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 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/warks/vol5/pp60-67, 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 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol1/pp241-255, 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.

G. J. Vossius: the scholar and the family man

‘Of the innumerable men whom I have heard lecture from the rostrum, I call three men the greatest: Petavius, Vossius and Varlaeus. However, Vossius stood above them as the cypress trees stand above the tedious undergrowth.’1 Thus wrote the French physician Samuel Sorbière of the polymath Gerardus Joannes Vossius (and presumably with a nod to Virgil when speaking of Rome).2 Vossius, whose catalogue is launched in EMLO this week, is a towering figure in any number of significant ways, not least with respect to his correspondence.

Since the earliest days of Cultures of Knowledge, Vossius has been central to the project’s work. EMLO’s database was constructed around the Bodleian card catalogue records, which include the letter collections amassed in the first half of the eighteenth-century by the antiquarian Richard Rawlinson. Vossius’s letters to be found in Rawlinson’s collection comprise the Dutch scholar’s own letter books and contain, therefore, the holograph letters he received, together with copies of his outgoing correspondence. These copies were made either by Vossius himself, or by his sons, or by the students who lodged at the Vos family home, a house in which it was not just the males who were given care and attention. Vossius’s much-loved daughter, Cornelia, who drowned tragically in 1638 following an accident on the ice that involved the sledge in which she was travelling from Amsterdam to Leiden, is known to have been extremely well educated and versed in an impressive number of languages. Vossius comes across loud and clear in his correspondence not only as a significant scholar but also as an exceptionally kind and caring individual and family man. When starting working with Bodleian card catalogue records six years ago, it struck me how often and how deeply this man mourned the deaths of those he loved — members of his family and his children, his friends — as well as how he sympathized with and sent comfort to a wide range of correspondents as they struggled to endure similar sorrow and bereavement.

In the spirit of making catalogues available at the earliest opportunity, Cultures of Knowledge published the Bodleian card catalogue records back in 2012 on the occasion of the launch of EMLO, and today we are uploading metadata taken from the inventory compiled by the renowned Vossius scholars C. S. M. Rademaker and G. A. C. van der Lem.3

G. A. C. van der Lem and C. S. M. Rademaker, ‘Inventory of the Correspondence of Gerardus Joannes Vossius (1577–1649)’ (Assen and Maastricht: Van Gorcum, 1993).

Work is ongoing in EMLO to link the dual interpretations for each letter. Thanks to the generous gift of the meticulously ordered working notes and facsimiles (pictured below in their boxes on the shelves in my office) used by Anton van der Lem and Cor Rademaker as they worked on Vossius’s vast correspondence, we are able to tidy up simultaneously many of the mistakes contained within the Bodleian card catalogue’s person records. The inventory these two scholars brought out in print in 1993 serves as an invaluable finding-aid for the complete correspondence, and should anyone be interested in pursuing work with the texts of Vossius’s letters, please be in touch with us at EMLO as the underlying metadata could provide a firm base upon which future work might be layered. Equally, should scholars be interested in working with the networks of which G. J. Vossius formed a part (together with those of his son Isaac, whose calendar of correspondence was published last year in EMLO by the Leiden-based scholar Dr Robin Buning), we would be delighted to help in every way possible.

Vossius died in 1649, at the age of seventy-one (or seventy-two, depending on the exact day of his birth), of erysipela, a streptococcal infection of the skin, also known as St Anthony’s Fire. The stories of the events preceding his death vary. One holds that he had a disagreement with a bookseller, became tremendously upset, returned home, laid down and died; another recounted how he was at work in his library, the ladder up which he climbed broke, and he was crushed under falling folio volumes.4 Either or neither may be true but, however he met his end, Vossius’s letters are lasting proof that the world lost with his passing a kind, generous, considerate man who was — in the words of the scholars who focussed upon him — one of the ‘finest representatives of late humanism’.5

  1. See C. S. M. Rademaker, Life and Work of Gerardus Joannes Vossius (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1981), p. 245.
  2. Virgil, Eclogue I, lines 24–6.
  3. G. A. C. van der Lem and C. S. M. Rademaker, Inventory of the Correspondence of Gerardus Joannes Vossius (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1993).
  4. Rademaker, op. cit., above, p. 343.
  5. Van der Lem and Rademaker, op. cit., above, p. VII.

