Author Archives: Miranda Lewis

Signed, Sealed, and Undelivered: the postal treasure at COMM

Celebrations are afoot in The Hague following the reopening last weekend of the city’s Museum voor Communicatie [COMM]. This museum, which has been undergoing renovation for the past eighteen months, was established in 1929 around the collections of the philatelist Pieter Wilhelm Waller (1869–1938) and is dedicated to the history of post and telecommunications.1 As COMM throws open its doors on a range of new vibrant and engaging exhibits, at EMLO we would like to draw attention to the catalogue of the remarkable corpus of letters known as the Brienne Collection which resides in its care.

This veritable treasure trove is made up of approximately 2,600 letters, although the precise number is still to be determined. Over the course of the seventeen years between 1689 and 1706, not one of these letters, for a myriad of evocative and mundane reasons, reached the hands of its intended recipient. Rather, each undelivered (or ‘dead’) letter was retained in The Hague as property of the Postmaster and (until her death in 1703) Postmistress. Simon and Marie Brienne were responsible for mail both to and from ‘the city of Antwerp and all surrounding places and cities in Brabant, France, Flanders, Mons in Hainaut, and Spain’.2 The undelivered letters (which have been the subject of a couple of previous posts on this blog) are being examined and catalogued at present in meticulous and methodical detail by our partners the Signed, Sealed, and Undelivered project.3 To coincide with the reopening of COMM, we are delighted to release into EMLO metadata for the first batch of letters from the Collection and to inform you that further ‘installments’ will be uploaded over the coming months.

New metadata fields in EMLO include letterlocking details and date of receipt.

We hope EMLO’s users will seize the opportunity to explore these pioneering records both with respect to content (each letter has been photographed and images made available for consultation) as well as for the richness of details collated. Over the past year, EMLO has worked particularly closely with the SSU team. A week-long workshop dedicated to scrutiny of the metadata that could and should be captured for these remarkable letters was held in Oxford last March and provided the ideal opportunity for the two projects to discuss a number of fields which had not been considered in the epistolary data model when construction of EMLO-Edit took place back in 2010. As Cultures of Knowledge set out to create its pilot union catalogue of scholarly correspondence, the assumption was that (almost always) the manuscript letters under consideration — whether draft, letter sent, copy, or extract — would be conserved flat, as is usual in all the libraries with which we work. Not in our wildest (epistolary) dreams did we anticipate the inclusion of thousands of letters that had been sealed and sent, but not received and opened. Yet the Brienne Collection — with approximately six hundred letters that have managed to evade earlier curatorial ‘intervention’ and as a result have remained locked and sealed for more than three centuries (and will continue thus in perpetuity, thanks to the considered ethos of the SSU project and to enlightened curation at the museum, their contents revealed to us instead by use of ‘non-invasive’ scanning procedures) and more than two thousand with broken seals that are stored still today as folded originally — has opened up a compelling new field of study.

A wrapper (DB-2124) from the Brienne Collection. (Museum voor Communicatie [COMM])

The dedicated and pioneering SSU letterlocking team, headed by Jana Dambrogio and Daniel Starza Smith, has developed an entirely new vocabulary (details of which are explained on their Letterlocking website and will be available in print in their forthcoming publication, A Dictionary of Letterlocking). Of course such metadata requires designated fields for storage and display. Whilst we have always known we would work at EMLO with scholars who wish to focus on postage marks and routing notes, we did not imagine as we built our database that so many wrappers would become available for study, nor that metadata from this fascinating and invaluable Brienne Collection would stream in such profusion into EMLO. It’s rare to encounter an early modern wrapper in an archive: in the Brienne Collection, these have survived in abundance.

The discussions held between the two projects resulted in the rolling up of sleeves (in particular by Oxford’s developer Mat Wilcoxson) and we are exceptionally pleased to report that EMLO is able now to capture and store a range of new fields, including those for the folding, wrapping, and letterlocking metadata; the postal route a letter is recorded to have taken; date(s) of receipt (which have been set out in other EMLO catalogues hitherto as a ‘general note’ rather than in a dedicated field — as you will find with, for example, the calendars of correspondence compiled by Alexandre J. Tessier for both John Doddington and Francis Vernon); and the reason for non-delivery (many of which are heart-breaking when considered alongside the content of the letter). With fitting serendipity, the Brienne Collection — described so beautifully as an ‘accidental archive’ by Rebekah Ahrendt and David van der Linden — has provided the ideal opportunity to expand EMLO’s data model, whilst what is written in the letters contained therein present for historians a plethora of insights into early modern lives and events that otherwise would have been lost entirely.4 In Ahrendt and van der Linden’s words, these letters represent ‘the thoughts, cares, and dreams of a cross section of society: ambassadors, dukes and duchesses, merchants, publishers, spies, actors, musicians, lovers, parents, expatriates, refugees, women as well as men. Here is an archive that will let the voices of the past speak again.’5

  1. Waller was the author of De eerste postzegels van Nederland: uitgifte 1852 (Haarlem: Enschedé, 1934).
  2. Simon took office in 1676 and retained the position until his death in 1707. See the Charter appointing Simon de Brienne as postmaster, The Hague, 13 January 1676, Gemeentearchief, Delft, Weeskamer nr. 11851, and Rebekah Ahrendt and David van der Linden, ‘The Postmasters’ Piggy Bank. Experiencing the Accidental Archive’, in French Historical Studies, 40, 2 (2017), p. 200, and note 21.
  3. See Hadriaan Beverland, routes to and from the Dutch Republic, and the postmasters Brienne and Reading the folds: students of letter-locking.
  4. See Rebekah Ahrendt and David van der Linden, ‘The Postmasters’ Piggy Bank. Experiencing the Accidental Archive’, in French Historical Studies, 40, 2 (2017), pp. 189–213.
  5. Ibid., p. 190.

