Intellectual history

Towards a New Era: “Reiwa” and the Politics of the Classics in Japan

By Guest Contributor John D’Amico

On April 1, 2019, the government of Japan announced the name of the new era. With the abdication of Emperor Akihito and the accession of Crown Prince Naruhito, the curtain  falls on the Heisei period (1989 – 2019), and on May 1st, the new era, dubbed Reiwa (literally: “Ordering Harmony,” but the government suggested “Beautiful Harmony” as the official translation), begins.

The practice of changing era names upon the succession of a new emperor — one only established with the post-1868 emergence of a modern Japanese nation-state — might seem like an empty ritual. But the two character phrases that make up the era names are meant to “bear a meaning appropriate to serve as an ideal for the [Japanese] people,” and so serve an important ideological function (1979 Cabinet Report).

In contrast to earlier reign names, all based on phrases from Chinese classics, Reiwa comes from the Man’yoshū, the earliest extant vernacular poetry collection in Japan. It is the first reign name sourced from a Japanese work.

Critics quickly latched onto the authoritarian ring of “Ordering Harmony.” The right-wing bona fides of current Prime Minister Abe Shinzo are well known. He has called for the return of Japan to the status of a “normal” country through remilitarization and the rewriting of the postwar constitution. But what does his evocation of the Man’yoshū mean politically?

To help answer this question, it is worth quoting the prime minister’s remarks at the announcement of the new era at length.

Today, we have decided as a cabinet on the change in era name. The new era name is Reiwa. This is from the Man’yoshū passage, “An auspicious month (reigetsu), the beginning of spring. In the fine weather a fair breeze blows gently (kaze yawaragi[wa]). Plum blossoms bloom, scattering like powder before a mirror, and orchids give off the fragrance of perfume.”

Thus, “Reiwa” means that when people beautifully bring their hearts together, culture is born.

The Man’yoshū, though compiled over 1,200 years ago as Japan’s oldest poetry collection, featured poems from a broad spectrum of society: not only from the emperor, the imperial family, and nobility, but also from people like border guards and farmers. It’s a national work that represents the rich national culture and long tradition of our nation.

An eternal history and an elegant [literally: “aromatic”] culture, beautiful nature changing with the seasons. This Japanese national character should firmly be passed on to the next generations. Like the proudly blooming plum blossoms that herald the coming of spring after a long winter, each and every Japanese person, along with their hopes for tomorrow, can make their flowers bloom. That’s the kind of Japan I want to see. With that hope, we decided on the name “Reiwa.” Bearing heartfelt thanks for peaceful days where we can cultivate culture and appreciate the beauty of nature, I want to open up a path to a new era full of hope along with the people of Japan.

In spite of their classical trappings, the links drawn by Abe between poetry, social harmony, and cultural unity are of a more recent vintage. They hearken back to a pre-World War II discourse that idealized Japanese antiquity and the idea of a classless polity united under the divine authority of the emperor.

Readings of the Man’yoshū played an important role in the construction of this discourse, one that Abe drew on in his speech. The text was seen to represent an overcoming of the barriers of class and status and a repository of the raw, unfiltered emotions of the Japanese people. Abe’s appeals to culture, similarly, mirror the turn of many thinkers in the politically charged 1930s and 40s to see aesthetics as a solution to the mounting contradictions and conflicts inherent in modern life.

Writing in 1942, literary critic and leader of the Japanese Romantic school Yasuda Yojūrō argued in his The Spirit of the Man’yoshū (Man’yoshū no seishin) that, “In the Man’yoshū is the faith to establish the nation, expressed in a confidence in the nation itself…I felt deeply, painfully the idea behind the Man’yoshū: to protect the spirit of the nation’s history in an era of incommensurable darkness, shining forth an unextinguishable light” (426).

Screenshot 2019-04-19 at 12.13.07
Yasuda Yojūrō, leader of the Japanese Romantics (日本浪曼派), writer, and literary critic. Image: Sankei News.

Yasuda saw in this ideal a transcendent spirit passed down from the Man’yoshū poet Ōtomo no Yakamochi (718 – 785) via the “national learning” scholars of the Tokugawa period. Yakamochi is an important figure in his own right. But in the 1930s and 40s, he was most well known among the general public for his verse Umi yukaba [If we go on the sea], set to music in a popular military song emblematic of the war years:

If we go on the sea, our dead are sodden in the water

If we go on the mountains, our dead are grown over with grass

We shall die, by the side of our lord [i.e. the emperor]

We shall never look back (trans. Cranston, The Gem-Glistening Cup, 458)

Ōtomo no Yakamochi, statesman, member of the “Thirty-six Immortal Poets,” and a compiler of the Man’yōshū. Image: Chūnagon Yakamochi by Kanō Tan’yū, 1648.