Bayle is ‘daylie expected’

To illustrate how we’ve been counting down days, I couldn’t resist putting together a little welcome slide for Professor Antony McKenna who is due to speak on his work as editor of the Correspondance de Pierre Bayle in Oxford’s Faculty of History at 4 p.m. today. It concerns a detail from a letter of 7 July 1696 from Edward Bernard — Oxford’s Savilian Professor of Astronomy —  to Thomas Smith, the orientalist, antiquary, and librarian, who was formerly at Magdalen College, Oxford, but who, by 1696, was living in Soho’s Dean Street at a house belonging to his fellow nonjuror Hilkiah Bedford and was working as unofficial librarian for Sir John Cotton (the grandson of Sir Robert Cotton, founder of the Cotton library). Before signing off, Bernard noted to his friend ‘Bayles Dictionary is daylie expected from Roterdam.’  Sadly Bernard died six months after this letter was dispatched, and although I’ve not had time to find out whether the dictionary made it to Oxford as soon as he expected, we can but hope.

And now we’re all looking forward just as eagerly to Professor McKenna’s talk this afternoon. Anyone interested in the scholarly work that is the bedrock of a complete critical edition will be most welcome to join us (for full details please see my previous post). Should you not be be able to make it, Professor McKenna has kindly agreed that the lecture may be recorded and a podcast made available — I’ll keep you informed of the details regarding its release.

Pierre Bayle: a lecture and reception

While in Oxford for a few days next week, Professor Antony McKenna has kindly agreed to give a talk about the decades of meticulous scholarship that have culminated this year in completion of the truly magnificent critical edition Correspondance de Pierre Bayle.1 His lecture will provide those interested in the ongoing work at Cultures of Knowledge and Early Modern Letters Online [EMLO] with a unique opportunity to hear about the research and teamwork underlying this edition, which has been published in fifteen glorious volumes by the Voltaire Foundation, Oxford, and partially online at the l’Université Jean Monnet Saint-Étienne, France, as well as in calendar format in EMLO. In addition, over the course of the months ahead, the texts of Bayle’s letters will be incorporated also into the ePistolarium database (Huygens ING) and Oxford’s Electronic Enlightenment.

Pierre Bayle (1647–1706), who was exiled from his native France exiled shortly before the Revocation of Edict of Nantes, played a crucial role in the development of the Republic of Letters. Together with many of his fellow Huguenots, he settled in Rotterdam, where he published one of the first literary periodicals, defined a new concept of religious tolerance based on moral rationalism, composed a magnificent Historical and Critical Dictionary in which he sought to demonstrate that religious faith is incompatible with rational argument, and contributed to a new interpretation of Spinozism. Bayle was a committed and prolific correspondent (the edition extends to 1,791 letters). As Professor McKenna will explain, Bayle ‘regarded himself simply as a citizen of the Republic of Letters and came to represent that ideal community, “an extremely free State, in which is applied only the rule of truth and reason”.’

Professor McKenna’s talk — hosted by Cultures of Knowledge and the Voltaire Foundation — will be delivered in the Lecture Theatre in Oxford’s History Faculty and will be followed by a reception. All who are interested and find themselves in and around Oxford on Monday at 4 p.m. are most welcome to attend (although we’d appreciate a quick r.s.v.p. [dobrochna.futro@history.ox.ac.uk] if you plan to join us). Full details may be found in the invitation below.

  1. Correspondance de Pierre Bayle, directed by †Elisabeth Labrousse and Antony McKenna, in association with Wiep van Bunge, Edward James, Fabienne Vial-Bonacci, Bruno Roche, and Eric-Olivier Lochard, 15 vols (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1999–2017).

Happy birthday, Elias Ashmole!

