The life, the letters, and the legacy of Mary Wortley Montagu

Mary Wortley Montague was certainly not the first European to observe medical practices in Constantinople. Nor was she the first visitor in the city to arrange variolation against smallpox for a child (her own son, Edward Wortley Montagu the younger). But she is thought to have been the first to encourage the practice when she returned to London, enabling the procedure to be carried out on a second child (her daughter Mary, later countess of Bute) and playing an active role to raise awareness of the potential for widespread immunity against the disease. At the time, such advocacy of variolation made her well-enough known for members of the public to ‘hoot at her as an unnatural mother’, for predictions to be voiced of ‘failure and the most disastrous consequences’, and for the clergy to decry ‘the impiety of thus seeking to take events out of the hand of Providence’.1

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants, attributed to Jean Baptiste Vanmour. c. 1717. Oil on canvas. (© National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 3924)

Smallpox was a killer. Many, including Voltaire, wrote of the fearsome mortality rate for those who caught the disease at that time. Early modern individuals fortunate enough to survive infection were scarred for life. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, born Mary Pierrepont in 1689, lost her brother to smallpox; she herself contracted the virus not long after she had moved to London as a young wife, and her looks were ruined—she claimed she was left with ‘tokens of its passage, for it deprived her of very fine eye-lashes; which gave a fierceness to her eyes that impaired their beauty’.2

None of this prevented Lady Mary from pursuing a life of adventure, however, and from travelling through Europe first to accompany her husband, the diplomat Edward Wortley Montagu (1678–1761), on his embassy to Constantinople and later, once her children were older, through France and Italy in the hope of arranging a rendezvous with the young man who was at that point the elusive object of her considerable attention: none other than Venetian polymath Francesco Algarotti (1712–1764). As can be seen from the calendar of her correspondence, which was published last week in EMLO, these romantic yearnings were not to be realized but, fortunately for us, Lady Mary wrote with constancy and at length as she travelled. An array of fascinating acquaintances may be found among her correspondents, including the English poet Alexander Pope (with whom she had an infamous ‘parting of ways’); the bishop of Salisbury and historian Gilbert Burnet; the Italian mathematician and writer Antonio Conti; and the French playwright Jean-Baptiste Rousseau. Thanks to the careful work of Robert Halsband, on whose three-volume edition this calendar is based courtesy of our partners Oxford Scholarly Editions Online [OSEO] at Oxford University Press, we are able to consider within her correspondence the curious body of letters known as ‘the Embassy letters’ that date from her husband’s two year posting in Constantinople.3

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, by Achille Devéria, printed by François Le Villain, published by Edward Bull, published by Edward Churton, after Christian Friedrich Zincke. Hand-coloured lithograph, 1830s. (© National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG D34619)

Do explore the life, the letters, and the legacy of this remarkable early modern woman. The texts of all the letters in Robert Halsband’s edition may be consulted within a subscribing library or institution via links from EMLO’s letter records, as may the entries on Lady Mary and members of her family—as well as many of her correspondents—in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [ODNB]. It is worth following the unfortunate career of Mary’s son Edward, who underwent inoculation as a child and thus was spared death or maiming by smallpox. Much good this did him: despite election as a Fellow to the Royal Society, he has come down to posterity classified as a ‘traveller and criminal’ (causing one of my colleagues, who shall remain nameless, to comment: ‘just look at the types they were electing to the Royal Society in the eighteenth century!’). The fact that young Edward contested the Will of his father, the elder Edward, in 1761 was the reason Lady Mary, herself terminally ill, set out from Venice to return for the final time to her homeland. A pioneering and independent woman, she died in London the following summer and was buried in Grosvenor Chapel, South Audley Street.

  1. See Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: essays, poems and ‘Simplicity: a comedy’, ed. R. Halsband and I. Grundy (1976), ‘Biographical Anecdotes’, written by her granddaughter Lady Louisa Stuart, pp. 35–6.
  2. Ibid, p. 35.
  3. For an explanation of the status of ‘the Embassy letters’, see The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ed. Robert Halsband, 3 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), vol. 1, pp. xiv–xvii.

