On marking language-switching in speech and writing

So what I have to say is too long to fit in a tweet or even a handful of tweets. I followed the link in this tweet –

…which lead to this video by Daniel José Older, titled “Why We Don’t Italicize Spanish”, where he explains why language-switches in his books are not italicized (I’m assuming, anyway, that this applies to all languages, ie. not only is Spanish not italicised, but neither is Italian, German, etc):

I have two thoughts/observations/comments:

1) Regarding speech.

Older argues that since we don’t flag language-switching in speech, it shouldn’t be flagged in writing.

Well, I disagree that languages are not marked when language-switching in speech. All languages have, apart from different vocabulary and grammar, also different prosody: they stress words differently, and have different intonation patterns. Thus when someone speaks a non-native language “with an accent”, this refers to the stress and intonation they use. So someone speaking English with a Finnish accent is using the stress and intonation patterns of Finnish while producing English syntax and vocabulary. Languages sound different.

Therefore while a speaker may not intend to emphasise either language when language-switching in speech, both languages are nonetheless flagged.

2) Regarding writing.

I find this very interesting. I work on the links between scripts/typefaces and languages in the Early Modern period, and am fascinated by aspects of such practices which have survived into present-day use. Such as the practice of italicising foreign words, phrases and passages. What people in general will have no idea about is that this practice has its roots in the very earliest writing practices where languages were marked by different scripts. The general idea is familiar to everyone from having seen texts written in different writing systems: for instance, I’m using the Roman alphabet to write this blog post, and you can immediately distinguish it from Japanese writing:


What is less well known, is that it used to be common to use different scripts and typefaces to write, for instance, English and Spanish. That is to say, not different writing systems or even different alphabets – such as is the case with, say, Greek:

Αυτό δεν είναι γραμμένο με λατινικούς χαρακτήρες.

In the 16th century, Northern European vernaculars (German, Dutch, English, Swedish, etc) were usually written in a gothic cursive script, whereas Italian and Spanish used scripts based on italic characters. And the same applied in print:
Anyway, long story short, this distinction of course disappeared, although gothic typefaces and scripts survived until very recently – for instance newspaper titles are often still found in blackletter. But the practice of switching script or typeface to indicate switching language was, in part, retained.

Of course, the story is far from this simple: at the same time, practices of textual emphasis developed. These included, for instance, colour, enlarged initials (capitalisation), underlining, quotation marks – and also script- and typeface-switching. Therefore whereas you might italicise a foreign word to flag it, and you might also italicise a word to emphasise it, these are in effect two different practices – even if, from a present-day perspective, they have for the most part merged. And today you could even see the italicisation of foreign words and passages as just one of many reasons you might want to emphasise text.

And this last point appears to me to be the one Older makes in his argument against italicising Spanish in his books: the italics make it look like the text is emphasised. Whereas this is not the case. And I take it he doesn’t want to give the impression that authorial emphasis is intended. It is just language-switching, that’s all.

This is great – people rarely voice their conceptions on these matters, and I find it fascinating to find out how people see methods of textual emphasis and their uses.

Anyway, I find these things incredibly interesting and bizarrely understudied. I have several publications on this coming out next year (gods willing), in which I hope to make my case and points better (and at more length) than I do here.

NB I purposely stayed away from discussing code-switching here. I don’t think it matters regarding the general points I make above.

Counting correspondence, listing letters

A number of years ago, I gave a talk on mapping correspondence – that is, about the ways in which you can plot letters and epistolary exchanges on a map. Perhaps the most important point arising from that talk, for me anyway, was the understanding that mapping correspondence was by no means a straightforward matter. What exactly do you map, when you map correspondence? The writers’ locations? Or that of both the writers and the recipients? Or the path of delivery the letter? The duration of conveyance? The amount of correspondence? And in doing any or all of these, what use is the map?

Similar ponderings are behind this blog post – not about mapping, but about counting correspondence. What do you count, really, when you count letters? How can counting help? Are graphs useful?

These thoughts arose from reading Brenton Dickieson’s blog post, “A Statistical Look at C.S. Lewis’ Letter Writing”. Working from three published volumes of C.S. Lewis’s collected letters, Dickieson plotted the 3,274 letters on graphs, basically looking at the volume of letters Lewis wrote over time, and discussing contextual events that are reflected in the sheer numbers of Lewis’s letters. Here’s his graph of the number of letters over time (copied from his blog, with my apologies and thanks):

CS Lewis letters

This graph is much as you’d expect for someone like Lewis, whose fame grew over time, bringing the inevitable mountain of letters with it: it shows overall growth over time.1 I’m sure you can immediately see that some of the peaks can be mapped to publications (the Narnia books started coming out in 1950), and other events (WWI in 1914-1918).

But hang on: what does this graph actually show? What does it count?

I think that when we look at a graph like this we tend to make a lot of assumptions. For instance, it is easy to take the above graph as depicting ‘the amount of letters written by Lewis during his lifetime’ – especially as the number of letters is so high. Dickieson actually titles the chart as “the number of letters we have from Lewis each year” – which you might call ‘the amount of letters which are extant today’. But what the chart in fact shows is a third figure, namely ‘the amount of letters published in this one edition’.  These are different things:

  1. the actual number of letters written by a writer during their lifetime;
  2. a subset of (1), being the number of letters which survive; and
  3. a subset of (2), being the number of letters which we (or the editors, rather) know about.

These are all cases of ‘all the letters of X’ – a common phrase in titles of editions is “the complete correspondence”. Of course, attaining a true count of (1) is practically impossible – do you have copies of all the emails you ever sent? Exactly. So editions of “the complete letters of X” tend to strive to be (2) and say that they are (2), while they are of course (3). In fairness, (3) can equal (2), but it is not uncommon for further letters to be found after the publication of volumes of “the complete letters”.

So if we look back to the graph of Lewis’s letters above, now with the understanding that it represents (3) and, possibly, (2), but that it does not show (1), a second question arises. Given that the graph shows a subset of (1), is this subset representative of the whole? More specifically:

  • Do the ups and downs of the graph reflect actual fluctuations in the number of letters written by Lewis, or just in the number of letters that survive?
  • Similarly, does the overall trend reflect the actual overall trend – that of (1)?

For instance, for much of the 1930s, only about 20 letters per year survive from Lewis. Did he really write fewer letters during this decade?

Given that the graph is based on more than three thousand letters, I think that the overall trend – an increasing number of letters over time – probably does reflect (1). But its minor fluctuations are more likely to reflect what has survived than what was originally there.


More commonly, editions of letters offer only a selection of the correspondence of a writer or a group of writers. In these cases, the points I have raised become even more significant.

