History of Material Texts Seminar, Easter Term 2019

Seminar Series;

Thursday 25 April, 5 pm, GR06/7, Faculty of English

Tom Mole (Centre for the History of the Book, Edinburgh)

‘Thinking Through the Material: Byron at Work’

In this paper, I examine some of Byron’s manuscripts (especially those for Childe Harold Canto Three and Don Juan Cantos One and Two) in order to think about how he made use of the affordances and limitations of the manuscript page in the process of composing works that he intended for print.  In particular, I will suggest, he ‘thought through’ the material process of writing in ways that he knew would be effaced by the publication of his works. 

This seminar will be held in association with the 18th Century/Romantic Literature seminar.

Thursday 16 May, 5 pm, Board Room, Faculty of English

Felix Waldmann (Cambridge, History)

‘Prolegomena to a revised edition of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government‘.

My paper discusses the editorial history of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689) and a prospectus for a new critical edition of the work, superseding Peter Laslett’s monumental Cambridge University Press edition of 1960. The paper examines how scholarship in the last six decades has questioned or overturned a number of Laslett’s editorial and interpretative suppositions, including the significance of the so-called ‘Christ’s College’ association copy, the influence of Thomas Hobbes on Locke’s political thought, and the possible co-authorship by Locke of James Tyrrell’s Patriarcha non Monarcha (1681). 

All welcome

in praise of public libraries


I’ve just finished reading Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari (2017), an engrossing attempt to speak about the experience of growing up in poverty and to think about the gulf that separates the middle classes from the ‘underclass’. Along the way I found this impassioned defence of public libraries, attacking the fashion for blending libraries with community centres, and thus removing that crucial element of the library experience–silence:

“Admittedly, many of us don’t use libraries any more, but for those who do, it’s impossible to overstate how indispensable the service is. Particularly in communities characterised by poor education, low opportunity and high levels of stress, the library is an engine room of social mobility where people go to complete college and job applications, get help filling out forms to access benefits and bursaries as well as accessing the internet and books to learn new skills or find information. People who enter a library are actively trying to better themselves in some way and often lack the basic resources or skills to reach their goals. When you are in a public library, you are in the presence of people who are attempting to take a massive stride forward in their often chaotic and stressful lives. Aside from this more obvious function, the library performs a much simpler one–one which any librarian worth their salt will guard jealously. As well as not costing any money, the library is one of the few places in a deprived community that is quiet enough to hear yourself think.

To get a sense of how difficult it is to concentrate when there are things going on around you, pick up your smart phone and start thumbing through a selection of ring tones, while continuing to read this page–I’ll wait. Now imagine you are already pretty stressed, perhaps because you have no money, or because debt collectors and council tax are breathing down your neck. Now throw in the fact you are maybe not the best reader. Maybe you are a single mum, with a learning disability like dyslexia, or you might be battling with a drink problem. Maybe you’re looking to get back into education and have a limited amount of time for activities that require concentration? Maybe you are a young man, recently released from prison, perhaps on a tag, who has been given an apprenticeship in a barbers or a local deli but have no experience? Throw a little ADHD in the mix and an underlying psychological issue, which is exacerbated by stress, and suddenly the simple act of entering a library becomes an immense act of personal courage.

… Then we have the senior citizen, largely forgotten in the beard-stroking dither of progressive politics. Perhaps a widow who lives alone, or a disabled man who uses a wheelchair and can only access a certain number of buildings in the area. The library is one of the only places they’ll be allowed to stop for more than five minutes without being expected to spend money. And let’s not forget, there’s a reason why people in areas like this need to get out of their homes every now and then: paper-thin walls that mean you can hear your neighbours flushing toilets, boiling kettles, having sex, arguing, doing DIY, cutting their grass, revving their cars–at every hour of the day. This is not to mention the less-than-serene sounds of a stressful community, and all the challenging, often frightening, behaviour it fuels; couples engages in aggressive disputes, drunken young people shouting in the streets, strangers coming and going all day and night. Not to mention the regular sound of police cars, ambulances and fire engines.

The library is one of many dwindling resources, like the community centre, that act as safety valves. A library provides a safe and supportive environment where vulnerable people can educate themselves or mentally regroup. But increasingly, they will arrive at the library to find children running around, or people taking part in discussions or courses, or Mother/Toddler groups. These activities are equally essential–but they should be going on in a community centre. Libraries have become busy, often quite noisy places, which seriously defeats their intended purpose.”

of sombreros and tea-towels


I’m still basking in the glow of William Noel’s wonderfully engaging 2019 Sandars Lectures in Bibliography, on the theme of ‘The Medieval Manuscript and its Digital Image’. Arguing that images of medieval manuscripts were in their way as artificial as the ‘photograph’ of the Sombrero Galaxy taken by the Hubble Space Probe, Noel emphasized the value for repositories of treating their images as open-source data, thickly documented in the metadata so that they can be used and abused by the networked community in innumerable ways. While scholars need to know when, where and by whom an image was produced, as part of their ongoing investigation into a manuscript, the maker of tea-towels just needs an appealing image, and in Noel’s view both should be able to get their pictures without punitive fees. (In the questions after the second lecture, he said that academics need to complain more about the costs of reproducing images, and suggested that if more of them did so, the costs would soon come down or evaporate).

