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Networks, case studies and the big picture: some reflections

Re-blogging (?) of a piece I wrote for the News Networks in Early Modern Europe project.

Early Modern News Networks

Following on from our successful conference last month, News Networks is busy once again, this time in producing a two-volume edition that aims to re-evaluate the history of news in Europe. The aim of the project overall could be summarised as forging its own network in order to link and so affect scholars working in the field, discussing shared problems and different methods in order to come up with genuinely new approaches and cast light on the old.

One of the minor difficulties involved in writing about the News network project has been the proliferation of the word network. We’re a scholarly network looking at early modern news networks, with some using the ideas of network theory and some the technology of network analysis to make sense of them. This is not just a stylistic coincidence, and it’s provoked me to reflect a little on the importance of the term…

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The problem with the history of news?

Early modern news networks: workshop in Venice.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a fascinating workshop on early modern news networks. If you’re wondering what ‘news networks’ actually means, or you’re interested in news history and are annoyed you weren’t there, read on and I’ll try to give a sense of (in this post) one of the discussions that filled the three days.[1]

The workshop was part of the Leverhulme Trust-funded project ‘News Networks in Early Modern Europe’, which has brought together five leading scholars from around Europe, and many other guests and associates, in order to re-think the history of news. The project will result in co-authored volumes of essays, and is culminating in a 3-day symposium in London in July.

I’m actually going to start in the middle, with the final paper of the second day, because this paper goes some way to explaining the larger project; why it’s needed and what it’s trying to achieve. Professor Joad Raymond delivered this one, entitled: ‘News Networks: putting the ‘news’ and the ‘networks’ back in’ – so you can see why it’s a good place to start.

What the Victorians did to us[2]

Taking a British (or rather English/Welsh) perspective, Professor Raymond first discussed how we got to where we got to where we are, historiographically, by taking us through the legacy left to us by Victorian historians. He suggested that ever since, this narrative has only ever been expanded on and added to in terms of detail; the shape of it hasn’t really been questioned, let alone rewritten. It is this rewriting of the whole narrative that Joad wanted to spur us to think about.

He qualified this with the recognition that some of the Victorian ideas of newspaper history not only still stand but remain significant and valuable. Further, he stressed that of course much important and influential work has been done to add to and affect the development of this narrative of the history of news; it’s just that he sees this as still being held within the grand Victorian narrative.
He listed some of these key influences (though you’ll have to forgive the imperfection of memory):

  • great bibliographic resources that have supported the historiography. He was primarily referring to the Wing STC, which makes life so much easier for British historians.
  • Roger Chartier, and theories of books and texts
  • microeconomics
  • the history of reading, as a field. Here he was thinking about the analysis of material marks, and attention to demography and literacy rates, replacing the assumption of an implied reader.
  • the growth in interdisciplinary research. Thinking about history, bibliography, politics, literature, sociology, manuscript studies, the linguistic turn, social history and orality, anthropology, even maths…

The point is that despite all this great work and new influence, we still haven’t moved past the Victorian legacy. A big part of the blinkered-ness of the current picture is that it is at its core nationalistic – and this problem is not confined to the British perspective, rather it is persistent in the writing of the history of news everywhere. The perseverance of ‘residual national interests’ is something that the News Networks in Early Modern Europe project explicitly works to overcome. National interest and national focus are often so deeply rooted that they silently constrain the rewriting of this history; a pan-European perspective could change this.

But, he offered, how do you know when you need a whole new narrative? And, if the grand nation-based story is replaced with an appreciation of the many details of different histories, can you ever form an encompassing narrative: or put another way, how many case studies make a big picture?

Network Theory

Those were two big questions. For now, however, Joad was going to spend an hour or two shaking the Victorian narrative up with a little maths and IT from the 21st century. My maths AS-level reared up in my memory, ready to screw its brow and try to remember that graphs and equations are not the enemy. This was Network Theory.[3]

Kevin Bacon - centre of the universe

Kevin Bacon – centre of the universe

Networks have become rather fashionable in history and early modern studies of late. And as with any sexy new idea, there have been variations in what it is understood to mean, accusations of misuse, and accusations that it’s just another fancy word for something we essentially did before. In this context, as well as being a way to describe a connected bunch of people, the term network also has more complex theoretical and mathematical meanings, and this is what Joad wanted to recognise in his paper.

Network theory can show us when a group of connections is not random, as it might first appear, but actually is organised. Nodes, points in the network, have connections, or edges, and if a node has many connections it is a hub, i.e. a key point through which many others are connected (the Kevin Bacon of the network theory world). When a small number of nodes in a network have many of the connections, and a large number have very few, the pattern displayed is something called a ‘power law’. This is that all important sign of self-organisation, rather than randomness; and guess what – early modern news networks would seem to present this pattern.