As an example, let’s take the letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. As far as I know, only one volume of his letters has been published, being The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Allen & Unwin, 1981) – although more letters have been published since in various books and articles.2

The Letters published 354 letters. A very quick search online found about the same number again in a list on the Tolkien Gateway site; if we exclude letters of uncertain date, this list gives us another 349 letters, for a total of 703. A far cry from Lewis’s 3,000+, and I would imagine that many more of Tolkien’s letters survive; but this is enough to plot in a chart to make my point:
JRRT letters

In this chart, the blue columns show the number of letters per decade published in the Letters, and the red columns the number of further letters given in the list on the Tolkien Gateway website. Obviously, neither set of letters reflects (1), or even (2) or (3) as discussed above. But the point I want to make here regards overall trends teased from these counts. If we look at the blue columns, it would appear that the peak of Tolkien’s letter-writing activities was in the 1950s, being fairly even from the 1940s through the 1960s. But the red columns indicate that the peak was not until the 1960s, and not many letters date from the 1940s. So we can immediately see that neither the blue nor the red columns appear to be representative of (1), of the actual number of letters written by Tolkien.


So, to recap and summarize. The overall trend we can extract from data depends on the dataset. This is really quite obvious. What is harder to remember is that the constitution of the dataset can be something else than what is expected by the reader, and this can have serious implications on the interpretation and understanding of the data.

This discrepancy becomes especially relevant in situations when only a fraction of (1) survives. Which of course in the case of historical material is almost always. Unless we have an extremely carefully made estimate of a letter-writer’s full output, we need to be really careful when counting their letters and making inferences based on those numbers.

Here’s an example. The following chart shows the number of letters sent from England by Thomas Wilson, servant and secretary to Sir Robert Cecil, to the English merchant Richard Cocks in Bayonne, France.

TW to RC

In this chart, blue shows the number of letters that survive (N = 1), red the number of letters that are mentioned in other surviving sources, but which don’t survive (N = 29). Based on the surviving letters, there is no trend. Based on the number of letters reconstructed from intertextual references, there was a continuous correspondence over this whole period.


I hope I haven’t given the impression with this blog post that I’m somehow criticizing Dickieson’s exploration of Lewis’s letters. On the contrary, I found his blog post fascinating, and I have in the past made similar graphs when trying to make sense of correspondences (as the last graph shows). I just wanted to raise some quite basic questions regarding the assumptions we make when using quantitative methods to make sense of data that we usually explore and study qualitatively.

[This post didn’t quite go where I thought it would, but it’s too long to rewrite. I’m not sure it’s particularly interesting, either, but I hope to remedy that anon with a post about dates (the calendar, not the fruit) in Early Modern letters.]


1. This feels quite obvious if we think about general human lifespans, too: the longer you live, the more people you meet => the more communication events are likely to follow. And this reminds me of an article in Science (Malmgren et al, “On universality in human correspondence activity”, Science 325 (1696), 2009) in which, through some serious number-crunching, the authors discovered that i) the amount of letters a person writes increases over their lifespan, ii) letter-writing is a correspondence event (when you receive a letter, you are likely to write a reply), and iii) letter-writing times correlate with the hours the writer is awake. My summary here is probably partly wrong, and certainly rather dismissive, and I have no idea about the calculations involved which I expect are the real beef of the article, but there are two points to make from their article, both of which are relevant to my present discussion: (1) number-crunching doesn’t necessarily tell you anything new; and (2) you can only get out what you put in, aka. what, exactly, are you counting? (Actually there’s also a third: (3) the humanities and sciences are interested in different things, ask different questions, take into account different contexts, etc etc. But let’s not go there today).

2. And I have to take this opportunity to boast confess that I’ve edited one previously unpublished letter myself: see Alaric Hall & Samuli Kaislaniemi (2013), “‘You tempt me grievously to a mythological essay’: J. R. R. Tolkien’s correspondence with Arthur Ransome”, in Ex Philologia Lux: Essays in Honour of Leena Kahlas-Tarkka ed. by Jukka Tyrkkö, Olga Timofeeva & Maria Salenius. [Mémoires de la Société Néophilologique XC]. Helsinki: Société Néophilologique. pp. 261-280. Link to pdf.

quantity +/- quality

For a long time, I’ve felt that the pressure to produce MORE publications – more Things To Count, since the system as it is now uses quantitative methods to establish quality of academics – is doing everyone a disservice, with lots of half-formed publications seeing the light of day.* In this publish or(/and) perish world, I’ve been seeing it as a quantity VERSUS quality issue, and have felt that less might be more – a point that has been raised by many others, quite often using citing Nobel laureates of yore who only ever published half a dozen articles. Clearly quantity is not an objective measure of academic worth.

However, there is another way of looking at this issue, one which is highly important to anyone writing for a living. To paraphrase various authors, this is the general system:

  1. write
  2. finish what you write
  3. send it out and get it published
  4. revise texts only if and when necessary
  5. repeat from step 1

Which makes well good sense: it all comes down to writing things, finishing them, and getting them out into the world. On a conceptual level, writing a blog post and writing a monograph are par. Yes, my interminable monograph is taking forever to get done, but I also have a draft for a post on this blog that dates to December 2012. Things can – and do! – end up hanging in limbo, unfinished for a slew of reasons, all of which come down to one: not writing.

But the other step in the system – where step 1 is To Write – is To Write LOTS.

To produce Quantity.

If you’re a writer trying to make a living, I can see you need to sell your writings in order to feed your kids. But if you’re an academic..? And in any case won’t the quality suffer?

Generally speaking, I’ve tended to equate academic writing with something that takes a long time to accomplish. It takes time to do the background reading, to do the research, to do the thinking required. (To do the lab experiments, to run the programs (and correct the bugs), to process the results…)  Perhaps that’s what I find infuriating about the present state of affairs: here’s this thing which takes A Long Time To Do (never mind Do Well), and we are required – Demanded – to do more of it in less time!

But things can also get written very rapidly.

Now, I’ve written articles that took years to produce. But I’ve also written things at speed: there are a couple pages in one of the things I have published that I well remember writing – long hand (!) – in one sitting, in a pub in London.† And last fall I put together an article within a week – admittedly based on a presentation I gave earlier last year, but my presentations are not article-text read out loud. We all have moments when words just flow out, and it feels like you are channeling something or someone, rather than producing new text. But I can’t help feeling this is rarer in academia than in (some) other fields (I suspect this is something that gets easier the further along your academic career you get, ie. experience helps, even more so than with many if not most other genres).

..okay, so if I’m willing to concede, after all, that academic writing can be fairly rapid, what am I struggling over?

Maybe it’s the business with killing your darlings. Just now, I read a short but great post on Tumblr. Here’s an excerpt:

Pottery, particularly wheel-throwing, is wonderful for this, incidentally. You fail over and over and you fail fast and you are creating quantity to lead to quality. You throw and throw and throw and things die on the wheel and things die when you take them off the wheel and things explode in the kiln and after you have made a dozen or two dozen or a thousand, none of them are precious any more. There is always more clay.

..but it’s only a page long, so go read it on Squash Tea. I can wait.

Done? Groovy.

Here’s the bit that particularly got me:

after you have made a dozen or two dozen or a thousand, none of them are precious any more

Now, I am apparently able to pull together a blog post like this one in an hour or two, and even write one based on more extensive impromptu (not to mention ad hoc) research over an evening. Am I, then, just being overly precious about my ‘real’ academic publications? (Or even about ‘real’ academic publications overall..?)

To put it another way, perhaps my problem with the perceived Quality vs Quantity issue is just misguided?

