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Think Piece

Alice Ambrose and Life Unfettered by Philosophy in Wittgenstein’s Cambridge

by guest contributor David Loner

As the first and only official post-graduate advisee of the celebrated Austrian thinker and Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alice Ambrose (1906-2001) typified in her 1932-38 Ph.D. course the complex social experience interwar upper-middle-class women underwent as unofficial members of the University of Cambridge. Compelling yet reserved, Ambrose toed a line between subordination and originality which Cambridge dons often expected their female pupils to exhibit in the years following the Cambridge University Senate’s 1921 university ordinance on “title of degree,” or unofficial courses for women students (women were not made full university members until 1948). Yet, despite this carefully-negotiated and normative gender performance, Wittgenstein ultimately denounced his protégée and her work as morally “indecent”—precipitating a contest between the Austrian thinker and his fellow dons over the place of women and high academic distinction in mid-twentieth-century Cambridge philosophy.

As an American graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison after the First World War, Alice Ambrose’s initial research focused on the work of the Dutch logician L.E.J. Brouwer and his conjecture that intuition, not metaphysics, best served as the epistemic foundation to all mathematical thought. Forming the basis of her first Ph.D. dissertation, this work would enable Ambrose to successfully apply in 1932 for Wellesley College’s one-year post-doctoral fellowship with the University of Cambridge (what would a year later become a second fully-fledged PhD course). Cambridge may have been male-dominated, but Ambrose’s choice was intentional. For, as she claimed in correspondence with her Madison advisor E.B. McGilvary, only through discourse with the renowned Cambridge junior fellow and author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, would her future employment as a lecturer in philosophy be assured (October 16, 1932, MS Add.9938 Box 2, Folio 2, Cambridge University Library).

Having previously stunned interwar readers in its provocative albeit bewildering analysis of the metaphysics of logic, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus—written during his four-year service as an infantry soldier for Austria-Hungary in the First World War—was a blatant departure from the technical program of his one-time prewar Cambridge supervisor Bertrand Russell and their forerunner Gottlob Frege. The Tractatus argued that, while capable of depicting the world within a coherent symbolism, “logical pictures” nevertheless indicate a greater ethical realm, inaccessible to humans (not just scholars) by symbolic speech acts. It uncompromisingly declared that “what we cannot think, that we cannot think: what we cannot therefore say what we cannot think” (TLP 5.61). For, as Wittgenstein posited, “in fact what solipsism means is quite correct, only it cannot be said, but it show itself.” (5.62). “The sense of the world,” then, Wittgenstein argued, must lie outside the world (6.41), in a moral reality composed not of propositions but instead of silence (7).

Immediately conceding their debt to Wittgenstein in both private letters and published reviews, scholars like Russell and the Cambridge mathematician Frank P. Ramsey praised the Austrian thinker’s remarks on solipsism and the tautological nature of logical propositions as indispensable. Even so, for these highly-trained professional men, as well as for their more neophyte pupils, the ethical import of Wittgenstein’s emphasis on the sense of the world as somehow outside the world (and within silence) would remain largely ineffectual in combating the greater problems of philosophy. Ambrose was no exception to this. Writing to McGilvary on October 16, 1932, a week after the start of her course at Cambridge, Ambrose would confirm that while “there’s no doubt his thoughts are original,” Wittgenstein’s mode of conveying ideas in his course lectures left one wanting. “He is extremely hard to follow,” she wrote; “he forgets what he set out to say, rears ahead of himself—says Whoa!…settles down rigidly then and thinks with his head in his hands, stammers, says ‘Poor Miss Ambrose’, swears, and ends up with ‘It is very diff-i-cult’” (MS Add.9938 Box 2, Folio 2, CUL).

Letter from Ambrose to McGilvary, MS Add.9938 Box 2, Folio 2, Cambridge University Library. By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.
Letter from Ambrose to McGilvary, MS Add.9938 Box 2, Folio 2, Cambridge University Library. By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

Exemplifying what Stefan Collini has referred to as the “absent-mindedness” of the twentieth-century British intellectual, Wittgenstein at once appeared to Ambrose in her initial course lectures and supervisions as “as good as a babe in arms at advising one about any practical matters.” “It is true he is not English,” she wrote in the same letter to McGilvary, “not enough dignity, not proper enough”; “he lectures without a gown and doesn’t insist on students wearing theirs; and he goes with his shirt open at his throat.” Yet in his absent-mindedness as a Cambridge junior lecturer, Wittgenstein would go far beyond the pale of Collini’s characterization. For, as Ambrose indicates elsewhere in her notes on Wittgenstein’s lectures, Wittgenstein now not only denied that there were any intellectuals in Cambridge, but refuted the entire project of philosophy as sheer nonsense. “Nonsense is produced by trying to express in a proposition something which belongs to the grammar of our language”—a practice all too common among scholars. “The verification of my having toothache is having it,” Wittgenstein remarked; “[i]t makes no sense for me to answer the question, ‘How do you know you have a toothache?’, by ‘I know it because I feel it’. In fact there is something wrong with the question; and the answer is absurd.”