In 1942, the associations between the Man’yoshū, emperor worship, and militarism were impossible to ignore. That same year a conference on “overcoming modernity” was held by the Bungakkai (The Organization for Literary Studies), with members of the Japanese Romantics and the Kyoto School of philosophers also in attendance. Many of the participants saw their enemy as the relentless process of history itself. The Man’yoshū’s status as a repository of tradition and source of authenticity made it a potent tool in the hands of those searching to turn away from the contradictions of contemporary life and embrace a transhistorical “Japanese spirit.”

Yasuda did not participate in the conference, however. Philosopher Karatani Kojin contends that Yasuda sought instead to “overcome” the modern through an active rejection of “interest” through aesthetics, cultivating a detached “romantic irony” that spurned explicit ideological motivations. (Senzen no shikō 110-1) To participate in any kind of coherent, practical project would stink too much of “interest” for Yasuda. In Karatani’s words, Yasuda saw the war as “nothing more than an occasion for poetry” (111). This reading makes Yasuda, a former Marxist, more an amoral aesthete than a full-throated militarist.

What he shared with the conference participants, in the historian Harry Harootunian’s words, was “…a dangerous kinship with fascism in its desire to bracket history and hence the development that had propelled the country to its present in order to represent Japan as fixed and eternal. In all of those discussions about an ineluctable ‘spirit,’ the symposium shared with the prevailing discourse on cultural authenticity the fantasy that neither history nor techno-economic development had managed to change what was essentially and eternally Japanese” (Overcome by Modernity, 40).

Abe also wants to share in this fantasy. Cloaked in the language of valuing a rich “cultural life,” his remarks seem almost innocuous. But they speak to the enduring desire to transcend the modern through a retreat into the classical past, an impulse that should give us pause in light of its dark history.

John D’Amico is a second-year PhD student in history at Yale University. His research focuses on merchants and commercial networks in early modern Japan.


Intellectual history

The Tortoise and the Haretics

By Guest Contributor Elizabeth Buckheit

One of my favorite hypothetical games is to categorize all humanity in the vein of the adage “there are two types of people in the world.” To give a very silly example, I can say there are responsible people who read the assembly instructions of IKEA furniture before beginning and there are exciting people who consult them only when they have already erred, if at all. However, I read an excerpt from the sixteenth-century theologian Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594) for a doctoral course which led me to think about more serious uses for my bifurcations. Perhaps subconsciously cribbing Daniel Kahenman, I began to think about fast and slow writers. I had previously written my undergraduate and masters dissertations on aspects of Hooker’s thought and had been struck by how deliberately and reflectively he crafted his argument over almost a thousand pages. I enjoyed reading him because he thought slowly. Though well aware of the limitations of reading for a seminar, I still found reading from an abridged edition of the Laws jarring. There are many fast writers: pithy polemicists, lively narrators, or fervent debaters. It is rarer to find writers who follow the roads of their arguments to the very end, exploring byways and reflecting on alternate modes of transit along the way. Upon returning to Hooker in what felt like a flavorless, low-calorie format, I began to reflect on how Hooker is valuable because he is a good slow thinker and he cannot be made to think fast.

The abridged copy of Hooker’s Laws I returned to is a small book dressed in an aggressive shade of blue only found on “Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought” and mid-2000s PC error screens. Edited by Arthur Stephen McGrade, the Cambridge edition was my first introduction to Hooker as an undergraduate; I had quickly discarded it for the Folger edition of Hooker’s works and had not thought of the Cambridge edition since. The petite figure of McGrade’s blue book is striking to me now as the Polity consists of eight zaftig volumes defending the crown-established English Church as it stood in the 1590s. After outlining an abstract theory of law and human reason against the history of the Reformed Church in England (Preface and Volume I), Hooker discusses to what extent humans can use their own intellect rather than divine decree in establishing polities (Vols. II-III), what forms ecclesiastical polity should take (IV-VII), and how ecclesiastical and civil polity should relate to each other (VIII). However, McGrade’s edition contains only Hooker’s preface and Books I and VIII.