Given that the system is what it is, churning out pots and hoping most of them will be servicable and at least some also beautiful, and also not forgetting to smash the ones that are downright bad, does not appear to be at all a bad approach to academic writing. It’s easy to get stuck on polishing texts – awareness of the impossibility of perfection notwithstanding – but it’s equally difficult to see, years later, what exactly were the faults that you so much wanted to redress.


Anyway, time to stop this rambling. I am aware that I have touched upon a slew of other points related to academia that are worth addressing (and re-addressing), but I will avoid all of them for now. This was supposed to be a short note..

But just one point as a coda. Not all academic writing is done for publications. In fact, probably the vast majority of it is produced when planning and preparing teaching and writing lectures, but also in putting together talks and conference presentations and guest lectures. And most of these are one-off shows. In the past, when I’ve attended dance, theatre or music performances, I’ve wondered about the ration of preparation versus performance in the arts. Choreographies will be practiced for weeks, scripts rehearsed and polished and rewritten up until curtain up, and bands spend hundreds of hours playing together in preparation for ten performances, or only five, or even just one single performance – to an audience of a thousand, a hundred, or just half a dozen people. But then it struck me that this is what we do as academics: I will spend days putting together a conference paper, and then give it to a roomful of scholars in 20 minutes – and that’s it. Potentially I will write it up for publication later, but this is by no means always the case (although making it so is a worthwhile habit to create).

I guess my point is that these, really, are our pots and dishes: we churn them out by the dozen, and they do include many duds. Sometimes you work for weeks but only on actually presenting it do you see why your paper doesn’t work. But most of the time, you produce a serviceable dish. And then it’s time to reach for more clay.


* This is meant to be a short blog post so pardon me for not engaging with questions relating to quality of academic publications over time, or any other parameter for that matter. As also with issues such as other reasons why texts of dubious quality get published in the first place.

† I actually wrote out twice as much as ended in the article but had to scrap everything written after the first pint. Alcohol can be a muse but when Clio morphs into Thalia you know you’ve had one too many.


At the beginning of this week, I attended the two-day Big Data Approaches to Intellectual and Linguistic History symposium at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki. Since Tuesday, I’ve found myself pondering on topics that came up at the symposium. So I thought I would write up my thoughts in order to unload them somewhere (and thus hopefully stop thinking about them) (I have a chapter to finish, and not on digital humanities stuff), and also in order to try to articulate, more clearly than the jumbled form inside my head, my reflections upon what was discussed there. I.e. the usual refrain, ‘I need to hear what I say in order to find out what I think’.

So here goes.

NB this is not a conference report, in that I’m not going to talk about specific presentations given at the symposium. For that, check out slides from the presentations linked to from the conference conference website, and see also the Storify of the tweets from the event (both including those from the workshop that followed on Wednesday, Helsinki Digital Humanities Day).


I’ve been a part of the DH (Digital Humanities) community for about ten years now. I started off working on digital resources – linguistic corpora, digital scholarly editing; I’ve even fiddled with mapping things – but have in recent years not been actively engaged in resource- or tool-creation as such. Yet I use digital and digitised resources on a daily basis: EEBO frequently, the broad palette of resources available on British History Online all the time, and, when I have access to them, State Papers Online and Cecil Papers (Online). (I work on British state papers from around 1600, and am lucky in that much of the material I need has been digitised and put online in one form or another). I also keep an eye on what happens in the DH world: I attend DH-related conferences and seminars and whatnot when I can, subscribe to LLC (Literary & Linguistic Computing, about to be renamed DSH, Digital Scholarship in the Humanities), and hang out with DHers both online (Twitter, mostly) and in real life.

All this goes to say that I feel quite confident about my understanding of DH projects at the macro level. (Details, certainly not: implementation, encoding, programming, etc etc).

Thus, attending a DH symposium on ‘big data’, I expected to hear presentations about things I was already familiar with. And this turned out to be the case: there were descriptions of/results from projects, descriptions of methodologies (explaining to those from other disciplines ‘what is it we do’), and explorations of concepts that keep coming up in DH work.

Don’t get me wrong: I found all the presentations (that I saw) very good, and listening to talks by people in other disciplines does give you new perspectives. Maybe not profound ones, and often you end up thinking/feeling there’s little or no common ground so why do we even bother? But it’s not a completely useless exercise. Yet what I felt to be the take-away points from this symposium were ones I feel keep coming up at DH events that I have attended over the years, and ones that we – meaning the DH community – are well aware of. Such as (by no means a comprehensive list):

1. Issues with the data

  • “Big Data” in the humanities is not very big when compared to Big Data in some other fields
  • We know Big Data is good for quantity, but rubbish for quality
    • We are aware of the importance and value of the nitty-gritty details
  • We know that manual input is a required part of both processing/methodology – in order to fine-tune the automatic parts of the process – and more importantly, for the analysis of the results (Matti Rissanen’s maxim: “research begins where counting ends”)
  • We know that Our data – however Big it is – is never All data (our results are not God’s Truth)
    • We are aware of the limits of the historical record (“known unknowns, unknown unknowns”)

2. Sharing tools and resources

  • We need to develop better tools, cross-disciplinary ones
    • Our research questions may be different, but we are all accessing and querying text
  • We need to develop our tools as modular “building blocks”, ‘good enough’ is good enough
  • We need to share data/sources/databases/corpora/materials – open access; copyright is an issue, but we’re all (painfully) aware of this

Clearly, these are important points that we need to keep in mind, and challenges that we want to address. And repetitio mater studiorum est. So why do I feel that their reiteration on Monday and Tuesday only served to make me grumpier than usual?*

In the pub after Wednesday’s workshop, we talked a little bit about how pessimistically these points tend to be presented. “We can’t (yet) do XYZ”. “We need to understand that our tools and resources are terrible”. …which now reminds me of what I commented in a previous discussion, on Twitter, early this year:

One element in how I feel about the symposium could be the difficulty of cross-disciplinary communication. This, too, is familiar to me seeing as I straddle several disciplines, hanging out with historical linguists on the one hand, historians on th’other, and then DHers too. I once attended a three-day conference convened by linguists where the aim was to bring linguists and historians together. I think only one of the presentations was by a historian…  So yeah, we don’t talk – as disciplines, that is: I know many individuals who talk across disciplinary borders.  …and, come to think of it, I know a number of scholars who straddle such borders. But perhaps it’s just that at interdisciplinary events there’s a required level of dumbing-down on the part of the presentators on the one hand, and inevitable incomprehension on the part of the audience on the other. Admittedly, it is incredibly difficult to give a interdisciplinary paper.

A final point, perhaps, in these meandering reflections, is of course the wee fact that I don’t, in fact, work on research questions that require Big Data.† (At the moment, anyway). So I’m just not particularly interested in learning how to use computers to tell me something interesting about large amounts of texts – something that it would be impossible to see without using computational power. It’s not that the methodologies, or indeed the results produced, are not fascinating. It’s just that I guess I lack a personal connection to applying them.  ..but then, I suppose this can be filed under the difficulty of interdisciplinary communication! ‘I see what you’re doing but I fail to see how it can help me in what I do’.


