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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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Early modern handwriting

Early modern handwriting

Snippets and links from a conference by Oxford’s Centre for Early Modern Studies (CEMS), on 25 April 2013. What follows is a collection of thoughts and tweets from the conference, to gather them together and preserve them as an interesting summary of the day, and as a resource.

  1. Panel 1 – Problems

  2. Jonathan Gibson on early modern handwriting, theory and practice. He spoke about writing manuals by Palatino and the revolutionary Cresci, and how you can sometimes detect their influence on the page. Could such identification assist in dating a piece?
  3. Interesting start by Jonathan Gibson on influence of writing manuals. Angular v rounded italic styles #emwriting
  4. Gibson – use handwriting manuals as a sort of ‘control’ for hand analysis #emwriting
  5. Carlo M Bajetta on Elizabeth I’s scribes, suggesting that when we’re thinking about handwriting analysis, we look at more than just individual characters – could digital projects take in ‘mise en page’ too? Could such wider factors be automated?
  6. Carlo bajetta – look at the mis en page, grids and image analysis rather than comparing vast quantities of text. #emwriting #dh
  7. Bajetta – we should move from ocr to more textured analysis in digital attempts at hand id #emwriting
  8. One question that cropped up was whether hand-writing manuals created or reflected practice. Gibson suggested it was fair to say that they – and the jobbing writing masters that went with them – helped to create practice in England at least. Maybe it was different for Italy, though.

    One ‘problem’ question that came up was: what was the significance of writing in different hands? ‘Problem’ because it was uncertain whether there was any significance in it at all, that it must surely remain conjecture and therefore perhaps unhelpful, and because no-one was able to answer it!
    Guillaume Coatalen did, however, suggest that there were typical changes depending on the language one was writing in – and that Italian was often similar to Latin, and English often not dissimilar to French. Perhaps this could be connected to writing manuals again…
  9. Panel 2 – Solutions

  10. You can see the inimitable Tom Davis’ paper on forensic hand-writing analysis (and a trove of other fascinating stuff) at the link below. His paper was great for questioning the typical humanities response of not explaining how one learns to identify hands – it’s the secretive skill of the expert – by discussing his background in forensic handwriting analysis. If you have to defend your identification to a jury, you need to be sure ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ and show your workings.
  11. Steve May offered a paper that would be a ‘test case’ of Davis’ type of handwriting identification, with some tips about making it difficult for ourselves rather than falling for the too-quick identification that may be erroneous: search for contrary examples, go for the unusual not the generic similarities. And remember: professional scribes and your average writer didn’t always write in the same hand – a different style doesn’t mean it’s not them.
  12. Steve May – hand analysis is a craft not a science. Be impartial. #emwriting
  13. Lots of great resources and #dh techie ideas from Julia Craig-McFeely – will blog soon… #emwriting
  14. And following on from that tweet, here are some of the resources mentioned:
  15. One for music:
  16. And one for art:
  17. Round Table

  18. Discussion chaired by Gabriel Heaton of Sotheby’s, with Peter Beal, William Poole, Heather Wolfe and Henry Woudhuysen. Some thoughts that occurred during the discussion:
  19. Key q – how far do scribes (un)consciously copy traits in the original? #emwriting
  20. Big common theme today – advantage of collaboration and open data #emwriting
  21. Interesting point by Will Poole on looking to our precursors – what did C16/17th historians and record keepers ask? #emwriting
  22. Gabriel Heaton taking us through mss – not sure this works well as practical exercise – conc is handwriting alone is not enough! #emwriting
  23. What is our motivation for looking at handwriting? Authorial id, or whole new cultural history of scribal practice and writing? Both pls!
  24. Open Project Planning Meeting

  25. Giles Bergel took us through some of his ideas of where to go next, and asked for more… This remains an open question – if you have a thought to add, please comment!
  26. Open question at the end of the day – where do ppl want to go next in dh palaeography projects? What should we focus on? #emwriting
  27. Some of the suggestions offered:

    – A shared Zotero bibliography on early modern handwriting.
    – A wiki to pool knowledge and settle on some shared definitions for this topic.
    – create a monitored and self-correcting collection of identified hands – a wiki dictionary of identified writers or scribes…


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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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Digital Humanities, the Devonshire Manuscript and social knowledge

As frequent readers may have guessed, I have in recent months been getting more and more interested in that nebulous world often described as the ‘digital humanities’ (they might also have noticed the shameful lag between the last post and this – my excuse is that I’m a couple of short months off submitting my phd (hopefully!), so please forgive my laxity).

