23 September: Desirable Difficulty

If you can’t read this (easily), that’s exactly what should happen.

This typeface has been named Sans Forgetica by some Jacques aficionado genius, because it’s supposed to help you not forget what you’ve read. It’s got gaps and is back-slanted so that it becomes difficult (though not impossible) to read. It’s been developed by researchers of psychology, cognitive science, and behavioural business people at RMIT University, Australia in 2018, and is freely available here.

The whole idea is based on a sizable number of experiments that explore how retention rate of information is higher if we have some kind of difficulty when acquiring it in the first place. So rather than just reading a text in a smooth highly legible font, it’s better for learning if our eyes and brain stumble a little, and are being teased just that tiny bit.

Quizzes do something similar, or difficult questions, paraphrasing a text, group work, problem-solving: all this helps students remember better and increase comprehension and interpretation of the material. That’s called ‘desirable difficulties’.

There are so many ways to use this for the class room, and I love that it goes against our modern grain of hyper smoothness, and hyper simplicity. Promises everywhere to learn a language in 30 days, and all that. Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. But we just have to accept that some stuff is hard to get. That’s just the way it is, and it’s supposed to be like that.

It makes me think that, perhaps, we should not offer modern spelling editions of old texts, and perhaps we should not be afraid to use texts in the original blackletter, and even (shriek) secretary hand. I did change the spelling of the Tottel preface I am going to discuss with my students, but only grudgingly so. Will they really be thrown off balance because ‘words’ is spelt ‘wordes’? Or is it a (for now) unnecessary wall between them and comprehension of sense? Should we not say that, yes, universities are place that are supposed to challenge us? Maybe I should go back, and put the preface into Sans Forgetica at least.

Who knows, perhaps Wyatt would have been more successful, amorous-wise, if he had written his poems in the anti-oblivion font. But then again, we wouldn’t have much to remember and think deeply about today. This. Forgotten not yet. In any typeface.

17 September: What’s aught but as ’tis valued

This, the title, is of course from everyone’s favourite play, good old Troilus and Cressida. We had that as our set play in the Cambridge tripos back in the days, so I feel nostalgic about it. I actually quite like it, less in the ‘oh, beautiful’ way, but rather ‘oh, interesting!’. Questions of honour, loyalty, the curious deflation upon fulfilling desire, how the past (or what we think it is) reaches into the present, the entrappings of myth, creating a perpetual loop, the tricks language can be made to play, and of course, most prominently, the relativity (or not?) of value.

Nothing has intrinsic value, Troilus says at the beginning of the play, discussing whether or not to persue the war with his brother Hector who wants to give Helen back to the Greeks. We assign value to something, and so, if we say Helen is worth all the pain and awfulness of war (though is he really convinced that it is so? does it matter?), she is. If we say the annotations and underlinings of the first folio in the Free Library of Philadelphia are made by Milton, then they are so.


An old supervisor of mine, Jason Scott-Warren from Gonville and Caius, Cambridge, has published a blog entry on the Cambrige Centre for Material Culture website a week ago which has made big waves in the scholarly world (and had, dare I say it, a small ripple effect in the cultural scene beyond that, see a Guardian article on the discovery). Having read Claire Bourne’s article describing the marginalia in the book which she locates anywhere between 1625 and 1660, Jason had a look at the handwriting and had a stroke of insight (if he’s right) that the hand looks like Milton’s in the few witnesses we have of him.

The reader of the folio made meticulous corrections to spellings, metrical irregularities, and general textual lacunae such as supplying missing lines from other quarto editions of plays. A proper editor. There are also some mark-ups and underlinings, probably referring to commonplacing, or general highlighting of nice passages. More thoughts, wordish criticism, is absent.

Jason provides some photos of the annotator’s hand and habits of forming letters, and tries to parse these with photos of Milton’s hand. Yes, things do look similar. But is it enough? Is palaeographical evidence sufficient for such a remarkable allegation? Maybe it is. Maybe the informed opinion of experts is enough, and goodness we need to listen to experts in today’s anti-education world. But maybe the wish is father to the thought. A little bit at least.

To Troilus’ case for the relativity of worth (one man’s beautiful is another man’s ugly), Hector replies, not less passionately,

But value dwells not in particular will;
It holds his estimate and dignity
As well wherein ’tis precious of itself
As in the prizer.