There are clear reasons why McGrade abridges Hooker – the most obvious being that he is publishing in the “Cambridge History of Political Thought” series and thus Hooker’s books on law and the authority of secular states are the more purely ‘political’ parts of the Polity. McGrade, as he tells us in his introduction (p. xiv), also has a larger historiographical project to further situate Hooker in the world of Elizabethan religious polemic. Hooker was born in 1554, four years before the Act of Supremacy would install Elizabeth as head of the English Church and five years before the Acts of Uniformity would require subscription to the Book of Common Prayer. Hooker was an academic theologian all his life: he attained his Doctor of Divinity from Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he remained as a fellow and a Professor of Hebrew until 1580; he then served as Master of the Temple at the Inns of Court before retiring to the countryside in 1591 to work on the Polity until his death in 1600. During his lifespan, the fledgling Church of England began working to conform the religious landscape to its Articles of Religion. This project met with considerable resistance from nonconformists, particularly those ‘Puritans’ who believed that the established Church was not Reformed to the Genevan standard. Hooker’s early biographers and editors, Izaak Walton in the seventeenth century and John Keble’s explicit upholding of Walton in the nineteenth, painted him as an irenic theologian and legal scholar who refused to engage in petty polemic and instead came to a perfect Anglican conclusion by reason alone. Though Walton’s core narrative has held surprisingly stable, there has been a trend to include Hooker as an active participant in Elizabethan crises of conformism (beginning and most notably with the work of Peter Lake). As a chief concern of nonconformists was that the Crown was overstepping its authority by making laws to order the Church which went against the dictates of Scripture, McGrade’s paring down of Hooker to Books I and VIII allows him to highlight Hooker’s role as an Anglican apologist against Reformed rebels.

I am by no means suggesting that Hooker is not polemically engaged in the crisis of the Elizabethan Church. In the Preface, Hooker explicitly claims his aim is to “rip up to the verie bottom” the views of his nonconformist opponents in pursuit of truth. Yet how he engages with them is remarkable. The Polity is not Marprelatean satire, a sermon or admonition, an enraged academic disputation, a legal document, catechism, or systematic theology. It is certainly not the polemical tract with ecclesiastical filler that McGrade’s editing suggests. Instead, Hooker produces a complete theory of how man should act according to divine will: as a rational and faithful individual, as a believer in common with others, and as a member of civil society.

However, the structure of Hooker’s theory is not evident from the outset and subtle contours are missed through speedy reading. A good example of this is Hooker’s view of human reason. If we look only at Books I and VIII, reason provides a simple mechanism to allow humans to order themselves. ‘Rational law’ first appears as that aspect of natural law which mankind uses to achieve their ends of survival and salvation. After the Fall, human reason is no longer soteriologically sufficient without the supernatural donative of Scripture. Humans can, however, use their reason to survive and flourish on earth by creating their own civil laws and politic societies. The Church, while holding an additional supernatural end of salvation, exists as an outwardly visible, human-ordered polity. Thus, a civil sovereign can order a national church so long as he and his subjects share the same religious ends (see 1.3.2-4, 1.5.2, 1.10.1-4, 1.11.4-5, 1.12,3, 1.15.2, 8.3.3-5, 8.6.4-7).

If we include Books II and III, human interpretive faculties gain more weight in ordering earthly action. Unlike his more Reformed peers, Hooker does not believe that all ecclesiastical or civil law must be rooted in Scripture. God made man with reason and, despite its corruption though original sin, He still delights in man’s use of his natural faculties. As long as we are not directly contradicting God’s express soteriological dictates as found in Scripture, we are free to act. In matters adiaphora, those affairs indifferent to salvation, Hooker recommends that we use our faculties to find what is most beneficial and expedient for human society. It is not against faith to do so because natural law requires that we act rationally in order to survive. We can also use our reason to aid in our supernatural ends, helping us to interpret Scripture appropriately and persuade others to do so as well. Just as imperfect “reason hath need of grace,” Hooker hopes that grace also has some need of reason. How we think is crucial; it is therefore critical that we work to hone our faculties and avoid vain, speedy, or heretical philosophy (see 2.1.4, 2.2.2, 2.5.4-7, 3.8.6-11). From this we learn about the intellectual responsibility of an individual which has significant consequences for Hooker’s account of sovereign power in Book VIII. Given the fragmentary and heavily edited nature of the eighth book, Hooker’s argument in Books II and III also helps us clarify doubts provided by the publication history. To add another layer, Hooker’s concern for correctly used reason and his concerns about misinterpretation also give us some insight into the intellectual standards of an academic divine in a period when institutional culture and curricula of education were dramatically changing.

It should be said that just because a book is large and slow does not mean it is good. Hooker’s contemporary John Bridges produced the fourteen-hundred-page Defence of the Government Establish’d which Patrick Collinson has called “smothering” and which I call “the literary equivalent of a humpback whale trying to run a marathon.” In the same vein, some fast thought is cleverly crafted, exceptionally illuminating, and worth slow scholarship. Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly is an excellent example of this. In a 1968 article which holds true to this day, McGrade himself notes that Hooker is ‘largely unread’ due to his heft.  We may find slower thinkers to be bad or fast thinkers to be good, but we have to read them at all to make that judgement and do so with an awareness of their identities as writers. For me, Hooker’s layered argument provides a unique and interesting way to consider thinking in the Elizabethan church and the society around it precisely because of the way which it unfolds. I worry – whether through oversimplification, hurriedness, cavalier editing, or plain laziness – we risk making Hooker and other slow thinkers do intellectual work they did not do.

