First Published: April 2004
Revised (substantive): 14 December 2016
The Site Concept: What’s Past Is Prologue
SHE-PHILOSOPHER.COM, FOUNDED IN 2004 (Phase I), was conceived as an experiment in e-scholarship. While there is a great deal of original postdoctoral research housed here — including archival data, images, and scholarly interpretations not available elsewhere — the site was never intended as a databank or publishing warehouse for academic materials, or as a comprehensive source of links and pointers to everything ever written on related subjects. Rather, I have made a concerted effort to move beyond an orthodox “academic voice” to a more “public voice,” and with it, a new model of “open research.”
Phil Agre, whose early experiments with this sort of thing I followed with great interest, once observed that “success in research depends” on “actively seeking out a community of interlocutors whose agendas can be brought into productive dialogue with one’s own.”
That is a most appropriate mission statement for She-philosopher.com, which I have tried to design as an invitational rhetoric to 17th-century historical study.
I hope the site will invite mutual inquiry and collaborative scholarship of the sort I came to value on a couple of favorite listservs during the early 2000s. Phil Agre named this phenomenon “Internet-mediated collective cognition,” and described in detail how the Internet can provide a means of “thinking together” and building new communities of practice, each with its own public sphere, language, agenda and traditions (“a shared situation provides the basis for shared thinking, passing information, telling stories, naming feelings, solving problems, and figuring out whether one’s own experiences are strange and unique or, more commonly, not”). Although not without its problems (e.g., restricted and unequal access, or the fact that “an in-group can become even more of an in-group if it wants to”), the Internet can also facilitate pluralism (via our membership in multiple communities) and democracy (via the formation of more lateral than hierarchical connections), even in scholarly endeavors.
Now that She-philosopher.com has entered Phase II of its development (beginning with the site’s redesign in 2012 and its relaunch as “the new She-philosopher.com” in July 2016), I continue to embrace what critics have dubbed the “emerging Wild West in academic publishing.” With “the new She-philosopher.com” I have shifted even further away from the traditional print-based format of the peer-reviewed scholarly monograph, preferring a more open-ended and interactive process orientation for the website, in keeping with the changing role of authoritative writing and specialist knowledge in the more fluid learning communities which now flourish on the Web.
Why study the 17th century?
Back in 2001, a colleague on one of my favorite discussion lists asked me about the relevance of my 17th-century studies for busy 21st-century (mostly new media) professionals: “I’m having trouble,” he wrote, “seeing the relevance of anything that happened in the Renaissance to C21.”
It remains a valid question, and one which I think deserves to be addressed in this space, as well.
In his Anatomy of Melancholy (Oxford, 1621), Robert Burton recommends reading history because it is “the inspiration of public activity.”
Burton had a rather old-fashioned take on history, associating it with an art of character (the art of living well) that is no longer a focal point of public education today. What we might call “personal growth” (or human development) was, for Burton, inextricably bound up with an understanding of past, present, and future as an integrated whole:
As in travelling the rest go forward and look before them, an antiquary alone looks round about him, seeing things past, etc., hath a complete horizon. —Janus Bifrons.
(Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, marginalia to Partition 2, Section 2, Member 4)
The Janus figure to which Burton referred — in Roman mythology, guardian of portals, and patron of beginnings and endings (“god and Patron of times and ages” according to John Bulwer in his Chironomia of 1644), whose temple was never closed except in times of universal peace — was usually pictured with two faces, a “comic monster” that symbolically “represents the perfect man” (E. Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, 202). Today, we often associate two-faced gods with deceitfulness, but in Burton’s day, a Janus-like ability to think multiply about one’s position in time and space (a characteristic of prudential reasoning) gave one a certain advantage when having to adapt rapidly to changing circumstance or manage contingency.
I believe it still does.
To develop foresight, we need to practice hindsight.
Studying the past is always more about the present than anything else. Historical study does not so much recapture “real” persons and events as it does “reflect back to us a set of contemporary concerns.” (S. Jarratt and R. Ong, “Aspasia,” 10) In the case of She-philosopher.com, those concerns have to do with contentious issues of cultural politics, especially regarding gender, science, technology, and modernity.
