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The 17th Century Information Revolution
[Interview] Historian Michael Hunter on early modern print
Claire George (aeogae)     Print Article 
Published 2006-08-04 03:09 (KST)   
Michael Hunter is a professor of history at Birkbeck College, part of the University of London. He specializes in early modern intellectual history and England between the 15th and 18th centuries.

Those of you who imagine that history is as dry as old bones will think otherwise when they see the list of Professor Hunter's teaching interests. "Witchcraft and Society 1450-1750" and "Magical Ideas in English Society 1650-1750" are just two of the courses he offers to his students.

In March 2006 he appeared on the popular BBC Radio 4 program "In Our Time" to talk about the work of the Royal Society, a scientific institution founded in the mid-17th century. Readers may listen to the program here.

I decided to interview Professor Hunter after talking to the key speakers at the OhmyNews International Citizen Reporters' Forum, held in Seoul last month.

The Internet innovators of today are very aware that there are parallels between the changes that we are witnessing and those that occurred in the 17th century. I interviewed Professor Hunter the last week of July in order to find out more about that and his use of the Internet in his work.


You have spent your career focusing on the late 17th century. Over the last few years we've seen an enormous expansion of access to knowledge thanks to the Internet. The late 17th century saw a similar growth in access to news. From the perspective of your work could you tell us a little bit about similarities between then and now?

The early modern period has often been perceived to have witnessed a "print revolution," with more information available more readily to more people than had ever been the case previously. There was a proliferation of books which made it possible even for quite humble people to accumulate personal libraries, while the emergence of newspapers and journals made topical information much more readily accessible.

On the other hand, there have recently been revisionist claims, stressing the extent to which more traditional forms of communication remained significant, and the extent to which print as a medium remained more traditionally oriented and haphazard in the age of the hand press than has sometimes been presumed by people who have transposed the expectations of the machine press back to that period. In fact, it was something a transitional age -- with some similarities to our own in relation to the impact of Information Technology.

You have worked on atheism. Was it very shocking to be an atheist in 17th-century England or was it common?

The idea of atheism was undoubtedly shocking to the orthodox in the 17th century, because people were convinced that a belief in God -- and therefore in rewards and punishments after death -- was essential to maintain society. Hence the number of people who actually admitted to being atheists was very small, and the accusation was often made against those who deviated from orthodoxy but fell short of outright unbelief.

Insofar as such people existed, ideas probably circulated among them more in manuscript than printed form. But print was important in spreading scare stories about the atheist menace.

They were still conducting witch hunts in the 17th century but there was also a significant change in the practice of science. The men of the Royal Society conducted some surprising experiments that suggest that they still believed in magic. Could you tell us more about that?

It is important to differentiate two strands in 17th century science, the experimental philosophy and the mechanical philosophy, which could work together but did not necessarily do so.

For many early Fellows of the Royal Society, the crucial thing was experimental proof: if something could be experimentally verified, it was dogmatic to reject it just because you could not explain it according to your philosophical preconceptions.

This was used by men like Joseph Glanvill to argue for the truth of witchcraft, and Boyle, too, was interested in phenomena which could be empirically verified even though they seemed inexplicable, like the phenomenon of "second sight" found in the Scottish Highlands, whereby people seemed to have an uncanny ability to foresee the future.

Of course, there was an ulterior motive in this, since such demonstrations of supernatural activity in the world was perceived as a bulwark against atheism.

On the case of the phantom "Drummer of Tedworth," the key example which Glanvill was convinced provided empirical proof of the existence of witchcraft, which was mocked as fraudulent by sceptics whom Glanvill described as atheists, see below.

If I were to go back in time to a provincial English town or perhaps to London, and talk to the ordinary men and women on the street, would I find that new ideas about science had filtered through to them via print culture?

More in the 18th century than the 17th. By then, there were even itinerant lecturers going round the country demonstrating scientific findings, such as Benjamin Martin; with this went the production of popularizing books expounding such matters. All this was in its infancy before 1700.

You have spent a great deal of time working on Robert Boyle. What attracted you to Boyle as a subject?

I think that initially the challenge was Boyle's huge archive, which had up till the 1980s never been catalogued, and which I got grant aid to catalogue for the first time.

I had developed an appetite for work on a hitherto unexplored archive through my earlier work on Samuel Jeake, astrologer and merchant of Rye, Sussex, whose archive had disappeared until it came to light in a trunk in the town in 1959. But, in the course of organizing the cataloguing of Boyle's voluminous papers, I found myself increasingly interested in him in his own right, particularly his rather convoluted personality, which had been more or less completely erased from the historical record till I rediscovered it, and which makes sense of many aspects of his activities. In fact, I only discovered this aspect of him after embarking on the archival project: initially, I had thought that his concern about atheism might form the focus of my work on him.

I mentioned your work on Boyle because for some people that would be considered a life's work. Now you are embarking on another large scale project. The digitization of British prints up to 1700. Could you tell us more about the project?