So how to conclude? I guess, first of all, kudos to HCAS for putting the symposium together – and, judging from upcoming events, for playing an important part in getting DH in Finland into motion. It’s not as if there’s been nothing previously, and HCAS definitely cannot be credited for ‘starting’ DH activities in Finland in any way – some of us have been doing this for 10 years, some for 30 years or more, and along the way, there have been events which fall under the DH umbrella. But only in the past year or so has DH become established institutionally in the University of Helsinki: we have a professor of DH now, and 4 fully-funded DH-related PhD positions. Perhaps it was the lack of institutional recognition that made previous efforts at organizing DH-related activities here for the large part intermittent and disconnected. But we’ll see how things proceed: certainly many of us are glad to see DH becoming established in Finnish academia as an entity. And judging by the full house at the symposium and the workshop that followed, it would appear that there are many of us in the local scholarly community interested in these topics. The future looks promising.

It should also be said that DH has come a long way from what it was ten years ago. The resources and tools we have today allow us to do amazing things. Just about all of the presentations at the symposium described and discussed projects that use complicated tools to do complex things. I am seriously impressed by what is being done in various fields – and simply, by what can be done today. And there is no denying that there is a Lot of work being done across and between disciplines: DH projects are often multidisciplinary by design, and many are working on and indeed producing tools and resources that can be useful to different disciplines.

Maybe it’s just the season making me cranky. You’ll certainly see me at the next local DH event. Watch this space..



* ..Maybe it’s just conference fatigue that I’m struggling with? There are only so many conference papers one can listen to attentively, and almost without exception there is never time to do much but scratch the surface and provide but a thin sketch of the material/problem/results/etc. (It’s rather like watching popular history/science documentaries/programs on tv: oh look, here’s Galileo and the heliocentric model again, ooh with pictures of the Vatican and dramatic Hollywood-movie music, for chrissakes). (I mean, yes it’s interesting and cool and all that but oh we’re out of time and have to go to commercials/questions). (So in order to retain my interest there needs to be some seriously new and exciting material/results to show, like those baby snow geese jumping off a 400ft cliff (!!!!) in David Attenborough’s fantastic new documentary Life Story, or all the fantastic multilingual multiscriptal stuff in historical manuscripts that we have only just started to look at in more detail. If it’s yet another documentary about Serengeti lions / paper about epistolary formulae in Early Modern English letters, I’m bound to skip it. I’m willing to be surprised, but these are well-trodden ground).   /rant

† Incidentally, I disagree with the notion that in the Humanities we don’t have Big Data – I would say that this depends on your definition of “big”. While historical text corpora may at best only be some hundreds of millions of words, and this pales in comparison to the petabytes (or whatever) produced by, say, CERN, or Amazon, every minute, I see (historical) textual data as fractal: the closer you look at it, the more detail emerges. Admittedly, a lot of the detail does not usually get encoded in the digitised corpora (say, material and visual aspects of manuscript texts), but there’s more there than per byte than in recordings of the flight paths of electrons or customer transactions. Having said this, I’m sure someone can point out how wrong I am! But really, “my data > your data”? I don’t find spitting contests particularly useful in scholarship, any more than in real life.

No signal, just noise

One of the (oh too many) things I work on is code-switching* in historical texts. Or, more broadly, how multilingual environments are reflected in Early Modern English (merchants’) letter-writing. In particular I’ve done some work on the letters of early English East India Company merchants – some of it published – and then of course a bit more on the focus of my (never-ending) dissertation, the early letters of Richard Cocks. This year, I’ve joined my interest in historical code-switching to my interest in palaeography, and have given papers on if and how and why script and typeface are also switched when there is a code-switch in Early Modern English texts. In short, I have been looking at the historical development of why we still italicise words and passages in aliis linguis – and also at other practices of typographical flagging We Still Employ On A Daily Basis. This is all still work in progress, although I will write it up for publication in due course. But I would here like to share an observation gained from conferences and discussions on these and other topics this year.

Last June, there was an excellent symposium at the University of Tampere on historical code-switching. Really the first meeting of its kind, it was hugely enlightening to have three days of papers on code-switching in historical texts, covering over 1,500 years and, although focussing on English texts (OE, ME, EModE, LModE), also including some papers on texts produced elsewhere in Europe. Although all of it was fascinating and informative, I was naturally primarily interested in finding out about visual flagging of code-switching – whether by script-switching, as in the letters I presented on, or by other means. Only a couple of the papers actually focussed on visual aspects of code-switching, but visuality did crop up often enough to give me an idea of the range of the phenomenon and variation within it.

Overall, though, I was struck particularly with the realization that what we were conferencing on under the rubric of “historical code-switching”, actually was/is a hugely diverse … er, thing. Not a practice, but a vast set of practices. Not a phenomenon, but a huge array of phenomena. One of the conclusions of the conference that came up in the closing open discussion was in fact that although most scholars working on historical code-switching have been applying methodologies developed for present-day conversational code-switching to historical texts, we have all been discovering how inadequate such conceptual models and practical approaches are for our purposes. (The same has been realized by scholars working on code-switching in present-day texts). So developing models that are more suitable for the analysis of code-switching in (historical) texts is an important part of future work.

So, practices of code-switching in historical texts vary greatly depending on which period, region, languages, text types, genres, etc etc are involved – and much is down to scribal idiolects. That is to say, code-switching in the Early Modern English letters I work on is very different from code-switching in Late Modern English literary texts, or Early Modern English printed tracts, or practices in present-day northern India, or those in the Jewish community in medieval Cairo. And equally, the code- and script-switching practices of the writer I work on are completely different to those of some of his peers.

Simply put, there appears to be so much variation over time and space and text type, that it is difficult, at this stage, to see any patterns – except when restricting the study to a single place, time, text type, or indeed writer.


Okay. So what? How is the situation different from pretty much any other field?

Well, of course it isn’t. The primary difference to many other fields is the lack of data – historical code-switching is a emerging field and studies are still thin on the ground and cover disparate material. Give it another 20 years and the picture will be clearer. And actually, the fact that we know so little about any of this means that there is unexplored material aplenty, so it is ridiculously easy to come up with further topics and sources to study. Which is exciting!

But this is my point: the variation between texts (types, times, places) is so great as to render generalizations based on a single corpus void. Thus anyone making any general points about historical code-switching is, in my view, bound to be wrong.

And all of this applies equally strongly to script-switching, and also to material aspects of letter-writing: at the moment, we know next to nothing about either of these things.

Which brings me back to my work.

I guess what’s bugging me is the fact that, particularly in PhD work, you quite desperately want to be able to contribute to scholarship, and preferably with A Point: something that can be drawn out of your study and generalized; something that can be applied to other sources. Thus it’s eminently frustrating to cover new ground through painstaking attention to detail in your sources, only to end up with the realization that you have indeed made an important finding in itself, but all you can really say, based on This Material, is how This Material behaves.


* When I say “code-switching”, I use it in the broadest possible sense to mean any use of L2 in L1, including such things as quotations (which arguably require no competence in L2) and lexical borrowings (if cul-de-sac is not French, why do we keep italicising it?) as well as ‘real’ code-switching, be it inter- or intrasentential.

How should you cite a book viewed in EEBO?

Earlier today, there was a discussion on Twitter on citing Early Modern English books seen on EEBO. But 140 characters is not enough to get my view across, so here ’tis instead.