Elizabeth Buckheit is a first-year PhD student in history at Yale University.


Intellectual History’s Grounds: A Conversation with Martin Jay

By guest contributor Alec Walker

Form shapes sight and memory. Yale’s magnificent sightlines serve not only studious tranquility but also cut off the surrounding towers of banking and business, just as gates and security personnel serve to foreclose awareness of those individuals without shelter on the New Haven Green. Aesthetic experience is bound to critical vision: to what extent is this or any university responsible for its setting/surroundings, and to what extent are its members complicit? In no way novel, these questions are too big to be answered in any one article. I raise them merely to set the scene of a recent experience, to mimic my thoughts (critical or despondent) while walking to meet Martin Jay at New Haven’s “The Study,” just down from the Green.

Professor Jay, Ehrman Professor of European History Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, was in town to give the keynote address at Yale’s “Arendt and Antisemitism” conference and was kind enough to schedule time to talk with me, a first year PhD student in Yale’s history department. Professor Jay discussed his initial interest in history, and how a series of experiences at Union College and the London School of Economics shaped his intellectual future, his past works, and his present projects (a more detailed biographical interview of Jay that covers much of this ground can found here). In the name of setting the scene, it suffices to say that he took time from his day to discuss, with an aspiring historian, how history, particularly intellectual history, “gains from its interactions with adjacent fields” and “grows by being open…by being eclectic.” Our conversation from within an ivory tower was framed, from the start, with views to an exit, or at least a move away from strict disciplinary constructions.

I had asked Professor Jay to speak with me in late September; by the time we spoke, on 1 November, things had changed. My anxiety had ceased to be about meeting an intellectual hero and had become a concern about the relevance of our conversation. I raised this concern to Jay, asking how one should speak of antisemitism in the wake of Squirrel Hill?  What, in 2018, was an academic’s role, and what connections between intellectual history and politics might exist? He offered words of quiet comfort, stating that “It would be easy to succumb to despair,” to believe “that emotions trump meaning.” To this, he proposed the possibility that “if you have any faith in the public sphere…and are not too elitist in your attitudes…. you can still hold out for something.” This possibility frames the remainder of this essay. How might intellectual history continue to strive to see beyond its own methodological walls, in a time when walls have become quite fraught?

Jay’s keynote showed Jewish intellectuals thinking about the Holocaust as a case of more than merely banal evil, in which the victims were more than scapegoats. They were rather chosen precisely because of the pivotal role which Jews played in the progress of civilization, placing them “somewhere between absolute guilt and absolute innocence.” This speech, in keeping with its title, “Blaming the Victim? Arendt, Adorno and Erikson on the Jewish Role in Stimulating Anti-Semitism,” was at once intriguing and dissonant, taking place some five days after the massacre at Tree of Life. This dissonance proved productive insofar as it found Jewish thinkers placing responsibility (for the development and progression of civilization) but not guilt (for their victimhood) at their own feet, with the dual effect of restoring agency to the victim and shifting attention away from the victimizer. Erich Erickson, Theodor Adorno, and Hannah Arendt all offered what Jay referred to as “uncomfortable insights.” Whether explaining the Holocaust in terms of the Jewish ability to thrive within relativity, their complicity in domination and simultaneous resistance to the same, or the plight of Jewish worldlessness and the power of the pariah, all three offered analyses that explained the disaster in terms that granted a subsequent space for agency. Jay, however, found that these cosmic claims were hard to ground historically and thus to activate.

Critical history here discovers a premise without historical foundation, its method becoming at once precarious and productive, his speech arriving at an impasse. Such intellectual acrobatics are certainly capable of reclaiming agency and clearing the ground for critique, but it is not clear that they are capable of escaping the merely negative, of articulating a positive policy. I would hazard the guess that its recuperation – and the reason that Professor Jay continues to profess– is in some way accessible to the historian and lies precisely in a historicization that points out moments of impasse, when critical intellect has failed to construct a means of egress.

In our conversation, Jay insisted that “people are always more than the categories under which we subsume them.” This insistence implies a moral correlate, what Jay referred to as “the humility to listen to people,” the patience to understand that positions and philosophies which one might find quite painful also express a kind of pain. This formulation, though, risks passivity – the reporting of an idea without a concomitant moment for critique and re-articulation. Teaching, in its many forms, presents the bridge by which this gap might be closed. The intellectual historian, in her writing, is tasked with tracing, one might even say excavating, old ideas into the now. In teaching, she is given a space of translation and transmission.