In celebration of early modern women, their letters, and the scholars who work with them — WEMLO

In the midst of the season of awards and new appointments to recognise and reward scholarly achievement, we have been truly thrilled to receive news of significant successes for a treasured group of talented partners and contributors. We could not be more delighted to announce that Women’s Early Modern Letters Online [WEMLO] has won the ‘Best Digital Scholarship, New Media, and/or Art of 2016’ Award from the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women [SSEMW]. As many of EMLO’s and WEMLO’s users and followers will be aware, WEMLO was created in 2013 — initially with British Academy/Leverhulme funding and with support from the Cultures of Knowledge research project — as a scholarly resource for the early modern women’s correspondence held within the EMLO union catalogue and as a discussion forum and meeting place for scholars of early modern women letter writers.

Woman reading a letter, by Johannes Vermeer. c. 1663. Oil on canvas, 46.5 by 39 cm. (Source of image: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; obj. no. SK-C-251)

Co-directed by Professor James Daybell of Plymouth University, and Dr Kim McLean-Fiander of the University of Victoria, B.C. [UVic], WEMLO set out with a mission to ensure that the epistolary voices and trails of early modern women became more easily discoverable. On the back of a series of workshops convened around scholars who work on women’s correspondence (during which the views of participants were solicited and discussed), WEMLO’s dynamic duo concluded that a distinct scholarly meeting space was required to meet the needs of researchers of early modern women. However, they recognized also that, while the unanimous wish was for female letter writers to be more discoverable in the historical record, it would do early modern women no favours and be of little help to today’s scholars were they to be confined to a female-only resource. What these scholars wanted was to have the means to search for female writers of letters alone as well as to search for them alongside their fellow male letter writers. In response to WEMLO’s findings, EMLO worked with James and Kim to made a number of key changes in the union catalogue’s discovery interface. And thanks to this inspiring trans-Atlantic collaboration, we’re particularly proud that W/EMLO’s users are able now to browse in the union catalogue by gender (in any combination of sender, recipient, and person mentioned), to search for specific women’s correspondence, and to pull up just the rapidly expanding list of women’s catalogues. We’re also extremely glad to witness WEMLO’s accomplishments being recognized and honoured with this award. The Society for the Study of Early Modern Women is a network of scholars who meet annually, sponsor sessions at conferences, maintain a listserv and a website, give awards for outstanding scholarship, and support one another’s work in the field. Both EMLO and Cultures of Knowledge extend hearty congratulations to James and Kim for their vision and foresight, and collectively we’d all like to thank W/EMLO’s developer Mat Wilcoxson for his hard work to bring into being the technical solutions that meet so well the needs of WEMLO’s scholarly community and make the initial vision a reality.

On a related note, we’re equally delighted to be drawing to the attention of W/EMLO’s users the cluster of correspondence catalogues for the six Dutch seventeenth-century Stadholders’ Wives, and in particular that of Albertine Agnes van Oranje-Nassau. Albertine Agnes was the wife of Willem Frederik van Nassau-Dietz (1634–1696) and she has the distinction of being the first female ruler to assume the stadtholdership as Regent. Her catalogue has expanded this week by an additional 357 letters and you will find now a current total of 781 letters (many of which are linked to images of the manuscripts hosted at the Royal Collections [Koninklijke Verzamelingen] in The Hague). Collated by Dr Ineke Huysman of the Huygens ING, and assisted ably by Bettina Heyder, who has recently completed an internship at the Frsyke Akademy under the direction of Dr Hans Cools as part of her work with these letters, this catalogue contains a correspondence that diplays the diplomatic skills of Albertine Agnes and is characteristic of the qualities of many of the extraordinary letters to be found in WEMLO. Dr Huysman has just taken up an appointment to the Committee of the Society of Court History in richly deserved recognition of her achievements and proof (if proof were needed, which of course it is not!) of the relevance of the work of today’s scholars who focus on the lesser-known yet rewarding voices of early modern women.

Congratulations to all!

An Englishman’s home may not be his castle: Cheney Culpeper

The letters showcased in EMLO this week drop us deep into the circles that lie at the heart of the Cultures of Knowledge research project. EMLO took shape as a union catalogue back in 2010 when it was constructed around the calendars of correspondence of four members of the fledgling Royal Society (John Aubrey, Edward Lhwyd [Lhuyd], Martin Lister, and John Wallis) and of two ‘foreigners’ (to adopt Hugh Trevor-Roper’s descriptor) with extensive European connections: the itinerant pansophist Jan Amos Comenius who traversed the face of Europe in response to the political upheavals of the Thirty Years’ War, and the Elbląg-born intelligencer Samuel Hartlib who settled in England from 1628.1 The focus of EMLO’s latest catalogue is the surviving correspondence of one of Hartlib’s many and various English correspondents Cheney Culpeper. In tandem with the critical edition published by M. J. Braddick and M. Greengrass, it makes for a fascinating read both from the perspective of the intellectual interests involved and with respect to the beliefs and aspirations that emerge from the domestic events of a financially troubled life played out against a backdrop of civil war and political turmoil.2

Cheney Culpeper was born into the Kentish gentry. His father Thomas, who was educated at Hart Hall, Oxford, and at Middle Temple, had been elected Member of Parliament initially for Rye in 1597 and then for Winchelsea in 1601, the year of Cheney’s birth. From his family seat of Greenway Court, Hollingbourne, Sir Thomas (who was knighted by Charles I in 1619) began to expand the family’s cluster of properties. The prize acquisition of Leeds Castle, Kent, came with its purchase from the executors of Sir John Smythe (d. 1632).3 Yet it was with this addition that the Culpepers’ domestic and financial problems began to take hold.

