By Invitation

In this essay, which had its origins in a roundtable at MLA on Roland Greene’s Five Words, I took my task to be fourfold: to consider definitions of the “common” faithful to its history but also useful to confronting impending ecological catastrophe today; to indicate the relation of such a (dialectical) practice of “critical semantics” to Greene’s; to trace the role of geese in the past and ongoing struggle for a truly common world, in which the thriving of nonhuman as well as human creatures matters; to signal that a practice of the common committed to such mutual thriving demands a total transformation of the structurally unequal and unsustainably growth-oriented capitalist way of life that is currently destabilizing the planet for humans and nonhumans alike.


“Stubborn and imperishable, words precede everything”: with this remarkable sentence, Roland Greene opens Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes. It is hard to imagine a more unfashionable pronouncement in the academic milieu of the 21st century, awash in the so-called New Materialism with its demand to take account of things beyond human “meanings, habits or projects” (Bennett 4).[1] Greene’s semantic focus declares “Aroint ye!” to the materialists, though he never alludes to them directly. Against the tide of the turn to things, he adamantly insists on the distinctiveness of (human) words—indeed, claims that words “precede everything” and that they have an “imperishable” liveliness of their own. Since, there were, of course, many, many “things” that we humans now conjure up in words (stones, árboles, paanee . . . ) long before there were humans or (their) words—and, too, not only words but whole human (and, possibly, non-human) languages are vanishing from the earth, leaving not a wrack behind, at an astonishing pace in our time of massive cultural and biological extinctions—we would do best not to take Greene’s assertions as linguistic facts, but rather—contextually—as a dialectical retort to thing theory, hardly surprising from a literary scholar, anxious to give the power of words their due. Attentive to this context, I, like Greene, will engage in what he calls a “critical semantics” here, but I will confront human meanings and purposes with challenges to them posed by the Capitalocene.[2] This means that I will not only supplement Greene’s method with materialism, but also trace a longer historical trajectory than Five Words takes up explicitly.[3] More specifically, I will approach the concept of the “common” through one of its concrete historical forms—common land—and, further, consider geese in their creaturely amplitude, beyond figuration, as unsettling dominant human assumptions about what “common” might mean. Common, I will argue, is a site of struggle for planetary conditions of existence conducive to mutual thriving, human and nonhuman.

To follow this thread, I will, as Greene does, begin with an evocative quotation—in this case, a verse that constellates geese, humans and common land:

The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common

But leaves the greater villain loose

Who steals the common from off the goose.

Widely quoted in the burgeoning literature on the “common” today, this verse is variously described as originating in England anywhere from the 13th to the 19th centuries.[4] No one cites a definite source for it earlier than the 19th century, however, by which time the English agricultural commons, at least, had already been absorbed decisively by advancing capitalist forces of enclosure (privatization).[5] This is a particularly significant moment for the verse to emerge, the context saturating it with a sense that struggles over the “common” more generally persist, even after particular struggles over common land have been lost.

A history of struggle is thus implicit in the 19th century form of the common verse, which would be inflected in its originary moment of circulation by disputes over common rights that were still part of living memory.[6] Struggle is more explicit in the verse’s 17th century precursors, when disputes over common land were very much alive. Before the common verse lines find their way into print (and now the internet) as a rhyme, they had a much longer print history in prose to which no attention has yet been given. The earliest appearance I have traced so far contrasts a greater and lesser theft involving a goose rather awkwardly, but it is notable in its attempt to distinguish “unworthy” lawyers from “the law,” which the rhyme pointedly asserts is unfair in its entirety. Among Nicholas Breton’s “characters” (1616), we find a description of the “unworthy lawyer” as best viewed not as “the fox that stole the goose, but the great fox that stole the farm from the gander” (13-14). By mid-century, a more accomplished tale starts to appear in which the lineaments of the verse as we know it today are evident, not least because the “common” becomes a prominent part of the story:

About this time [1608] a commotion was stirred up by some Commoners against ingrossing their ground; when the King [James I] chanced to be invited in his hunting journey, to dine with Sir Thomas I of Berkshire, and turning short at the corner of a common, happened near to a Country-man, sitting by the heels in the stocks, who cried “Hosanna to his Majesty, which invited him to ask the reason of his restraint; Sir Thomas said, “It was for stealing a goose from the common.” The fellow replied, “I beseech your Majesty be judge, who is the greater thief, I for stealing geese from the common, or his worship for robbing the common from the geese? “By my soul, Sir,” (said the King to Sir Thomas) “I’ll not dine today on your dishes, till you restore the common for the poor to feed their flocks.” Which was forthwith granted to them, and the witty fellow set free, and care soon taken to quiet commotions (Sanderson 312).

