Writing the life of an adventurer

‘It was like staring at someone through a kaleidoscope, fractured into small glittering pieces…’

Trinity Fellow Joe Moshenska on writing the life of adventurer Kenelm Digby

A Stain in the blood: the remarkable voyage of Sir Kenelm DigbySir Kenelm Digby was an adventurer and polymath, widely travelled, well read and well known in seventeenth-century England. That he is not familiar to us today is, in part, why Trinity Fellow, Dr Joe Moshenska, has written the first full account of this compelling character.

He first began to notice Digby in the ‘margins of other, more famous people’s stories’ – from Edmund Spenser and Ben Jonson to Thomas Hobbes, Anthony Van Dyck, and Robert Boyle. He dug deeper and began to unearth the breadth of Digby’s talents, his magnetism and intellect, as well as the family’s clouded history.

A Stain in the Blood refers to the legacy Digby felt he had inherited from his father, who was executed for his role in the notorious Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when a group of Catholics attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

The biography describes Digby’s attempts to shed the shadow of his treasonous, if charismatic, father, and gain society’s respect. But initially Dr Moshenska was drawn to Digby by his wide and eclectic interests.

…and when I realised he was also devoted to alchemy and cookery I got really excited. Academics are encouraged to specialise more and more, and following in Digby’s footsteps gave me a great excuse to avoid that pressure and learn about the full range of things that fascinated him.

That Digby’s story is told by an academic of English literature delving into history, fascinated by the connections between literature, science and theology, and who has lived abroad and travelled widely, is perhaps not a coincidence.

Dr Moshenska on a 'Digby journey' in Rome
Dr Moshenska on a ‘Digby journey’ in Rome ©Rosa Andújar

Dr Moshenska spent part of his childhood in Zimbabwe and has voyaged with his young family in Digby’s footsteps, visiting archives holding the seventeenth-century polymath’s writings and imagining his life abroad nearly 400 years ago.

Digby lived in Paris and sojourned in Florence, Rome and Madrid. Most daringly, in 1628, aged 24, he sailed to the Mediterranean where he took part in sea battles, freed slaves, stole ancient statues and won the respect of local leaders – details of which he recorded with relish in his journal.

Along the way, Digby not only sampled local dishes, but described the ingredients and cooking methods in detail. Back in London, he experimented with exotic recipes in a well-equipped kitchen that doubled as a chemist’s – and alchemist’s – laboratory.

Trying to make sense of such a multi-talented character in a conventional biography was challenging, says Dr Moshenska:

Initially it was like staring at someone through a kaleidoscope, fractured into small glittering pieces that never came together into a neat whole.

But he was helped by Digby’s apparent need to document his life in various genres.

Digby’s writings were unusually saturated with autobiographical anecdote and reflection: whatever he wrote about he was also trying to make sense of and present a version of himself. He not only had an incredibly exciting and eventful life but thought endlessly about how to live and to write.

Antony Van Dyck's portrait of Digby
Antony Van Dyck’s portrait of Digby ©Stephencdickson

A Stain in the Blood not only highlights the complexities of the 17th century, which are often glossed over, but is also an experiment in biographical writing (see sidebar), ‘about what it means to live and tell our lives as a dense skein of stories’, says Dr Moshenska.

Trying to communicate academic research to new and broad audiences is important, he says, but not at any price.

It’s crucial that academics find ways of doing so on their own terms, and in forms that they genuinely believe in. There’s been a lot of pressure to do so in specific ways through the notorious ‘Impact’ component of the recent Research Excellence Framework, but this had an extremely crude, one-size-fits-all model for how wider engagement should happen and be measured.

I think there is a large and interested public who don’t want all research to have a value that can be simply counted or priced, and academics should be trusted to find their own ways of engaging with them.

As well as experimental biography, Dr Moshenska has sought to connect with new audiences in different ways, for example, as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker, interviews with local media, and as Trinity’s Fellow for Communications.

He acknowledges the challenges of such engagement – and the struggle not to include the huge amount of new research and archival graft that underpins even popular biographies, such as A Stain in the Blood.

I try to wear it lightly and make it serve the story. I hope the book will interest both scholars and general readers, and in a sense that’s the very divide that I’m aiming to overcome.

Read reviews of A Stain in the Blood in The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Times.

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