Early Modern Post


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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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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 fearsome and treacherous world’

So says the Guardian website of life under the Tudors, specifically referring to the experience of Henry VIII’s supposedly adulterous fifth wife Catherine Howard as she faced execution.

Political executions, as well as uxoricide, were at a particular high under Henry, his daughter ‘Bloody Mary’ is famed for religious genocide, and England under Elizabeth has been described as a ‘surveillance state’, with her ‘spymaster’ Walsingham entrapping Mary Queen of Scots and torturing Catholics.[1]

So reads the ‘horrible histories’ style Tudor dynasty. And it has a point: torture and execution were common, accepted, and often public, life was surely hard, and death and pain were more present and more visceral than in our sanitized modern society.

There is a commonly held, even subconscious, metanarrative that history is progressing in a linear style, that between then and now we have been on an upward, civilising path, where evolutionary theory infiltrates our understanding of social and even global change over the past few hundred years. We have the technology and scientific advancement to prove it.

It’s not like we watch punishment as public spectacle or condone torture to protect our way of life anymore. Not in this country, at any rate.

In a totally unrelated comment, clicking back onto the front page of the Guardian today, the recent riots and phone hacking scandal are still figuring prominently, as well as the headlines ‘TV cameras to be allowed into courts’, and ‘MI6 knew I was tortured, says rebel’.

Did the Elizabethan-in-the-street feel that they were living through a fearsome era, or just accept it as the way of things? How will we be judged? Do we progress at all, or is it simply change disguised as progress?

Reading about the (alleged) condoning of torture by MI6, previously in Pakistan and now via British involvement in the rendition of a terrorism suspect – and his family – to Libya in 2003 made me wonder how torture was viewed in Elizabethan society, and question the notion of a degree of societal barbarism then and a moral high ground now.

I’d be interested to hear other people’s encounters with the subject, but it seems to me that it wasn’t just about blood and guts on the scaffold; it could be a quiet, embedded part of political life, perhaps to be regretted, but necessary for the greater good. Sound familiar?

Torture features heavily in the career of William Waad, diplomat, intelligencer and clerk of the privy council. Part secretary and administrator, part interrogator of English recusants and foreign Jesuits, this man gained a reputation for his involvement in prosecuting every well known ‘terror’ plot after 1585: ‘the Lopez plot, the Babington plot, the Essex rebellion, the trial of Ralegh, the Gunpowder Plot, the Main plot, the Bye plot’ and more.[2] It was part of his job, and he was known for it. These are the showbiz trials, but he and many others were involved in routine inquiries and investigations that had the option of torture hanging, as it were, in the air.

Sir Thomas Bodley was a career diplomat, of reasonably high standing, before he founded what he is known for today: the great Bodleian library in Oxford. It was envisaged as providing permanent access to a wealth of books for scholars to contribute to the advancement of knowledge, for the public good. He fits into another Renaissance narrative, of the scholar, the forger of a brave new world, the Renaissance man.

We don’t want to think of him beside Waad, participating in the darker side of state business. But there he is, under instruction from the privy council to interrogate terror suspect George Stoker with whatever means necessary:

‘A letter to Sir Owen Hopton, knight, William Waad, Thomas Bodley, Thomas Owen, Richarde Younge, esquiers, that whereas George Stoker, presentelie remayning in the Towre, being latelie apprehended … it was to be probablie conjectured that his repaire into this Realme was for some secrett practise or other notable mischeife … they are herebie aucthorised and required forthwith uppon the receipt hereof to conferre with him to declare the truth of the cause of his repaire thither, and likewise to examine him uppon certaine interrogatories by them to be framed for the better discouverie of the truth; whereuppon if they should perceave that he should refuse to declare for what cause and to what end he came into this Realme, then it is thought meete that they putt him to the torture of the Racke, therebie the better to withdraw from him the knowledg of his wicked entente and purpose, and likewise secretelie to examine all such suspected personnes as he hathe had conference with…’[3]

We cannot assume that we have advanced safely past this. Torture is not just an image of Mel Gibson being hung, drawn and quartered (insert pun on his acting if you wish), nor is it simply the horrible histories caricature or the English Grand Inquisitor Waad; it is also made up of Bodley the professional diplomat and scholar, and the official rubber stamping of the mundane privy council letter. It is not just a bloody picture of the past or of a Libyan jail, it is made up of people facilitating rendition or standing by and waiting for their turn to question the suspect. Some ‘progress’ has been made if we agree that torture is at least not common, accepted and public in this country, but I would suggest that this progress is not linear, not necessary, and not to be taken for granted.


[1] Curtis Breight, Surveillance, Militarism and Drama in the Elizabethan Era, (London: Macmillan, 1996)

[3] Privy Council to Lieutenant of the Tower, Owen Hopkins, 16th February 1588, in Acts of the Privy Council of England, vol 15, 1587-88, p365.