Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Category: Digital history


Three years ago I wondered about the possibilities that could be opened up if scholars were able to annotate texts in Early English Books Online. Now you can: EEBO have just launched EEBO Interactions, a social networking site that is linked to EEBO and allows registered users to comment on and discuss the texts.

Having had a quick play about with it, there seem to be three key respects in which EEBO Interactions will be a big step forward. The first is the breadth and accuracy of EEBO’s metadata. In particular, Interactions allows updates to and discussion about the bibliographic provenance of EEBO’s texts. A lot of the authorial attributions for anonymous pamphlets on EEBO are drawn from the short-title catalogues produced by Pollard & Redgrave and by Wing. While the revised editions of both catalogues corrected some dubious or mistaken attributions, if you have spent any time browsing EEBO you will probably have discovered examples where you disagree with the attribution.

One of the great features of Interactions is that it provides fields to add your own information. If you get to a text and someone has added a gloss you think is wrong, you can discuss it on the page itself, or send the other user a message to have a one-to-one discussion with them.

That brings me to the second benefit, which is one of sociability. EEBO have structured Interactions along the lines of Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites. Users have a user-page where they can put information about their background and interests. Users can send each other messages and bookmark sites of interest, which allows you to see whether other people are working on texts you are studying. I think this will have real benefits for students and scholars across the world, as they start to discover they have colleagues with shared interests whom they never previously knew existed.

The third benefit is one I find hard to express concisely, but which can I suppose be summed up by the phrase “better scholarship”. If that seems a bit intangible, hopefully the context in which it struck me will make it clearer. One of the guidelines for Interactions suggests that users:

Provid[e] concise and informative commentaries on some of the less frequently discussed texts, as are currently available via the EEBO Introductions Series.

EEBO Introductions is a series of short essays on some of the more obscure texts included in EEBO’s corpus of books and pamphlets. It’s intended as a gateway into early modern texts that might otherwise seldom or never be read. At the moment there are nineteen Introductions, which perhaps reflects the fact that they have been centrally managed up to now.

In the future, if you are a student working on a particular text, or an established academic with material on a particular source, you can leave it in your files or you can post it to Interactions. I think this has all sorts of possibilities. It could be a way for undergraduates and postgraduates to get involved in a wider scholarly community, by posting essays on a particular text or snippets from their research that would otherwise never find an audience. It could function – as seminars do now – as something like an intermediate step between undergraduate/postgraduate study and publishing your work in peer-reviewed journals. In ten years time, posting an essay on Interactions or similar sites could be as normal a part of scholarly practice and career structures as submitting a proposal for a conference paper or sending an article for consideration by a journal.

Exposing your ideas or research to a wider audience in electronic form has benefits for students, whether they are pursuing a career in history or simply interested in the period. But it would also have benefits for scholars – if you have devoted your BA dissertation, say, to a particular text, you will probably be far more of an expert on it than the most experienced academic. Interactions will hopefully provide a platform for one group to speak to the other, and vice versa – with the ultimate benefit that knowledge and interpretations of texts can be shared rather than remaining with their originator.

Not many people have signed up as users yet. Given that (at the moment) all contributions have to be approved by an editor, that is probably not a bad thing from EEBO’s perspective, but hopefully the userbase will grow with time, and hopefully the editorial control will be loosened once the site grows. Otherwise, without a large userbase the risk is that the site will never take off. It will need lots of people making lots of comments and notes to really get the most out of it.

So in the spirit of encouraging others to sign up and use the site, here is a link to my own first contribution, on Canterburies dreame: in which the apparition of Cardinall Wolsey did present himselfe unto him on the fourtenth of May last past: it being the third night after my Lord of Strafford had taken his fare-well to the world (London, 1641). Have a look and see what you think. As ever, there is also a good discussion going on at Early Modern Online Bibliography.

Free access to EEBO

From 22 February, readers of Early Modern Online Bibliography will have access to Early English Books Online. If you have never had a chance to use this resource than you have the next three weeks or so to try it out.

Reading early modern pamphlets

There is an interesting discussion going on over at the SHARP e-mail list about the differences between reading on paper and reading on a screen.The conclusion of most posters is that while we may not need a new word to describe reading on a screen – viewing? screening? diging? – there is nevertheless a difference between the two. Defining that difference, on the other hand, is a bit harder and is something many scholars are still thinking about.

I blogged about this a while ago, in the context of Early English Books Online (EEBO) and whether reading seventeenth-century pamphlets on screen can change how you read them. Prompted by the SHARP discussion, I’ve been doing some more thinking about this. It occurred to me that this has been an interpretative issue since before the creation of EEBO and other digital reproductions of sources. Microfilm versions of pamphlets also carry with them some of the same issues.