‘Useful Enemies: Islam and the Ottoman Empire in Western Political Thought, 1450–1750’

Those who keep an eye on this blog may be interested to learn of the publication earlier this month of Noel Malcolm’s Islam and The Ottoman Empire in Western Political Thought, 1450–1750. The latest work by the Chair of our Cultures of Knowledge project Steering Committee is described by its publisher Oxford University Press as an overview across three hundred years of ‘the mental world of those in the West who wrote in a political way about the East’.

Just days off the press, the book has been praised as ‘wise and beautifully judged’,1 as ‘learned and fascinating’,2 and as a ‘brilliant study … on the ways in which Western thinkers used what they knew about Islam and the Levantine world to make points to their own European readership’.3 Dr Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and current Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, concludes his review with the thought-provoking observation: ‘Without blurring the basic points of real diversity, religious and social, between western Europe and its menacing, tantalising, enviable and bewildering neighbour, Malcolm prompts us to ask not only how the West got to be “modern”, but whether the categories of “modern” and “pre-modern” are as clear cut as we might have thought when we try to do justice to our global political environment.’

 

 

Shifts in perspective: the life and legacies of Johan Maurits, count of Nassau-Siegen

Detail from the portrait of Johan Maurits, Count of Nassau-Siegen,, by Jan de Baen. c. 1668–70. (The Mauritshuis, The Hague)

For those who would like to know more about Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen (1604–1679), the early modern figure at the centre of the latest batch of letters to be published in EMLO, it is worth reading the literature that surrounds the latest exhibition to open at the Mauritshuis. Or, better still, to carve out time to visit the museum should occasion arise in The Hague. Shifting Image — In Search of Johan Maurits examines the life of this Count of Nassau-Siegen from a number of pertinent and fresh perspectives.

Johan Maurits served as Governor-General at the Dutch Republic’s first large plantation colony in current-day Brazil. The colony, with its sugar plantations and mills, had been captured from the Portuguese and remained in the possession of the Dutch for a quarter of a century until 1654. The exploitation of, and the accumulation of vast profits from, the area form—as this exhibition investigates—’a crucial episode in the history of the Dutch slave trade’. In the context of the Governor’s life, the lens is brought to focus on his role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Johan Maurits left for Brazil in 1636. Over the course of the following eleven years, while the transport took place of thousands of men, women, and children from the west coast of Africa to the north-east coast of Brazil, the Mauritshuis was designed, built, and furnished in The Hague to the Governor’s specifications. Johan Maurits proved a considerable patron, encouraging such artists as Frans Post and Albert Eckhout, and commissioning Caspar Barlaeus and Franciscus Plante to write Rerum per octennium in Brasilia (1647) and Mauritias (1647) respectively. This exhibition questions how objective these artistic and literary interpretations of the Governor’s own role and the Dutch involvement in Brazil might be, given their purpose and dependence upon Johan Maurits’s funding. Not content merely with covering costs, Johan Maurits elected to keep a firm hand on the output of his munificence and in the creation of his own image, taking it upon himself to edit Barlaeus’s text. And in an approach that has not always been employed as a matter of course in the history of art and of patronage, visitors to the exhibition are asked to weigh up the probable reality underlying such landscapes as Post’s View of the Island of Itamaracá, the first known painting in which enslaved people are depicted in ‘Dutch Brazil’.

Detail from ‘Study of Two Brazilian Tortoises’, by Albert Eckhout. c. 1640. (The Mauritshuis, The Hague)

What survive as visual and written records of this colony at the time of Johan Maurits, partial though these might be, are nonetheless invaluable as documentary evidence for the individuals concerned. We are able to refer to the maps charted, to the illustrations and scientific descriptions of fauna and flora recorded, and—of course—to surviving correspondence. Johan Maurits left his post as Governor-General in 1644.

