Professor Richard Sharpe (1954–2020)

The Cultures of Knowledge community has been shocked and saddened to learn of the sudden and unexpected death of Professor Richard Sharpe, FBA, FSA, FRHistS, Hon. MRIA, on 21 March 2020 at the age of only 66.

The obituaries and tributes that have appeared in The Guardian, at Wadham College, and at the History Faculty, where Richard was Professor of Diplomatic, reveal how fortunate our project was to benefit from the guidance of a scholar of such extraordinary distinction. His international renown is reflected in his election as Fellow of the British Academy in 2003, as Honorary Member of the Royal Irish Academy in 2018, and as Corresponding Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America in 2020. The range of his expertise is suggested by some of the major projects in which he was involved: the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources which he helped to edit between 1981 and 1990, a monumental work on Medieval Irish Saints’ Lives, his general editorship for the British Academy of the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues, which now comprises eighteen of a planned twenty-four volumes; and his direction of the Mellon-funded digital project Medieval Libraries of Great Britain.

Yet these monumental undertakings far from exhausted the range and depth of his scholarly production. As a former graduate student wrote of Richard in the Wadham obituary, ‘The volume and versatility of his research were nothing short of mystifying. … Richard blended in perfectly among experts in every field that he mastered, but only a few of his followers seemed to be aware of the full range of his versatility, and fewer still possessed the intellectual stamina to be able to keep up with the flow of contributions across fields.’

Cultures of Knowledge was one in this mystifying range of supplementary projects, which spiralled off in all directions from his core concerns. A longstanding member of the project’s Steering Committee, Richard exercised a formative influence over the enterprise in its crucial first phase. Each of his main contributions was characteristic of different aspects of the man.

Most palpable, perhaps, was his recruitment of the first major dataset not anticipated in the original bid to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: a catalogue and full transcription of the correspondence of Edward Lhwyd FRS, the second Keeper of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum and an important naturalist, archaeologist, and Celtic linguist. Building on a lifetime’s work by Dr Brynley F. Roberts, the Lhwyd catalogue was compiled and the transcriptions polished by Helen Watt who worked under the supervision of Richard and his colleague at the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies at the University of Wales, Professor Dafydd Johnston.

It was perfectly evident that the correspondence of a pioneering Welsh philologist must have been tangential to Richard’s core concerns, but even more mystifying was his immersion within the oceans of learned correspondence which surrounded Lhwyd. When digitization began of what was known as the Bodleian’s ‘Index of Literary Correspondence‘, this chest of file cards was tucked in corner of the Selden End of Duke Humfrey’s Library, unknown to many but consulted on a frequent basis by Richard. He knew these cards intimately and his expertise was invaluable throughout the disambiguation and reconciliation process required to combine the dataset with EMLO’s six pilot individual correspondences. Indeed, it was a favourite tease to remark that one or two of the precise handwritten corrections spotted on the cards might perhaps have come from his pencil. His response was to roll his eyes, look to the ceiling, shrug his shoulders, and laugh. Helping to untangle specific problems with individual letter records gradually grew into something still more fundamental: Richard’s meticulous attention to detail was indispensable to the project of refining and implementing the EMLO data model as a whole.

Richard’s advice to the project team concerning early modern people and places continued for more than a decade into the weeks just prior to his death. His office was situated in Oxford’s Old Indian Institute, and after he took up residence there once again following a temporary sojourn as our immediate neighbour in the History Faculty, he continued to visit—always unannounced. On each occasion he would deliver a detailed account of his current and wide-ranging work before homing in on what he found in progress across the EMLO desks. On what turned out to be the last of his unannounced visits, Richard inspected the disambiguation work being conducted on the correspondence to be found in the Stuart State Papers, offered to send a ‘list of people for whom an eye should be kept open’ on his behalf, reviewed plans for future work on Bodleian material, and undertook to write introductory pages for, amongst others, Roderick O Flaherty (whose correspondence he published in his meticulous 2013 Royal Irish Academy edition), Arthur Charlett, and Humfrey Wanley.

That a man of such prodigious energy, sustained by an exemplary regime of physical fitness, should have left us so suddenly at the height of his powers, is a source of dismay at many levels. We at Cultures of Knowledge were even more fortunate than we were perhaps fully aware to have found an enduring place within his extraordinarily broad range of active scholarly projects.