After the Restoration, this 1650s version of the story collected by William Sanderson would be recycled several times nearly word for word, with the notable exception that the frame tale about “commotions”—specifically struggles over common land—would be struck off, presumably as too inflammatory when the memory of the civil wars was still raw.

Strikingly, these early versions of the goose commons thematic are decidedly elite. The seventeenth century circulators of the anecdote were all Royalists defending James I in particular and the monarchy in general from disparagement in other historical accounts.[7] Furthermore, they all attempt what we might call a rhetorical enclosure of “commotions” over commons (landed and more general), in order to defend social hierarchy and buttress real fencing of private property on the ground—the opposite gesture to the one that current users assume the common verse supports, putting these two versions in considerable tension. The prose anecdote is also in tension with material processes of enclosure at work in the world in which it circulated, explicitly referenced in Sanderson’s mention of “commotions,” which were often brutally suppressed rather than amicably negotiated; its rhetoric works hard to manage this history.

How so? As reported speech, the anecdote gives the impression of having been recorded as it happens by a silent witness who neutrally mediates the presentation of a supposed actual event involving three other persons, two identified, or at least hinted at, and all carefully localized not only in Berkshire—one of the sites of the Midlands Revolts (1607), to which the incident appears to allude obliquely—but also on common land.[8] The supposed neutrality of the narrator is a pose, of course; the tale, to be sure, demonstrates the “wit” of the “Country Man” but it does so principally so that “the King” can demonstrate his magnanimity. Unlike the rhyme now circulating, the prose tale identifies the King (rather than “the law”) as structuring all social relations and presents this power as benign. To do so, the anecdote first represents the King’s speech in indirect discourse, while the hailing “Hosanna”—“Save now!” (OED)—of the anonymous “Country man”—and the landlord are represented in direct discourse.[9] “Sir Thomas” then speaks for the man in “restraint” who has, presumptuously, addressed the King directly, refusing hierarchical mediation; that is, when the local authority figure attempts to restrain the speech of a subordinate along with his “heels,” the “witty fellow” eludes the restraint by making an appeal to an even higher authority. Thus it is that the speech dynamic is dramatically reversed in the tale’s denouement that silences Sir Thomas as the King and the “witty fellow” engage in a first person exchange that appears to amicably resolve a dispute over the head of the presumptive local authority. Furthermore, the entire transaction is thematized in terms of hunger and its satisfaction, over which the King emerges as protector; he refuses to eat himself until the “flocks” and “the poor” (on “Sir Thomas’s estates, at least) are more favorably situated in the food chain. Through this struggle and resolution in speech, broader struggles are invoked and ideologically (though, of course, not materially) settled. The tale has a strong scent of jestbook about it, the comic mode permitting a triumph to the anonymous peasant, despite his challenge to authority.[10] It also belongs to a long tradition of direct appeals to the Crown by local subjects aggrieved by abuses of local authority. Such ideological sites attempt to secure the King symbolically as sovereign of everyone and everything: not just the nobles and gentry, but peasants, commons and “flocks” too. The “multi-accentuality” (multiple voices) of the prose version of the goose thematic thus intimates a social dynamic that contrasts significantly from that of the rhyme.[11]

In the charged milieu of the mid to late seventeenth century, Royalists conjure up such “evidence” of Crown benevolence in an attempt to restore order and smooth over contradictions—not least that hunting parks, including royal ones, were notorious sites of dispossession—and that the Crown was conspicuously ambivalent about enclosure. Anti-vagrancy legislation blamed displaced victims and decried “depopulation,” thus supporting enclosers with one hand while critiquing them with the other.[12] Most important, the goose tale simplifies a violent history, condensing systemic forces favoring enclosure into one rapacious landlord on whom Royal disapprobation can exercise itself locally and rhetorically while keeping Crown authority—and the ongoing process of enclosure—intact materially. At the same time, the tale reduces the ominous specter of collective resistance to an individual act of theft, one that was itself ambivalent, since goose purloining was very likely to be a crime against the poor, whether from “above” by the greedy landlord who encloses their habitat, or from “below” by a fellow commoner. Without attention to this history, we lose a sense of the magnitude of the struggle necessary to make the common prevail—not only in the sign but also in the world—as well as access to useful knowledge of tactics deployed in the past to keep true commonality at bay.

