Monthly Archives: August 2006

Early editions in scholarship and pedagogy

Thus far I haven’t really discussed my other work. Yes, I am happily a new instructor of British Lit at Queens College, but I’m also a research fellow in a private collection of seventeenth- to nineteenth-century materials housed in the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center. One of my duties in the collection is to connect the items there with scholars who could make use of them, either in their own work or in their classes. In doing so, I’ve found that many of those I’ve contacted think using early editions and resources sounds like a really great idea, but they’re not exactly sure why one would take the time to do so.

In response to my invitations, scholars seem to express one or more of the following attitudes toward special collections:

1. Special collections are for book-fetishists. Let’s not get bogged down in the ooh-ahh materiality of the book when we want to talk about the ideas in the text.

2. Special collections are only useful if you’re putting together an edition. Textual presentation and variations are really only of interest to scholars of textual history.

3. Special collections are like zoos for books. We’re glad someone is preserving all those old pamphlets, maps, and out-of-print books in case someone, maybe a grad student, decides to study them.

4. Special collections are giving way to online resources that preserve older books’ images and texts. Who would go to a special collection when they can simply click around online and get the same experience?

5. Special collections librarians are probably totally swamped with appointments. Why bother them when I can get most of what I need from new editions and the scholarship of my predecessors?

These are attitudes that I think I held, to some extent, before I began working in the Eighteenth-Century Reading Room. I went to lectures held in the Reading Room and admired all the lovely bindings, wondered what was in them, and then went home. I never took the time to ask what was there and how it could be of use to me. During the only experiences I’d had in special collections, I’d oohed and ahhed over the bookness of a particularly exciting first edition, but I had only occasionally used them for research. I didn’t fully understand that one could read the things.

When I began working in the Reading Room, I spent a solid month or so getting giddy over pulling out a 1623 edition of Bacon or a beautiful little vellum-bound Sentimental Journey. I thrilled over the maps, the slips of early American money, and the letters in secretary hand, which were, at the time, unreadable to me in a magical way. When I opened the 1651 Leviathan for the first time, I think my heart stopped. That is to say, I had a big crush on the collection for a long time. Like a crush, it was both hyper-emotional and superficial, and it yielded little in the way of useful knowledge.

As time went by and I explored the collection further, I found that one could very easily find and read around on almost any topic of historical interest in the period. Because the collection is mostly non-fiction, it contains things you rarely find in new editions, like descriptions of prisons, recipes, theatrical reviews, travel journals, colonization accounts, legal documents, and descriptions of foreign lands for the curious people back home. All of these things appear in the fiction of the era and are important for our understanding of the period, yet English scholars mostly know about them from the fiction itself, or from the descriptions given us by other scholars. After spending time surrounded by piles of these books, I find they have become a cornerstone for the breadth of knowledge I’d like to gain about the era. They aren’t merely fetishes anymore.

I wonder if the fetishism of old books isn’t a product of the digital revolution. Just as, when the printing press made texts cheaper and more abundant, the idea of the manuscript text gained a certain magical, noble power, the book itself may be gaining a kind of distant, reverential regard as digital texts become the more common source of information and entertainment. As graduate students more easily find primary sources and scanned texts online, we find it less necessary to learn how to use special collections for research, and we therefore develop a silly kind of awe for old books that keeps us from using them.

I have been trying, in my small way, to bring friends in the field down to the Reading Room so they can see how easy it is to find materials of great interest and usefulness. It’s true that digital collections are amazingly wonderful and useful, and I am a great advocate for digitizing everything to make it even more searchable and universally accessible, but until we do, I hope we still find these rare items, learn from them, and keep them alive in our work.

Of those of us here, in our different disciplines, I wonder what attitudes we have toward using special collections in research and pedagogy. Do you take your students to special collections? Do they find uses for the materials? Do you use special collections for your own research? If not, why not? If so, what do you get out of the experience?


Populations and Catastrophes?