Part of my work on Boyle has involved e-projects, so the new one is a corollary to those aspects of my earlier work.

The current project stems from this and from my experience in teaching students, in which I have always tried to draw where possible on visual material in either an illustrative or interpretative way. (I have also been a collector of prints for several years.) As for the project itself, initially this will comprise an online version of the British Museum collection and a search engine (the latter will be crucial, and we have devoted a good deal of time in the early months of the project to designing it). This will produce a worthwhile resource in its own right -- over 10,000 online images -- but we hope to extend this during the life of the current project to include all engraved title-pages of the period and selected items from other collections as discovered by Malcolm Jones. A longer term ambition (though it is not part of the current project and would require separate funding) is to include all book illustrations of the period, which are currently uncatalogued and unsearchable by subjectmatter. For more detail see our Website.

The production of printed images increased in the 17th century in parallel to the growth in printed texts. To me they seem to go hand in hand in the increased accessibility of knowledge. Could you comment on that? Do you see intellectual/historical connections between the Boyle project and this one?

Printed images were integral to books (even though they were produced by different techniques and had to be brought together by publishers), and they were consciously used in the period to convey messages that words could not easily convey. A classic case in point would be Robert Hooke's Micrographia (1665), which undoubtedly had an impact due to its illustrations which it would otherwise have lacked. Also, more popular images could be used to convey ideas more widely still. It is undoubtedly the case that prints are as much a part of the early modern print revolution as books.

Printed images haven't been studied as extensively as printed texts. Some might say that for a long time prints were dismissed as a minor British art and nothing more. Now it seems to me that there has been a renaissance in the study of British printed images. Could you tell us a bit about the latest works on the subject and how they show the importance of this material?

There has been some interesting work, though still less of it than one would like, and one aim of the current project is to encourage more study, not least by the increased accessibility of images that it will make possible. Among important work has been that of Tessa Watt and Sheila O섴onnell on popular prints, Alexander Globe on the print trade and Antony Griffiths on 17th century prints in general. Current work in progress includes that of Malcolm Jones on a wide range of topical images, and that of Helen Pierce on political prints (these have long been of interest in the 18th century, but neglected as far as the 17th is concerned).

As far as further work is concerned, portrait prints seem to me a crucial genre, perhaps the most crucial of all: clearly people were fascinated by these long before James Granger produced his influential system for collecting them in the late 18th century. Also, in the late 17th century, there are various major topographical projects that deserve more attention than they have hitherto received.

Here at OhmyNews we're very interested in the Internet because it enables everyone to be a citizen journalist. I believe that the Internet is also important because it enables people to be citizen academics.

The British Printed Images project will make printed images accessible to anyone. It's incredibly exciting because whereas now scholars need funding and time to travel to institutions like the British Museum, when the project is finished people around the world will be able to study the images at home on their computers!

The project is one of many digitization works going on at the moment, The Proceedings of the Old Bailey is another example. Plus, your university is one of many groups to start archiving e-prints online. Thanks to the Internet the study of history is opening up to everybody. To paraphrase Oh Yeon-ho, the founder of OhmyNews, every citizen can be a historian.

Do you feel that you are living at a particularly exciting time for learning and the accessibility of knowledge?


I'm all in favor of using electronic means to make resources for historical study more widely available. In the case of Boyle, I had a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (who also supported the Old Bailey Project) for just this end: see the materials that are available on the Boyle Website, and also on the Website of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, (this is my edition of Boyle's work diaries, in which he recorded his experiments and information he was given by others).

In the case of the Boyle website, my latest enterprise has been to launch a series of Occasional Papers which people can download as free books. I'm all for initiatives of this kind which make materials available as widely and freely as possible, and unhappy about online services which are available only by subscription, since I would like materials like those which the British Printed Images project will make available to reach schools and the general public as well as universities.

Citizen reporters aim for the same standards of journalism as their paid counterparts. For many of them it's a fascinating learning experience, because with each article they submit they learn a little bit more about what a journalist should and shouldn't do.

One day I would like to see an academic history version of OhmyNews staffed by trained historians, who would then help contributors develop as historians through submitting research papers. What do you think of the idea and in the meantime, do you have any advice for citizen reporters who submit history articles to the regular news version of OhmyNews International?


I'm sure that academics like myself are enthusiastic about such developments and keen to do what we can to help, the only constraint being that time is finite and we can't do everything!

As for advice, what is crucial is rigor in regard to interpreting sources. Imaginative interpretation can do the rest!

One final question. Several months ago we published a summary review of your article on the drummer of Tedworth. Do you think it was a genuine poltergeist haunting or a hoax?


Related Articles
Terrifying Haunting or Clever Hoax?


Personally, I'm inclined to take my cue from hints like the point made by Mompesson in his second letter to Creed when he complains how his servants had become uncontrollable (and the related comment by Wren as recounted by Aubrey). I think that it was almost certainly a hoax, and that the servants were the likeliest culprits -- in perpetuating the affair if not in originating it.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Claire George

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