At the same time, it is also crucial to underscore that these tactics, such as attempted rhetorical enclosure, do not guarantee success. The goose tale, whatever its origins, depends upon the trace of what it would suppress—a linguistic echo of insurgents assaulting real social hierarchies and the property relations that secure them. Fredric Jameson usefully describes such contradictory representation as the “dialectic of utopia and ideology.” This dialectic suggests that rhetorical moves to enclose what “common” could mean—as a concept and as a way of life—include challenges whose force enclosure seeks to weaken. Two residual insurgencies imminent to it render the prose tale especially apt for translation into the verse form (or to serve as a symptom of such translation, if the verse already existed in oral tradition). When the “witty fellow” is depicted as augmenting Sir Thomas’s mention of one stolen “goose” to plural “geese” (“I for stealing geese from the common, or his worship for robbing the common from the geese”), he not only (re)asserts collectivity, but also gestures toward potential collective struggles of oppressed humans alongside oppressed non-humans, both of whom have been excluded from the common, opening the way for a vision of a common that can neither be owned nor be human alone. A critical semantics of the common, through a careful accounting of the historical complexities of pasts and present conditions of existence in their totality, as inhabited by humans and nonhumans alike, must be attentive to challenges to these conditions that bring pasts alive to new insurgencies, as I attempt here, until the yet unimaginable true common—a site of planetary thriving for all—is achieved. This does not mean the task is easy.

Expanding serious attention to the non-human as we consider the common unsettles human assumptions, Right and Left alike. When we release “geese” from containment within human meanings and purposes, we must recognize—even though the goose verse when it circulates on the Left today does not foreground this—that geese were not set by humans on the common to enjoy long protected lives in splendid geese-ness.[13] A pre-modern commons was not a bird sanctuary. Recipes for goose pie, roasts and other dishes abound in pre-modern cookery books, as does evidence that goose feathers found their way not only into pre-modern pillows but, importantly, served as quills for writing; numerous tomes also recommend “goose greace” for myriad human uses, culinary, medicinal, agricultural and artisanal.[14] Pre-moderns, in other words, raised geese for their meat, fat and feathers, the latter sometimes removed by thrifty housewives and husbandmen while the geese were still alive to get multiple pluckings from each bird—a practice that animal activists (rightly) decry when it happens today (as it still does).[15] Some early husbandry manuals suggest twice a year plucking, and note matter-of-factly: “Some use to clippe them, but then theyr feathers neuer growe so well: but yf you pull them, you shall haue them to come very fayre agayne” (Heresbach 164v). Heresbach not only favors live plucking, but also describes premodern practices of forced feeding that almost make modern practices sound benign. There were (what would now be counted) horrors in pre-modern husbandry as well as in modern factory farms, where not only live plucking, but force feeding for foie gras persists.[16] On the other hand, the important role of geese in “mixed husbandry” seems clear: they have been (and are) used for garden weeding and meadow maintenance, for example.[17] The point here is that the complexity of the issues involved cannot be skirted over by deployment of the rhyme with its vaguely early modern allusiveness as if this were an argument for a “return” to pre-modern practices (even if that were possible), or as if a human-nonhuman common could be easily achieved in any century.[18]

If pre-modern human treatment of geese cannot in itself serve as a guide for us today, goose resistance to capitalist industrial agriculture proves more promisingly instructive. Chickens now account for 93% of the total poultry eaten by humans worldwide; geese less than 3%. It was not always so. Before the demise of the commons, and the rise of capitalist industrial agriculture, the husbandry of chicken and geese was far less lopsided, which might sound great for geese, but since factory farms in which chickens are now incarcerated, as well as the factory farms needed to grow their feed, demand massive amounts of land and other resources, it actually is not: geese habitat—and that of many other creatures besides—is negatively impacted by chicken farming. Capitalist factory farms are an unmitigated disaster for ecology in general. The mixed farming in which geese husbandry thrived is far more ecologically sound. Early 20th-century commentary on the decline in goose husbandry directly connected it with the reduction of availability of common land, which made goose husbandry possible: “at one time nearly every village had its own common, where the villagers were allowed to run their stock, and where large flocks of geese could be reared at a very small cost. The enclosure of the common lands, however, meant that cottagers [the poorest residents of an estate] were no longer able to keep a few geese” (E.T. Brown 61). Farmers attempting to rear geese in straited space, he continues, learned that the “birds thrive badly under such conditions” and “quickly foul the ground.” To put this more pointedly: geese have proved much more difficult than chickens to discipline to mass industrial farming. They demand a lot of space, they prefer access to open water, and they can fly away if provoked.[19]

Their recalcitrance has even been given a number by the quantifiers of modernity: 9 square feet. It designates the absolute minimum space reckoned necessary for the successful raising of a single goose today for human uses.[20] Contrast this figure with the half a foot that experts recommend for raising commercial broiler chickens (it’s even less for layers). The 8-and-a-half-foot discrepancy between goose and chicken spatial demands go some way to explaining why chicken nuggets rather than goose nuggets found their way into fast food cartons in the latter half of the 20th century.[21] Global chicken consumption numbers are staggering—and growing—with numerous ecological costs, as well as considerable cruelty to chickens in factory farms.[22] Scaling up goose production to current chicken levels would thus be well nigh impossible, which might encourage us to thoughtfully reconsider the levels of human meat consumption and pay heed to the kind of agriculture to which goose resistance points us.

