relational gestures / a post by Helen Magowan

Blog, Gallery;
Sasareishi, volume 1 f.12v-13r. 1713, Hasegawa Myōtei. Ebibunko. 

The first image in this blog post shows a page from a book published in 1713. In three volumes, it’s a collection of letters in the handwriting of a celebrity calligrapher called Hasegawa Myōtei. This page is part of a letter which, in heightened, literary language, advises someone to mend their bitter heart and be more like the willow tree which sways in the wind. The words vary between large and small, between thick rich lines and fine delicate ones; the forms are rounded and connected between letters and even between the vertical lines of text. The writing seems to drift downwards to the left, as if autumn leaves were falling in a gentle breeze.

This genre of publishing is called nyohitsu, the ‘woman’s brush’, and the books usually focus on letter-writing. The ‘woman’s brush’ extends to the style of writing which could also be used in commercial prose, and despite the name, it could be written by men as well as women. Nyohitsu was fashionable in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with hundreds of books being published and republished, but it fell out of favour in the nineteenth century and is no longer practiced. Premodern Japanese script is almost completely illegible to most modern readers, so texts such as these that haven’t been considered important enough to transcribe are inaccessible to researchers, even when they are in the digital collections of libraries. In my research, my first challenge has been simply to learn to read them.

2 The large dark text is read first, following the arrows. The reader returns to the beginning and reads the second layer, in the mid colour. The reader returns to the beginning for the third layer, in yellow.

The next problem is the tension between what is on the page, and how I work with it. If I simply transcribe what I see page by page, it gives me fragments of phrases that don’t connect to each other, because the letter extends across the pages before and after in ways that we don’t expect and I can’t easily represent. Image 2 shows how I experimented with colour coding and arrows to follow how the reader moves backwards and forwards through the pages of the book. But while this helps illustrate how to interact with the text, it is unhelpful for a close reading of what the text actually says. For that, I still need to turn it into a readable, searchable, copy-and-pasteable typographic transcription.  

This process of typographic transcription is an ongoing project for scholars of premodern Japan, but we shouldn’t make the same mistake that early western visitors to Japan did. Early modern Japan had a vibrant and mature publishing industry catering to many different markets, including the women who were buying nyohitsu manuals or borrowing them from libraries. The third image shows a bustling shop full of customers browsing the illustrated books. However western visitors didn’t recognise this highly developed print culture, because Japanese books were floppy, stored on their sides, and they were woodblock-printed. We need to remember that woodblock printing was not a technological limitation, and moveable type was not a technological advance. Ceramic and wooden moveable type had been invented in China in 1040, and metal moveable type in Korea in 1250 a full two hundred years before Gutenberg in 1450. Moveable type was broadly unsuited for most applications of the character script shared by China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, and woodblocks had advantages such as flexibility in combining text and image, and as the first image of the nyohitsu book shows, the ability to showcase the aesthetics of handwriting itself. 

3 A book shop. Circa 1802,  Katsushika Hokusai.Joan Elizabeth Tanney Bequest, LACMA 

The shift from xylography to typography didn’t occur until the late nineteenth century, a period of huge change. The western powers had turned their attention to East Asia seeking new markets, and had shown they were willing to use force to get it. China’s ‘century of humiliation’ had already started with the loss of Hong Kong to Britain, and image 4 shows a treaty after their defeat by Russia. To avoid a similar fate, Japan urgently needed to be “modern” and “western”, and in the course of a few decades, Japan reorganised and revolutionised. This is the context for the shift to typography: all of the previous advantages of woodblock printing were now outweighed by the other imperatives. 

4 Treaty of Aigun. c. 1858 Vasily Romanov. N.I. Grodekov Khabarovsk Territorial Museum

Nyohitsu’s nineteenth-century disappearance is likely to be a complex picture, but its incompatibility with typography is clearly implicated. Japanese script had to fit the demands of moveable type: the numbers of letterforms were cut down, variation was eliminated and letters were disconnected from each other. Typography aims for repeatability, as well as transparency: we shouldn’t be distracted from the content of writing by how it looks. We understand of course that if we change fonts we get different effects, but the message remains the same. What we see with nyohitsu is different. It might look like a font, but acts like a linguistic register. What it looks like contains important information, telling us something about the writer, the reader, and the relationship between them, as well as what kind of situation the interaction is happening in. Nyohitsu expressed affective qualities like warmth, friendliness, and intimacy. The manuals contained letters that said things along the lines of “As the autumn blows a cool breeze, the sky is bright and clear. I send my greetings on the festival of Tanabata.” This is not interesting for its content, but for the material expression of a relational gesture. In nyohitsu script, this could express friendly affection. The same message in a different script might be impersonal, frosty, or deferential. Using nyohitsu script to the wrong person could be over-familiar or disrespectful. The extravagant letterforms and elaborate page layouts are not decorative, but integral to the meaning. The final image is of something that looks like a nyohitsu page, but it has been stripped of meaning. As Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism goes, “the medium is the message”.

5 Something that looks like f.12v-13r of Hasegawa Myōtei’s 1713 Sasareishi, but is not.

Nyohitsu resists typographic transcription because it has more to say than the limitations of typography will allow. Nevertheless, I continue to transcribe. Not only because modern literacy is typographic, but because, as McLuhan was pointing out half a century ago, we have built a world conditioned by typography – email, databases, WhatsApp, OCR, kindles, pdfs and the rest. As late nineteenth-century Japan realised, more than a medium, typography is a knowledge regime: only that which can be contained in typography counts as academic knowledge. That which that cannot be transcribed is not data. So I continue to transcribe, stripping nyohitsu of its meaning by repeating the process that led to its extinction in the first place. We are in an exciting moment when digital technologies like machine-reading and AI are allowing access to distant archives and research methods like distant reading, data-mining and corpus analysis. But at the same time, if we allow our digital future to be limited by typography, we are re-enacting what happened to nyohitsu: a new digital colonialism.

Helen Magowan

PhD Student

Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

From copying in the scriptorium to coding on the computer: understanding the book as support


Justine Provino is embarked on a PhD in the Faculty of English at Cambridge. Here she describes her unusal and challenging project.

In normal times, writing a PhD on how libraries can preserve and facilitate access to self-destructive books might seem strange enough. The duty of these ancient institutions is to care for the works that they gather on their shelves, and to pass the information they enshrine from one generation of readers to the next. What would they make of a book that has been designed not to survive?

In the time of Covid-19, my PhD research has turned into a full-scale practical test on the work of the library in framing written culture. The physical thresholds of our cultural heritage institutions have become impossible to cross, locking away all those books that were bound so as to last, but which are also bound to decay, like all organic matter. One might mischievously assert that this state of affairs is optimal for preservation: all of the books are shielded from the touch of readers, enjoying the absence of the stress that afflicts their spines every time they are opened. But being untouched, for a book, also means that it is not fulfilling its main function in our society: the transmission of content through the process of reading. The transfer of knowledge accelerates the decline of the book as a container (torn pages, distressed covers), as we know; sometimes, it can even spell the destruction of the book, as books are ‘read to death’. Books put up different degrees of resistance to their assailants—the flimsier examples might be said to have ‘built-in obsolescence’, falling apart at the first opportunity. Unbound products of the press, such as newspapers are date-stamped in the full knowledge of their own ephemerality. But few books actively seek their own ends.