The new historicisms that most of us practice today call for a “kind of dialogical, intertextual reading” that
requires us to be aware — as aware as we can be — of our own historical situation and its effects on our perception of the text or past.
(Janet Smarr, Historical Criticism and the Challenge of Theory, 11)
The Polish medical microbiologist Ludwik Fleck (1896–1961), who wrote on epistemological questions relating to the historical sociology of science, went even further with his call for historical self-consciousness, arguing that
Analogously to social structures, every age has its own dominant conceptions as well as remnants of past ones and rudiments of those of the future. It is one of the most important tasks in comparative epistemology to find out how conceptions and hazy ideas pass from one thought style to another, how they emerge as spontaneously generated pre-ideas, and how they are preserved as enduring, rigid structures [Gebilde] owing to a kind of harmony of illusions. It is only by such a comparison and investigation of the relevant interrelations that we can begin to understand our own era.
(Ludwik Fleck, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, “interpretive” Eng. trans., 1979, 28)
Fleck warned that there is danger in accepting that “the past is dead”:
Furthermore, whether we like it or not, we can never sever our links with the past, complete with all its errors. It survives in accepted concepts, in the presentation of problems, in the syllabus of formal education, in everyday life, as well as in language and institutions. Concepts are not spontaneously created but are determined by their “ancestors.” That which has occurred in the past is a greater cause of insecurity — rather, it only becomes a cause of insecurity — when our ties with it remain unconscious and unknown.
(Ludwik Fleck, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, “interpretive” Eng. trans., 1979, 20)
and he advised engaging directly with 16th- and 17th-century subjects on their own terms:
If we want to investigate an earlier thought style, we must examine the original sources, not modern summaries of old viewpoints.
(Ludwik Fleck, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, “interpretive” Eng. trans., 1979, 126)
With such historical self-consciousness, we become increasingly sensitive to that dialectic of freedoms and constraints (sociopolitical, cultural, natural, and artificial) which defines the human condition, and within which the historian, like everyone else, must work.
Those with whom I have debated historiography, even summarily, will recognize here the Marxian notion of humans as conditioned creators of their conditions:
[women and] men make their own history, but ... they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves.
(Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte)
This is also characteristic of prudential thinking — “a mode of reflection on practical affairs that emphasizes attention to the limits on action.” (Robert Hariman, Prudence, 316)
“Prudence does not go behind nature, and ask whence it is. It takes the laws of the world, whereby man’s being is conditioned, as they are, and keeps these laws, that it may enjoy their proper good. It respects space and time, climate, want, sleep, the law of polarity, growth, and death.” Indeed, “nature punishes any neglect of prudence.”
(Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Prudence,” Essays: First Series, vol. 2 of The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson [Boston: Houghton, Mifflin 1903], 224–25 and 228; qtd. in Robert Hariman, Prudence, 316n23–317)
Modeling historical study as prudentia is thus one of my guiding principles at the new She-philosopher.com, and shapes my own historical research.
An improved understanding of how we live and act and come together within a given dialectic of freedoms and constraints, specific to time and place, is, to me, the most valuable thing that historical study offers.
In sum, I am not interested in recapturing the past or in pushing a renewed Renaissance humanism, but in pursuing a refashioned humanism, able to reconcile the universalist dimension of the human enterprise with the diversity of the peoples undertaking that enterprise across time and space.
Promoting good character & good counsel by thinking about the future in terms of the past
Throughout the early-modern period, histories were consumed by the most powerful, such as the great Elizabethan courtier and magnate, Robert Dudley (1532/3–1588), earl of Leicester, whom Thomas Blundeville (1522?–1606?) knew
delyght moste in reading of Histories, the true Image and portraiture of Mans lyfe, and that not as many doe, to passe away the tyme, but to gather thereof such judgement and knowledge as you may thereby be the more able, as well to direct your private actions, as to give Counsell lyke a most prudent Counseller in publyke causes, be it matters of warre, or peace: ....