Hannah Arendt, the subject of the conference that brought Professor Jay to New Haven, considered education an inherently conservative project. Education is the “responsibility for the development of the child” which is conducted “against the world: the child requires special protection and care so that nothing destructive may happen to him from the world. But the world, too, needs protection…[from] the onslaught of the new that burst upon it with each new generation” (The Crisis in Education, 8).  This leads her to conclude that the educator must “decisively divorce the realm of education from the others, most of all from the realm of public, political life” (The Crisis in Education, 13). The word conservative is doubly indexed – in the first instance to preservation, the second to exclusion. The latter formulation walls education off, and simultaneously proclaims those walls good and necessary. Today, it is no longer tenable to insist on such a division. If historicization requires empathetic listening and subsequent re-articulation, an enclosed pedagogy will not do, and cannot reclaim education’s preserving function. A critical analysis of the relationship between thought and prejudice is precisely what the world needs, and thus must not be gated off.

Jay ended his keynote in admitted dissonance and disappointment. The important efforts of Arendt to maintain a sense of historical agency which explain antisemitism collapse. At this realization, “one feels a horror….one feels a kind of shudder of disappointment.” This is as an accurate enough description of our national and intellectual mood, which is also an accuracy necessitating measured rejection. Jay’s reading, I think, was quite correct. In dealing with antisemitism, with racism, with fascism, we still need more readings, though, more readings that willingly embrace the politics and the teaching that they necessitate. It is time to read thinkers differently or read different thinkers. We need critical readings a bit closer to the ground, that explains theory as informed by and mutually informing political, economic, and legal edifices. We need an intellectual history that not only historicizes, that not only theorizes, but that is capable of seeing beyond its own academic boundaries, that is capable of critiquing the continued resonances of ideas that one finds quite odious, rather than reproducing, at one level of abstraction, the impasse it critically reveals. While Jay’s speech came to an impasse, his method suggests a way forward. Teaching, for him, creates “non-hierarchal dialogic relationships. Despite his stunningly prolific career, he insisted that there was no “Berkeley school.” His students have carried forth this flexible, open form, and have done much to propagate what Arendt would call education’s conserving function without its problematic conservative bits. It needs to be carried further.

As an undergraduate, I read Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination. A former student, who had read Hegel with him, informed me that Jay referred to the process as walking through a swamp on stilts – the key was to keep moving. I mean neither to imply that the Frankfurt School should be forgotten, nor that this is a bad method of reading Hegel. Rather, I want to suggest that intellectual history must learn to approach different terrain closer to the ground, without any loss of acrobatics. The ground on which intellectual history takes place need to be broadened. The complement of a gated education, a swampy terrain implies an intellect to which the historian comes beseechingly, on whose ground she cannot stand too long, from which she can carry only small insights of some putative whole. The task is now to observe spaces, taken so long to be given, without an intellectual history, and find the ideas and agents by which they operate. Jay’s vision of his own profession enables this. If the intellectual historian listens and through writing and teaching critiques, intellectual history can be further separated from the history of intellectuals and even, perhaps, the history of philosophy. This effort has been and continues to be made by intellectual historians operating in Jay’s tradition of eclecticism, through efforts to historicize formations of state power, political economy, and legality. In the light of recent events, this practice needs certainly to be continued. And amidst all these renovations, it is also pressing that we keep the importance of form, the relevance of taking ideas seriously in mind. It seems important not to forget the dialectical imagination capable of remaining in tension, of imagining a stringent critique of all the problems of the academy and accumulation amidst magnificent neogothic absurdity, which can appreciate all the ironies of bemoaning ivory tower navel-gazing while ending quite self-consciously.

Alec Walker is a first year PhD student in history at Yale University. His research focuses on modern European legal and intellectual history.

Intellectual history

Reconsidering Mechanization in the Industrial Revolution: The Dye Book of William Butt

By guest contributor Lidia Plaza

On my way to Covent Garden this summer, I spotted a Muji store and popped inside.  A few months earlier I had picked up a pair of Muji socks in Terminal 5 of JFK, which had since become my favorite pair.  Determined to acquire more, equally lovely socks, I studied the sock selection until I found some in the same style, size, and color as my beloved pair.  I grabbed them and headed to the till.  I didn’t bother to inspect the socks; I assumed the knit tensions were all perfectly even, the densities were consistent, the colors were identical.  I also assumed that they were exactly like the socks I had purchased a few months earlier in New York.  I didn’t compare the socks because I take consistency for granted.  I expect it.  I insist upon it. My expectation that socks I purchase from a Japanese retailer in New York will be identical to socks I find in London months later is a testament to the success of the Industrial Revolution.