The question: how should you cite a book viewed on EEBO in your bibliography?

When it comes to digitized sources, many if not most of us probably instinctively cite the original source, rather than the digitized version. This makes sense – the digital version is a surrogate of the original work that we are really consulting. However, digitizing requires a lot of effort and investment, so when you view a book on EEBO but only cite the original work, you are not giving credit where it is due. After all, consider how easy it now is to access thousands of books held in distant repositories, simply by navigating to a website (although only if your institution has paid for access). This kind of facilitation of research should not be taken for granted.

(What’s more, digital scholarship is not yet getting the credit it deserves – and as a creator of digital resources myself, I feel quite strongly that this needs to change.)

Anyway; so how should you cite a work you’ve read in EEBO, then?

This is what the EEBO FAQ says (edited slightly; bold emphasis mine):

When citing material from EEBO, it is helpful to give the publication details of the original print source as well as those of the electronic version. You can view the original publication details of works in EEBO by clicking on the Full Record icon that appears on the Search Results, Document Image and Full Text page views, as well as on the list of Author’s Works.

Joseph Gibaldi’s MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th ed. (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2009), deals with citations of online sources in section 5.6, pp.181-93. For works on the web with print publication data, the MLA Handbook suggests that details of the print publication should be followed by (i) the title of the database or web site, (ii) the medium of publication consulted (i.e. ‘Web’), and (iii) the date of access (see 5.6.2.c, pp. 187-8).

… When including URLs in EEBO citations, use the blue Durable URL button that appears on each Document Image and Full Record display to generate a persistent URL for the particular page or record that you are referencing. It is not advisable to copy and paste URLs from the address bar of your browser as these will not be persistent.

Here is an example based on these guidelines:

  • Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Qveene: Disposed into Twelue Books, Fashioning XII Morall Vertues. London, 1590. Early English Books Online. Web. 13 May 2003. <http://gateway.proquest.com.libproxy.helsinki.fi/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&res_id=xri:eebo&rft_val_fmt=&rft_id=xri:eebo:image:29269:1>.

If you are citing one of the keyed texts produced by the Text Creation Partnership (TCP), the following format is recommended:

  • Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Qveene: Disposed into Twelue Books, Fashioning XII Morall Vertues. London, 1590. Text Creation Partnership digital edition. Early English Books Online. Web. 13 October 2010. <http://gateway.proquest.com.libproxy.helsinki.fi/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&res_id=xri:eebo&rft_val_fmt=&rft_id=xri:eebo:image:29269:1>.

Here’s why I think this is a ridiculous way to cite a book viewed on EEBO:

  1. Outrageous URL. Bibliographies should be readable by humans: the above URL is illegible. Further, while the URL may indeed be persistent, no-one outside the University of Helsinki network can check the validity of this particular URL. And to quote Peter Shillingsburg on giving web addresses in your references, “All these sites are more reliably found by a web search engine than by URLs mouldering in a footnote”. If you’d want to find this resource, you’d use a web search engine and look for “Spenser Faerie Queen EEBO”. Or go directly to EEBO and search there – in any case, you wouldn’t ever use this URL.
  2. Redundant information. Both “Early English Books Online” and “Web”? Don’t be silly.
  3. Access date. If the digital resource you are accessing is stable, there’s no need for this. If it’s a newspaper or a blog, dating is necessary (especially if the contents of the target are likely to change). In the case of resources such as the Oxford English Dictionary – which, though largely stable, undergoes constant updates – each article (headword entry) is marked with which edition of the dictionary it belongs to, which information is enough (and which explains notations like OED2 and OED3, for 2nd and 3rd ed. entries, respectively).

Instead, I suggest and recommend a citation format something like the following:

  • Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Qveene: Disposed into Twelue Books, Fashioning XII Morall Vertues. London, 1590. EEBO. Huntington Library.

With a separate entry in your bibliography for EEBO:

  • EEBO = Early English Books Online. Chadwyck-Healey. <http://eebo.chadwyck.com/home>.

And if you’ve used the TCP version, add “-TCP” to the book reference, and include a separate entry for the Text Creation Partnership (EEBO-TCP).

This makes for much shorter entries in your bibliography, and clears away pages of redundant clutter which doesn’t tell the reader anything.

Why cite the source library?

Book historians will tell you – at some length – that there is no such thing as an edition of a hand-printed book. No two books printed by hand are exactly identical (in the way that modern printed books are identical) – due to misprints and the like, but also because for instance the paper they are printed on will be different from one codex to another (since a printer’s paper stock came from many different paper mills). So two copies of an Early Modern book (the same work, the same ‘edition’) will always differ from each other – sometimes in significant ways.

For this reason, really we should cite books-as-artefacts rather than books-as-works. Happily, EEBO gives the source library of each book, and including that information is straightforward and simple enough.

Problems and questions – can you not cite EEBO?

Some of the books on EEBO are available as images digitized from different microfilm surrogates of the source book. That is, there is more than one microfilm of the same book. Technically, these surrogate images are different artefacts and we should really reference the microfilm too…  I see that this could be a problem, but have not come across an issue where citing the microfilm would have been relevant to the work I was doing.

Q: Which brings us to another important point: if you are only interested in the work, is it really necessary to cite the format, never mind the artefact?

A: Well, yes, for the reasons outlined above – and simply because it is good scholarly practice.

Q: What if you only use EEBO to double-check a page reference or the correct quotation of something you’d made a note of when you viewed (a different copy of) the work in a library?

A: Ah. Well, if you are feeling conscientious, maybe make a note that you’ve viewed the work in EEBO as well as a physical copy – say, use parentheses: “(EEBO. Huntington Library.)”.

Incidentally, since Early Modern books-as-artefacts differ from each other, technically we should always state in the bibliography which copy of the work we have seen. But I’m not sure anyone is quite that diligent – book historians perhaps excepted – and I can’t be bothered to check right now.

Q: Argh. Look, can’t we just go back to not quoting the work and not bother with all this?

A: No. Sorry.

However, I think we’ve drifted a bit far from our departure point.

All this serves to illustrate how citing Early Modern books – be it as physical copies, printed editions or facsimiles, or digital surrogates – is no simple matter. (And we haven’t discussed whether good practice should also include giving the ESTC number in order to identify the work…)  So no wonder no standard practice has emerged on how to cite a work seen on EEBO.

Yet in sum, if you consult books on EEBO, I strongly urge you to give credit to EEBO in your bibliography. 


ETA 27.2.2014 8am:

Another argument for why to make sure to cite EEBO is the rather huge matter of what, exactly, is EEBO, and how what it is affects scholarship. In the words of others:

Daniel Powell notes that:

[I]t seems important to realize that EEBO is quite prone to error, loss, and confusion–especially since it’s based on microfilm photographed in the 1930s-40s based on lists compiled in some cases the 1880s.

And Jacqueline Wernimont adds:

EEBO isn’t a catalogue of early modern books – it’s a catalogue of copies. More precisely, it is a repository of digital images of microfilms of single copies of books, and, if your institution subscribes to the Text Creation Partnership (TCP) phases one and/or two, text files that are outsourced transcriptions of microfilm images of single texts.

