Tag Archives: early modern

Session 5: Visit to the University of St Andrews Special Collections

4 December 2015
St Andrews: Martyrs Kirk Research Library (Napier Reading Room), 80 North Street
Gabriel Sewell and Rachel Hart

For the final session of my postgraduate training programme ‘Studying Early Modern France: Archives, Texts, Images’ we headed over to the Special Collections of the University of St Andrews in the Martyrs Kirk Research Library. We browsed some of the original editions we’ve had reference to in earlier sessions (especially Graeme Kemp and Shanti Graheli’s session on the French book world in the Renaissance) as well as some manuscripts dating from the early modern period, with a French provenance.

Gabriel Sewell (Head of Special Collections and Assistant Director of Library Services) and Rachel Hart (Muniments Archivist and Deputy Head of Special Collections) gave brief introductions to some of the major items on display, ranging from fine illuminated manuscripts to learned tomes by significant authors, and kindly answered any question we might have about the sources.

Since it would be rather unwieldy to convey in words the ‘qualia’ of doing archival research—i.e. what it’s like to turn the pages of an age-old document—I decided to make a collage of photos* of some of the prettiest and most interesting sources on display. If you want to consult any of the selected items, please email Special Collections (speccoll@st-andrews.ac.uk) requesting the document(s).

*All photos are taken by me, unless otherwise specified.

Continue reading

Session 4: Making the Archive Last: Storing and Retrieving your Sources

20 November 2015
St Andrews: Buchanan Building (room 306), Union Street
Dr Sarah Easterby-Smith

Our fourth session on storing and retrieving archival material, led by Sarah Easterby-Smith from the School of History, suitably tied in with the practical advice given by Julia Prest, Guy Rowlands and Roy Dilley during our first session on planning trips to French archives. Besides reviewing how best to organise our archival records when returning home from these trips, we also looked at broader discussions—both past and present—of how to store and organise information.

The early modern archive

Michel Foucault’s 1966 book Les mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines served as a springboard for a discussion on the different épistémès or systems of understanding according to which people have organised knowledge throughout history. The prototypical repository for knowledge in the Renaissance (c. 1450-c. 1650) is the Wunderkammer or Cabinet of Curiosities in which information was stored on the basis of symbolic ‘resemblances’ (see image 1 and header image). Items were ordered so as to reflect the divine order of the universe.

38041800063257 Double page illustration from Museum Wormianum..; by Ole Worm (1588 - 1654); published by Lugduni Batavorum : Apud Iohannem Elsevirium; Dutch (Leiden); 1655.

Image 1: Frontispiece of Museum Wormianum … by Ole Worm, published by Lugduni Batavorum: Apud Iohannem Elsevirium, Leiden (1655). © National Art Library, London

According to Foucault, the ‘classical’ period (c. 1650-c. 1800) marked a shift towards language as the primary grid of all things, inasmuch as verbal signs came to represent and hence order thought. The museum vitrine or glass cabinet typically illustrates this shift, as it allowed the viewer to observe things from a distance, detached from the world they originated from, and neatly arranged on the basis of similarity or genus (see image 2). The ‘modern’ age (from the 1800s onwards) finally witnessed a reflexive approach to knowledge. Language was no longer privileged, but widely regarded as a historical construct. In other words, language became an object of study (i.e. epistemology) itself.

Cabinet de Bonnier de la Mosson (1744), Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris

Image 2: Panorama of the eighteenth-century Cabinet de Bonnier de la Mosson at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris.

Sarah pointed out that public archives are products of the 1790s. The French Revolution introduced a way of thinking that regarded historical consciousness as the basis of national unity. Before that time, archives primarily served administrative and personal needs and were thus mainly owned by private individuals, governmental organisations or businesses such as insurance companies. The modern archive served a different function, namely diffusing the historical consciousness of a nation among a wide public.

Roy Dilley from the Department of Social Anthropology suggested during our first session that it often proves useful to retrace the history of archival collections: why did precisely these records end up in this particular archive? As is well known, inventories of European archives usually favoured a white and male dominated history, thus leaving out marginalised groups of people and other controversial matters. Reflecting on how and why archival material has been compiled may prompt us to re-evaluate certain episodes in history.