In the history of the Industrial Revolution, the mechanization of cleaning, processing, spinning, and weaving textiles has become Chapter One of the gospel, but in this telling there has been undue emphasis put on the mechanization of manufacturing.  The triumph of the Industrial Revolution was not the machines themselves, but the processes that could produce consistent products at a mass scale; machines were just one tool of those processes.  This point is well illustrated in an often-overlooked verse of the gospel: dyeing.

Dyeing’s neglect is partially understandable, as dyeing is almost as difficult for the historian to study as it was for the eighteenth-century apprentice to learn.  Unlike paints, dyes must chemically bond with the textile fibers, and variations in the fibers, the pH of the water, the quality of added mordants and dye-assistants, or even the composition of the containers used can affect the results.  Only in the nineteenth century did chemists begin to understand dye chemistry, and when histories of industrialization include dyes, this, for instance, is often what they highlight. But early modern dyers spent their careers learning to achieve consistent, even dyes, and, more recently, scholars like Giorgio Riello have included dyeing innovations in their examinations of early textile industrialization.  It is now becoming clear that dyers and clothiers like William Butt were making critical strides in early textile industrialization.


William Butt began his dye book on November 24, 1768.  As a clothier, Butt oversaw the entire process of producing a woolen textile from cleaning the raw fibers to weaving the fabric.  Yet his book, the product of almost daily work, is just about dyeing.  Why then did Butt devote so much effort to just one step in the manufacturing process?  The answer is simple: half the price of a finished textile could come just from the quality of its dyeing.  It was not uncommon for clothiers to set up their own dye houses, unwilling to trust someone else’s work with such a critical step.  William Butt was such a clothier.

Between 1768 and 1785, he recorded 794 recipes, filling over 88 pages with rows and columns of cryptic numbers, strange symbols, bizarre ingredients, and round little pieces of colored felt, stuffing little scraps of paper between its pages.  After weeks and months of pouring over the book in the reading room of the Beinecke Library, I made some sense of the book; each row documents a new recipe, and each column contains a separate piece of information about the recipe.  In this way, Butt recorded the amounts of wool he worked with, the merchant marks of his wool suppliers, and the dyestuffs used in each recipe, always providing samples of the results and assigning a unique recipe number.


The book shows that Butt was able to dye more wool with better results by systematically experimenting with his dyes.  Starting around 1777, about page 35 of his book, Butt began to treat his book less like a cookbook of collected recipes, and more like a lab notebook to record his experiments.  He started dating his recipes, and the dates suggest that Butt began to intensify his production.  Butt filled 35 pages between 1768 and 1777.  Assuming this was his only dye book, this means he only filled 3 or 4 pages a year during this period.  However, after 1777 he usually filled at least 6 pages each year.

Number of Pages Filled by Each Year in William Butt’s Dye Book Between May 1777-May 1785
Year Approximate Number of pages filled
1777 (May-December) 6
1778 6.5
1779 8
1780 6
1781 7
1782 6
1783 6.5
1784 5
1785 (February-May) 3

Not only was Butt working with more recipes but he also became more meticulous in his work.  He got pickier about how he classified a new dye recipe by assigning a new dye number to recipes that varied only slightly from other recipes in the book.  He began experimenting with his recipes, recreating previous recipes using wool from different suppliers, for example.  In another instance, he experimented with technique, noting that recipe 20129 was the same as 19917, “differing from 19917 in method only.”  His book gets more cluttered as he began recording the merchant marks of the merchants who supplied the wool in each recipe, and as he makes more notes and comments.



Part of Butt’s success may have come from the fact that he seems to have been a specialist.  He was clearly skilled at using many dyestuffs, but he relied on other dyers to provide him with indigo-dyed wool.  Indigo is a vat dye, which has an entirely separate chemical process for bonding to fibers than the other dyestuffs Butt worked with, which were almost exclusively mordant-dyes.  Not all dyers specialized, but there is evidence that indigo specialists were common, and so it is not surprising that Butt would also specialize in one type of dye.  By focusing on dyes that all required similar methods, Butt was able to refine those methods and increase his efficiency.  By the end of his book, Butt had more than doubled the amount of wool he dyed in each recipe.

Technology was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution, but, as Butt’s dye book illustrates, if all we imagine when we think of technology is machines, we are missing a large part of the picture.  Technology is simply the practical application of scientific knowledge, and in this sense William Butt’s dye book is as much a piece of technological advancement as the spinning jenny and the power loom.  He could not have known the chemistry underpinning his work, but he knew he could maximize his output by systematically experimenting with dyestuffs and applying what he learned to his processes.  All the spinning jennies and power looms in the world would have been useless if all those threads and fabrics could not be consistently and reliably dyed, but dyeing at larger scales required a better understanding of the dyes, not new machines.  Butt and the many others like him understood this.  Hiding in record offices and archives, there are other dye books, all written by clothiers and dyers trying to master dye processes.  It was their mastery of process that achieved the consistency that I take for granted every time I browse a wall of socks.