(Thomas Blundeville, Epistle Dedicatory, The True Order and Methode of Wryting and Reading Hystories, 1574, A2r)
and the least powerful, alike:
Nay, so ripe and pretending is the present Age, that Women pass their time in the best and solidest Histories.
But tho many read, yet all do not read with Judgment and Observation. Therefore they may learn in reading this Book, instructions how to read and write too.
(Anonymous, Translator’s Preface, The Modest Critick; or Remarks upon the Most Eminent Historians, Antient and Modern, 1691, A5r–v; of note, this work dealing with the study of history was co-published by a woman, “Mrs. Feltham in Westminster-Hall”)
It was popularly held that history was an indispensable guide to living fully and well, by offering “such substantial Examples as may be of advantage to improve [human] judgment in Civil Wisdom, and the necessary conduct of Life” (G. Scot, "Epistle to the Reader", The Memoires of Sir James Melvil of Hal-Hill, 1683, a2v).
HISTORY has been call’d, by a great Man, Speculum Mundi: The Looking-Glass of the World; It gives the best prospect into Humane Affairs, and makes us familiar with the remotest Regions: by this we safely sit in our Closets, and view the horrid Devastations of Countreys, Tumults, Changes and Ruptures of Common-Wealths; The Reverse of Fortunes, the Religions, Politicks and Governments of Foreign Nations; by this we may consult what practices have Establish’d Kingdoms, what Laws have render’d any particular Nation more Safe, happy and Civiliz’d than its Neighbours; and, what has Contributed to the Weakness and Overthrow of Bodies-Politick, and what has Facilitated its Rise and Settlement; and, in a Prospect of the whole, a New Scheme may be drawn, for future Ages to act by.
Longum iter per praecepta, breve &
Efficax per exempla.
Wisdom got by Experience is usually very Expensive, Tedious and Uncertain; Several Experiences confirm ones Knowledge, and a Man’s Life is too little to make many in every Case; But if he finds [’em] faithfully done to his hands, the labour is sav’d, and he may grow wise at the expence of other Mens Studies. It was Thales that said of History, Nil Mortem à vita differre; because the Life of the Deceased depends upon the remembrance of the Living. Mr. Brathwait, in his Nursery for Gentry, says; Wou’d you be enabled for Company? no better Medium than Knowledge in History. It wou’d be a dispraise to advance an Elogy upon this Study, which reconciles all times but futurity, renders all the spatious Globe of the Inhabited World common and familiar to a Man that never Travelled: We may see all Asia, Africa and America in England; all the Confederate Countreys in ones Closet; Encompass the World with Drake; make New Discoveries with Columbus; Visit the Grand Seignior in the Seraglio; Converse with Seneca and Cato; Consult with Alexander, Caesar and Pompey: In a word, whatever Humanity has done that’s Noble, Great and Surprizing, either by Action, or Suffering, may, by us, be done over again in the Theory; and if we have Souls capable of Transcribing the bravest Copies, we may meet Instances worth our Emulation. History is, as by some, called the World’s Recorder; and, according to my Lord Montague, we must confess, That no wise Man can be an Experienc’d Statist, that was not frequent in History. Another tells us, That to be acquainted with History, purchases more wisdom than the Strictest Rules of Policy; for that the first do furnish us with Instances as well as Rules, and, as it were, personates the Rule, drawing out more into full proportion: History best suits the Solidest Heads; Whence we find, that Caesar made it his Comment. We read, that King Alphonsus, by Reading Livy, and Ferdinand of Sicily, by Reading Quintus Curtius, recovered their Health, when all the Physical Doses they took prov’d ineffectual; but, whether ’tis Friendly to the Body or not, ’tis not our business to determine: Sure we are, that ’tis Friendly to the Mind, cultivates and informs it in what is very agreeable to its Nature, we mean Knowledge, therein imitating its Divine Original.
