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Letters in Focus: Things That Go Bump in the Night

So, the evenings draw in, All Hallows’ Eve is upon us, and I find myself creeping through autumnal mists to the Bodleian’s Special Collections in search of ghosts.

There are many fleeting glimpses of hauntings in EMLO. In 1675, William Fulman asked Anthony Wood to confirm ‘the story of a ghostly funeral procession at night to St Peter le Bailey which terrified some of the Masters who were walking with the Proctor, but two which followed the procession to the Church door found the doors to open of their own accord, and then all to vanish and are since dead’. In 1706, Anne Griggs reported ‘the ghostly interview at Souldern Vicarage between the Vicar Mr Shaw and the apparition of his friend Mr Naylor on July 28… The apparition foretells the death of Mr Shaw…’ (sadly, Mr Naylor was a well-informed ghost; the Clergy of the Church of England Database [Person ID: 20286] reveals that one Geoffrey Shaw, rector of Soulderne, Oxfordshire, died on 17 November 1706, less than four months after this ghoulish encounter).

Bodleian Library, MS Ballard 1, fols 72–73: A seventeenth-century poltergeist. Images reproduced courtesy of the Bodleian Libraries.

One record above all others tempts me out into the damp October fog: on a handwritten index card from the Bodleian card catalogue that gives no year, and describes a John Mompesson writing to a Reverend Doctor (now known to be William Creed, Oxford’s Regius Professor of Divinity) on 6 December (now known to be 1662), are the words ‘supernatural beating of drums’. Calling up the letter, I encounter a spine-chilling tale of a seventeenth-century household terrorized by a poltergeist. Mompesson describes how, following his apprehension of a fraudulent drummer in Ludgershall (Wiltshire) and the confiscation of the latter’s instrument, his family home in nearby Tedworth (now Tidworth) was assailed by nocturnal thumps and noises so extreme that ‘the windows would shake and the beds’. His children were special targets; apart from a brief interlude of three weeks after his wife gave birth, their beds were beaten, and the family had to endure the tune ‘Roundheads and Cuckolds goe digge, goe digge’ (more on this popular early modern ditty here). Whatever ‘it’ was ran ‘under the bed-teeke’ and scratched as if it had ‘iron talons’, tossing the young ones in bed; it left sulphurous smells, it hurled shoes over the heads of adults, pulled the infants by their nightgowns and hair, and even threw a bedstaff at the rector of Tedworth, John Cragge (CCED Person ID: 21834, yet another cleric who died relatively soon after his brush with the supernatural). See the letter images above for the whole terrifying story.

A demonic representation of the Tedworth drummer from Glanvill’s 1681 treatise

Endorsements on the letter, including a cross-reference to a 1663 news book

The Drummer of Tedworth, it turns out, is a celebrated case within the historiography of witchcraft and the early modern occult; it was given a central place in Joseph Glanvill’s 1681 attack on scepticism, the Saducismus Triumphatus, its notoriety continued to grow in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it has even been subject to minor Disneyfication. The incident, its manuscript witnesses, and its complex appropriation and memorialisation by and within different intellectual traditions is analysed in detail in a 2005 article (pdf) by Michael Hunter, which includes a full transcription of this same 6 December letter collated from three known extant versions: a copy in Corpus Christi, Oxford; a now untraceable copy formerly in a private collection in Dorset; and a copy in the hand of Anthony Wood. The document thrown up by our cryptic Bodleian card record is almost certainly not Mompesson’s original letter – there is no seal, and the lines extending to the page edges on both sides of the folio are indicative of copying – but rather adds a fourth scribal copy into the mix, one that, judging by the endorsements in two separate hands, enjoyed a complex afterlife before becoming part of the Ballard collection, most likely via the papers of Arthur Charlett (on the scribal publication and circulation of newsworthy missives in early modern England see chapter seven of James Daybell’s recent monograph on the material letter and his podcast in our 2011 seminar series). Even if this account is second-hand, close the curtains, pull up a chair, and get reading; there’s nothing like a percussive poltergeist to add drama and intrigue to Halloween…

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.

Epistolary Cultures in the Early Modern World

Further to exciting events in 2010 and 2011, the Project’s third international conference, Communities of Knowledge: Epistolary Cultures in the Early Modern World, recently took place in the Faculty of English on 20–22 September 2012.

The event, organized by Rhodri Lewis and Noel Malcolm and attended by a record audience of over 100 delegates, assembled an all-star cast of eighteen international authorities on early modern letters, who over a three-day programme explored and celebrated the ways in which intellectual interests and activities of all kinds were pursued and propagated through correspondence during the long seventeenth century.

Rhodri welcomes delegates and introduces the conference themes

Our largest ever audience packs the lecture theatre

Constance Blackwell, Philip Beeley, and Howard Hotson

Sir Keith Thomas and Anthony Grafton at the Scaliger Reception

Particular attention was paid to the epistolary experiences of groups and networks rather than those of particular individuals – and the role of letters in constituting these communities of practice – and to the ways in which exchanges of letters coexisted with, supplemented, or competed with other kinds of knowledge production during the period. Delegates were also treated to a demonstration of our union catalogue of correspondence, Early Modern Letters Online (video now on our infrastructure page); no fewer than two publisher-sponsored drinks receptions toasting exciting new publications and partnerships (details here); and an array of quiches, sandwiches, and cakes of unusual deliciousness crafted by Trevor and Cristina from the Organic Deli Café.

