Intellectual history

What the Digital Dark Age Can Teach Us About Ancient Technologies of Writing

Editors’ Note: due to the disruption of academic networks and institutions caused by the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, JHIBlog will shift to once-a-week publication for the time being, supplemented by a selection of older posts from our archives. We are grateful for our readers’ understanding, and hope to resume normal scheduling as soon as possible.

By guest contributors Sara Mohr and Edward C. Williams

In contemporary science fiction it is hard to avoid the trope of an archaeologist or explorer unearthing a piece of ancient advanced technology and finding that it still functions. This theme may have its roots in the way we often encounter artifacts from the ancient world—decayed but functional or legible, as material culture and/or as carriers of written language. However, the prototypical “ancient technology” in fiction often resembles the electronic information technology of our modern age. Keeping our modern technology active and functional requires orders of magnitude more energy than the neglect implied by ancient ruins—delivery of spare parts fueled by cheap energy, complex schematics and repair manuals, and even remote connections to far-off servers. The idea that our technology would work hundreds of years in our future without significant intervention is unbelievable. In a certain sense, a Mesopotamian clay tablet is far more similar to the ancient advanced technology found in media—if it’s in good enough condition, you can pick it up and use it thousands of years later.

Will the archaeologists of the future see the information storage of the digital age not as sources of knowledge about our time, but undecipherable black boxes?  The general problem of data preservation is twofold: the first is preservation itself and the second is the comprehensibility of the data. The BBC Domesday Project recorded a survey of British life in the 20th century on adapted LaserDiscs—a format that, ironically, requires considerable emulation (the process of enabling a computer to use material intended for another kind of computer) efforts to reproduce on a modern machine only 35 years later. This kind of information loss is often referred to as the coming of the Digital Dark Age (Bollacker, “Avoiding a Digital Dark Age”). Faced with the imposing pressure of a potential Digital Dark Age and the problematic history of modern data storage technology, perhaps it is time to rethink our understanding of ancient technology and the cultures of the past who were able to make their data last long into the future.

Scholars of the Ancient Near East are intimately familiar with the loss and recovery of written information. Our sources, written in the wedge-shaped script called cuneiform, are numerous and frequently legible despite being thousands of years old. Once the scribal practice that transmitted the script was interrupted, considerable scholarly work was required to reconstruct it, but the fundamental media of data storage—the clay tablets—were robust. Even then, many valuable tablets have been lost due to mishandling or improper storage. Despite the durability of the medium, once the system of replicating, handling, understanding, and deliberately preserving these tablets were lost much information was lost as well.

But cuneiform writing is more than just the act of impressing words onto clay with a reed stylus; it is deeply rooted in the actions and culture of specific groups of people. This notion is certainly true of technology as a whole. An interrelationship exists between all elements of a society, and each constituent element cannot be considered or evaluated without the context of the whole (Bertalanffy, General Systems Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, 4). Rather than focus on the clay and the reeds, it is necessary to take into account the entire “socio-technical system” that governs the interaction of people and technology (Schäfer, Bastard Culture! How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production, 18). Comparative studies of cuneiform writing and digital technology as socio-technical systems can inspire further insight into understanding ancient technology and illuminating why it is that humble cuneiform writing on clay tablets was such a successful method of projecting information into the future, as well as informing us about the possible future of our contemporary data storage.

Only recently have those who work regularly with cuneiform tablets studied the technology of cuneiform.  Cuneiform styli could be made of various materials: reed, bone, bronze, or even precious metals (Cammarosano, “The Cuneiform Stylus,” 62). Reed styli were the most common for their advantageous glossy, waterproof outer skin that prevented them from absorbing humidity and sticking to the clay. Another key part of scribal training was learning the art of forming tablets by levigating and kneading raw clay (Taylor and Cartwright, “The Making and Re-Making of Clay Tablets,” 298), then joining lumps of clay together in a grid pattern or by wrapping an outer sheet of clay around a core of a thin piece of folded clay (Taylor, “Tablets as Artefacts, Scribes as Artisans,” 11).

But cuneiform technology goes beyond the stylus and tablet and must include the transmission of cuneiform literacy itself. Hundreds of thousands of legible cuneiform tablets have been found and documented to date, with many more in the processes of being excavated. With such perishable materials as clay tablets and organic styli, how is it possible that these texts have survived for thousands of years? Surprisingly, the answer may lie in how we think about modern technology, data preservation, and our fears of losing records to the Digital Dark Age.

The problem is growing worse, with more recent media demonstrating shorter lifespans compared to older media. We see a variety of different projects that look back to older forms of information storage as a stop-gap between now and the possibility of a Digital Dark Age. For example, The Rosetta Project, from the Long Now Foundation, has been collecting examples of various languages to store on a 3-inch diameter nickel disc through microscopic etching. With minimal care (and the survival of microscopy), it could last and be legible for thousands of years.

We tend to think that a return to older forms of information storage will solve the problem of the Digital Dark Age—after all, the ancient technology of stylus + clay preserved Mesopotamian data neatly into the modern era. However, such thinking results from an incomplete understanding of the function of technology as it applies to the past. Technology is more than just machinery; it is a human activity involving technological aspects as well as cultural aspects interwoven and shaping one another (Stahl, “Venerating the Black Box: Magic in Media Discourse on Technology,” 236). Regardless of the medium or time period, the data life cycle largely stays the same. First, people generate data, which is then collected and processed. Following processing comes storage and possibly analysis.

But in the end, we always have humans (Wing, “The Data Life Cycle”).

Humans are the key to why information written in cuneiform on clay survived as long as it did.  In ancient Mesopotamia, scribal culture meant copying the contents of clay tablets repeatedly for both practice and preservation. There are texts we know from only one copy, yet in order for that copy to survive several other copies had to have existed. The clay and the stylus did not ensure the preservation of cuneiform information—it was the people and their scribal practice.