For the anti-intellectual Wittgenstein, then, scholarly inquiry in philosophy, be it at Cambridge or elsewhere was, much like a toothache, a disease—in need of constant therapeutic relief. This alleviation of nonsense, he argued, was possible only through the disappearance of obsession (98) or a life unfettered by disciplinary philosophy, engaged in full duty to oneself. For Ambrose, however, her status as a woman student in need of employment as a university lecturer prohibited her from such thinking. Indeed, despite Wittgenstein’s insistence that his students apply his adversarial ethos to their study of philosophy, interwar female pupils like Ambrose would by and large continue in their courses to affirm the same Cantabridgian virtues of industry, conviviality and hierarchy which the Austrian thinker disparaged as absurd. The result, then, as Paul R. Deslandes has elsewhere detailed, was a “highly gendered little world” of “intense institutional loyalty” which rewarded only the most subordinate, if original, of women students—a paradoxical imbalance which Ambrose attempted to maintain in her own work on finite logical propositions.

When not helping Wittgenstein to record his latest research (what eventually would be published in 1961 as The Blue and Brown Books), Ambrose thus pursued quite separately in her postdoctoral research an investigation into the epistemic purchase of Wittgenstein’s concept of grammar in philosophy. In particular, her April 1935 article “Finitism in Mathematics [I],” the first published exposition of Wittgenstein’s post-Tractarian philosophy, situated his denunciation of philosophical “nonsense” within a much broader scholarly conversation on the intuitively finite nature of logical operations in mathematics or “verbal forms.” Referencing Wittgenstein’s own turn of phrase throughout her article, Ambrose argued that “what the finitist can justifiably claim” can be “in many cases…a statement of what he should claim as opposite of what he does claim” (188). That is, logical dilemmas stifling scholars’ findings were more often than not expositional confusions regarding the grammar of intuition, brought about by the inexactness of the philosopher’s language. Guided, then, by the same remarks her supervisor offered in his 1932-35 Cambridge lectures, Ambrose’s article presented Wittgenstein’s absent-minded posture not an affront to academic philosophers, but rather as a bulwark in their continued acquiescence to male-dominated high academic distinction. Yet despite her initiative in re-imagining Wittgenstein’s new philosophy as a boon for postwar scholars’ ongoing investigations in the philosophy of mathematics, Ambrose’s citation would prompt the full wrath of the Cambridge junior fellow.

On May 16, 1935, in a letter to Ambrose, Wittgenstein decried his protégée’s publication as “indecent,” refusing any further cooperation on his part with her. Only two days later, he reiterated this point, denigrating Ambrose’s behavior to his Cambridge colleague, professor of philosophy G.E. Moore. “I think you have no idea in what a serious situation she is,” he wrote. “I don’t mean serious, because of the difficulty to find a job; but serious because she is now actually standing at a crossroad. One road leading to perpetual misjudging of her intellectual powers and thereby to hurt pride and vanity etc. etc. The other would lead her to a knowledge of her own capacities and that always has good consequences.” To Moore, who would subsequently chair Ambrose’s 1938 Cambridge Ph.D. viva, this assessment was clearly misguided. As her supervisor, he knew Ambrose to be a competent scholar, despite the double standard imposed on her as a women student. Yet unlike Moore, Wittgenstein continued to feel no obligation to assist Ambrose in her quest to maintain the careful balance between humility and assertion necessary to advance one’s career in academic philosophy. For, as he would later argue during his disastrous postwar tenure as chairman of the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club, logical perspicacity required but one thing from the serious philosopher, whether man or woman: the full denial of disciplinary philosophy as a worthwhile life.


David Loner is a second-year PhD student in history at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on the milieu of students and scholars associated with the twentieth-century Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

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What We're Reading

Artists and Craftswomen: Printing Women at the New York Public Library

by contributing editor Erin McGuirl

In an etched self-portrait dated 1770, Angelica Kauffman rests her weary head on a book propped up on her desk. In the early state of the print on display now at the New York Public Library, her melancholic gaze skims the top of the viewer’s head, just missing the eye. With her hair disheveled, in unadorned, simple clothes, she appears to us following a long day of hard work. The column behind lends an air of professionalism to the piece, abstractly situating her, if not indoors in a workshop, then in an urban environment. A founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, Kauffman was a highly skilled artist and a portraitist with a long, star-studded list of international clients. In this portrait, she is an artisan with work to do. In a later state held by Royal Academy of Arts, she has a different attitude. The column behind her is a tree, and her gaze meets our eye, now a bit softer. In this natural setting she is both an artist and muse, an inspiring force of creation and a creator, herself. In the early state, we see Kauffman the craftsman; in the later, Kauffman the artist.

Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), Self-portrait, 1770. Early state from the The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library.
Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), Self-portrait, 1770. Early state from the The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library.

These subtle changes present contrasting views of the artist as both highly skilled artisan or tradesperson and as inspired creator of forms and images. They are especially apt representations of the many women artists whose work is on display in the fine exhibition now on view at the New York Public Library, Printing Women: Three Centuries of Female Printmakers, 1579-1900.