Leeds Castle, Kent. (Source of image: Wikimedia Commons)

With Cheney’s marriage to Elizabeth Stede on 24 October 1632, Sir Thomas settled the castle and its estates upon his elder surviving son (who had himself been knighted by Charles I in 1628). In two letters written twelve years later, Cheney Culpeper informed Hartlib he had been in receipt of £500 per annum and was the beneficiary of £3,000 at the time of his marriage.4 In 1641, however, he had fallen seriously ill and, in the expectation he would not survive, had ceded his properties — including Leeds Castle — and their management back to his father. Against all odds Sir Cheney recovered but by the time he regained full health the political situation had worsened and in consequence the family was divided: father took the side of the King, son that of Parliament. Sir Thomas refused to restore control of the Leeds Castle estate. Severe financial difficulties ensued for both men, political events took further turns for the worse, and the rift between father and son deepened.

As the events of the civil war unfolded, Sir Thomas’s properties became subject to sequestration and he appeared before the Parliamentary Committee for Compounding on 30 April 1646. Whilst attempting to regain his own estates, Cheney Culpeper had to deal with creditors both for his own debts and for those of his father. He wrote to Hartlib on 29 October 1646 of his ‘vnhappy condition in a Father whose actions driue wholy to my prejudice, it takes away that contente & joy which I myght take in the Fortunes which God & nature had caste vpon me’,5 and on 4 November of the same year that his ‘domestique affaires doe howerly rise into such a storme as (I feare) my anchor, & cable will hardly holde’.6 The situation did not improve, even though Leeds Castle (which had been used as a munitions’ store during the civil war) was returned to Cheney Culpeper on 21 October 1651. Yet some three years after this, Hartlib mentioned to Robert Boyle that ‘Sir Cheney complains more than ever, that his father hath utterly undone him’.7 Cheney Culpeper died a debtor in London following the Restoration of Charles II and just fourteen months after the death of his own father Thomas. He was buried in Middle Temple on 2 April 1663.

As Braddick and Greengrass observe, Culpeper has been interpreted as the voice of the ‘voiceless’. He can be seen as representative of ‘men who, more often than not, never raised their voices to speak publicly across the centuries, who did not publish theories, or make set speeches in Parliament, but who were nevertheless the angry men in Parliament and behind Parliament, the men who, from behind, struck down their lukewarm, politic, legalistic, aristocratic and clerical leaders and pushed on, over their bodies, to destruction.’8 Trevor-Roper’s description may be over extreme when applied to Culpeper, who is to be found in these letters engaging with Hartlib on a plethora of levels and a wide range of altruistic subjects of shared interest, and Braddick and Greengrass point out that the exchange between the two men provides an ‘important example of the slow, empirical fashion by which agricultural improvement took root in the English countryside in the seventeenth century’. They observe also how Culpeper’s commitments ‘grew out of, and around, his social networks’. These networks included the people he met at the Middle Temple; people with whom he shared his Kentish roots; and the circle around Elizabeth Stuart and her fellow exiles from the Palatinate — and, of course, amongst those in London sympathetic to the Palatine plight was Samuel Hartlib.

Culpeper wrote to Hartlib of their friendship: ‘I can truly say that I often rejoyce in that hower in which (by a meere occasionall readinge of Dr Gaudens sermon) Gods prouidence brought me to your acquaintance, & hath synce & dothe still by it bringe me to the acquaintance of others.’9 Hartlib records their first meeting in his Ephemerides: ‘The 13. of April acquainted with Sir Cheney Culpeper at one Dr Smith’s house a Dr of Phyisick in Shoe Lane at that part of the lane towards Holborne’, upon which occasion Culpeper committed the sum of £5 to Hartlib (probably into the fund for Comenius’s visit to London). Through the epistolary conversation that took place over the course of a decade, it is possible to chart Hartlib’s endeavours and aspirations: education, politics, news, plans for Hartlib’s ‘Office of Addresse’, and innovative technical developments, including ‘Felton’s engine’ — all were discussed.10 This correspondence makes for a fascinating read and it is well worth taking the time to follow the links out from the records in EMLO to the invaluable edition published by Braddick and Greengrass, as well as those to the Hartlib Papers on the Digital Humanities Institute, Sheffield, where you will find both the manuscript image and a transcription for each letter. Savour these letters. They are both rich and rewarding.

  1. See Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: Religion, The Reformation, and Social Change, and Other Essays (Macmillan, 1967), chapter 5: ‘Three Foreigners: the Philosophers of the Puritan Revolution’.
  2. See M. J. Braddick and M. Greengrass, eds, ‘The Letters of Sir Cheney Culpeper (1641–1657)’, in Seventeenth Century Political and Financial Papers. Camden Miscellany XXXIII, Camden fifth series, volume 7 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  3. See History of Parliament online, entry for Sir John Smythe (c. 1592–1632), footnote 12.
  4. See letter of 18 December 1644, Culpeper to Hartlib, Hartlib Papers, 13/57a-58b and letter from Culpeper to Hartlib, Hartlib Papers, 13/314a-316b.
  5. See letter of 29 October 1646, Culpeper to Hartlib, Hartlib Papers, 13/153a-154a.
  6. See letter of 4 November 1646, Culpeper to Hartlib, Hartlib Papers, 13/155a-156b.
  7. See letter of 28 February 1654 from Hartlib to Boyle.
  8. See M. J. Braddick and M. Greengrass, eds, ‘The Letters of Sir Cheney Culpeper (1641–1657)’, in Seventeenth Century Political and Financial Papers. Camden Miscellany XXXIII, Camden fifth series, volume 7 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 155 and Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: Religion, The Reformation, and Social Change, and Other Essays (Macmillan, 1967), chapter 5: ‘Three Foreigners: the Philosophers of the Puritan Revolution’.
  9. See letter of December 1645, Culpeper to Hartlib, Hartlib Papers, 13/109–12.
  10. See Timothy Raylor, ‘Providence and technology in the English Civil War: Edmond Felton and his engine’, in Renaissance Studies, vol. 7, no. 4 (December 1993), pp. 398–413.

