Darkness Visible


Back in 2019, I used this blog to raise the possibility that a copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, held in the Free Library of Philadelphia, might bear annotations in the hand of the poet John Milton. The tantalising notes, often taking the form of tiny textual corrections and scratchy brackets in the margins, had just been analysed in detail for the first time by a scholar at Penn State, Claire M. L. Bourne, and her dating and description made it look as if a Miltonic provenance was a distinct possibility. Thanks to digital technology and in particular social media, you can now get instant responses to even the wildest propositions, and within a few hours I made contact with Claire and floated the idea with the wider academic community. I received rapid confirmation that this was more than just a viable idea–it was actually true. Claire and I spent the Covid lockdown giving online talks about the volume, and last year we published an article describing it in detail, in the journal Milton Quarterly.

Fast forward to 2024 and another book from Milton’s library has resurfaced, which I’ve not yet had time to discuss here. At the end of March, scholars from Arizona State University hosted a Research Forum at the public library in Phoenix, with the aim of exploring a collection of books bequeathed to the library in 1958 by Alfred Knight, a real estate magnate and philanthropist. Among Knight’s books was a copy of Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587), a gargantuan work that charted the histories of England, Scotland and Ireland from their mythical origins through to the present day. And among the scholars present were Aaron T. Pratt (curator at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin), and the aforementioned Claire M. L. Bourne. Aaron spotted some marginalia that roused his suspicions; Claire took a look and confirmed those suspicions; and then Claire sent me some images to see if I agreed. The identification was relatively easy for us to authenticate, not just because of the handwriting, but also because Milton took detailed notes from his reading of Holinshed in his Commonplace Book (Add. MS 36354), now in the British Library. It was immediately clear that there were strong connections between the marks in the book and the notes. Here, for example, is an excerpt from the Commonplace Book, in which Milton collects evidence that kings of England (unlike American Presidents?) are not above the law. A few lines down he reports that the Empress Maud, failing to revoke the laws of the Norman invaders, lost the support of Londoners and with it her claim to the crown. And beneath that is the section of Holinshed from which he gleans this information, marked with a marginal bracket.

Entry on 'Kings of England' in Milton's commonplace book

The match is by no means 1:1, but there are so many cases where the Holinshed ties up with the Commonplace Book evidence in this way that there can be no doubt that the annotator is Milton.

That said, there are so many annotations in this enormous book that it is going to take some time for us to process them and to work out they have to tell us about Milton’s reading practices. We published a preliminary account in the Times Literary Supplement in May; in that piece, the star exhibit was a photograph which shows Milton censoring his Holinshed by running a line across a passage which described how Arlete/Herleva, the mother of William the Conqueror, behaved when she was summoned to the bed of the Duke of Normandy. In the margins, he added a critical note: ‘An unbecoming tale for a history and as pedlerly expresst’ (or something like that–his words were cropped when the book was rebound). ‘John Milton was a prude‘ was how the story was covered in the online Daily Mail, offering news that may not have come as a huge shock to readers of Comus and Paradise Lost. Other images that we used in the article showed Milton citing other texts he had read, including Edmund Spenser’s View of the State of Ireland and ‘the booke of Provenzall poets’, i.e. Jean de Nostredame’s Les vies des plus célèbres et anciens poètes provençaux (1575), a book that was not previously known to be on his shelves.

Milton censoring a passage in Holinshed.

We thought we had found the juiciest images to illustrate our article, but we missed one that might just turn out to be the juiciest of all. This is the woodcut initial ‘I’ that kicks off the Preface to the second bound volume of the Chronicles. As you can see, it depicts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with the newly-created world all around them. But what is being covered up by that big black mark up in the sky to the left?

The answer is, of course, that it is God, as you can see by contrasting this version of the same letter, from a copy of the 1587 Chronicles at the Harry Ransom:

So what exactly is that black splodge doing, covering up God? The answer is, almost certainly, that this is another act of censorship. Protestants objected to the visual depiction of God, viewing it as an incitement to idolatry, and from the early sixteenth century (in a process documented by the historian Margaret Aston), pictorial representations were frequently replaced with the tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters for the God of Israel: YHWH. Holinshed’s image offended against a widespread prohibition; hence its vigorous correction in this copy.

The next question is: so who did the correcting, and was it Milton? In a recent article entitled ‘Milton among the Iconoclasts’ (in Depledge et al., eds, Making Milton: Print, Authorship, Afterlives [2021]), Antoinina Bevan Zlatar surveys the poet’s lifelong engagement with iconoclasm (at its most conspicuous in his prose work attacking the veneration of the executed Charles I, Eikonoklastes), but suggests that Milton did not adopt the extreme puritan position on the depiction of the deity. In Paradise Lost, Milton permits his God to have the kind of human features that he given in Scripture; this is a God who can be said to sit on a throne, and to have an eye that he can bend down to view his works. That said, Zlatar also reminds us that Milton casts God the Father as invisible, ‘throned inaccessible’ in a blaze of glory, and presents the Son as the visible form of the Father. So perhaps he did have difficulties with too defined and delimited an image of God, as ‘an old man sitting in heaven on a throne with a sceptre in his hand’ (to quote the contemptuous description of the puritan William Perkins). Determining the date and the origins of that smudge of black ink in the Holinshed will be tricky, perhaps requiring non-invasive pigment analysis. At this stage we can only say: it could be Milton.

