Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Category: Digital history

Digital history and early modern studies

A few bloggers have recently been posting their thoughts about two works on digital history:

Two points stood out in particular when I read them. The first was on how digital sources shape an audience’s experience of them. As Patrick Gallagher put it:

Oral and video histories, understood as artifacts, have become very important for bringing visitors closer to the reality of a story. (JAH, 109)

The discussion in the JAH was mostly in relation to the wider public accessing historical sources. But can digital sources also alter the reality we as scholars reconstruct from a source? This is not something really considered by the JAH discussion. By contrast, contributors to the Companion were very alive to this, with Bertrand Gervais asking:

Does a literary text retain the same status once it has become virtual? What is the status of any text in today’s era of hypertexts and linked computers? What type of materiality are we dealing with? What forms of reading, what forms of knowledge? (Companion, ch. 9)

The second was the training graduate historians will need to thrive in a world where digital history is commonplace. As Steven Mintz put it:

Many search committees are favorably impressed by graduate students who hve developed online resources or an electronic portfolio. We have a responsibility to give our grad students the training support they need to meet these rising expectations. (JAH, 216).

Both points have made me think about how they apply to the digital source that, without a doubt, I use the most: Early English Books Online.

EEBO is a tremendous resource. It preserves sources that are fragile and which risk deterioration in the coming years. It greatly broadens the accessibility of early English printed works. It makes it far quicker to find and read texts. The power of its search engine makes it possible to carry out in minutes analysis that would previously have taken days – particularly with the increasing number of e-text transcriptions being produced by EEBO-TCP. As a part-time student, I would find it difficult to do my Masters without it.

But for anyone studying written communication in early modern England, EEBO brings with it its own historiographical and epistemological challenges.

First, the sheer convenience of EEBO might risk distorting our perception of early modern written communication. The last ten to fifteen years have seen a huge expansion in interest in print culture, particularly in cheap print. But work by a number of literary critics and historians – synthesised by Harold Love in his Scribal Publication in Seventeenth-Century England – has also reminded us of the importance that manuscript retained in English culture during the seventeenth century. So one question that the rise of digital history throws up is what impact might the relative availability of sources have on future critical and historiographical trends.

Secondly, digital reproduction of a text inevitably changes the way that we approach it. Texts cannot be fully understood without reference to those who wrote them, those who produced them, those who read them, and to the form that the texts took. As Joad Raymond has put it:

The meaning of a text is the transitory product of a particular relationship between a reader or group of readers within specific circumstances, who encounter not texts but books. In this creative encounter the material construction of a book, its typography, binding, the feel of the paper, the situation in which it is read, whether silent or out loud, in a library, a crowd or a secluded room; in youth or in age; patiently or urgently; in a cloistered or revolutionary world; all these play upon the meanings which a reader and a text can produce between them. (Raymond, The Invention of the Newspaper, pp. 2-3).

In reading physical copies of early modern pamphlets, we are already many steps removed from the experience of contemporaries reading them. We can perceive the range of meanings they might have carried only through a glass darkly. But does removing the physical, material interaction with a text further distance us from the ability to reconstruct those meanings? The quality of paper, the size of sheet used, the colour of the ink – all of these are factors which can influence how a text is read or perceived. Reading them on a screen today is inevitably a different experience to reading actual copies.

None of this is to diminish the importance of EEBO and other pioneers of digital early modern history. But it does make me wonder how best to assess the impact of digital history on early modern studies. It is likely that it will push historians in some directions rather than others. If so, it will be important that today’s generation of grad students are equipped not only with the right programming skills, but also with the right skills to engage with the implications of digital history for historical and critical theory.

Article round-up

It’s that time of year again when I’ve been distracted by the appearance of new journal articles on early modern topics. Here’s my favorites so far. Subscriptions are required to access all but the EMLS edition, which is online-only and free.

The Essex circle

Alexandra Gajda, ‘The State of Christendom: history, political thought and the Essex circle’, Historical Research, 81, 213 (2008), pp. 423-446.

Gajda looks at a text that mysteriously appeared in 1657 called The State of Christendom, or, A most exact and curious discovery of many secret passages, and hidden mysteries of the times [EEBO]. From the engraving on the front it has been attributed to Sir Henry Wotton. However, internal evidence dates it to 1594-5.