Everything that makes geese unattractive for industrial farming, makes them highly suited to the “mixed” farming advocated by many food activists today as a corrective to the ecological trauma inflicted on animals and the planet by capitalist factory agriculture.[23] The relatively few geese that are raised for market today still typically come from small farms that practice pre-industrial husbandry. Geese, being grazers, require little commercial feed or keeper attention, and they were (and are) hearty. They could be let loose on virtually any patch of meadow near water, and, if satisfied with the conditions, would remain there, and return to farmer-provided accommodations at night, to be protected from inclement weather and predation. Because of these mingled attributes of independence, tractability and usefulness to human purposes, geese became intimately associated in pre-industrial conditions with historical “common” land. So one important way that geese are indeed an attractive figure for—and active advocate of—the “common” in a sense that includes non-humans as actors and interested parties, is their firm and ongoing resistance to capitalist industrial farming.

There is a second way that geese have rebelled against their exclusion from the common. At the same time as the numbers of domesticated geese have declined relative to chicken, wild geese, after a period of decline, have massively increased in many areas, adapting themselves well to human land use, often very much against human purposes. Today, wild flocks sweep grandly en masse onto grain fields, golf courses, sports fields, parks and lawns, often to the dismay of human owners and caretakers. Meanwhile, in the air, they pose a serious threat to human aviation. Thus, in a recent rant in the Daily Mail, Robert Hardman describes 21st-century wild geese as “the most loathsome bird in Britain” and ventures the opinion that if “geese were human, they would be lounging around all day doing nothing, claiming every welfare benefit in the book, driving their neighbors out of town and notching up ASBOs [anti-social behavior ordnance violations] around the clock.” Geese have thus gone from welcome residents of “common” land to despised “common” lumpenfowl in less than 300 years.[24] But if we flip the perspective, it is easy to see that the opposite is more true: expanding human encroachment on common land, water and airspace has been “driving their [non human] neighbors out of town” at a frenetic pace for centuries. Geese are fighting back.

It is intriguing to consider this resistance as we read an article in the May 2017 issue of the financial analysis magazine, Wilmott: “The Goose Steals Back the Common.” This arresting title turns out to be ironic, since the article pooh-poohs the recent “upsurge in populism,” to which the author consigns all threats to “free trade,” whether Occupy Wall Street or Trump’s election, to reassure intended readers. Its remarkable last line declares: “Don’t expect more common to be fenced in the next five years, but also don’t expect to see the goose owning the common either.” Translation: “we might have to be discreet for a while, but the worst (for us) won’t happen.” This attitude is not in itself surprising in a finance trade publication, but it still raises the question of why a reference to the “common” verse finds its way into this venue at all. Its presence suggests that as elites continue to enclose the world materially, their intellectuals feel compelled to manage the concept of the “common” rhetorically against both the figurative and actual geese decried in one swoop by Hardman’s telling equation of “pest” geese with human welfare recipients. Insurgent demands for “Commons not Capitalism” at Occupy and other protests insist on an alternative world to the one structured to serve the interests of Wilmott readers, a world in which geese, figurative and concrete, successfully rebel against their exclusion. Apparently, elites and their organic intellectuals have noticed, and feel the need to respond. As we have seen, elite attempts to manage insurgency by giving their own spin to the “common” is not new. Tracing out such histories matters, so that we might be better armed to counter these tactics.

A “critical semantics” of “common” attentive to this history differs from Greene’s apt nuancing of early modern linguistic change, then, because it begins from an explicit consideration not only of geese in their concrete, non-figurative historicity but also of the conditions that underwrite now the ways of life open to geese and humans alike. I have proposed here that humans might have something to learn from geese—especially from their resistance to capitalist industrial agriculture, and their refusal to acquiesce to human attempts to exclude them from land, water and air; in addition, marginalized humans in particular might learn something about how social hierarchies work semantically and structurally when they are equated with despised—but rebellious—geese, and better struggle against their true enemy: the capitalist conditions of existence that de-privilege them, and geese, alike.

Geese of the world unite!


British Museum - Arcade.jpg

Image credit: © Trustees of the British Museum

I am grateful to Anston Bosman for inviting me to join the MLA session from where this paper originated.

Works Cited

Beier, A.L. “A New Serfdom,” in A.L. Beier and Paul Ocobock, eds. Cast Out. Athens: Ohio UP, 2008.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke UP, 2010.