About fifty prints on display represent a huge range of styles, media, and abilities. A charming engraved doodle by an amateur, Sophie of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (1778–1835), is a marvelous picture of the beginner’s art. The forms of are flatly rendered with none of the variation in line and tone that more confident hobbyist-artists like Madame de Pompadour or Anna Maria von Schurman demonstrate in their more practiced work. Her lettering is crude and we see her literally practicing her abc’s between sketches of a large, stiff matron and a dainty young lady. Lettering was particularly difficult because it is necessary to incise text backwards on the plate, so that the print would be right-reading. What’s interesting here is that some of her sketches, particularly a gentleman in cravat and bicorne hat, show some practice at drawing. Shading on his lower right cheek and a white patch on the tip of his nose gives form to the outline of the head, suggesting three-dimensionality and practice (perhaps even instruction) in drawing. The print shows an individual learning use a burin, digging lines into a metal plate, and trying to achieve in metal some of the effects she’s learned to employ on paper.

Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), Self-portrait, 1770. Later state from the collections of the Royal Academy of London.
Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), Self-portrait, 1770. Later state from the collections of the Royal Academy of London.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Adélaide Allou executed two of the most sophisticated prints on display after drawings by Fragonard and Hubert Robert. Both pieces of were designed as frontispieces for books. While the show opens with a series of prints by women who practiced engraving as a sophisticated past-time, its inclusion of obscure artists like Allou demonstrate how women printmakers succeeded as technicians whose mastery of a particular printmaking technique (in Allou’s case, etching) qualified them to translate the work of established masters from one medium to another.

Sophie of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (1778-1835) “A sheet of sketches and studies …” 1795. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library.
Adelaide Allou (active late 18th century), “Racolte di vedute dissegnate doppo natura in napoli da Roberti intagliate adelaida allou sc. 1771 [title plate]” 1771. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library.
Yet even Allou wasn’t terribly good at engraving letters, a skill that even the most talented printmakers often lacked. If fact, print publishers and master printmakers often employed etchers and engravers who specialized in lettering to incise texts onto the prints executed by their colleagues in the shop. (See Maxime Préaud, “La feuille à l’envers” in Poésie et calligraphie imprimée à Paris au XVIIe siècle ; autour de la Chartreuse de Pierre Perrin, poème imprimé par Pierre Moreau en 1647. Sous la direction de Isabelle de Conihout & Frédéric Gabriel. Paris : Bibliothèque Mazarine & éditions comp’act, 2004. p. 133-137.) In a fascinating 18th century calligraphic print by a husband and wife team, Maria Strick’s designs for letterforms were engraved by her husband Hans, a shoemaker. Yet Allou signed her own name and included the abbreviation “Sc.” (sculpsit) to indicate that the print was the work of her own hand, and identifying the drawing as the work of another artist.

Strick, Maira (b. 1577) "Aux Exemplaires. Sonnet" c. 1600-1699. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. (Filename, not part of caption: nypl.digitalcollections.232ad690-12b0-0133-596e-58d385a7bbd0.001.q)
Maria Strick (b. 1577) “Aux Exemplaires. Sonnet” c. 1600-1699. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public.

Much of the art historical conversation around print culture in English revolves around reproduction, and the ways in which the multiplicity of images affects their meaning, value, reception, and consumption. The French, however, have a different approach. Scholars like Maxime Préaud, Marianne Grivel, and Corinne Le Bitouze have dug through the Archives Nationales to learn how the print trade actually worked, and they’ve discovered that the printmaking profession was mostly made up of semi-professionals with niche talents, who earned a living in a variety of ways as artisans. Unlike letterpress printing, which was a regulated trade, the French printmaker never needed to serve an apprenticeship or buy membership in a guild, and printmakers were free to find work as they pleased.  For example, many artists in Women Printers learned to draw on metal from working printmakers. Madame de Pompadour studied under court painter François Boucher, who also occasionally worked as a printmaker.

Sandrart, Susanna Maria von, 1658-1716. “Gabrielis Carola Patina” 1682. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library.
Susanna Maria von Sandrart, 1658-1716. “Gabrielis Carola Patina” 1682. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library.

Many great print publishers kept their businesses in the family, and Printing Women shows several examples of work from women with relatives in the trade. Susanna Maria von Sandrart studied with her printmaker father, Jacob von Sandrart and her uncle, the painter Joachim von Sandrart. Exhibition labels often allude to friendships (and affairs!) that connect these women to broader circles of well known artists and intellectuals. Sandrart’s uncle Johann Georg Volkamer commissioned works by her. A print from the collection of Anne Claude, compte de Caylus, was reproduced in a drawing by Louise de Montigny le Dauceur.  The print was etched and engraved by Augustin de Saint-Aubin. These relationships between women and a community of educated artists, scholars, and patrons pop up all over Women Printers, suggesting that there is a social-intellectual element to their stories that has yet to be explored, one that might look a lot like the communities that book historians have traced around the printers and publishers of texts in the early modern period.