Howard Hotson and Miranda Lewis

Isaac Newton: letters, papers, dates, plague … plus links to an inspirational project

Isaac Newton died two hundred and ninety-three years ago today.1 To mark the occasion EMLO is publishing an inventory of his letters. The metadata for this listing have been collated by members of the Cultures of Knowledge team based on the correspondence edition published between 1959 and 1977.2 The work has been carried out with funding from Oxford’s John Fell Fund in association with one of the most remarkable and pioneering international digital projects—The Newton Project. If the lockdowns and individual self-isolations brought about by the COVID-19 crisis are beginning to cause withdrawal symptoms from libraries and primary source collections, I suggest following the links in EMLO to explore the wealth of writings of this towering—if sometimes enigmatic and disturbing—figure.

Under the general editorship of Rob Iliffe and Scott Mandelbrote, and based at present at the University of Oxford’s Faculty of History, the Newton Project is dedicated to mounting online a freely available comprehensive edition of the entire corpus of Newton’s printed and unpublished writings. No small undertaking, these aims are being realized steadily and surely by an expert team reliant hitherto on funding from a series of grants and a number of individual donations. Established in 1998, the Project began with a focus on Newton’s ‘non-scientific’ papers; from 2007 it broadened its remit and its ambitions, and today you will find his alchemical, mathematical, religious, scientific writings, together with papers from his work as Warden—and subsequently Master—of the Mint, alongside his notebooks and a selection of his correspondence. Both diplomatic and normalized transcriptions have been made available for users to toggle between. Wherever possible contextual material is provided in the form of catalogue details, translations into English, and links to images of the original manuscripts.

Of course, there is a comforting story to be found within the life of Isaac Newton (assuming you overlook and do not emulate the experiments the enquiring natural philosopher conducted with his own eye) for scholars who are at present stressed, anxious, and lacking books and library resources: in the summer of 1665, the young student left Trinity College, Cambridge, to escape the outbreak of plague in the city and he returned to his maternal family house house of Woolsthorpe in Lincolnshire.3 Apart from a brief visit to his college in the spring of 1666, a stay cut short by a recurrence of plague, Newton remained in Lincolnshire until March 1667. During his time away from the university, he established the fundamentals of ‘the method of series and fluxions’ (calculus); demonstrated and worked on refraction; conducted experiments on his own eyes; and began to consider the nature of gravity.4 In tribute to Isaac Newton—the man, his work, and the apple—perhaps we could all look to happier times when these dark days are behind us and plan a visit to Woolsthorpe Manor … In the meantime, enjoy the new catalogue in EMLO and all that the Newton Project has to offer,

Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire. (Image © National Trust)

  1. Before anyone writes in to protest that he didn’t, Newton may also be described as having died on 20 March 1726, and which of these dates is cited depends upon which calendar is drawn upon to describe it. In the seventeenth century, two calendars—the Julian and the Gregorian—were in widespread use across Europe. The former (known as the ‘Old Style’) tended to be employed—although not exclusively—in Protestant countries; the latter (termed ‘New Style’) had been in adopted in Catholic countries since the issue of the Papal Bull by Gregory XIII in 1582. Gregorian dates ran ten days ahead of the Julian in the seventeenth century, and this difference stretched to eleven days in the eighteenth century. Complicating this discrepancy further was the fact that in England, until 1752 when the Gregorian calendar was set in place, the year change occurred on Lady Day (25 March). In consequence, Newton may be described in the Julian dating system as having been born on 25 December 1642 and died on 20 March 1726, or on 4 January 1643 and 31 March 1727 respectively under the proleptic (beginning the year on 1 January and imposing this retrospectively as if it had always been in place) Gregorian calendar. For a detailed explanation of these early modern calendrical conundrums, you might wish to refer to the chapter entitled ‘Time’ in the recently published co-authored volume Reassembling the Republic of Letters in the Digital Age. Standards, Systems, Scholarship, ed. H. Hotson and T. Wallnig (Göttingen: Universitätsverlag Göttingen, 2019), pp. 97–104, an online version of which is available for free download.
  2. The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, ed. H. W. Turnbull, A. R. Hall, J. F. Scott, and Laura Tilling, 7 vols (Cambridge, 1959–77).
  3. The property is now owned by the National Trust. On 6 May 1665, his mother Hannah wrote a letter to him from ‘Wollstrup’. Newton’s father had died in 1642, prior to Isaac’s birth. Two years later, his mother had married Barnabas Smith, the rector of North Witham, a village just south of Woolsthorpe, but Isaac had continued to live in at the manor house with his grandmother Margaret Ayscough. After the death of Barnabas Smith in 1656 Hannah had returned to Woolsthorpe with the children from her second marriage. She died in 1679.
  4. Woolsthorpe is the setting for the apocryphal story of the apple. If you would like to read ‘from the horse’s mouth’, do look at William Stukeley’s ‘Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s life’ (1752), available in manuscript on the Royal’s Society’s Turning Pages resource.

