Early Modern Post


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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 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.


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The Hand of the Author

Last week, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who wants to become a documentary film maker on the subject of the fallacy of objective truth in story-telling, and of the merits of ‘fessing up to a subjective approach or attempting to obscure the presence of the story-teller. The subject was equally relevant to our respective aims of becoming something of a narrator, whether in modern documentaries or historical research.

Erasmus pens a quick letter

I had been writing on the very same topic earlier that day, in work defending my methodology centred around using archival detail and analysis of early modern handwriting to support inferences on the possible motivations of compilers of sixteenth century diplomatic letter-books. I had quoted handwriting expert and scholar Tom Davis in discussion of the lack of, and arguable lack of need for, certainty in historical narrative, and reproduce it here:

‘Scholarship about the past is not scientific: one cannot rerun the past in laboratory conditions in order to test predictions about it. History has few certainties: it is a structure of probabilities and possibilities and conjectures that would not meet the exacting standards required by a court of law or a forensic science laboratory, but does not have to.’[1]

One might wonder whether it is wise to accept, and even draw attention to, the potential weaknesses and lack of certainty in one’s argument, but I would argue that here and in the wider world, this is not only acceptable but our real responsibility as would-be figures of authority, that is, as setters of narrative.

That is not to say that a weak argument is defensible, only that a strong one does not need to close the door on development or even partial refutation. How does this philosophy hold when one uses methodologies founded in the scientific world, in this case, the ‘forensic’ analysis of handwriting? This approach can be extremely tempting for scholars: it seems to promise hard evidence and perhaps scientifically-grounded ‘fact’ of the type rare in the pursuit of the 400-year old life experience.

Concurrently, it exposes one’s argument particularly keenly: what can be proved can surely be disproved? However, rather than seeking or claiming watertight proof, perhaps we should aim in identifying hands to a personal certainty, where we are as confident as we can be, and also use hand identification in conjunction with other evidence in order to persuade the reader.

Davis may deny the need for the ‘exacting standards’ of a legal court (which also obviously uses handwriting identification), but what standards, then, should we adhere to in an historical context?

Mark Taviner in his PhD on sixteenth century diplomat and adviser Robert Beale comments on how an extreme familiarity with certain hands, built up over years of dedicated archival research, has been the casual methodology of great Renaissance scholars, but is not such an easy, or authoritative, method to mimic as a student or early career researcher.[2]

The hand-writing of diplomat Thomas Wilkes?

Taking inspiration from Davis and forensic graphologists, he makes a rather wonderful suggestion: listing references for known examples of handwriting for various statesmen, where each example is in printable format, he suggests scholars create their own reference book of hands, to be carried to the archives, ready to be flicked through when needed. Perhaps the access and space provided by the internet can develop this further, and someone can create an open-contribution database of common hands to provide a quick and easy, and authoritative, reference point…

We should argue our theories and narratives with well-founded conviction, the kind of conviction that comes from knowing your evidence as well as you possibly can (perhaps to the point of making your own Renaissance hands cheat-sheet). Yet this should not lead us to pretend that we have uncovered an objective narrative that was lying in wait for us like a Pompeii under ash or a Viking hoard underground. We uncover facts and likelihoods like archaeological treasure; putting these into a narrative unavoidably involves mediation and interpretation, and we should not erase our own presence in this process.

The same applies for anyone wanting to persuade the public, whether specialists in a certain field or lay persons: we must remain aware that anything beyond bare fact is someone’s, perhaps our own, version of events, and even that bare facts are also subjective, in that their selection necessarily excludes other information. Fear the fundamentalist narrative wherever you find it; accept pluralism. This post echoes previous ones in its message, but – my hands are up – it is only because the subject is on my mind, and it bears telling twice: liberally season the information you consume with a proverbial sprinkling of salt; it tastes better that way.


[1] Tom Davis, ‘The Practice of Handwriting Identification’ in The Library: The Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, Volume 8, Number 3, September 2007, pp. 251-276.  p269

[2] Mark Taviner, ‘Robert Beale and the Elizabethan Polity’, Unpublished PhD. Thesis, (St. Andrews, 2000)