Now, I don’t have to tell you that the broad church of digital humanities involves more than online publishing, whacking texts on the web for all to see. It’s true that DH offers exciting possibilities for elegance and efficacy in digital publication, regarding content, browsing, searching and so on (look at CELL’s dateline view for the correspondence of Thomas Bodley project, for instance). But the digital humanities are also moving towards the kind of activity and interaction that is in concept, design and process web-based. That is, it is not just about making the non-digital digital, it is about opening up and thinking up whole new ways of working, researching, editing and writing.

Front matter in the courtly anthology the Devonshire Manuscript (note Mary Shelton's name). c.1530s-40s.

The Devonshire Manuscript project masterminded by the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab at the University of Victoria is a great example of this, and I urge anyone interested to get involved.

The manuscript is a verse miscellany dating from the 1530s and 40s, for which there is no authoritative published edition. That is about to change. However, instead of producing a single-instance, single-authored transcription of its content, the ETCL are developing a social edition of the manuscript, that is at present available online here.

The ‘social edition’ aspect of it means that anyone is free to adapt, update and add to information on the manuscript and its many features, creating a pooled wiki-type knowledge base from which the final version will benefit. It is important to note that this will avoid the dangers of a lack of authority or accuracy, concomitant with a free-for-all wiki approach, by reintroducing authorial checks and balances at the end of the process.

The editors are keeping track of all user updates, and will review the project in July when turning the online version back into an authorised publication, to be published by Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies.

The project demonstrates real awareness of the advantages and risks involved in social knowledge contribution in that there is a sense of culmination, an end point at which authorial control can be re-established, contributors can be credited for their input, and the role of the editor again becomes central in deciding how best to amalgamate and solidify the working text.

So, what is in the Devonshire Manuscript? It is well known in literary circles as a key source for the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt, but its nature as co-authored miscellany means there is a richness to its material, scribal and paratextual features that is only now being fully explored. It contains multiple hands from key figures around the court of Henry VIII, and has been called ‘the richest surviving record of early Tudor poetry

Sir Thomas Wyatt, 1503-1542

and of the literary activities of 16th-century women’.[1] The online version at present offers transcriptions with scholarly apparatus, as well as an impressive amount of contextual, textual and bibliographic material, all of which is open to addition by whoever has knowledge to offer: just click ‘edit’.

This is a socially-mediated, socially-constructed text, and so to have its publication echo its origins so beautifully is a fantastic idea. The very fact of the manuscript being a co-authored court anthology and thus a point of intersection for so many different people, poems, themes and contexts means that it lends itself particularly well to social editing. Opening the text up to the scholarly community allows those with the relevant special interests to contribute as much or as little as they know and want to share.

I’m a firm believer that the process of building knowledge works best when based on sharing; not just in terms of wide and accessible transmission but in terms of collaboration in the building itself. The open source movement in computing is an incredible working example of this, but I think we can do more in the humanities (the regular non-digital kind) in terms of collaborative research.

The greatest insights come from collaboration, and there is nothing like discussing your ideas verbally to sharpen them. It is perhaps strange, as a friend remarked last night, that the PhD is a process involving 3-4 often somewhat solitary years spent writing your words in relative isolation, but nonetheless a process whose worth is eventually measured by a verbal defence – the dreaded viva. That may betray my own personal anxieties at this time, but I suggest that if you’re part of the humanities research community (and if you’re not, for that matter) consider how much you actually talk about your own work and ideas, and how much you do or could do collaboratively – save the polish for the final version and let’s open up the process a little bit, it’ll be the better for it.


[1] Colin Burrow, “How to Twist a Knife,” London Review of Books 31.8 (2009): 3, 5. Quoted in <http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/The_Devonshire_Manuscript/General_Introduction> [accessed 04.03.12]


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A Christmas Commonplace

Before iPads and blackberries, internet bookmarks and intelligent browsers, there was the commonplace book. I might be excising a few paper-based stages there, but the seventeenth century commonplace book was an early modern storehouse of scribblings, reflections and memoranda that I expect functioned not dissimilarly to the more modern technologies one might find in the stocking this month.