Since this is Katrina week on the Gulf Coast, in which newspapers around the country ruminate over the depopulation of one of this region’s most interesting cities, I’ve been thinking about natural catastrophes and the sometimes hectic, sometimes protracted flows of populations in and out of cities. Here in Houston, we hear about the conditions in New Orleans every day, and we still have about 100,000 people living here who may or may not return to New Orleans, whether it gets rebuilt or not.

When I think about our period, at least in terms of canonical literary writings, I can only come up with two events of this type that made their way into literary representation; the great Lisbon earthquake (1755) and the Great Plague of London (1665). The first appears most famously in Candide (1759), the second in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722). (I’d love to hear other candidates for this list, but these were all I could come up with, offhand)

One of the most interesting things about this text is its focus upon the city, or really the city’s population, as the chief protagonist for its narrative, such as it is. As my students always remark, it is a remarkably Foucauldean text, able to hold in view simultaneously a wealth of individual stories, including the narrator, along with the responses and decisions, both rational and irrational, of the authorities charged with protecting the city. But the most consequential Defoe made in his representation was his insistence that no individual story could stand in for the whole. H.F. is a cypher to us, and his responses really have no more authority than anyone else’s in this text. The text is filled with interesting dialogues involving people we meet only once, and whose ultimate fate we never learn. Everyone, including H.F., is just part of the larger ebb and flow Defoe is recounting.

As a result of this emphasis upon the population, this is a text with plenty of pathos, but not much sentiment. Part of it comes from the inclusion of non-literary documents like the Bills of Mortality, but part of it from the refusal to remain at the level of individual tragedy, which lends the text its astringency, as well as its cumulative force. We are made to feel that we, like the epidemic, cannot linger over any particular scene:

It was observable then, that this Calamity of the People made them very humble; for now, for about nine Weeks together, there died near a thousand a-Day, for about nine Weeks together, one day with another, even by the account of the weekly Bills, which yet I have Reason to be assur’d never gave a full Account, by many thousands; the Confusion being such, and the Carts working in the Dark, when they carried the Dead, that in some Places no account at all was kept, but they work’d on; the Clerks and Sextons not attending for Weeks together, and not knowing what Number they carried (p. 95, in Wall’s Penguin edn.).

When I tried to think of comparable accounts, I was stumped. I suspect that pamphlets or semons might contain similar materials, or maybe travel narratives or abolitionist writings. I suspect that the kinds of legal documents Sharon works with might have stuff like this. But I’d love to hear about other works that try to document the flows of populations, especially in response to natural disasters.

Any thoughts, or candidates for inclusion?

Best wishes,


It’s nearly time for ASECS!

Actually, no. The ASECS (American Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies) meeting will be March 22-25 in Atlanta, GA. What we should all be worrying about now is the September 15 deadline for proposals.

I’m hopeless at links, so here’s my cut-and-paste to the conference website:

Hope to see you there. And please feel free to post any conference announcements that you feel would be of interest to other 18th century folk.

Best wishes,


Another First Week?

For those of you who just started teaching again this week, along with those already well into the semester, tell us what your classes are and how you’re doing. How is the eighteenth century faring?



Novels and Gin: Some Versions of 18th Century Escapism

Jen’s discussion of the novel and Sharon’s fascinating online materials from the Old Bailey made me think about “escapism” as a cultural category (in the case of prisoners, a literal category). It opens up an interesting vista on the uses and abuses of pleasure in our period, and how pleasure might relate to moral or social norms.

First off, from John Richetti’s fine resource, the Cambridge Guide to the Eighteenth Century Novel, we find this interesting description of the novel’s emergence from earlier forms of narrative, a process which he aligns with the European Enlightenment:

“[In contrast with the novel,] traditional narrative forms such as romance and allegory have much less strict sense of fact and fiction, and indeed they depend upon a view of the world in which notions of probability and single and stable meaning do not necessarily obtain. For such traditional forms of storytelling, readers agree implicitly that the everyday world of common fact is insufficient, and they take pleasure precisely in the distance between that world and separate narrative realms featuring a fullness of meaning and significance such as quotidian existence radically lacks . . . . The history of the novel in Britain . . . is precisely the story of the emergence of a quite distinct fictional narrative, which defines itself, sometimes aggressively and polemically, by a process of rejection, modification, and transformation of previous forms or practices of storytelling, that are seen as insufficiently attentive to a narrow view of what constitutes truth and reality.” (2; my emphasis)