Archiving in the twenty-first century

The remaining part of our session focussed on modern tools and ways of archiving historical material. Recurring themes concerned the accessibility, ordering and sustainability of our personal archives. We agreed that Zotero and iPhoto are particularly useful in organising and storing sources. Zotero is a free and open-source reference management software that allows you to easily manage bibliographic data as well as related research material, such as PDF files and personal notes (see image 3). It offers the added possibility to share data with others. iPhoto enables you to organise photos by adding descriptions and tags, which makes it easier to search for particular documents.

Interface Zotero

Image 3: Zotero’s user interface.

Sarah revealed that she always keeps hard copies of her most important documents, such as transcriptions of manuscripts. We agreed that digital repositories like Dropbox and Google Drive offer essential, cloud-based backup storage, but we also raised concerns about their long-terms sustainability. Project management applications such as EverNote and Scribenote can greatly assist with organising research, but can become unwieldy because they take up a large amount of space on computers and other devices.

Crucial for managing your sources effectively, is thinking how best to order them. Personal notes can be structured by using Zotero (you can create text fields for each bibliographic reference) or MindManager (a software application for the creation of mind maps). Depending on the focus and scope of your research, you might want to use an alphabetical (e.g. using a person’s surname) or chronological order (e.g. using the chronology of particular historical events or the time period during which you’ve worked on a research project). If you plan to reuse the collected material, it might be helpful to refer to archives and collections instead. By all means, don’t have too many ordering systems at the same time!

A question that has entertained people for centuries is how best to preserve knowledge. We found that most twenty-first century technologies are in fact rather poorly equipped to store information. This seems counter-intuitive at first sight. New areas of study, notably the digital humanities, put much effort into the digital preservation of a wide variety of sources, both analogue and digital. At the same time, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep track of the growing number of languages used to programme digital archives. And what to think of such widespread communication tools as e-mail and social media? When taking into account their ephemeral nature (most people will store only their most important messages), it may seem that the physical, strong paper of the early modern period is more capable of standing the test of time.

Reading tips:

Derrida, Jacques. Mal d’archive: Une impression freudienne (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1995).

Foucault, Michel, Les mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1966).

Steedman, Carolyn. Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001).


Written by Bram van Leuveren

Session 3: Case Study – Sources for Art Exhibitions in Early Modern Paris

6 November 2015
St Andrews: Buchanan Building (room 306), Union Street
Dr Elsje van Kessel (School of Art History)

In our third session, led by Elsje van Kessel from the School of Art History, we explored the possibilities and potential pitfalls of using images as historical evidence. Art exhibitions in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Paris, one of Elsje’s current research interests, served as an example of the challenges that come with the reconstruction and analysis of ephemeral events in the past. The session’s preparatory reading—the introduction (pp. 9-19) and fifth chapter (‘Material Culture through Images’, pp. 81-102) of Peter Burke’s Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence (2001)—helped to identify some of those challenges.

A brief introduction round revealed that many us are working with visual evidence in one way or another. Dani Berrow (School of Modern Languages) fact-checks visual sources for a major American TV show; Sean Heath (School of History) examines the wide variety of seventeenth and eighteenth-century media, including paintings and statues, in which Saint Louis (1214-1270) was celebrated and discussed; Bram van Leuveren (School of Modern Languages) uses engravings in livrets or programme booklets of sixteenth and seventeenth-century French court festivals to reconstruct the reception conditions of theatrical entertainments.

Elsje developed an interest in early modern art exhibitions during her PhD studies at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands where she analysed the uses of paintings in the daily lives of sixteenth-century Venetians. Central to her research was the performative function of these paintings in e.g. rituals and processions. Rather than ‘mere’ representations of an empirical world, they became part of an elaborate scenario that regulated people’s viewing experience. This process can be gauged in a woodcut engraving from Mirabilia Urbis Romae, a much-copied Medieval Latin guide for pilgrims and tourists to the city of Rome, in which a priest shows an image of Christ to the faithful (see image 1). The image takes on a distinct sense of agency, as it’s not only meant to be looked upon, but also to be praised and worshipped. It evokes, in other words, the ‘immediate presence’ of Christ himself.

Priest showing an image of Christ to the faithful (Mirabilia Urbis Romae, c. 1400)

Image 1: Priest showing an image of Christ to the faithful (woodcut engraving from Mirabilia Urbis Romae, c. 1400).