Much like figures who appear at the fringes of early modern intellectual culture, so many artists in Printing Women deserve full length studies as individuals. The lack of biographical details for the vast majority of these women artists is woefully conspicuous in the clearly well researched exhibition labels. Exhibitions like this one must lead us to question what we know about these women, and the communities in which they lived and worked. Were they paid? Were some of these women the hands behind the countless unsigned prints circulating as single sheets or in books? Perhaps one of Printing Womens greatest accomplishments is in reminding us just how much we don’t know about them as individuals or as groups.

Sophie of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (1778-1835) “A sheet of sketches and studies …” 1795. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library.
Sophie of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (1778-1835) “A sheet of sketches and studies …” 1795. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library.

The show, however, is not without flaws. Printing Women draws exclusively from NYPL’s renowned print collection, founded in 1900 with Samuel Putnam Avery’s donation of 17,775 etchings and lithographs by 978 artists. Avery’s gift is a treasury of information about women printmakers because it absorbed the collection of prints by women built by Henrietta Louise Koenen (1830-1881) from 1848 to 1861. While both the website and lavishly illustrated accompanying booklet stress Koenen as the genius behind the collection, the exhibition tells us almost nothing about who this woman was and how she went about acquiring a large (but unquantified) number of prints. What’s more frustrating is the fact that the Avery Collection is minimally represented online in NYPL’s Prints & Photographs Catalog and Digital Collections Gallery, and there is no way to locate prints made exclusively by women or collected by Koenen online. Access on site, however, is excellent, particularly with the Print Division’s File on Women Printers. The situation is a sad reminder of what has been lost with the Library’s shift to digital promotion of an amorphous library brand, instead of its world-class collections.

Printing Women marks the third exhibition of prints from Koener’s collection in over a century. The first was in 1901 at the Grolier Club (the catalog they published is an invaluable resource), the second in 1973 at NYPL. The world has changed a lot since then, and despite the fact that digital tools have changed the ways that the world does research, the situation on the ground is much the same as it was in 1901. To uncover the stories of these women, we must look at the prints they made in their great variety and multiplicity, study our predecessors accounts of them, and most of all, we must visit Libraries and look at their collections. As Angelica Kauffman so artfully reminds us, prints change from impression to impression, there’s quite a lot to understand when we start to look carefully.

The exhibit Printing Women: Three Centuries of Female Printmakers, 1579-1900 runs at the New York Public Library until January 31, 2016.

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Think Piece

Education in Excess: The Folger Institute’s “Theatres of Learning”

by guest contributor Timothy Lundy

When Erasmus began to compose his authoritative textbook on style, De copia, during the last decade of the fifteenth century, it’s highly unlikely that he envisioned a gathering of twenty-first century scholars in a reconstructed Elizabethan theater in North America taking great pleasure in parodying his virtuosic ability to generate playfully excessive forms of simple expressions, such as his 195 variations on the Latin sentence “Tuae litterae me magnopere delectarunt [Your letter pleased me greatly].” The astonishing ability of educational forms to exceed the expectations and intentions of their creators is, of course, one of the great delights of education: teachers never know for certain how students might make use of the lessons they learn and the abilities they develop in the classroom. The excesses of education, however, also pose a problem for historians seeking to understand how educational theories and intentions became pedagogical practices; and, in turn, how these practices engendered social and cultural effects.

Between affectionate jokes about Erasmus, historians of education and literary scholars took up precisely this set of problems at the Folger Institute’s recent conference “Theatres of Learning: Education in Early Modern England (1500-1600).” Scholars from throughout the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada gathered to reexamine, in the words of the conference program, “the transmission of knowledge and expertise in formal and informal settings, between and among institutions and pedagogical practices, and across a wide range of intellectual communities.” This broad conception of education allowed attendees to grapple both with the formal constraints of early modern education and with the constant flow of ideas and practices beyond those constraints.

The tone for the weekend was set by a sweeping overview of “the ends of education in early modern England” in a lecture delivered by Keith Thomas. Thomas’s talk examined a number of the more or less explicit goals of early modern education while also calling attention to the sheer range of subject matter that discussions of early modern education have addressed: from the grammar schools to the Inns of Court, from Cambridge and Oxford to the London guilds, and from the Republic of Letters to the private household, the transmission of knowledge at all levels of English society held some aspects of that society in place while greatly transforming others.

In the conference’s second plenary lecture, Peter Mack pursued a complementary examination of the means of education in the humanist grammar school, a theater of learning that has long been a privileged site of engagement between historians and literary scholars. Mack argued that the rhetorical skills grammar-school students were taught allowed them to elaborate and reformulate conventional wisdom, enabling them to think in new ways, not merely recycle old ideas. By teaching students how to read as “fellow-practitioners” of the art of writing, the grammar schools trained men who were conscious of how the material they read could be reused and revised in new arguments and for new audiences.