Provincial savant to Parisian naturalist: Pierre-Joseph Amoreux

We are delighted to pass on news of the first-ever publication of the autobiography of the eighteenth-century ‘man of science’ Pierre-Joseph Amoreux. From Montpellier, Amoreux was a Linnaean naturalist, an agronomist, and a bibliographer who played an active role in the scholarly community known as the république des lettres. Born in 1741, the earlier decades of Amoreux’s life spanned the extremes in France of the ancien regime and the Revolution, while his later years bore witness to Napoleon’s rise, rule, and fall, and the subsequent Restoration.

Edited by Laurence Brockliss, Amoreux’s autobiography is published this month by the Voltaire Foundation [Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment] under the title From Provincial savant to Parisian naturalist: the recollections of Pierre-Joseph Amoreux (1741–1824). With his unique and sustained voice, Amoreux offers a fascinating insight into ‘the life of a provincial man of science during this tumultuous period of France’s history’. Brockliss’s substantial and indispensable introduction provides significant analysis of the context of Amoreux’s life and work, and is based on surviving letters, printed and manuscript books and articles, as well as on the autobiographical Souvenirs. Of the autobiography, which Amoreux began in 1800, Professor Brockliss writes: ‘No other account of early nineteenth-century Paris catches so fully the multi-faceted nature of the vibrant post-Revolutionary city, whose cast of characters ranges from bankers to barrow-boys. If Amoreux had had the literary talent, he could have left a work which would have stood comparison with Joyce’s Ulysses. Nobody interested in Napoleon’s Paris as the cultural centre of Europe should miss the opportunity to accompany the Montpellier naturalist on his travels.’


Update from Utrecht: Dirk van Miert on three funded doctoral positions

For those intrigued by the European Research Council [ERC] project Sharing Knowledge in Learned and Literary Networks (SKILLNET): the Republic of Letters as a pan-European Knowledge Society (the subject of my previous post and announced recently through the COST Reassembling the Republic of Letters Action), it may be of interest to read what the project’s principal investigator Dr Dirk van Miert has kindly shared with us — in the form of a series of compelling questions — about the three funded doctoral positions open at present for applications.

‘SKILLNET examines the extent to which the Republic of Letters was kept together by the ideal of knowledge exchange,’ Dirk explains. ‘It seeks answers in the social fabric of the network involved, in the discourse employed by this network’s members, and in the memorial culture through which these members celebrated the ideal. Each of these three approaches is the subject of an individual PhD project which will explore the following questions:

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could analyse the Republic of Letters as if it were some kind of blogosphere, a social network in which each letter serves as a “link” between two people? What would such a network look like over the course of hundreds of years? How many people were involved? Did this number increase or decrease in size? Was the network bound more tightly in certain regions rather than others? How did sub-networks or small worlds relate to the larger network? What were the sub-cultures of those small worlds? Did people build a communal identity through shared interests in, say, medical subjects or theological questions? Or did they share a language, a regional background, or were they perhaps of a similar age? And if some sub-networks have different structures (in terms of the level of connectedness), does that mean that knowledge was shared more or less easily? With entire ego-networks becoming available in accelerating numbers (witness the promising pool of metadata of letters that is being collected in EMLO), we can start moving beyond personal networks to study the structure of the Republic of Letters over time and space, allowing us to reach a more much precise history of the vicissitudes of the most resilient self-conscious international network of the early modern period: the Republic of Letters.

In 1983 Benedict Anderson wrote that “all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined”. So what about the Republic of Letters? This is indeed a returning topic in discussions of the Republic of Letters: did it really exist? Wasn’t it all a wishful phantasy of literati who retreated into their studies and looked away from the polemics and pamphlet wars that were a permanent, and perhaps even a structural, feature of the learned world in early modern Europe? The question is valid, but mal posée: the Republic of Letters was a palpable reality, because there was a social network of thousands of people who related to it. In other words, the Republic of Letters was an “experienced community”, and hence a very real one. The marvellous e-Pistolarium of the Huygens Institute in The Hague allows us to mine digitally a set of twenty thousand learned letters. It appears that in the vicinity of the phrase “Republic of Letters”, letter writers use most often the words “public”, “good”, “time”, “way”, “spirit”, “maximum”, and “profit”. But what more can we learn about this idealistic discourse for sharing knowledge? What other terms were used? When, where, and why were these employed? Did the ideal experience crises?

Every ideal needs to be nurtured, negotiated, and transmitted in order to survive. If the discursive space of the Republic of Letters was structured around the ideal of sharing knowledge, how was that ideal transmitted to new generations? The ability to read and write was not enough to enable membership, for the Republic of Letters was not merely a discursive space, but also became a palpable reality visible in performances which celebrated and strengthened communal identities. Every community — the imagined, the experienced, the real — needs examples, needs locations of memory, and needs celebrations to assert a common identity. Who were the exemplary figures of the Republic of Letters to which ordinary learned “citizens” related? How did the ideal of sharing knowledge take shape in life-writing, funeral orations, statues, material cultures, paper monuments, commemorative literature? What other, or related, ideals transpire in such material? Can we analyse how the discursive space was made tangible? Who were the heroes and who the villains within the Republic of Letters? In what settings did new generations come to appropriate its ideals? What was the interplay between a local, regional, patriotic, and cosmopolitan identity if we were to look at the material culture of the Republic of Letters that embodied the ideals to which members related?”