So what is a self-destructive book? Why was it even made? Where is it? Can it be seen and touched? Why would one wish to preserve and access such a counter-intuitive bibliographical artefact in a library?!

A self-destructive book is just that: a book intended by its makers to self-destruct. My PhD case study, the 1992 American artists’ book, Agrippa (a book of the dead), is so far the only example of its kind. But my research keeps me on the lookout for instances that would prove this claim wrong, and I would be delighted to be contradicted as soon as this blog is posted. Agrippa was the product of a collaboration between the publisher Kevin Begos Jr, the writer William Gibson, and the artist Dennis Ashbaugh. Though many artists’ books have involved an element of destruction, from John Latham’s Skoob Towers, burning books in the 1960s, to Stephen Emmerson’s latest translation of Rilke in spores, in which a fungus grown on the book’s cover feeds from the paper and ink, the materials in these books existed before they were re-used in a process of creative destruction. By contrast, Agrippa was made to self-destruct and self-erase before it was turned into a bound object.

Begos Jr/Gibson/Ashbaugh, Agrippa (a book of the dead), 1992. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rec. b. 38/Rec. a. 25, copy wrapped in shroud and enshrined.

Inside the book, Ashbaugh’s printworks represent vintage technologies (a pistol, a Bell telephone), and these images are overprinted onto a transcription of the DNA of the fruitfly. This insect is usually associated with ‘something rotten’, and the printmaking technique itself is rooted in decay: a first layer of aquatint etching is overprinted with unfixed-toner carbon ink. This second layer necessarily offsets onto the next page, and it also moves from its support as the page is being turned by the reader, or as the reader touches the top layer of the image; over time, it disappears. Accompanying this artwork is Gibson’s literary contribution, an autobiographical poem about his family and his emergence as a writer. The poem is digitally encrypted on a Mac floppy disk encoded to self-destruct as being read. The floppy disk is inserted into a hollowed cavity which is carved into the centre of the analogue textblock of the book. It was encrypted so as to be playable only once—after a single ‘performance’ of the poem, the disk would become unreadable, echoing the physical decay of the images.

Begos Jr/Gibson/Ashbaugh: aquatint etching with an overprint of a pistol diagram. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rec. c. 98, facing title page.

Not all of the forms of self-destruction in Agrippa were ‘intended’. The composite multi-media confection is encased in a presentation fibre-glass box, the interior of which is made of cardboard covered in an as-yet-unidentified paint. These elements are very likely to offgass acidic components onto the book, thus contributing to the oxidation – and alteration both in composition and aspect – of Agrippa’s organic materials (the stiffening of its textblock, the yellowing of its cloth-covered boards). On the exterior, this box takes the shape of an early century Kodak photo-album labelled ‘Agrippa’. This makes it a simulacrum of the photo-album Gibson found in his family home, filled with his late father’s and grandfather’s photographs. This vintage artefact was the germ of his poem about the dead, and gave the collaborative artist’s book its title.

Begos Jr/Gibson/Ashbaugh. Fibre-glass cover imitating vintage photo-album with label ‘Agrippa’; presentation box accompanying the deluxe edition of Agrippa. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rec. a. 25.

Begos’s archive on Agrippa, housed at the Bodleian Library, retraces the creation of the book and the reaction of the public from 1992 to 2005. This archive is accompanied by a deluxe- and a small-edition copy of Agrippa, which materially evidence some of the many phases in the making of the self-destructive book. The deluxe edition is missing its floppy disk and has no ‘disappearing images’; the small edition is not visibly lacking any elements. Both editions have presentation boxes made of acidic materials. As a book conservator by training, these copies present me with both an ethical and practical challenge. They were made to trigger our common – but quixotic – idea of the book-object as a permanent support. Agrippa presents us with the material reality that a book is an object that necessarily evolves over time, and we have to take into account the book’s evolution in order appropriately to care for and to preserve its informational content. The most ancient form of codex and its hardware (chains, clasps) and the latest e-book software have in common the fact that they are transferable supports, generated by copying in the scriptorium or coding on the computer. They can also be erasable supports, whether they are palimpsests or data files. Agrippa’s makers remind us that we quickly become oblivious to the materiality of a text as long as it ‘does the job’, forgetting that it is vital to the communication of its content. Agrippa reveals a lot about the relationship between our idealised vision of the book and its material reality.

Begos Jr/Gibson/Ashbaugh, deluxe edition of Agrippa. Aquatint etching, without disappearing image, facing a hollowed cavity carved in the textblock that is missing its floppy disk. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rec. b. 38.

But can Agrippa be preserved? Strikingly, it preservation started the moment it was released. After Begos advertised it, highlighting its ephemerality, Gibson’s poem was hijacked via a secret recording, made during the public reading of the text from a computer screen at the time of Agrippa’s launch on December 9th 1992 (the recording is now available on YouTube). In parallel to this public intervention, Begos himself gathered and preserved Ashbaugh’s artist’s proofs and his experiments in the process of overprinting, together with information on the making of the fibre-glass presentation box, and the contract for the encryption code; these items are all in the Bodleian archive. The library is now the framework that allows this network of digital and physical data to be reconnected, allowing the researcher to glimpse the unfolding process of a one-off, entirely unrepeatable performance.

Reclaiming the Legends Myth & the Black Arts Movement


Notes for an exhibition in the English Faculty Building, first floor, 17 January – 17 February, 2017


Dropping his history books,

a young man, lined against the horizon

like an exclamation point with nothing to assert,

stumbles into the dance.

– “Death as History” by Jay Wright


exhibition-posterRECLAIMING THE LEGENDS: MYTH & THE BLACK ARTS MOVEMENT finds inspiration in the anti-historical world described by Wright. Its mysterious dance is the “cabinet of curiosities”: the defiance of categorical boundaries, the assembling of varied objects, the powerfully mythic rather than the historical, the rhythmic rather than the calculated. The exhibition also “plead[s]” like Wright’s dance. It asks visitors to abandon traditional epistemologies and participate in the microcosm it has created. This exhibition-world is a miscellany of anthropological & egyptological studies, revisionist histories, spiritualist & esoteric writings, books of poetry, and music record. It intimates some organizational principle, but finds time operating synchronically. Traditional chronology, here, is corrupted: Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Lorenzo Thomas, Bob Kaufman, Ishmael Reed, David Henderson, and Marvin X appear alongside Gerald Massey, George James, and Theodore P. Ford. Like Wright’s dance, its form is ritualized and its theme is mythical.

Although the exhibition looks above and beyond “history” (“visionary-wise”), it is from there where we begin. The symbolic birth of BAM occurred in the spring of 1965. Not long after the assassination of Malcom X, LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka] (1934-2014) moved from Manhattan’s Lower East Side to Harlem, where he, Larry Neal and others co-organised the Black Arts Repertory Theater / School. BAM (its artists, journals, and institutions) would soon spread across a number of major American cities—Detroit, Chicago, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and New York—; however, under repressive government measures like COINTELPRO, President Nixon’s strategy of pushing Black Capitalism as a response to Black Power, and an ideological shift towards Marxism, BAM began to decline by around 1974.