The capacity of old rhetorical forms to engender new creative effects was also an important theme for Lorna Hutson, whose book Circumstantial Shakespeare was released on the conference’s opening day. Drawing on her new research, Hutson argued that the imaginative evocations of reality for which Elizabethan popular drama has long been praised owe their existence not to a break with the neoclassical tradition, as is commonly suggested, but to the curriculum of forensic rhetoric taught in English schools. Emphasizing the effects of more ephemeral modes of rhetorical education, Ursula Potter turned to the performance of Terentian drama as a central practice of grammar school education, with a significant role in the creation of a London audience for popular drama. Similarly, Heidi Hackel took up a discussion of gestural literacy in rhetorical education, highlighting the irony that gesture is the most visible form of rhetorical eloquence in person, but nearly invisible in the textual record. Turning to the universities, Richard Serjeantson argued that the performance of disputations has been unjustifiably neglected as the central practice of university education and began to reconstruct these performances by examining university notebooks, one of the few sites where written traces of the practice can be found.

Though the institutions of early modern education demand attention and study, Keith Thomas was careful to emphasize at the conference’s opening that scholars miss out on a great deal if they focus only on formal institutions and their explicit theories and practices. Elizabeth Hanson illustrated this point brilliantly in a close examination of the register of students in attendance at Merchant Taylors’ School at the start of the seventeenth century. The register, Hanson observed, can be read as a record of institutional ambitions, mapping a trajectory in which students advanced through the school’s curriculum year by year, reading new Latin authors along the way. However, a quite different story emerges when one attempts to follow an individual student’s annual progress and notices how few students actually remained in the school for more than a handful of years. Our understanding of early modern education, Hanson suggested, must account for both the form that institutions give to education as well as the practices and contingencies that exceed it.

Marking a decisive turn away from school education, Ian W. Archer attempted to outline a new account of the transfer and production of knowledge in relation to apprenticeship and the guilds of early modern London. Like Hanson, Archer emphasized the informal features of apprenticeship as a flexible educational system, calling into question the significance of the guilds’ regulatory framework to the way knowledge transfer occurred through apprenticeship. Likewise turning to the practical applications of education, Nicholas Popper’s examination of the production of minutely-detailed and politically expedient European travel guides and Jean-Louis Quantin’s account of the evolution of ecclesiastical histories over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries both suggested the varied political ends to which early modern learning and scholarship could contribute.

Still further beyond the reach of most institutional records, education that occurred in private households or local communities left very few traces. Thus, the exclusion of girls and women from grammar schools, universities, and educated professions makes their learning particularly difficult for scholars to characterize—although many are up to the challenge. Elizabeth Mazzola drew a contrast between our increasing knowledge of the circles and communities of female learning that existed in early modern England and the way that female learners chose to portray themselves in their own writings: as isolated and entirely self-taught individuals. She then considered the productive function of this sort of intellectual biography for writers from Marie de France and Hildegard of Bingen to Martha Moulsworth and Margaret Cavendish. Carol Pal also examined the intellectual lives of early modern women, delivering an incandescent talk on the place of women within the seventeenth century Republic of Letters, the subject of her 2012 book Republic of Women. In particular, Pal traced the remarkable intellectual influence of an “ephemeral academy” of female scholars that formed around Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia at the English court in exile in the Netherlands. The fact that later scholars have forgotten this intellectual network is not only a problem of gender, Pal suggested, but also one of institutional memory. The decentralized, polyglot environment at the exile court that made such intense intellectual exchange among women possible also, by its nature, left few traces in any formal institution.

By pursuing the history of early modern education from the perspective of both institutions and individuals, the Folger Institute’s “Theatres of Learning” conference investigated the complex intellectual traditions of education in the period as they were refracted by practical concerns and produced new, and sometimes unexpected, thought. As a final complication, conference organizer Nicholas Tyacke raised the question in the conference’s last session of how scholars should account historically for the sheer pleasure of learning and education in addition to its other, more utilitarian, ends. For an audience of scholars who still take great pleasure themselves in understanding the intellectual exchanges of the early modern period and their cultural effects, this was no small question indeed.

Timothy Lundy is a PhD student in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He studies early modern English literature and culture, and is particularly interested in theories and practices of translation.

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Think Piece

Accessing the Secrets of Early Medieval Relic Labels

by guest contributor Jake Purcell

Sometime in the eighth century, a nun sat at her writing desk in the scriptorium of the monastery at Chelles and cut a small strip of parchment measuring about 90 by 15/22 millimeters. In a script recognizable as a hallmark of her institution, she recorded, perhaps a little hastily, the words “rel sci gennouefe,” that is, “relics of Saint Genovefa” (Chartae Latinae Antiquiores, ed. Atsma et al., Vol. 18, No. 669: XL). She or one of her sisters took the piece of parchment and attached it to a small sack containing, presumably, a piece of the body of the saint, or perhaps some piece of matter associated with her or her miracles. Whatever the relic’s source—likely a wealthy patron—when the label was finished, a nun brought the relic to a small chassis and deposited the relic inside, where it sat undisturbed among many similarly encased and identified relics until the next relic that arrived at the monastery needed to be added.