Fulvio Orsini: librarian to the Farnese

Ranuccio Farnese, by Titian. 1542. (National Gallery of Art, Washington; image on Wikimedia Commons)

A day after more than eleven million people worldwide switched on a television or computer to watch Pope Francis deliver the Urbi et Orbi blessing from an empty Saint Peter’s Square, EMLO remains focussed on the Eternal City. Despite numerous lockdowns in place across the world and all the associated complications of working from home, this week saw publication of the first installment towards a listing of the correspondence of Fulvio Orsini. The illegitimate son of a member of the Orsini family, Fulvio Orsini was born in 1529 and, as a scholar, librarian, and numismatist, he lived out his three-score-and-ten years in the midst of the remarkable creative and intellectual activity of sixteenth-century Rome.

Having changed his name (the reason behind this is not apparent) from Lucio Settimio three years previously, Fulvio was appointed librarian to a member of the Farnese family in 1558 and as a result he was to reside for the remainder of his life at the Palazzo Farnese. Although this building was designed by the architect Antonio da Sangallo the younger (d. 1546), Michelangelo (d. 1564), Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola (d. 1573), and Giacomo della Porta (d. 1602) each played a role in its completion. The interior of the palace was decorated by—amongst many others—Annibale Carracci (d. 1609).1

Alessandro Farnese, by Titian. 1545–6. (Museo di Capodimonte, Naples; image on Wikimedia Commons)

As librarian, Fulvio Orsini worked initially for Cardinal Ranuccio Farnese (1530–1565), the subject of a striking portrait by Titian (above). From 1565, he was employed by Ranuccio’s oldest brother Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1520–1589), who was also painted by Titian (right). And, in the final decade of his life, his patron and employer was the brothers’ nephew, Cardinal Odoardo Farnese (1573–1626), whose likeness is known from a drawing attributed to Annibale Carracci (below).

Odoardo Farnese, by Annibale Carracci. (Musée du Louvre, Paris; image on Wikimedia Commons)

The inventory to be found at present in Fulvio Orsini’s catalogue in EMLO lists the incoming correspondence contained in three Vatican Library manuscripts: Vat. lat. 4103, Vat. lat. 4104, and Vat. lat. 4105. Metadata have been collated by Dr Jan Machielsen of Cardiff University (and—until COVID-19 swept the continent—on a  Humboldt fellowship in Dresden) with funding from the British Academy and in collaboration with the British School at Rome and the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. Links from the records in EMLO to images of the manuscripts and printed copies of the letters have been provided wherever possible, and I hope so much you will find this correspondence a welcome distraction in these dark and difficult days.2 Wherever you may be keep well, stay at home, and help thereby to protect lives.

  1. For those who are interested, the portrait from which the Cultures of Knowledge project’s logo is taken (by kind permission of the York Museums Trust) is ascribed to Annibale Carracci—see the portrait of Cardinal Agucchi, York Museums Trust. Previously the portrait has been attributed to Annibale’s pupil Domenichino. Sadly, just two weeks ago another of Annibale’s paintings, A Boy Drinking, together with a 1616 study of a man on horseback by Anthony van Dyck and a Salvator Rosa landscape, was stolen from Oxford’s Christ Church Picture Gallery. Annibale may be one of my favourite artists, but it wasn’t me … honest! If anyone has information about the theft of these three paintings, please be in touch with the police or with the gallery.
  2. I make no apologies for posting a blog peopled with portraits. Portraits are my way of escaping the grim news at present. I hope you enjoy these glimpses of Fulvio Orsini’s employers.

Halley, Aubrey, and ‘the Arch-conjurer’

As the inventory of the astronomer Edmond Halley’s correspondence is published in EMLO, my colleague Dr Philip Beeley has been working with a number of these letters as part of his ongoing research on the early Fellows of the Royal Society. In celebration of the new catalogue, Dr Beeley has provided a few ‘observations’ (although, of course, not in the astronomical sense) for this post. 