‘I Elias Ashmole, was the son (& only Child) of Simon Ashmole of Lichfeild Sadler eldest son to Mr. Thomas Ashmole of the said Citty Sadler, twice cheife Bayliff of that Corporation, and of Anne one of the daughters of Anthony Bowyer of the Citty of Coventry draper, & Bridget his wife only daughter to Mr: Fitch of Ansley in the County of Warwick gent. I was borne the 23rd of May 1617 (& as my deare & good Mother hath often told me) neere halfe an houre after 3 a’clock in the Morning.’ Thus, at the beginning of a set of autobiographical notes, Elias Ashmole wrote of his birth four hundred years ago today. In celebration of this event, EMLO is delighted to announce the publication of a new catalogue containing a calendar of his correspondence.

Cover (page A1r) of ‘Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum’, by Elias Ashmole. 1652. (Source of image: Wikimedia Commons, from http://dewey.library.upenn.edu/)

Ashmole is a complex character known best as a collector, an antiquary, and the founder of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. But he was also a freemason, an inaugural Fellow of the Royal Society, an astrologer (with a particular interest in alchemy, publishing Fasciculus chemicus in 1650, Theatrum chemicum Britannicum two years later, and The Way to Bliss in 1658), as well as an officer-of-arms and herald, and the Comptroller, and later Accountant-General, of the Excise. He began his working life as a lawyer. Many of the events that befell him we know only from his own account in a document preserved among his papers in the Bodleian Libraries (MS. Ashm. 1136, fols 2–98). For one-hundred-and-thirty years after his death, this manuscript was considered to be a diary. It took the eighteenth-century antiquary and diarist Thomas Hearne (whose own correspondence plays such a crucial role in the early years of the Bodleian’s analogue Index of Literary Correspondence) to observe: ‘It is most wretched Stuff, and put down by Mr Ashmole only as private Memorandums’.1 And Hearne was right: it is a predominently chronological listing of autobiographical notes compiled in the years from 1678 when Ashmole was sixty-one. The register continues until 1687, five years before his death, and must have been intended as the outline of an ultimately unwritten autobiography. It is from these jottings that Helen Watt — who worked from 2009–12 on the correspondence of the Ashmolean’s second keeper, Edward Lhwyd — has teased out this calendar of correspondence. Far from straightforward work, it is the first time that the metadata for Ashmole’s letters have been set out in this way.

Portrait of Elias Ashmole, by John Riley; frame made by Grinling Gibbons. 1681–2. (Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford; WA1898.36)

Working in partnership with Oxford University Press — the publisher of C. H. Josten’s 1966 ‘monumental edition of materials relating to Elias Ashmole’ (as described by Charles Webster)2 — and with its digital resource Oxford Scholarly Editions Online [OSEO], Helen has linked the records of letters in EMLO to the online edition and has supplemented the body of letters to be found in Ashmole’s listings with detailed calendaring of a set of prognostications on the weather (Bodleian Libraries, MS. Ashm. 368). These forecasts were sent monthly to Ashmole for twelve years from 1677 by John Goad, the headmaster of the Merchant Taylors’ School in London. What has been drawn together in EMLO is in the main a subjective calendar; we have been able to record only what Ashmole wished to remember. Correspondence that relates to his dealings with the Tradescants is missing, for example, as is that concerned with a number of law suits in which he was involved, but this calendar is a start and as additional letters are brought to our attention, we will augment the catalogue. For EMLO’s users who are interested in alchemy, in heraldry, in the history of collecting, or in early medical practices (Ashmole was a meticulous note-taker when it came to his own health), it’s well worth sinking into a chair in a OSEO-subscribing library and following the links from each letter record to Josten’s edition online. For it is here you will find a myriad of choice snippets. Consider, for example, the following remedy Ashmole availed himself of on 11 April 1681:  ‘I tooke early in the Morning [a] good dose of Elixer, … hung 3 Spiders about my Neck … they drove my Ague away, Deo gratias.’3 If only more conditions were cured this easily!

I’m extremely glad, Mr Ashmole, that you survived such self-medication to live another eleven years. Happy four-hundredth birthday!

  1. See C. H. Josten, ed., Elias Ashmole: His Autobiographical and Historical Notes, his Correspondence, and Other Contemporary Sources Relating to his Life and Work, 5 vols (Oxford: OUP, 1967), vol. 1, p. 4.
  2. See Charles Webster’s review in The British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 4, no. 1 (June 1968), pp. 72–3.
  3. Josten, vol. 4, p. 1680.

