Communication, Correspondence and Transmission in the Early Modern World, 12-13 May 2016: Conference Report

“Communication, Correspondence and Transmission in the Early Modern World”, a two-day conference supported by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH), brought the Northern Renaissance Seminar to the University of Leeds for the first time. Moving beyond the “print revolution” narrative, we wanted to widen the scope of what constituted communication in the early modern period – taking in objects, art and speech in addition to texts – as well as to think about ways in which it might be limited or partial. Over two days we heard a fascinating series of papers which demonstrated the rich variety that characterised early modern communications. Presenters demonstrated how text crossed geographical and linguistic boundaries, and how communication transcended print to encompass gloves, icons and town criers.

The conference began with a morning visit to the Royal Armouries. Three curators introduced us to the Oriental, War and Tournament galleries, explaining how military fashion and technology was transmitted across huge swathes of Europe and Asia. In perhaps the best example of knowledge transmission from the early modern period, curator Karen Watts showed us a sixteenth-century suit of armour whose plated joints were so perfectly flexible that NASA had studied it closely when designing their space suits! Following the tour, we were let (relatively) loose on a room full of objects: the curators showed us how to “read” artefacts, paying close attention to their hallmarks and hinges for clues about their provenance and usage. We held muskets, examined sword hilts and touched a still-strung early modern bow – but all of these paled into insignificance once we were told that the armoured shoe-coverings we had examined had been worn by Henry VIII! Few of us were academically above excitement at having touched Henry VIII’s feet.

Henry VIII%27s foot armour (1) Royal Armouries handling session (1)

(Left: Henry VIII’s foot armour. Right: Royal Armouries Handling Session)

We returned to Leeds city centre by water taxi, and reconvened after lunch in the university’s Baines Wing for the first papers of the day. The panel “Communicating the Natural” dealt with the ways in which knowledge about science and the natural world was created and communicated. Konrad Bielecki used two case studies to show how ordinary natural phenomena could be parleyed into ideologically significant or “monstrous” events. Emma Perkins demonstrated how the astronomical instruments of Tycho Brahe contained volumes of information about Brahe’s scientific practice as well as his perception of himself – and constituted a means of communicating this to others. Alice Marples traced the complex nature of cultural exchange in the period through Sir Hans Sloane’s botanical information and collection network. The parallel panel, “Visual and Material Culture”, explored communication through objects and paintings. Rosie Finlinson explored the rewriting of Muscovite hagiographical icons to position even small provincial towns as centres of devotion analogous to Moscow; Elisabetta Toreno demonstrated how Netherlandish female portraits aligned the sitters with qualities considered appropriate for women; and Rebecca Unsworth examined the ways in which gloves functioned as both objects and subjects of communication.

Following a tea break, the panel “Space, loss and emptiness” explored figurative and literal gaps in communication. Susan Anderson analysed the use of Echo – nymph and aural effect – in progress entertainments (as well as providing a nice insight into early modern pronunciation – can “did lay” rhyme with “Dudley”?) Ashley Gonik examined the communicative potential of white space in early modern historical tables, while Rosie J. Shute demonstrated through empirical evidence (and graphs!) that fifteenth-century compositors did not justify their text by introducing spelling variants, instead using abbreviations, larger spaces, and split words across lines. The parallel panel, “Communicating the Supernatural,” featured three papers which engaged with the textual and linguistic aspects of narratives of the supernatural. Victoria Carr focused on printed accounts of the witch’s familiar (which could include chickens and attack snails) and how these influenced (or did not) popular ideas about witches. Thomas Wroblewski’s paper used two translations of French possession narratives to explore connections between French and English demonological traditions. Anja Voeste examined the choice of language (Latin, German or local dialect) employed in different versions of prodigy pamphlets. The first day of the conference concluded with a wine reception and an exhibition showcasing some of the many treasures of the Brotherton Library’s Special Collections, including an early parallel translation and a Civil War ballad, before we retired to the pub.