These points are particularly relevant if you treat EEBO as a library of early modern English works, but they apply equally when you access one or two books to check a reference. As Sarah Werner (among others) has shown us, digital facsimiles of (old) microfilms of early books can miss a lot of details that are clearly visible when viewing the physical books (like coloured ink). While in many cases the scans in EEBO are perfectly serviceable surrogates of the original printed book – black text on white paper tends to capture well in facsimile – the exceptions drive across the point that accessing a book as microfilm images is not the same as looking at a physical copy of the book.

This is not to say that all surrogates, and especially microfilms, are bad as such. In many cases it is the copy that survives whereas the original has been lost. And I have come across cases where the microfilm retains information that has been lost when the manuscripts have been cleaned by conservators and archivists some time after being microfilmed. (Pro tip for meticulous scholars: have a look at all the surrogates, even if you don’t need to!) Also, modern digital imaging is enabling us to read palimpsests and other messy texts with greater ease than before (or indeed at all).

In essence, then, you should make sure to cite EEBO when you use it – not only because of things you may miss due to problems with the images in EEBO, but also because digital resources enable us to do things which are simply impossible or would take forever when using physical copies.


Ok this was a long rant. But I hope this might be of use to someone!

Kindness is the child of money

Thomas Wilson (c. 1565-1629; ODNB link) – among other things, intelligencer, secretary to Sir Robert Cecil, MP, and Keeper of the State Papers at Whitehall – left quite an impressive paper trail of his life post-1600. Yet thus far I have only come across one letter from him to a family member, being CP 83/47 (in the Cecil Papers at Hatfield House), which is a letter from Wilson to his wife Margaret (née Meautys). The letter is dated the first of August 1600, and was written by Wilson on one of his tours of continental Europe, where he was engaged in gathering intelligence.

I found the following passage striking:

As I was takinge my iorney into Italie in that rude vnkind contrye of savoye , I was taken wth myne ordinary enemy the burninge fever, who charged me wth soe many fetters that I was not able to move one foote further, soe that all my companye and honorable frends having all stayed long for me wer forced at length to leaue me and I left desolate in the handes of such people in whom kindness is onely the chyld of monye and wherof god wott I hadd butt smale abondance the rest I leave to you to coniecture / god I thanke him it is past, I am nowe in better helth & plentye and proceed alonge on my voyage though solitarye yett wth more corage \& hope/ then euer, God hath not appoynted that I shal dye yett but lyue & doe better then myne enemies wish or my frends hope

Wilson was, er, plagued by tertiary ague (malaria), which recurred throughout his life; it crops up in his letters several times over the years. I am not sure whether “kindness is only the child of money” is original – googling reveals nothing, but I suspect it may be from some Latin text, and perhaps can be found in some other form in English. (I checked the Helsinki Corpus (XML version) and the Corpus of Early English Correspondence, but couldn’t find it in either).

Wilson begins the letter to his wife by apologising for not having written, writing:

I was loth to send you such ill newes as I sent them vntill it was past for that it wold haue encreased yor sorowe wherof I knowe you haue too much

..which is fair enough. But although he assures her that he is now perfectly recovered, he goes on to say that he will not be able to write for some time as he is heading into enemy territory in Italy – one of his objectives was to learn what the King of Spain is up to, and the Kingdom of Naples belonged to the Spanish crown at this time. And as if that was not enough, he concludes his letter:

out of sauoye wher the warres ar beginning the 1 of August 1600 / Thy most loving Tho: wilson

Hardly reassuring reading! Happily, he made it back safe and sound, and didn’t have to engage in too much Bond-esque action (although there are some letters where he ponders going all Jason Bourne on a fellow Englishman..).

This blog has been rather quiet for some time. I expect I won’t be updating for another several months still, as there is a thesis that needs finishing. I might put my July conference paper up here, provided I write one instead of just babbling. But we shall see.

On the numbering and foliation of the Cecil Papers

While discussing the provenance of the manuscripts in my PhD edition, delving into the histories of various collections and repositories, I ran somewhat off on a tangent when writing about the Cecil Papers. Turns out that the foliation in the Cecil Papers is problematic, and references to documents in the Cecil Papers can be obscure. The little pedant in me ended up producing the following rant text, which is a bit too off-topic for even my thesis; for which reason it is now published here. I hope someone, one day, finds it useful. (Hope springs eternal, etc).

Oddly, Perry’s (2010) explanation of the numbering of Cecil Papers documents is incorrect. She claims that Cecil Paper numbers are formed of the volume number and the number “on the first page of that particular document”. Perry further says that “each page has been through-numbered within the volume, irrespective of where a new individual document begins”, so that consecutive document numbers may have gaps, such as her example of CP 56/1 being three “pages” long, and followed by CP 56/4. Yet browsing through the Cecil Papers reveals that the reality is more complex.

If we take Perry to mean “folio” when she says “page”, she is essentially correct. For instance, bifoliums have been given successive folio numbers on their rectos. However, a page has only been given a folio number if there is text (or other markings) on the page. Therefore, while the bifolium CP 29/17 is foliated on both its rectos (which contain text), as 17 and 18 respectively, the following document, CP 29/19, is a bifolium without text on the second recto, and this second folio has not been assigned a folio number. The document following CP 29/19 is thus CP 29/20, and not CP 29/21 as it would be if the foliation followed Perry’s description.

Since a bifolium is the most typical document form (a sheet of paper folded in half), and bifoliums with the second recto blank are very common, this means that a substantial amount of the Cecil Papers remain unfoliated. To complicate matters further, some of the Cecil Papers have been foliated incorrectly. For instance, CP 111/119/2 has presumably been mistakenly assigned the folio number 119 before the archivist noticed that he had already assigned 119 to the previous foliated recto, and had to correct it by adding the /2. It goes without saying that there are thus misfoliated bifolio documents with a blank second recto!

Finally, while the foliation allocating the CP numbers is done in a red ink or crayon, some of the Cecil Papers have also been foliated in pencil, including the blank rectos. For instance, CP 143/114, CP 143/115, CP 143/116 and CP 143/117 are all bifolios with blank second rectos. Their rectos, however, also carry pencilled foliation numbers in order, from “155” on CP 143/114_1r to “162” on CP 143/117_2r.

Top right corner of CP 143 f. 115r (CP 143/115)

Top right corner of CP 143 f. 115_1r (CP 143/115)

(Images from the Cecil Papers, this counts as fair use I think.)

These images are of the top right corners of the rectos of the bifolium CP 143/115, being folios 115r and a blank unfoliated-in-red-ink page I am calling 115_1r. Note the pencilled foliation which I referred to above: unlike the red ink, it is consistent, foliating these successive rectos as 157 and 158.

While emended misfoliation and secondary folio numbers may not prove insurmountable obstacles, the scholar should nonetheless be aware that many document and folio references to the Cecil Papers are thus potentially obscure. For instance, CP 143/115v – or CP 143 f. 115v – can refer both to page 2 of the said document (f. 115_1v), or to the dorse of the document, being the cover of the letter (f. 115_2v).


Perry, Vicki. 2010. “Notes on the numbering of the Cecil Papers and the scope of the digital collection”. Cecil Papers. ProQuest and Hatfield House.