Such are the manifold and complex questions emerging at the heart of this project. Should you find an alignment with your own intended research and wish to apply for any one of these positions, you have until 20 October 2017. Meanwhile, here in Oxford, we’re looking forward enormously to working with SKILLNET. Submit an application and you too could form a part of the dynamic and digitally equipped twenty-first century network as it sets out upon its ambitious and wide-ranging journey.


Sharing Knowledge: applications invited for three funded doctoral positions

At a time when financial backing for doctoral research seems as scarce and elusive as fairy dust, it’s welcome news indeed that three fully funded PhD vacancies are being advertised at the University of Utrecht. Each one of these four-year positions is available within the European Research Council [ERC] project Sharing Knowledge in Learned and Literary Networks (SKILLNET): the Republic of Letters as a pan-European Knowledge SocietyHeaded by Dirk van Miert, this project is just embarking upon a fascinating five-year mission to mine the content of large quantities of early modern epistolaries and to consider thereby how participants in the knowledge-based civil society that referred to itself as the ‘Respublica Literaria’ transcended political, confessional, and language boundaries to evolve into a pan-European ‘knowledge commons’. This intriguing project will study lines of communication over the four centuries between 1400 and 1800 and will follow the subtle shifts as the members within this society themselves related to their ideal of such exchange.

The three PhD positions will focus on: the structure of networks; the history of concepts and discourse analysis; and mining for learned identities. The successful candidates will be supervised by Dirk van Miert, who is assistant professor of Early Modern Cultural History in the Department of History and Art History at Utrecht. A longstanding colleague of and friend to EMLO, Dirk is a member of the COST-funded ‘Reassembling the Republic of Letters’ project (headed by Cultures of Knowledge’s Howard Hotson), and — together with another valued contributor Paul Botley of the University of Warwick —  he is co-editor of the exemplary eight-volume edition of Joseph Justus Scaliger’s letters (the metadata of which was published in EMLO in February 2015).1

Applications for any one of the three available positions should be submitted by 20 October (with a view to commencing on 1 January 2018). Further details of this remarkable Republic of Letters project and its exciting investigations may be found here. Despite the somewhat severe countenance in many of his surviving portraits, we assume Scaliger would approve of the exciting research that’s gathering momentum at present in Utrecht!

A doctrine of doctors: the Dublin Medico-Philosophical Society

How fitting at the start of a new academic year that the first of a new batch of catalogues to be published in EMLO concerns a society dedicated to the circulation of knowledge. Established by a group of Irish virtuosi, the Dublin Medico-Philosophical Society was founded in 1756 primarily to advance and promote learning and to harness practical knowledge. Its first recorded meeting was held on 8 April that same year and was attended by John Rutty, Charles Smith, Henry Downing, and the Reverend Nathaniel Caldwell. The Society proposed bi-monthly meetings with the intention of discussing papers and news on medical and related matters of interest. Papers read aloud to members at subsequent meetings emulated closely in style those of the London-based Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions and the underlying intention of the Medico-Philosophical Society was to create a forum in Dublin for intellectual and scientific exchange.

Naturally correspondence was central to the activities of the Society and was the primary means by which information from and to national and international contacts regarding medical and scientific practices, advances, and discoveries was conveyed, and the ensuing epistolary discourse ensured participation from Dublin in the far-reaching and wide-ranging debates and discussions of the mid-eighteenth century. It is clear from the surviving correspondence and minute books that the Society was built firmly upon Baconian principles. Charles Smith, in a ‘Preliminary Discourse’, set out that members would conduct ‘medical, natural and philosophical inquiries’ (in line with those that had been established already and were continuing to flourish the length and breadth of Europe). ‘Truth and a sound method of reasoning, first introduced by Lord Bacon’ would enable them to triumph ‘over the errors of former ages and the dark subtleties of the schoolmen’. Worthy ideals indeed for the improvement of medical practice in Ireland.

Metadata for the Society’s correspondence has been collected by Oxford doctoral student Rachael Scally, and it is clear from the calendar of letters she has assembled and the research she has conducted around these letters that the Society wished to ‘to furnish [their] quota to the Republic of Letters’.1 Open to all suitably qualified medical professionals, the Society nurtured exchanges with physicians, anatomists, surgeons, male midwives, apothecaries, and natural philosophers. Members were requested to scour newspapers and periodicals for relevant items pertaining to ‘natural history, natural philosophy, medicine, or anything curious or useful in nature or art’ to communicate to their fellow members. They were encouraged also to experiment and to discuss the results. As Rachel details in her article ‘Enlightenment and the Republic of Letters at the Dublin Medico-Philosophical Society, 1756–1784’, John Rutty smelled and tasted his mineral and botanical specimens, in addition to samples of urine (both his own and that of a diabetic patient). Patients in Dublin’s hospitals under the care of the Society’s members participated in medical trials — hemlock, wort, and various unidentified powders sent in by eager correspondents were tested upon them — and underwent carefully documented operations involving different types of surgery. (I advise the squeamish not to follow this blog through to its conclusion as I have placed right at the end what some might find a number of less-than-palatable illustrations which were collected and filed by members of the Society!)

The Society’s members themselves, Scally reveals, had been educated at a number of key European institutions, including those in Leiden, London, Edinburgh, Paris, and Rheims. Rutty had studied under physician and botanist Herman Boerhaave; MacBride had been a pupil of anatomy in London with the Scottish physician William Hunter. Incoming letters read out at meetings were received from as far afield as New York and Montreal and, in addition, many of the members belonged to other illustrious societies (for example, Scally notes that James Span was a European member of the American Philosophical Society).