Although BAM was largely a decentralized movement, its artists and thinkers did have a common political foundation: nationalism. James Edward Smethurst writes, “the common thread between nearly all the groups was a belief that African Americans were a people, a nation, entitled to (needing, really) self-determination of its own destiny” (15). BAM’s socio-political concerns bespeak of the radical significance of their historical moment. Yet, perhaps unexpectedly, “history” (as such) did not figure in the poetry and drama of BAM. In fact, many of BAM’s thinkers equated history, as Wright states, with “death.” History was the story and culture propounded by the tyrannical power of the white-West. BAM and Black Power politics wanted to change or, better, to drop “history” altogether. Neal writes, “the cultural values inherent in western history must either be radicalized or destroyed.” What was needed, Neal continues, was “a whole new system of ideas”: a system that would be alternative, black, and “mythic.”

The poetry and drama of BAM often served to build this alternative myth-world. In BAM’s literature, allusions to Akhenaten, Moses, Zipporah, warriors, gods, spirits, and orishas appear with more frequency than figures of recent history (Patrice Lumumba and Malcom X included). Symbols like the ankh or Egyptian hieroglyphs can often be seen integrated in artworks or poems. Ancient Egypt and Ethiopia regularly appear as the settings of a prosperous black past, now suppressed by white historians. If “history” distorted and oppressed, “myth” empowered. For BAM, this mythic past was also as an image of the future. Time, in the alter-world, functioned synchronically: its occupants could freely move backwards (to the glory she/he once was) or forwards (to the glory she/he will be). In infinity, as Sun Ra states “it doesn’t matter which way you go”—you will find free and everlasting life in all directions.

RECLAIMING THE LEGENDS: MYTH & THE BLACK ARTS MOVEMENT is a journey through the synchronic alter-world of BAM. The first display case (THE PAST MADE PRESENT) decides to position itself in the past. On the far left of the display case lie two books: Gerald Massey’s The Light of the World (1907) [1] and George James’s Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy (1954) [2]. Both Massey and James’s texts reconsider the accepted history of Western tradition, concluding that a number of its philosophical and religious ideas have ancient Egyptian origins. As Massey and James’s texts assert the cultural influence of Africa, the three works in the middle of the display case encourage their readers to use this African knowledge as a means of selfempowerment. Theodore P. Ford’s God Wills the Negro (1939) [3] ends with the call to find strength in “the accumulated folk-wisdom and social experience of a hundred centuries of civilization.” Amiri Baraka, in his interview with Austin Clarke, [4] makes a similar gesture when he encourages the “black man” to repossess his ancient “lifeforce”— the force that made Egypt, Ghana, Timbuktu—and flourish as he used to. In “The Bathers” (1981) [5], Lorenzo Thomas aims to describe this life-force at work. Set in the 1963 Birmingham Civil Rights demonstrations, a young boy, hit by a high-pressure hose, “[transforms] into a lion” whose powerful “tail is vau the symbol of love.”

The most influential example of ancient myth being used as a means of self-empowerment occurs in jazz music. On the video monitor beside the first display case, the visitor can watch musical performances by Pharoah Sanders, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, and The Art Ensemble of Chicago as well as readings by Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, and Askia Touré. Many of the performances find their energy in ritual-like percussion or rhythmic phrasing, dance, and costume. Turning back to the first display case, the visitor sees three objects of a similar theme. Henry Dumas’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” (1974) [6] tells the story of an ancient horn so powerful that it kills a group of uninitiated white listeners. In “East Fifth Street (NY)” (1965) [7], Bob Kaufman describes jazz as having the capacity to cause “time” to “[cry] out” from “the skin of an African drum.” At the very end of the first display case is Sun Ra & Henry Dumas’s The Ark and the Ankh (1966) [8]. During the course of their interview, Ra describes music as a bridge to a world beyond death, destruction, and time.


Following Ra, the exhibition’s second display case ( LOOKING AHEAD, VISIONARYWISE) positions itself in the future. On the left hand side of the display case, the visitor sees three texts that explore the theme of death bringing about new life. E.A. Wallis Budge’s translation of The Book of the Dead [1] contains a series of “magic spells” with the capacity to determine the afterlife of the deceased. In “Egyptian Book of the Dead” (1970) [2], David Henderson uses metaphors like magic spells to transform a deceased New York City into an Edenic ancient Egypt. In his ode to the legacy of Malcolm X (1968) [3], Marvin X turns Malcolm’s assassination into something affirmative, bringing with it strength, hope, blackness, and black power. While death brings about new life, myth and magic provide models of what that new life may look like. Reed’s “Neo-HooDoo” mixture of fact and fiction, history and myth, in Mumbo Jumbo (1972) [4] provides the reader with an aesthetic and cultural model antithetical to the West’s. In “The True Way to Life” (2006) [5], Sun Ra uses intuitive logic to reinterpret history, decode biblical scripture, and reveal the secret path to everlasting life. In Four Black Revolutionary Plays (1968) [6], Amiri Baraka provides examples of how sensationalism, surrealist symbolism, and mythology can be placed in the service of political protest.

The exhibition ends with two explorations of what may be called the future-present. In “to Morani/Mungu” (1971) [7], Sonia Sanchez puts “peace” in the hands of a loving mother and has her assert that it is in the present that African Americans—particularly children—can actualize their dreams. Lastly, Space is the Place (1972) [8], is a musical exploration of Sun Ra’s space world. After journeying through cacophonous horns, offkilter piano, and energetic percussion, the album ends with the electronic beeps and bops of Ra’s spaceship taking off for another voyage.

Please find two informative PDFs below. One is an extensive description of the exhibition and the objects on display and the second is a short handout visitors can pick up at the exhibition:


Reclaiming the Legends [Long]

Reclaiming the Legends [Short]


Writing By Sound: Pitman’s Phonographic Shorthand


shorthand1Isaac Pitman’s phonographic shorthand or ‘sound-hand’ was invented in 1837 and remains the mostly widely used system of shorthand in the world, now more commonly known as ‘Pitman Shorthand.’

Shorthand – otherwise known as stenography, brachygraphy, or tachygraphy – is a system of written signs designed to enable their user to write words down at the rate at which they are spoken. The earliest known form of shorthand is found in the ‘Tironian Notes’, developed by Marcus Tullius Tiro in order to quickly and accurately transcribe Cicero’s speeches. Later English-language systems include: Timothy Bright’s Characterie: An Arte of Shorte, Swifte and Secrete Writing by Character (1588), Thomas Shelton’s Short Writing (1626) (used by Samuel Pepys in his diaries), and Samuel Taylor’s 1786 system. Taylor’s system was widely used throughout the English-speaking world and the young Isaac Pitman mastered it before developing his own system.