It is well known that by the 1690s there was little love lost between John Flamsteed and Edmond Halley. According to the testimony of David Gregory, since 1691 Savilian professor of astronomy at Oxford and a close ally of Newton, the origin of their enmity was an act of intellectual dishonesty on Flamsteed’s part. The story goes that Halley in good faith communicated the lunar tables he had computed to the Astronomer Royal who thereupon published them as his own work and without Halley’s permission. Having heard this story from Newton himself, Gregory noted words to this effect in the margin of his copy of Principia. There can be no doubt, however, that both Halley and Newton also treated Flamsteed unfairly, most notably when they acted together to publish his new yet incomplete catalogue of the fixed stars, the Historia coelestis Britannica, without his permission in 1712.

While being an astronomer of the first order, Halley courted controversy through his attitude towards religion, and especially the established church. In 1691, when he was one of the candidates for the astronomy chair, alongside Gregory and John Caswell, his scientific qualification was by far the strongest, yet he was rejected on account of his reputation as a free-thinker or, as some would have it, his irreligion. Interestingly, however, this charge had all but evaporated by 1703, when Halley was appointed Savilian professor of geometry following the death of John Wallis.

Halley to Aubrey of 16/26 November 1679. (Bodleian Libraries, MS Aubrey 42, fol. 148)

Evidence of Halley’s free-thinking comes from his correspondence with John Aubrey. The antiquary and natural philosopher valued highly the work of his astrologer friend of many years, John Gadbury, and commended his efforts to establish a programme of astrological research as a significant contribution to the advancement of knowledge. When, in 1679, Aubrey recommended the study of astrology to Halley, the astronomer by no means rejected this proposal. Indeed, he tells Aubrey that he has gone to the library to seek out the particular book he had proposed—Leovitius’s De conjugationibus magnis—and that although not wholly convinced it would contain more than historical value he would ‘read it over’.1 Nonetheless, Halley could not refrain from making the humorous quip that it was not perhaps the best time to be studying astrology, for Gadbury, ‘the Arch-conjurer’ as he calls him, had recently been arrested in connection with the Meat Tub Plot. And Flamsteed? He had evidently seen an unpublished ephemeris attributed to Jeremy Shakerley that was once in the hands of Gadbury and corrected by him. In contrast to Halley, Flamsteed was decidedly meek when it came to astrology. Of these tables he remarks in the manuscript history of his own life that he would not be seen with Mr. Gadbury’s book, ‘lest I should be suspected astrological’.

Philip Beeley
Faculty of History
University of Oxford

Undelivered Letters: a public day with the Brienne collection


Are you likely to be in or near The Hague on 16 February 2020? Are you interested in the materiality of early modern letters, particularly in how they were folded, wrapped, and sealed? Are you intrigued by the journeys letters endured and the postal routes taken from the moment of dispatch? And would you like to see an example of the type of chest in which countless bundles of letters were stored in the seventeenth century? If so, you may be interested to know that EMLO’s partners at the Signed, Sealed, and Undelivered project are set to hold a celebratory conference on Sunday, 16 February 2020 at the Beeld en Geluid in The Hague. Detailed metadata for the undelivered letters on which the team work are being collated and published in EMLO as the Brienne collection, and a new batch of letters will be added to this catalogue to coincide with the conference.

The Signed, Sealed, and Undelivered project team would like to extend the following invitation (in letter format, naturally) to everyone interested in finding out more about the meticulous cataloguing work and the associated research involved with these undelivered letters. Further details and instructions regarding the event on 16 February and registration (attendance is free, but booking is required) may be found online.

Look forward to seeing you there!

In praise of twenty-first century scholarly networks!

Following publication earlier in the year of the collaboratively authored volume Reassembling the Republic of Letters in the Digital Age: Standards, Systems, Scholarship, it is fascinating to witness the ripple effect continue unabated within the scholarly circles drawn together beneath the banner of the ‘Reassembling the Republic of Letters’ COST-funded action.1 Back in March of last year, Kristi Viiding, professor of Classical Philology at the Univesrity of Tartu, hosted an EMLO-led Training School at the Under and Tuglas Literature Centre of the Estonian Academy of Sciences in Tallinn. Subsequently, Kristi and her team collated and contributed to EMLO the first instalment of the correspondence inventory for the Livonian humanist David Hilchen, which was published almost exactly a year ago. And in the course of this work, Kristi made an introduction between our team at EMLO and Raija Sarasti-Wilenius, Professor of Latin language and Roman literature at the University of Helsinki.

