carnivalesque 86

Hello, and welcome to Carnivalesque 86, the early modern edition! Step right up for a look at things small and large in the world of early modern blogs.

I’ve been puzzling through the relationship between the fairly new field of big data in the humanities and what might be its opposite, small data, and so many of the posts that caught my attention are ones that are navigating between individual objects and networks of data. One of the objections that I have to big data is that I’m drawn to the ephemeral and the hard-to-measure. In “Early printed book contains rare evidence of medieval spectacles,” The Harry Ransom Center’s Cultural Compass blog takes a look at that trickiest of ephemera, not the object itself but the traces it left behind. The medieval manuscript used as the endpapers to a 1568 printed work show the outline of a pair of medieval glasses. The post, by Micah Erwin, provides a quick history of eyeglasses and some context for how unusual it is to come across such traces. What should we learn from such traces? I’m not sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful.

Sometimes the traces left behind are not of things, but of people and institutions. In “Pew-hopping in St Margaret’s Church,” from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s The Collation,1 Heather Wolfe (Curator of Manuscripts) and Kathleen Lynch (Executive Director of the Folger Institute) look at a pew chart from around 1600. The chart shows the names of the people who occupied specific pews, including successive holders, with later names written over and obscuring earlier names. With the help of some multi-spectral imaging, some names that hadn’t been visible were revealed. Working with some account books, they begin to suggest some of the stories that lie behind this document, small pieces of data that point to a larger story about societal structure.

You never know what you’re going to find when you’re working with early modern documents. Early Modern John has a lovely post about the bits and bobs he’s come across in his research, things that aren’t going to make it into his thesis but that are nonetheless compelling moments. In “Mountebanks and mounted priests: An International Archives Day post,” EMJ describes finding references to a mountebank and his son selling wares on the Pont Neuf and reflects on the power of that image: “the image of man and boy hard at work on the lord’s day, hanging their crocodile skins, setting out their jars, and preparing to dazzle a crowd – of believers, sceptics, hecklers, passers-by – has stayed with me all week.” The impact that image has on us today is one of the things I find most compelling in small data research: the glimpses of past lives, the daily minutiae of days gone by. I know there’s a big picture out there, but I care about that big picture because of these small moments.

If you’ve been a reader of my blog, you’ll know that one of my favorite places of these small glimpses is in the text and margins of books. We interact with books in such personal ways, and books can travel far and wide across place and time. Alun Withey’s post on “The mystery of ‘Sansom Jones’ – the phantom Welsh doctor” (at the eponymous Dr Alun Withey) tells the story of exploring an early modern manuscript and its authorship and provenance. A twentieth-century annotation describes the book as having belonged to a Sansom Jones, but Withey hasn’t had success in tracking down this person, nor in tracking down any of the sources for the material in the manuscript. It’s a book of medical remedies that appears to date to the early seventeenth century, but who are the people whose names appear in the book? (If you’re looking for confirmation that the past is a different country, by the way, Lisa Smith’s post at Wonders and Marvels on “The Puppy Water and Other Early Modern Canine Recipes” will tell you more than you probably wanted to know about the use of puppies in health remedies.)

But if books are great examples of traces of individual histories, they are undoubtedly equally part of a large network: if texts didn’t circulate, if there weren’t important intersections of commerce and culture, books wouldn’t end up in anyone’s hands. Early Modern News Networks has been sharing some information from a fairly new research project on methods of studying transnational circulation of news and newspapers. In “Rennes and some thoughts about mapping communication networks,” Joad Raymond explores some of the challenges the group is facing in thinking about how to visualize these networks. What are the limitations of maps for these purposes? On the one hand, their man-made features aren’t consistent from one period to the next (country boundaries are notoriously unstable), but using geographical features to locate the networks misrepresents the factors that shaped the circulation of news. This gets at one of the trickiest aspect of thinking in big data terms: how do we determine what differentiates one set of data from another, and how do the tools we choose to explore the data affect what questions we can ask? I know that we face similar challenges in thinking about small data, and I know that adept researchers are aware of the limitations of sets and tools, but this post nicely illustrates some of the problems in thinking about how we represent and work with print networks. (Not connected to my network theme here, but related to the question of circulation and commerce, is “Hans Peter from Langendorf,” a lovely post at The Renaissance Mathematicus about some early Nürnberg printers.)

There are networks of booksellers and buyers in the early modern period; there are networks of booksellers and buyers in the modern period, too. Brooke Palmieri (who blogs at 8vo) and Daryl Green (from St Andrews’ blog, Echoes from the Vault) co-wrote a compelling piece about the benefits of blogging about rare books. In “Bloggers of the World Unite: Rare Book Bloggers and the Links They Build” (cross-posted at their two homes) they write about the benefits of writing public-facing posts about what might seem an esoteric subject (I know you, faithful readers, need no convincing on this part!) and the community that is created through such work. It is, again, a vision of a world of people and things that moves between near and distant, small and large.

Next up, a post that looks at how we teach the next generation of scholars: Michael Ullyot’s “Teaching Hamlet in the Humanities Lab” (at another eponymous blog) describes a course he taught that had undergraduates explore Hamlet with various text mining tools that allow fairly easy explorations of networked information. The post is from a talk he gave at the Renaissance Society of America conference and it gives a good overview of some of the big data work that is being played with out there. If you’re curious about how these tools might be used to help us understand early modern drama, you’ll find lots of leads here. I would love to see a follow-up post that reflects on what sort of work the students ending up doing and how they responded to the tasks set them. Maybe if we ask nicely . . .?

Ullyot actually describes the course as “an introduction to digital methods of reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet — or rather, to the digital methods of provoking, testing, and tweaking their hypotheses about the text.” And I guess I could accept that reading Hamlet meaning working with its text. But Hamlet is more than that: it is its physical incarnation, in the many forms in which it has circulated, from early printed book through post-modern theatrical performance. And digital methods is more than focusing on textual analysis. I’ve written before about some of my hesitations about digital tools and what they aren’t yet offering the study of early modern books. I haven’t yet worked through what I imagine an explicitly small-data approach to humanities might offer us, but that articulates some of where I’m coming from.

I’m going to going to give Adam Hooks the last word, since he’ll bring us back to small data and what it tells us about the larger world. In his most recent post at Anchora, “Breaking Shakespeare Apart,” he writes compelling about the value of thinking about Shakespeare in terms of bits and pieces. How much is Shakespeare actually Shakespeare when the great book that we fetishize is made up of bits and pieces that come apart and get put back together again?

Thanks to all of the great writers whose posts are featured here; I learned a great deal from each of them, and from the many other wonderful early modern posts that I didn’t include here. It’s a privilege to be part of this network, large and small!


  1. disclaimer: I run and write for this blog []

One comment

  1. Nick

    Sarah – a very belated thank you for curating such a brilliant collection of posts. The early modern blogosphere is in incredible health, if these links are anything to go by: as you say there are some amazing bloggers doing brilliant things out there.

    I’m now feeling guilty for neglecting my own site in recent weeks (work and book project are between them consuming any mental space I had for blogging, but I need to change that!).