Elsje explained that artists started to exhibit their work from the late seventeenth-century onwards. Before that time, ‘art’ (in the more general understanding of ‘artefact’) and the exhibition thereof was inextricably bound up with religion and politics, and therefore didn’t fulfil a strictly autonomous function as it would do nowadays in e.g. museums and galleries. Canaletto’s La festa di San Rocco (c. 1735, see image 2) is a good example of how a painting may function as ‘documentary’ evidence for the way in which Venetian artists displayed their work at the feast day of Saint Roch on 16 August. At the same time, we should be aware of Canaletto’s attempts to artistically enhance the scene: his painting primarily served to ‘advertise’ the annual art exhibition for British tourists. Not surprisingly, Canaletto was well-known for his architectural fantasies or capricci, which took their cue from real-world buildings and cities, but were rearranged in the painter’s imagination; see Burke, pp. 85-86.

La festa di San Rocco (c. 1735), Canaletto

Image 2: La festa di San Rocco, Canaletto (c. 1735, The National Gallery, London).

It was common among early modern artists to reference or ‘quote’ existing artworks—what we may call the visual equivalent of intertextuality; see Burke, pp. 96-97. Also Canaletto seemed to have included work of contemporaries in La festa di San Rocco, even though the paintings in question haven’t been identified yet. Elsje provided several other examples of the phenomenon, including Hubert Robert’s painting Vue imaginaire de la Grande Galerie en ruine (1793, see image 3) and David Allan’s engraving The Foulis Academy Exhibition (late eighteenth-century, see image 4). Robert, who was involved in the foundation of the Musée du Louvre himself, gives a romanticised depiction of the Grande Galerie, glorifying some of the treasures of Western civilisation: Michelangelo’s Dying Slave (right) and the Apollo Belvedere (left, note also the artist at work).

Vue imaginaire de la Grande Galerie en ruine (1793), Hubert Robert  

Image 3: Vue imaginaire de la Grande Galerie en ruine, Hubert Robert (1793, Musée du Louvre).

Allan’s The Foulis Academy Exhibition provides rare evidence of an art exhibition in Scotland during the second half of the eighteenth-century, held at the inner court of the University of Glasgow. The engraver referenced Raphael’s Transfiguration (on the right wall in the foreground) and Ruben’s Daniel in the Lions’ Den (on the tower).

The Foulis Academy Exhibition, David Allan (2nd half 18th century)

Image 4: The Foulis Academy Exhibition, David Allan (late eighteenth-century, Mitchell Library, Glasgow).

Just as the historian of the early modern period (and beyond) needs to reconstruct the multifaceted contexts in which images were produced, distributed and consumed, so is the curator of buildings, gardens and (urban) landscapes required to make decisions about the kind of historical traces that she wishes to preserve for posterity. The curation team of The Loo Palace in the Dutch city of Apeldoorn, for example, recently restored the palace’s gardens to their original seventeenth-century condition. The Baroque taste of stadholder-king William III and his wife Mary II of England was thus clearly favoured over that of their nineteenth and twentieth-century successors.

To familiarise a twenty-first-century audience with a long bygone age, the curator is forced to make concessions and to use her imagination to evoke the ‘feel’ of a particular historical period; more on this in Burke, pp. 88-102. The paintings at the Château Royal de Blois, for instance, probably weren’t there 400 years ago, but they do convey a sense of ‘what it was like’ to live during that period. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe already understood ‘’wie schwer ist es (…) das Wesen immer lebendig vor sich zu halten und nicht durch das Wort zu töten‘‘ [‘’how difficult it is … to keep the object alive before us instead of killing it with the word’’]; in Goethes Werke in XIV Bänden, vol. 13, ed. by Erich Trunz, Hamburg: Christian Wegner, 1950, p. 492.

Elsje ended the session on a note of caution. She reminded us to always identify and locate the copyright-holders of the images you want to use in scholarly publications. Even though pre-1900 visual sources are no longer copyrighted, pictures of them probably are. Note that the British Museum and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, among others, offer free public domain images.

Session 3 06 (lower resolution)

Image 5: Elsje van Kessel.

Dr Sarah Easterby-Smith from the School of History will lead our next session on 20 November (2-4pm, Buchanan Building, room 306). ‘’Making the Archive: Storing and Retrieving your Sources’’ enables you to make informed decisions about how best to store and organize records collected from French archives. It discusses a wide range of computer-based systems (e.g. Zotero, iPhoto) and poses the question how effective these are when faced with multiple languages and archaic spellings.

Written by Bram van Leuveren