Boyle, James. “The Second Enclosure Movement and the Construction of the Public Domain.” Law and Contemporary Problems 66.1/2 (2003): 33-74.

Breton, Nicholas. Figure of Foure, Second Part. London, 1636.

——. The Good and the Badde. London, 1616.

Brown, Aaron. “The Goose Steals Back the Common.” Wilmott, vol. 2017, iss. 89 (2017): 16-19.

Brown, E.T. Ducks, Geese and Turkeys, 2nd edition. London: Arthur Pearson Ltd., 1920.

Coole, Diana and Samantha Frost. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham: Duke UP, 2010.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009.

Fox, Anthony D. and Jesper Madson. “Threatened Species to Super-Abundance: The Unexpected International Implications of Successful Goose Conservation.” Ambio 46. supp. 2 (2017): S179-S187.

Fudge, Erica. Brutal Reasoning. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2008.

Greene, Roland. Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2013.

Guha, Ranajit. A Rule of Property for Bengal. Durham: Duke UP, 1996.

Haraway, Donna. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2008.

Hardman, Robert. “The Most Loathsome Bird in Britain.” Daily Mail, June 4, 2008.

Harvey, David. New Imperialism. Oxford UP, 2005 (revised edition).

Heresbach, Conrad. Foure Bookes of Husbandry. Trans. Barnabe Googe. London, 1577.

Jameson, Fredric. Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

Lappe, Francis Moore. Diet for a Small Planet, Anniversary Edition. New York: Ballantine, 1991.

Linebaugh, Peter. Magna Carta Manifesto. Berkeley: U of California P, 2008.

Linebaugh, Peter and Marcus Rediker. Many Headed Hydra. London: Verso, 2000.

Manning, Roger. Village Revolts: Social Protest and Popular Disturbances in England, 1509-1640. Oxford UP, 1988.

Martin, John. Feudalism to Capitalism. Humanities Press, 1983.

Mascall, Leonard. Husbandlye Ordering and Governmente of Poultrie. London, 1581.

Moore, Jason. Capitalism in the Web of Life. New York: Verso, 2015.

Motett, A. and G. Tempio. “Global Poultry Production: Current State and Future Outlook and Challenges,” World’s Poultry Science Journal 73.2 (2017): 245-256.

Neeson, J. M. Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820. Cambridge UP, 1993.

Patel, Raj and Jason Moore. A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. Oakland: U of California P, 2017.

Pollan, Michael. Ominvore’s Dilemma. London: Bloomsbury, 2006.

Sanderson, William. Compleat History of the Lives of Mary Queen of Scotland and James . . . the First. London: 1656.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. New York: Harper Collins, 2009.

——. The Ethics of What We Eat. Rodale, 2006.

Spivak, Gayatri. “Reading with Stuart Hall in ‘Pure’ Literary Terms.” An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2012.

Thirsk, Joan. Agrarian History of England and Wales, vol. 4. Cambridge UP, 1967.

Voloshinov, V.N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Trans. Ladislav Matekjka and I.R. Titunik. New York: Seminar Press, 1973.

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Woodbridge, Linda. “Jestbooks, the Literature of Roguery, and the Vagrant Poor in Renaissance England.” English Literary Renaissance 33.2 (2003): 201-10.


[1] For an overview of New Materialisms, see Coole and Frost. My approach engages what is now often dismissed as “old” materialism—especially in its recognition of Capitalism as a totalizing systematic force—with more sympathy than the “new” (especially Latour-inflected) materialism typically does, for reasons that I gesture toward in this short essay, and discuss in more detail elsewhere. This recognition of capitalism’s systemic role is the main distinction between Marxist and Latourian responses to ecological threat today, and is the main site on which debates between the two needs to be situated, in my view. Minimally, the Latourians need to indicate how a “Parliament of Things”—even if it were convened—can have any significant purchase while capitalism persists: why would Purdue agree to negotiate with other parties on the fate of chickens (and the rest of the planet) in the Capitalocene, for example? And, more important, how could such negotiations be anything but rigged from the start in favor of capitalism? I very much welcome the attention to the non-human that newer approaches have foregrounded (although they are not as novel as their practitioners sometimes claim). Their failure to recognize how capitalism works, however, renders their approaches useful but partial, as dialectics puts it. To best inform struggle toward a just, equitable and ecologically thriving world, we need a theory that can properly identify—and know the strength of—the major impediment to it—capitalism—as I have consistently argued. For my other work see:

[2] I choose “Capitalocene” over the more familiar “Anthropocene” to signal the central role of Capitalism in producing the current ecological crisis, and to focus attention on the specific enemy to be faced in our struggles for just and sustainable planetary relations, a collective way of life that is truly common—that is, a site of mutual thriving—for humans and non-humans alike. On “Capitalocene,” see Moore.

