How Do You Like Them Apples?

Core team member Anna Marie Roos (our energetic Martin Lister Research Fellow) was in action on BBC Radio 4 this morning dissecting last night’s magnificent science-themed opening ceremony to the Paralympic Games. The ceremony – called ‘Enlightenment’ – dramatized some key episodes in the intellectual development of Britain and Europe from 1550 to 1720, including a montage of giant rolling and floating apples inspired by Isaac Newton’s famous encounter with the fruit in his Lincolnshire garden. In the interview on the Today programme, Anna Marie – who has published on Newton’s reflecting telescope and Lister’s role in developing it – reflects on the significance of the apple incident for Newton’s theory of universal gravitation and unpacks some of the ceremony’s other, more obscure scientific references. The interview is available on the iPlayer (the segment starts at 2:19), while there’s also an interview with Anna Marie on the University’s arts blog.

CKCC Launch New Website and Epistolarium Beta

Our good friends and colleagues from Circulation of Knowledge and Learned Practices in the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Republic (CKCC) at Huygens ING in The Hague have a shiny new website. Most excitingly, the revamped site contains a link and extensive supporting documentation for a closed beta (or prototype) of the much-anticipated Epistolarium, a virtual research environment in which users can explore and analyze metadata and full texts of c.20,000 scholarly Dutch letters from the period 1594-1707; see the video above for a rapid-fire introduction. As a long-standing collaborator of CKCC, we’ve been fortunate enough to get a sneak preview of this exciting new resource and will be providing feedback in advance of a full public release (and a resulting edited collection) in 2013. Congratulations to Charles, Guido, Walter, Wijnand, and the rest of the CKCC team!

If you would also like access to the Epistolarium beta, please contact charles.van.den.heuvel(at)

Letters in Focus: Epistolary Olympians

With the Paralympic Games about to get underway – and memories of Danny Boyle’s wonderful opening ceremony and a record haul of precious metal for Team GB still fresh – we continue to be gripped by London 2012 fever, so what better way to celebrate than to dive into Early Modern Letters Online and start wrestling with the enduring themes of Olympism and sport.

EMLO’s records reveal how, two centuries ago, the ancient Olympiads were used by antiquarians as a vital means of historical dating. In 1699, Henry Dodwell ‘compared with the Olympiads the various dates assigned to the… consuls’ of Varro, Cato, and Polybius in order to ‘establish the sequence of epochs’, and in 1716 Samuel Mead sent five guineas, via Thomas Rawlinson, to Thomas Hearne in the hope he might procure a copy of the ‘history of the Olympiads, printed at Oxford several years ago’. We read how early modern sport was regulated less by rule for each game and more with regard to its practice or prohibition on the Sabbath and holy days (a subject with which James I’s Book of Sports, published 1617 and reissued by Charles I in 1633, was particularly concerned).

As the world’s finest athletes strive to give of their best, we cannot help but wonder at what those of a sporting disposition from our stable of early modern men and women of letters might excel today. Would our archers mount the podium, for we read of Lord Aylesford preparing ‘a ground on Meridan Heath for archers where butts are to be laid out in the Finsbury fashion’? We have an account from 1695 of Cambridge undergraduates playing ‘football on a green to themselves’, while ‘the masters play bowls’. We know how young men were trained: a young Peter Redmayne writes to Thomas Smith from Paris in 1705 how he is ‘much busied in his exercises, riding, dancing and fencing’. Could early modern horsemen have become naturals at dressage, huntsmen at cross-country, or swordsmen with foils?  We hope none of their modern counterparts suffer the misfortune of young Master Thomas Wharton who caught cold through ‘fencing in his drawers‘.

But the trials and tribulations of bloodsports, which for the Reverend William Bush included hunting ‘with his cousin who with his horse fell into a muddy pond, and is now in bed till his clothes are dried “his coat which was a modest drab is changed into a good bold Pompadour, which is all he has gained in point of advantage, excepting indeed, the reputation of the bold sportman”’, are a world apart from the obstacles encountered by Olympians today, and no national team would accommodate our corpulent clergyman, the Reverend Mr Thomas Mason, who ‘used to value himself on account of wrestling before K. Char. II. Indeed he had been a very stout, lusty man, & was eminent for Backsword playing, wrestling, and cocking & other sports’. These modern Olympics are for the young, the talented, and the physically honed, the sporting equivalents no less of our learned Jacques Philippe D’Orville, a ‘teacher not of the youth only but born to be torch bearer leading the elite’.

emlo_logo_infrastructureLetters in Focus with Miranda Lewis

Miranda is editing metadata from the Bodleian card catalogue of correspondence for our union catalogue, Early Modern Letters Online. On a regular basis, she brings us hand-picked and contextualised records.