Doctoral Research Fellowship


Before Copyright

A Doctoral Research Fellowship (SKO 1017)  is available at the Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History, University of Oslo.

The position is associated with the 5-year Starting Grant 101042034 “Before Copyright: Printing privileges and the politics of knowledge in early modern Europe” funded by the European Research Council and led by Principal Investigator Marius Buning, Associate Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Oslo.

“Before Copyright” examines the long-term history of printing privileges from a cross-disciplinary perspective. The intimate relationship between legal frameworks and the politics of knowledge is the primary focus of the project.

We invite applications for PhD research on any aspect of the history of printing privileges in the period 1500-1800.

Potential candidates may wish to focus on a particular period, person, archive, or location. For example, one might consider political alliances and conflicts, but also scientific and commercial networks, media strategies and censorship, or the cultural dynamics of specific places in a globalizing world. Applicants are expected to state in their project proposal why they have chosen a particular approach and what sources they intend to use (e.g. printed literature, engravings, court records, maps, newspapers, chancellery archives, etc.). Preference may be given to projects on France and Scandinavia, and to projects dealing with the (legal) Enlightenment.

The selected candidate will be affiliated with the faculty’s organized research training. The academic work is to result in a doctoral thesis that will be defended at the Faculty with a view to obtaining the degree of PhD. The successful candidate is expected to join the existing research milieu or network and contribute to its development. Read more about the doctoral degree.

The appointment is for a duration of 3 years. All PhD Candidates who submit their doctoral dissertation for assessment with a written recommendation from their supervisor within 3 years or 3 ½ years after the start of their PhD position, will be offered, respectively, a 12 or 6 month Completion Grant.

The expected start date for the position is between October and December 2024.

Movable Books


26th April, 10AM-5PM

Cambridge University Library

The London Rare Books School is offering a new full-day course on the movable book, hosted at Cambridge University Library. Using the library’s extensive collections, the course traces the history and varied uses of movable features, from early modern spinning volvelles and flap anatomies to Victorian toy books, elaborate pop-ups and contemporary artists’ books. It considers how these interactive pages with their tabs and flaps, wheels and string, might reframe the concept of reading, highlighting a long history of embodied, tactile interactions with the book. 

Booking and information here.

History of Material Texts Seminar, Lent Term 2024

Seminar Series;

Thursday 15 February, 5.30 pm, Board Room, Faculty of English

Dahlia Porter (Glasgow)

‘The 18th-century Illustrated Catalogue: List Logics, Identical Objects, Epistemic Images?’

This seminar will be held in association with the Eighteenth Century and Romantic Studies Graduate Seminar. For a Teams link, please email the convenors: 18cRcambridge@gmail.com (links will be provided shortly before the seminar begins).

Thursday 7 March, 5 pm [display available for viewing from 4.30 pm], Milstein Seminar Room, University Library

Irene Fabry-Tehranchi (Cambridge University Library)

‘French and English caricatures of the Franco-Prussian war (1870) at Cambridge University Library’

All welcome

Curious Cures


The next event in the Cambridge Bibliographical Society’s calendar takes place on Thursday 1st February (5.00-6.00pm) in the Milstein Room at the University Library. [NB THIS TALK HAS BEEN POSTPONED DUE TO UNITE STRIKE ACTION]

Dr Clarck Drieshen and Dr Sarah Gilbert, Project Cataloguers on Curious Cures in Cambridge Libraries, will present case studies arising from the Wellcome-funded conservation, digitisation, cataloguing and transcription project, which – led by Dr James Freeman – is enhancing the discoverability of medieval medical recipes in 187 manuscripts across 14 collections in Cambridge. 

Sarah will discuss the manuscript collecting, curating, and donating practices of Roger Marchall (d. 1477), fellow of Peterhouse and doctor to the royal household, and will share examples of his unusual approach to ‘perfecting’ the books in his possession. Clarck will talk about collections of medical recipes that contain references to places, patients, and medical practitioners, and how cataloguing such ‘receptaria’ in detail can reveal new insights about their origins. 

A selection of manuscripts from the project will be on show from 4.45pm and briefly after the talk.

Those interested in attending are asked to e-mail Liam Sims (ls457).

AHRC CDA: Reading and Writing in Medieval Women’s Religious Communities


Applications are invited for an Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC DTP-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award at the University of Cambridge, in partnership with the British Library.

This fully-funded studentship is available from October 2024. Further details about the value of an Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC DTP award are available on the DTP’s studentships page.

Closing date: 4 January 2024.

This Collaborative Doctoral Award would give you the opportunity to investigate the culture of female religious communities in the Middle Ages, through a study of their surviving manuscripts. Medieval women living together in monasteries and other kinds of convent communities owned or produced an astonishing number and variety of manuscripts. These include literary works in poetry and prose, archive and record books, music manuscripts, financial and administrative accounts, maps, books for religious services, paintings in the form of manuscript illumination, documents such as charters, and sculpture in the form of seal impressions.