The forty-six letters uploaded to EMLO to coincide with this exhibition in Johan Maurits’s former residence have been contributed by Dr Ineke Huysman and her project team at the Huygens ING as part of their work on the correspondence inventory for Johan de Witt. Dating between 1653 and 1670, the letters are those sent from the former Governor-General to the Grand Pensionary of Holland, and each record is linked to an image of the manuscript held at the Nationaal Archief in The Hague. The synchronicity of the listing of these letters in EMLO and the exhibition at the Mauritshuis offers a timely opportunity to consider Johan Maurits both within the context of the work-in-progress catalogue of Johan de Witt and in the broader perspective of Dutch and of global history, contrasting—as this exhibition does so well—early modern attitudes and beliefs with those held today.

‘View of Itamaracá Island in Brazil’, by Frans Post. 1637. (The Mauritshuis, The Hague)

Paris-Oxford Research Fellowship in Digital Humanities

As part of a collaboration between Oxford and the Sorbonne, we are delighted to announce the new call for applications for a three-year fully funded fellowship open to students wishing to pursue doctoral studies in the history of science, in mathematical sciences, in digital humanities, or in computer science. Details of the fellowship are set out below, both in English and in French.

Paris-Oxford Research Fellowship in Digital Humanities

Recent progress in digital humanities has transformed research in the history of science: large quantities of data, the collation of which would formerly have required time-consuming visits to libraries and archives, have been made available; manuscript and book collections are accessible online; and investigations across a range of related resources become ever easier. In consequence, historical investigations can be contextualized better, studies of networks taken to a new level, and analysis conducted across increasingly large quantities of data and metadata.

Applications are open currently for a fellowship that will offer the successful doctoral student the opportunity to undertake research over a period of three years at two of the most prestigious institutions in Europe: Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Oxford. Applicants should have a background in one or more of the following four disciplines: digital humanities, history of science, mathematics, or computer science. They should demonstrate experience of historical study alongside evident ability in the field of digital humanities or data sciences.

Thesis topics might combine any area of the history of science with an approach in digital humanities. In particular, proposals exploring innovative digital or computer-based approaches for research in the history of mathematical sciences or on early modern correspondence will be welcome, as will those involving investigation into how the development of digital analysis, research, and visualization tools can contribute to new research on scientific and/or epistolary corpuses.

This programme forms part of a scientific collaboration between the Sorbonne’s Faculty of Science and Engineering and the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford. The successful doctoral student will work within the ‘Digital Humanities’ team at the Institut des sciences du calcul et des données (ISCD) of Sorbonne University (Paris, France) and will conduct a period of research at the University of Oxford (UK), either within the framework of the Cultures of Knowledge research project/Early Modern Letters Online [EMLO] at the Faculty of History, or of the Centre for the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, or of the Mathematical Institute. The student will benefit from a three-year funding grant from the Faculty of Science and Engineering of Sorbonne University.

Further information regarding this opportunity is available from Alexandre Guilbaud (alexandre.guilbaud@sorbonne-universite.fr) or Miranda Lewis (miranda.lewis@history.ox.ac.uk).

To apply, please send a copy of your CV and an outline of your planned research project to Alexandre Guilbaud (alexandre.guilbaud@sorbonne-universite.fr) before the closing date of 14 June 2019.

 

Bourse de recherche Paris-Oxford en humanités numériques

Les progrès récents accomplis dans les humanités numériques ont transformé la recherche dans le domaine de l’histoire des sciences : des quantités importantes de données, dont le rassemblement aurait autrefois demandé de nombreuses et longues visites de bibliothèques et d’archives, ont été mises à disposition, des collections de manuscrits et de livres sont accessibles en ligne, et les recherches à travers un éventail de ressources connexes n’ont jamais été aussi faciles. En conséquence, les recherches historiques peuvent être mieux contextualisées, des études de réseaux amenées à un autre niveau, l’analyse peut être réalisée à travers des quantités de plus en plus grandes de données et de métadonnées.