[3] I should add, though, that one of the most compelling aspects of Five Words is its refusal to junk epochal (“age”) narratives of “shift,” which Greene seeks to complexify with his case studies, not undermine. Like Capitalism, the Anthropocene is epochal, which those who are attempting to confront its dangers while maintaining a non-ruptural temporality need to address.

[4]See for example Jay Walljasper, "Stealing the Common from the Goose," January 18, 2013, Activist discussions of the “common” that deploy the rhyme principally as an affective incitement to various current political projects understandably have better things to do than trace the history of the rhyme’s emergence, so this essay implies no criticism of them. When attributions are given, Boyle (who offers the most substantive bibliographical information, tracing the rhyme to an early 19th century number of The Tickler) is typically cited. As an example of a doubtful attribution, the link above to “On the Commons” website is typical, albeit somewhat more egregiously misleading than most because it erroneously declares that Boyle claims the verse to be a “17th century folk poem,” which he quite clearly does not. No one has traced the 17th century versions of the goose-common theme that I focus on here. I will discuss later versions in a companion piece to this one.

[5] The late eighteenth century rounds of “parliamentary enclosure” through which “common land” (in legal terms, land on which multiple users had specific rights, such as grazing or gathering)—which had been eroded piecemeal for centuries—was largely eradicated in England by formal privatization in a process that has been chronicled by Neeson. For earlier periods, see Thirsk. Guha describes how a related process unfolded (with different effects) in colonial India. Indeed, colonization is often described as an arm of the “enclosure” and “improvement” movements in the colonizing countries. See, for example, Linebaugh and Rediker. David Harvey has influentially extended this historical process, which Marxists call “primitive accumulation,” into the present in his discussion of “new enclosures.”

[6] To render the struggle explicit, current circulations, including scholarly ones, such as Boyle, often append additional verses, including the pointed claim that “And geese will still a common lack/Till they go and steal it back.” These verses, however, are not in the Tickler, and their origin is still obscure.

[7] These include Thomas Forde and Edward Leigh, a Puritan, who, in the complicated politics of the time, was at first on the side of Parliament, but was purged by Pride when he balked at the execution of the Charles I, and thereafter changed his loyalties to the Royalists. Samuelson, Forde and Leigh all have entries in the ODNB.

[8] On the Midland’s Revolt, see Manning as well as Martin.

[9] For a theoretical discussion of the “struggle in the sign” that emerges in such representations, see Voloshinov, and its later sensitive uses by Williams, Hall and Spivak.

[10] On jestbooks and poverty, see Woodbridge.

[11] Whether the prose anecdote is a response to an oral (or lost print) version of the rhyme now circulating (I have not found evidence of the existence of any such rhyme before the nineteenth century) or a response to a prose version circulating in oral culture (more likely, in my view), or simply an elite invention to deal with the “commotions,” the anecdote is revealing evidence of struggle over the “common” worth taking account as such struggles continue today.

[12] For an overview, see Beier.

[13] In Early Modern Studies, Erica Fudge has been particularly influential concerning the importance of paying attention to literary nonhuman animals in their concrete substantiality in the world beyond the page, without reducing animals to figures or symbols of human traits, emotions or practices. Sometimes, of course, a goose is a figure, and I follow the trail of figuration here, but Fudge’s point is well taken, and I’ve also tried hard to attend to geese, as geese. In an essay on the geese he keeps himself (not for any commercial uses), Paul Thoreux makes the helpful point that anthropomorphizing nonhumans (he points to E.B. White in particular) gets in the way of understanding them because it “produce[s] a deficiency of observation”; the wager of this essay is that to understand what a common world might mean, humans must be more thoughtful, careful and fair in observing and weighing the relations of non-humans to each other and ourselves, as well as of humans to each other—a difficult task. See Paul Theroux, "Living With Geese," Smithsonian Magazine, December 2006,

[14] Breton sums: “Foure things good in a goose: her quils for pens, her feathers for pillowes, her flesh for the dish, and her grease for the ache” (Figure of Foure, Second Part, B[1]v).

[15] Lily Hay Newman, "What's Good for the Goose," Slate, October 29, 2014,; and Ari Solomon, "Down With the Truth," HuffPost, November 22, 2009,

[16] Paul Shapiro, "Animals That Love Pain: How Factory Farming Explains Abuse," The Atlantic, November 10, 2011,

[17] Kirsten Lie-Nielsen and Days Ferry Organics, "A History of Geese as Guard Animals and for Weed Control," Mother Earth News, October 13, 2015,

[18] Some commentaries on early modern commoning can make it seem rosier than it indeed was in practice, and as if ancient legal structures are more protective of a desirable community than they indeed are; such nostalgia, while seeming to affirm the “common” actually impedes the struggle for a truly common society, which has certainly never existed so far as the historical record guides us. For an example of such (well meaning) nostalgia, see Linebaugh’s The Magna Carta Manifesto.