There’s something timeless and absolute in things that are worthwhile – and at the same time we choose to invest in it, or not. It’s both, Hector says. Troilus and Paris continue to press for war with, perhaps, somewhat unconvincing unsavoury metaphors (and different designs: Paris wants sex, Troilus wants occasions for glory), and Hector eventually gives in, a bit too fast. He, too, is a soldier, after all. He, too, is trapped in his story that already has an end for him in store.

What is aught but as ’tis valued? If we want this to be Milton’s copy of Shakespeare, we will find proof enough for it in his writings.

What irks me, though, is why do we jump to the conclusion that the hand is a man’s straightaway?

10 September: To periodize, or not to periodize…

Back after a longish summer break. Back with more controversial stuff. A friend of mine, an Anglo-Saxonist, drew my attention to what he called the “Twitter shit storm” about the supposedly racist terminology of “Anglo-Saxon”. The twitter account of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists was hacked, re-named “International Society of Something or Other” (lol, or what), now posting a barrage of angry one-sided tweets on the rampant racism and protection of sexual predators in the higher ranks of professors of medieval English.

My friend said he thinks he knows which professor they mean, and that it is true that he is approaching young female academics, but adult women should take responsibility in saying no. I countered that someone in a position of lesser power may not be able to do so when pressured, and should not be in such a situation in the first place, unless she consented very clearly indeed before being propositioned. That’s a pretty clear case to me. He needs to be called out, and expelled/punished.

What’s not clear to me is re-naming the period. Those in favour say it is a racist term, and offer a spade of others like “early English” – which doesn’t work since it wouldn’t cover Latin. Insular studies, but what about English literature written on the continent? Anglo-Saxon does not ring racist to my European ears, though it may do in the American “wasp”/white supremacy context. It seems exaggerated to change something that has worked well. I wonder if most black or brown Anglo-Saxonists take issue with the term?

I am using black and brown on purpose. I consider myself brown too. Brownish anyway. My father is Iranian, I have a very strong sense of Iranian identity, and my skin *is* browner than other people’s. But I could just as well be Italian or French, a.k.a. white. I don’t at all think the buzz term “person of colour” is useful. Does it not do the exact opposite it’s hoped to do? It’s a blanket term for literally every single person that is not white (whatever that means). So the experience of an Egyptian is the same as that of a Japanese, Indian, Polynesian, Nigerian, Mexican? I don’t think so.

PoC creates a totally false dichotomy between white and literally the rest of the world, and completely obscures the historical fact that supposedly white Europeans and North Americans are pretty mixed themselves. Were the Ottomans not literally in front of the gates of Vienna at the beginning of the sixteenth century? And the Arabs, were they not in Spain for almost 800 years until 1492? That’s longer than those 500 years since they left it. Surely, then, Spaniards must be PoC, too? We need fewer labels and more engagement with individual identities and experiences.

I’m not following the fortunes of “Anglo-Saxon” on Twitter. I think there is a vote on the name. It’s a bit of a shame that the society gets hijacked by a group of youngish early career scholars who masturbate over their woke-ness (sorry, but not sorry), and describe themselves as witch hunters chasing others down. Speaking of self-righteousness.

I saw a couple of tweets that we should also change the term “early modern”, because it means different things in different contexts. Well, yes, d’uh. Italy’s early modern starts 1300, and I don’t expect an Italian early modern scholar to disregard Petrarca when I meet them at a Renaissance conference. It’s also discipline-specific. “Early modern” for history goes right up to 1830, which it does not at all for literature. Jane Austen would be early modern, imagine!

I feel like we should always always discuss and explore inherited terms, concepts, ways of looking at the world. But we also can’t re-invent the wheel. As long as we know what we’re doing, as long as we consciously use terms, knowing very well that they are unstable, entirely dependent on our point of view, it’s okay. It’s okay. Periodization is okay. Let’s talk about it, it’s exciting and insightful to do so, but keeping it is okay, too. A baby calls both an Irish wolf dog and a pug “dog”. But when she grows up, she’ll learn the difference. She’ll learnt that “dog” is a category you use for thinking, but one that is not representative of the entirety of what the thing is.

I found these two articles on the insufficiencies of the term PoC useful and eloquent. Here, and here.