Sadly, the dream outlined by Smith in his ‘Preliminary Discourse’ never reached fruition. The Society disbanded on 7 October 1784. The reasons for this unexpected and sudden termination are not clear and for theories of shameless academic scheming and skulduggery you should read Scally’s article (details and a link to download the PDF from a subscribing institution may be found by clicking here). Thankfully the machinations involved nothing as toe-curling as the meticulously drafted images I’m attaching below, but the result was a merger of the Society’s members into the Irish Academy, which received a Royal Charter in 1785 and began to publish its own Transactions the following year. What is beyond doubt is that the Dublin Medico-Philosophical Society was instrumental in furthering medical practice in Ireland in the second half of the eighteenth century, and that it paved the way for continued organized discussion from that point forward. We hope you enjoy the Society’s catalogue of correspondence (and for those of a frail disposition this is the final warning to click away … perhaps to Rachael Scally’s blog for the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh about George Cleghorn, the surgeon-anatomist who became a member of the Dublin Medico-Philosophers Society in 1757 having accumulated thirteen-years’ worth of experience on the island of Minorca with the 22nd Regiment of Foot … ).

Three drawings from the ‘Medical and Philosophical Memoirs’. (Images courtesy of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, Dublin)

  1. Scally, Rachael, ‘Enlightenment and the Republic of Letters at the Dublin Medico-Philosophical Society, 1756–1784’, University of Dublin, Trinity College, Journal of Postgraduate Research, 14, (2015), pp. 156–78.

Reaching for Atlantis: a VolkswagenStiftung-funded partner

It has long been the intention to develop EMLO into a collaborative, scholarly resource, populated by an international community of scholars, research projects, publishers, and repositories, many of whom work on — or curate material relevant to — the history of objects and material culture. If further proof were required that this dream has become reality, we are truly delighted to be announcing today that Dr Bernhard Schirg of the University of Erfurt has received funding from the VolkswagenStiftung to work at the Forschungszentrum Gotha der Universität Erfurt on his innovative project ‘Reaching for Atlantis. The cultural biographies of objects under the Swedish Empire and beyond’. The Fellowship is worth just under one million euros and will last for an initial five years, beginning this coming March when the Research Centre moves into its new premises in the heart of historic Gotha.

Illustration from ‘Atlantica’ [‘Atland eller Manheim’] showing Olof Rudbeck revealing the truth about Atlantis to his classical predecessors. (Source of image: Wikimedia Commons)

It was twelve months ago that Dr Schirg was in touch with us first on the back of a most timely introduction from Dr Alexandra Franklin, the head of the Centre for the Study of the Book at the Bodleian Libraries, and supported by a strong recommendation on behalf of the University of Oxford from Dr William Poole, who — amongst his very many scholarly accomplishments — is editor of the correspondence of Robert Hooke and co-editor of the correspondence of John Aubrey, and who has worked and published extensively on antiquarianism in the early modern period and on the history of libraries. As Dr Schirg outlined his proposal, it became apparent that there were significant overlaps with the scholarly correspondence and many of the figures contained already within EMLO. The project will focus on the history of selected objects that were subject to the reinterpretation of material culture under the Swedish Empire. Influenced by the work of Olof Rudbeck (1630–1702) — most particularly the four-volume publication Atlantica (1679–1702) in which the scholar examined Plato’s Atlantis as well as the very origins of classicism itself — several generations of Swedish scholars set out to trace ‘Nordic roots’ in their studies of antiquities. These scholars scrutinized natural objects of particular interest and curiosities, including coins, gems, cameos, maps, plant specimens, and ethnic items. The resulting encyclopaedic interpretations were intended to make up for a lack of historiographic sources and to cite classical mythology as a source in early Swedish history.

Using primary sources as diverse as Latin dissertations, travel journals, and letters, Dr Schirg will create a digital archive to combine both contemporary and subsequent contextualization of individual objects, recording images as well as textual documentation for items that may no longer be extant. As a result of his collaboration with EMLO, he will have at his disposal the full range of epistolary and prosopographic collation tools developed here in Oxford, and will contribute a catalogue of related correspondence. Dr Schirg will spend a year of the grant period in Oxford, hosted by the Bodleian Libraries. In addition to his work with EMLO, we are in no doubt that these twelve months will provide a truly invaluable opportunity for Dr Schirg to work alongside members of the scholarly and curatorial community at the University’s Museums — including the Ashmolean, the Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of the History of Science — as well as with the many individuals who are engaged at present in the research on the history of science and collecting in the second half of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Dr Bernhard Schirg in the anatomical theatre, Uppsala. (Source of image: Dr B. Schirg)

With such a focus on the cultural biographies of unique objects, texts are of crucial importance. Equipped with a PhD in neo-Latin philology, Dr Schirg will bring together early modern Latin source material with various forms of documentation in vernacular languages. In recent years, he has expanded his research across disciplines, encompassing art history and the history of science, and has extended his range of periods from the Italian Renaissance to the Scandinavian baroque (a particularly exciting field in the decades around 1680 when Sweden was a central player not only in European politics, but also in academia). Dr Schirg reports that he has found the support his proposal received from Oxford institutions and scholars to be ‘overwhelming’ and that ‘it was highly encouraging to witness the deep interest in my approach as well as the will to establish interdisciplinary collaborations’.

We are delighted at EMLO to be working with Dr Schirg and, together with the University’s libraries, museums, and scholarly community, we hope to help foster ‘a research project that will transcend conventional boundaries of disciplines, and sound out the impact which the national narratives and scientific paradigms of the Swedish Empire exerted on an international level’. If, as Dr Schirg intends, ‘classical and nordic mythology, Scandinavian philology, travelling objects and their various interpretations in early modern letters, dissertations and travel journals’ are highlighted and recombined in the course of this innovative work, then we are indeed in for an ‘inspirational year of vibrant exchange and new encounters’!