A Brief Treatise of Arithmeticke (1588)

In looking for something completely different, I browsed through bits of John Mellis’s 1588 manual on bookkeeping, A briefe instruction and maner hovv to keepe bookes of accompts after the order of debitor and creditor & as well for proper accompts partible, &c. […] (London. STC 18794. EEBO. Huntington Library). It contains A Short and Plaine Treatise of Arithmeticke in whole numbers, comprised into a briefer method than hetherto hath bin published, from whence the following lovely little late Elizabethan arithmetick problem cometh:

p. 15

But now in manner of a recreation, as wel as for exercise, I propose one question more: as thus.

A Gentlewoman for a certayne trespasse committed, was enioyned by her Soueraigne a certaine penance, which was this: That in her owne person going a foote, and being accompanied with two of her honest seruants she should goe from Saint Dauids in Wales to Douer, which is accempted to bee the breadth of Englande, And at each Furlongs ende, being eight in a mile, she and her men should gather in a heape, great and small togeather, two hundred and fourty stones. Uppon which harde sentence geuen by her Soueraigne, after she heard that her iourney was three hundred miles, she tooke the matter heauilie, and humbly sought and craued tolleration herein. Which in fine vpon her humble suite, and the earnest request of other Ladies and Gentlewomen, was absolutely remitted, vpon a condition, which was this. That if the Gentlewoman there presently before her Soueraigne, without the ayde of any other, could of her owne pregnant capacitie, make an absolute resolution, and accompte how [p. 16] how many stones in all she ought to haue gathered, that thereupon she should be cleerely dismissed of this pennance.

The Gentlewoman glad of this, and hauing a little sight in Arithmeticke, called for penne, inke, and paper, and wrought as here appeareth, and hauing finished the worke, did giue vp her accompt thus, that shee shoulde haue gathered iust 576000. stones in all. Which was most true, and thereuppon shee was remitted and pardoned &c.

(This is followed by calculations, but I leave those, for I am sure my readers are perfectly able to calculate the number of stones and arriving at the same result.)

The next question is, what’s the Elizabethan equivalent of “a train leaves London heading North at 100mph; a second train leaves York heading South at 75mph: where will they meet and at what time?”..?

rabbits and open veins

Hmm, coming across nice little peeks into Early Modern life today:

This inclosed for your lordship was sent me euen now by sir mychell hickes, with a message that it requyrd hast and withall came thes 4 rabitts which I send by this bearer a footman, not being willing to truble a messenger vnless I had knowne the busines to be of importance, I truble your lordship with noe other matter nowe bycause I wryght with the hand whose arme hath had a vayne opened but an howre since /

Ruttland howse 4 Sept 1607

Your lordships most bonden servant

Tho wilson

(Thomas Wilson to the Earl of Salisbury, CP 193/147)

More offerings of dead animals, this time for eating. But it’s the reference to blood-letting which is more interesting here. Wilson suffered from malaria (and possible other recurring illnesses). I remain amazed at the Early Modern propensity for drawing blood – surely at least someone noticed that patients lost rather than gained strength when leeched? (Thus I reveal my ignorance of Early Modern medicine. I’m sure my colleagues down the corridor could enlighten me – but this is digression enough.)

Deer heads for Mr Secretary

This inclosed to your lordship is from francis Seagar seruant to the lantgraue of Hess [.]  he hath sent also to your lordship 2 deeres heades the one of a Rayne deere, the other of an Ealand a kynd of deer soe caled ther [.] the heades are heer att my chamber att somersett howse vntill I vnderstand your lordhip‘s pleasure for the tyme it please you to haue them brought to Cort to see them, they were sent to me by Garter king att Armes francis seagars brother, who wold haue attended your lordship with them him selfe but that he is sicke. It may please your lordship to lett me knowe wheI shall send bringe them vp, bycause the messenger that brought them desyres to be att the deliuery of them.

Somersett howse
9ber 30. 1605 .

your lordships most humble seruant
Tho: wilson.


(Thomas Wilson to the Earl of Salisbury, CP 113/60)

I should of course only post this blog with some commentary on the above, but it will have to suffice for me to say that I was amused by the idea of someone sending deers’ heads as a gift to Cecil. I am presuming they are mounted for display. Which raises the question, how long has taxidermy been around to decorate the smoking rooms of the rich and famous more rich..?

I could do with a rent like this

From a document in TNA WARD 5/39, listing the lands etc of the recently deceased John Bowyer, knight:

                               Comitate Cestrie

A messuage and twoe Cottages with thappertunances
in the County of Chester in Bradwall Are holden of
Thomas Venables esquire as of his Baronie
of kindertone in the said county of Chester by
the yerly Rent of one paire of white gloves
or one penny at Ester
for all Services And are
worthe in all issues aboue Reprisented    }   –   xl shillings

The reliability of “Winwood’s Memorials”

The three-volume Memorials of affairs of state in the reigns of Q. Elizabeth and K. James I, collected (chiefly) from the original papers of … Sir Ralph Winwood, edited by Edmund Sawyer, published in 1725 (2nd ed. 1727), is a hugely convenient work for those working on late Elizabethan and early Stuart State Papers, since it prints hundreds of letters from the English diplomatic correspondence with Ambassadors on the continent. However, it is not a reliable source of information, and one should bear this in mind. Not that there is such a thing, of course! But my gripe to you today is a simple one. Observe:

Winwood, vol. 2, p. 357 (1727 ed.):

Winwood no. 541

TNA SP 94/14 f. 214, draft of the same letter:

Cecil to Cornwallis, SP 94.14.214r

Now, regular (?) readers will know that I have a Thing About Dates, and here, too, it is a date that is the matter at question. In Winwood, Sawyer has Cecil say his last letter to Cornwallis was of the “6th of September.” In the draft in the State Papers, however, the date for the same letter is given as “27. of Septembre”.

Okay, you say, so Sawyer printed the wrong date. So what? Well, if you are charting a correspondence – consisting primarily of when letters were sent and received, and to some extent of the paths they took and who they were carried by – and particularly if you are trying to establish the transmitting of information, three weeks makes a world of difference, even in the Early Modern period, even for distances such as that between London and Madrid. For instance, when there was a real emergency at either end, news of which would be transmitted immediately, reconstructing the sequence of events today becomes frustrating to the extreme if dates do not match. Particularly since the matter is compounded by the usage of Old Style and New Style dates, which add a ten-day bracket to every date anyway..

In the end, I suppose more important than one antiquarian-minded scholar’s griping at imperfect editions, is the fact that it is cases like this – coming across and resolving conflicting sources – which helps develop one’s understanding of the inherent unreliability of the surviving records of the past.


(By the way, ironically, the letter from Cecil to Cornwallis of 27.9.1607 does not survive as a draft in TNA SP 94/14, but it is printed in Winwood (1727 ed.), vol. 2, p. 340…)

on the wagon

charretten. a final, intensive effort to finish a project before a deadline

Thus saith Futility Closet. And I thought, there’s a definition of my state if ever one was. But of course one has to check these things (words) in the OED, which says:

charet | charette, n. Obs. A wheeled vehicle or conveyance.

