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A ‘Hasty Blotted Scribble’: New Boyle Original Discovered

While ferreting around in the archives of Trinity College, Oxford finalizing annotations for Volume IV of The Correspondence of John Wallis, I came across a letter from Robert Boyle, the eminent natural philosopher, to the theologian and physician Ralph Bathurst, whose papers I was exploring. This manuscript was previously missing; while the letter is included in the monumental 2001 edition of Boyle’s complete correspondence (and can be consulted in Electronic Enlightenment), the editors had to base their text on a version of the letter in a 1761 print edition of Bathurst’s papers, rather than on this autograph original. Here’s the letter:

Trinity College Oxford Archive, Fellows 2/1/1: A new Boyle original. Images reproduced courtesy of Trinity College.

The missive – described by Boyle as a ‘hasty blotted scribble’ – is an intriguing one, shedding fascinating light on a failed publishing project. It was sent in April 1656, one of those Oxford months when lots of things were happening (even Henry Oldenburg was in town, inter alia, to sample the rich scientific culture developing in and around the university). Unfortunately for Oldenburg, two giants of the local philosophical scene were absent when he arrived. His friend Robert Boyle, who had moved to Oxford around the beginning of the year (and would stay on and off until 1668) had gone to London. Likewise in the metropolis was John Wilkins, the warden of Wadham College, who had gathered around him an illustrious circle of like-minded practitioners, including Seth Ward, Thomas Willis, and Wallis.

Sender Robert Boyle

Recipient Ralph Bathurst

One of Boyle’s main tasks while in London was evidently to see through the press a promising book by Ralph Bathurst, one of the members of this glittering cadre of experimentalists. A fellow of Trinity College, who would go on to be College president and later vice-chancellor of the University, Bathurst had written three lectures on respiration as part of his examination as doctor medicinae in 1654; during the following two years, these texts were circulated scribally among the Wilkins circle, which evidently suggested revisions and emendations. Bathurst added numerous marginal notes to the manuscript of the Praescriptiones tres de respiratione and – notoriously reluctant to publish his work – was probably encouraged to do so by his celebrated friends. Boyle headed to the capital with the manuscript to spearhead the enterprise.

Bathurst’s letter book

Objects and Letter-Objects

In the absence of Boyle and Wilkins (the two men who had promoted the venture most strongly), however, Bathurst began to get cold feet. Probably around the end of March, in a letter that is now lost he wrote to Boyle in London to inform him of his change of heart and to request that the manuscript be returned. Boyle did not receive the letter immediately, for he had been invited by Wilkins to inspect some peculiar natural phenomena elsewhere. Writing back to Bathurst in the April letter, Boyle expressed his disappointment at the ‘unwelcome orders you send me, concerning your excellent Lectures’, which presumably placed him in an awkward position. Indeed, Wilkins was evidently hoping to get plans back on track, and instructed Boyle not to follow Bathurst’s wish ‘to have those Jewells sent backe to Oxford’.

The efforts of Wilkins and Boyle to save the book were to no avail; Bathurst’s Praescriptiones tres de respiratione first saw light of day when it was published posthumously – alongside this letter – in Warton’s The Life and Literary Remains of Ralph Bathurst (London, 1761). The collapse of the project to publish Bathurst’s Praescriptiones illustrates the close relations between knowledge-makers in Oxford and London at this time. The incident even came to the attention of Samuel Hartlib, who recorded in his Ephemerides ‘Mr Boyle knows one that hath an excellent Ms. De Respiratione which hee will not publish’.

We are extremely grateful to Professor Michael Hunter for confirming the originality of this manuscript and for additional help and advice on its background.

Text Mining the Republic of Letters

Podcast available on the seminar page!

In the fourth paper of our seminar series on Thursday 17 May, Dr Glenn Roe – formerly of the University of Chicago, and current Mellon Fellow in Digital Humanities at Oxford’s OERC – gave a sophisticated and suggestive paper on ‘Text-Mining Electronic Enlightenment: Influence and Intertextuality in the Eighteenth-Century Republic of Letters’.