This eighth-century relic label for relics of Pope Marcellus comes from the large body of labels that survive from the Sens cathedral treasury. It features a decorated chrismon, or cross, at the beginning (not uncommon for a label), as well as a series of markings at the end that might be the scribe's monogram or a note in a bureaucratic shorthand system called Tironian notes. Both of these features make it look like a tiny legal document. ChLA Vol. 19 No. 682:LIII Image courtesy Genevra Kornbluth.
This eighth-century relic label for relics of Pope Marcellus comes from the large body of labels that survive from the Sens cathedral treasury. It features a decorated chrismon, or cross, at the beginning (not uncommon for a label), as well as a series of markings at the end that might be the scribe’s monogram or a note in a bureaucratic shorthand system called Tironian notes. Both of these features make it look like a tiny legal document.
ChLA Vol. 19 No. 682:LIII
Image courtesy Genevra Kornbluth.

Early medieval relic labels are tiny objects with short texts—often frustratingly so, I find. As historical sources, however, they punch well above their weight in dispelling some of the obscurity of the worlds that produced them. Relics were closely connected with specific geographies, either because individual saints (like Genovefa) were venerated at and patrons of particular institutions in particular locales (such as Paris, which she was said to protect), or because those relics were associated with events that took place in specific places, such as the river Jordan in the Holy Land. As a result, labels reveal a lot about the geographic horizons of an institution like Chelles, as well as how those horizons changed over time. It is not too surprising to find evidence of a Parisian connection to Chelles, since only about twenty kilometers separated the two sites. But there are also some seventy further labels from the seventh and eighth centuries, allowing scholars to construct something of a network. The relics that were at Chelles earliest, copied in scripts that can be dated to c. 700, almost all come from saints in Gaul (examples include Martial of Limoges or Cassian of Autun), with single examples from Italy (Pope Martin) and the Holy Land (the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus). Relic labels in scripts datable to the eighth century or the second half of the seventh century suggest slightly wider horizons for Chelles, as more relics from Rome and the Holy Land appear, as do multiple relics from Egypt and Byzantium (Michael McCormick, Origins of the European Economy, 308-314). This is only one of the shifts visible in the labels from Chelles, but it is enough to provide a sense, otherwise quite dim, of where else and to what degree the female monastery of Chelles was connected with its outside world.

In addition to situating a female monastery in an international network, relic labels also reveal something of the institutional culture of a female monastery. Part of this is the construction of a dramatis personae of the saints venerated by the nuns. Devotion to saints was a localized affair in Merovingian Gaul, based on the relics, patrons, and liturgical texts at a given institution. The list of saints is not a blandly generic comment on early medieval superstition, but a reflection of the religious life at Chelles specifically. In addition, these lists provide some sense of the annual rhythms of the liturgical year that regimented the lives of the women who lived at Chelles (Yitzhak Hen, Culture and Religion in Merovingian Gaul, 92-96). After Genovefa’s relics arrived at the nunnery, every year on January 3, those relics were placed on the altar, prayers to her were added to the mass, and a feast was held in her honor. The same was probably true for most or all of the saints whose relics were housed at the monastery, though the day on which the saint was venerated depended usually on the date on which the saint died, giving Chelles a fairly busy sanctoral cycle, honoring at least 48 saints.

Finally, the need for labels suggests a set of complicated semiotic and theological issues that surrounded relics in the early Middle Ages. Another label at Chelles proclaimed the contents of its sack to be “de barba sancti bonifatii,” “from the beard of Saint Boniface” (ChLA Vol. 18, No.669:XXIII). This label distinguished the contents of its silk container as unique hair: holy hair from a holy individual, and thus separated from the general category of “hair” (Julia M.H. Smith, “Portable Christianity: Relics in the Medieval West (c.700-1200),” Proceedings of the British Academy 181 (2012): 143-167). It was not enough that the venerator of a relic know that the matter was in some way holy, however—Late Antique and medieval writers were clear that relics of uncertain status or uncertain identity should not be venerated (however imperfectly that dictate might have been followed). The label thus also did the important work of indicating that this holy hair came from the holy beard of St. Boniface, distinguishing it from the several other holy beards housed at Chelles in the eighth century. To lose knowledge about the identities of objects housed in a nunnery was a terrible tragedy for an institution whose reason for being centered, at least in part, on those objects. This was a risk that the humble relic label could help to address.

Relic labels are useful for pulling back the curtain on the geographic and institutional worlds of Merovingian Gaul, but their production and use also offer a host of questions about the relationship between documentary practices, authenticity, and institutional knowledge-making. When the nun of Chelles wrote “rel sci gennouefe,” she was making an epistemological claim about the matter contained in that particular sack and an argument about the authenticity of the relic itself. Crafting a label established an institutional, intellectual, and social context for the relic. The labels themselves did not simply relate names, but gestured to stories about holy figures and sacred geographies, revealed the nuns’ engagement with the relic as a relic, and suggest a kind of bureaucratic processing of holy matter—not that there were official guidelines in eighth-century Francia—that gave the relic a confirmed home in the institutional church.

Jake Purcell is a Ph.D. student in Columbia University’s history department studying the institutional and legal history of early medieval Europe. He is interested in documents, legal or otherwise, and the institutions that produced them in Merovingian and Carolingian Francia.