These shorthand systems were primarily orthographic, using particular marks to indicate common clusters of letters – prefixes, suffixes, common endings, and everyday words – although they also often included marks representing vowel-sounds. Pitman’s innovation was to invent a shorthand system with a strictly phonetic basis. Phonographic shorthand transcribed sound rather than abbreviated spelling: it bypassed conventional orthography in order to give written form to the accents and inflections of pronunciation. As Pitman himself put it, phonographic shorthand was a system of writing in which the ‘very sound of every word is made VISIBLE.’

shorthand2Pitman’s specific concern was to develop a system of shorthand in which audible speech – rather than just its linguistic meaning – could be perfectly reproduced from written signs. His interest in the relationship between texts and pronunciation began at a young age: coming across unknown words in Paradise Lost, he discovered that he could reconstruct their correct stress and intonation from Milton’s prosody. This interest remained with him, prompting the development and endless refinement of phonographic shorthand, and eventually leading him to establish his Phonetic Institution which was to become the headquarters of the Spelling Reform movement and the centre for its many publishing and pedagogical activities.

While there is sometimes a mismatch between Pitman’s pedagogical ambition for the system and its actual success, the development of his long-distance learning programme indicates the level of popular engagement with phonographic shorthand. Every Phonetic Institute publication advertised that ‘Any Person may receive lessons from the Author by post gratuitously. Each lesson must be enclosed in a paid letter. The pupil can write about a dozen verses from the Bible, leaving spaces between the lines for corrections.’ By 1845, Pitman was receiving 10,000 phonographic letters a year. Similarly, while the ‘Phonetic Sunday Schools’ that Pitman imagined would be central to the education of children in phonetic literacy seem never to have been established, phonographic shorthand was nevertheless used on the mission field to produce the first written records of un-transcribed languages, including Bengalee, Tongan, and Malagasy. There were also reports that the system was used to take notes in the Chinese Parliament

The extent of popular engagement with phonographic shorthand is indicated here, as is its global reach, and some of the ways it influenced literacy, engagement with educational activities, and understandings of language. Despite this, there has been very little investigation into the use of the system or its significance for how we think about writing and language more broadly in the nineteenth-century. The Rare Books Department at Cambridge University Library has an extensive collection of Phonetic Institution publications, including teaching materials, exercise books, phonotypic publications, and phonetic periodicals. Much of this material has never been studied, and many of the books still have their pages uncut. There is, I think, some very interesting work to be done here.

Pitman’s endeavour also reflects the proliferation of phonographic experiments and the growing concerns about language in the nineteenth-century. Attempts to inscribe sound in such a way tshorthand3hat it could be reproduced took many different forms. Alexander Melville Bell, a professor of physiological phonetics at Edinburgh, developed a system of ‘Visible Speech’ in which grammalogues depicting the shapes of sound in the human mouth were used to teach the profoundly deaf correct pronunciation. His son, Alexander Graham Bell, was such an accomplished reader of ‘Visible Speech’ that his party-trick was to use ‘Visible Speech’ transcriptions to read out loud foreign texts in languages he couldn’t speak (includng Sanskrit and Gaelic) to the satisfaction of native speakers. A. G. Bell subsequently developed the telephone (patented 1875-77). Thomas Edison invented the phonograph (the precursor to the gramophone) in 1877 which made re-playable voice-recordings by tracing a vibrating needle over wax cylinders. Turning from technological experiments to linguistic research, concerns with accurately recording the sound of speech were central to nineteenth-century investigations into philology, etymology, and regional accent. They also play out in the dialect poetry of Dorset poet William Barnes, and can, I argue, be traced in Thomas Hardy’s preoccupation with disembodied voices and forms of inscription (see ‘‘How you call to me, call to me’: Hardy’s Self-Remembering Syntax’, Victorian Poetry, Spring 2016).

As such, Pitman’s phonographic shorthand also offers an insight into a particular historical moment in which these questions about the relation between texts and sounds were at the forefront of technological and linguistic research. Establishing the relationship between text and sound was not only a practical problem. It also pressed philosophical questions about the nature of meaning – about the relationship between linguistic sense and sensuous form, about what writing is for and how it relates to speech, and about the kinds of sound, experience, and meaning that become available when we read.

Some of the philosophical thinking about language that attended Pitman’s innovations can be seen in his phonographic books. They show an anxiety that we might not be able to hear the difference between different categories of sound and language when all noise is inscribed as the same kind of phonographic text: in the phonographic edition of Thankful Blossom: A Romance of the Jerseys, 1779, by Bret Harte (1889), Pitman – bizarrely – leaves the cow’s moo-ing untranscribed; similarly, in Plutarch’s Lives of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar (1887), Pitman leaves all Latin names untranslated. In the ‘Exercises in Phonography’ appended to A Manual of Phonography (1845), Pitman seems to take particular delight in demonstrating how his phonographic system makes the end-rhymes of the metrical psalm visible as a sequence of paired symbols.

shorthand5But these questions about the relation between text and voice also raise philosophical questions about the nature of human identity: the relationship between voice and presence, between being and knowing, between embodied life and the traces of human experience and knowledge we leave behind. Edison, with a mixture of pride and sadness, acknowledged the extent to which these phonographic experiments raise questions that intrude on and threaten the self-reflexive knowing that constitutes the sense of self: ‘The phonograph, in one sense, knows more than we do ourselves. For it will retain a perfect mechanical memory of many things which we may forget, even though we have said them’.

Anna Nickerson

An exhibition of Pitman-related materials is currently on display on the first floor lobby of the Faculty of English, 9 West Rd.

‘Collective considerations collating into Commonplaces’


CMT exhibition casesA backwater lay-by off the M5, Junction 24, three days before Christmas. A covert exchange of an unknown document, protected only by an iPad case, occurs between man, whippet and young woman. Shady as it may seem, this is not the stuff of reconnaissance but curation. This nineteenth-century commonplace book replete with beautiful illustrations, kindly donated by John and Caroline Robinson, now lies in situ on the first floor of the English Faculty, at the heart of the inaugural exhibition of the Centre for Material Texts. The exhibition, curated by myself and my MPhil colleagues on Dr Ruth Abbott’s Writers’ Notebooks course, focuses on commonplace books and the ways in which they acted as repositories for the recording of daily life in the nineteenth century. From passages of the Bible to Byron, musings on God to sketches of the family dogs, the commonplace book offered a powerful collective storehouse for the miscellanies and medleys of material that amassed at the center of communal family life.

19thcpbk1The unconventional method through which our exhibition materials were acquired proves apropos, given the unusual conditions under which the birth of our interest in commonplace books occurred. In another intrepid motorway adventure: a six hour, 250-mile minibus journey (nobly helmed by Ruth Abbott) with eight complete strangers, our group’s first weekend in Cambridge, was in fact spent in Grasmere, Cumbria working at the Wordsworth Trust. Guided by Ruth and curator Jeff Cowton we spent a full two days nestled in the archive, immersed in manuscripts and the materials which made them. It was a weekend stuffed with stuff. We created Thomas Bewick prints on a nineteenth-century printing press. We learned how to bind books on a sewing frame. Quills were carved and inks were made. Paste was pressed from pulp into paper (with the aid of a craftsman’s deckle and an improvised flattening dance on top of it). In a flurry of high spirits, fumbling with spirit-levels, our exhibition on the Wordsworth family commonplace books was installed.