In the case of the Thomason Tracts, for example, a microfilm edition by University Microfilms International (UMI) has existed since 1977. This is the way that most scholars have probably read them between that time until a few years ago. Although you can print out pamphlets from both EEBO and from microfilm, both methods of access are primarily through a screen. So what are the similarities and differences between reading a pamphlet in its original format, via a microfilm reader, or through your computer monitor? And do the differences make any practical impact on how you absorb and understand the text?

My own answer is that I’m not completely sure, but I feel instinctively that there must be differences, which in turn must impact on the experience of reading. But I was worried that this instinct is more to do with the book historians I’ve been reading – for whom the importance of the reader is a pre-requisite – than anything that could be demonstrated empirically. So here are a few thoughts about how those differences might actually have a practical impact on reception.

One is colour. A bit obvious, perhaps, but microfilm often only reproduces texts in black and white. This is certainly the case with the Thomason Tracts, and in turn EEBO reproduces the microfilm edition of them so retains this monochrome reproduction. This can potentially blur the subtleties of early modern printing. Here for example are two images of the title page of John Milton’s Eikonoklastes (unfortunately I couldn’t find two versions of the same copy, although they are the same edition):

Eikonoklastes monoEikonoklastes colour

The notes page on EEBO does say that the title page is in red and black, and if you look closely you can distinguish in places where it must have been red. But it’s still very unclear. Why does this matter? One reason is in helping to distinguish between the impact of author and printer on the finished text. Was it the printer Matthew Simmons, or the author Milton, who decided to use red ink – which would have complicated the printing process significantly? Another reason is in thinking about the impact the text had on its readers. How would they have read the title page? Does it matter that the Greek letters are printed in a different colour, given that many readers would not have understood them? Does it matter that “Published by Authority” is in red, given the severe Licensing Act that the Rump Parliament had passed the month before publication had re-introduced pre-publication censorship. To answer these questions properly, you really need to look at the original edition.

Another is environment. The original Thomason Tracts have to be read in the British Library. Typically the microfilm version would also have to be read in a university library, unless you could persuade the librarian to run off copies. This imposes certain physical conditions, such as near-silence, the presence of other scholars, and the absence of other distractions. You can read EEBO at home in your dressing gown. I certainly work differently in libraries when I know I’m probably going to be there for most of the day, compared to at home where I might be snatching half an hour to have a look at something. Looking at EEBO, you also have the rest of the internet to distract you. You can imagine spotting things in one state that you might not in the other. One silly example of mine is searching late at night for something and forgetting that EEBO’s search engine doesn’t automatically include AND for strings of words. Two weeks later when I tried again at a more sensible hour I found what I was looking for. On the other hand, being able to read EEBO outside library hours does increase the time you have available to work on it. For time-limited projects like dissertations, this can make a big difference to the amount of texts you are able to read or the amount of analysis you are able to devote to a text.

A third is searchability. Apart from wider short-title catalogues, the Thomason Tracts have been catalogued at least three times: once by Thomason himself, secondly by G.K. Fortescue in a two volume edition published in 1908, and thirdly by the UMI microfilm edition. Before EEBO, you were reliant on these indexes, compiled by someone else with limited search variables, to find what you were looking for. Now you can search not just for author and title but also for subjects and keywords. Fortescue also altered Thomason’s cataloguing order and sometimes gives his own dates. In turn Thomason’s dates are more idiosyncratic than used to be thought, and don’t necessarily mean the day the pamphlet was actually published. The UMI catalogue then restored Thomason’s cataloguing. Using EEBO lets you search by Thomason’s ordering, but also by your own. Inevitably this gives you much more freedom to navigate the collection and find new things. Particularly powerful is the gradual conversion to free text that EEBO are making of early modern pamphlets. This in particular is still a greatly untapped feature when it comes to identifying links between texts, making authorial attributions, and so on. But while such freedom has its benefits – making connections that would perhaps not have been possible otherwise – it can also have its drawbacks in terms of making mistaken connections, as the story about William Lilly in the latest edition of Early Modern Literary Studies makes clear.

There is also the fact that pamphlets are three-dimensional objects made of particular materials. Again it is almost banal to point it out, but microfilm and EEBO reproduce these objects in two dimensions. Here is a title page from the royalist newsbook Mercurius Elencticus, singled out by Jason McElligott in his study of the later royalist newsbooks as an example of one printed on particularly thin paper:


You can partly deduce this from the digital version by the fact that print from the other side of the page has leached through, but you can’t get any real sense of comparison with other issues or other titles. Again, why does this matter? Partly because paper quality can tell us something about the cost of the title – how much the printer was prepared to invest in it, how much it sold for – and something about the audience – who could afford it. But in the royalist newsbooks’ case it also relates to the fact that they were produced underground in opposition to a strident Parliamentarian censorship regime, with limited access to raw materials, and printers had to make do with what they could.