Friday’s panels began with a lively session on “Transmitting News”. Nina Lamal and Christina Rothenhäusler gave complementary perspectives on European mercantile communications, focusing on the circulation of handwritten news sheets and on vast correspondence networks; while Isabel Castro Rojas reminded us of the importance of town criers (and trumpeters) to official communication in Spain, and showed how the key sites of official communication might be mapped. The second panel, “Reading Early Modern Correspondence,” produced fascinating insights into the problems and rewards of reading personal and political correspondence. Tul Israngura Na Ayudhya revealed the importance of being able to convey sincerity in the letter-writing arsenal of eighteenth-century suitors. Marta Urbańska examined the place of cleric, politician and diplomat, Andrzej Dudycz, in the history of the development of letter-writing, particularly in a central European context, complicating the accepted historiographical trajectory. Jonathan Stuart Keogh’s paper highlighted the political and personal complexities involved in French efforts to support James II’s exiled regime in Ireland.

The second session of the day featured papers on “Editing and Rewriting” and “Commerce and Trade”. In the first panel, Susan Baddeley showed us some enjoyably bad translations of Boemus’s Omnium Gentium Mores, Leges et Ritus from French into English; Amy Lidster questioned our assumptions about the factors that influenced which history plays made it into print; and Jennifer Sarha demonstrated the effects of “creative translation” on the formation of the legend of Sardanapalus, and how these translations reflected changing conceptualisations of effeminacy. In the second, Siobhan Talbott and Liam Haydon gave papers reflecting a growing academic interest in the nature, logistics and impact/significance of commercial news and communication; Dr Talbott on how information shaped behaviour in early modern commercial networks, and Dr Haydon on the corporation as a hitherto unconsidered actor in early modern print communication. Questions were interrupted by the fire alarm, but thankfully all scholars survived intact, as (importantly) did the delivery of lunch.

The final panel sessions of the day were “Women’s writing across national and linguistic boundaries” and “Inside/Out: The boundaries of material agency in early modern England”. The first panel was organised by researchers at RECIRC: The Reception and Circulation of Early Modern Women’s Writing, 1550-1700 based at the National University of Ireland, Galway. All four papers highlighted the agency of women in various walks of life in textual production, personal expression and the circulation of ideas and information. Evan Bourke examined the active and vital role played by Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh, in the circulation of ideas and physical texts among the Hartlib Circle. Felicity Maxwell used the example of Dorothy Moore to demonstrate how women could gain admittance to international intellectual networks, and the limits of their participation. Emilie Murphy’s snapshot of squabbling English nuns learning French in the Benedictine convent in Brussels cast light on how these women negotiated local language barriers. Wes Hamrick compared the Irish and Welsh contexts in the eighteenth century to argue that language and manuscript culture, not print, were the main arbiters of the extent of engagement with the public sphere. The second session, organised by the University of York’s “Early Modern Lines” research network, took a material perspective on communication. Tom Rusbridge’s paper on leather explored the malleability and communicative potential of skin; Anna Reynolds argued that the representation of “old almanacs” dissolved the boundaries between text and body; and Sarah Cawthorne’s paper focused on Francis Bacon’s stained glass windows, which were both metaphorically potent and literal spaces to display knowledge about the natural world.

Early Modern Lines panel (1)

(Early Modern Lines panel)

Sara Barker’s keynote paper, “Making News History: Breaking Boundaries in the Early Modern Book World”, used the 1560 Conspiracy of Amboise to consider the transmission of news about political crises in sixteenth-century France. Diarists, memorialists and journalists contributed to the early circulation of news about the conspiracy, and helped to shape the later retelling of the story. Apparently small differences in the way events before, during and after the conspiracy were described and related by different writers showed how each attempted to make sense of and shape responses to this “watershed moment” in the French Wars of Religion. Print, Sara showed, was overtaken by manuscript circulation and oral gossip in those crucial early stages.

Woodcut from Sara Barker%27s keynote (1) Sara Barker keynote (1)

(Sarah Barker’s keynote and woodcut from her keynote)

The conference provided a stimulating forum for communication in itself – those who wish to expand into electronic communication can find a collection of tweets from the conference at #nrsleeds16 – and the organisers would like to thank all the speakers that helped make our first conference such a success. We look forward to many further communications with you in the future.

Kit Heyam (School of English, University of Leeds) and Hannah Coates (School of History, University of Leeds)

The conference was organised by six PhD students from the University of Leeds: Hannah Coates, Steven Foster, Kit Heyam, Giovanni Pozzetti, Claire Rennie and Claudia Rogers.

NRS organising team (1)Registration and break room (1)

(NRS organising team, and registration and break room)