23 July: ‘This wooden O‘ – The Berlin Globe

Home. I’m home, Berlin, but still going to the Globe. The Berlin Globe. Since the beginning of the year, we’ve had our very own Elizabethan theatre, staging open-air shows in a quiet neighbourhood in the north of the city, and in English, too. Well, it’s not really Elizabethan yet. The investor has bought the construction material right off Roland Emmerich after the film Shakespeare author or not film Anonymous (yep, that film), and the space, but is still in the planning-phase, building-wise. I’m excited to see how things are going to look like in the future. As long as I get Shakespeare in English, I’m happy with any kind of theatre.

My mom and I went, and saw Romeo and Juliet, a lively and touching production, largely owing to the portrayal of the young couple. Juliet was a beautifully forward giddy teenager, taking the matter into her own hands. I was intrigued how the role of the Prince morphed into a kind of chorus that was performed by the entire cast, speaking the lines in unison, and holding up strange ragged pieces of metal that fused into a huge Greek-like mask with eyes and mouth. A gem were the teenagers sitting behind me, aged 17 or so. English course, classic. Naturally, the play was too long for them, but they loved the semi-nudity of Romeo and Jules post-wedding night, and they connected wonderfully when Juliet’s parents wanted to kick her out upon refusing to marry Paris. Priceless.

What I didn’t like was changes in the treatment of the text. Romeo and Juliet, as well as Macbeth, Hamlet, and As You Like It, is one of Shakespeare’s plays that I largely know by heart – not that I could spontaneously recite big chunks of it, yet I know it well enough in order to know what’s not in there. And this production has cut passages, perhaps for reasons of time. But why take away Juliet’s gorgeous ‘Gallop apace, you fiery footed steeds’? Or Romeo’s first reaction upon seeing Juliet at the party of the Capulets?

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear! (1.5)

Berlin Romeo collapsed the speech, and simply omitted the Ethiopean reference. I checked the available RJ texts, the Folio and the Quartos of 1597 and 99, and the speech is intact in all of them. So what’s the purpose here? I suspect it’s political correctness. It’s both hard and not hard to argue with this one. The reference is there. Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice. Racist and anti-semitic. One might also say, however, that it’s going too far to censor poetry from 400 years ago, and that policing poetical language is essentially misunderstanding literature, equating it with historical documents, and having a strange absolutist world view that knows no cultural and historical relativity. But to offer these objections runs the risk of countenancing racism, and being accused by the especially woke among us who like to point fingers but not to think.

I obviously incline to the latter, believing in humanity’s power to dissociate literature from reality, and to be able to negotiate that which is, with that which is not, but pretends to be. There’s also, perhaps, a difference between an entire play on a group of people, and a local oblique metaphor that encourages interpretation. I feel like retrospective “cleaning” up of stuff that, today, and only today, makes us squirm because we have different sets of beliefs from the past, is a disservice to the cause of being more vigilant and calling out racism. Maybe at the expense of more obvious more life-threatening racism. Such as American prisons, for one.

To erase and make more palatable means also to erase suffering, and change the past with hindsight until it becomes unrecognizable, and we don’t know what was anymore, and what was not. And that’s a task for Big Brother, not the Berlin Globe.

15 July: Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

So says Chesterton, that most neglected of 20th century writers. Most neglected, and paradoxically, most prolific, having written 100  (I mean, ONE HUNDRED) books, poems, plays, novels, short stories, 4,000 newspaper essays, and decades of columns. AND he invented Father Brown. Why aren’t we hearing about this guy anymore?

I don’t know. But I do know that I love his aphorisms, and especially the one serving as title for these musings. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. A passionate plea against perfectionism, and “just doing it”.

The phrase actually comes in a somewhat politicized context, that of us nowadays outsourcing any activity to others, that is, professionals, be it sports, cooking, entertainment, childcare, porn. We prefer watching tennis rather than learning it ourselves, go to restaurants, watch Netflix, dump our children in wards at the age of six months, and visit Gentlemen’s Special Interest websites. That’s of course all related to material conditions and capitalist systems of (monetary) exchange: if you don’t earn enough, you can only watch tennis, because a club is too expensive. And anyway, you won’t have time to visit one, since you’re stupidly slaving away in a soul-crushing office. So, I’d take Chesterton’s criticism with a pinch of salt in terms of people’s proclivities, but rather find reasons in the way things are. Still, it’s true, isn’t it, that we prefer having done for us, rather than doing.