Les candidatures sont ouvertes pour une allocation de recherche qui offrira au doctorant retenu l’opportunité d’entreprendre des recherches sur une période de trois ans au sein de deux des institutions les plus prestigieuses d’Europe : Sorbonne Université à Paris et l’Université d’Oxford. Les candidats devront avoir une formation dans une ou plus des quatre disciplines suivantes : les humanités numériques, l’histoire des sciences, les mathématiques ou l’informatique. Ils devront démontrer qu’ils possèdent une expérience des études historiques ainsi que des compétences manifestes dans le domaine des humanités numériques ou des sciences des données.

Les sujets pourront associer n’importe quel domaine de l’histoire des sciences avec une approche en humanités numériques. En particulier, les propositions explorant des approches numériques ou informatiques innovantes pour des recherches en histoire des sciences mathématiques ou des recherches sur les correspondances de l’ère moderne seront bienvenues, de même que les problématiques s’intéressant à la façon dont le développement d’outils d’analyse, de recherche de visualisation numériques peut contribuer à de nouvelles recherches sur les corpus scientifiques et/ou épistolaires.

Ce programme s’inscrit dans le cadre d’une collaboration scientifique entre la Faculté des Sciences et Ingénierie de l’Université de la Sorbonne et la Faculté d’Histoire de l’Université d’Oxford. Le candidat sélectionné travaillera au sein de l’équipe ‘Humanités numériques’ à l’Institut des sciences du calcul et des données (ISCD) de Sorbonne Université (Paris, France) et effectuera une période de recherche à l’Université d’Oxford (Royaume-Uni), soit dans le cadre du projet Cultures of Knowledge/Early Modern Letters Online [EMLO] à la Faculté d’Histoire, ou du Centre for the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, ou de l’Institut de Mathématiques. Le doctorant bénéficiera d’une allocation doctorale de trois ans financée par la Faculté des Sciences et Ingénierie de Sorbonne Université.

De plus amples renseignements concernant cette opportunité sont disponibles auprès d’Alexandre Guilbaud (alexandre.guilbaud@sorbonne-universite.fr) ou de Miranda Lewis (miranda.lewis@history.ox.ac.uk).

Pour poser votre candidature, veuillez envoyer une copie de votre CV et un résumé du projet de recherche envisagé à Alexandre Guilbaud (alexandre.guilbaud@sorbonne-universite.fr) avant la date du 14 Juin 2019.

 

‘Networking Archives’: the deadline for applications approaches

This is not an early April fool but rather a gentle (and genuine!) reminder for those who are interested in joining ‘Networking Archives‘, the AHRC-funded project with which Cultures of Knowledge is involved at present: submissions of applications to attend a series of training schools and a colloquium, together with the chance to author a chapter in an edited volume, will close this coming Monday, 1 April. Details of the opportunity may be found in an earlier post on this blog, as well as on the Networking Archives website.

As applications stream in, the project’s Queen Mary University of London research assistant, Dr Esther van Raamsdonk, and I are in the thick of disambiguating and identifying the authors and the recipients of letters to be found within the Stuart State Papers. As we work, we are reminded at every turn how extraordinarily fortunate we are to glimpse, albeit fleetingly, aspects of the lives of so many early modern individuals—from the movers and shakers of the period, to those who, but for the survival of a letter in this archive, would have slipped through the net of the historical record and remain unknown to us today. We work with a tool developed in Cambridge by Dr Sebastian Ahnert, and when we set out at the beginning of last month we faced approximately 55,000 unique expressions of names in need of our time and attention. The workflow we have adopted is similar to that used ten years ago (at the beginning of the Cultures of Knowledge project) for the disambiguation of the authors and recipients described within metadata of the Bodleian card catalogue. As so often in the Early Modern Letters Online editorial team, the enormity of what lies ahead is helped by the dialogue and communication maintained when at the coalface. If you would like to be involved in these conversations and are interested in where the project will be taking this data, and if you wish to focus on the analysis of early modern correspondence networks, the offer to join us is open, but the deadline is set for Monday …

Good luck!