Building on his recent work with the Electronic Enlightenment corpus and other online repositories of long-form historical text, Glenn started his talk by observing the irony that the recent efflorescence of big data, culturomics, network analysis, and other quantitative approaches to culture – focusing in many cases on the macro interpretation of metadata over content – has authorized and promoted a convention of ‘not reading’ within the digital humanities, in which historical texts themselves can be marginalized or effaced altogether by the superabundance of information. The ready modelling of letters as a finite number of abstract datapoints (sender, recipient, and so on) and the vast quantities of diverse and often disorganized information exchanged within epistolary systems makes correspondence highly susceptible to such an approach.


Glenn during discussion.


Visualizing influence.

As a supplement to this ‘distant’ reading, Glenn went on to demonstrate the potential of the latest machine-learning technologies to render significant volumes of transcription meaningful via text mining and the automated creation of patterns, frequencies, statistical models, and other forms of ‘mediated’ or ‘directed’ reading. Glenn distinguished between three kinds of text mining: predictive classification (used to generate new categories from unprocessed texts); comparative classification (used to correct and refine existing categories within processed texts); and similarity (used to measure broader similarities between documents and parts of documents, especially in terms of the identification of meaningful borrowing and instances of intertextuality). He then demonstrated each kind of approach within a rich series of examples drawn from his work with the ARTFL Encyclopédie Project, and most recently Electronic Enlightenment, before concluding his analysis by presenting – with caveats – some preliminary radial visualizations of textual influence generated using the D3 JavaScript library.

CFP: Epistolary Quarrels: Matter and Manner

faire_quarrelThe Electronic Enlightenment Project is currently seeking paper proposals for its second colloquium on the sociology of the letter, Epistolary Quarrels: Matter and Manner (Oxford, 19 November 2011). The colloquium provides a forum for both academics and graduate students exploring correspondence in the early modern period. The papers given by academics will be forty minutes; those given by graduate students will be twenty minutes. Conference papers can be in English or French. A selection of papers will be published electronically in the Electronic Enlightenment Project’s Letterbook. The deadline for 250-word abstracts is Friday 9 September 2011. For further details and how to submit, visit the colloquium webpage.

CofK to Participate in CEMS Digitisation Roundtable

A report on the roundtable is now available on the CEMS blog

cems_logo_newOn Thursday 18 November 2010, the Centre for Early Modern Studies (CEMS) at Oxford will host a roundtable presentation of three early modern digital projects, comprising Cultures of Knowledge (James Brown), Electronic Enlightenment (Robert McNamee), and the Digital Miscellanies Index (Abigail Williams and Jennifer Batt). The event will take place from 12.30-2.00pm at the Oxford e-Research Centre, 7 Keble Road. Tea and coffee will be provided, but please bring your own lunch. For more information, visit the CEMS website.

EE Colloquium on the Sociology of the Letter

ee_colloquiumThe first Electronic Enlightenment colloquium on the sociology of the letter – Enlightenment Correspondence: Letter-Writing and Reading in the Eighteenth Century – will take place at St Anne’s College on Saturday 13 November 2010. Co-sponsored by the Bodleian Library’s Centre for the Study of the Book, the colloquium will provide a forum for academics and graduate students interested in both correspondence about publishing and the publication of correspondence itself in the Enlightenment period. The event includes papers by keynote speaker James Raven and other scholars from the UK and US on publishing and private correspondence, letters in lives and works, letters as primary sources, and letters as historical documents. For further information, including a list of speakers, paper titles, the programme schedule, and registration information, please visit the colloquium webpage.

Electronic Enlightenment 2 Launched

ee21Electronic Enlightenment, the pioneering online archive of over 55,000 eighteenth-century letters, has just released its second version. New features introduced include additional content (for example the correspondence of Gustavus III and Adam Smith), and a more powerful range of search and browse functions (you can now sort letters by language, age of writer/recipient, and date range; lives by occupation and nationality; and sources by archive/country and title/publisher of early editions). The site has also been given a fresh new look. Electronic Enlightenment is a research project of the Bodleian Library and the Humanities Division of the University of Oxford, and is distributed by OUP.