It is somewhat surprising that the discussion of ancient technology has not yet embraced the social aspect that accompanies the machinery, especially when we so readily acknowledge its impact on modern technology. To avoid losing electronic data, users are exhorted to intercede and make regular backup copies. We also find that the history of obsolete technology is based in innovative technology that died as a result of socioeconomic pressures (Parikka, “Inventing Pasts and Futures: Speculative Design and Media Archaeology,” 227). The technology was perfectly sound, but it was never a good match to the social and economic times of its release.

This need for protection from loss largely comes from the idea that “electronic writing does not have the permanence of a clay tablet” (Gnanadesikan, The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet, 268). However, those of us who work with clay tablets are more than aware of the frightening impermanence of the medium. We are well acquainted with the experience of opening a box meant to contain a cuneiform object only to find that it has been reduced to a bag of dust. It has been said that more redundancy usually means less efficiency, but that does not hold for all circumstances. Mesopotamian scholars generated redundancy through productive training, and we now look to redundancy to save our digital future. However, redundancy was not a part of the physical technology, but rather the surrounding cultures that used it.

At its core, writing is an information technology. It is a system of communication developed for use by particular groups of people. In the case of cuneiform, the scribe who wrote the latest known datable cuneiform tablet composed an astronomical text in 75 AD (Geller, “The Last Wedge,” 45). Despite being able to date its final use, the last wedge, we are still able to read and understand Akkadian cuneiform today. However, it was not the process of incising the wedge itself that made this continuity possible. Rather, it was the scribal culture of ancient Mesopotamia that committed to copying and re-copying over the course of millennia.

The possibility of a Digital Dark Age has the world thinking of ways in which we can adjust our cultural practice around technology. Examples from Mesopotamia highlight the importance of the connection between human activity and machinery in technology. We would do well as historians to take notice of this trend and use it as an inspiration for expanding how we study ancient technology like cuneiform writing to incorporate more on human attitudes alongside the clay and the reeds.

Sara Mohr is a PhD student in Assyriology at Brown University. Her research spans from digital methods of studying the ancient world to the social function of secrecy and hidden writing. 

Edward Williams (Brown ‘17.5) is a software engineer at Qulab, Inc, working on machine learning and computational chemistry software for drug discovery. He acts as a technical consultant for the DeepScribe project at the OI, developing machine learning pipelines for automated cuneiform transcription.

Think Piece

Reading Saint Augustine in Toledo

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

Antonio Rodríguez, Saint Augustine

In his magisterial history of the Reformation, Diarmaid MacCulloch wrote, “from one perspective, a century or more of turmoil in the Western Church from 1517 was a debate in the mind of long-dead Augustine.” MacCulloch riffs on B. B. Warfield’s pronouncement that “[t]he Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church” (111). There can be no denying the centrality to the Reformation of Thagaste’s most famous son. But Warfield’s “triumph” is only half the story—forgivably so, from the last of the great Princeton theologians. Catholics, too, laid claim to Augustine’s mantle. Not least among them was a Toledan Jesuit by the name of Pedro de Ribadeneyra, whose particular brand of personal Augustinianism offers a useful tonic to the theological and polemical Augustine.

Pedro de Ribadeneyra

To quote Eusebio Rey, “I do not believe there were many religious writers of the Siglo de Oro who internalized certain ascetical aspects of Saint Augustine to a greater degree than Ribadeneyra” (xciii). Ribadeneyra translated the Confessions, the Soliloquies, and the Enchiridion, as well as the pseudo-Augustinian Meditations. His own works of history, biography, theology, and political theory are filled with citations, quotations, and allusions to the saint’s oeuvre, including such recondite texts as the Contra Cresconium and the Answer to an Enemy of the Laws and the Prophets. In short, like so many of his contemporaries, Ribadeneyra invoked Augustine as a commanding authority on doctrinal and philosophical issues. But there is another component to Ribadeneyra’s Augustinianism: his spiritual memoir, the Confesiones.

Composed just before his death in September 1611, Ribadeneyra’s Confesiones may be the first memoir to borrow Augustine’s title directly (Pabel 456). Yet, a title does not a book make. How Augustinian are the Confesiones?

Pierre Courcelle, the great scholar of the afterlives of Augustine’s Confessions, declared that “the Confesiones of the Jesuit Ribadeneyra seem to have taken nothing from Augustine save the form of a prayer of praise” (379). Of this commonality there can be no doubt: Ribadeneyra effuses with gratitude to a degree that rivals Augustine. “These mercies I especially acknowledge from your blessed hand, and I praise and glorify you, and implore all the courtiers of heaven that they praise and forever thank you for them” (21). Like the Confessions, the Confesiones are written as “an on-going conversation with God to which […] readers were deliberately made a party” (Pabel 462). That said, reading the two side-by-side reveals deeper connections, as the Jesuit borrows from Augustine’s life story in narrating his own.

Though Ribadeneyra could not recount flirtations with Manicheanism or astrology, he could follow Augustine in subjecting his childhood to unsparing critique. His early years furnished—whose do not?—sufficient petty rebellions to merit Augustinian laments for “the passions and awfulness of my wayward nature” (5–6). In one such incident, Pedro stubbornly demands milk as a snack; enraged by his mother’s refusal, he runs from the house and begins roughhousing with his friends, resulting in a broken leg. Sin inspired by a desire for dairy sets up an echo of Augustine’s rebuke of

the jealousy of a small child: he could not even speak, yet he glared with livid fury at his fellow-nursling. […] Is this to be regarded as innocence, this refusal to tolerate a rival for a richly abundant fountain of milk, at a time when the other child stands in greatest need of it and depends for its very life on this food alone? (I.7,11)

Luis Tristán, Santa Monica

Ribadeneyra’s mother, Catalina de Villalobos, unsurprisingly plays the role of Monica, the guarantor of his Catholic future (while pregnant, Catalina vows that her son will become a cleric). She was not the only premodern woman to be thus canonized by her son: Jean Gerson tells us that his mother, Élisabeth de la Charenière, was “another Monica” (400n10).