Noel’s concluding lecture was a survey of the ways in which digital tools can be used to understand the physical structure of books, with a shout-out to ‘VisColl’, which allows you to take manuscripts apart and see how they would have looked to their producers. Much of the lecture was taken up with a whistlestop tour through the different sizes of paper that were used in the production of late medieval manuscripts (imperial, royal, median, chancery and their variants), with an introduction to a gizmo called the ‘Needham calculator’ that Noel has invented to turn page measurements into a statement of book format and paper-size (taken together, these constitute what he calls the ‘flavour’ of the manuscript). Noel concluded with the hypothesis that the metal engravings of the period were specifically designed to fit onto particular sizes of paper, but that a tradition also developed in which (like the one shown in Georg Gärtner’s 1618 painting of St John the Evangelist) prints came with lavish margins, which tend not to survive today. All in all it was a fascinating recovery of the rules of a game that have been lost to us, achieved by combining cutting-edge digital technologies with a deep investment in the materials of textual production.

trust in the book


Just posted by a colleague on Twitter, this account by Ursula le Guin of the book as a fabulously reliable object (something like a faithful dog?) that will continue to be valued when all of our gizmos are buried in the ground.

ruminant reading


In the latest London Review of Books, Charles Nicholl reviews Christopher Celenza’s 2017 book Petrarch: Everywhere a Wanderer. Along the way he quotes a passage that we missed in our edited collection on the eating of words. Petrarch is writing to Boccaccio about his immersion in the classics:

“I have read Virgil, Horace, Boethius and Cicero. I read them not once but a thousand times; I did not run by them, but lay down beside them. I brooded over them with every effort of my intelligence. I ate in the morning what I would digest in the evening; I imbibed as a boy what I would ruminate on as an older man. I have ingested those things in such an intimate way that they have become fixed not only in my memory but in my marrow.”

It’s a powerful statement that makes it seems as though the hungry poet has swallowed ancient literature whole, absorbing it into every fibre of his being–going against the grain of recent scholarly accounts of reading that emphasise its necessary selectiveness. But Nicholl goes on to point out that Petrarch was a manuscript hunter who got his classical literature in tantalising fragments, and who published his own writings as fragmenta. And when it comes to the Canzoniere, Petrarch’s ‘mesmeric sequence of 366 sonnets, songs, madrigals, ballads and sestine’, Nicholl recommends restraint, commenting drily that ‘one a day in a leap year is the recommended dosage’.

History of Material Texts Seminar, Lent Term 2019

Seminar Series;


Thursday 7 February, 5 pm, Board Room, Faculty of English

‘Reading Machiavelli in 1943’


Thursday 21 February, 5pm, Board Room, Faculty of English

‘Editing Charles Burney’s Letters from Paris to Montreal, 1814-2019’


Thursday 7 March, 5pm, Board Room, Faculty of English

VICTORIA MOUL (King’s College London)
‘Post-medieval (’neo’-) Latin verse in English manuscript sources, c. 1550-1720’


All welcome

the air is thy register


The latest issue of The Library has an article by the CMT’s own Dunstan Roberts on the chained parish library of Chirbury in Shropshire. Now held at the Shropshire Archives, the library was left to the schoolboys and parishioners of Chirbury by the will of the vicar Edward Lewis, who died in 1677. It is particularly interesting for its preservation of several books belonging to the polymath Edward Herbert, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, including his annotated copy of Chaucer’s Workes (1598).

At the end of the article, Roberts draws attention to a different volume of Works, this time of the sixteenth-century divine Richard Greenham. The book (dating from 1605) has, inscribed on a flyleaf, a handwritten poem:

Misterious God thy thorough pearcinge eie
vieus our black deeds lockt in nights treasurie
the aire is thy register where wee
With our oane breath pen our owne historie
Our thoughts are Caracters to thee more cleer
th[a]n to mans opticke mountaines can appeare
Who then can scape when our deeds night displais,
Our words our breath, our thoughts our hart betraies?
Lord none except thy grace inspire vs soo
Our deeds, Words, thoughts onlie from thee may flow

Beatrix Herbert

Roberts identifies the likely author or scribe of the poem as Beatrice, Edward’s daughter. It’s a striking piece of writing in which the invisible and immaterial is cast as solid and massive in the eyes of God. And it appears to be otherwise unrecorded, itself ‘lockt in nights treasurie’ as a private act of devotion on the fringes of a cherished devotional book.

new CMT annual report out (finally)


The CMT Annual Report for the academic year 2017-18 is another epic, which includes perhaps the longest account of a conference ever penned (for our ‘Paper-Stuff’ event back in September). It also offers an opportunity to reminisce about David Pearson’s bookbinding workshops, the latest series of Medieval Palaeography Seminars, and the launch of some significant publications, including Text, Food and the Early Modern Reader and The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books. You can download it here.