Same goes with literary criticism. We read what other people think about a poem before we read it, and have thoughts ourselves. Not always, but often. That’s to do with anxiety about the new, the uncertain, ambiguity. Something you might not understand. But that’s like eating pre-digested food rather than the fresh stuff. Of course, we need both, the poem and the critics (and the monster), but first, surely, we should always pick the delightful wonder of encountering literature itself, shiny and new. Which is not to speak against experts. Goodness, we do need experts in these our days, and we need to listen to them. But we also need to experience ourselves, however bad a job we are doing, to speak with Chesterton.

I feel like that when I start a new project. Amateurish. I’m doing it badly, and I’m producing lots of waste in the wake of my journey towards better understanding, a journey with plenty blind-alleys to be sure, and at the end of it (though it’s endless, of course), a realization that I still know so little. Everything is the snapshot of a moment, even a monograph coming out of three years intensive research. Of making many books there is no end.

Right now, I’m just reading articles about brackets, I’m reading around topics of punctuation, and typography. That’s all very well and relevant, but I’m not reading the texts themselves. I’m scared of them. I’m scared I’m missing meanings and allusions, so I don’t even start in the first place. I’m scared of not having world-changing thoughts while reading. I shouldn’t be. And I know I’m not really, once I actually open Sidney or Wroth, (re)discovering their crazy way with words. Anything worth doing – reading – is worth doing badly. With time, less so.

7 July: ‘Let the sky rain potatoes! Let it thunder to the tune of Greensleeves!’

Publishing takes a long, long, very long time. A chapter on rhetoric and dance in Shakespeare for the Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Dance was my first publishing deal, as it were. I pitched an abstract in July 2014 if memory serves right, just going into my second PhD year. The thing was written exactly 2 years later when finishing the thesis, and was published, guess when, this year. 2019. Five years in the making, it had better be good! Same story (slightly) different name: The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Music. I’m tweaking a small part of one of my PhD chapters on musical repetition in Shakespeare’s plays, exploring how sounds and music (the sound of music?) contributes to senses of identity, be it local, national, or otherwise.

The field of sound studies engages with such questions, for example mapping soundscapes, that is, what can be heard in a particular place at a particular time. I’m writing this sitting at the open window, for instance, so I can hear, the occasional ding dong of the bell of the church at the end of our street, the cars below, the tram, sometimes people chatting, a plane flying by. If I was sitting in my garden, the story would be totally different. Or a library. A café. Another country, say Iran, where I’d be hearing the wonderful call for prayer five times a day. The concept of soundscapes and the practice of documenting sounds (in whatever way, e.g. through recordings, or maps, or diagrams such as these below) stems from ecologists Schafer and Truax, and has been taken over by lots of other disciplines, including urban planning, biology, literature, history.

‘How noisy is your neighbourhood?’ -map.

Regarding the early modern period, Bruce Smith writes so creatively about sounds and identity in his seminal The Acoustic World of Early Modern England. Just think about church bells signalling the boundaries of parishes, street cries in particular parts of London, or ballads travelling up and down the country in the aural memory of people. This, of course, also pertains to foreign sounds as when travellers brought new music books from the continent, and new melodies in their ears and mouths. Imagine a young man (or, more rarely, woman), having just returned from a trip to the Low Lands, walking along the street and whistling a tune that’s all the rage over there. That tune may be picked up by someone with a good ear, a composer, of notated music like William Byrd, or more casual unscripted music like a ballad singer. New words, in English, are being mapped to existing sounds, and there you go: musical intermingling beyond the boundaries of nations, languages, or social classes. Remember Philip Sidney being moved by a scurvy old ballad singer upon hearing ‘Chevy Chase’ in the streets? Something understood between the lowest of the low, and the highest of the high. Music, with its immediacy and magical emotional touching, is capable of doing that.

So. What about Shakespeare and musical ideas of identity, of nationhood? Uses of music in the theatre are hard to track, and we have to re-construct creatively what could have been there. You can consider the kind of playhouse for instance (more singing going on in the indoor playhouses because the boy-actors were more highly trained singers), you can consider the documented presence of professional musicians who might have played in the theatres too, there are cultural habits such as offering a flourish when a king enters, and there are cues in the texts that we have, although these will very often be on the slim side. ‘A song.’ Or ‘Musick’. Sometimes, lots of times, actually, there are quotations of songs, or a character breaks into fully-fledged singing. Duffin’s Shakespeare’s Songbook is a great start to research that.