Lidia Plaza is a PhD student in British history at Yale University. Her research focuses on industrialization and British foreign policy in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries.  

Intellectual history

The Lives and Afterlives of Persianate Print: The Case of the Tuzuk-i Timuri and the Tuzuk-i Napoleon.

By guest contributor Tiraana Bains

Intellectual histories of India, particularly of the decades and centuries following the mid-eighteenth century, are often histories of Europe’s India: India as it was imagined and understood or misunderstood by Europeans. Representations, discourses, knowledge forms, and ideas, fundamentally and largely, remain subjects featuring European protagonists casting their gaze elsewhere. Both apologists and critics of empire, colonialism and racism have, in radically different ways, placed the ideas and presumptions of Europeans at the heart of their analysis. India’s Europe, on the other hand, as the brief concluding comment in Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s Europe’s India: Words, People, Empires 1500–1800 (Harvard University Press, 2017) reflects, remains all too shadowy and peripheral to the history of ideas and knowledge formation. Contrary to such historiographical tendencies, non-European actors living under the blaze of the British empire and colonial rule, regularly, and even mundanely, fashioned historiographies and crafted histories of both themselves and Europeans. What follows is merely a fragment.

Cover of a bilingual edition of the Tuzuk-i Timuri published in Calcutta in 1785
Source: Eighteenth Century Collections Online

In the year 1890–1891, two editions of the Tuzuk-i Timuri, a venerable Persian text with a remarkable history spanning centuries and spaces as distant as Central Asia, Bengal, and Britain, appeared in the Bombay book market. Released by two different publishers and booksellers, the two lithographs were not quite the same. One of the two differed quite sharply from all preceding published and manuscript copies of the Tuzuk-i Timuri. Published by the Chitra Prabha Press, this text had appended to it another account: the Tuzuk-i Napoleon. In catalogues this curious text is variously listed as the Tuzuk-i Timuri wa Tuzuk-i Napoleon or merely the Tuzuk-i Timuri. Within a decade, the act of braiding together these two histories had been undone. The Tuzuk-i Napoleon had appeared once again, this time shorn of its ties to the history and exploits of Amir Timur or Tamerlane, as he was known in some early modern European accounts and, to an extent, still continues to be. Published in Kabul by the royal publishing house or chapkhana-i shahi and dedicated to the Amir of Afghanistan, Abd al-Rahman Khan, it appeared with the slightly more specific title of Tuzuk-i Napoleon-i Awwal or the Institutes of Napoleon the First.


Title page of the Tuzuk-i Napoleon-i Awwal published in Kabul
Source: NYU Afghanistan Digital Library

The prominent Iranian émigré publisher, translator, author and bookseller Mirza Muhammad al-Kuttab Shirazi’s decision to juxtapose and literally bind together these two texts in 1891 undoubtedly offers an example of commercial flair in a bustling knowledge and print economy as well as yet another episode in a long and convoluted history of textual remaking and refashioning. The Tuzuk-i Timuri itself is an instantiation of an appendix, in all likelihood spurious and fabricated, gaining a longstanding significance of its own. An apparent Persian translation of a Turkish text, the Tuzuk-i Timuri or the “Institutes, Designs, and Enterprises” of Timur as it is often translated, seems to have first emerged in the seventeenth century, appended to the ostensible and equally fabricated autobiographical account of Timur’s life, the Malfuzat-i Timuri or Waq‘iat-i Timuri.  By the late eighteenth century, in Bengal and Britain, the Tuzuk-i Timuri had been refashioned yet again, reimagined as a constitutional text, deployed to debate governance and British imperium in the nominally Mughal provinces of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. While an English translation of the text accompanied by the Persian translation of an apparent Turkic original appeared in Calcutta, newspapers in London noted parliamentary controversy between Edmund Burke and Warren Hastings over the apparent foundational principals of Oriental governance contained in the Tuzuk. Not unlike the Tuzuk-i Timuri, the appended Tuzuk-i Napoleon from 1891 was also a translation, broadly drawn from a text known as The Military Maxims of Napoleon.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Importantly, Shirazi’s decision to place an account of Napoleon’s military and political exploits alongside and in addition to the Tuzuk-i Timuri indicates a distinct conception of history. While this juxtaposition of a fourteenth century Turco-Mongol figure who established dominion over large chunks of the Perso-Islamic world and beyond, and an eighteenth-nineteenth century Corsican-French personage is certainly redolent of a romantic view of heroic conquerors across centuries, the fact of their textual company and shared Persianate rendering is also evidence of the imbrication and entanglement of diverse histories, regardless of nineteenth century narratives of divergent civilizational paradigms to the contrary. The textual meeting, translation and entanglement of Timur and Napoleon is replicated in the unfolding of this Persian translation of Napoleon’s maxims. More straightforward word-for-word translations of the conditions in which Napoleon mastered the conduct of war are interspersed with anecdotes and examples drawn from histories closer home – those of ancient Iran and India, and wars fought between Ottoman and Safavid armies. Such acts of conjoining and incorporating such histories were hardly new at the dawn of the 1890s.