Leaving Toledo, Pedro comes to Rome, which was cast as one of Augustine’s perilous earthly cities. Hilmar Pabel points out that the Jesuit’s description of the city as “Babylonia” imitates Augustine’s jeremiad against Thagaste as “Babylon” (474). Like its North African predecessor, this Italian Babylon threatens the soul of its young visitor. Foremost among these perils are teachers: in terms practically borrowed from the Confessions, Ribadeneyra decries “those who ought to be masters, [who] are seated in the throne of pestilence and teach a pestilent doctrine, and not only do not punish the evil they see in their vassals and followers, but instead favor and encourage them by their authority” (7–8).

After Ribadeneyra left for Italy, Catalina’s duties as Monica passed to Ignatius of Loyola, who combined them with those of Ambrose of Milan—the father-figure and guide encountered far from home . Like Ambrose, Ignatius acts como padre, one whose piety is the standard that can never be met, who combines affection with correction.

A young Ignatius of Loyola

The narrative climax of the Confessions is Augustine’s tortured struggle culminating in his embrace of Christianity. No such conversion could be forthcoming for Ribadeneyra, its place taken by tentacion, an umbrella term encapsulating emotional upheavals, doubts over his vocation, the fantasy of returning to Spain, and resentment of Ignatius. Famously, Augustine agonizes until he hears a voice that seems to instruct him, tolle lege (VIII.29). Ribadeneyra structures the resolution of his own crises in analogous fashion, his anxieties dissolved by a single utterance of Ignatius’s: “I beg of you, Pedro, do not be ungrateful to one who has shown you so many kindnesses, as God our Lord.” “These words,” Ribadeneyra tells us, “were as powerful as if an angel come from heaven had spoken them,” his tentacion forever banished (37).

I am not suggesting Ribadeneyra fabricated these incidents in order to claim an Augustinian mantle. But the choices of what to include and how to narrate his Confesiones were shaped, consciously and unconsciously, by Augustine’s example.

Ribadeneyra’s story also diverges from its Late Antique model, and at times the contrast is such as to favor the Jesuit, however implicitly. Ribadeneyra professes an unmistakably early modern Marian piety that has no equivalent in Augustine. Where Monica is reassured by a vision of “a young man of radiant aspect” (III.11,19), Catalina de Villalobos makes her vow to vuestra sanctíssima Madre y Señora nuestra (3). Augustine addresses his gratitude to “my God, my God and my Lord” (I.2, 2), while Ribadeneyra, who mentions his travels to Marian shrines like Loreto, is more likely to add the Virgin to his exclamations: “and in particular I implored your most glorious virgin-mother, my exquisite lady, the Virgin Mary” (11). The Confessions mention Mary only twice, solely as the conduit for the Incarnation (IV.12, 19; V.10, 20). Furthermore, Ribadeneyra’s early conquest of his tentaciones produces a much smoother path than Augustine’s erratic embrace of Christianity; thus the Jesuit declares, “I never had any inclination for a way of life other than that I have” (6). His rhapsodic praise of chastity—“when could I praise you enough for having bound me with a vow to flee the filthiness of the flesh and to consecrate my body and soul to you in a clean and sweet sacrifice” (46)—is far cry from the infamous “Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet” (VIII.17)

When Ribadeneyra translated Augustine’s Confessions into Spanish in 1596, his paratexts lauded Augustine as the luz de la Iglesia and God’s signal gift to the Church. There is no hint—anything else would have been highly inappropriate—of equating himself with Augustine, whose ingenio was “either the greatest or one of the greatest and most excellent there has ever been in the world.” As a last word, however, Ribadeneyra mentions the previous Spanish version, published in 1554 by Sebastián Toscano. Toscano was not a native speaker, “and art can never equal nature, and so his style could not match the dignity and elegance of our language.” It falls to Ribadeneyra, in other words, to provide the Hispanophone world with the proper text of the Confessions; without ever saying so, he positions himself as a privileged interpreter of Augustine.

The Confessions is a profoundly personal text, perhaps the seminal expression of Christian subjectivity—told in a searingly intense first-person. Ribadeneyra himself writes that in the Confessions “is depicted, as in a masterful portrait painted from life, the heavenly spirit of Saint Augustine, in all its colors and shades.” Without wandering into the trackless wastes of psychohistory, it must have been a heady experience for so devoted a reader of Augustine to compose—all translation being composition—the life and thought of the great bishop.

Ribadeneyra was of course one of many Augustinians in early modern Europe, part of an ongoing Catholic effort to reclaim the Doctor from the Protestants, but we will misunderstand his dedication if we regard the saint as no more than a prime piece of symbolic real estate. For scholars of early modern Augustinianism have rooted the Church Father in philosophical schools and the cut-and-thrust of confessional conflict. To MacCulloch and Warfield we might add Meredith J. Gill, Alister McGrath, Arnoud Visser, and William J. Bouwsma, for whom early modern thought was fundamentally shaped by the tidal pulls of two edifices, Augustinianism and Stoicism.

There can be no doubt that Ribadeneyra was convinced of Augustine’s unimpeachable Catholicism and opposition to heresy—categories he had no hesitation in mapping onto Reformation-era confessions. Equally, Augustine profoundly influenced his own theology. But beyond and beneath these affinities lay a personal bond. Augustine, who bared his soul to a degree unmatched among the Fathers, was an inspiration, in the most immediate sense, to early modern believers. Like Ignatius, the bishop of Hippo offered Ribadeneyra a model for living.