The English Atlantic, Kenelm Digby, and John Evelyn

Our third and final seminar series was rounded out this summer by a triumvirate of superb presentations with a decidedly British twist:

An Index of Modernity: Narratives of Communications in the Late Seventeenth-Century English Atlantic

In his paper on 31 May, Konstantin Dierks (Indiana University) spoke about the shift in the latter half of the seventeenth century from an epistolary culture to a culture of ‘communications’. This conceptual transformation was brought about particularly by the British postal acts of 1657 and 1660 which saw the creation of the role of Postmaster General and a new infrastructure of communication comprised of reliable postal routes and a series of post offices which could be held to public account. Konstantin asserted that this new infrastructure was the result of a commercial rather than imperial vision in the first instance, but that it soon became very much linked to ideologies and discourses of modernity and empire as postal systems were developed in the Americas (Boston, Philadelphia, New York City and Jamaica) which were subject to the regulatory powers of the Postmaster General in London. Konstantin argued that, rather than the intellectuals and scientists of the Republic of Letters, it was the merchants and innovators who most affected government institutions by successfully articulating an ideology around the growing importance of conveying letters and goods. In other words, early modern business and enterprise trumped intellectual enquiry when it came to influencing decisions of state. Plus ça change.

Podcast available on the seminar page!


‘An After-Suppers Work’: Sir Kenelm Digby and Varieties of Correspondence in the 1630s

Kenelm Digby

Joe fields questions

On 7 June, Joe Moshenska (University of Cambridge) spoke about the letters of natural philosopher and courtier Kenelm Digby (1603-1665), focusing especially on the impact his 1636 reconversion to Catholicism had on the nature of his correspondence. Although at the time Digby was viewed as an emblem of frivolity for being swept along in the series of fashionable Roman Catholic conversions of the 1630s, Joe showed, through a close reading of a number of letters, that Digby had actually been engaged in serious theological debate, regularly disputing with other thinkers about the true origins of the church. Digby’s correspondence was also used by Joe as a case study to explore more general questions about early modern letters. For instance, should the courtier’s 100-page work on the early church fathers, which was written in an epistolary fashion, be considered a letter or a treatise? What actually constitutes a letter? Furthermore, did early modern people assume that all letters were public documents unless the writer specifically indicated otherwise? Were explicit epistolary requests for secrecy, as found, for example, in Archbishop Laud’s letter to Digby after the latter’s conversion, genuine or mere rhetorical posturing? These and other questions about the primacy or authority of different letter versions – manuscript copies versus printed editions, for example – aroused productive methodological debate in the question and answer session.

Podcast available on the seminar page!


Editing Evelyn Editing Evelyn

John Evelyn

Discussions continue over dinner

David Galbraith (University of Toronto) brought the seminar series to an edifying close on 14 June with a paper describing the challenges of editing John Evelyn’s letterbook while also situating it within the context of his other, better-known works. Evelyn is an example of an early modern auto-archivist who, after an illness in the 1680s, began the task of reconstructing his papers for posterity in his diary and across four letterbooks. Like editors and archivists today, he used headnotes to identify his correspondents as well as an index, although he evidently had trouble dating some of his earlier communications. According to David, researchers have tended to focus solely on the diary, but it and the letterbooks were in fact parallel projects used by Evelyn as instruments of self fashioning in which he cast himself sometimes as a mediator or cultural broker between different social worlds, and other times as an agent in the transmission of knowledge or as an instructor in morality. David argued that the letters, more so than the diary, reveal a more personal side to Evelyn; he comes across as a funny, witty individual who was adept at self parody and who enjoyed the intimacy afforded by the epistolary genre. Furthermore, the letters, characterized by much stylistic variation, offer details of Evelyn’s life that are simply not found elsewhere in his oeuvre. For instance, John Beale is never mentioned in the diary, yet was Evelyn’s most prolific correspondent on gardens, a topic of enormous importance to the creator of Elysium Britannicum, an encyclopaedic assemblage of horticultural knowledge, practice, and wisdom of the seventeenth century.