The delivery of post. Detail from Christoff Weigel, ‘Abbildung Der Gemein-Nützlichen Haupt-Stände Von denen Regenten …’ (Regenspurg, 1698), p. 160. (Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, obj. no. RP-P-1896-A-19368-1602)

Johan de Witt: a partnership moving forward

While eyes across Europe this week have been fixed in disbelief on the latest proceedings on the green benches in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons, a remarkable instance of a harmonious Anglo-Dutch partnership and a series of ensuing publications focussed on early modern correspondence have been celebrated in The Hague. At a reception held last Thursday in the British ambassador’s residence, the Johan de Witt Correspondence Project marked the release of the first instalment of the Grand Pensionary’s catalogue in EMLO alongside publication of a hard-copy anthology of a selection of his letters.1

The United Kingdom’s Ambassador to the Netherlands Peter Wilson CMG hosted the event and, in the course of his welcome, drew the attention of the guests to the long history of close relationships between individuals from the two countries. In her role as the project’s director, Dr Ineke Huysman explained the purpose, the background, and the ambitions of the Johan de Witt Project, as well as the focus for the first instalment of metadata in EMLO on De Witt’s incoming diplomatic correspondence. A further three talks highlighted the roles of the project’s partner institutions: Professor Lex Heerma van Voss, director of the Huygens ING, discussed the reasons why early print editions tend to be partial and all too frequently include neither complete texts nor a full listing of the surviving letters; Professor Charles Jeurgens of the University of Amsterdam and the National Archives of the Netherlands (Nationaal Archief) explained the tendency for historic library catalogues not to provide descriptions at the level of the individual letter and how digital work is beginning to unlock what may be described as the ‘black boxes’ of the archive; and I spoke about Early Modern Letters Online, Networking Archives, and the ongoing international work of Cultures of Knowledge, which — as the correspondence of many of the individuals under investigation currently demonstrates — promotes pan-European scholarly and technical collaboration through our own times of uncertainty. Emeritus Professor Jonathan Israel from Princeton University (the author of the indispensable The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall, 1477–1806) placed Johan de Witt in context, describing both the significance of the Grand Pensionary and Anglo-Dutch relations in the early modern period.2 He spoke in detail of the admiration the English diplomat William Temple (1628–1699) held for De Witt, and observed how Herbert Rowen, whose work he confessed to have exerted a crucial role early in his own career, would have welcomed and benefitted from such an invaluable digital initiative.3 The formal part of the celebrations concluded with a presentation in which the Ambassador handed the first copy of Johan de Witt en Engeland to the Algemeen Rijkarchivaris (General State Archivist) Dr Marens Englehard.

This beautifully produced and unique publication draws on twenty letters from De Witt’s correspondence, all with an English connection, through which the imaginative and creative illustrations by project member Jean-Marc van Tol have been threaded seamlessly, each one inspired by an early modern painting or print. The letters selected range from those written in the 1640s, a period when England was in turmoil prior to the execution of Charles I and when Johan and his brother Cornelius visited the country on a leg of their European travels, to May 1672, just two months before the murder of the De Witt brothers. Publication of this anthology, together with the release of the first instalment of metadata in EMLO, is testimony to the hard work of the team of volunteer contributors who dedicate so much in terms of time and commitment to the project.

