies,” Law, Culture, and the Humanities 13.1 (Winter 2017)
“Lady Anne Clifford’s Common-Law Mind,” Studies in Philology 111.3 (Summer 2014)
Awarded Louis Round Wilson Prize for Best Article in a Volume
“Common Law and the Commonplace in Thomas More’s Utopia,” ELR 43.2 (Spring 2013)
“‘Wonne with Custome’: Conquest and Etymology in the Spenser-Harvey Correspondence and A View of the Present State of Ireland,” Spenser Studies XXVIII (2013)
2005 M.A., University of Pennsylvania
2002 B.A., Columbia University