Podcast available on the seminar page!

2010 Series and Podcasts

2011 Series and Podcasts

2012 Series and Podcasts

We wish to thank all twenty-six speakers, our hard-working convenors, our many chairs from within and beyond the Project, and our loyal audiences for contributing to the success of our three seminar series since 2010.

Communities of Knowledge: Booking Now Open!

Online booking is now open for Communities of Knowledge: Epistolary Cultures in the Early Modern World, the third and final Project conference, which will take place in the English Faculty, Oxford, on 20-22 September 2012. Organised by Rhodri Lewis and Noel Malcolm, the event brings together seventeen leading authorities to explore and celebrate the ways in which intellectual interests and activities of all kinds were pursued and propagated through correspondence during the long seventeenth century. For provisional programme information, a steadily growing lists of speaker profiles and abstracts, and to book online, please visit the conference website. The deadline for registrations is Friday, 7 September 2012.

Letters in Focus: Bubble Trouble

As world economies stagger from one crisis to the next and headlines flip-flop between the Eurozone emergency and the scandal of inter-bank lending rate fixing, EMLO provides valuable historical insights into financial turbulence and the effects of similar bubbles and crashes. We may face fresh causes of fiscal breakdown today, but the boom and bust cycle is far from new.

One of the best-known early modern monetary madnesses surrounds the South Sea Bubble and EMLO teems with letters charting its frenzied course, from punters investing and reaping rewards (Heneage Finch asks Hilkiah Bedford to ‘receive on his behalf the interest on £600 East India Bonds’), to the grim aftermath as international recession set in.

Our letters chart the bubble as it swells, bursts, and stocks plummet dramatically, often in a matter of hours. In early August 1720 shares were worth £1,000; eight weeks later they stood at a mere £150. Swathes of society were ruined. Reports of fraud and wrongdoing proliferated. Parliament struggled to deal with the situation. Taxes were levied. Banks tried to enforce regulations and conditions, refusing ‘to discuss any Government proposals about the S.Sea affairs unless Mr. Walpole is made First Comr. of the Treasury’. A committee was established to investigate, but in the words of Thomas Isted ‘[a]ll thoughts are at present on the Directors of the South Sea Company who by their villanies have brought this ruin on the nation’. Heads rolled (albeit not from the block), reputations lay in tatters. A bizarre mock funeral, organised by Duke of Wharton, may have been conducted through the streets of London (see John Carswell’s 1960 publication The South Sea Bubble), but this was far from the end of the affair; in an increasingly interlinked and interdependent early modern world, financial crises were international problems and, in the same year as the South Sea debacle, France saw the collapse of Laws’ Mississippi bubble.

It was a time of high anxiety, with ‘goldsmith and merchants falling’ and money scarce. Repercussions ricocheted far and wide. William King, archbishop of Dublin wrote ‘The South Sea and the interruption of the trade with France & Spain has drained Ireland of money’, and in scholarly quarters Sir Anthony Wescome lamented he was unable to afford more of Hearne’s publications. Inflation soared as ‘The South Sea makes everything dear’. Some were fortunate to preserve a portion of their family’s wealth (including Lord Sutherland who, as First Lord of the Treasury, was one of the political casualties); others were not, and begging letters abound. As countless enterprises suffered setbacks and stringent cuts, those seeking charity faced an uphill struggle even during the boom itself, as politician and architect George Clarke revealed when, in April 1720, he sent ‘two old shirts & two guineas to some decayed gentleman for whom A.C. has appealed, fears that in spite of the affluence caused by the rise of the South Sea Stock there is little charity stirring’. Across Europe, lives were altered as a result of the crash, and ‘in almost everyone’s face’ Dr John Harris picked out ‘some fear or fatal mark of ye South Sea Project’.

From these depressingly familiar circumstances, one slim silver lining emerges tucked in a letter from a young physician called Samuel Jebb. Nuptial bliss with his beloved seemed increasingly likely following ‘her aunt’s losses in the South Sea’ as the social distance between the two lovers was correspondingly diminished. A form of justice, perhaps.

emlo_logo_infrastructureLetters in Focus with Miranda Lewis

Miranda is editing metadata from the Bodleian card catalogue of correspondence for our union catalogue, Early Modern Letters Online. On a regular basis, she brings us hand-picked and contextualised records.

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