Falstaff, for example, is full of music. In the Merry Wives of Windsor, just before he is cozened by the two ladies, Falstaff, waiting for his supposed mistress in the park, mentions the most English song imaginable. ‘Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of ‘Green Sleeves;’ hail kissing-comfits and snow eringoes; let there come a tempest of provocation’. ‘Greensleeves’, a ballad probably going back to the times of Henry VIII, signals Englishness, local culture, perhaps nostalgia to a recent past. It fits this play, Shakespeare’s only comedy set at home, in England. To drop a reference to that ballad is a memory trigger in the mind of the audience who remembers moments when they themselves sung or heard ‘Greensleeves’, something which evokes warm fuzzy memories of home.

But Falstaff, perhaps depending on the different theatrical genre, is also European. Here’s an example from 2 Henry IV:

Falstaff: Well now you have done me right.

Silence: Doe me right and dub me knight, Samingo, Isn’t not so?

Falstaff: ‘Tis so.

Silence: Is’t so? Why then, say an old man can do somewhat.  (5.3)

Samingo is an elision of Sir Mingo, that is, Sieur or Monsieur Mingo (or Domingo), a widely current ballad from the end of the sixteenth century. Silence’s memory has latched onto the jingly feel of the song’s line, the catchy internal rhyme of ‘doe me right and dub me knight’, and it’s an even more felicitous choice since the ballad is a drinking song on  braggadocio Monsieur Mingo. Does that remind us of another showy offy supposedly knighted drunkard? Well, actually, the melody to the Domingo ballad probably comes from a 1570 Franco-Flemish songbook by the famous Orlando de Lassus, tracing something like the aural trajectory that I’ve described above. How English is that song then? How English are the sounds that Shakespeare’s characters and the playgoers are hearing? Perhaps sound negotiates senses of self and senses of community that are more porous than other media, and that foster more generous understandings of one’s place in the world and towards others. What that has to do with potatoes? No idea. Suggestions welcome!

Check out this sound capturing project by the British Library. Love the thought of a sound library! Although catching something as fleeting seems absurd, somehow…

30 June: Family Resemblances

I’m working on a little biographical entry for the Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy (published by Springer, and available online) on Sir Charles Cavendish, the younger brother of William Cavendish, first Duke of Newcastle and husband to the amazing Margaret Cavendish. The Cavendishes were one of the richest and most eminent families of the time and contributed to wonderfully to the life of the sciences and letters both as patrons and performers, as it were. They were not only engaged in the public discourse on natural philosophy in England, but maintained a vast and prestigious network on the continent, communicating with mathematicians and philosophers alike. The European republic of letters.

The Cavendish brothers were very well versed in mathematics themselves, but they also sponsored scholars and practitioners, especially opticians. They collected and commissioned instruments such as telescopes, and worked closely together with England’s best optician Richard Reeves whom they wanted to grind aspheric lenses. Apparently, these create hyperboles which correct aberrations when light enters the telescope (I think? Physics is awfully hard…) and which were all the rage at the time, but incredibly difficult to make. Before the Renaissance, it used to be rare that thinkers and craftsmen were working together like that, closely cooperating on the translation of thought into reality. Theory and practice at its best, mutually influencing each other, very Renaissance that. Just think of Erasmus and Froeben in his shop, or Spenser and Hugh Singleton at work together on The Shepheardes Calendar, correcting the proofs, creating the thing exactly the way they wanted it to be. Or as nearly as possible, anyway.

While Charles Cavendish was perhaps not an original thinker, his great achievement lies in his connections, and his enabling of others’ research. A modern funding body. His brother, of course was married to Margaret Cavendish who suited the family, hungry for modern scientific knowledge as she was. But I want to write about her in a later blog entry, I think. I’d like to mention Elizabeth and Jane, daughters of William’s first wife. They were very well-educated young women, growing up in a household that encouraged learning, and especially writing as self-expression. Sir William was a playwright himself, and the girls will certainly have enjoyed domestic entertainments such as household plays, performed or read. It’s no surprised, then, that they go and write their own plays, a pastoral and a comedy called The Concealed Fancies around 1645 while their royalist father was in exile, and they took care of the estates. The plays only exist in manuscript, although Daniel Cadman of Sheffield Hallam University has transcribed The Concealed Fancies, and written an introduction, both freely online available here. I’m glad the edition and contextual work is online, since we as readers and teachers must diversify the canon and include literary examples from a much wider range of authors and contexts. Thinking of how to sneak this one in into the timetable for teaching this Michaelmas…

Check out this In Our Time session on the Cavendishes and science.

