“Shreds of holinesse”: George Herbert, Little Gidding, and Cutting Up Texts in Early Modern England [with illustrations]


  • My thanks to Alan Stewart, Andrew Gordon, and Juliet Fleming for help with this work.


This essay argues that early modern readers and writers cut up manuscripts and printed texts with surprising frequency, and a surprising lack of a sense of transgression. The essay gathers archival evidence to substantiate this culture of scissors and knives, in the form of cut-up texts, and also prescriptions for such acts contained in books. The Anglican community at Little Gidding in the 1630s provides one rich context for cutting. Under the direction of Nicholas Ferrar, this community cut up printed Gospels in order to reorder the narrative of Christ's life. Cutting, for Little Gidding, was not an act of destruction but a way of registering their careful engagement with the word: it was a pious act. This culture of cutting provides a valuable context for reading George Herbert's poetry, and several of his verses are considered in this new light. The essay concludes by offering some broader implications for this culture of cutting. (A.S.)