Gajda painstakingly reconstructs a more likely authorship through contextual analysis, linking it to the circle around Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, particularly Anthony Bacon – brother of Francis and Essex’s chief intelligence gatherer. The result is a fascinating exercise in reattribution that also says a lot about the politics of the 1590s. One unaddressed question, however, is why it subsequently ended up being printed in 1657 – an interesting riddle to ponder.

Religion and the decline of magic

Alexandra Walsham, ‘The Reformation and ‘The Disenchantment of the World’ Reassessed’, Historical Journal, 51 (2008), pp. 497-528.

Another of the HJ’s great historiographical reviews, this time a look at the role of the Protestant Reformation in the so-called ‘disenchantment of the world’. Walsham starts by locating the debate in the context of Max Weber’s work, before surveying developments in historical arguments about the sacred and the supernatural during the early modern period. She argues that the Reformation needs to be conceived of as both a social and an intellectual process, and identifies a Whigghish narrative that tends to emphasise a linear development from the supernatural to the enlightended, pointing instead to the concept of “cycles of desacralization and resacralization”.

Paper bullets

Mark Stoyle, ‘The Road to Farndon Field: Explaining the Massacre of the Royalist Women at Naseby’, English Historical Review, 503 (2008), pp. 895-923.

In this article Stoyle looks at the massacre by parliamentarian cavalry at Naseby of Welsh royalist camp-followers. At least a hundred women were killed, with others having their faces mutilated with the “whore’s mark”. Stoyle gives a summary of previous theories about what motivated the killings, noting that all of them rely on studies of pamphlets produced after the event, without considering relevant pamphlets in circulation beforehand that may give a clue as to the soldiers’ actions.

He concludes that the mutilation was almost certainly intended to punish the perceived sexual licence of royalist camp-followers, which had been a theme of certain pamphlets during the early 1640s. He also draws out material in which Welsh and Irish troops were conflated, linking it to the great volume of print on the Irish massacres of 1641. He also looks at evidence of “witches” being summarily executed by parliamentarian troops.

The article is problematic in that no direct evidence survives of parliamentarian soldiers at Naseby reading such pamphlets, or of them being influenced by stories of these events. Stoyle is good, however, at drawing from indirect sources: the fact that officers often read newsbooks and pamphlets to their soldiers, and the literacy rates of soldiers. It would be interesting, nonetheless, to investigate the evidence about whether pamphlets and newsbooks travelled with armies, and of how London publications might have reached armies in the field.

George Gascoigne

Early Modern Literary Studies 14.1/Special Issue 18 (May, 2008)

Finally, Early Modern Literary Studies has a special issue on George Gascoigne. Gascoigne was an English poet and soldier whose works can be seen as a precursor to some of the great later Elizabethan poets. The special issue has some interesting articles on key works, on his self-presentation, and on the influence of his military experience on his poetry. DNB, Wikipedia.


Ralph Luker’s list of 80 recommended history blogs is up at Cliopatria.


I posted previously about being inspired by Digital Scholarship in the Humanities to mess about with word clouds. The same post also gave me the idea to try some text comparison tools.

TAPoR’s Comparator tool allows you to type in the URLs for two different pieces of text. It then compares the two, producing a word list showing whether words appear in both.

I tried it out with two texts in the pamphlet battle between John Taylor and Walker of 1641 that I’ve been looking at recently. Late in the summer of 1641, a text called The Irish Footman’s Poetry appeared by a third author – one George Richardson. The text referenced various previous pamphlets in the dispute. Although it appeared when Taylor was on a journey down to the south-west of England, it is often attributed to him. (No real George Richardson appears to have existed).

I ran Richardson’s text through the tool alongside one of Taylor’s pamphlets from the dispute. I had a hazy idea in my head that this could just possibly be a magic tool that could tell me the real author of a pseudonymous text.

Unfortunately it didn’t tell me very much. What it gives you is a list of words that occur in both texts, and the ratio with which they occur in both. In some cases I can imagine this being very useful – for example to trace the transmission of texts in cases where later works references or draws upon previous works. In my case, though, the only words that emerged in common were everyday verbs like “do”.