21 June 2019: Thinking about multiple identities boosts children’s flexible thinking.

Diversity, diversity, diversity. Diversity in societies, workplaces, families, you name it – diversity enables problem-solving. That’s why the world is in such a sorry state, because we keep recruiting the same kinds of people, people like us, because of whom we know how they tick, we know we’ll work well with them, we identify, probably unconsciously, and thus prefer those like us to those who could do the job best, who could bring fresh perspectives, special insights, unique twists of thought. If employers were smart, they’d recrute those least like them. Then, The Problem, whatever it is,would be considered from all sorts of points of view, we’d have lots of solutions to lots of potential issues arising. That’s, by the way, why we have sex between two different creatures with different sets of genes, because a diversity of genes enables survival, while creatures like bacteria that multiply rapidly by cloning themselves (and thus always remaining the same) will not be prepared for changes in the environment and die in the billions. Just a little bracket here.

So. Diversity. Multiple identities. Kids from inter-cultural families are famously smart and open-minded (blowing my own trumpet here, being half-Iranian, half-German), as are those who have travelled a lot. They have (had to?) developed flexible thinking and problem-solving techniques. A new study has now explored how this same kind of mental ability can be fostered by encouraging children to think about several kinds of their identities at the same time. For instance, being a daughter, a girl, a friend, and a helper. At the same time. Researchers then ended the thinking sessions with beautiful wrap-up enthusiasm: ‘that’s so cool that you are lots of things at the same time’. And those children did significantly better on problem-solving tasks than those in the test-group.

This reminded me of the pedagogical approach typical to early modern humanism: in utramque partem debating. At school, you’d impersonate someone and think yourself into their motives, feelings, thoughts, in order to write a good speech of defence, or argument, or accusation. You might impersonate a pregnant woman whose brother-in-law has written her out of her great-grand-father’s will, or you might be the hero Achilles, grieving over the death of his bromance friend Patroclus. Good preparation for your subsequent law career. But also good preparation for a particular sensitivity towards things, motivations, personal contexts. Circumstances. When you are trained to think and feel yourself into other people who are vastly different from you, you become more alive to others. Mind-reading. Empathy. Then, making decisions becomes hard. Everyone has a legitimate reason to do what they do. And this kind of  elastic flexible roving thought and feeling pervades early modern culture, I find, be it Donne’s sermons carefully weighing every syllable of a psalm, or Sidney having Pamela reflect on suicide in the New Arcadia.

Now we know, thanks to science, what the Renaissance always did. That to think about yourself in different ways means opening yourself up to the world. And that is A Good Thing.

You can find the digested article here.

13 June 2019: Speedy Reading. Or not.

Do you know those heads-up  at the head of an online article, telling you how long it’s likely to take you to read it? I do appreciate those, although they smack of the capitalist obsession with effectiveness and brevity. I want it ALL, and I want it NOW, without actually making any kind of (shiver) effort

If you feel like those heads-up are always over-estimating your reading speed, fear no more: it’s not you, it’s them. The go-to number in the past was 300 words per minute, but a new meta-study has examined reading speed studies between 1901 and 2019, and has found an average of 240 words per minute for texts in English.

That has implications for assessment (let’s all be more generous with each other, and exorcize this devil of quantification), and also for processing of words in so many ways, visual, linguistic (which language, what script, native language?), cognitive (content? Memory?). It’s interesting that the study finds different speeds depending on the length of texts, and it’s also excluded texts ‘not read for pleasure’.

This all has implications for my project, since I chose Sheffield as host university amongst others because they have the HumLab, a research facility that nourishes interdisciplinary work between scientists and humanities people. That lab has eye-tracking facilities, and I’d like to explore how people read brackets (in prose fiction): do we read through them as if they were not there? (but they are!); do we go back before or after we have arrived at the bracket’s end, and re-read the previous clause? And do we then jump the bracket, or read it again?

So many questions, and possibly so many exciting answers. Or, more likely, more questions…

The digested article is here.

19 May 2019: ‘Adorned with Sculptures’ – Book Illustration Through the Centuries

I have several files on several devices entitled ‘pretty pictures’. That is, early modern pictures. Lots of these are paintings, some manuscript illuminations, and some from printed books. I have to admit: I’ve never really thought about what the differences between them are, how they were made, how to tell the one kind from another.