History is the most admirable foundation for Politicks; by this may be discovered all that’s necessary for a Kingdoms Safety and Peace; the Stratagems of War; an account of the Management of the deepest Plots and Contrivances, and the carrying on such Measures for every Publick Affair, whether in respect to Enemies or Allies, as the deepest Heads have ever yet practis’d. And, as History is so useful to such as are intrusted with the Charge of Common-wealths, so ’tis not less necessary for the Settling and Establishment of the Christian Religion....
(Athenian Society, “An Essay upon All Sorts of Learning,” in The Young-Students-Library, 1692, v)
This kind of history tended to focus on “great men” and subject matter “of considerable moment,” as in George Scot’s edition of his ancestor’s The Memoires of Sir James Melvil of Hal-Hill (1683):
As there is scarce any kind of Civil Knowledge more necessary or probable than History; (which is therefore very aptly stiled by the Ancients, The Mistress of Life,) so of all sorts of History there is none so useful as that which unlocking the Cabinet, brings forth the Letters, private Instructions, Consultations and Negotiations of Ministers of State; for then we see things in a clear light, stript of all their paints and disguisings, and discover those hidden Springs of Affairs, which give motion to all the vast Machines and stupendious Revolutions of Princes and Kingdoms, that make such a noise on the Theatre of the World, and amaze us with unexpected shiftings of Scenes and daily Vicissitudes.
Of this latter kind are those Memoires wherewith we here Oblige the World ....
(George Scot, "Epistle to the Reader", The Memoires of Sir James Melvil of Hal-Hill, 1683, a2r)
which Scot noted was written by an honest
man of impartial Veracity, and firm Resolution to observe inviolable that prime Law of History, Ne quid falsi audeat dicere, ne quid veri non audeat. Not to dare deliver any falshood, nor to conceal any Truth.
(George Scot, "Epistle to the Reader", The Memoires of Sir James Melvil of Hal-Hill, 1683, a2v)
Ideally, it was argued,
Histories are the store-houses, where vertues are faithfully conserved to posterities veneration, and vices detestation: it is an armory where armour of proofe for all degrees is fitted to the hand; it is a glasse wherein to behold, adorne, and fashion out the life to what is worthy imitation, and to have in horrour and avoydance what is deformed in the beginning, or foule in the end: in fine, they are the only monuments of truth, which they purely deliver, no way flattering or concealing any thing[.]
(Susan Du Verger, from the Epistle Dedicatory addressed to Henrietta Maria, in Admirable Events, 1639, A4v)
But all too often, especially in a country riven by years of civil war, history was “stufft up with too great Partiality” (John Streater, “To the Reader,” in Nicolas Culpeper’s Eng. trans. of Jean Riolan’s Encheiridium anatomicum et pathologicum, A Sure Guide; or, the Best and Nearest Way to Physick and Chyrurgery, 3rd edn., 1671, A2r).
Margaret Cavendish made a similar claim, contrasting the ideal:
’Tis said, Historie instructs the Life, it registers Time, it inthrones Virtue, it proclaims Noble Natures, it crowns Heroick Actions, it divulges Baseness, and hangs up Wickedness; it is a Torch, that gives light to dark Ignorance; it is a Monument to the Dead, and a Fame to the Meritorious.
(Margaret Cavendish, Natures Pictures Drawn by Fancies Pencil to the Life, 1st edn., 1656, 178)
with the reality, in which “Partiality or Ambition, or fear bears too much sway” (M. Cavendish, Natures Pictures, 1st edn., 1656, 225):
As for an History, said she [i.e., the She-Anchoret], it cannot be exactly true, because there are so many severall intentions interwoven with several accidents, and severall actions divided into so many severall parties and several places, and so many severall Reporters of severall opinions, Partialities[,] Understandings, Judgments, and Memorialls, which gives such various relations of one, and the same action, as an Historian being but one man, cannot possibly know the truth, which makes them write so falsely, whereby Right is so injured and degraded of that Honour which is due unto its merit, or els hath that Honour given, as it had not merited to deserve; Neither doth History add a good to an humane life, or Peace to a disordered State or zeal to a pious soul; for it instructs the present life with the Vices, Follies and Ambitions, Rapines, Cruelties, Craft, Subtilties and Factions of former ages, which make the present age more bold to do the like; and desirous to follow their forefathers steps, which rather inflames the distempers than gives Peace to a Commonwealth; indeed it distempers a peaceable Commonwealth; and ofttimes brings it to ruin, over-heating the youth and hardning the aged; neither doth it add zeal, for reading in history the severall Religions, and many Gods, that wise-men held and prayed to in every age, weakens their faith with doubt of the right, not knowing what to [choose].