August addenda (and two Dutch churches)

As scholars take advantage of this long summer vacation to lay foundations for research and forthcoming publication, so too, behind the scenes at EMLO, the editorial team is hard at work preparing metadata for a magnitude of new catalogues of correspondence. Over the course of the next academic year, epistolary calendars for a range of august early modern intelligencers, mathematicians, philosophers, physicians, religious conformists, religious dissenters, and renowned scholars (both female and male) — but please note the alphabetical listing throughout this list, just to keep you on tenterhooks and to avoid intimation of partiality! — will be uploaded into the union catalogue. We anticipate a number of key thematic clusters and correspondence circles will converge and, in consequence, will be brought ever more clearly into focus. Simultaneously, many of our existing catalogues will be supplemented. The first brace of these —both Dutch — is re-published in EMLO this week and is highlighted for you here today.

Austin Friars, London, from Edward Wedlake Brayley, ‘A Topographical and Historical Description of London and Middlesex … By Messrs Brayley, Brewer, and Nightingale … Illustrated with one hundred and fifty views, etc’ (London, 1820), p. 23. (British Library; source of image Wikimedia Commons).

Early in 2016, EMLO created a catalogue for the Antwerp-born cartographer Abraham Ortelius. This calendar of correspondence was compiled by the scholar and archivist Joost Depuydt and was taken in part from J. H. Hessels’s first published volume of letters from the archive of the Dutch Church in London (1887). Hot on the heels of Ortelius’s catalogue, the EMLO editorial team collated and released metadata drawn from Dutch-born but Cambridge-based scholar’s second volume (1889). This volume contains transcriptions of 266 letters of members of the Dutch Church, which following Edward VI’s Charter of 24 July 1550 had settled in the nave of the former church of the Augustinan Friary in the City of London known as Austin Friars (for further details, please see last year’s blog on the archive). Now this week the first batch of metadata from the third Hessels volume (1897) has been added to the catalogue.

The two parts of this third volume are strange beasts: after working through the collection of letters in the Church’s Ortelius/Collius archive and publishing what he seems to have thought was the sum of the Church members’ letters, a significant number of additional boxes were discovered in the possession of the Church, and poor Hessels had to embark upon substantial re-ordering to bring out a complete chronological listing. Former EMLO Digital Fellow Catherine Wright (whose doctoral thesis is on the social and cultural presence of the Dutch in London between the Restoration of Charles II to the English throne and the end of the second decade of the eighteenth century) began work with this third volume, and the letters she collated are now in EMLO. The Dutch Church baton has been taken up more recently by Karen Hollewand, an Oxford student who has been working with EMLO whilst bringing her doctoral thesis on Hadriaan Beverland to successful completion; the letters Karen has calendared from this hefty Hessels volume will be uploaded to the catalogue in the next few months.

The Pieterskerk, Leiden, by Frederik de Wit. 1698. (Source of image: Wikimedia Commons)

Alongside the archive of the Dutch Church, in London a second catalogue with a Dutch theme, that of Johannes Coccejus (published originally in EMLO last November), has been augmented this week. For more information on the German-born Reformed theologian who progressed to become Professor of Theology at Leiden, please see this earlier blog where you will find reference also to the intriguing story concerning his tomb in the city’s Pieterskerk during the second world war.

There is very much more in the form of new letter records to follow in EMLO later in the year, but over the last days of this summer’s vacation I hope very much you enjoy these two rich Dutch-centric catalogues, each one with its connection to a church with a remarkable history.

Elizabeth Compton, her son, and a Huguenot

Over the past couple of years those dipping in and out of EMLO with regularity will have witnessed increasing commitment to and engagement with growing numbers of students. Not only is EMLO’s impressive team of Digital Fellows drawn primarily from Oxford’s student cohort, but we couldn’t be more delighted that the pioneering Bodleian Student Editions scheme (piloted over these last three terms) will continue in the forthcoming academic year. Now this week we focus on another student catalogue in the form of a cluster of letters from the correspondence of Elizabeth Compton, countess of Northampton (1694–1741). A group of second-year History undergraduates, who in Hilary term took the Further Subject ‘Writing in the early modern period’, checked the metadata from the (sadly not-always entirely accurate!) Bodleian card catalogue, entered a range of salient corrections, enhanced the records with additional details, and worked up a number of transcriptions. The results make for a fascinating read.

Detail from letter of 29 August 1734 from James Compton to his mother Elizabeth. (Bodleian Libraries, MS Eng. letters e. 2, fols 70–71).

Elizabeth was the daughter of Robert Shirley, a man who — having failed to stand as a member of Parliament for Staffordshire — was elected Fellow of the Royal Society on 11 January 1699 only to die from smallpox six weeks later. Orphaned at the age of five (her mother fell victim to the same disease the following month), Elizabeth became Baroness Ferrers of Chartley suo jure on the death of her paternal grandfather in 1717 and Countess of Northampton through her marriage to James Compton, fifth earl of Northampton (1687–1754). Although a number of sources indicate the couple had no male offspring, it is clear from the correspondence that this was not the case: all but one of the letters with which the students worked are addressed to Elizabeth, and of these the large majority concern the well-being of her son.1 It turns out young James Compton was born in 1723.2

With Elizabeth based in Northampton (at Castle Ashby),3 in Warwickshire (at Compton Wynates),4 or in Staffordshire (Tamworth Castle), James is clearly undergoing his education away from her and is in the care of one Nicholas Guillibeau, who writes with dedicated regularity from Fulham. The letters, sent often via ‘by Ashby Bagg Northampton-shire’, are concerned primarily with the boy’s health. A typical entry reads: ‘My Lord Compton continues thank God in very good health except a little Cold His Lordship has got, but no Cough.’5 At this point, in 1734, James was eleven.