Power Law distribution

Power Law distribution

So, the implication is that early modern news networks are self-organising. A key aspect of this is the importance of hubs in the networks of postal routes: places like the economic and mercantile centre of Antwerp, a city connected to so many others by virtue of this status. Hubs, being helpful connectors, make the world smaller: connectivity is the thing that means that letters can travel more quickly, even to the extent that the connections in the postal network(s) can be more important than geographical distance in determining how fast a letter could travel from A to B. Mapping the routes by which a letter could travel across early modern Europe, and the connections between all these places, can give us fresh insight into the history of news: it can identify hubs, and can respond to and reflect the changes in the relationships between different cities and countries.

This way of viewing Europe, as a series of interconnected points in a network, can be useful, but one could question how far people on the ground actually abided by the logic of the network that they’re part of; by its nature they can’t see the whole structure and so may not perceive the most direct route. It would appear, however, that skilled and experienced individuals (as the writers of newsletters were) often did seem to navigate the network with impressive ability and knowledge.

Joad suggested that network theory can defamiliarise our evidence, so we can look at the world anew: we can finally see the wood for the trees.

This was an important gain in the context of his earlier comments. He questioned the approach that he saw much recent research undertaking, that is, a case studies approach, asking what we needed to do with the case studies we had in order to create the bigger picture. Can they be joined up, or compared, or used as representative of something beyond themselves: at the end of the day, will they add up to what we want them to?

In the question time afterward, the case study was defended: Professor Carmen Espejo commented that one should see the approach as microhistory rather than ‘case study’, and that the aim was to find symptoms rather than singularities. Discussion moved to what modern technology could offer, with Professor Paul Arblaster commenting on the potential that large data sets present – historians and large archival projects often have the data; what we need to do is utilise the technology in order to reveal the patterns.

A collaborative sketch of European news networks from a previous meeting – perhaps man and machine together is the way forward!

I don’t have the space here to report all the responses, but invite you to add your own thoughts in the comments section. I think there’s a risk sometimes of the assumption being made too readily that a computerised element can be added to a historical project, that number-crunching is straight-forward or that programming or data analysis just happens. I wonder also whether complicated network analysis, with its time-consuming IT requirements, wouldn’t end up confirming what we as historians and scholars have already determined: isn’t the human element – our ability to assimilate large amounts of data and identify patterns and networks – always going to be better than machine? Saying that, there’s no denying the huge promise of this kind of approach, and personally I think it has an important role and could refresh the larger picture, providing that we don’t see the digital as panacea.

Does network theory offer a way to find a new and encompassing narrative to explain the history of news? I don’t know, but the subject sparked a lot of debate, with champions and sceptics, and that space of debate seemed an excellent place to start.

In the next blog post, I will return to the beginning, and cover some of the papers delivered by other members of the group, ranging from censorship to privileges, manuscript versus print, and Roman cardinals who like a good party.


[1] My post doesn’t aim to be exhaustive, so to see an excellent recap of the day you can check out the official blog of the project, here. Instead of giving a run down of everything, I’m going to pick out one paper in this post, and discuss a few of the others a little more briefly in the next.

[2] If you’re thinking this is a catchy title, you’re right – but I should point out that it isn’t mine: it’s taken from a panel title from CELL’s Permissive Archive conference in November 2012 (see my previous posts), and was thought up by the talented Helen Graham-Matheson (@helenjgm). Thanks, Helen!

[3] Important disclaimer! I’m far from an expert on network theory, so these are my musings rising from scribbled notes during Joad’s paper; any errors are most likely mine, from misunderstanding, misremembering, or misreading aforementioned scribbles.


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The Permissive Archive – a review

In November 2012, the graduate students of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters put on a one-day conference to mark CELL’s ten year anniversary. ‘The Permissive Archive’ was the result of a year of planning, 24 speakers in four parallel panels, one keynote lecture by Lisa Jardine, and the most wonderful set of organisers, colleagues and delegates you could hope for.

This post was going to say a little bit about what the conference was about, and a little about what I learned from the process, but this ended up being, well, on the long side. So, here’s a bit about the intellectual content of the day, and IOU one blog post on the practicalities!

What is a Permissive Archive, anyway?

We were intentionally open-minded about what the enigmatic ‘permissive archive’ might mean. Bar limiting the period focus of the conference from 1500-1800, we left it to our speakers and delegates to explore what they thought the archive permitted, forbade, complicated and provoked. How does information reach us, what is preserved and what is lost, and how does this affect the questions we ask and the answers we find? We wanted to take a new look at the ‘archival turn’, at the intersection between archivists, historians and literary scholars, and at the history – and future – of archives. Ambitious? Probably. But what was covered in an expansive and open way on the day can hopefully slim down into something more directed in any future publication (watch this space on that one).