[19] The manager of the largest geese farm in Britain confessed to Farmer’s Weekly that when geese are taken to range they “become a bit rebellious and can take off,” and so he underscores the importance of “imprinting [to humans as] an essential part of the management” if they are not to be lost. See Philip Clarke, "How the UK's largest goose producer rears its birds," Farmers Weekly, August 12, 2015,

[20] Christine Heinrichs, "All About Heavy Goose Breeds," March 14, 2019,

[21] On the many costs of “cheap” chicken, see the Introduction to Patel and Moore.

[22] See Mottet and Tempio; the “Poultry Site” posts large numbers of statistics for investors: e.g.,

[23] Given that industrial meat farming is ecologically devastating and involves—even when supposedly “organic”—considerable cruelties for animals, Michael Pollan suggests that the only case for ethical eating of domesticated animals (in terms of a the well being of the animals and planetary sustainability) is to restrict meat production to small, mixed agriculture. This would require, of course, considerable less human meat eating overall. He also considers well-regulated and ethically practiced hunting to be acceptable. I’m a vegetarian on ecological and planetary social justice (i.e. “common”) grounds, and am convinced that eradicating meat eating by humans would go a long way to improving human devastation of the planet, but Pollan, Haraway, Lymbery and many others have made strong cases for ethical meat eating as part of a regenerative, earth-respectful and creature-caring food system. The contrasting case has been offered, in different ways, by Foer, Lappe and Singer. Whatever one’s position on eating non-human animals, though, it is clear that current levels of meat eating are ecologically unsustainable and harmful to animals (and humans) because the farming practices necessary to produce so much meat (and the feed for the animals) is massively out of whack with available land, water, energy on a shared planet. See Bibi van der Zee, "Why factory farming is not just cruel – but also a threat to all life on the planet," The Guardian, October 4, 2017,

[24] The welcome can be overstated, of course. Even in earlier periods, geese could pose significant threats to agricultural crops. Though he praises geese as very profitable for the husbandman in his book on poultry, Mascall also warns that they can cause serious devastation to gardens and fields, which must be protected from them.

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Critical Semantics: New Transnational Keywords

This Colloquy arises from a 2018 MLA Convention session I organized on behalf of the Forum on Comparative Renaissance and Early Modern Studies. The original call for papers read simply: "Extend and critique Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes, Roland Greene's 2013 reorientation of early modern studies. What does Greene miss?


Craft a 'lightning talk' using one new keyword." As session organizer, I received a bumper crop of submissions, each passionately advocating for its own concept. Several papers extended Five Words in surprising ways, but only a handful took the further step of directly engaging Greene’s innovative "critical semantics" as a practice or method. Four of those composed the panel in New York City, and Roland Greene agreed to offer each of them a formal response. The resulting conversation brought diverse approaches to bear on a single focused intent: the deployment of philological skill to capture the flow and entanglement of ideas across European cultures. Although rooted in early modern studies, each contribution was quickened by twenty-first-century urgency, mobilizing critical semantics as an archaeology of what Arjun Appadurai would call transnational ideoscapes (1996: 36-37). The four papers and Greene’s response yielded powerful questions that overflowed our conference timeslot, and as audience members—including many whose excellent proposals I had been unable to include—expressed their admiration for the format as well as the speakers, it became clear that publication was warranted. We thank ARCADE for hosting this Colloquy as the next step in our conversation.

Our topic is timely, because we live in an age of keywords. They structure our research, our publications, and our teaching. From EEBO to Google n-grams, the keyword search has become a modern equivalent of dipping a pen into ink, where, as the nursery rhyme goes, "some find the thoughts they want to think." Humanists have learned from, or perhaps bowed to, scientific ways of mapping knowledge by digitally analyzing the strength and pattern of meaningful terms, which engineers call "keyword co-occurrence networks." When we submit abstracts for conferences or journals or course catalogues, keywords must be provided; indeed, for this Colloquy’s original panel the MLA program required five keywords—why must it be five?—that were not Roland Greene’s words or the titles of our presentations. But keywords today are not confined to bureaucratic subtexts. On the contrary, they increasingly structure the titles of scholarly lectures, articles, and monographs. Literary titles, which used to trade in riddling questions or ambiguous genitives, now unspool as paratactic lists: consider the examples of Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees (2005), Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (2005), and Caroline Levine’s Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (2015). How starkly the listed terms differ from the neologisms of high theory! In fact, almost all the diction in these titles belongs to what Raymond Williams in 1976 called "a general vocabulary ranging from strong, difficult and persuasive words in everyday usage to words which, beginning in particular specialized contexts, have become quite common in descriptions of wider areas of thought and experience" (2014: xxvii). After all, the title of Keywords itself derives from a household object, no less important for being used every day.