Letter by Daniel Gyldenstolpe to Nils Gyldenstolpe dated 20 August 1676. (Nordin 469:45; image courtesy of Uppsala University Library)

Raija works on the Latin letters of the Gyldenstolpe family and—as a beneficiary of funding from the University of Helsinki—with the assistance of Minna Vesa, she compiled and published in EMLO the the first instalment of the inventory of the Gyldenstolpe family letters.2 The career of Nils Gyldenstolpe (1642–1709), the Swedish statesman and diplomat, culminated in his appointment as Secretary of State to Charles XII in 1705. The corpus of manuscripts that make up his family’s archive, now in the care of the Uppsala University Library, offers fascinating glimpses into the education and career opportunities available to members of a seventeenth-century society that was marked by ‘strict social hierarchy and networks of patron-client relationships’.3

Here in Oxford at the Networking Archives project, as we progress through the disambiguation of the authors and recipients of correspondence to be found in the State Papers of early modern Britain, we shall keep an eye open for mentions of members of this illustrious family. And we look forward also to watching as today’s talented and industrious scholars thread further early modern correspondence metadata into the webs of communication under investigation.

  1. Reassembling the Republic of Letters in the Digital Age: Standards, Systems, Scholarship, ed. Howard Hotson and Thomas Wallnig (Göttingen University Press, 2019). The volume maybe be downloaded as an open-access PDF
  2. See, amongst her other publications, Raija Sarasti-Wilenius, ‘Dear Brother, Gracious Maecenas. Latin Letters of the Gyldenstolpe Brothers (1661–1680)’, Humaniora, 374, Annales Academiae Scientiarum Fennicae (Helsinki, 2015).
  3. See the introductory page to ‘The Correspondence of the Gyldenstolpe family’, contributed by Raija Sarasti-Wilenius and Minna Vesa, University of Helsinki, in Early Modern Letters Online, accessed 18 December 2019.

‘liberal measure … from the Muses’ spring’: the correspondence of John Milton

It is a joy to announce, four hundred and eleven years to the day following the poet’s birth, that the catalogue of correspondence of John Milton (1608–1674) is available for consultation in EMLO. The first correspondence to be compiled by a member of the Networking Archives project, Dr Esther van Raamsdonk (the team’s current Research Associate based at the Queen Mary University of London), this inventory is in the process of being augmented with detailed metadata and expanded.

Milton’s personal correspondence survives as a body of—at present—just fifty-nine letters. Of these, approximately two-thirds were authored by the poet himself. In his final and sixty-sixth year, Milton published a volume containing a collection of thirty-one of his private letters,1 and it is this edition that has formed the basis of EMLO’s catalogue. A couple of ‘ghost’ letters for which no print or manuscript version remains have been included; these were listed by A. Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall in their edition of Oldenburg’s correspondence,2 alongside two further letters from Oldenburg to Milton for which manuscripts (one a draft, the other a copy) survive in the Royal Society LIbrary.3

Milton is known to have retained copies of the letters he composed during the interregnum when in the employment of the State as ‘Secretary for Foreign Tongues’, a role which involved preparing international diplomatic correspondence in Latin. These letters were published in 1676, just two years after the poet’s death.4 Given Milton removed these manuscript copies and preserved them in his possession throughout the decades following the Restoration, it is curious that no further correspondence, neither incoming to nor outgoing from the poet, survives. Whether Milton followed Thomas Hobbes’s example of destroying a selection of his papers for fear of investigation is not known.5 However, the presence of a draft and a manuscript copy of two of Oldenburg’s letters to Milton, both of which appear to have been sent, indicates that the latter’s archive of incoming correspondence has not survived.

Richard Jones, third viscount and first earl of Ranelagh (1636–1712), c. 1700. (Natural Trust Collections, Attingham Park, see: <http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/609016> )

As the number of letters increases in EMLO, one of the pleasures of working with the union catalogue is to witness first-hand the plethora of connections settling into place. Milton worked as a tutor. Among his pupils was Richard Jones (1641–1712), the eldest son of Arthur Jones, second Viscount Ranelagh (d. 1670) and Katherine Jones (1615–1691), the daughter of Richard Boyle, earl of Cork and the sister of Robert Boyle. This young nobleman travelled to France in the care of none other than Henry Oldenburg, who worked as a tutor in the years following his arrival in England. The pair visited Saumur, where Milton advised his former charge in a letter of 1 August 1657: ‘I would not have you drink too deep of the wine of Saumur, which you hope to enjoy, unless you are careful to dilute the vintage of Liber with a more liberal measure of water from the Muses’ spring, in the proportion of more than five parts to one. But you have the best of advisers [Oldenburg] on this subject, and do not need a word from me. You will find it it to your own best interest to obey him …’.6 Milton knew his former pupil well, having previously advised him with regard to a library that ‘unless it enables the students to improve their minds by the best instruction, it would deserve the name of ‘book repository’ rather than of “library”. You are very well aware that for this reason the desire to learn and habits of industry must be added to all these advantages.’7