Cultures of Knowledge: the fourth phase

We are delighted to announce the award to the University of Oxford of a fourth round of funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in support of the Cultures of Knowledge [CofK] project. The grant of $393,000 will support continued work on Early Modern Letters Online and Cultures of Knowledge to the end of September 2018. Once again we are deeply grateful to the Foundation — and to all our partners, contributors, and team members — for their support and confidence in this project.

Phase IV of Cultures of Knowledge will build on work completed in Phase III to advance the collaborative development and population of Early Modern Letters Online [EMLO]. First conceived as a monolithic system designed, built, and populated in Oxford, EMLO is evolving into a central component of a distributed, transnational digital infrastructure designed, built, and populated in concert with European and international partners. In the next phase, CofK will take a further and important step forward towards this goal by disaggregating the basic components of EMLO’s letter records. The outcome will be a new set of Linked Open Data resources for tackling the complexities of early modern people, places, and dates to complement EMLO’s existing systems for handling early modern epistolary metadata.

Hitherto CofK has regarded letter records as its primary concern, and person and place records as integral components of these letter records. Yet a letter record is not elemental: accurate letter metadata rely on the accurate identification of people, places, and dates. Each of these identifications raises considerable difficulties that must be confronted if a large-scale digital infrastructure is to be firmly founded. Dating early modern letters accurately requires systems for mastering a complex landscape in which places transition between different calendars at different times. Accurately recording early modern letters requires capturing data that describes changes over time in how places are both named and nested within larger geographical entities. Confidently identifying letter writers and recipients requires the development of authority files for huge numbers of early modern individuals who are not found in national biographical dictionaries or library catalogues.

CofK’s main agenda during Phase IV will be (1) to decouple our systems for handling early modern people, places, and dates from the core system for handling letter records; (2) to define new capabilities for these systems on the basis of eight years of experience and dialogue with a wide range of partners; (3) to launch Early Modern People and Early Modern Places as free-standing, Linked Open Data resources that will be capable ultimately of being used and populated independently of EMLO; (4) to launch Early Modern Dates as a free-standing web-service able to reconcile multiple calendars; and (5) to integrate and interlink these databases with EMLO and other relevant Linked Open Data resources.

Timuctoo website at The Huygens ING

Timuctoo website at The Huygens ING

EM People, Places, and Dates will be developed in close collaboration with CofK’s partner, the Huygens ING, on the basis of a humanities-focused, Linked Data-capable IT infrastructure. EM People will be populated initially by the c. 25,000 unique early modern biographical and prosopographical person records collected thus far by Cultures of Knowledge for EMLO. EM Places will be a Pelagios-compatible, historical gazetteer with support for temporal places, drawing on the c. 5,500 disambiguated early modern place records recorded in EMLO. EM Dates will serve primarily as a web-service and API for converting across the range of early modern calendars. We are confident that the release of these new resources alongside EMLO will benefit not just Cultures of Knowledge but also a far wider community of early modern digital projects. In parallel to our central agenda, we will continue to advance and strengthen the scholarly, technical, and networking priorities we pursued during Phase III of the project.

Of these, the most important has been the regular addition of new correspondence catalogues to EMLO. In April 2015, at the beginning of Phase III, EMLO offered access to c. 61,000 letter records. Today, at the start of Phase IV, this number has doubled — EMLO provides access to c120,000 letter records across eighty-two correspondence catalogues. Letter records can be explored now by catalogue, theme, or contributor (with further entry points by chronology, geography, and repository in preparation), and filtered by gender. New correspondence catalogues will continue to be added to EMLO during Phase IV, albeit at a slower pace than in the recent past.

Baxter Quatercentenary Exhibition

Baxter Quatercentenary Exhibition

In addition to new catalogues, CofK plans to add further virtual exhibits to EMLO. Two inaugural exhibitions were created during Phase III: the Baxter Quatercentenary Exhibition marked the 400th anniversary of the birth of Richard Baxter and profiles a selection of his correspondence from 1657–9, while the second highlights the correspondences of the wives of six seventeenth-century Dutch stadtholders.

