Pamphlets and programming

by Nick

Gavin Robinson put up an interesting post today about using XML and Python to organise and double-check lists of horses donated to the English Parliament during the civil wars. It’s stage one in organising and analysing transcripts of the lists from the PRO, and from what Gavin says one reason this kind of analysis may not have been done before is because it is very long-winded to do without some kind of automation.

It got me thinking about applying computing power to other aspects of early modern history. An example: I’ve recently been doing a detailed contextual analysis of an early 1640s pamphlet battle. The pamphlets from both sides are heavily intertextual, drawing on and adapting a range of literary forms and genres as well as referencing very specific works. In one pamphlet, for example, one of the combatants mines the other’s back catalogue for references which he then subverts and flings back at his opponent.

Because EEBO has got electronic versions of the text both for the pamphlets within the dispute and also the opponent’s back catalogue, I’ve been able to search for phrases and unusual words by using the Find function in a word processor. This is quite a lot easier than doing it manually – ie scanning paper versions of each for matches. As a result I’ve found a wide range of hidden references. But it’s something that a computer could potentially do even faster – presumably you could write a programme that compares certain strings of words from one text with the text of another, looking for matches.

However, programming is something I know very little about. My last time I did any in detail was at primary school on BBC Micros in the mid-1980s, typing in programmes from the back pages of computer magazines, plus a few failed attempts to write a basic programme in STOS on my Atari ST later in the decade. I’m hoping that some of you, this blog’s readers, may able to point me in the right direction. Is the kind of comparison I’ve described above something that a programming novice could learn to do? And even if not, are there any useful “Programming 101” resources that might be a good starting point for getting me up to speed?