In the course of his political duties, Johan de Witt corresponded with large numbers of heads of state, dignitaries, and diplomats. However, he was also a mathematician and, when a student at Leiden, he lodged in the house of Frans van Schooten the elder, a lecturer in mathematics at the university who, in addition to De Witt, taught Johannes Hudde, Christiaan Huygens, and René François de Sluse, as well as his own son Frans van Schooten the younger. De Witt, who trained as a lawyer, published a number of mathematical treatises, including the ‘Waerdye van Lijf-renten naer proportie van Los-renten’, in which he attempted to price life annuities with respect to their true value.4

Dr Ineke Huysman presenting the Johan de Witt correspondence project in The Hague (with Charles I looking on from the side!), 14 March 2019.

As Cultures of Knowledge continues its work with clusters of correspondence and their underlying networks, interesting overlaps between the Johan de Witt project and the Networking Archives project, which is centred around the letters to be found in the Tudor and Stuart state papers, are certain to emerge. Even at this early stage, manuscript versions of the same letter preserved in both The National Archives at Kew and the Dutch National Archive have come to light, and the ability (through EMLO) to link manifestation versions of a letter is a prospect the partners relish. As EMLO, the De Witt project, the National Archives of the Netherlands, and the Huygens ING step forward together, sharing knowledge and sharing platforms, the spotlight seems set to draw into focus early modern networks that have relevance for aspects of our own lives and our situations today.

  1. Johan de Witt en Engeland. Een bloemlezing uit zijn correspondentie, ed. Ineke Huysman and Roosje Peeters, with illustrations by Jean-Marc van Tol (Soest: Catullus, 2019).
  2. Jonathan Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall, 1477–1806 (Oxford,: Oxford University Press,1995). A full list of Jonathan Israel’s publications may be consulted here.
  3. See H. Rowen, John de Witt, statesman of the ‘true freedom’ (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986) and John de Witt, Grand Pensionary of Holland, 1625–1672 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978).
  4. Details of De Witt’s mathematical treatises may be found on the MacTutor History of Mathematics database hosted at St Andrews.

‘Networking archives’: an opportunity for collaboration, training, research, and publication …

With work at Early Modern Letters Online continuing apace and a number of different strands and projects being juggled simultaneously, it is always encouraging to announce exciting new opportunities and promote collaboration. One such opportunity involves Cultures of Knowledge‘s Arts and Humanities Research Council [AHRC] funded research project Networking Archives. As explained in an earlier post on this site entitled ‘Announcing “Networking Archives: Assembling and analysing a meta-archive of correspondence, 1509–1714″‘, Networking Archives is a collaboration between Cultures of Knowledge, Dr Ruth Ahnert (Queen Mary University of London), and Dr Sebastian Ahnert (University of Cambridge), with Gale State Papers Online. At present, preparatory work is underway to prepare and interrogate the metadata collated from the correspondence to be found within the Tudor and Stuart State Papers — both domestic and foreign — alongside the data contained in Early Modern Letters Online. This combination of datasets, together with use of the project’s accompanying tools and infrastructure, will enable researchers to query and analyse their own epistolary metadata and to pose new kinds of questions on the history of the different forms of ‘intelligencing’ between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries.

One of the ambitions of Networking Archives is to bring together and to foster a community of scholars, data analysts, and developers who share an interest in correspondences that overlap and intersect with the datasets under investigation. Applications are being accepted currently for participation in a scheme that involves a series of training schools and a colloquium. These events, scheduled to take place in Cambridge and Oxford over the course of the next two years, are intended to provide hands-on training in data collation and curation, in network analysis, and in basic coding. Successful applicants will be offered the opportunity to develop their research into chapters that will be published in an edited collection.

Further details of these events, and the conditions regarding application, may be found on the Networking Archives project news page.