The early modern commonplace book was a personal collection of disparate writings: it was ‘usually the work of more than one hand, and in general followed a flexible pattern of aphorisms, financial accounts, medicinal aids, readings from the Almanack, recipes, and verses’.[1]

Mid-seventeenth century

Mid-seventeenth century commonplace book

This entry, like the commonplace book, will be a composite record of a few things I have to share: some reflections on current work, a well-wishing for Christmas, an advertisement.

Donne and the Dobell manuscript

At the moment, I’m working for the Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne (alongside my poor ugly sister PhD). I’m helping to put the sermons online, though the project proper is directed towards an illustrious and extensive print edition. My work involves helping to encode the transcriptions into xml so they can be accessed and enjoyed by (broadband permitting) anyone, any time, any place. I am also transcribing some of the sermons from scratch, and this is where the commonplace link comes in.

Before the then Dean of St Paul’s died, he prepared his sermons for publication, which led to a three volume edition in the later seventeenth century. The manuscript volume I will be transcribing contains a hand-written sermon that did not make it into this early print, possibly because it seemed to support auricular confession and so it may have been judged unwise to print it during the commonwealth.[2] There are three sermons in this manuscript, named ‘Dobell’, one of which (Psalms 38.9) is this excluded sermon.

Though sadly I am unable to view the morocco-bound original in Harvard College Library, I can scroll a microfilm copy. It contains many of Donne’s poems, paradoxes and problems along with the three sermons, and is unique in its mixing of the divine and this significantly more earth-bound material.

It is also a fascinating item because of the insight it gives to reader reception. Though the original compiler of the Dobell volume is unknown, its later seventeenth century owner, William Balam, is revealed in its pages through his extensive marginalia.

William used the collection as his personal commonplace book. Ranging from personal musings, coffee house chit chat and quotation to poetry and legal discourse, there is much to suggest his own personality as well as the social and political climate of the time, all inscribed into the blank spaces around the Donne. It becomes a scrapbook of William’s interests.

The Oxford edition will not be including the marginalia; it does not fit with the remit of the project, and would be a grand task in itself. But I will be browsing it out of personal interest when transcribing the Donne: expect to see some of it in this blog over the next month or so. This side of the manuscript makes me think of one of CELL’s new projects, which may also make it to a more extensive blog post next term…

CELL and marginalia

Here’s a brief follow-up to the Gabriel Harvey post a few months back. Speaking to a colleague a week ago, I was again incredibly excited by the ambition and technological wizardry of the Harvey project. Plans are afoot to encode high resolution images alongside transcriptions to produce a multi-layered, interactive edition of Harvey’s own interaction with his copy of Livy’s history of Rome. Mouse-overs will provide transcriptions of text in context, which is the only way in which his marginalia can make sense – by keeping it attached to what it refers to.

The multi-layered approach of the coding will allow one to choose which layers of marginalia they want to consult: that in Latin, or from a specific time period, say.

And that’s not all: the plan is to widen the project to encompass other volumes that contain marginalia, not just that belonging to Harvey. Other people will be invited to use this tool to make marginalia in early modern volumes accessible for detailed scholarship, in a way not attempted before.

Job Advert

I heard about the following PhD scholarship at Queen Mary just the other day – if you’re interested or know someone who would be do contact the relevant parties or pass it on.

PhD Studentship in the area of early modern textual cultures of Western Europe, jointly with the School of English and Drama. The Application deadline is 31st January 2012.

‘The field of the studentship:

The successful candidate will be jointly supervised by Prof Adrian Armstrong (French) and Dr Warren Boutcher (English). S/he will undertake research in the area of western European textual cultures, in the period 1450-1600, engaging with cultural products in at least two vernacular languages (English, French, Dutch, Italian). Appropriate topics might include, for instance: polyglot emblem books; translations of particular literary genres; the transmission of particular authors or books across countries; or the multilingual output of a single publisher’

For details on how to apply and for an application form, visit http://www.sllf.qmul.ac.uk/postgraduate/#research

Christmas wishes

I wish you a very merry Christmas, and a happy new year. May it bring all you want it to.


[1] Mabel Potter, ‘A Seventeenth-Century Literary Critic of John Donne: The Dobell Manuscript Re-examined’,  in the Harvard Library Bulletin, (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Library), pp.63-89. p.71.