19thCPBK3Like the chain lines and watermarks we spent the days studying in manuscripts, through curatorial collaboration we had impressed a profound mark on each other. The silence, sky and space of the Lakes and our collective academic endeavour had bound us together as tightly as the spines of the nineteenth-century treasures that lay on the archive’s shelves. What was particularly pertinent in creating this exhibition, born into being from deeply felt fellow-feeling from all parties, was that it chronicles and encourages the communal sharing of thought. The addition of our modern commonplace book to the display invites exhibition-goers to participate in shared forms of notetaking, to add their scraps and fragments of experience, their inmost thoughts, their favourite quotations and aid the creation of a beautiful, diverse collective text.

19thCPBK4Speaking to other students who have visited Grasmere, at a recent meeting with the Wordsworth Trust at London’s Brigham Young Institute, I further realised the true powerful potential of the material. Through awe-filled eyes, each sentence suffused with a quasi-religious fervour, they recounted the moment they were allowed to see a first edition of Lyrical Ballads and handle Dorothy Wordsworth’s real notebooks. In fact, the Wordsworth Trust’s website proudly proclaims ‘Visit the Wordsworth Museum to see Dorothy’s actual notebooks’. This is something our group reflected upon as we sat around Wordsworth’s ‘actual’ fire in Dove Cottage, reading his poems, souls stirred by the transcendent beauty of breathing life back into words where they were first brought into being. In curating this exhibition, in Grasmere and in Cambridge, and through Ruth Abbott’s phenomenal notebooks course we have relearnt the overwhelming magic of the material, the ability to encounter and interact with the ‘actual’. It is in this kind of engagement with ‘actual’ manuscripts, notebooks and papers that ‘with an eye made quiet by the power/Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things’.

19thCPBK5Through our immersion in the material practices from which texts develop, we learnt to cultivate a fresh appreciation for the ways in which literature is embodied and presented. The afterlives of the work we have done with these exhibitions, and the study of notebooks and manuscripts in general, like Wordsworth’s River Duddon, flow on endlessly. From future PhD projects to the reinstallation of the commonplace book exhibition in Cambridge ‘Still glides the Stream, and shall for ever glide;/The Form remains, the Function never dies’. We hope that in this latest reimagining of our display, we encourage others to see the beautiful potential in collective interaction with note-taking practices. In doing so, our work continues ‘to live, and act, and serve the future hour’.

19thCPBK6Megan Beech, MPhil Modern and Contemporary Literature

Megan is a performance poet and created these two short poetry films in response to her experiences at the Wordsworth Trust and studying notebooks on Dr Ruth Abbott’s course:

Trust Wordsworth:

‘O! This is Our Tale Too!’:

A literary history of dot, dot, dot


ellipsisOver the centuries, writers have tried to represent linguistic failure better. There has been a persistent deepening of efforts to get closer to real speech, with its disfluencies, false starts and interruptions. Peculiar as it may sound, an unfinished sentence can, in its own way, be as much of a literary accomplishment as a couplet.

Punctuation has been fundamental in this aspiration towards the depiction of ordinary speech. The focus of my work has been to trace the development of a punctuation mark that emerged specifically to denote interruptions, hesitations and other forms of incompleteness. This is the history of … a symbol that became notorious in the early twentieth century as a sign of the elusive and generally vague…

The collaborative work of Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford at the turn of the twentieth century provides an interesting study in the rise and resulting disapproval of the dot, dot dot. When working together on The Inheritors (1901) Ford and Conrad aimed to capture ‘the sort of indefiniteness that is characteristic of all human conversations, and particularly of all English conversations that are almost always conducted entirely by means of allusions and unfinished sentences.’[i] The Inheritors contained over four hundred instances of … though it was a relatively short novel.


Joseph Conrad and Ford M. Hueffer, The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story (London: William Heinemann, 1901), p. 232; CUL. Misc.7.90. 468

The critics didn’t like this. Conrad wrote in a letter about The Scotsman’s review, ‘It is the typographical trick of broken phrases: … that upsets the critic. Obviously. He says the characters have a difficulty of expressing themselves; and he says it only on that account’ (to Ford Madox Ford, 11 July 1901).

That critics could be upset in 1901 at characters speaking in broken phrases is surprising, to say the least. Marks of ellipsis had been used in English print since the end of the sixteenth century to indicate unfinished sentences. Dots, dashes and asterisks had been prevalent in print to mark inarticulacy for centuries.

Drama was especially important in the evolution of the ellipsis. This is perhaps to be expected, as drama is the literary form that is connected in the most concentrated way with speech as it is spoken. In 1588, what I believe to be the earliest marks of ellipsis in English drama appeared in a translation of Terence’s Andria. On three occasions, a series of hyphens are used to suggest interruption — or self-interruption. This was a simple but brilliant innovation. The mark worked as a form of stage direction, providing, at a glance, information about delivery, possibly offering space for gesture, and suggesting a great deal about characterization.


Terence, Andria, translated by Maurice Kyffin (London, 1588); © The British Library Board, C.13.a.6 sig. I4r.

The mark quickly caught on, with ellipses becoming a common feature of play texts. Ellipsis marks appear in some of the early printed plays by Shakespeare and in abundance in the work of Ben Jonson.

It is difficult to ascribe agency for these markings absolutely in this period. Printers often took responsibility for punctuation, and, at the very least, the choice of ellipsis mark may have been determined by what a printer had available. By the eighteenth century, alongside dashes and hyphens, series of dots began to be seen in works written in English, most probably with the influence of developing continental practice. Hyphens, dashes and dots would largely have been understood as equivalent marks. Dot, dot, dot, had yet to develop its own strongly recognizable set of connotations and attributes.


William Congreve, Love for Love: A Comedy (London [The Hague]: [for Thomas Johnson], 1710), p. 52; CUL, Brett-Smith.b.9


It was in the novel that these marks of ellipsis proliferated most spectacularly, taking on new representative dimensions. Novelists imitated play texts by punctuating their dialogues with interruptions and hesitations. Elocutionists took notice of this, debating the efficacy of these marks in aiding the transcription of the human voice. But novelists also used the same punctuation marks to depict failures of voice more fundamentally, as ellipsis marks in narrative passages presented questions about narrative authority and representational ability. Ellipsis marks were also enlisted in novelistic realizations of human interiority, including its incoherencies and blanks. Dots and dashes became wildly popular in the pan-European language of sensibility of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, where they became tokens of emotion and passion, burgeoning across lines and even pages, acting often as shortcuts to the meaningful.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the variant marks of ellipsis began to take on different roles, with the dash becoming especially popular as a fully accredited mark of punctuation. Grammarians finally acknowledged the dash as one of the primary marks of punctuation in the late 1700s, with Lindley Murray’s extraordinarily successful 1795 English Grammar even being described by one commentator as having legalized the dash.[ii]

Changes in the printing industry over the nineteenth century also led to increasingly uniform methods of punctuation, one reason being that common practice facilitated augmented rates of book production. Guides for printers encouraged standardized punctuation and the dash proved versatile in marking (among other things) incomplete sentences, pauses and changes in tone. Dot, dot, dot, by contrast was to serve mainly a citationary function, indicating material omitted from quotations. However, for literary writers at least, the marginalized identity of the … made it an interesting and often unsettling resource in contradistinction to the ubiquitous dash. Wilkie Collins in his pioneering detective novel, The Moonstone (1868), deploys series of dots in an orthodox fashion to indicate missing words in a transcription, but he imbues those omissions with the mysterious qualities of the unconscious mind.


Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone. A Romance (London: Tinsley Brothers, 1868), vol. 3, p. 148; CUL, Nov.143.69-71

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, George Meredith was attempting to articulate minute changes in human sensation by means of different styles of ellipsis. In The Tragic Comedians (1880) Meredith even notates different ways of ‘thinking without language’, by contemplating subtle variations between ‘tentative dots’ and the dash.

In an essay on ‘The Psychology of Punctuation’ published in 1948, E.L. Thorndike commented, not on the presentation of fictional psychologies by means of punctuation, but on what punctuation can reveal about the psychological processes at work when we read and write. A large part of his essay concerns the invisibility of punctuation. Writing about the remarkable rise of ‘…’ in twentieth-century fiction, Thorndike notes that though he was often in the company of dot, dot, dot as a reader of George Meredith, Edith Wharton and others, ‘Not until I found it abounding in my counts of punctuation, did I ever think anything about it’.[iii] Thorndike testifies to the extraordinary ways in which what is in front of us on the printed page can remain unseen in the reading process. But such invisibility is curiously apt with respect to dot, dot, dot, which mediates between the suppressed and the manifest and which emerged, long before George Meredith was writing, to make silence (almost) seen.

Anne Toner


[i] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth & Co., 1924), p. 135.

[ii] Justin Brenan, Composition and Punctuation Familiarly Explained (London: Effingham Willson, 1829), p. 68.

[iii] E. L. Thorndike, ‘The Psychology of Punctuation’, American Journal of Psychology, 61 (1948), 222-8, pp. 225-6.

Early Modern Visual Marginalia


IMG_4431On 1 May 2015, the Centre for Material Texts sponsored a colloquium on the subject of visual marginalia—the annotation of books with pictures rather than (or as well as) words. In the Middle Ages, scribes often decorated the margins of their texts with images, which sometimes bore an ironic or subversive relationship to the words they accompanied. Our colloquium, organized by Dr Alexander Marr from the Department of History of Art, focused on a later period (the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), and on images added by later readers rather than by the initial producers of texts.

The images that renaissance readers left in their books took many forms. One of the most common was the pointing hand, or manicule, that served to direct attention to a particular passage. Some scholars used astrological symbols to make the themes of a book visible—Mars for war, Venus for love, Mercury for wit and so on. Others added illustrations marking references to particular places, individuals and events. Once a whole volume had been ‘digested’ in this way, the margins would function as a kind of running contents list that made information retrieval easy and pleasurable. Then there are a few prestige books, such as the copy of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly that was illustrated by Hans Holbein, which can be considered works of art in their own right.

Julian Luxford (History of Art, St Andrews) opened the colloquium by drawing attention to the sheer variety of kinds of visual marginalia, and the difficulty of locating, describing and understanding them. Showing a range of examples, from pictures that seemed to be executed by trainee artists to sexual images perhaps added by bored schoolboys, Luxford suggested that it was time to stop thinking of these marginalia as ‘doodles’ or ‘pen-trials’. However amateurish they may seem, we should take them seriously as evidence for the visual culture of the period. He also wondered whether we should be talking about ‘margins’–a term with a lot of ideological baggage–or should think instead of ‘borders’, a term which forces us to think about what lay beyond the boundaries of the page.

visualmarginaliaThe study of visual marginalia is sometimes challenging by design, as when early modern readers created esoteric pictorial schemes that  elude our best efforts to make sense of them. In their contribution to the colloquium, Alex Marr and Kate Isard (Visiting Scholar, Cambridge) discussed the copy of Vincenzo Cartari’s Imagini (1581) now in the Houghton Library at Harvard. This book has been annotated extensively in Dutch, Latin and French, and has been illustrated with a series of astrological, alchemical, mock-heraldic and downright lewd images that are at once wonderfully bizarre and exceptionally difficult to decode. The volume presents an ongoing puzzle and a provocation to further research.

Other kinds of visual marginalia were technical and professional. In his talk, Richard Oosterhoff (Cambridge) explored the schoolbooks of the German humanist Beatus Rhenanus, in which we can see him ‘thinking through diagrams’ about the relationship between mathematics and the nature of reality. Francesco Benelli (Columbia) turned our attention to a tiny diagram–less than one inch square–that the Renaissance architect Antonio da Sangallo the Younger added in the margins of his copy of Vitruvius’s treatise on architecture, marking his misunderstanding of the text in ways that went on to influence the buildings he created. These papers suggested the fecundity and the difficulty of the process of translating words into images, which is manifested when readers start to draw in the margins.

In the wake of the colloquium, the CMT has assembled a small exhibition, currently on display in the University Library entrance hall, of books with images on the edge. The four books shown here were all discovered by Kate Isard and Liam Sims in a recent search of the Cambridge rare book stacks. For those who can’t make it to the UL to see them, here they are:

Adv.c.25.1: faces in the margins

DSCF5307This is a copy of a treatise on poetry and poetics by the Italian humanist Giovanni Francesco Conti (1484-1557), published in Venice in 1519. An unknown early reader engaged closely with the text, adding dense underlining and numerous verbal annotations. More unusually, the reader added roughly-drawn faces of different sizes, along with marks that could perhaps be interpreted as scythes. These symbols may be intended merely to flag up passages of interest, but it is possible that they serve some more specific purpose. They are certainly not part of the standard repertory of reader annotation, and they give the book—which has unfortunately been heavily cropped during rebinding—a very distinctive appearance.

Adv.d.3.22: picturing the past

DSCF5304This catalogue of Roman imperial coins was compiled by the German numismatist Adolf Occo (1524-1606), and was printed in Antwerp by Christopher Plantin. It was published at the author’s expense, and perhaps to save money it had no illustrations. This copy was bought in Antwerp by James Cole in August 1588. Cole was a London silk merchant, a member of a Huguenot immigrant family and a nephew of the celebrated mapmaker Abraham Ortelius. He was a dedicated collector of rarities, including plants, fossils, coins and medals. Cole interleaved his copy of Occo’s book with numerous blank pages which he used to supplement the information provided in the printed text. He also pasted in illustrative portraits of each emperor, conspicuously improving on the original book. This sort of customization was not unusual in a period when books were sold unbound in sheets, to be put together by their purchasers. The detail and precision of Cole’s interventions reveal his intense curiosity about the classical past.

Td.54.32: an absurd image?