Richard Jones, who engaged in English politics in the 1670s, married Elizabeth (d. 1695), the daughter of Francis Willoughby, Baron Willoughby of Parham; Elizabeth’s sister, Frances, married William Brereton, third Baron Brereton (1631–1680) of Brereton Hall, who played an important role in the years following the death of Hartlib in March 1662.8 Both Brereton and Jones became original fellows of the Royal Society and were elected in April and May 1663 respectively, the latter on the same date as his uncle, Robert Boyle.9 Jones was expelled from the Society in 1682 however, and, whatever Milton and Oldenburg taught their pupil, it was not a consummate skill in accountancy, for he ended his days surrounded by allegations of corruption and financial mis-dealings.10

Milton’s small but intriguing catalogue of letters sheds light on some of his Italian and Greek (amongst others) connections. And it provides us with tantalising glimpses into what Milton was reading, into his role as a tutor, and, more widely, the circles of which he formed a part.

Happy Birthday, John Milton!

 

  1. John Milton, Joannis Miltonii Angli, Epistolarum Familiarium Liberunus … (London, 1674).
  2. The Correspondence of Henry Oldenburg, ed. A. R. Hall and M. B. Hall, 13 vols (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press; London: Mansel; London: Taylor & Francis, 1965–86), vol. 1 p. 32.
  3. Ibid., pp. 108–09 and pp. 140–1.
  4. John Milton, Literae pseudo-senatûs Anglicani Cromwellii reliquorumque perduellium nomine ac jussu conscriptae a Joanne Miltono (Amsterdam and Brussels, 1676). The metadata that describes these letters will be added to the correspondence catalogue in the course of 2020 once Esther van Raamsdonk has embarked upon her British-Academy-funded research at the University of Warwick.
  5. See Noel Malcolm’s introductory page to ‘The correspondence of  Thomas Hobbes’, published in Early Modern Letters Online, 19 December 2017.
  6. See the letter from Milton to Jones of 1 August 1657.
  7. See the letter from Milton to Jones with the inferred date of May 1656.
  8. See Leigh T. I. Penman, ‘Omnium Exposita Rapinæ: The Afterlives of the Papers of Samuel Hartlib’, Book History, 19 (2016), pp. 1–65.
  9. 20 May 1663.
  10. See C. I. McGrath, ‘Jones, Richard, earl of Ranelagh‘, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, version published online 3 January 2008 (requires consultation via a subscribing institution).

The Royal Society’s Early Letters

It is a privilege to announce this week that a listing of the Royal Society’s collection of Early Letters has been released within Early Modern Letters Online [EMLO]. The catalogue contains at present (and this ‘at present’ will be explained further into the blog post for those who choose to read on) 4,109 letters drawn from a total of 4,390 manuscripts itemized in the Royal Society Library’s catalogue. The letters range between 1613 and 1740 (although three post-1740 letters have been identified) and, as a collection, they form an invaluable archive of the original incoming correspondence received at the Society by way of the institution’s secretaries, its office holders, and its early Fellows. Many of these letters were copied into the Society’s Letter Books and were referenced in the Register Books; many were published in the Philosophical Transactions. The letters encompass a remarkably diverse range of topics and scientific activities.

The Royal Society Early Letters catalogue is published in EMLO.

The suggestion to publish this inventory of the Early Letters in EMLO was initiated at a workshop entitled ‘Digital Approaches to the History of Science‘, an event organized last year by the AHRC-funded Reading Euclid project. Subsequently, metadata for the collection was prepared using EMLO’s many and various bespoke tools in partnership with the Royal Society Library, under the guidance of the Librarian, Keith Moore, and the Digital Resources Manager, Louisiane Ferlier. The first step involved removing the data that described a number of non-epistolary manuscripts; secondly, disambiguation (the ‘which Thomas Smith is which‘ process) and reconciliation for the associated people and the places were carried out (although a few queries remain still to be resolved); thirdly, the texts of the abstracts underwent an editorial ‘tidying’; and, fourthly, links were inserted into EMLO records at every turn—whether for a letter or for an early Fellow—to guide users to a range of the Royal Society’s rich resources available online.