Besides updates on health and an assortment of remedies prescribed, the letters inform his mother of visits from various relatives; of concerts; of a winning lottery ticket for his sister, Jane; of the order and receipt of wine; and we witness his twelfth birthday on 6 July 1734, celebrated with a delivery of venison and its consumption! An incident involving the sister of the school’s headmaster (Mr, or Dr, Croft) is related also: ‘as she was walking out to go to their field, she was run over by a Horse upon full speed whose rider was Drunk, and she was so trempled and bruised by the Horse’s falling upon her that she was took up & brought Home for Dead. She was immediately let Blood & other proper Medicines apply’d which brought her a little to her Self. She lies still in a very weak and dangerous Condition there being yet but small hopes of her recovery.’6 A trawl through the indispensable Old Bayley Online database reveals this unfortunate sister to have been Ann Croft, described as an ‘old woman’ (actually, she was born in 1683, which makes her fifty-one at the time of the accident) who was brought down whilst walking with two children at the junction of Bear Street (now Rigault Road) and Sow-Gelders Lane (now Burlington Road) by George Turner, a servant, when his horse knocked her over and caught a hind leg in her petticoats. Ann Croft did not survive her injuries and died just eight days later. Turner was charged with murder and acquitted on a verdict of manslaughter.

Detail showing Fulham from ‘An Exact Survey of the citys of London Westminster ye Borough of Southwark and the Country near ten miles round …’, by John Rocque. 1746. (Source of image: Wikimedia Commons)

The repercussions of this sad tale are recounted in the letters. Croft’s extended family and the school rallied in support. Certainly Guillibeau speaks of ‘our school’ as if he were employed there — but he appears also to run errands for Elizabeth and members of her family, and to have been closely involved in every aspect of James’s life. He gives reports of clothing and the boy’s growth: ‘My Lords Summer Coat is so very short that the boys have laughed His Lordship out of Conceit with it by telling him that he looks like a Frenchman in it.’7 And it’s ironic that Guillibeau pokes fun at French fashion, because the published Huguenot archives list him [Nicolas Guillibau] as having taken his oath of naturalization in 1710. Little reference is made to James’s academic studies, although we learn in passing he reads ‘Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and Terence’s plays’.8 (Sadly, from the perspective of our colleagues at the fascinating Reading Euclid project, there’s not one reference to Euclid.) The school James attended was situated on the east side of Sow-Gelders Lane and seems to have been set up earlier in the century as a French establishment run by Louis Vaslet.9 Dr Croft, who features so often in these letters, turns out to be Thomas Croft, son of Thomas Croft, rector of Broughton, Lincolnshire, who was admitted to Jesus College, Cambridge, on 27 September 1700. He served as rector of Wrexham, Alderley, and Radbourne.10

Despite Guillibeau’s mention of many letters written by young James, in this collection there is just one from the boy to his mother: in a gorgeous copperplate hand, he discusses his sister Jane’s preference for one pony over another. The saddest note of all in this story is that the poor sickly young James did not survive into adulthood and died just five years after these letters were exchanged, at the age of seventeen. A more positive thread finds a delicious EMLO-esque cross reference concerning the school, however: another pupil known to have attended the establishment just a few years after James Compton was none other than Thomas Pennant, the subject of research by our colleagues at the inspiring Curious Travellers project.

How and why these letters to Elizabeth Compton came to be separated from the bundle that ended up in the possession of her daughter Charlotte is at present a mystery.11 As with EMLO’s previous undergraduate catalogue, that of early bluestocking Sarah Chapone, the letters were selected for their relatively straight-forward hand. In each catalogue, the students have transcribed only a selection and more work remains to be done. From the vantage point of well-earned summer vacations, however, we hope EMLO users will celebrate and explore the work of our talented young scholars. Certainly, we could not be more delighted that EMLO has emerged as a platform to showcase their ongoing work.


  1. The letters entered the Bodleian’s collections in 1931. See Mary Clapinson and T. D. Rogers, Summary catalogue of post-medieval western manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, Oxford: acquisitions 1916–1975 (Oxford, 1991), vol. 1, p. 374.
  2. C. F. R. Palmer, The History of the Town and Castle of Tamworth: In the Counties of Stafford & Warwick (1845), p. 376. The couple had previously had an elder son, George, but he had lived only a year.
  3. Bridget Cherry and Nicolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Northamptonshire (London, 1973), pp. 138–45)
  4. See ‘Parishes: Compton Wyniates’, in A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 5, Kington Hundred, ed. L. F. Salzman (London, 1949), pp. 60–7. British History Online, accessed 31 July 2017
  5. Letter of 6 August 1734 from Nicholas Guillibeau to Elizabeth Compton.
  6. Letter of 3 August 1734 from Nicholas Guillibeau to Elizabeth Compton.
  7. Letter of 20 August 1734 from Nicholas Guillibeau to Elizabeth Compton.
  8. Letter of 15 October 1734 from Nicholas Guillibeau to Elizabeth Compton.
  9. See ‘Private Education from the Sixteenth Century: Developments from the 16th to the early 19th century‘, in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 1, Physique, Archaeology, Domesday, Ecclesiastical Organization, the Jews, Religious Houses, Education of Working Classes To 1870, Private Education From Sixteenth Century, ed. J. S. Cockburn, H. P. F. King, and K. G. T. McDonnell (London, 1969), pp. 241–55. British History Online, accessed 28 July 2017.
  10. See Clergy of the Church of England database, ID 5410. He died in 1753 and was buried in Alderley, Cheshire.
  11. James’s sister Charlotte (1729–70) married George Townshend, first Marquess Townshend in 1751. As a result, a number of private letters both from and to Elizabeth Compton, ended up in the collection of the Marquess of Townshend and have been published in The manuscripts of the Marquess Townshend … by Great Britain, Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (London, 1887), pp. 223–54.