..que? Only by scrolling to the bottom, there is more:

Draft additions March 2007

Chiefly N. Amer. (orig. Archit.). A period of intense (group) work, typically undertaken in order to meet a deadline.

[Probably originally with reference to the former custom among French architecture students of using a cart to carry their work on the day of an exhibition: see Trésor de la Langue Française s.v. charrette.]

A relatively new coinage, then. I’ll still take it.

Sir Charles Cornwallis in his valley of misery

The first English Ambassador in Spain post-Elizabeth, Sir Charles Cornwallis, got bit of a rough deal. English trade with Spain had just been opened up again (in 1604), but relations were still somewhat strained, and many English merchants found themselves in trouble in Spain – some of it their own causing, but much of it not. These merchants naturally sought redress by going to the Spanish Court themselves, but more frequently through contacting the English Ambassador and asking – if not demanding! – his help in pursuing their suit. Cornwallis did his best, but received flak equally from importunate English merchants who put much more effort into complaining than actively trying to sort their matters out, from local nobles at the Spanish Court who felt Cornwallis demeaned his post as Ambassador by acting as a solicitor for the English merchants, and also somewhat from the Lords of the Privy Council of England who perhaps did not fully appreciate Cornwallis’s situation.

In this light, the following closing of a letter written 16 November 1607 (Old Style), is not particularly uncommon:

And so my good lord, trauayling on in this vale of mysery,
with none other earthly hope, & comfort, then to serue my
master & my cuntry with myn vntermost [sic] dilligence, & deuty, I
recommend myn humble seruyce & affection to your lordship to
whom I wyll neuer be other then

one of your faythfyllest
seruantes, and truest poore
frendes ./

Charles Cornwaleys

Madrid 16o Nouember 1607
stilo veteri ./

(TNA SP 94/14 ff. 212-213)


What’s Early Modern English for “Tom, Dick & Harry”?

The other manner of my prosecution of my cuntrym{ens} causes they so farr myslyke, as one Don francisco (a Judg delegate for the assisting of the Councell of warr, in Causes ther depending in law) hauing lately receaued very sharpe letters from his majestie here, reprouing his slow proceeding in those of ye King my masters subjects) vpon tewsday last sayd vnto one of my secretaries, that he so much honored and loued me, as he must of Necessity lett me know playnly what he thought, and others sayd of me, which was, that I performed here rather the part of a solycitor then an Embassador ./ […]
He then […] sayd; That were he in my place, he would wright to the King playnly, tho{ugh} yt neyther agreed with his majesties honor nor with the reputation of the place that I represent of his person to make me a solycitor of the Causes of Peter, Jhon, and James; That yt was not an office becomming an Embassador […]

– Sir Charles Cornwallis, English Ambassador at the Spanish Court, to the Privy Council in London, 27 June 1607 (TNA SP 94/14 ff. 65-68)

Here’s the real question: is “Peter, John and James” i) the/an EModE equivalent English idiom we now know as “Tom, Dick and Harry”, or ii) a calque from Spanish? (“Pedro, Juan y Diego”?) I leave it to you, dear hypothetical reader, to google for the answer.


“I like not these gold-makers”

I haue had ferther conferrence with the Scotsman / which came from madrid 15 dais past, he sayeth he hath Letters from my lord Ambassador and that his lordshipp gaue hym fyve hvndred Crowns per order from his majestie of England /. and that an vnckell he hath in madrid gaue hym fyve hvndred Crowns more. and as he passed per the monts of ronsevall per a place called Santa Crus. an abbat or Churchman Cozoned hym of all his money he hauinge delyverd it vnto hym to keepe it, & the other denyed the recept theirof /. soe he came to my lodginge & offered me ringes & Jewls in pawne to lend hym money vpon them for that he would dispach his man back into Spaine / I promis yow I was loth to enter in with hym because as he said he hath the vse of the philosofers ston to make gould and siluer / & that he had Spent more gould then would fill my Countinghouse in seekinge for it / […]

in fine. I lyck not these gould makers. that want gould at the first accointance a man hath with them, & the rather because the[y] Aske to borrow money of them the[y] never say in ther life before / he is called sr. Cornelius / he is determened to stay heare for 20 dayes or a moneth & hath taken a Chamber / & sent to a glashouse to haue Cyrten glasses made accordinge to the mark in the margent. soe it seemeth he meneth to trye his art heare /.


Sounds like a great character! Cocks goes on to say,

he speketh latten, English, french Spanish and Italian. hie duch & nedarlandish. & as he sayeth the Arabian tonge / & as he sayeth he hath byn at Constantianople. Jerusalem / & other places ferther then those. soe I think he will proue a second Sir John mandeuill / out of dowbt the man hath som extraordenary qualletys in hym / once it is Cyrten he wanteth noe tonge –

I like the tone of Cocks’s description – bemused, slightly exasperated, relishing the irony, subtly sarcastic. Cocks was a man who appreciated a good story, whatever the truth value of the account. Of Sir Cornelius we hear no more..

(From TNA SP 94/13 f. 138, Richard Cocks to Thomas Wilson, prob. 12 January 1607)

Ahh, procrastination

Where doth time fly? That is the question. Although here are two answers to where some of my time this month has gone (to my shame).

– the other day, I spent most of the afternoon chasing after an obscure geographical location on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, only to realize in the end that the name I was chasing after was a scribal error

– yesterday and today, I’ve been plotting 17C maps of postal routes in France and Spain into Google Maps

..although these do seem rather arcane pastimes, at least a couple very useful understandings arise from doing these. Firstly, I have a renewed sense of the Truth value of historical documents. Secondly, I now have a much better understanding of just how demanding the route from Irun on the coast in the North-eastern corner of Spain to Madrid was, as it passed over high mountains and through winding valleys. The first point will greatly facilitate the interpretation of my data. The second will help explain movements of letters to and from the Spanish Court. So time not (entirely) wasted.

Nonetheless, these are luxuries I can’t really afford at the moment. I guess it’s just hard to change bad habits.

ETA 23.5.2012:

It turned out that the first point above was not, in fact, a scribal error after all. But I did find out how frustratingly difficult it can be to track down places based on Early Modern English spellings of foreign, now obsolete place-names! (To wit, the “Bay of Alqueson” or the “coast of Alcason” refer to the stretch of coastline from St-Jean-de-Luz to the mouth of the Gironde. Probably from the place-name Arcachon, at the northern end of the coast).


anecdotal evidence

I must tell you a ridiculous Incident, perhaps you have not heard it. One Mrs Mapp, a famous she Bone:setter and Mountebank, coming to Town in a coach with six horses on the Kentish Road, was met by a Rabble of People, who seeing her very oddly and tawdrily dress’d, took her for a Foreigner, and concluded she must be a certain great Persons Mistress. Upon this they followed the Coach, bawling out, No Hannover whore no Hannover whore. The lady within the Coach was much offended, let down the Glass, and scream’d louder than any of them, she was no Hannover whore, she was an English one, upon which they all cry’d out, God bless your Ladyship, quitted the pursuit, and wished her a good Journey.

– William Pulteney to Jonathan Swift, 21 December 1736

(from The correspondence of Jonathan Swift, D.D., Vol. 4, 1734-1745, ed. by David Woolley, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2007. p. 373.)