A little further on, Richetti describes Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment readers and writers as having a “hunger for actuality,” which seems to be the particular mode of pleasure sought in the fictional forms that strove to distinguish the “actual and the ideal” (3). Richetti, however, is too much the hegelian (consciously or unconsciously) not to acknowledge the varied historical responses to this “narrow view of reality,” in the form of “popular subtypes” “such as the amatory novella, the sentimental, and the Gothic novel,” which he calls a “clear and perennial protest against that rationalistic preference for the actual and historical, with its exclusion from narrative of the improbable, the marvelous or the melodramatic.”

So here we have the novel offering both the rigor of the actual and an escape from the prison cage of rationality, figured in Richetti, anyway, as the distinction between the “quite distinct fictional narrative” exhibiting novelistic realism, and the “popular subtypes” that protest against it.

On the other hand,

When I think about the deeper stakes of escapism and fantasy in the 18c, I have to add one of my favorite passages in Mandeville, his brilliant rhetorical defense of gin and gin-drinking from the Fable of the Bees, from Remark (G.):

Nothing is more destructive, either in regard to the Health or the Vigilance and Industry of the Poor than the infamous Liquor, the name of which, deriv’d from Junipera in Dutch, is now by frequent use and the Laconick Spirit of the Nation, from a Word of middling Length shrunk into a Monosyllable, Intoxicating Gin, that charms the unactive, the desperate and crazy of either Sex, and makes the starving Sot behold his Rags and Nakedness with stupid Indolence, or banter both in senseless Laughter, and more insipid Jests: It is a fiery Lake that sets the Brain in Flame, burns up the Entrails, and scorches every Part within; and at the same time a Lethe of Oblivion, in which the Wretch immers’d drowns his most pinching Cares, and with his Reason all anxious Reflexion on Brats that cry for Food, hard Winters Frosts, and horrid empty Home.


This passage, for my money anway, is one of the foundational moments in the emerging self-consciousness of “commercial society,” in which Mandeville discusses the absolute necessity of oblivion for the functioning of people and things, and what this does to our inherited moral norms and traditions (as argued, for example, by Hundert).

So do novels belong in the same category as gin?


Wikibility in the classroom?

Yesterday, I went to my teaching orientation at Queens College, where the acting Director of Composition (who also serves as a general English-requirement-course assignment czar) Jamie Bianco encouraged us to consider new ways of introducing web writing into the classroom. Of course, the usual suspects (Blackboard, email, blogs) were on her list, but she also suggested creation of a wiki.

A light shone over my head and a voice spake unto me: A wiki will solve all your problems!

You see, in my extremely crowded BritLit syllabus, there is not an inch of room for class presentations. They take up a lot of valuable classtime that could be spent in open discussion, which is always (okay, usually) productive. Besides, I don’t like undergraduate presentations and never have, since the “presentation” is artificially formal, usually low in actual content, and not useful to the other students because they can’t access the information when they need it. And yet presentations seem to be the only efficient way to get students to share their expertise.

One of my early assignments for this semester is what I’m calling a “historical context memo.” Each student must do some light research into a particular aspect of social or political history in the 17th-18th centuries, using reliable sources, and provide a brief on that topic that organizes the information clearly and arrives at a few ways in which this information is relevant to the literary texts being discussed. I do a little lecturing on these things on my own, but I can’t reasonably fit a satisfactory explication of the 17th century English succession into my fifteen-minute preambles. It’s not fair to them, and they need to learn how to find and organize this information themselves.