That early modern individuals took inspiration from classical, biblical, and late antique forebears is nothing new. Bruce Gordon writes that, influenced by humanist notions of emulation, “through intensive study, prayer and conduct [John] Calvin sought to become Paul” (110). Mutatis mutandis, the sentiment applies to Ribadeneyra and Augustine. Curiously, Stephen Greenblatt’s seminal Renaissance Self-Fashioning does not much engage with emulation, concerning itself with self-fashioning as creation ad nihilum—that is to say, a new self, not geared toward an existing model (Greenblatt notes in passing, and in contrast, the tradition of imitatio Christi). Ribadeneyra, in reading, translating, interpreting, citing, and imitating Augustine, was fashioning a self after another’s image. As his Catholicized Confesiones indicate, this was not a slavish and literal-minded adherence to each detail. He recognized the great gap of time that separated him from his hero, changes that demanded creativity and alteration in the fashioning of a self. This need not be a thought-out or even conscious plan, but simply the cumulative effect of a lifetime of admiration and inspiration. Without denying Ribadeneyra’s formidable mind or his fervent Catholicism, there is something to be gained from taking emotional significance as our starting point, from which to understand all the intellectual and personal work the Jesuit, and others of his time, could accomplish through a hero.

Intellectual history

What Was a Reading Community?

by guest contributor Edmund G. C. King

Howard Ignatius, “8:41 Notting Hill Gate”

It’s just after 10 am on a dingy December morning in London as I approach Canada Water underground station. The morning rush hour crowds have receded, leaving only their wet footprints on the platform leading into the station. The outside sheet of a copy of this morning’s Metro, the free London commuter newspaper, has been pulped and trodden into the pavement near the entrance. A single word of the front-page headline is still legible: “Aleppo.” Inside, I walk down the escalators and turn right, onto the westbound Jubilee Line platform. A train arrives almost immediately. I get into the first carriage and stand inside the doors facing away from the platform. To my left there are twelve people sitting, facing each other in two rows of six. Exactly half of them are reading. A woman scrolls through her Facebook newsfeed on an Android phone. A couple in their 30s read copies of The Metro. Opposite them, an older man is skimming an article in the personal finance section of a tabloid newspaper headlined “The Hell of Middle Age.” Two women sit opposite each other, each absorbed in a book. One is reading management theory. The other has a thick, tattered pop-psychology paperback with subsections headed in bold and diagrams illustrating interpersonal relationships. Next to them, a woman sits, headphones on, reading a Spanish novella. No one in the carriage acknowledges the existence of anyone else, not even the couple with their matching copies of The Metro. Each reading surface has become what Erving Goffman calls an “involvement shield,” a way of demarcating personal space and signalling social “non-accessibility” in a shared environment. Seats free up at Southwark. I take one, pull out my iPhone, put my headphones on, load up Spotify and a cached copy of a Jacobin article, and prepare to immerse myself in my own media cocoon.

For the past year, I have been Co-Investigator on an AHRC-funded project, “Reading Communities: Connecting the Past and the Present.” The purpose of the Reading Communities project was to reach out to contemporary reading groups in the United Kingdom and encourage them to engage with the historical accounts of reading in the Reading Experience Database. But the experience of working on a project like this has also changed my own academic practice as an historian of reading. I find myself paying more attention to the everyday scenes of reading unfolding around me than I might have done otherwise, looking for the elusive connections between reading practices and reading communities in the past and the present. Of course, a random collection of readers in a London tube carriage does not in itself constitute a “reading community.” We, in our Jubilee Line media cocoons, might all be using books and other forms of reading material in avoidant ways, as coping mechanisms to deal with the intensities and demands of occupying shared spaces in a large city. Some of us may even be consuming the very same text—this morning’s Metro—simultaneously. These acts of textual consumption form part of our social imaginary; they are props for performing our roles as commuters and as Londoners. But simultaneity and a shared habitus are not sufficient in themselves to bind us together into a specific reading community. For a reading community to exist, the act of reading must be in some basic way shared. Readers need to interact with each other or at least identify as members of the same reading collective. The basic building blocks of a community are, as DeNel Rehberg Sedo observes, a set of enduring and reciprocal social relationships. Reading communities are collectives where those relationships are mediated by the consumption of texts. But how can we define the social function of reading communities more precisely? What relationship do they have with other communities and social formations beyond the realm of text? What can examples taken from historically distant reading cultures tell us about the social uses of shared reading experiences?

In Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire, William A. Johnson interrogates ancient sources for what they can reveal about reading and writing practices in elite Roman communities. The scenes of reading preserved in ancient sources provide detailed glimpses into the place of shared reading and literary performance in daily life. In Epistle 27, Pliny describes the daily routine of Titus Vestricius Spurinna, a 78-year-old retired senator and consul:

The early morning he passes on his couch; at eight he calls for his slippers, and walks three miles, exercising mind and body together. On his return, if he has any friends in the house with him, he gets upon some entertaining and interesting topic of conversation; if by himself, some book is read to him, sometimes when visitors are there even, if agreeable to the company. Then he has a rest, and after that either takes up a book or resumes his conversation in preference to reading.

In the afternoon, after he has bathed, Spurinna has “some light and entertaining author read to him,” a ritual house guests are invited to share. At dinner, guests are entertained with another group reading, “the recital of some dramatic piece,” as a way of “seasoning” the “pleasures” of the evening “with study.” All of this, he writes, is carried on “with so much affability and politeness that none of his guests ever finds it tedious.” For Johnson, this reveals Pliny’s belief that shared literary consumption forms a necessary part of high-status Roman identity. “Reading in this society,” he writes, “is tightly bound up in the construction of … community.” It is the glue that binds together a range of communal practices—meals, exercise, literary conversation—into one unified whole, a social solvent that simultaneously acts as an elite marker. Shared reading experiences in this milieu are a means of fostering a sense of group belonging. They are ways of performing social identity, of easing participants into their roles as hosts and house guests, clients and patrons.