 

Antiquarian ‘Science’ in the Scholarly Society: a workshop

On a day in which Mary-Ann Constantine from the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies [CAWCS] at the University of Wales gave an inspirational paper on travel writing and the letters exchanged between the antiquarian Richard Gough and the naturalist and writer Thomas Pennant (introducing the former with the show-stopping phrase ‘Gough tends to be known most widely as a shelfmark’), it is a tremendous pleasure to be circulating news of a forthcoming workshop that will explore how ‘antiquarian science informed collecting’ and collections in the’ early modern scholarly academy’. Organized by the historians of science Anna Marie Roos and Vera Keller, this event will take place on 1 and 2 April at the Society of Antiquaries of London and will examine the work of many of the early modern figures who crossed the divide between natural philosophy and antiquarianism. Full details of the programme and speakers, together with information regarding registration for the workshop, may be found here.

 

In praise of the pioneering student: Elena Cornaro Piscopia

In November 2017, a delegation of scholars from Oxford, including the Chichele professor of medieval history Julia Smith, the Cultures of Knowledge project director and professor of early modern intellectual history Howard Hotson, and the professor of modern history Robert Gildea, visited the University of Padua to discuss potential collaboration between the two institutions. One outcome of this visit was the establishment of a framework to enable student exchange, and duly an undergraduate from the Galileian School and the University of Padua was selected to visit Oxford in Trinity term 2018. With the support and encouragement of Professor Paola Molino at the University of Padua, this first student, Francesco Zambonin, elected to spend his month in Oxford learning about epistolary metadata with Early Modern Letters Online.

(Source of image: Posteitaliane)

In addition to acquiring valuable experience in the necessary preparation of metadata prior to upload into an epistolary union catalogue, Francesco chose to compile an inventory of correspondence for one of the most fascinating Italian female scholars in the early modern period. We are delighted to be publishing in EMLO this week the fruits of his work with the release of the catalogue of the letters of Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia.

Cornaro Piscopia (1646–1684) was born illegitimate, the third child of a Venetian patrician (and subsequent procurator of St Mark’s) Giovanni Battista Cornaro and his then mistress Zanetta Boni; although the couple married in 1654, only their sons were legitimized. Cornaro Piscopia’s gift for languages (which earned her the title ‘Oraculum Septilingue‘), music, and mathematics, in addition to her erudition in theology and philosophy, were encouraged from an early age and permitted to flourish.1 This female scholar chose not to marry — rather, she entered the Benedictine order as an oblate — and her scholarship became renowned across Europe. At the age of just nineteen, she was referenced in the dedication to her father by the Swiss theologian Johann Heinrich Hottinger in the sixth volume of his Historia Ecclesiastica, and she is recorded as having been elected as member to seven academies in five different Italian cities between 1669 and 1672.2 In 1678, Cornaro Piscopia was awarded her doctorate in philosophy at the University of Padua and in the process — as far as has been established to date — she may have become the first woman to attain this degree. Certainly, the process attracted widespread attention: her viva was conducted in front of crowds too numerous to be accommodated in the university hall and thus the ceremony was moved to the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua, where Cornaro Piscopia chose to discourse on Aristotle, whose work she had studied under the guidance of the philosopher Carlo Rinaldini (1615–1698).

Upon her death from some form of wasting illness in 1684 , Cornaro Piscopia was buried in Santa Giustina, Padua. The following year a medal was struck by the university in her honour and in 1688 a collection of her writings was published.3 This same year, in a letter to his friend Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn wrote of: ‘Helen Cornaro, daughter of a procurator of St. Marco (one of the most illustrious families of Venice), who received the degree of Doctoress at Padua for her universal knowledge and erudition, upon the importunity of that famous University prevailing on her modesty. She had been often sought in honourable marriage by many great persons, but, preferring the Muses before all other considerations, she preserved herself a virgin, and being not long since deceased, had her obsequies celebrated at Rome by a solemn procession, and elogy of all the witness of that renowned city.’4 Notwithstanding Corrnaro Piscopia’s wish to be interred simply and not in a tomb more fitting with the status of her father’s family, the scholar’s remains were disinterred in 1895 by the English Benedictine Abbess Mathilda Pynsent and placed in a new casket, and a new tablet was erected to her memory. It seems fitting today that the pioneering student to visit Oxford from Padua within the parameters of a new exchange scheme should honour the memory of Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia in EMLO with the beginnings of an inventory of her surviving correspondence.