We are inviting applicants to propose a project that explores any aspect of women’s conventual life, with the specific aim of bringing together kinds of sources that have rarely been discussed in combination. The themes and structure of the project are entirely open, provided the proposal is interdisciplinary and combines different types of manuscripts—broadly defined, as above—in novel, creative, and productive ways. At least some element of your research should concern institutions in the British Isles, but the project as a whole may be comparative. In your proposal, you would aim to draw principally on the British Library’s collections (although we understand that some research in other collections will almost certainly be inevitable). Some indication of the BL’s holdings can be found on these sites:

Manuscripts and Archives Collections Guides
Digitised Manuscripts
Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts
Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue

The British Library has one of the world’s most extensive and diverse collections of manuscripts from medieval women’s communities. In your research for this project, you would work on these collections alongside the BL’s curatorial staff, and undertake specialised training at both the BL and at Cambridge, where you would be part of a large and collegial community of medievalists in a wide range of fields. The British Library is currently developing a major exhibition, Medieval Women, which is due to open in October 2024. Starting your doctoral research just as the exhibition is opening, you will be able to develop a close familiarity with the display, support the programme of private views and visits to the exhibition, and build on its research findings.

The Cambridge supervisor is Dr Jessica Berenbeim, University Lecturer in Literature and Visual Culture at the Faculty of English. The British Library supervisor is Dr Eleanor Jackson, Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts in Western Heritage Collections. 

We welcome applications from candidates of all backgrounds and ethnicities who have an interest in any field of Medieval Studies. Applicants should meet the eligibility criteria for Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC studentships. Should you have any questions, or for an informal discussion about how you might approach the CDA project, you are welcome to contact Dr Jessica Berenbeim at jb455@cam.ac.uk and Dr Eleanor Jackson at ellie.jackson@bl.uk.

You should apply to the PhD in English by 4 January 2024 (midday, UK time), indicate your interest in being considered for an Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC DTP studentship and submit a completed copy of the OOC DTP Application Form at the same time. Please see the advert on the Cambridge jobs site.

History of Material Texts Seminar, Michaelmas Term 2023

Seminar Series;

Thursday 12 October, 5 pm, Board Room, Faculty of English

Justine Provino (University of Cambridge)

‘30 years of a self-destructive book: Agrippa (a book of the dead), 1992-’

Thursday 9 November, 5 pm, Board Room, Faculty of English

Lucy Sixsmith (University of Cambridge)

‘Handling Bibles in the Nineteenth Century’

Thursday 23 November, 5 pm, Board Room, Faculty of English

Janine Barchas (University of Texas at Austin, Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall)

‘”Lent to Copy”: Art Rentals in the Age of Jane Austen’

This seminar will be held in association with the Eighteenth Century and Romantic Studies Graduate Seminar

History of Material Texts Seminar, Lent Term 2023

Seminar Series;

Thursday 25 May, 5 pm, Board Room, Faculty of English

Devani Singh (Geneva), ‘Chaucer’s Imperfect Books’

All welcome.

Agrippa symposium, 18-19 May

Events, News;

On the afternoons of 18 and 19 May, in conjunction with Oxford’s Bodleian Library and the Centre for Material Texts, Cambridge, Justine Provino (Jesus College, Cambridge) is organising a symposium on the self-destructive artists’ book Agrippa (a book of the dead) (1992) by the writer William Gibson, the artist Dennis Ashbaugh and the publisher Kevin Begos Jr.

The event will feature: a hybrid book tour of the surviving copies of Agrippa in public institutions and a show-and-tell on the archive of Agrippa’s publisher at the Bodleian; a round table with scholars of Agrippa moderated by Cambridge Digital Humanities Director, Caroline Bassett, and a panel discussion on the place of artists’ books in book studies, between the New York-based book-artist Russell Maret and Gill Partington, Fellow in Book History at the Institute of English Studies. The event is held in conjunction with the Bodleian’s annual D.F. McKenzie Lecture, to be delivered by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum. 

For further information and registration in person and online to the Agrippa Symposium and McKenzie lecture, please follow the links below:

Thursday/Friday, 18/19 May, from 2 pm

Symposium: Agrippa: A Book of the Dead


Thursday 18 May 2023, 5 pm

The D.F. McKenzie Lecture 2023

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum (Maryland) ‘The New Nature of the Book: Publishing and Printing in the Post-Digital Era’


History of Material Texts Seminar, Lent Term 2023

Seminar Series;

Thursday 9 February, 5 pm, Milstein Room, University Library

Irene Fabry-Tehranchi (Cambridge University Library)

‘French and English caricatures of the Franco-Prussian war (1870) at Cambridge University Library’

Update: This seminar has been cancelled due to UCU strike action.

Thursday 23 February, 5 pm, Board Room, Faculty of English

Brian Cummings (York) will discuss his new book, Bibliophobia: The End and Beginning of the Book (2022)

Thursday 9 March, 5 pm, Board Room, Faculty of English

Erica McAlpine (Oxford), ‘The Poem on the Page’