Shining new light on old words

Digital humanist and literary historian Dr Erin McCarthy looks to the literature of the past to help us understand our own culture.

In a unique combination of historical literature and new technology, Dr Erin McCarthy’s research focuses on data driven approaches to understanding literature.

Her research uses digital tools to uncover new information about how books were written, read and circulated in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Dr McCarthy’s interest in this field centres around what insights these artifacts from the past can offer into our own culture, how we came to be where we are and how people deal with change.

“These days, some people claim that print is dying and digital media is the way forward. The period I study is when print was introduced and what is interesting is that people felt the same way then towards print as they do now about digital media. People of the 16th Century were suspicious of the new print medium and who it might expose their texts to,” Dr McCarthy said.

“Print raised questions for authors such as ‘would the general public understand my writing properly’. There was also a sense of information overload then just as we are exposed to so much information today. The Renaissance population also struggled with an epistemological crisis similar to what people are feeling now, trying to find a way to make sense of it all,” she said.

Dr McCarthy says we can take heart in the knowledge we have gained from the past and use it to think critically about the present and future.

“Print didn’t replace manuscript because people still write by hand sometimes. Equally digital won’t replace script or print. We do have models in the past for dealing with these things and taking the long view to things that close up seem incomprehensible can help reduce the seemingly insurmountable size of the problem,” Dr McCarthy observed.

In a juxtaposition of past and present Dr McCarthy draws a comparison between rapper Kanye West and 17th century manuscript poets.

“A few years ago, West said he was only going to stream his new album so he could keep changing it rather than release it as a final version. It’s only actually a really recent idea that the version you publish to the world is the end version. Before print, and even in its earliest days, no one would have thought you had to stop changing your work because it was public,” Dr McCarthy noted.

The power of data

A recent addition to the University of Newcastle, Dr McCarthy previously worked on a project led by Prof Marie-Louise Coolahan at the National University of Ireland in Galway and funded by the European Research Council that investigated the reception and circulation of women’s writing.

“We know women were writing during the Renaissance, but we wanted to try and figure out if anyone was reading what women were writing and what they thought about it,” she said.

Dr McCarthy was one of five postdoctoral scholars on the project who went to different libraries and archives around the world to do research. They found they needed a central place to share their research and so created a custom built database with a taxonomy of types of reception.

“This database allowed us to store our evidence in real time. A colleague could be in Belgium while I was in the USA, and we were able to share our data instantly through the database. Having this large database facilitated our research and enabled us to ask totally different questions of our material,” she said.

Dr McCarthy and her colleagues approached the literature captured in the database in an unusual way, informing a quantitative analysis to identify patterns in the data resulting in charts and graphs that gave evidence for previously hypothesised theories.

“For example, we thought that most writing in manuscript miscellanies was anonymous. But from the material entered in the database we could quantify that 66% of the items in these manuscripts are anonymous,” Dr McCarthy said.

“Having the option to fill out a web form and upload images instantly into a database would have been unimaginable even 10 years ago. It’s given us a powerful new way to examine literature.”

Doubtful readers

Dr McCarthy’s book Doubtful Readers: Print, Poetry, and the Reading Public in Early Modern England(Oxford University Press), examines early modern publishers’ efforts to identify and accommodate readers of printed poetry. The genesis of the book was sparked when she was investigating the revision of John Donne’s poems between 1633 and 1635.

“They were reprinted in 1635 in a totally reorganised edition and sorted into new categories. I wondered why anyone would go to the trouble of rearranging the book only two years after it was first printed. In doing this research I tried to find a book on early modern poetry printers and couldn’t find the definitive book about early modern printed poetry collections, so I decided that I would focus my book on that topic.”

Print publication made poems available to anyone who either had the means to a buy a book or knew someone who did, radically expanding the early modern reading public. These new readers, publishers feared, might not buy or like the books. Worse, their misreadings could put the authors, the publishers, or the readers themselves at risk.

“The main argument of the book is that print help shaped a new pool of potential readers. We hear a lot that poets didn’t want their work to be printed but printed books have shaped our sense of who these authors were and what English literature itself is. They need to be taken seriously in their own right and that is what this book aims to do,” Dr McCarthy said.

The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.