Over the last twelve months we have all been learning to react with horror to the ubiquity of throwaway plastics, those fabulously useful, flexible-yet-sturdy films, bags and containers that have become indispensable for their very dispensability. Plastic packaging panders to our desire for cleanliness (look, no mud!) and opens up all kinds of opportunities for branding, in full colour. Like the rind of a fruit, it offered itself up as a purely functional protective wrapping, to be thrown away without a second thought.

Now, though, the eight billion tonnes of plastic that we have released into the environment are coming back to haunt us. We have begun to understand that there is no biodegradability in the realm of plastics, which break into ever smaller pieces and eventually end up in the food chain. And nature photographers have pioneered a new genre of image, the depiction of animals and birds whose lives have been thwarted by plastic items floating across the world’s oceans. Such crossings of the beautiful with the mundane have done a lot to jolt us out of our torpor.

All of this made it interesting to come across the discussion of ‘transpapers’ in Rachel Bowlby’s Carried Away: The Invention of Modern Shopping (2000). This was the term given to transparent packaging, as it was developed in the early decades of the twentieth century. It was coined by the trade journal Shelf Appeal to get round the problem that Cellophane (a trademarked name) was starting to be used as a generic term for see-through packaging. Transpapers were the solution to many kinds of modern phobia–one version, Rayophane, was advertised as ‘Guaranteed Odourless, Hygienic, Dust-proof, Oil-proof, Grease-proof, Germ-proof’. But as Bowlby points out, they also gave the product a gloss and a sheen, a halo that signified ‘a kind of transubstantiation for the humble loaf of bread or bar of soap’.

The transpaper was a vital technical development facilitating the transition from old-fashioned shops (in which the shopkeeper brought products to the shopper) to new-fangled supermarkets (in which the shopper does the work). Now shoppers could touch the products without touching them, and the ‘cling-film culture of the modern supermarket’ was born. Bowlby quotes Georges Blond, a Frenchman visiting an American supermarket in the 1950s: ‘Cellophane is an obsession; after a moment you wonder if you aren’t yourself shut up in a transparent case’. Seventy years later, we are still wondering.

For details of the forthcoming CMT conference on paper, click here.

the bookstore turned upside-down


An article in yesterday’s Observer reports that Blackwell’s, the chain bookstore that has become a mainstay of university campuses, is currently on a roll, thanks to its decision to sell more general-interest books. Sales overall are up 17%, and ‘against flatlining demand for academic titles, sales in its campus stores are up 4%’. The chief executive says that the famous Oxford branch is so closely linked to the University that non-scholarly readers are put off: ‘We are seen to be gown more than town and don’t want that to be the case’.

Which makes it all the more weird and wonderful that the Cambridge branch of Blackwell’s, Heffers, has just made a move in completely the opposite direction. For years now, most of the academic stock has been consigned to the basement, making room for glitzy money-spinners (cookery books, travel guides, celebrity memoirs) on the ground floor. But a month or so ago there was an amazing shift, as the academic books came upstairs. Now a casual browser has to steer their way past Classics, Anthropology, Religion and History (not to mention an amazing second-hand stock) before they can descend to Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. It looks like a university bookshop should; it makes you feel ill-read and excited to start thinking new thoughts. More than that, it makes you aware of how spatial organisation encodes values and ideologies. It’s easier to be dumb in a bookstore that’s out for a quick buck.

What can possibly explain this transformation, which pushes so forcefully against the grain? I can’t imagine, but I hope it will endure, and even turn a profit.

Paper-Stuff: Materiality, Technology and Invention


University of Cambridge, Faculty of English

10-11 September 2018

Under the auspices of the Centre for Material Texts and the Writing Britain Conference Series

The introduction of paper to the West was a major technological innovation that transformed the ways in which texts of all kinds were transmitted. Having proved itself over many centuries as the intellectual fabric of Asian and Middle Eastern societies, the medium continued to demonstrate an extraordinary capacity for adaptation and diversification when it arrived in Europe. The stuff of playing cards, votive offerings and amulets, packaging and toilet tissue, wall-coverings and quilt-linings, paper was also crucial to the development of quotidian, democratized literacies and to the unfurling of national bureaucracies and capitalist economies. Light (in a single sheet) yet heavy (in a massive folio), durable yet fragile and throwaway, paper’s ability to combine contrary qualities and its willingness to enter into alliance with other substances and technologies helped it seep into every sphere of daily life. Paper’s smooth surface masked fundamental changes in substance—in particular the move from the rag-paper of the late medieval and early modern periods to the wood-pulp paper of modernity. Its protean surface facilitated deep continuities and extraordinary ruptures in European cultural history.

A spate of recent publications has demonstrated the urgency of getting to grips with paper, at a turning-point in our relations with it. The aim of Paper-stuff is to meet this urgency. It will bring together experts in the field, theorists of material culture and representatives of a variety of disciplines with a stake in the subject, so as to understand paper’s empire in the West. Paper-stuff will also take stock of rapidly evolving technologies available for the analysis of paper.

Plenary speakers:
Professor Pádraig Ó Macháin (University College Cork)
Linda Toigo (paper artist)

For the draft programme, click here.

To register, click here.

For further information please contact one of the organisers at the e-mail below.
Dr Orietta Da Rold (
Dr Jason Scott-Warren (

Sponsor: The British Academy

London’s Leading Newspaper (7, 8)


Hackles were raised yesterday about journalistic independence, as it was reported that London’s Evening Standard newspaper–now given away for free to commuters, and found in multiple discarded copies in every railway carriage leaving the city–was accepting money from private companies in exchange for favourable news stories. The Standard has denied that any such backroom deals have been done.