The papers

The audience wait expectantly for the first panel.

The audience wait expectantly for the first panel.

Being one of the organisers, I wasn’t able to attend all the panels, but the papers I did see impressed the socks off me. I was also presenting at the conference, alongside two fascinating papers that together made up the first panel, on the ‘original context’ of the early modern archive.

In brief, my paper was on the ‘afterlife’ of letters – that is, in the diplomatic arena particularly, what happens to letters after their initial sending and reception, and how do they become the sources of ‘History’ with a capital ‘H’? Do aspiring diplomats write with this use in mind? Who kept and preserved daily diplomatic letters, and why? I argued that such letters could become the substance of government, used not just as an epistle to convey information, but in their immediate ‘afterlife’ preserved and re-formatted to become political resources in their own right.

Christopher Burlinson discusses early modern filing.

Christopher Burlinson discusses early modern filing.

This fit well with my co-panellist Christopher Burlinson’s paper on early modern filing, examined alongside Spencer’s The Faerie Queene. One really interesting point (among many made) was that filing and archiving can be ways of allowing one to forget as well as allowing one to remember – a really fascinating tension that I need to think more about. Our third member was Markus Friedrich, who explored the difficulties and possibilities of accessing archives in early modern Europe. We heard stories of the wining, dining and bribing of individuals in order that scholars could get their hands on materials, suggesting that the archive’s power dynamics lay less with princely display and politics, and more with local and social barriers to be navigated.

Parallel to my panel was a group of speakers on the future rather than the past of the archive – the ubiquitous but potentially ill-defined ‘digital humanities’. Unsurprisingly for a panel of tech savvy folk, you can find much of their material online already. Take a look at Samuli Kaislaniemi’s paper here, and his postscript that cheered in its conclusion that the audience were already reasonably au fait with the risks and complexities of the digital medium. Perhaps we’re now getting used to both the advantageous access and problematic filtering and misrepresentations of digital sources. If you weren’t there, you can find notes and slides from Paige Morgan’s talk on her Visible Prices project here.

The issue of how old and new methods of access affect our work was reprised in Helen Graham-Matheson’s paper on the under-studied counselloresse Elizabeth Parr[1]. Where the nineteenth century Calendars of State Papers excised this influential woman almost completely from history, the State Papers Online’s mass digitisation of original documents has allowed Helen to recover her story.

Amanda Vickery chairs the panel on 'What the Victorians did to us'.

Amanda Vickery chairs the panel on ‘What the Victorians did to us’.

This aptly named panel, ‘What the Victorians did to us’, was also made up of Eleanor Collins’ brilliant paper on the mediated nature of the Caroline Revels accounts, and Pete Mitchell’s inimitable presentation on the India Office records, the remaking of Colonial history and a particularly well illustrated kind of Victorian antiquarian pride.

Eleanor’s discussion of lost and manipulated originals tapped into something that threaded through the whole day – that we do not need to treat the problematic archive with pessimism or with reverence, but with a careful use that maps and explores what’s both there and not there.

This was seen in panel 5, which explored the relationship of the life of the individual to the life of ‘their’ archive. Noah Moxham took us through the biography of Robert Hooke and the Royal Society, challenging us to think about the overlap between the individual and the institution, and asking what leads to the preservation of a collection. Kelsey Jackson Williams, on John Aubrey, reminded us how donating a collection is a projection of the self, but one that is always fragmentary and incomplete.

Sarah Broadhurst shows us Isaac Rand's name inked onto the book edge.

Sarah Broadhurst shows us Isaac Rand’s name inked onto the book edge.

Towards the end of the day, this idea was revisited in a very physical form by Sarah Broadhurst’s deeply provenance-focused survey of the books in the Chelsea Physic Garden. Here we had the archivist’s approach, materially tracing the inscriptions of names down the sides of bookcases and books, as well as touching on networks of knowledge and friendship amongst such luminaries as Hans Sloane and John Ray. I only wish that I had some more images to put up here, both from this paper, and especially from Arlene Leis’ paper on a collection of eighteenth century visiting cards and from Anna Marie Roos’ wealth of Lister ephemera from earlier in the day.

The last paper was delivered by Ian Cooper, and discussed the finding of the Seymour of Berry Pomeroy manuscripts which reveal the role of Plymouth during the Armada years; a paper by Ian on a similar theme, published by James Daybell and Andrew Gordon in a special edition of the open source journal Lives and Letters can be found here.