In Phase III, we made it easier for scholars and researchers to contribute letter records to EMLO by creating a custom webform for adding metadata online. This tool is already in active use by a significant number of different projects and individual contributors, including our own students at Oxford, who are learning (together with the Bodleian’s Department of Special Collections and Centre for Digital Scholarship) to transcribe manuscript letters and to contribute data to EMLO’s Bodleian Student Editions catalogue. In Phase IV we expect to continue improving the valuable disambiguation and de-deduplication tools developed in close collaboration with our partners at Aalto and Helsinki Universities.

First degree connections in the prosopographical networks of Samuel Hartlib and Henry Oldenburg

First degree connections in the prosopographical networks of Samuel Hartlib and Henry Oldenburg

We have also explored several means for exporting and visualizing both epistolary and prosopographical metadata from EMLO. One outcome of this work is a case study of the prosopographical networks of Samuel Hartlib and Jan Amos Comenius which can be viewed on the website of the Interactive Data Network group at Oxford with whom we partnered on this project. A full write-up of this project will be posted on the CofK website in the coming months. A second experimental visualization, still under construction, offers a temporal perspective on our published catalogues. In the course of Phase IV we expect to expand and intensify our activities in these areas.

Unopened letter sent to the marquise De Vienne in The Hague, to be handed to Gilliaume Descrote, cook to the count De Tillemette. (Museum voor Communicatie [MvC], The Hague; Brienne Collection, DB-0689)

Unopened letter sent to the marquise De Vienne in The Hague, to be handed to Gilliaume Descrote, cook to the count De Tillemette. (Museum voor Communicatie [MvC], The Hague; Brienne Collection, DB-0689)

In conjunction with our development of EM People, EM Places, and EM Dates, we plan to organize a small number of focused workshops for invited scholars, librarians, and researchers to review the capabilities of these databases. In Phase III, we hosted the members of the Signed, Sealed, and Undelivered project for a workshop on letter-locking and to develop metadata standards to record the unique characteristics of the Brienne Collection in EMLO. In fact, we have been very fortunate, throughout Phase III, to be able to draw on a wide network of established experts and early career scholars to help advance our work. This was made possible under the auspices of the EU COST Action IS1310, ‘Reassembling the Republic of Letters’, also chaired by Howard Hotson. The COST Action has allowed us to meet regularly with scholars, librarians and archivists, IT specialists, and designers to exchange ideas and prepare shared standards for what we hope will emerge from EMLO: a state-of-the-art, transnational, distributed digital infrastructure for early modern correspondence. We look forward to participating in several more such exchanges before the COST Action completes its work in the summer of 2018 with the publication of a volume documenting its recommendations.

We hope this brief summary offers an introduction to the main goals for the next phase of our project, while highlighting the many areas of continuity from Phase III. Please do be in touch to share your feedback and ideas about these plans — we value your feedback greatly. To keep up to date with the latest news and updates from Cultures of Knowledge, please follow us on Twitter (@cofktweets), sign up to our (low traffic) mailing list or contact us directly at our project office: Cultures of Knowledge, History Faculty, University of Oxford, George Street, Oxford, OX1 2RL, U.K.; tel. +44 (0)1865 615026.

At the centre of a troubled world: Elizabeth of Bohemia

Heidelberg, which played such a crucial role in the career of Jan Gruter, the subject of my previous post, provides a setting once again as one of the cities central in the life and (mis)fortunes of Elizabeth Stuart (1596–1662). Elizabeth was the eldest daughter of James VI of Scotland and I of England and his queen consort Anna [Anne] of Denmark, and at this time of writing an exemplary critical edition of her correspondence is well on its way to completion. Based on the prize-winning PhD thesis of the Leiden scholar Dr Nadine Akkerman, the edition is published by Oxford University Press: the second volume, containing letters from the years 1632 to 1642, appeared in 2011; and the first volume, with letters from 1603 to 1631, was published in 2015. Once the third and concluding volume rolls off the press, nearly 2,000 letters to and from Elizabeth will be have been assembled from some fifty different archives and collections worldwide, and Dr Akkerman will follow her stellar edition with a biography of the Stuart princess.