That’s why I’m glad that I had a chance to learn about illustrations in early printed books at a workshop organized by my dear friend and colleague Maria Shmygol at Geneva yesterday.                  

Forget about all those women with unshaved armpits. Here’s your original hairy 
lady from the Nuremberg Chronicle.

Maria had invited a very special guest, fabulous Erin Blake from the Folger Library. Erin gave us a practical introduction into the different kinds of images in books, and a lecture on Shakespeare illustrations through the ages. I came away with a head full of new words and knowledge, so this is going to be a long one, but bear with me.

In the morning, we had a fantastic practical session in a lovely room of Geneva’s main library. Erin had brought original images from the sixteenth century onwards all across the pond, so that we could have a look at all those pretty woodblocks, engravings, and etchings.

The most important thing to distinguish all those techniques and their effects is whether the picture came about through being a relief (pressing an inked block of wood on paper), or intaglio (pressing paper onto a piece of metal with ink-filled incisions. Itaglio is Italian and means ‘cut in’ but it’s not only engraving which is intaglo, so better stick with the Italian.

Another difference is whether pictures are hand or machine-made, and it’s extraordinary to consider just how recently machines have taken over what has been made by hand for thousands of years. I guess, for better or worse, that recent machinization relates to lots of things today…

I also didn’t know how expensive illustrations were, and just how very much craft they required. I’ve never taken into consideration, for instance, that you’ve got to cut trees in order to have woodblocks, and have people dig up the earth in mines in order to get to the copper. Engaging with the several illustration techniques made me realize that we shouldn’t take anything for granted.


So the first technique we looked at were woodcuts, an aesthetic I am most familiar with, I think, having looked at these for years and years now. My world history stops around 1680, everything after that is too young for me! Woodcuts are relatively recognizable once you know, but they can become quite intricate, and perhaps seduce you into thinking it’s an engraving (which allowed for finer outlines), so we learnt a trick: you can definitely tell you’ve got a woodcut in front of you if there are white lines anywhere. That’s when the wood has cracked and not taken the ink. Woodcut blocks were used until they fell apart, so a block with a crack would not be thrown out straightaway.


Another good advice was that engraving usually has a fine edge running all around the image. That’s where metal met paper. Engraving was done by incising a thin copper plate with a sharp instrument. Against expectations, the plate was moved while the instrument was held still. It was slow and laborious, and required expertly skilled craftsmen (and women? Who knows). Once you got your design on the plate, you ink it, rub the ink off carefully, cover it with a sheet of paper and put it into a rolling press which exerts more pressure than the usual hand press.


Engraving and etching works in the same way once the lines are in the metal (so it’s also an intaglio technique), but the way to get there is different: you apply varnish to a plate as protective shield. Then you scratch your design into the varnish, taking it away, and exposing the copper where you want to. The plate then gets dipped into acid which eats into the lines you scraped off while leaving the varnished metal intact. If you want bigger black lines on your print, you apply stopping-out liquid (another kind of protective varnish) onto the already etched lines while leaving those you want blacker. Then bathe it in acid again, and there you go. Etching is faster and freer than engraving, and allowed a different kind of curly aesthetic which I find quite attractive. Erin had brought some nice landscapes and country houses, with beautiful wriggly clouds. A trick how to tell your image is an etching and not an engraving is to see if the ends of lines are round. Etching instruments do not produce sharp ends.


Mezzotint is another intaglio method where you work the surface of the metal, roughing it up with this scraper tool and punching lots of little grooves into it. These cavities would hold the ink, so the more and the deeper they are, the darker the print. If you wanted it lighter, you’d burnish the holes away, leaving a smoother surface from which the ink would be wiped. Mezzotint makes lovely shadows and gradations of grey, and was used in mid to late-seventeenth-century portrait illustrations. It’s hard and laborious, and the plates were not very durable, but it served the zeitgeist well, what with all the cavaliers and budding personal history novels (thinking of Clarissa, but that’s later, of course).

Often you’d have a mixing of techniques, for example of mezzotint for some nice shading, and engraving for a clear outline. That was not an issue for people back then, though it makes categorizing prints hard for today’s archivists!


Aquatint worked sort of similarly as etching, but you sprinkle resin on the areas that you want un-incised, and then dip it into acid again. As with mezzotint, the English took and developed the technique producing lots of portraits and landscape paintings with more continuous shades of grey.