Another externality that impels the formation of ancient Roman reading communities is textual scarcity. To gain access to texts in the ancient world, readers needed social connections. Literary and intellectual culture in such a textual economy will necessarily be communal, as both readers and authors depend on social relationships in order to exchange and encounter reading material. As Johnson shows, the duties of authorship in ancient Rome extended into the spheres of production and distribution. Genteel authors like Galen retained the scribes and lectors who would copy and perform their works for a wider coterie of friends and followers. This culture of scarcity in turn imprinted itself onto reading practices. In the introduction to his treatise On Theriac to Piso, Galen describes visiting Piso at home and finding him in the midst of reading a medical treatise, an act of private reading that readily segues into an extended social performance for Galen’s benefit:

I once came to your house as is my custom and found you with many of your accustomed books lying around you. For you do especially love, after the conclusion of the public duties arising from your affairs, to spend your time with the old philosophers. But on this occasion you had acquired a book about this antidote [i.e., theriac] and were reading it with pleasure; and when I was standing next to you you immediately looked on me with the eyes of friendship and greeted me courteously and then took up the reading of the book again with me for audience. And I listened because the book was thoughtfully written … And as you read … a great sense of wonder came over me and I was very grateful for our good luck, when I saw you so enthusiastic about the art. For most men just want to derive the pleasure of listening from writings on medicine: but you not only listen with pleasure to what is said, but also learn from your native intelligence …

As Johnson notes, this passage is striking precisely because of its unfamiliarity, for what it says about the gulf that separates “Galen’s culture of reading” from “our own.” Specialised texts in the Roman world were so scarce—and hence so valuable—that it was axiomatic to readers like Piso and Galen that the “good luck” of mutual textual encounter should be maximised by an act of shared reading, not simply of a small extract, but of the entire work. The result is a precisely described scene of reading that baffles us with its strangeness.  What these anecdotes indicate is not only that, as Robert Darnton puts it, “reading has a history,” but that reading communities everywhere bear the unmistakable imprints of that history.

In early Victorian London, juvenile pickpockets reacted in their own way to the externalities of textual scarcity. As Henry Mayhew records, literate gang members would read their copies of Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Calendar aloud in lodgings during the evenings to those in their networks who couldn’t read. These acts of shared reading not only fostered group identity, but enabled gang members to maximise their communal resources, to make literacy and textual possessions go further. The reading communities in early twentieth-century New Zealand that Susann Liebich has studied are similarly embedded in wider networks of friendship and group belonging. Sharing books and reading tips was, as she demonstrates, a means of “fostering connections,” a way for “readers to connect with each other and with a world beyond Timaru.” What each of these examples shows is that the social function of shared reading differs according to the needs and norms of the wider communities and cultures in which that reading community is embedded. At the same time, however, attending to these differences encourages us to consider what is distinctive about norms and practices within contemporary reading communities, helping us limn what Rob Koehler elsewhere on this blog identifies as “the intimate and complex relationships between individuals, texts, and lived experience” across time and space, within history and our own present moment.

Edmund G. C. King is a Research Fellow in English Literature in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at The Open University, UK. He works on the Reading Experience Database and is currently researching British and Commonwealth reading practices during the First World War. He is co-editor (with Shafquat Towheed) of Reading and the First World War: Readers, Texts, Archives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

Think Piece

Mandatory Reading: The Novel and the College Course in the Early American Republic

by guest contributor Rob Koehler

Daniel Tompkin’s collegiate essay. Image courtesy of the HathiTrust Digital Library.

Like a lot of college students today, Daniel Tompkins (1774-1825) spent much of his four years at the newly named Columbia College [now University] writing essays.  Foreshadowing his later political commitments as New York Governor from 1807-1817, he wrote about topical issues, pressing problems of social justice, and more abstract problems like the persistence of prejudice. Tompkins proved to be quite liberal in most of his sentiments, as in his arguments for the abolition of slavery, the end of capital punishment, and the demotion of the classical curriculum in the collegiate course.   Yet, for the purposes of this essay, Tompkins most interesting piece is “On Novels,” in which he defends fiction reading as a valuable part of an education.  Tompkins begins his essay by noting he was taught that novels were “solely for the amusement of puerile minds” but eventually came to realize that simply accepting this opinion was like being a child who “by [his] catechism [was] taught to admit principles as true without being convinced of the truth of them as [he] ought to be by [his] own reason”.  And Tompkins’ reason taught him to enjoy novels; in fact, he was willing to go so far as to relate the reading of novels to that of his own formal education at Columbia, writing:

It is further remarked, that novels have a bad tendency, by possessing a power of alluring the reader and cause him to devote his whole attention to them.  Mathematicks it is observed have the same tendency to those who have a relish for the pleasure arising from that study, yet in my humble opinion, this is not a sufficient demonstration to shew, that Mathematicks ought to be avoided.

Writing after having completed the mandatory two years of Mathematics required of Columbia students, Tompkins had the academic experience to make the comparison. It seems unlikely that most young men—who would have studied arithmetic as an effort to better their employment prospects during apprenticeship or after the work day had ended—would have shared Tompkins’ perspective on the subject and its more than practical purposes. It was his privileged position as a college student that made the comparison both sensible and useful.

