Early Modern Post

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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



‘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)