The idea came from an assignment my CWRU Nigerian Lit professor Tom Bishop (better known as a Shakespearian) gave us. It would be impossible, he explained, to cover every aspect of Nigerian cultures, religions, languages, and political history in lectures, so he had each of us cover different topics for the whole class. It was a class of eight or ten people, so it wasn’t too taxing to spend ten minutes each explaining the memos we’d prepared for the class. I worry that with 25 students in each of my two classes, if I had them provide copies to one another on paper without presentations, what’s the likelihood anyone would read them?

The creation of a wiki, though, would render these memos in an attractive, interconnected, easily browsable format that would ensure that they don’t get lost or forgotten in the bottoms of bookbags, or, if emailed, somewhere down there in the Inbox. We could incorporate pictures, hyperlinks to good sources, and suggestions for research, while raising the stakes of the quality somewhat by publishing it online. Editing could be ongoing and communal, even reaching out beyond the class itself after the end of the semester. With two classes of 25 students each, we could cover 50 different topics, all in one space!

Some of you are shaking your heads. Wiki? you ask. Many of you are familiar with (and angry about) Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia edited by any person who wants to add or edit an article. The format has its flaws, of course, in that, without requiring editors and authors to be well-respected scholars in the field, it can introduce errors (or, more commonly, exaggerations) that many of us find at best distasteful and at worst reprehensible. The best Wikipedia articles (to me) are those that cover up-to-the-second internet happenings and television shows. (I don’t watch TV, but I find Wiki articles about TV rather fascinating.) I’d argue the real problem with Wikipedia is not its corruptibility (which is part of its charm, I think), but the way students rely on it for “facts” simply for the speed and do not verify them later. But Wikipedia is not the only wiki in existence.

A wiki is a set of interlinking articles surrounding a particular subject, authored and edited by a group of people, rather than overseen by a single editor. This can provide a nearly unique prompt for writing because it forces a writer to think about the communal tone and voice of the group. Many wikis produce detailed information about nonexistent things, like this fan wiki for The Great Outdoor Fight, an event mentioned in a comic strip called Achewood, or this wiki for a nonexistent role-playing game called The Elemenstor Saga, mentioned in the gaming strip Penny Arcade. The point of this style of writing is to yield detailed, consistent content that informs and interprets without making arguments. In the case of my class’s wiki, this information should be “real” and easily verifiable.

Another wonderful thing about assigning a wiki article is that it removes the artificiality of “due dates” and turns continual contribution into its own reward. Yes, I will probably have to enforce some kind of production timeline, but the important thing is that producing the content should be fun, mildly competitive, interesting to classmates, and useful, hopefully, to other literature students seeking some pre-digested background on an era of history that can be overwhelming to a new student.

What do you think, O more experienced ones? Will this wiki thing fail miserably, or will it go well? Has anyone here used wikis in the classroom before?

UPDATE: I’ve started creating the wiki for this class here, which has allowed me to set up an interactive syllabus and readings packet as well as a page of suggested topics for the historical context articles. I’m very excited, and hoping that this might make this extremely demanding class easier for my students to keep organized. Whether the article thing will be difficult for them or not is yet to be seen; I am regularly amazed at the vast gulf between my more tech-savvy and tech-clueless students. PBWiki provides an easy-to-learn editor, lots of fun tools, and extremely helpful tech support. So far, I recommend them highly.

Some introductions

Some readers will have encountered me at Early Modern Notes, among other projects, although I’ve been having a blog sabbatical this summer. My break from blogging was partly due to major changes in my life and work since the beginning of this month. I’ve moved a couple of hundred miles (note to US readers: over here in Britain, that’s a long way) to take up a new post with some relevance to readers of this blog.

But let’s rewind a bit. For those who don’t know Early Modern Notes, I’m a social historian. (And I’m pretty useless on 18th-century literature, truth be told, unless it’s about criminals.) My research interests are 17th- and 18th-century crime in England and Wales, and I’ve spent a lot more time digging around in dusty legal archives than is healthy. You can find out more about all that here.

What makes us choose one path to follow in research rather than some other? I don’t really know. Mine started way back when I was a first-year undergraduate, and I read this book, and then this one. I blame almost everything on Carlo Ginzburg and Natalie Zemon Davis, although EP Thompson had quite a bit to do with my interest in the 18th century.