Further updates to the listing of letters (and this where the ‘at present’ mentioned above comes in) include identifying and clustering within one EMLO record manifestations that the Library catalogue itemizes as separate records (for example, different manuscript versions of the same letter, or translations of the letter in different languages). This work will mean the total number of records in the early letters catalogue will decrease overall in EMLO. Thereafter, the numbers will swell once again as bundles of letters batched together hitherto in the Library’s catalogue (for example, three letters from Person A concerning Topic 1) are identified, separated out, and described individually. In consequence, EMLO will display a slightly different inventory to that maintained at the Library, but each EMLO manifestation will link to its relevant entry in the Society’s catalogue. And, in addition, details from other Royal Society Library sources will be recorded—whether entry in the Letter Books or publication in the Philosophical Transactions, as well as details of the date a letter was read to the Society. What is exciting about this element of the forthcoming work is that, combined with the way the manifestations will be ordered in EMLO and based upon how many versions exist and how many entries reference the letter, it will be possible to rank and determine at a glance the importance of individual letters to the early Society. Over the course of the next six months, updates to the Early Letters catalogue in EMLO will be released, as will further new catalogues of correspondence for a number of key early Fellows (and officer holders) of the Royal Society, including those of the Society’s president from 1703 to 1727 Isaac Newton … watch this space …

The letters of Belle van Zuylen/Isabelle de Charrière (1740– 1805)

A presentation of the Correspondance d’Isabelle de Charrière / Brieven van Belle van Zuylen took place on Saturday, 26 October at the Utrecht Archives (Het Utrechts Archief). The novelist, essayist, and composer known within the Netherlands as Belle van Zuylen and elsewhere as Isabelle de Charrière (1740–1805) is regarded today as a leading light in the Utrecht literary canon. This reputation is due in no small measure to van Zuylen/de Charrière’s correspondence of which approximately 2,600 letters, written in French, survive.

With different sections of the correspondence available hitherto only in Dutch, English, or Japanese translation, and with interest in the writer generating Wikipedia pages in no less than twenty-five different languages, a project team at the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands [KNAW] has come together under the direction of Suzan van Dijk (Huygens ING) and Madeleine van Strien-Chardonneau (Leiden University) to digitize the surviving correspondence. This project has set out to publish a complete digital edition of the letters, and intends to mount transcriptions of the original French alongside manuscript images as well as, in the fullness of time, to add translations.

Over the past couple of years, members of the Belle van Zuylen Association have been working in eLaborate, a tool developed at HuygensING, to create transcriptions. Taking as their starting point the authoritative print edition (Oeuvres complètes, edited by Van Oorschot and published in 1979–84), spellings have been standardized, the layout adapted, and the text annotated. The transcriptions are scheduled to be released online incrementally, and the event at the Utrecht Archives celebrated the release of the first  batch of 199 letters, the manuscripts of which reside in the care of archives and libraries in the Netherlands—the National Archives, the Dutch National Library, and Museum of Dutch Literature (The Hague), Archives of the Province of Gelderland (Arnhem), and the Utrecht Archives.

The event included a symposium at which Belle van Zuylen/Isabelle de Charrière, her work, and her importance within the field of cultural history, as well as her subsequent reputation and legacy, were discussed. Kaj van Vliet (archivist, Utrecht Archives) considered the roles played by both van Zuylen/de Charrière and her seventeenth-century predecessor Anna Maria van Schurman with reference to the new exhibition currently on display in the same building. Suzan van Dijk examined the writer’s oft-quoted words: ‘Je n’ai pas les talents subalternes’ (I have no talent for subordination), and revealed that in the letters she had studied in the Dutch archives (the majority of which are addressed to members of van Zuylen’s Dutch aristocratic family) this characteristic was not on display, a fact which reveals an infinitely more interesting and complex personality. Kees van Strien, who has just brought out his latest book Belle van Zuylen. Een leven in Holland (Belle van Zuylen: A life in Holland), spoke about Gijsbert Jan van Hardenbroek, a member of an influential Utrecht family, as well as several of his friends and contemporaries. The private documents of this circle are housed today at the Utrecht Archives, and were published by Van Strien in 2005; on the basis of these letters and diaries, Van Strien considers Hardenbroek as having lost his heart to Van Zuylen and fallen ‘victim to Cupid’. Dirk van Miert (director of the SKILLNET project at Utrecht University) presented the writer as a citizen of the eighteenth-century Republic of Letters, comparing her to Dutch female contemporaries Hyleke Gockinga and Etta Palm: Gockinga was seen as a ‘second Schurman’ on account of her linguistic skills; Palm corresponded with a number of politicians belonging to Van Zuylen’s extended circle, and the two women are likely to have encountered each other in Paris, where Van Zuylen/de Charrière became aware of Palm’s reputation, refering to her as ‘cette intrigante hollandaise’. Josephine Rombouts (author of Cliffrock Castle) recalled the strong impression made upon her (at the age of nineteen when she moved from home to begin university) by Belle van Zuylen, and the opening sentences of the first letter sent by Van Zuylen to D’Hermenches were central in her talk.