For an object that is continually being declared obsolete, the physical key has proved astonishingly resilient. (Although smartphones can now unlock your house or car, Google has signaled the limits of virtuality by manufacturing a low-tech security key that physically authenticates users, supposedly reassuring them that their data is safe from hackers.) Yet the key’s stubborn materiality contrasts with the abstraction that some of Williams’s successors emphasize in their modern anthologies of keywords. A striking example is Keywords for Today, a 2018 volume produced by an Anglo-American scholarly collective and edited by Colin MacCabe and Holly Yanacek. This text variously updates, replaces or adds new entries to Williams’s collection of complex words. For our purposes, the additions and subtractions are telling: gone, for example, is the entry on materialism, while the very first entry explores a new keyword, which is abstract. In line with this remarkable substitution, some entries call attention to how twenty-first-century vocabulary shrinks from its material base, such as the evolution of market into the "hardened abstraction" of the market, with its tyrannical definite article (2018: 231). Other entries, however, seem blind to their own abstraction, as when image skims over the physical consequences of socially mediated aesthetics as distorted by technology. By contrast with Keywords for Today, Greene’s Five Words elaborates its critical semantics "by trying to make tangible what is often abstract and obscure" (2013: 8), offering literal analogues to its polysemous terms (the palimpsest for invention, the pendent for language, and so forth) in order to underscore the dynamic relay between the material and the discursive in early modern cultures.

Greene blazes two further pathways unfamiliar to modern literary taxonomists. The first is historical. By slowing the brisk diachronic sweep of keyword etymologies down to the Renaissance and Baroque, Greene tunes in to subtler rhythmic patterns, finding in the so-called "discovery of language in early modern Europe" not only new words but new relations between them: thus terms like tongue and language are described as "neither dependent on nor independent of one another," but instead "pendent" or reciprocally clarifying and energizing (53). Elsewhere, Greene catches terms in mid-transformation, charting how blood is redefined by the "literalism of the sixteenth century" and the "vitalism of the mid-seventeenth" (115). The other pathway is comparative. Williams long ago noted that "many of the most important keywords … either developed key meanings in languages other than English, or went through a complicated and interactive development in a number of major languages," but predicted that the necessary "comparative analysis" would require an "international collaborative enterprise" (2014: xxxi). The difficulty of such work is evident in the case of Keywords for Today, which explores only one term recognizably borrowed from beyond the Anglosphere—the Sanskrit karma, which is quite properly adduced to demonstrate "the danger of trying to limit English semantics to its traditional homelands" (2018: 207). Alert to such danger, in Five Words Greene has provided a single-authored study that boldly and succinctly takes up Williams’s internationalist challenge.

Or at least he has done so for the terms blood, invention, language, resistance, and world. "Many words," Greene writes, "are like these words," continuing: "I have envisioned extending this sort of project to every word on a given page by Rabelais, Sidney, or the Inca Garcilaso, distributing the terms to scholars with the injunction not only to explain their semantic changes over time but to set each discrete word in motion with the others" (2013: 14). Such is the gauntlet taken up by this ARCADE Colloquy. Each essay collected here is to double business bound: the authors have each chosen a single transcultural keyword from the early modern period, and they have set their keyword in motion with Five Words as well as cognate or "pendent" terms they find essential. The reader will observe that not all their words are nouns. Nor are their keywords all self-evidently "ordinary," and on occasion they explicitly put that descriptor under pressure. The contributors draw into the discussion features of early modern worlds that Five Words did not have the space to map, including visual culture (John Casey’s color), radical politics (Crystal Bartolovich’s common), the poetics of ecology (Vin Nardizzi’s grafting), and the philosophy of science (Debapriya Sarkar’s utopian). Far from some rote parataxis, however, these keywords allow the reader to adapt Greene’s tools for ever deeper exploration. On its publication, Five Words was lauded no less for its stylistic elegance than for its conceptual ambition. Bookended by that study and Greene’s generous response to the four initial essays, this Colloquy probes new interventions in literary studies and rewards the reader with unexpected results.


Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Greene, Roland. 2013. Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

MacCabe, Colin and Holly Yanacek, eds. 2018. Keywords for Today: A 21st Century Vocabulary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, Raymond. (1976) 2014.  Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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