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Book Review: Meredith Ray, Daughters of Alchemy

by guest contributor Elisabeth Brander

Alchemy, and its association with the quest for the always-elusive philosopher’s stone, is one of the most fascinating aspects of early modern science. It was not only a tool to effect the transmutation of metals and create medical remedies, but also a philosophical and theological pursuit. Its most famous practitioners include John Dee, Isaac Newton, and Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, more commonly known as Paracelsus. The alchemical work of Paracelsus in particular has attracted considerable academic interest: from Walter Pagel’s analysis of his medical philosophy, published in the mid-twentieth century, to Charles Webster’s more recent studies of Paracelsus’ social and theological mission.

doaThese men might be well-known, but they were not the only alchemical practitioners. Tara Nummedal has shed light on the career of Anna Maria Zieglerin, a sixteenth-century German alchemist in the court of Duke Julius of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, whose work focused on childbearing and fertility. This is complemented by the work of Alisha Rankin, who has brought attention to what she terms “noble empirics”: German noblewomen who created medical remedies using their empirically gained knowledge. Meredith Ray’s new study Daughters of Alchemy continues this discussion of female practitioners. Her analysis of Caterina Sforza, the noblewoman from whom the Medici grand dukes were descended, provides an Italian counterpart to Rankin’s empirics. Sforza was actively engaged in the scientific empiricism of the age, and was a collector of “experiments”: personal recipes based on alchemical principles that could fulfill a variety of useful functions. Some were used to make cosmetics or medicinal remedies, and others were used for the traditional alchemical pursuits of creating—or mimicking—gold. These recipes reveal the ways in which alchemy was a practical pursuit for noblewomen, whether as a means to preserve health and beauty, or maintain control of their finances.

Sforza wrote her recipes in a private manuscript—a true “book of secrets”—but in the sixteenth century these compilations of recipes were also published, forming a popular literary genre. While these books contained knowledge that appealed to both sexes, many of their recipes offered advice tailored specifically to females, such as how to make breasts small and firm. This indicates that women were an intended audience for these texts. Yet only one book of secrets, the Secrets of Signora Isabella Cortese, is attributed to a female author, and even the Secrets’ female authorship is dubious. Ray ties this male authorship of books of secrets to the wider early modern desire to uncover the so-called “secrets of women.” This special knowledge of the female body, which was believed to be possessed only by women, was a topic of great interest for early modern medical practitioners; and Ray argues this is echoed in the male authorship of books of secrets. But even though these works were most often written by men, their distinctly feminine content is an indication of women’s continuing interest in practical alchemy.

Although her monograph is titled Daughters of Alchemy, Ray’s focus extends beyond alchemical practice. The second half of the work shifts away from alchemy and towards natural philosophy, particularly how women deployed it in literature. The Venetian authors Moderata Fonte and Lucrezia Marinella used their understanding of scientific discourse and natural philosophy as weapons in the querelle des femmes, the ongoing literary debate about the proper role and status of women. Both Fonte and Marinella incorporated scientific learning into their narrative works to make keen observations regarding the inherent intelligence of women and their equality with men. While these two authors did not engage with the empirical practice of Sforza and Cortese, their literary output shows that women could engage with scientific knowledge outside the confines of a university. In that sense they are similar to the seventeenth-century English noblewoman Margaret Cavendish, another early feminist author and natural philosopher whose scientific contributions have attracted academic attention in recent years.

Ray’s final two case studies are the most directly engaged with the so-called Scientific Revolution. Camilla Erculiani, an apothecary from Padua, published her Letters, a scientific treatise in epistolary format, in 1584. This work combined her knowledge of Galenic and Aristotelian thought with her understanding of alchemical processes to describe the causes of the great flood. Margherita Sarrochi, who was famous for her learning and hosted a salon that attracted many leading scientific figures, did not publish any scientific works of her own. This did not, however, prevent her from participating in scientific culture. She corresponded with no less a figure than Galileo: not only about her own epic poem Scanderbeide, but also about his astronomic discoveries. The letters of others corroborate that a high value was placed on her opinions, and emphasize the prominent role she played within her scientific network.

None of the women Ray describes held formal positions at the great European universities, and the vast majority of published scientific treatises were written by men. But as the work of Ray and others are making increasingly apparent, early modern scientific culture was not limited to male academic circles. Women practiced alchemy within their households, incorporated scientific learning into their literary pursuits, and offered their opinions on scientific treatises. As Ray states in her introduction, “It is not women who are missing from the picture: it is our lens that must be adjusted to perceive them” (4). Daughters of Alchemy certainly does this.

Elisabeth Brander is the rare book librarian at the Bernard Becker Medical Library of Washington University in St. Louis. Her academic interests include anatomical illustration in the early modern period, the history of obstetrics, and the connections between magic and medicine.

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The Women of Négritude

by guest contributor Sarah Dunstan

With the publication of his famous Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (English trans.) in 1937, Aimé Césaire introduced the word Négritude into the French lexicon. In so doing, he named the black literary and cultural movement that he, along with the Senegalese politician and poet Léopold Senghor and Guinian poet Léon Damas would employ to critique colonial practice and construct a powerful new black identity. As T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting argues, the origins of the neologism Négritude may be easily traced to Césaire but its role in the history of black intellectual thought remains controversial, not least because it straddles the boundaries of a linguistic divide and rests upon a decidedly masculine etymology.