Collaborative Doctoral Award


Boundaries of the Book in a Digital Age

In 1992 the poet William Gibson joined with the publisher Kevin Begos and artist Dennis Ashbaugh to subvert the idea of the artist’s book, and with it the principles of institutional preservation, bibliophilia, connoisseurship, rarity, value and the durability of text.

They contrived to produce Agrippa: a Book of the Dead, a semi-autobiographical poem enshrined in physical and digital formats, each programmed to self-destruct.  The body text of the deluxe version of the book, slyly arranged after the format of the Gutenberg Bible but reproducing the genetic code of the fruit fly, was interleaved with images designed to fade or slide from the page on use.  The text of the poem itself was contained in a floppy disc housed in the binding and designed to self-encrypt on use in a Mac.

Just like the pesky fruit fly, the book survived and the experiment failed: at a launch event an audience member surreptitiously filmed the scrolling, self-immolating text (still reproducing wildly on the internet) and private and institutional collectors pursued the book as a trophy particularly worthy of preservation.

Agrippa has been the subject of much institutional study and has been a focus of attention for scholars advancing investigations into the relationship between digital and analogue text, such as Matt Kirschenbaum.  But it remains an object of considerable mystery, with uncertainty still persisting around the number of editions produced, (deluxe and regular), survival rate, the extent to which the fading technology was applied and the means by which the book was conceived and marketed.

In perhaps a final admission of defeat, Kevin Begos donated his Agrippa archive to the Bodleian library in 2011.  This includes examples of the two editions, prototypes of the fading technology, materials used for the production of images and a wealth of correspondence and ephemeral material.

The archive is probably the single most important source for the understanding of this provocative anti-book and offers an important opportunity to investigate the text and its contexts, questions of curation and conservation, the position of the private and institutional collector in the preservation of such texts, the interface of digital and analogue texts and the wider genre of books seeking to undermine the codicological and typographical certainties of their own existence.  We eagerly await the arrival of an edition of Fahrenheit 451 whose text can only be read when exposed to flame and therefore a book that can never be read in the Bodleian.

Agrippa would provide a powerful launch pad into related areas – the role of the artist’s book in defending or questioning the nature of the book, questions of digital obsolescence and endurance (the Library of Congress has recently abandoned its attempt to collect all of Twitter, while the Bodleian builds its Web Archive) and the interplay between analogue and digital. In addition to participating fully in its academic programming and public engagement, the student would be encouraged to spend time behind the scenes at the Bodleian, understanding how the institutional contexts of the texts it holds can add to their understanding and perhaps contributing ideas to help develop the collections.

Supervisory team: Dr Jason Scott-Warren (Cambridge) and Dr Chris Fletcher (Bodleian Libraries)

Application process

For details of how to apply, please see: http://www.jobs.cam.ac.uk/job/19639/.

Exuviae: Distributing the Self in Images and Objects


A conference convened by Jason Scott-Warren and Caroline van Eck.

CRASSH, Cambridge, 10-11 May 2019.

‘As social persons, we are present, not just in our singular bodies, but in everything in our surroundings which bears witness to our existence, our attributes, and our agency’. This is the contention of the anthropologist Alfred Gell, who in his posthumous study Art and Agency (1998) elaborates the idea that personhood is distributed, extending outwards into the world through a variety of artefacts and technologies. Material things have an excessive and sometimes bizarre power to distribute the self, facilitating the transmission of human and divine agency over vast tracts of space and time. Gell invites us to think of the objects that serve this purpose as exuviae: remnants, relics, cast-offs or spoils, which while they have been separated from their host remain a part of it, or sometimes the whole of it, as a relic manifests a saint. Considered as exuvial, a portrait is not a dead and distant representation; it is part of its sitter, which continues to manifest life and presence once it has been sent out into the world. And many other kinds of object play a similar role.

On the twenty-first birthday of Art and Agency, this conference will explore Gell’s notion of the exuvial in all of its multiplicity and richness. Bringing together experts from a variety of disciplines, it will pursue some of the numerous ways in which the self has been circulated, around the world and across history. Our comparative study will take us from the intimately bodily (hair, teeth, skin), via coverings such as clothing and armour, to material media such as printed books and painted panels. We will also take in more intangible social skins such as fame, gossip and reputation, as well as posthumous avatars such as ghosts, souls and children. Among the questions that we will ask are: what historical forces conspire to give artefacts the power to transmit presence and personhood? How do different kinds of exuviae work together, and how do objects compete with one another for exuvial status? What happens when a whole class of objects is barred from exerting any exuvial force? Our presupposition is that many cultural variables come together to shape the story of human distributions. By exploring these variables, we will achieve a fuller understanding of our place in the world of things.

For further information see: http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/events/27902