Lithography means writing with a stone, so you’d have your big smooth slab of special stone, draw the design with greasy crayons, then etch that away, slightly burning the lines into the stone which would then hold the ink. This was a relatively cheap useful technique as the big stone plates were easily smoothed off for a new design. The library of Geneva happened to have a litographic stone there, a total first for me! The last design was still on it, publicity for a late-nineteenth-century Genevan wine, if memory serves right. Incredible to think people were still using it for so long. But why not.


Up to the 1780s, producing illustrations was a costly, time-consuming process, so to have a book with pictures in it was A Big Deal. When wood engraving was invented at the end of the eighteenth century, and then steel engraving replacing people with machines, and copper with durable steel, and then photo reproduction, there was suddenly an abundance of pictures circulating, so much so that, in the course of the nineteenth century, it came to a saturation and people’s eyes were too full with images.

Erin had brought samples of every printing technique for everyone which really nicely illustrated them. Using that word in the early modern sense here, since ‘illustration’ was giving an example, and our ‘illustrated’ was expressed as ‘adorned with cuts’ or ‘sculptures’, an amazingly three-dimensional tactile way to think of images!

We then had an opportunity to look at some extraordinary holdings of the Geneva library. I was very impressed by those gems I did not know it had! There was a Nuremberg Chronicle from the late-fifteenth century, complete with insane mythological monsters, and a Hooke Micromographia with the fold-out flea. It was water to the early modernist soul to dabble in beautiful old books.

More monsters from the chronicle.

After a gregarious lunch (with Maria’s amazing home-made food!), we heard two student presentations, one by Gemma Allred from Neuchâtel, working on production posters of Shakespeare plays from the 60s to today, and Aleida Auld from Geneva, speaking about an illustrated collection of poems containing Lucrece.

Erin then gave a lecture on Shakespeare illustrations through the ages, beginning with the startling fact that except for a 1656 Lucrece frontispiece, there were no illustrations of any of his works until 1709! That is, more than just his pretty face. Proper illustrations of scenes from his poems or plays. After the 1709 and 1714 Rowe editions with illustrations, you have a gorgeous luxury edition by Boydell who had also commissioned these motifs as actual canvas paintings which he exhibited in a gallery; had people come, and discuss the paintings together with the play excerpts they belonged to. I really love this interactive communal discussion and interpretation of words and image, and that the visitor was walking from piece to piece in a hall. And today, our entertainment is binge-netflixing on a Friday evening. Anyway.

The eighteenth century saw a curious move away from dramatic scene illustration or portraiture towards a depiction of Shakespeare-inspired landscapes, such as a view of Mantua from a hill for Romeo and Juliet rather than the lover buying poison from the apothecary. 

In the 20th century, illustrations disappeared from ‘proper’ books including Shakespeare, tending to gather at the opposite ends of the spectrum, that is, in children’s books and fine press volumes. Erin showed a gorgeous 1930 Hamlet printed in Weimar (Bauhaus style, anyone?), with big bare black figures from woodcut, and the Hamlet sources surrounding the English on the page. Erin also mentioned graphic novels and mangas which straddle the conventions of their own genre (such as stock characters) while safe-guarding Shakespeare’s original text. Excited to check out the unshortened graphic novel Macbeth!

Maria rounded the day off with a brilliant and hilarious talk about the afterlife of John Mandeville’s Travels, a hugely popular text that featured some rather interesting pictures on onion-headed dragons, and some even more curious images of aroused hermaphrodites. What could a scholarly gal want more than to cap such a wonderful day with some naughty early modern picture porn.

Maria discoursing on hermaphrodites.

I came into the workshop with a total clean slate in terms of knowledge about book illustrations. I went out with a mind packed with information and techniques on how to spot differences between methods and aesthetics. I’m also much humbled because I hadn’t realized just how effortful it was to produce an image, and quite what it meant for a publication to have a picture of whatever kind. We have all sorts of colours and crazy images at our disposal, most of the time just a click away, so I think we can’t really appreciate what it meant for someone disused to seeing pictures all the time to suddenly encounter a visual reproduction. It must have been awe and wonder. And so I am in awe and wonder at the ingenuity of printers and artists, continually inventing and perfecting techniques. And I’ll try and appreciate the presence of images in books from now on, be they old or new.