Abundance and Access: Early Modern Political Letters in Contemporary and Digital Archives.

Elizabeth Williamson (e.r.williamson@exeter.ac.uk), University of Exeter, United Kingdom

Letters stand as one of the most extensive sources of information on daily life in the early modern period and the study of epistolary culture(s) is a vital and growing area in Renaissance studies (see Daybell and Gordon, 2016; Daybell, 2012; Del Lungo Camiciotti and Pallotti, 2014). Access to such archives and collections is rapidly expanding – and changing – in the wake of mass digitization, online editions, OCR and federated search. In this paper I explore the extension of the narrative of archival history and epistolary provenance into the digital realm. Specifically, I compare the contextual afterlife of early modern letters in nascent state archives to their representation in the digital world, with particular emphasis on classification and metadata, surrogacy and access. Going beyond paralleled modern and early modern anxieties of information overload (the standard comparison of the print and digital revolution), this allows me to explore issues of access, search, and retrieval; control, preservation, and loss, then and now. This is an under-studied area ripe for discussion, and this paper aims to test these ideas in preparation for a wider study that connects the gathering, transmission, and preservation of political information in the early modern period to the digital life of these material primary sources and to our lives as digital researchers. There is a ready parallel to be found between the burgeoning administrative and institutional drive to preservation found in the early modern period – essentially the evolution of state archiving – and the informational anxieties of the internet age, where that largest of archives can offer everything and nothing, excess and restriction, results or dead ends. I explore tensions around archives facilitating both preservation and forgetting, which finds its apotheosis in the endless loss and abandonment of digital data, and in digital methods of retrieval as strict gatekeepers (a roulette of keyword search, privations of metadata, and dreams of text analysis).

I will use the concept of copia, fundamental to early modern humanism and classical pedagogy, to explore these twin pressures of abundance and lack, of meaningful quantity and meaningless repetition. Copia in the early modern period referred to the abundance of language, where mastery over the myriad ways of expressing a single idea gave students the rhetorical strategies to navigate the vast expanse of language. The incessant imitation of classical models, particularly concerning letter-writing, was encouraged not least by Erasmus in the wildly popular De Copia, and became a ubiquitous part of humanist education. This concept, of expertise and thus authority being created by sheer mass, by repetition, is particularly apposite when considering rhetoric and knowledge creation today. In fact, this abundance was framed as both knowledge and folly, particularly from the late sixteenth century, when the drive to systematizing information and rise of scientific method pushed against classical humanism (Francis Bacon offers a good example of a writer in this transitional time who both criticized copia and performed it in his criticism). Christine Hoffman, in her recent Stupid Humanism: Folly as Competence in Early Modern and Twenty-First-Century Culture, has also identified a productive parallel here, and links early modern rhetorical strategy and modern excess in online ‘news’ and social media (Hoffman, 2017). I will focus rather on early modern and digital archive creation in order to explore how access to these constituent building blocks of knowledge shapes our historiography and thus the world we construct. I will use copia’s two semantic faces, abundance and copying, to firstly think through wider preoccupations with sheer tides of (often repeated) information acting as knowledge and secondly to consider our creation and reception of digital surrogates of primary sources. The early modern relationship to copia as copying is complex: on one hand it is intimately related to the massive growth of bureaucracy and paperwork, where the copy is the transmitter of authority, on the other hand the advent of print and the selfsame abundance of paperwork led to associations of degradation and inferior quality. If print could be alternately the thing itself or the degraded copy of the original, the digital surrogate today is held intermittently as the preserved, unquestioned work and as the flat representation that has lost both the materiality and authenticity of the original.

I will combine discursive reflection with concrete examples that draw parallels between early modern and modern concerns, to consider how the preoccupations and experiences of a particularly early modern growth of the archive and associate concern with amassing, preserving and accessing information inflects our understanding of the internet age, and vice versa. I draw parallels between search and preservation concerns today and amongst early keepers of the state paper office, demonstrating that long-held anxieties around access and information overload continue through into the digital archive. I place the digital archive in a history of indexing and cataloguing, which capitalizes on recent interest in early modern construction of metadata witnessed by Oxford University’s 2017 conference ‘The Book Index’, for example. In both this history of information management and in our relationship to archiving today, what is kept, who has access, and how meaningful and stable that access is, are all essential questions. No less do we need to engage critically with the term access in an increasingly business and market-driven university sector. I point to the open-access philosophy as increasing the availability of digital primary sources, particularly around libraries and archives releasing high-quality digital images and the IIIF initiative making sharing images increasingly possible on a practical level, and to the untold opportunity for connecting resources in the abundant meta-archive promised by the LOD philosophy. From endorsed letters held in the labelled drawers of the Elizabethan Secretary of State’s office, to authority files and shared standards, metadata has often been our key to texts. It both enables and restricts our access, it channels our vision and helps construct our understanding of our sources. Understanding the stories of what is kept and the nuance of how it is described is vital to reveal the limits of this vision. We cannot forget that archives are variously permissive, proscriptive, and problematic, constructed through a history of loss, antiquarianism, colonialism, class and power structures: those with power leave records, those with power control them. With the risk of reproducing existing and long-standing power structures in our digital representations of the early modern world, we need to ask what we want from the modern digital archive, and who will be invited in?

How people create, access, and preserve (particularly political) information can tell us much about the power structures, value systems and personal concerns of both the writers and keepers of texts and the society at large. I argue that understanding the conditions of production and preservation of early modern letters is necessary to fully comprehend their use and meaning: the natural extension of this is that in order to fully engage with these texts we must attend to the methods and conditions of our own access in an increasingly digital scholarly environment. The digital has a natural and increasingly significant place in this textual history: we need to recognize and interrogate the continuous history or provenance that connects the first moment of textual creation to the most recent instance of representation and remediation in a digital space. Reflecting on this reveals that we can read in what is preserved and how it is described the power structures inherent in the society that creates the archive: this is absolutely true for the digital.

Appendix A

  1. Daybell, J. (2012). The Material Letter in Early Modern England: Manuscript Letters and the Culture and Practices of Letter-Writing, 1512-1635. Basingstoke; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  2. Daybell, J. and Gordon, A. (eds). (2016). Cultures of Correspondence in Early Modern Britain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  3. Daybell, J. and Gordon, A. (eds). (2016). Women and Epistolary Agency in Early Modern Culture, 1450-1690. (Women and Gender in the Early Modern World). Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
  4. Del Lungo Camiciotti, G. and Pallotti, D. (2014). Letter Writing in Early Modern Culture, 1500-1750. Journal of Early Modern Studies, 3 doi:10.13128/JEMS-2279-7149-3. http://www.fupress.net/index.php/bsfm-jems/issue/view/1023 (accessed 27 October 2017).
  5. Erasmus, D. and Thompson, C. R. (1978). Collected Works of Erasmus. Toronto; London: University of Toronto Press.
  6. Hoffmann, C. (2017). Stupid Humanism: Folly as Competence in Early Modern and Twenty-First-Century Culture. S.l.: Springer International Pu.