Then there is the issue of resolution. All three types of media are ultimately viewed with the naked eye, but there are various ways they are mediated before we see them. Original pamphlets can be zoomed in on with a magnifying glass. Microfilm and EEBO versions can be zoomed in on mechanically or digitally. The resolution at which EEBO reproduces pamphlets could be an issue here – they can get slightly pixellated if you are looking at them at a particularly high level of zoom. On the other hand, it’s much easier to zoom on a computer than it is by hand. A ractical example of this is a pamphlet called The Perfect Politician about Oliver Cromwell, by a pseudonymous author. In his 1990 essay on Cromwell’s contemporaries, John Morrill identifies this as being by L.S.


It certainly does look like L.S. When you zoom in, though, it seems clear that it is probably by I.S and that L.S. is a misreading because of the full stop merging into the I.


The pamphlet is probably by John [Iohn] Streater, a radical and veteran of the New Model Army. Knowing this puts the pamphlet in a very different context. So the ease with which type can be examined through EEBO – despite issues with resolution – may well have an important role in bibliographic analysis of texts that have otherwise been well-examined.

These are some initial thoughts about the differences between original sources, microfilm and digital reproductions. I’m sure you’ll have more – what do you think? But in closing it occurs to me that all three have an important similarity. One thing that original pamphlet, microfilm and EEBO all have in common is a relatively static bibliographical apparatus. They all still draw on Wing’s Short-Title Catalogue  of Books Printed  in England, Scotland,  Ireland, Wales  and  British  America  and  of  English Books  Printed  in  Other  Countries  1641-1700. Some of the attributions in Wing can be dubious. The Perfect Politician is a good example of this. Here is what the information page in EEBO says:

Attributed to Henry Fletcher by Wing.
Sometimes attributed to William Raybould.

A quick look at the title page makes it obvious that Fletcher and Raybould are the booksellers, not the authors.

Perfect Politician

This misattribution is fairly easily sorted out. However there are others where it’s not so clear, or where recent scholarship has moved beyond Wing but EEBO doesn’t reference this. For me a great improvement to EEBO would be to give users the ability to set up an account with a real-life identity and let them annotate texts. You would know which scholars were working on something of interest to you; you would be able to flag where you disagreed with an attribution, giving reasons; and you could contact the person who’d made an annotation to ask them about any attributions you were unsure of. Until bibliographical catalogues go properly digital, there will remain this odd juxtaposition between digital texts and analogue descriptions.

Producing maps

I’ve written before about mapping early modern towns, but I’ve come up with a problem which has got me a bit stumped.

For a paper I’m writing, I want to produce a map of Cirencester approximately as it might have looked during the civil war period. Nothing complicated, just a simple black and white street plan. As far as I can tell, no such map exists. What I have found is a slightly elevated view of Cirencester in the early eighteenth century by Johannes Kip, which at a pinch I can use to compare against a modern street plan and produce my own map.


This is probably a stupid question, but does anyone know whether there is any software that will allow me to do this relatively easily: for example by allowing me to crop and modify a modern graphic of Cirencester’s street plan, or alternatively plotting a street plan from scratch relatively easily (eg some sort of drag and stretch system)? At the moment I am toying with the idea of saving a JPEG from Google Maps and altering it manually, but it seems like a lot of effort. What I may end up doing is hand drawing it, then scanning it to my computer – but if anyone has any bright ideas your help would be much appreciated!

Manuscript, paleography, and book history resources

Printed sources have generally been at the vanguard of early modern digitisation projects, but manuscript sources are starting to catch up, together with resources on the technological aspects of books (printing, binding etc). Here are some links I’ve seen floating round the blogosphere in the past few weeks.

First, the Beinecke now has a Flickr photostream. It includes the Paleographical Commons, a collection of early modern handwriting. The material has a Creative Commons atribution licence, so you can copy and distribute it so long as you attribute it to them. Here are some gems (all courtesy of the Beinecke, naturally).

Medical recipes from an anonymous late 17th century MS collection, compiled by a member of Cambridge University. This page includes liquorice balls and cakes for colds:

Doodles from the beginning of a mid-seventeenth century collection of poems:

Address and broken seal from a letter by Henry Rich, first earl of Holland, to Frances Rich, Lady Paget:

First page of the same letter:

Another useful resource is hosted by the English Faculty at Cambridge, which is in the final year of its 3-year Scriptorium project. It’s digitising various manuscript miscellanies and commonplace books from between 1450 and 1720. Not a great deal is online at the moment, but more is scheduled to go up soon. It also has the fantastically useful early modern handwriting course.

Princeton has a great online exhibition about hand bookbindings. More useful resources can be found in this post at bookn3rd (a great blog about book history by a postgrad at the University of London).