Also Historians are for the most part detractors, for they oftner blur mens reputations, than glorify them; and the world is apt to believe the worst part: for one pen may blur a reputation, but one pen will hardly glorify a reputation, for glory requireth many pens many witnesses, or els the world will not believe it, when one accusing pen shall serve to condemne the most noble persons, and Heroick Actions, so unjust the world is.
Also Historians are various, writing according to their opinions, judgment, and belief, not often to the Truth; for some praise those men, and actions that others dispraise; causing doubts to the Readers, not knowing which to believe: Besides, they are too partial to sides, and factions, that to the adverse they note things to their disadvantage, or aggravate their errors, or imperfections, and leave out somethings that are of high worth, and worthy the remembrance, or els lessen them in their relations, and to those they adhere to; they do the contrary, they either obscure, or excuse their errors, imperfections and crimes; And they illustrate with false lights their dimme vertues, or give them such praises they never deserved; Wherefore no History should be esteemed but what was written by the Authors [i.e., the subjects] themselves, as such as write their own History of their lives, actions and fortunes, and the severall accidents that befell in their time; and to their knowledge, yet said she, I wish I might outlive the Historian of these times, that I might write a History of the Historians, there to describe their birth and breeding, their life, their actions, their fortunes, their interest; And let the world judge, whether they writ truth; and without partiallity.
(Margaret Cavendish, Natures Pictures Drawn by Fancies Pencil to the Life, 1st edn., 1656, 354–5)
Cavendish never did pen “a History of the Historians,” but she did produce an “Heroical” history of “the Life and Actions of my Noble Lord and Husband” (c1v), which encomium she promoted as the “natural plain ... Truth,” unlike the histories of those
who have written of the late Civil War, with but few sprinklings of Truth, like as Heat-drops upon a dry barren Ground; knowing no more of the Transactions of those Times, then what they learned in the Gazets, which, for the most part, (out of Policy to amuse and deceive the People) contain nothing but Falshoods and Chimeraes ....
(Margaret Cavendish, The Life of the Thrice Noble, High and Puissant Prince William Cavendishe, Duke, Marquess, and Earl of Newcastle ..., 1667, c2v–d1r)
What she neglects to mention in her own partial account of the journalists she called
such Parasites, that after the Kings Party was over-powred, the Government among the Rebels changing from one Faction to another, they never miss’d to exalt highly the Merits of the chief Commanders of the then prevailing side, comparing some of them to Moses, and some others to all the great and most famous Heroes, both Greeks and Romans ....
(Margaret Cavendish, The Life of the Thrice Noble, High and Puissant Prince William Cavendishe, Duke, Marquess, and Earl of Newcastle ..., 1667, d1r)
is that Cavendish herself was a patron of the journalist and poet, Sir John Birkenhead (1617–1679), editor of the arch-royalist Mercurius Aulicus.
Mercurius Aulicus, the weekly ‘intelligencer’ of the king’s party, and England’s first official newsbook, ran from January 1643 to September 1645, with only a few interruptions — 118 numbers in all, some 1700 closely printed pages. For the first few issues Birkenhead assisted the principal author, Peter Heylin, whose style was comparatively tame. However, from mid-1643 onward rival newsbooks recognized Birkenhead as the person responsible for the lively amalgam of factual information, witty invective, brilliant satire, and all the modern weapons in a relentless war of words: the ‘inside’ story, the embarrassing quotation, the ‘planted’ idea, the not-quite denied rumour. The various rebel factions were forced to respond with newsbooks of their own, two dozen of them, the most important being Mercurius Britanicus (1643–6), whose misspelt title Aulicus did not fail to deride. None, however, was able to rival Birkenhead in facile style, wit, vitriol, or even the presentation of accurate news; after all, he had the best ‘sources’, the king’s entire bureaucracy and spy network.