Shah Alam II

A large corpus of Persian and South Asian vernacular material points to the remaking of categories and contours of knowledge through the appropriation and incorporation of European histories and, in turn, the reworking of such histories. An intriguing example is that of the Tuzuk-i Walajahi, a Persian court chronicle produced under the aegis of the Nawab of Arcot, Muhammad Ali Khan Walajah, in the late-eighteenth century. The opening pages of the chronicle announce, unsurprisingly enough, the Nawab’s relation to the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II, whose deputy he was, nominally at least, meant to be. The invocation of the Mughal emperor was also, however, quickly followed by a declaration of the Nawab’s close ties to the British King George III, “a brother dear as life.” Moreover, deeper in the text one finds a detailed genealogical history not of the Timurid or Mughal dynasty but the kings and queens of England. The exposition concludes with a narrative of the reign of George III, an account that seems to have been a standard description in entirely different genres of Persian writing, including works of geography such as Bilgrami’s late eighteenth century Hadiqat al-Aqlim. In the nineteenth century, the assimilation of the Hanoverians and George III into a Persian textual corpus came to a head with the publication, in Bombay, of Firuz ibn Kavus’ Jarjnama or George-nama, an epic three-volume history in verse of the Hanoverians and the British conquest of India in the style of the Persian epic poem, the Shahnama.

The publication of the Tuzuk-i Napoleon-i Awwal in Kabul marks another chapter in this history of translation, transmission and textual remaking. While the core of the Kabul text is the same as that of the Bombay edition, the introductory and concluding notes emphatically demonstrate its status as a document of state, articulating the Afghan state’s commitment to muscular state-making. In Bombay, the valence of a text such as the Tuzuk-i Timuri wa Tuzuk-i Napoleon would have been entirely different – merely one text among many. Another Persian history of Amir Timur’s life and exploits drawn from the famous Habib al-Siyar was even featured on the syllabus for a Bachelor of Arts degree at Bombay University. Meanwhile other histories of Napoleon had appeared in vernacular languages like Gujarati – booksellers and publishers in Bombay published books in several languages including English, Urdu, Marathi, Kannada, Hindi and Sanskrit besides Persian and Gujarati. We are aware of the sheer range and diversity of texts printed in Bombay and elsewhere across British South Asia due to the legal requirement imposed by the British government that all publications be registered and catalogued (many of these government issued catalogues have been digitized by a team working at the British Library and constitute a rich historical source). The clear imprint of the hand of the British imperial state in the book business in Bombay notwithstanding, the stamp of the state is all the more pronounced in the case of books published in Kabul. This is partly due to the large number of books and pamphlets published by the royal publishing house that outlined the Amir Abd al-Rahman’s vision for Afghanistan as well as his achievements as sovereign. Amidst the heavy emphasis on a strong Afghan state, there are also clear indications of Kabul’s position in a broader nexus of Persianate circulation. As even a cursory search through NYU’s Afghanistan Digital Library shows, a range of texts originating in British India including agricultural treatises on the cultivation of tobacco and sericulture translated into Persian in Calcutta, circulated in Kabul.

Photo of Carnac Road Bombay in 1881 by Lala Deen Dayal. Source: British Library.

Besides its obvious curiosity, what the publication of Tuzuk-i Napoleon and its companion text do demonstrate, not unlike the many other texts discussed in Nile Green’s seminal Bombay Islam, is the persistent vitality of Persian and Persianate literacy well past official British disavowals of the language and in spite of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s “Minute upon Indian Education” in the first half of the nineteenth century. The movement and translation of such texts also reveals geographies partly underpinned by institutions of colonial governance but hardly exhausted by the contours of political maps. Finally, they gesture to the work that still needs to be done to excavate, and take the ideas and practices of non-Europeans seriously. Examining how people with an allegedly limited sense of history chose to think about and even refashion and market histories of persons and spaces both far and near is an obvious place from which to continue this work.

Tiraana Bains is a doctoral candidate in history at Yale University.