Miranda Lewis and Mordechai Feingold at the Scaliger Reception

Leigh Penman, Alexander Farquhar, and Noel Malcolm

A conference marches on its stomach: artisan quiches

Sandwiches on home-made bread also exceeded scholarly expectations

Videos of most of the proceedings will be available shortly; in the meantime, for further information, including speaker profiles and abstracts, check out the conference microsite. Details of further events in 2013 and 2014 will also be available in the coming months; to stay informed, please join our mailing list.

Lecture: John Aubrey and the Printed Book

aubrey_books_posterOur very own Kate Bennett will deliver an Oxford Bibliographical Society lecture on John Aubrey and the Printed Book at the Taylor Institution on Monday 5 March at 5.15pm. John Aubrey is not known primarily for his publications, but for his manuscripts, including his letters, which the Project is editing for publication and calendaring within Early Modern Letters Online. This is often construed negatively, as a failure to print. In her lecture, Kate will reconstruct and explore Aubrey’s complex relationship with printed texts, through his library (full of annotated books), his relations with publishers, his interest in bibliography and the history of the book, and through the libraries of others which he consulted. She will also examine his relationship with the books of those with whom he collaborated, including Anthony Wood and Robert Plot. She will consider how Aubrey balanced print and manuscript as a way of avoiding the risks involved in printing modern histories and lives; and, ultimately what the printed book meant to him. All are welcome!

CFP: Newton Conference and Fellowship at the Edward Worth Library

BookIt’s an exciting time for friends and colleagues at Dublin’s Edward Worth Library – a collection of 4,500 books, left to Dr Steevens’ Hospital by Edward Worth (1678-1733), an early eighteenth-century Dublin physician – who have contacted us with two reminders:

A conference on The Reception of Newton will be held at the Library on 12–13 July 2012. In recent years, considerable attention has been devoted to the elucidation of the precise nature and scope of Newton’s influence on eighteenth-century science in particular, and on Enlightenment culture more generally. The Library is uniquely positioned to contribute to this ongoing reassessment, as its holdings bear unique witness to the spread of Newtonianism in Ireland. Worth’s collection reminds us of the range and depth of Newton’s intellectual impact on Europe and the crucial role played by second generation Newtonians in clarifying, classifying and re-presenting his ideas. The deadline for 300 word abstracts is 1 March 2012; for further details, see the conference website.

The Library is also offering a single one-month fellowship to be held in 2012, to encourage research relevant to its holdings. The collection is particularly strong in three areas: early modern medicine, early modern history of science, and, given that Worth was a connoisseur book collector interested in fine bindings and rare printing, the history of the book. Research does not, however, have to be restricted to these three key areas. Further information about the collection and its catalogues may be found on the library website. The closing date for applications is 30 March 2012. For further details and application procedures please contact: Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian, The Edward Worth Library, Dr Steevens’ Hospital, Dublin 8, Ireland (elizabethanne.boran[at]hse.ie).

A Swedish Adventure for Cultures of Knowledge


Exploring the epistolary treasures of Uppsala University Library.


Demonstrating the catalogue at Uppsala University Library.

Last week provided us with an exciting opportunity to share the ongoing work of the Project, specifically relating to our union catalogue of early modern correspondence, at two of the most important research libraries in Sweden. In a whistle-stop tour of the Scandinavian state – one of the great powers of early modern Europe, with one of the most exciting epistolary collections in the world today – Project Director Howard Hotson visited Uppsala University Library (the Carolina Rediviva) and the National Library of Sweden in Stockholm, meeting their directors and other key library personnel; exploring their extensive holdings of early modern letters; and discussing our plans for the union catalogue with seminar audiences. The itinerary concluded in the Department of Literature and History at Stockholm University, where Howard presented his ongoing work on the intellectual geography of Ramism (a theme soon to be revisited in the context of our 2011 conference). We would like to thank everyone involved with the visit especially Professor Erland Sellberg of the University of Stockholm, Dr Ulf Göransson and Håkan Hallberg of Uppsala University Library, and Dr Otfried Czaika of the National Library of Sweden for their extremely generous Scandinavian hospitality, with a special ‘shout-out’ to Dr Per Landgren, a visiting scholar with the University of Oxford’s MEHRC, who conceived the idea, generously mobilised his scholarly connections on our behalf, and (as if this were not enough) also did most of the logistical legwork. Thanks, Per!


Introducing the catalogue at the National Library of Sweden, Stockholm.


Discussing intellectual geography at the University of Stockholm.

Fellowships at the Edward Worth Library

Digital Repositories BibliographyThe Edward Worth Library, Dublin, is offering a single one-month fellowship to be held in 2011, to encourage research relevant to its collections. The Worth Library is a collection of 4,500 books, left to Dr Steevens’ Hospital by Edward Worth (1678-1733), an early eighteenth-century Dublin physician. The collection is particularly strong in three areas: early modern medicine, early modern history of science and, given that Worth was a connoisseur book collector interested in fine bindings and rare printing, the History of the Book. Research does not, however, have to be restricted to these three key areas. Further information about the collection and our catalogues may be found on the library’s website. The closing date for applications is 14 April 2011. For further details and application procedures please contact: Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian, The Edward Worth Library, Dr Steevens’ Hospital, Dublin 8, Ireland (elizabethanne.boran[at]hse.ie). You can download the advertisement here (doc).

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