DSCF5310The second-century Latin author Aulus Gellius is known for a single work, the Noctes Atticae or Attic Nights, a compilation of miscellaneous information which preserves many excerpts from classical works that are now lost. This edition was published in Paris in around 1512. An early reader has added notes in Latin not just in the margins, but also in between the closely-packed lines of print. The style of the annotations suggests that they may have been penned by a student recording a teacher’s glosses upon the text. There are also scattered drawings in the margins, including this picture of a piper or flautist. The drawing accompanies Gellius’ description of a king who sent his armies into battle along with orchestras of pipe- and lyre-players ‘and even female flute-players, such as are the delight of wanton banqueters’. Perhaps it was the strangeness of this notion that prompted a visual response.

Td.56.2: some handy hymns

DSCF5303Antonio de Nebrija (1441-1522) was a Spanish Renaissance scholar who became a widely-published author; among his works was a Castilian grammar that was the first printed grammar of a vernacular language. This book, a commentary on liturgical hymns, went through numerous editions (our example was printed at Logroño in northern Spain). An early reader made copious linguistic notes on the text of the hymns, finding Spanish equivalents for Latin words and phrases. They also added manicules (pointing hands) to note particular passages, and on this page they drew a number of hands with the fingers pointing upwards. Since these appear at the beginnings of the three hymns discussed here, their purpose was presumably to make the structure of the printed book more evident to its reader.

Sir Thomas Tresham’s Senecan Mathematics


Throughout the process of scholarly research, tangents seem to reveal themselves all the time. They quickly tempt you away from your original point of focus and offer the possibility of a story entirely different from the one you were looking for. When I came across a set of annotations in a Cambridge University Library copy of Henry Billingsley’s 1570 edition of Euclid’s Elements, I was confronted with one such tangent, which I felt compelled not to ignore.


A ‘pop-up’ from Billingsley’s edition of Euclid; CUL Adams 4.57.1. Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

I was looking at the book as part of the early stages of my PhD research on the intersections between early modern mathematical thinking and the period’s drama. I felt that to truly understand the intellectual history I was interested in, I needed to learn its content myself, and to put myself through the kind of education an aspiring mathematician in Elizabethan England might have had. I decided to do a quick survey of every mathematical book held in the Munby rare books room, so long as it was printed in London between 1500 and 1650. By far the most beautiful and ambitious of these books was Billingsley’s: a massive volume printed at great cost and featuring what might be England’s first ‘pop-ups’. I quickly found unusual handwritten annotations: three sentences placed at the beginning of the volume’s lengthy preface by John Dee and another three at the end. Their mixture of Spanish and Latin at first made them opaque, but the signature underneath the first set of annotations captivated me: ‘Tresame prisoner’. These were the writings of a criminal.

Annotations in Tresham’s Euclid, CUL Adams 4.57.1. By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

It quickly became obvious that this ‘criminal’ was Sir Thomas Tresham, a gentleman architect and builder from Northamptonshire perhaps best remembered for his beautiful and symbolic triangular building, Rushton Lodge. In the 1580s, Tresham was placed under house arrest in Hoxton for Catholic recusancy, and his son would later be involved in the Gunpowder Plot. The date of his imprisonment matched with the date that the author of the annotations had provided (‘19-mar-1587’), and ‘Tresame’ was a version of his surname, adjusted to bring out his obsession with the number three, especially the three-in-one of the Trinity. The copy of Billingsley’s Euclid I was reading, then, had surely once belonged to Tresham, and I was seeing fascinating evidence of his own treatment of this book.

rushton lodge

Rushton Triangular Lodge, Northamptonshire.

The simple bit (identifying the author) done, I now needed to decipher what Tresham’s annotations meant, and why they existed at all. Putting my small Spanish and less Latin to work, I was able to slowly piece together fragments of quotation. The single Latin sentence proved easy to find in the Vulgate Bible—it had been lifted directly from Hebrews 12:1-2—and one sentence of the Spanish was helpfully preceded by the word ‘Seneca’. To find its exact location in Seneca’s work, though, I had to translate the Spanish into English and then again into (very shaky) Latin, searching online editions of all Seneca’s writings in both languages to see if I would hit upon it somewhere. Eventually I did, and was able to pin the sentence to Epistulae morales 85.41: ‘Grief, poverty, indignities, imprisonment, exile: these should be feared everywhere, but when they come upon the wise man, they are tamed’. Upon the recommendation of my supervisor, Gavin Alexander, I began poring over the rest of the Epistulae morales: it seemed probable that if one annotation was a quotation from there, others might be also. After hours of trawling, I managed to trace all but two of Tresham’s annotations to the Epistulae morales.


More Tresham annotations in CUL Adams 4.57.1. By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

Tresham’s Spanish constructions, however, vary in their degree of translational exactness: sometimes they are close to Seneca’s original Latin, sometimes they are very loose. This, I believe, provides the key to understanding precisely what Tresham was doing that day whilst under house arrest in London. The dull hours of imprisonment must have passed slowly, and offered Tresham a quiet opportunity to sit down and read. The location of his annotations suggest that he read all of Dee’s preface, and used it as a springboard for recalling snatches of his previous reading (Seneca, the Bible) and for practising his foreign languages (Latin, Spanish). He almost certainly did not have a copy of Seneca with him, and he probably did not own a Spanish edition at all. That he chose to write such snatches of Stoic wisdom in a book of mathematics is surely no coincidence. As a devotee of architecture, Tresham attributed great significance to lines, angles and numbers, and reading Dee’s words on the importance of mathematical labour to a truly spiritual existence seems to have inspired his own philosophical reflection. In his annotations, mathematics becomes a grander tale of humanity, brotherhood, life and death. ‘What good is there for me in knowing how to divide an estate into parts, if I do not know how to split it with my brother?’ ‘You know what a straight line is, but how does it benefit you if you do not know what is straight in life?’ (Epistulae morales, 88.11, 13).

Such tangential thoughts perhaps arose from Tresham’s unnerving personal circumstances, and just as he must have been unsure of the details of his future, so must we remain uncertain of the details of his past. My narrative is, I hope, convincing, but it is also necessarily hypothetical. This is the kind of thrill that work with material texts can offer: annotations and marginalia in books offer us flirtatious glimpses of a narrative, but from the physical evidence alone that narrative almost always remains incomplete. It is up to our imaginations to fill the gaps.

Joe Jarrett

If your library has a subscription, you can read Joe Jarrett’s article on the Tresham Euclid here.

Rushton window


Word gets about: Wrongdoing goes from strength to strength


It has been amazing to see the interest provoked in academics and members of the general public by the material explored in the AHRC-funded project ‘Wrongdoing in Spain 1800-1936: Realities, Representations, Reactions’.

wrongdoingThis second year of the project has been marked particularly by contact with a broader public arising from our exhibition, Read all about it! Wrongdoing in Spain and England in the long nineteenth century. The exhibition opened at the Milstein Exhibition Centre at the University Library on 29 April 2013.  It runs until 23 December 2013, and is accompanied by a virtual exhibition. Digital facsimiles are also now available as part of the Cambridge Digital Library. This is the first time a virtual exhibition at the UL has run alongside the physical one, and it will remain accessible to the public after the closing date of the physical exhibition. The virtual material includes extra items, and provides translations of the (lengthy) titles of the Spanish examples. Both in the mounting of the virtual exhibition and in applying OCR (Optical Character Recognition) to the digitized texts, our project has been a pilot-scheme for the UL’s digital team.