The digital edition Correspondance d’Isabelle de Charrière/Brieven van Belle van Zuylen is being released as a ‘work-in-progress’. Letters from the Dutch archives constitute only a small percentage of Van Zuylen/de Charrière’s surviving correspondence, and the focus at this point is to complete the considerable work conducted already on the letters to be found in the Swiss archives. In due course an inventory of the letters will be added to Early Modern Letters Online where it will be searchable both as part of Women’s Early Modern Letters Online and within the entire union catalogue. For those with a particular interest in early modern women’s writing, or in French literature, the Correspondance d’Isabelle de Charrière / Brieven van Belle van Zuylen project is keen to involve additional volunteers, and anyone interested in making a contribution is welcome to contact Suzan van Dijk (suzan.van.dijk@huygens.knaw.nl) or Madeleine van Strien-Chardonneau (madeleinevanstrien@yahoo.fr).

Guglielmo Sirleto, a British Academy grant, and the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

A worthy recipient of British Academy funding Dr Jan Machielsen set off for Rome in April this year equipped with a laptop and access to his EMLO-Collect workspace. Once settled in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, he began to weave together listings of the correspondences of a number of hitherto neglected late-sixteenth-century Catholic scholars. The author of Martin Delrio: Demonology and Scholarship in the Counter-Reformation (Oxford, 2015), a study that positions the life and work of the Jesuit theologian (who was born in Antwerp in the midst of the Dutch Revolt) within the wider processes of Catholic Reform, Dr Machielsen is engaged at present on a related publication Making a Church Ever the Same: Catholicism between Rome and the Borderlands, c. 1550–1620’ (forthcoming). This new work will examine the Catholic intellectual geography of (and I use Dr Machielsen’s words) ‘the fragile borderlands and exile communities’ that played such a key role in Catholic Reform alongside those from the ‘traditional Mediterranean heartlands’.

Portrait of Guglielmo Sirleto. Seventeenth-century engraving. (Image: Jan Machielsen)

The first of a number of correspondences collated in the course of this research—that of Guglielmo Sirleto (1514–1585)—has just been published in EMLO. Sirleto was prefect of the Vatican Library, and ultimately its cardinal librarian; he was an observer of proceedings at the Council of Trent. In his introduction to EMLO’s catalogue, Dr Machielsen recalls: ‘I had looked at Guglielmo Sirleto’s correspondence during the final stages of writing my first monograph on the Flemish-Spanish Jesuit Martin Delrio. I was struck, then, by the content and tone of letters by Netherlandish scholars such as Laevinus Torrentius, Jacobus Pamelius, and especially Willem Lindanus. Not only did they turn to Sirleto for help, they also regarded the Vatican Library as an arsenal to be employed against the heretics.’

A British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant presented Dr Machielsen with the enviable (or, given the numbers of surviving manuscript letters, some might feel daunting) prospect of ten weeks in Rome to focus on Sirleto’s correspondence, together with those of a number of relevant key scholars, with an eye to piecing together the extent of their networks beyond the Italian peninsula. Although the large majority of Sirleto’s correspondents resided south of the Alps, many of the letters turned out to be exceptionally rich and, as he worked, Dr Machielsen posted abstracts of a number on Twitter (hashtag #PopishPost). With a number of catalogues collated while he was in Rome currently in preparation, updates regarding their publication will be posted on this blog.

And whilst considering invaluable British Academy funding, for those who might be interested but missed earlier announcements, it’s worth noting that Dr Esther van Raamsdonck, the Postdoctoral Research Associate working at present with the Cultures of Knowledge Networking Archives project, will be beginning shortly her own three years of British Academy funded research centred around John Milton and the Dutch Republic. The application deadline for Esther’s replacement at Queen Mary University London has passed, but the call for a second post-doctoral position, to be based at the University of Oxford under the guidance of Professor Howard Hotson, has just one more week to run and applications for this position should be received by 14 October. For further details see this earlier blog post, or visit the Networking Archives website.