The day was rounded off in excellent style by a stimulating lecture by Professor Lisa Jardine, which doubled as the keynote lecture and the launch of the impressive Annotated Books Online project. If you didn’t manage to catch her then, I strongly recommend going to her inaugural lecture at UCL on 15th January next year, titled ‘Temptation in the Archives’.

There were, of course, more excellent papers that I’ve not room to mention – otherwise this would be an article rather than a blog post. This is no reflection on the papers themselves, and if you were there I’d love it if you wanted to share your thoughts in the comments section below – especially on the half of the day that I didn’t see.

Once more, a massive thank you to my colleagues for organising, the chairs for presiding expertly over the panels, and all the speakers for their hard work. In my humble opinion, you’re all awesome.

The Permissive Archive organisers were: James Everest, Helen Graham-Matheson, Daisy Hildyard, Nydia Pineda, Kirsty Rolfe, Will Tosh, Elizabeth Williamson, Clare Whitehead.


[1] The term ‘counselloresse’ was found by Helen in a letter describing these kinds of powerful women around Elizabeth I’s privy chamber. I know Helen would love to hear from you if you’ve encountered its use elsewhere.


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The Permissive Archive, or why have I been elbow-deep in paper for four years?

Last week, I passed my viva and was granted my PhD. That explains the dearth of posts in recent months, as I have been frantically polishing, submitting, reading and trying to get my head around what I’ve spent the last three and a half years doing. More on that later, when I have a little more time (somehow, don’t ask me how, I am still quite busy).

My PhD was heavily archival – it used many primary sources, mainly sixteenth century manuscript letters, to reconstruct a picture of political information gathering and diplomacy between figures abroad and recipients at home (as well as undercutting any sense of easy division between these groups).

At times, I analysed the manuscripts from a deeply material perspective, looking at stitching, watermarks, handwriting and so on, in order to try to understand their construction, use and point of origin. I also spent a lot of time discussing the immediate provenance or ‘afterlife’ of these letters, in order to understand how and why these were preserved, and how both contemporaries and historians come to use and perceive them, as person-specific missives turned political resource.

The field of early modern letters and letter-writing has enjoyed ten or twenty years of fruitful research and work on the former – i.e. the emphasis on materiality – and now perhaps it is time to ask more probing questions of this approach; its benefits, difficulties and disadvantages. Additionally, I would suggest that much more attention could be paid to the latter aspect – there’s room for a more directed focus on provenance and the immediate use of the manuscripts that we employ in the construction of historical narrative.

This leads me nicely onto a little self-publication for the department that has been my intellectual home for the past five years. ‘CELL’, or Queen Mary’s Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, is 10 years old this year, and so in celebration we are holding a conference on all things archival – case study, theoretical analysis, practical demonstration, uses and abuses – whatever interaction you have with the archives, we want to hear about it.

The deadline for proposals for papers of 20mins (and other formats) is the end of July, to be sent here <hjgrahammatheson@gmail.com> – so get thinking, and spread the word. I look forward to seeing you there!

WEBSITE: http://permissivearchive.wordpress.com/

CALL FOR PAPERS: 

For ten years, the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters (CELL) has pioneered original archival research that illuminates the past for the benefit of the modern research community, and beyond. To celebrate this anniversary, in early November 2012 we will be holding a conference examining the future of the ‘Permissive Archive’.

The scope of archival history is broad, and this conference seeks presentations from a wide range of work which opens up archives – not only by bringing to light objects and texts that have lain hidden, but by demystifying and demonstrating the skills needed to make new histories. Too long associated with settled dust, archival research will be championed as engaged and engaging: a rigorous but permissive field.

We welcome proposals for papers on any aspect of early modern archival work, manuscript or print, covering the period 1500 – 1800. Topics may include, but are not limited to:

  • The shape of the archive – ideology and interpretation
  • The permissive archive: its definition and its past, present and future
  • Alternatives to the permissive archive
  • Archival research as discovery or construction
  • The archive which challenges or disrupts
  • Uncatalogued material – how to find it, how to access it, how to use it
  • New findings
  • Success and failure
  • Broken or dispersed collections
  • The archive and the environment
  • The archivist and the historian
  • The ethics of the archive
  • The comedy of the archive
  • Order and anarchy

Please send 300-word proposals to hjgrahammatheson@gmail.com. Deadline July 31st.

Submissions are not limited to the 20-minute paper. CELL will be holding a workshop on the use of archival materials, and we are keen to hear from scholars with ideas for alternative presentations such as group sessions, trips or guided walks. Submissions will be peer-reviewed by Professor Lisa Jardine.