I’ve now spent several years seeking out the nearest British equivalents of the rich legal records that Ginzburg and Davis used so brilliantly to write about Italian and French heretics, impostors and murderers. I do number-crunching (at a fairly basic level) whenever it’s necessary, but my real interests lie in qualitative analysis, and in the stories told by people long ago to reconstruct and explain their experiences of the world and of often disturbing and traumatic events.

At the same time that I was embarking on this research as a PhD student, I also started another momentous journey: using the web space provided by my university, I set up a very basic website listing some links to interesting early modern stuff I’d found on the internet. I never expected it to turn into this, that’s for sure. And the experience doing that which I’ve built up over the last five or six years has undoubtedly contributed to where I am now.

Which brings us back to the present. I think that many of you will have encountered The Old Bailey Proceedings Online. My new job is as project manager for two new, related London history projects, based in Sheffield University’s Humanities Research Institute.

The “easy” (hollow laughs) one is for the Victorianists: we’re going to finish off the OBP job by digitising the final run of proceedings from 1834-1913 (under the title of Central Criminal Court proceedings) and integrating them into the existing site. This will create a major, fully searchable, digital primary source for London history, and particularly for the history of non-elite Londoners, running right through from the late 17th century into the early 20th century. You can get some sense of the possibilities from the OBP Blog Symposium of February 2006.

Compared to the 18th-century project, though, that really is the easy bit. Like many other digital primary sources, the OB/CCC proceedings are printed texts – relatively easy to read and transcribe, and to mark up for digitisation. What we’re doing next is much more ambitious and much more complex. Plebeian Lives and the Making of Modern London 1690-1800 will be “a comprehensive electronic edition of primary sources on criminal justice and the provision of poor relief and medical care in eighteenth-century London”.

We’re including a wide range of primary sources. Most of them are archival manuscript materials, including legal records such as coroners’ inquests; parish records (eg: pauper letters, vestry minute books); the records of Bridewell and Bethlem hospital; apprenticeship records; and more. Print sources, meanwhile, include Ordinary’s Accounts. Like the Old Bailey/Central Criminal Court databases, they’ll end up online: thousands of documents fully searchable, freely available to all internet users without any subscription barriers. What’s more, we hope to construct a search engine that will make it possible to simultaneously search a number of related online primary source resources alongside ours, including the OBP, and others at different sites such as British History Online.

Well, we hope. Every phase of the process is lengthy and complex. All those documents and texts must first of all be microfilmed, scanned, and ‘rekeyed’ (transcribed) before we can even begin to do anything with them: that part of it is outsourced, although we have to produce various documentation to guide the rekeyers. Then we have to mark the transcripts up in XML, another dull and painstaking task, which will be done by the HRI’s programmers and by several part-time, home-based workers who are starting this autumn.

Once the markup is done, the CCC project will be quite straightforward to finish off, since it will be essentially a matter of adding it to the existing OBP database and giving it a few tweaks. But for our 18th-century plebeians, our job will barely have begun.

The techie people have to create a powerful search engine that anyone can use fairly easily and, of course, we have to create a web site to present it. Even that’s just a beginning. Of course, we want to see many people with 18th-century interests, from genealogists to academics, using the Plebeian Lives database in their own ways. What we want to do with it is to analyse the data in order to “reconstruct how ‘ordinary’ Londoners interacted with various government and charitable institutions in the course of their daily lives”. We’ll be doing large scale quantitative analysis and record linkage (to find out, for example, patterns of relationships between claiming poor relief and ending up as a victim or perpetrator of crime). The technique of nominal record linkage has tended to be applied to small rural populations: the computer made record linkage practical in the first place, now the internet is making possible the extension of its methods to the teeming metropolis. On the other hand, where we can find enough information about individuals, we’ll trace their individual experiences and uses of the institutions available to them. I eventually get the fun job of writing short biographies to put on the website.

Stories! Did I mention that I like telling stories?!