In the early United States and in the Anglophone world more generally, criticism and praise of novels centered around their moral qualities and their impact on young women, not on young men.  In her magisterial study of early American novels and novel readers, Cathy Davidson focuses almost exclusively on the uses of novels as an informal—and somewhat subversive—education for young women in the dangers and possibilities of heterosociability, courtship, sexual relationships, and marriage.  A wealth of letters, diaries, and other sources back up Davidson’s claim, showing how female characters and the narrative frameworks of novels were taken up by young women to discuss their misgivings, fears, and hopes about their futures.  Yet, how did novel reading impact the intellectual lives of young men?

After all, no early American cultural pundit decried the deleterious impact of novel reading on young men or espoused his or her fear that it would lead to their seduction, ruin, and premature death.  This gap emphasizes the sexist and overtly regulatory functions of this kind of criticism of the novel, but it does not answer the question of whether young men read novels as avidly as young women, or what exactly that activity meant to them.  Some scholars—such as Bryan Waterman and Robb Haberman—have noted that, like young women, young men also used the literary language of the novel when engaging in romantic and sometimes sexually charged relationships and thus it became one mode of conducting a romance in the early Republic.

Based on Tompkins’ essay though, I suggest that the novel was also a part of the informal education of young men that became for many a lifelong interest.   The records of the New York Society Library from 1789-1792 document the reading of nineteen unmarried young men—all of them, like Tompkins, students or recent graduates of Columbia—who all checked out and read novels in addition to the history books, Latin translations, and reference books that they were likely using to accompany or supplement their courses. This cohort of young men such as John L. Norton, Samuel Jones, and James Parker showed many of the behaviors decried by critics of young women’s novel reading.  They regularly selected the newest rather than the best, they read salacious scandal fiction like Retribution or The Convent, and they read very quickly, often returning a volume of a novel the day after they checked it out.  But, they did all of this while also taking out a steady stream of works like Robertson’s History of America and Adam Ferguson’s History of the Roman Republic.  These habits show that, just like teenagers today, college students in the early Republic were multi-tasking, moving fluidly between various tasks and types of reading.

This is not to say that reading novels was not important but to say that it took place in a larger context of engagement with the printed word; for these privileged young men of the early Republic, novel reading was, as much as Mathematics, a part of a liberal education. What is perhaps most interesting is that for readers in this cohort, novel reading remained a pursuit after the end of their educational careers in a way that the reading of other types of works, many of which had been required for their educations, did not.  Because the library’s records between 1792-1797 are lost, there is a particularly jarring difference in borrowing for many of these men between their college days and their adult reading.  In their adult years, novels predominate in almost every reader’s record. While this might be evidence that a wife or child is using the account, the preponderance in so many accounts suggests that it is the men themselves.

Governor and Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins. Image courtesy of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library.

And this returns me to Daniel Tompkins and a peculiarity in his comparison of reading novels to studying Mathematics.  Tompkins ends by commenting that “Mathematicks. . . have the same tendency to those who have a relish for the pleasure arising from that study, yet in my humble opinion, this is not a sufficient demonstration to shew, that Mathematicks ought to be avoided.” Tompkins is as much complaining about the dullness of Mathematics for most students as he is highlighting the enjoyability of reading a novel.  As the reading habits of others his age and background suggests, higher education did not generally invoke a passion in early American students to pursue learning for the love of it, instead they embraced novel reading as both educative and pleasurable. More generally, I think Tompkins’ defense of novel reading makes clear that whatever their more intimate and immediate purposes for young people during this period, novel reading often became—and still becomes for many young people—a steady habit, one that continued after  reading required for other purposes fell away. None of these men—unlike Tompkins himself who later became a Governor and then Vice President—would become particularly famous or well known in a field of endeavor in the early Republic, and most would lead lives that left little trace.  They all, however, seem to have made separate yet unquestionably linked decisions to embrace the reading of novels over other forms of improving intellectual pursuits that had formed a part of their formative education.

In an earlier post for this blog, I suggested that as scholars we have yet to consider what it would mean to develop a history of reading for pleasure instead of for purpose, or to develop a history of reading that did not place these two objectives in tension but, as these Columbia students did, instead in purposive relation.  Reading for pleasure is not an act of non-purposiveness but an act of a different purpose altogether.  The life of the mind does not solely originate in planned study and courses of reading, in the aggressively organized, disciplinary spaces of universities and learned sociability; it also develops in the intimate and complex relationships between individuals, texts, and lived experience that persist as much because of their often inexplicable enjoyability as their expressed purpose or lack thereof.

Rob Koehler is a PhD. candidate in English at New York University. He works at the intersections of education, literature, and publishing in early America, examining the political, legal, and cultural origins of schools and libraries as public institutions.

Think Piece

(Prison) Note(book)s Toward a History of Boredom

by guest contributor Spencer J. Weinreich

Act III, scene iii of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (c.1596) sees the imprisoned Antonio following his creditor, Shylock, through the streets, in hopes of mercy. Unmoved, Shylock expostulates, “I do wonder, / Thou naughty gaoler, that thou art so fond / To come abroad with him at his request” (III.iii.8–10).

But sixteenth-century English audiences would not have been surprised at Antonio’s freedom, for early-modern prisons “were not hermetically sealed sites of discipline; they were instead physically and socially enmeshed with the surrounding city” (Freeman, “The Rise of Prison Literature,” 135–36). Friends, relatives, and servants could come and go with relative ease. Moreover, prisoners might purchase from their jailors whatever luxuries they could afford: the Catholic printer Stephen Vallenger’s cell contained, inter alia, “a feather bed, silver and pewter spoons, money, jewelry, and a library of 101 books” (141). Texts circulated within and through prison walls—even into printing presses.

Faced with such evidence, it is understandable that the abundant recent scholarship on early-modern prisons sees these institutions as defined by contact, both personal and textual. Peter Lake and Michael C. Questier regard the prison as “the venue for the most exciting and imaginative battles” between Catholics and Protestants, whether in interrogation, proselytization, or disputation (196). Molly Murray and Thomas S. Freeman have both gone so far as to call it “a site of culture, one that ought to be considered alongside the court and the university as a place of significant textual, and literary, production” (150).

