John Selden

July 4, 2010

Four hundred years ago this year, John Selden began a publishing career that was to mark him as a key figure in the seventeenth- century republic of letters; last year, Oxford University Press published  a magisterial overview of all his writings by Professor G. J. Toomer. To mark these occasions, the Centre for Early Modern Studies held a conference on ‘John Selden: Scholarship in Context’, 24-26 June. The conference was supported by the John Fell OUP Research Fund, the Centre for the Study of the Book, the Cultures of Knowledge project, the English and History Faculties, and Magdalen College, and nationally by the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society. A formidable international and interdisciplinary line-up of speakers indicated the timeliness of this event across a wide range of disciplines:  Sharon Achinstein, Sir John Baker, Mark Bland, Hans Blom, Elizabethanne Boran, Christopher Brooks, Theodor Dunkelgrün, Mordechai Feingold, Anthony Grafton, Simon Keynes, Vivienne Larminie, Jan Loop, Scott Mandelbrote, Peter Miller, Anthony Milton, Martin Mulsow, Sarah Mortimer, Eric Nelson, Graham Parry, Annabel Patterson, Jean-Louis Quantin, Richard Sharpe, Julian Roberts, Jason Rosenblatt, Harvey Shoolman, Colin Tite, Richard Tuck, Chad van Dixhoorn, Dirk van Miert, Joanna Weinberg. The conference also illustrated the vibrancy of the early modern community in Oxford: organized by two English graduate students, Jeffrey Miller and Thomas Roebuck, it formed part of a remarkable term of interdisciplinary activities including Professor Anthony Grafton’s visiting fellowship, the ‘Cultures of Knowledge’ seminars, Professor Ian Maclean’s Lyell lectures on ‘the learned book in the Age of Confessions, 1560-1630’, and the seminars and conference on ‘Reading Hebrew and Jewish Texts in Early Modern Europe’ organized by Dr Piet van Boxel and Dr Joanna Weinberg for the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. It is impossible to offer a full summary from a very crowded programme, which can be found here. A series of speakers showed how Selden was able to draw on the networks of Hebraic scholarship established by figures like Joseph Justus Scaliger and Isaac Casaubon and to establish a high European profile in this field. Another area of exploration was Selden’s knowledge of medieval law and history, in which again he connected English antiquarian traditions with current Continental developments. Speakers sometimes differed on the level of his scholarship in particular areas, not least where there were polemical agendas, and an interesting theme that developed was the relationship between scholarship’s obligation to accuracy and independence and its public role – or ‘impact’ in the terms of today’s debates. How far did the motto, ‘freedom above all things’, which he inscribed in his books, imply his role as a lawyer and M.P. in championing political and religious liberties, how far a scholar’s freedom from external pressures? The conference ended with an inspirational address in which Professor Toomer laid out a detailed programme for future research, in which the Bodleian’s Selden books and manuscripts will play a key role, as the most remarkable unified collection of early modern scholarly books in the world. A book display from the collection, including drafts for one of his books and Greek, Persian, and Aztec manuscripts, will be on show at the Bodleian Library until 23 July.

Professor Toomer’s keynote address
The conference reception in the Divinity School, sponsored by the  Centre for the Study of the Book

The conference reception in the Divinity School, sponsored by the Centre for the Study of the Book