Early Modern Post

Leave a comment

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


Leave a comment

St Paul’s Cathedral: preachers and protesters

If you walk by St Paul’s Cathedral tomorrow morning, you’ll see the Occupy camp hanging up duvets and blankets, letting the morning dew dry in time for another night under canvas. Theirs may be more an expression against a situation than a coherent argument for a specific unified revolution, but for now at least their presence will continue to make a statement, even if it’s not always clear what that is.

The space they have chosen holds the footprints of past centuries of politics and preaching, of persuasive rhetoric and impassioned expression. The area is steeped in political argument; this building, this massive symbol of power and authority, is a highly charged location for any political statement, whether in the pulpit or the courtyard, whether made by words or by bodies.

The church have made a U-turn in recent days by dropping the legal bid to have the protesters forcibly evicted, in what would have been a irresistibly ironic reversal of Jesus expelling the money lenders. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, has spoken out in favour of a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions, adding the long-awaited legitimizing voice of the religious establishment to Occupy London’s emphatic but ‘vague’ expression of anger against the current system.

If the protesters were not camped on its steps, I would at this moment be sequestered within the book-lined walls of the small library that is found tucked behind the south-west tower of this beautiful building. The triforium chamber, designed by architect Christopher Wren during the rebuilding of the cathedral following the Great Fire of London, holds a quarto manuscript containing four sermons by John Donne, which I will be helping to put online as part of the Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne.

Better known in the modern public consciousness as a poet, Donne was, by royal wrangling, the Dean of St Paul’s in the ten years until his death in 1631. His poetry represents only a small proportion of his writing, but has commanded a far larger proportion of academic and lay attention.The Oxford project aims to provide a new and definitive edition of his 160 sermons, replacing the bare bones edition of George R. Potter and Evelyn Simpson (1953-1962). It will run to 16 volumes, with full scholarly apparatus making the sermons accessible to experts and students alike.

Though the voice and power of this role was bound to the royal establishment, obliged to defend for example James I’s unpopular Directions for Preachers and persuade his flock to trust in the king, there may be interesting parallels to be drawn between then and what is happening now on the doorstep of St Paul’s.

Old St Paul’s (sermon at St Paul's Cross), 1616, John Gipkyn

Donne’s was a political position and his sermons inherently so; at times they were direct responses to particular controversies and social or economic change. That he was deeply engaged in public life and public debate can be seen by the fact that, a Londoner himself, he did not preach solely in the pulpit. As well as the royal court and the inns of court, Donne, unusually for the Dean, gave frequent sermons in the open air pulpit at St Paul’s Cross. This represents real engagement with the life of the city, and with the Corporation of the City of London.

The City has always been a place of business, and as spokesperson for the Church of England, Donne’s sermons recognised this fact. Six of Donne’s sermons were published in his lifetime, including one written for a group about to set sail for tobacco plantations in the new world, entitled in manuscript: ‘Preached before the Honourable Company of the Virginian Plantation, November 13, 1622. [Acts 1.8]’.

The Virginia Company of London sought to convert and colonize, and in recent years violent conflict with the native Powhatan Indians had led to many deaths on both sides. Without stretching a metaphor of the destructive power of rampant capitalism past the point of cynicism and into the realm of the ridiculous, this would seem to have little to do with current politics. However, I wonder if some aspects of Donne’s sermons to the entrepreneurial adventurers might be a fitting note to end on.

Donne counseled against greed and against arrogance, and challenged the Company to ‘act as an example of fairness and justice to the other mercantile companies’.[1] Perhaps it is time to revisit these texts, and perhaps it is time to listen again to the voices at the site of St Paul’s Cross.