Study of the so-called trois pères of Négritude—Senghor, Césaire and Damas—has long framed histories of the movement, with their personal relationships and political trajectories offering insight into the content of their thinking. Particular emphasis has been placed upon their use of the French language and their French education. More recently, scholars have pushed back the temporal and linguistic boundaries of the movement’s periodization, rooting its origins in the early 1920s and recognising the Anglophone influence of the work of African American writers. This is due partly to acknowledgements by Césaire and Senghor of their engagement with the work of the Harlem Renaissance. Writers such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen were introduced to francophone audiences as early as 1924 in the short-lived journal Les Continents. Post-World War 1 dialogue between African American and Francophone black thinkers, however, went back to the 1919 Pan-African Congress organised by Du Bois wherein men such as the Senegalese politician Blaise Diagne and Guadeloupian politician Gratien Candace conceptualised black political and cultural identity upon firmly national lines.

The issue of Négritude’s intellectual debts and legacy is not purely linguistic and national, however, but entangled with questions of gender. As scholars such as Sharpley-Whiting, Brent Hayes Edwards and Jennifer Anne Boittin have noted (and gone far to rectify), the role played by black women in crafting and catalysing the movement has long been under-studied. Antillean sisters Paulette and Jane Nardal, for example, exercised a strong influence both in intellectual and practical terms, holding salon-style meetings in Paris in the late 1920s and early 1930s. These meetings brought together luminaries from both the Anglophone and Francophone black diaspora to discuss the questions of identity that underpinned many of the works associated with Négritude. The Nardal’s salons are famed for producing La Revue du monde noir, a bilingual journal that ran for six editions and had a distinctly internationalist bent. Most scholars of the black francophonie would now acknowledge the Nardals and the Revue as crucial influences upon the intellectual development of les trois pères. The initial elision of the women from narratives about the movement is one, however, that also bears true of intellectual histories of African diasporan exchange during this period.

The availability of sources is part of the problem as scant archival material exists outside their published work. Correspondence like that so crucial to tracing the exchange between African American thinkers such as Alain Locke and René Maran is largely missing from the historical archive where these black women are concerned. A 1956 fire destroyed Paulette Nardal’s papers, for example, making her role in the origins of the Négritude movement and as a generator of diasporan intellectual exchange even more difficult to map. What is left are the articles she published in La Dépêche africaine and La Revue du Monde Noir and a patchwork of police surveillance records in the ‘Service de liaison avec les originaires des territoires français ďoutre-mer’ series held in the overseas archives in Aix-en-Provence.

Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882–1961)
Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882–1961)

On the American side, women such as Jessie Fauset and Ida Gibbs Hunt have no archives to their name. Nevertheless, their correspondence shows up in the papers of their friends and acquaintances – men such as Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, Gratien Candace and Rayford Logan. This affords tantalising glimpses of the crucial, if mostly unacknowledged, parts they played in facilitating intellectual exchange across the language divide. Ida Gibbs Hunt, for example, was part of the first Pan-African Association executive committee formed in 1919 at the Pan-African Congress in Paris. Du Bois never mentioned her in his write-up of the Congress in the Crisis, nor does she appear in any media reports. Yet a personal letter that Du Bois sent to Hunt and her husband (the American consul to Saint-Étienne at the time) suggests that she was, in fact, heavily involved in its organisation. In addition, correspondence appearing in the Du Bois Papers held at the University of Massachussets-Amherst suggests that Hunt, alongside Rayford W. Logan, played a mediating role in maintaining fragile diasporan relations when Du Bois consistently infuriated and circumvented the francophone portion of the organising committee.

Historian Glenda Sluga, in a roundtable at the History Workshop, noted similar archival silences in regard to the presence of female actors in internationalist movements. It prompted her to ask if their inclusion should be “a matter of choice, or a matter of fact?” I think the answer lies in innovation, in being open to intellectual genealogies that go beyond the traditional or, in the case of les trois pères, the acknowledged narrative. In a brilliant article, on the Nardal sisters in interwar Paris, Jennifer Anne Boittin illustrated one way in which such miscellaneous sources can be patched together to form a broader picture. Amongst other findings, Boittin’s work illustrated the ways that women like the Nardals often formed intellectual coalitions upon gendered lines, sharing space in journals such as La Dépêche africaine with white feminist thinkers such as Marguerite Martin. Choosing to interrogate the gaps and silences often left in intellectual genealogies by female actors can allow us to see these connections and thus view cultural and political movements like Négritude and Du Bois’ Pan-Africanism in a new light, fleshing out their spheres of influence beyond the expected.

Sarah Dunstan is a PhD Candidate on an Australian Postgraduate Award at the University of Sydney. For the 2014-2015 academic year, she is based at Columbia University, New York, on a Fulbright Postgraduate Fellowship. Her research focuses on francophone and African American intellectual collaborations over ideas of rights and citizenship.