[2] Potter, p.66


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‘Studied for Action’: How do we do digital?

Last Thursday saw our first day back at school, and there was real excitement at discussing CELL’s plans and projects for the year ahead. One project in particular elicited a murmur of curiosity and approval: in collaboration with Princeton University, CELL will create an online edition of sixteenth century polymath and prolific annotator Gabriel Harvey’s copy of Livy’s history of Rome.[1]

Harvey's marginalia in Livy

The volume is heavily inscribed with Harvey’s extensive marginalia, and yet has not received the critical attention it calls out for in large part because this very same annotation means that a standard print edition just cannot do it justice.[2] The scholarly article can only describe so much to the reader; the book itself is always at one remove.

But! The recent explosion in interactivity online, and the opportunities it holds for making a truly ‘dynamic edition’ possible, might just change all that. Anthony Grafton, Arnoud Visser, Lisa Jardine and Matt Symonds will be working out how best to do this, and in this process – and this is what gets me – be echoing a corresponding intellectual navigation traversed centuries before by Harvey and his contemporaries. Digital is the new print.

The printing press was invented in the fifteenth century, with the sixteenth seeing up to a tenfold increase in the number of books churned from their bulky frames. Thus the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries saw an emergent book culture, as societies transformed around the accessibility of the written word. What we are living through is an emergent digital culture: similar negotiations to that of the Renaissance reader with their book are being made now on how we interact with and use this new media.

Take that delicious clue-holder of the early modern reading experience, marginalia, as an example. This is at root inscription by the reader in the margins of the printed text in a book. It might be to trial a pen or a new script, just to doodle, to note down a reminder or something much weightier, or to interact with, interpret or guide one through the contents of a text. All of these I saw recently on Wynken de Worde’s excellent blog on the marginalia in Caxton’s printing of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, amazingly including a deed of the transfer of land written into the blank space beneath the text.

This goes to show that early modern interaction with a text could be unlike what we might expect or do ourselves. We jot down notes on spare scraps of paper precisely because of their throwaway nature, rather than in the sacred leaves of a published book, whereas someone then might be more inclined to write in the nice white expanse in a large printed volume, because it ensures its permanence. Additionally, when paper is expensive and writing involves fetching ones materials (including your homemade ink), sharpening your quill, dipping, writing and sealing, the whole process is much lengthier and more involved than grabbing your nearest biro (even when it has inevitably run dry from being abandoned sans lid).

Manicule or hand-shaped pointer in the margin of a letter

This sees early modern readers navigating, trialling and creating different ways of using and interacting with the printed book, just as we are now navigating and creating a digital culture as it grows around us.

The speed with which technological advances become a ubiquitous part of our lives gives an air of normalcy to what is actually still very culturally new. It has become so easy, so user-friendly, to live much of our lives online, that discourse and philosophical questioning of the subject is lagging behind, occasionally sprinting to make up the distance with the odd breathless panic about privacy on facebook.

Social networking is the beast that is most exciting, fearsome and, despite this, omnipresent. Children and teenagers are increasingly ‘plugged-in’; growing up like this is radically new, and we wonder how it feels. Google+ has just been released to the public, a new strain of this online species of socialising site, and one with wide-reaching ambition. Perhaps it is the very thing that makes it exciting that makes for a sense of fear; the ambition feels global, the drive to connect and share everybody and everything takes no prisoners. This is ideology: the removal of privacy and so the risking of the individual for the sake of the collective.

We haven’t quite decided whether we should limit or love this connectedness. Is the fear that comes with such a muscular newcomer founded, or is it just that: fear of the new? It’s hard to imagine a world without the printing press, and even harder to imagine resistance, or even righteous hatred or real fear, at its stupendous promise.

There is risk here, there are challenges, but there are also opportunities for use not yet thought up. I mean this both in society at large, and in terms of academic work, and in the latter case (excitingly) for more than just accessibility; for active exploration of texts. There is much work to be done…


[1] T. Livius Patavini, Romane historiae principis, decades tres, cum dimidia (Basle, 1555).

[2] For an important exception, see: Lisa Jardine, A. T. Grafton, “Studied for action’: How Gabriel Harvey read his Livy’ , in Past and Present, Volume 129, p.3-51 (1990)