If we regard the prison as characterized by contact, we are predisposed to regard prison writings as the products of contact, and as fundamentally discursive. That is to say, as communicating something to someone, some audience beyond the author’s cell. Thus, scholars have concentrated on letters, life-writing and other forms of self-presentation, and polemics or apologetics. Even ostensibly private or non-discursive forms of writing, such as personal poetry or graffiti, are interpreted along these lines, as directed (if obliquely) to jailers, future inmates, or God.

Yet to normalize the prison as a site of cultural production risks glossing over a critical feature of its intellectual landscape: constraint. Rivkah Zim identifies constraint as the commonality unifying “prison writings” as a category: “though the experience of different centuries and regimes varies greatly and there is no single category of space implied […] being a prisoner or captive in any period means being cut off and kept apart from the continuities of normal life” (2). Even the most lenient carceral regimes included controls on communication and the movement of texts and persons, circumstances absent at court or within the universities. But if we take seriously the isolation Zim places at the heart of the carceral experience and look for its presence in the early modern English prison, new approaches to literary history, and the history of ideas more generally, become possible.

My case study is Stephen Gardiner, Tudor bishop of Winchester. In the reign of Edward VI, Gardiner was twice imprisoned for resisting the radical Protestant agenda of the young king’s regents. In September 1547, he was confined to the Fleet, probably to prevent him attending the coming parliamentary session. Released in January 1548, Gardiner was not to enjoy his freedom for long: in June, after months of more or less open defiance, he was again arrested and sent to the Tower,

“a dankish and uncomfortable house,” as his servant Wingfield called it, for one ‘much given to rheums’—and lodged for the first month “in a place called the Garden Tower… fast locked in, without coming abroad in all that space.” Then […] he was removed to “a place in the same Tower called the King’s Lodging.” Here he was kept no less closely, not even being permitted to exercise in the gardens. For eleven months more he saw no one save the Lieutenant of the Tower, the jailors, a physician who came when he was sick of a fever, his chaplain, William Medowe, who was permitted to visit him once in his fever and again on Easter Day, and two servants of his household, who waited on him and who were not allowed to leave the Tower confines. (James Arthur Muller, Stephen Gardiner and the Tudor Reaction, 183)

As we have seen, this was severity entirely out of keeping with sixteenth-century English norms. In October 1549, Gardiner protested to the Privy Council,

[I] have continued heere in this miserable prison now one yeere, one quarter, and one moneth, this same day that I write these my letters, with want of aire to relieve my bodie, want of books to releeve my minde, want of good company, the onely solace of this world, and finally, want of a just cause, why I should have come hither at all. (442)

Although eventually permitted occasional walks in the gardens, Gardiner’s systemic isolation continued. He was to be denied books, paper, and writing implements, but this stricture, at least, was not observed—as evidenced by the six treatises and numerous letters produced during his captivity. Gardiner also kept notebooks, two of which survive as Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Parker MS 127, fols. 167–342. He filled page after page with quotations from Desiderius Erasmus’s Adages, Plautus, Martial, Juvenal, and Virgil, as well as his own Latin elegiac verses (mostly biblical paraphrases).

These notebooks are not easily read as the product of interpersonal contact and or as a medium of communication—they do not cohere into a message or reveal an intended audience. To take the pages of Plautus as an example, to all appearances Gardiner is simply copying out lines from the playwright’s collected works, as edited by the French humanist Robert Estienne and published in Paris in 1530 (identifiable by textual variants). The quotations are ordered according to their appearance in each play, the plays according to the arrangement of the edition. As a result, adjacent verses seem to bear little relation to one another. An excerpt from folio 177, drawn from Pseudolus (191 BCE), gives a sense of the organizational incoherence:

“Imbrem in cribrum gerere” (“pouring water into a sieve,” l. 102)
“supercilium salit (“my eyebrow is twitching,” l. 107)
“dictis facta suppetant” (“your deeds support the words you speak,” l. 108) (all translations by Wolfgang de Melo).

Some lines could be interpreted as responses to Gardiner’s situation (“Animus equus optimum est arumne condimentum” [“That’s why self-possession is the best seasoning for sorrow,” Rudens, l. 402]), but others seem irrelevant at best (“meas opplebit aures sua vaniloquentia” [“she’ll fill my ears with her idle chatter,” Rudens, l. 905]) (fols. 172, 185). Some quotations are abbreviated past the point of potential relevance: from the line “so that I’d be treated a little bit more neatly at last” (Pseudolus, l. 774), Gardiner has copied only the word “gnitiudscule” (“a little bit more neatly”) (fol. 179).

Perhaps the apparent absence of a message simply is the absence of a message; perhaps the content of these pages was of no more than incidental interest to Gardiner. Instead, I suggest the key to understanding these compilations lies in the prisoner’s own words: his continued “want of books to releeve my minde, want of good company, the onely solace of this world.” Gardiner was a celebrated scholar of canon and civil law, the master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, a distinguished diplomat, and, until his deposition in 1551, a prominent bishop. He was a man at the center of English intellectual and political life. And, locked away in the Tower, he was bored. Copying out quotations occupied his eyes, hands, and mind, at once ameliorating the tedium of endless hours alone and distracting him from the frustrations and anxieties of his isolation. In this instance—and in many others as yet unidentified—the act of writing was more important than what was written.

Apart from renewed attention to the isolation that did exist in early-modern English prisons, Gardiner’s notebooks beckon toward the possibilities of a history of boredom. Scholars are not unnaturally attracted to the firmly-held conviction, the engrossing passion, the fascinating and the fascinated. But these are often exceptional cases, and their more ordinary fellows are no less deserving of our attention. What of the listless student alongside the prodigy, the listless churchgoer alongside the zealot? Disinterest, tedium, and rote are the mirror images of intellectual history’s more usual fare, and offer a very different way of thinking about the production, dissemination, and uses of knowledge.