Elizabeth Stuart, by Gerrit van Honthorst, 1642. Oil on canvas, 205.1 by 130.8 cm. (Image courtesy of the National Gallery, London; inv. no. NG6362)

Elizabeth married the Elector Palatine Frederick V on 14 February 1613 and travelled to Heidelberg in June of that year at the age of sixteen. She lived in the city for six years before moving to Prague in October 1619, following Frederick’s ultimately disastrous acceptance of the crown of Bohemia. During this time Elizabeth and Frederick created the Hortus Palatinus, employing the French Huguenot Salomon de Caus (1575–1626), the engineer and tutor of mathematics who had worked previously for Elizabeth’s brother Henry at Richmond Palace, at Denmark [Somerset] House for her mother Anna, and for her father’s secretary of state Robert Cecil at Hatfield. De Caus’s designs for the garden were published in 1620 as Hortvs Palatinvs: A Friderico Rege Boemiae Electore Palatino Heidelbergae Exstructus, a copy of which has been digitized by the Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg. Of course this work on Elizabeth’s garden came to an abrupt halt with the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, whereafter the site became a military base.

Elizabeth is known to have maintained an epistolary archive, filing both her incoming correspondence and copies of outgoing letters (an inventory was made in the 1630s by one of her secretaries, Sir Francis Nethersole). Tragically, her servant William Curtius reported that her cabinets, containing ‘rarities, books, and papers’, sustained significant water damage during Elizabeth’s final crossing from The Hague back to London in 1661. Elizabeth is known also to have destroyed much sensitive material. Indeed, she wrote to Sir Thomas Roe on 25 June 1631 that all his letters ‘are sure for the fire hath them’. EMLO is delighted to be publishing the first installment of metadata from the surviving and recorded correspondence contained in the two volumes of the edition published thus far, which cover Elizabeth’s life from her birth in Scotland, through her childhood in England, her years in Heidelberg, and her brief spell in Prague, to the first half of her exile in The Hague. Users working within a subscribing library will find that each letter record in EMLO links to Oxford Scholarly Editions Online where the relevant annotated transcription may be consulted.

Publication of this catalogue coincided with a public lecture and workshop on Elizabeth held last week at the University of St Andrews. Conceived by the University’s inspiring rector Catherine Stihler, who has nurtured a long-standing interest in Elizabeth, and shaped and hosted by Professor Steve Murdoch, the event drew together scholars to consider the character and achievements of Elizabeth as well as the momentous events and related circumstances that made up the very fabric of her life. In an impressive public lecture, Dr Akkerman debunked the persistent misrepresentation of Elizabeth as a pleasure-seeking airhead who doted more attention on her menagerie of pet monkeys and parrots than members of her own family, quoting a letter from Elizabeth to her brother Charles I in which it is abundantly clear that the ‘munkeyes’ referenced therein are none other than Elizabeth’s beloved brood of children: ‘Your honest fat henry Vane can tell you, how Hunthorst hath begunne our pictures, Where you will see a Whole table of munkeyes besides my proper self …‘.

Elizabeth’s movements around Europe, 1596–1662.

Following Frederick’s death from fever on 29 November 1632 just weeks after the death at the Battle of Lützen of the Protestant leader Gustavus Adolphus, Elizabeth was left as the driving force behind the movement to restore her family to their lands. Exiled from both the Palatinate and Bohemia, she presided over a court based in The Hague for a full four decades and it is from here that the majority of her correspondence is conducted, much of it in cipher. During these years, with the momentous events of the Thirty Years’ War working out their dreadful course, and with civil war erupting in the British Isles in the 1640s and the ensuing rule of the protectorate from 1649, the threads of who was doing what, when, and where begin to get tortuously tangled. Spies abound; many of them turn out to be women. People assume aliases and are not who they profess to be. Teams of highly trained individuals assemble in Black Chambers to foil plans and unmask agents. In the tradition of many of these female spies, I shall not give anything away, but do keep an eye on Dr Akkerman’s ongoing research into the women who slipped back and forth across the seas between the United Provinces and England in the decade prior to Elizabeth’s return to London in 1661. All I will say at this point is that Nadine Akkerman and Elizabeth Stuart have a clutch of remarkable stories tucked up their collective sleeve!