Assembling the exhibition was a major enterprise, and for those who have never done one, let us warn you that it is fascinating, time-consuming and calls on a whole range of new skill-sets. We were in the capable hands of Emily Dourish from the UL.  Alison Sinclair (PI of the Wrongdoing project) selected and curated the Spanish material while Vanessa Lacey (the librarian who had been in charge of cataloguing the thousands of items consigned to the  UL’s Tower) did the same with the English material, and we were supported by Liam Sims. For the Spanish examples we drew on the 2000 pliegos sueltos (chap-books) being digitised and catalogued for the Wrongdoing project, and for the English we drew on the more than 200,000 items of ‘secondary’ (i.e. ‘non-serious’) material in the UL that had been catalogued thanks to money from the Mellon Foundation.

Various things became clear as we worked towards the exhibition itself. There was enthusiasm across the board for our material, whether from the design team who worked on publicity and the layout, or from the UL admissions staff (who see the exhibition all the time); and there was bonding as we voted for Francisquillo el Sastre to be the central icon (he was thereafter known as ‘Scissorman’ for reasons that are apparent from our publicity). A background in doing Sudoku might have been a help for the two curators (and it was the pastime of neither). There were hurdles. Not all material could be exhibited, as it had to pass first under the eagle-eyes of the staff of the Conservation unit; many of the Spanish items were bound together in volumes, sometimes rather tightly, so that it was a challenge to select which item, out of more than a hundred items in a volume, should be put on display; directly comparable material was not always available for the two countries involved. We decided on a life-trajectory as the ‘narrative’ of the exhibition. Thus it begins with ‘Knowing right from wrong’, moves through the teenage years (daughters are singled out more than sons for being wayward) and family frictions, then into more and more extreme and monstrous examples of wrongdoing, with the final pillar in the exhibition being devoted to retribution and various forms of execution.

Scissor manOne of the further procedures we will be applying to our digitized material is that of optical character recognition, which will allow for searches according to words or phrases. This will contribute enormously to our knowledge of the activity of printers, for example, and in mapping the occurrence of particular types of wrongdoing. It should be noted, however, that you cannot always find varieties of wrongdoing according to their official name. ‘Rape’ (‘violación’) almost never occurs, and this wrongdoing has to be tracked through a variety of circumlocutions, some of which refer to honour, others to flowers that have been made to wither…

The general public has come and been enthusiastic (the comments book attests strongly to this). To the end of October 2013 there were 23,880 visits to the exhibition, of which 17,130 were after 1 July. Over this period the virtual exhibition had 6,307 hits to the site from 4,456 unique visitors. The youngest visitors included ten-year olds from a primary school in Hackney, and there were some even younger at the quiz session we ran on the exhibition at the Festival of Ideas on 26 October. Talks in Cambridge and elsewhere have fielded an even wider age-range, one group almost all in their nineties. All have come up with perceptive comments and insights, not least on the relevance of street-literature of the  nineteenth century to modern issues of wrongdoing, law and order and to issues of education or delinquency.

No less enthusiastic has been the response of academic audiences, even though at times, when one was addressing audiences in Spain, it felt as though news of our collection of sueltos might have provoked thoughts of the Elgin marbles. Contact with new material could come quite randomly. Discussion with an emeritus colleague in London about Goya led to his giving an excellent collection of sueltos to the UL. A visit to a municipal library in Toledo coincided with an exhibition there of aleluyas, the poster-sized sheets of 48 illustrations and accompanying text in couplets. It included some rare examples, and put the PI of the Wrongdoing project onto another large collection.

Colleagues in Spain in fact are keen to work further with our collection, and to find ways of linking collections. Yet more exciting is the prospect of mounting a wide-reaching research project that could work comparatively with the street-literature of several countries.

An online exhibition, via Facebook, is planned for launching at the British Library in Spring 2014. We are able to draw on somewhat different material there, including publications on prisons (and prison-life) and various turn-of-the-century novels which mix modernity with an invitation to be fascinated, or even seduced, by wrongdoing.

Colour-Printed Book Illustrations in Tudor England, 1485-1603


Elizabeth Upper, Munby Fellow in Bibliography at Cambridge University Library 2012-13

The study of the history of English colour prints is grounded on the belief that none were produced for the 250 years between the Book of St. Albans in 1486 and the explosion of publications with colour illustrations in the mid-eighteenth century. However, many Tudor woodcuts printed in colour survive; all are book illustrations that have not been systematically described as colour prints by bibliographers and are not known to art historians, and many have innovative techniques or use colour in surprising ways. These vivid borders, vignettes, printers’ devices and zodiacal men challenge long-held assumptions about the relationship between printed text and image in early English publications and the early history of colour printing in Europe.

This surprising gap in the literature has not been challenged by historians of art, literature, printing or the book; studies of English colour prints that encompass the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries either skip from the one book in 1486 to the mid-1700s or simply start with the latter. They are inconsistently recorded in histories of colour printing and bibliographical studies of early English books. The oversight is not local; there is a similar neglect of colour-printed illustrations from sixteenth-century books in countries as far-flung as France, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland due to the lack of a standard descriptive terminology for their unusual techniques of printing, a pervasive bias against colour in the study of graphic art, and the absence of colour from many digitization projects.

Addressing these omissions, my project for the 2012/2013 Munby Fellowship in Bibliography at the Cambridge University Library will result in the first study of sixteenth-century English colour prints. It will demonstrate that not only were colour prints produced in Tudor England, but also that their numbers and techniques are in keeping with previously unrecognized European trends uncovered by my dissertation research.

The Annunciation, colour woodcut from two impressions (black and red), in The Primer in Latin and Englishe [1555]. CUL, Young 263, fol. A1r. With the permission of the Syndics of the Cambridge University Library.

The Cambridge University Library is extraordinarily rich in publications from Tudor England, and two unique resources at the Library are also of crucial importance to this project: the Norman Waddleton Collection of colour-printed book illustrations, which is the most extensive collection of primary and secondary texts on the subject in the world, and the Historical Printing Room, in which it may be possible to recreate unusual printing techniques on a historically appropriate press. Based on rare material in Cambridge collections, this project aims to contribute to the understanding of the development of some of the earliest attempts to print pictures in colour in the West and reshape the story of colour printing, specifically in Tudor England.

The anticipated findings about early, vivid and visual paratexts and the widespread dissemination of colour printing techniques in the sixteenth century should be relevant to fields including bibliography, the history of the book, the history of art and the study of material texts. As this project demonstrates that Tudor colour woodcuts are important expressions of international trends in the first centuries of colour printing, its immediate impact should be the enabling of further bibliographical research about early English colour printing, especially in Cambridge collections. In the longer term, it should contribute to the reassessment of the role and reception of colour in printmaking in early modern Europe.