Discussing the issue on Newsnight, Emily Maitliss asked whether this wasn’t standard practice for newspapers, who were always linking content with their advertising. Her interviewee, Les Hinton, thought that such connections would become more common as circulation figures continue to decline and advertisers gain ever greater power.

It will be interesting to see whether newspapers start to be sites of product placement, with odd little puffs popping up in the obituaries–‘in her declining years she gained great pleasure from weekly visits to Staples’–or the crosswords–as in ‘refreshing fizzy drink (4,4)’.

CMT work-in-progress seminar

Join us on Monday 11 June, 1-2 pm in the Board Room, Faculty of English, for a seminar led by Michelle Taylor (a PhD student working on modernist coteries, especially in relation to T. S. Eliot and Nancy Cunard, currently visiting on the Cambridge-Harvard exchange scheme). She will give a short talk entitled:
“Coterie Culture, Modernist Materiality: Past Models and New Problems”
which will be followed by discussion. Feel free to bring your sandwiches!

History of Material Texts seminar, Easter Term 2018

Seminar Series;


Thursday 10 May, 5 pm, Board Room, Faculty of English                              

Ellis Tinios (Leeds), ‘The Triumph of Calligraphy over Typography: commercial book production in early modern Japan’


Thursday 24 May, 5 pm, Board Room, Faculty of English

Tiffany Stern (Shakespeare Institute), ‘Playing Songs and Singing Plays: Ballads and Plays in the Time of Shakespeare’


All welcome

Cambridge Medieval Palaeography Workshop, Easter Term 2018

Seminar Series;

The Cambridge Medieval Palaeography Workshop is a forum for the discussion of medieval script and scribal practices, and the presentation, circulation and reception of texts in their manuscript contexts. Each workshop focuses upon a particular issue, usually explored through one or more informal presentations and general discussion. All are welcome.


Friday 4 May 2018    ‘Translating Bernhard Bischoff’

Professor Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (National University of Ireland, Galway)

 Bernhard Bischoff’s Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages, first published in 1979 and translated into English by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín and David Ganzin 1990, remains the principal introduction to the history of script and the cultural history of book production, especially for the period before 1200. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín’s reflections upon the challenges involved in making the translation will also provide an opportunity for discussion of the continued importance of this book in the teaching and study of ‘Latin’ manuscripts (i.e. those written in the Roman alphabet).


Friday 11 May 2018  ‘The Early Manuscript Catalogues of Cambridge University Library’

Dr James Freeman (Cambridge University Library)

This workshop will provide an introduction to the catalogues of the University Library that survive from between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, and their evidence for the acquisition and organization of the Library’s medieval manuscripts.


Friday 18 May 2018‘On paper and its use in Medieval England’

Dr Orietta da Rold (Faculty of English)


Friday 25 May 2018  Round-table on the collation formula 

Including the variety of ways that it has been applied and the issues they raise, and other diagrammatic visualizations of manuscript structure including those made possible by digital media. With contributions from Professor Richard Beadle (St John’s College, Cambridge), Professor Rodney Thomson (University of Hobart), Dr James Freeman (CUL) and Dr Anna Dorofeeva (post-doctoral research fellow, University College Dublin)


All meetings take place 2-4pm in the Milstein Seminar Room, Cambridge University Library.

Convenors: Teresa Webber, Orietta Da Rold, Suzanne Paul, Sean Curran and David Ganz

For further details, email

Oxford Lyell Lectures 2018

David Pearson, ‘Book ownership in Stuart England’

This lecture series will explore seventeenth century personal book ownership, looking not only at book acquisition patterns but also investigating motives and collecting cultures. A key theme will be the use of material evidence from books themselves to help to enhance our understanding of seventeenth-century values.

The series begins Tuesday, 24 April, in the Lecture Theatre, Weston Library, at 5 pm.

Who owned books in the seventeenth century, what kinds of people, what kinds of books, how many, can patterns of change and development be tracked? The first lecture will provide an overview, based on a systematic gathering of many categories of evidence for the existence and scope of private libraries. It will consider methodologies and approaches to private libraries in contemporary book history, and review the sources we have available for constructing our understanding.



Thanks to Stewart J. Brookes for coming to talk to us last night about Archetype, a dazzlingly rich and flexible tool for image-comparison, designed for palaeographers attempting to substantiate their claims about the dating and development of hands, but now being used to analyse (among other things) the making of the Bayeux Tapestry. The software can be freely downloaded and applied to any set of images you may happen to be grappling with.

We will be able to answer big questions with this. Personally, I’m still trying to answer a very small research question: who in the sixteenth/seventeenth century in England wrote ‘g’s like this?



The centenary of a milestone in the history of women’s voting rights yesterday coincided with my graduate student Molly Yarn handing in the latest instalment of her PhD on female editors of Shakespeare in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the women whose history she has been unearthing is Agnes Russell Weekes, who produced editions of As You Like It, The Tempest and Cymbeline for the University Tutorial Series. Weekes had a degree from University College, London; she worked as a tutor and co-wrote novels with her sister, with whom she lived at 9 Queen Anne Terrace in Cambridge. In 1911, Agnes (aged 30) and Rose (aged 36) filled in their census form. In the ‘INFIRMITY’ column, which invited you to note whether anyone included on the form was ‘lunatic’, ‘imbecile’, or ‘feeble-minded’, they wrote ‘unenfranchised’.

Agnes and Rose Weekes were among the thousands of suffragists who either boycotted the census or who used their forms to write messages of protest, such as Dorothy Bowker’s ‘No Vote – No Census. I am Dumb politically. Blind to the Census. Deaf to Enumerators. Being classed with criminals lunatics & paupers I prefer to give no further particulars’. It’s nice to have this opportunity to celebrate the courage of their protests.