Then I tried doing two separate sets of more detailed analysis using the HyperPo tool. Here are the results for Taylor:

  • Total words (tokens): 1813
  • Unique words (types): 785
  • Highest word frequency: 91
  • Average word frequency: 2.31
  • Standard Deviation of word frequencies: 5.07
  • Average word length: 4.29
  • Standard Deviation of word lengths: 2.11
  • Number of sentences: 44
  • Average words per sentence: 41.2
  • Number of paragraphs: 17
  • Average words per paragraph: 106.6

Here is the same analysis for Richardson:

  • Total words (tokens): 1841
  • Unique words (types): 726
  • Highest word frequency: 86
  • Average word frequency: 2.54
  • Standard Deviation of word frequencies: 5.29
  • Average word length: 4.35
  • Standard Deviation of word lengths: 2.22
  • Number of sentences: 95
  • Average words per sentence: 19.4
  • Number of paragraphs: 38
  • Average words per paragraph: 48.4

Again not much stands out – in any case trying to look for similarities this way could be distorted if, for instance, the same author was deploying different literary styles in each text.

So, TAPoR’s tools were fun to try out, but not much help in this particular case – a far better way to establish who the real George Richardson might have been is through a detailed contextual, bibliographic and stylistic analysis of the text. That said, I’d still recommend having a play about with TAPoR’s wide range of tools since you may well find something of use.

Word clouds

A very useful post the other day from Lisa Spiro at Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, covering two things:

  • Using word clouds
  • Text comparison tools

I’ve been messing around with both over the last couple of days. Below are some thoughts on uses of word clouds.

Word clouds are a useful visual representation of the frequency with which a word appears – the bigger the word in the cloud, the more it appears in the text. They’re often used for blogs to represent tags the blogger has used. I’ve got two in the sidebar on the right, one for the categories I sort my posts into and one for the tags I’ve used.

Words clouds aren’t horribly difficult things to learn how to program. I’ve been following Bill Turkel’s wiki on how to become a programming historian and have managed to make my own using Python. But if you want to cheat, Wordle offers you a much easier way. Just cut and paste your text into the website and it automatically generates a cloud for you. You can then customise it within a range of styles.

How is this useful for historians? Well, I’m in the early stages of planning my dissertation and one use I’ve found has been to refine my topic. There are two extremes in choosing a thesis: you can start with a small topic and work your way up to finding the overall themes it will address, or start with a big theme and work your way down. If you’re choosing the former, word clouds can be a very quick and helpful way of distilling out key concepts.

As an example, I’ve cut and pasted the text for Henry Walker – one of the Civil War journalists and pamphleteers I’m hoping to study in my dissertation – from the Dictionary of National Biography.

What can you glean from this? “Perfect” and “Occurences” occur quite a lot, naturally enough given Perfect Occurences was a newsbook he edited. But what about other titles he edited? They’re less prominent. Is this something significant about Walker’s legacy, or does it also tell us something about his biographer’s priorities? “Trade” and “apprenticeship” also spring out – again, significant given that Walker started life as an ironmonger and did not spend his whole career as a parliamentary hack. This is a context sometimes ignored in his life. “Hebrew” also comes out quite strongly. Walker was fluent in it, but what significance should we read into this – is it of importance for understanding his writing?

Let’s compare this text to the biography of Walker in the early 20th century Cambridge Companion to English Literature.

Perfect Occurences is nowhere to be seen. “Cromwell” and “Charles” loom much larger in the cloud. “Drogheda” also looks quite strong, something that doesn’t emerge in the DNB’s cloud.

These are just a few of the questions that occurred to me when I generated this cloud. They’ve all given me leads to follow up or do more thinking about, both in relation to Walker and the historiography surrounding him, and I was able to do it instantly without a detailed trawl through the text. Now in Walker’s case his biography is very short, and naturally you would go through it in detail anyway – but for much longer texts, I can see Wordle having even more potential. With the set of key words it generates, you can then go trawling through other resources such as JSTOR and the RHS bibliography, looking for additional relevant secondary works. It’s not a substitute for reading and analysing a text yourself in detail. But it does provide a very useful supplement, particularly if you are trying to summarise a text.

Next time I will give some details about the uses I’ve made of text comparison tools.