The Handwritten Worlds of Early Modem England

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NEH Summer Institute

June 20 through July 29, 2005

Directed by Steven W. May, Professor of English at Georgetown College                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

What accounts of manuscript cultures can we provide in our college classrooms? How, and why, will those accounts enrich our understanding of the period? In addressing these large questions, quite specific concerns will guide discussion throughout the institute and facilitate some provisional conclusions. Working directly with important classes of surviving materials, we will carefully analyze manuscripts, providing bibliographical descriptions, and attending to the identities of scribal hands, the means of production, the economics of trade, and the stages of transmission-- where such matters can be deduced -- and discussing alternative means of analysis where they cannot be. We will query such notions as authorship, originality, intellectual property, the associations of gender with particular kinds of writing, and the dimensions-and relationsof public and private, amateur and professional. Who participated in the creation and reception of certain types of manuscripts, how, and to what ends? Such analyses will open our discussions about the roles these manuscripts had in formulating and sustaining communities of readers and writers, as well as about the foundations of various communal identities.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

In seeking to resituate manuscripts in a larger discursive world, the scope of the institute's inquiry will be broad, roughly encompassing the centuries from 1400 to 1700. We will begin our investigations at a point in time before the existence of a print trade in England, acknowledging the mature trade of manuscript production and circulation in the late middle ages and examining the transitions from one dominant mode of publication to another. We will next consider a transitional period, when the book trade in England is fully developed, to examine the exchanges among manuscript, print, and oral cultures in such genres as poetry, song, and drama. Finally, we will extend our investigations to the late seventeenth-century, continuing to explore multiple relations among inscriptive media, to discern parallel realms of circulation in specific knowledge communities, and to consider the causes for the survivals of manuscript circulation. The scope of the institute will thus add a diachronic dimension to our inquiries, asking why, for example, certain topics and types of documents were virtually restricted to manuscript circulation long after the arrival of the printing press. We will ask as well what genres during the period in question were gradually monopolized by print culture as they simultaneously disappeared from manuscript circulation. There will be yet further questions: Did manuscript texts circulate at all levels of society? Did literate classes read printed and transcribed materials in similar quantities with similar expectations? Did the ratios of printed and transcribed materials or, indeed, of readers and writers, evolve or remain constant during the centuries under review?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

A key feature of these investigations will be an introduction of the many resources available. These resources are the materials themselves-the holdings of the Folger Shakespeare Library, to begin with, but also the modem printed editions and the growing number of documents now available digitally on the websites of research libraries and in other electronic media. The institute's resources are also, crucially, its community of scholars. The institute gathers an expert, international visiting faculty at the forefront of contemporary studies of manuscripts. Our sixteen scholar-participants will bring their own research and teaching agendas, and will welcome the visiting scholars, in tum, into ongoing investigations. The Folger Curator of Manuscripts will consult closely with the institute on the use of rare materials and codirect informal tutorials with the program director. Steven May, Professor of English at Georgetown College, will direct the institute. Professor May is an accomplished editor of manuscript materials, most recently of Queen Elizabeth I: Selected Works (Washington Square Press, 2004). In the long course of preparing his monumental Bibliography and First-Line Index of English Verse, 1559-1603, Professor May has worked in more than one hundred archives, amassing references to more than thirty-thousand individual poems. The Index is a foundational work, one that gives scholars of this generation the materials with which to mount fresh investigations of primary sources, challenge conventional expectations, and perhaps revise literary histories.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

The institute does not require or aim to produce an expertise in paleography or editing. Rather, "The Handwritten Worlds of Early Modem England" gathers experts in those fields to work with college teachers to focus upon the many questions that figuratively crowd the margins of paleographical instruction. What materials survive? In what numbers and in what contexts? How do we incorporate new materials and new strategies for reading them into a fuller, richer picture of cultural production? With the series of engagements with authoritative visiting faculty described below, the selected participants will collaboratively articulate a set of terms by which the status of manuscripts may be assessed in the literary, cultural, and social histories of England.