  1. See Edward Aloysius Pace, ‘Elena Lucrezia Piscopia Cornaro’, Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), vol. 4.
  2. See Johann Heinrich Hottinger, Historia Ecclesiastica Novi Testamenti … Seculi XVI. Pars II. (1665); and Patrizia Bettella, ‘Women and the Academies in Seventeenth-Century Italy: Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia’s Role in Literary Academies’, Italian Culture, 36, 2 (2018), p. 100.
  3.  Benedetto Bacchini, Helenae Lucretiae (Quae & Scolasticae) Corneliae Piscopiae … Opera quae quidem haberi potuerunt (Parma: Ippolito Rosati, 1688).
  4.  Diary and correspondence of John Evelyn, ed. William Bray (1857), vol. 3, p. 296.

The particular case of Jan Baptist Van Helmont, enhancing existing EMLO metadata, and ‘starter catalogues’ …

As we pass from the old year into the new, EMLO’s users may find of interest the recently highlighted catalogue created for Jan Baptist Van Helmont (1579–1644). This catalogue is small yet significant: tantalizingly few letters — at present just fifteen — have survived to be recorded in the correspondence of the Flemish medic and ‘chymist’. This seems to be due, in part, to the actions of the ‘Count of Gilinius’ who, according to Van Helmont’s son Franciscus Mercurius [Francis Mercury] (1614–1699), plundered [‘spoliasset’] the letters, papers, and books that had belonged to his father and which were preserved in the family estates at Vilvorde, near Brussels.1 The loss of this precious material was noted also on the far side of the English Channel in London, where Samuel Hartlib wrote in his ‘Ephemerides’:

By some bodies instigation Gleen was made to fall upon some of Helmonts houses which he plundered and set on fire, wherein many excellent writings of his perished. Amongst others a great Volume of letters written by himself and by others to him about many arcana.’2

Detail from Hartlib’s ‘Ephemerides’. (Hartlib Papers, University of Sheffield, 28/2/24B)

Although Van Helmont’s letters seem to have been lost and only this minute number from what was perhaps an extensive body of work appears to survive in the correspondence archives of others, this does not prevent scholars today from enriching further the records of what is logged already in EMLO. We are delighted that Dr Georgiana Hedesan has offered to provide abstracts for Van Helmont’s known letters and to tag the people mentioned and the topics discussed therein, as well as to consider the influence and afterlife of the influential Paracelsian through the lens of the correspondences of others in the period.

In addition to enriching existing metadata (as in this example of Van Helmont), scholars are encouraged to identify and help complete significant correspondence listings for which no more than partial inventories exist in the EMLO union catalogue at present. A number of what might best be termed ‘starter catalogues’ are in the process of being identified, and students and established academics alike are invited to be in touch concerning work that might be done to help bring these to completion. A preliminary selection of the ‘starter catalogues’ will be highlighted on EMLO early in the new year and should any of these prove to be of interest and should you wish to contribute in any way, please let us know …

In the meantime, we’d like to take this opportunity to wish all users of Early Modern Letters Online a happy new year. We look forward greatly to hearing from and, we hope, working with many of you in 2019.

  1. See Francis Mercury van Helmont, ‘Vita authoris’, in J. B. van Helmont, Ortus medicinae, sig. (E4)v; and Sietske Fransen, ‘Jan Baptista van Helmont and his Editors and Translators in the Seventeenth Century’, PhD dissertation, Warburg Institute, University of London, 2014, p. 108.
  2. Samuel Hartlib, ‘Ephemerides’, 1651; see Hartlib Papers, University of Sheffield, 28/2/24B. The ‘Ephemerides’ was Hartlib’s diary and record of his many and various undertakings. Gleen, or Gilenius, was to Count Godfried (Godard) Huyn van Amstenrade (1590-1657).