Cultures of Knowledge screenshot

The CEMS series of works in progress on Digital Research in the Humanities moved on 18 November to the Oxford e-Research Centre, with presentations by James Brown (Cultures of Knowledge), Robert McNamee (Electronic Enlightenment) and Abigail Williams and Jennifer Batt (Digital Miscellanies Index). The first two projects share common ground in a focus on learned correspondence. CoK will offer a union catalogue of seventeenth-century intellectual correspondence and hard copy editions of the letters of particular scholars in Britain and Europe. It is also refining interpretative frameworks and consolidating a scholarly community at seminars, workshops, and conferences, in a spirit emulating the earlier republic of letters. Ee provides online texts of letters from critical editions of key figures – the ‘Enlightenment’ title can be misleading since the letters go back to the earlier seventeenth century and forward to the nineteenth century – along with such refinements as maps and the first online coffee-house. This project too furthers its own research agenda through an annual series of colloquia on the sociology of the letter. Both projects will greatly enhance our understanding of the complex networks underpinning the great landmarks of intellectual history.

Digital Miscellanies Index screenshot

Abigail Williams discussed how a database could emerge from a specific set of questions – in her case, whether the Whig poetry she had studied for her book Poetry and the Creation of a Whig Literary Culture 1681-1714 continued to be read through the eighteenth century – and could generate a host of new and unanticipated research questions. The database will make it possible to chart the popular circulation of poetry through the first indexing of some thousand miscellanies, and will also highlight the musical settings through the website and public concerts. Discussion touched both on technical details of particular projects and on ways in which such projects could interact productively. David Robey, Arts and Humanities Consultant at the Oxford e-research Centre, emphasized how many such projects were currently based in Oxford and were now registered at the Digital Humanities website; he invited all researchers who had not done so to register their projects for maximum visibility.

Another striking aspect of all these projects was the way they drew on resources in Oxford that in some case required imagination to foresee a digital potential. At the core of the Cultures of Knowledge project is a card index of Bodleian correspondence, which for many years was widely known only to a small number of scholars; many such resources remain to be explored. The Digital Miscellanies Index draws on a huge collection of songbooks which were donated to the Bodleian by the ragtime pianist Walter Harding in an act of spontaneous generosity. Electronic Enlightenment draws on the world-leading critical texts established by Oxford University Press and offers new ways of searching and synthesizing materials. These successful projects will surely inspire many more.


Federico Zuccaro’s drawing of his brother Taddeo (left) vividly depicts the material constraints on a Renaissance artist’s life: having to retire early because he was begrudged oil for his lamp, he has leapt out of bed – note the missing slipper – to catch Rome by moonlight. In 1593 a new institution, the Accademia di San Luca, was established to improve artists’ conditions and provide a forum for discussion. Since membership was extended retrospectively, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci featured in the official portraits. At a works in progress session jointly organized by CEMS and the Centre for Visual Studies, 11 November, Peter Lukehart (Associate Dean, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, Washington DC) described his excitement on gaining access to the Accademia’s little-studied archive, a precious source of information for cultural and social history, and finding much fresh material. Now the complete archive for the Accademia’s first 45 years, together with some related materials, has been made public in an easily searchable database, with images and careful transcriptions. Professor Lukehart’s demonstration showed how much the database had to offer, both in the content and its high level of academic and in such technical features as enhanced searching through sophisticated recognition of variant word-forms in Latin texts. Readers needing further guidance through this material can turn to a collection of essays edited by Professor Lukehart, The Accademia Seminars (2009).

In the group’s first meeting this term, Stephen Harrison resumed his discussion of George Buchanan’s poetry with a selection from his Silvae (published in 1567). He showed how such collections of occasional poems in hexameters looked back to the model of Statius’ Silvae, which were rediscovered in 1415. Buchanan’s Silvae centred on commemorations of state occasions, including his famous epithalamium for Mary Stuart and an equally didactic celebration of the birth of James VI. His collection answered to expectations of generic range with a different kind of poem, a praise, not as in Statius’ case of a dead parrot but of living horses, whose versatility and nobility, Buchanan claims, gave rise to the myth of the Centaur.

In the second session, Nicola Gardini presented the De Profectu of Celio Calcagnini (1479-1521). A humanist based in Ferrara, Calcagnini aspired to encyclopaedic knowledge and his interests ranged from astronomy to Egyptology. The De profectu conveys its moral teaching through an image of the shadow which can be traced back to the idea of the Skiomachia, fighting one’s own shadow, but in some psychological ramifications looks forwards to Jung. If his Latin prose lacked elegance, Calcagnini fiercely defended the language against vernacular writing,  perhaps, Dr Gardini suggested, as a reaction to the political troubles besetting Italy.