Spencer J. Weinreich is an M.Phil. student in ecclesiastical history at the University of Oxford, where he is an Ertegun Scholar. His dissertation examines the prison writings of Stephen Gardiner in the context of early modern intellectual history. His work has appeared in Early Science and Medicine, Names, and The Journal of Ecclesiastical History.

Think Piece

Reading for Pleasure and Shelf-Satisfaction: The Reading Sheffield Oral History Project

by guest contributor Elizabeth Ott

Debates about the proper function of public libraries—what readers they should serve, what kinds of reading they should promote, what sorts of books should stock their shelves and (perhaps most importantly) how those books and shelves should be paid for—have dogged discussions of public libraries since their first inception. These debates have never been politically neutral, yet they have been particularly charged in recent years, as conservative economic policies have forced the closure of many libraries around the United Kingdom. In this climate, libraries, librarians, and library users are charged to articulate what value public libraries offer to offset the cost of their operation.

Often these articulations rely upon the rhetoric of moral improvement: reading becomes synonymous with education, a safe activity that guards against the dubious pleasures of modernity. The library itself is cited as a place of community-building, a neutral space of wholesome civic engagement. These lines of argument have the effect of casting public libraries in relation to a sense of time: either libraries are preserving a sense of the past, a golden moment in history when reading (usually figured as inherently superior to, say, television, the internet, etc.) was ubiquitous, or libraries are a gateway to progress, an investment in national advancement.

Jean Wolfendale, Sheffield Reader
Jean Wolfendale, Sheffield Reader

The tension between these two modes of articulating value in public libraries can be seen in a recent interview in the Guardian with writer Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s interlocutor, Toby Litt, asks a series of leading questions, such as this one: “Isn’t the future of libraries dependent on not having gatekeepers who are scary, on libraries not looking ancient, and not being about distant, old knowledge?” This question is loaded with valuations of what is good (progress, youth, the future) and what is bad (history, age, the past). It is impossible to read it without jumping to a conclusion about the kind of library he is indicating: the scary gate-keeping crone who guards ancient tomes in a derelict Carnegie building whose sagging walls speak of years of civic neglect. Gaiman is largely uninterested in engaging this discourse, and instead uses the space of the interview to explore his own personal and imaginative interaction with libraries as a young reader. Nevertheless, his metaphor of the library as “seed-corn” which ends up titling the article, contributes to a progress narrative.

In this context, the Reading Sheffield project is delightfully radical. Though in many ways the project tropes the library as a preserver of history (the main page of the website invites readers to “be transported to Sheffield’s past. To a time without Google or Apple, a time when the world went to war and then re-built itself, a time when most children left school at 14 and most women did not work outside the home”), it significantly places no value whatsoever on reading as an improving activity, instead championing reading as an activity of leisure. Against the backdrop of a largely working class readership, Reading Sheffield is “a resource for anybody seeking to explore, celebrate, or promote reading for pleasure.”

At the core of the Reading Sheffield project is series of sixty-two interviews with residents who lived in Sheffield, England during the 1940s and 1950s, conducted over a two-year period by twelve trained volunteers. These oral histories of reading are fully transcribed and available on the website, along with embedded audio files. Interview subjects recollect how they accessed the library, when they first became readers, what they read, and how their reading intersected with their daily lives. These recordings have significant historical value as a record of reader activity—an aspect of reading history that’s especially fleeting and difficult to capture—and as markers of social history. In recounting their memories of library use, each interviewee also records detailed information about the culture of post-war Britain in which they read. Archival quality audio recordings of the interviews have been deposited with the Sheffield Archives and Sheffield Hallam University, in addition to being made available online.

One Sheffield reader mentions trips to the Hillsborough Library, which hosted a reading club group for young people on Wednesday evenings.
One Sheffield reader mentions trips to the Hillsborough Library, which hosted a reading club group for young people on Wednesday evenings.
Because of the average age of interview participants, the Reading Sheffield oral histories recall the privation of post-war England in the 1940s and 1950s. Readers reference the scarcity of paper, shortages of food, the sheer difficulty of visiting library branches when tram rides proved too expensive and a trip across town meant an arduous trek in both directions. The interview format prompts recollections along a defined pathway: when did you first learn to read? What were your first books?  Which library branches did you visit and how did you get there? What books did you own and what books did you borrow? This last question is one that particularly highlights the library’s function as a place of pleasure reading, as often interviewees make a distinction between the kind of practical books purchased for the home (bibles, trade manuals, school books) and the books vividly recalled from library visits: “Well the books from the library I think were all novels.”

Beyond its function as a repository of oral history, the project seeks to imaginatively engage with readers’ histories in a variety of ways—most interestingly through its Readers’ Journeys: “interpretive articles based on our readers’ interviews,” written by project team members, that may “not necessarily represent the views of the interviewees.” These articles attempt to match oral histories with the places and spaces they recollect, drawing out tangential narratives that emphasize the importance of libraries and library buildings in the social life of the community.

Sheffield, like many cities in the United Kingdom, has weathered threats of library closure. It was the site of community protests in 2014 over the planned closure of approximately 16 branch locations; these closures were only avoided through the use of volunteer labor, replacing professional and staff positions at many branches. Reading Sheffield, too, is built on the labor largely of volunteers, whose efforts to preserve community history in the face of erasure are commendable, as is their message that readers deserve a community space for shared pleasure, outside any system of utilitarian value.

Elizabeth Ott is Assistant Curator of Rare Books at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Libraries. Her doctoral work is on the history of subscription and circulating libraries in England.