Besides the newsbooks, on which his reputation principally rests, Birkenhead also published a number of polemic and satiric pamphlets. His contemporaneous fame is attested not only by the frequency with which adversaries singled him out for denunciation or grudging praise but also by his contributions to others’ publications ....
(Charles Clay Doyle, ODNB entry for “Birkenhead [Berkenhead], Sir John (1617–1679), journalist and poet,” n. pag.)
As an historian, Cavendish chose to ignore developing trends in history writing (as modeled, e.g., by Sir Walter Ralegh and Francis Bacon), offering her own taxonomy of the genre, which cast the ideal historian as moral judge and encomiast.
Many Learned Men, I know, have published Rules and Directions concerning the Method and Style of Histories, and do with great noise, to little purpose, make loud exclamations against those Historians, that keeping close to the Truth of their Narrations, cannot think it necessary to follow slavishly such Instructions; and there is some Men of good Understandings, as I have heard, that applaud very much several Histories, merely for their Elegant Style, and well-observ’d Method; setting a high value upon feigned Orations, mystical Designs, and fancied Policies, which are, at the best, but pleasant Romances. Others approve, in the Relations of Wars, and of Military Actions, such tedious Descriptions, that the Reader, tired with them, will imagine that there was more time spent in Assaulting, Defending, and taking of a Fort, or a petty Garison, then Alexander did employ in conquering the greatest part of the World: which proves, That such historians regard more their own Eloquence, Wit and Industry, and the knowledg they believe to have of the Actions of War, and of all manner of Governments, than of the truth of the History, which is the main thing, and wherein consists the hardest task, very few Historians knowing the Transactions they write of, and much less the Counsels, and secret Designs of many different Parties, which they confidently mention.
Although there be many sorts of Histories, yet these three are the chiefest: 1. a General History. 2. A Natural History. 3. A Particular History. Which three sorts may, not unfitly, be compared to the three sorts of Governments, Democracy, Aristocracy, and Monarchy. The first is the History of the known parts and people of the World; The second is the History of a particular Nation, Kingdom or Commonwealth. The third if the History of the life and actions of some particular Person. The first is profitable for Travellers, Navigators and Merchants; the second is pernicious, by reason it teaches subtil Policies, begets Factions, not onely between particular Families and Persons, but also between whole Nations, and great Princes, rubbing old sores, and renewing old Quarrels, that would otherwise have been forgotten. The last is the most secure; because it goes not out of its own Circle, but turns on its own Axis, and for the most part, keeps within the Circumference of Truth. The first is Mechanical, the second Political, and the third Heroical. The first should onely be written by Travellers, and Navigators; The second by Statesmen; The third by the Prime Actors, or the Spectators of those Affairs and Actions of which they write, as Caesars Commentaries are, which no Pen but of such an Author, who was also Actor in the particular Occurrences, private Intrigues, secret Counsels, close Designs, and rare Exploits of War he relates, could ever have brought to so high Perfection.
This History is of the Third sort, as that is ....
(Margaret Cavendish, The Life of the Thrice Noble, High and Puissant Prince William Cavendishe, Duke, Marquess, and Earl of Newcastle ..., 1667, b2v–c1v)
Today, Cavendish’s “Third sort” of history is out of favor, and we draw a divide between the biographer and the encomiast. Students of the early-modern period such as Patrick Curry urge 21st-century historians to become “historically self-conscious and self-critical” — aware of how our own inherited concepts and values lead us into “either blaming or praising, as distinct from understanding, your historical subjects” (P. Curry, “Astrology in Early Modern England,” 288 and 289).
Once again, our focus has shifted. Historical study is less concerned with inculcating virtuous character, and more concerned with thinking about the future in terms of the past.
The long ascendancy of the universal may be coming to an end. Assumptions that had seemed secure and unquestionable are all of a sudden doubtful again. As this happens, many are the possible trajectories on offer, and most are backed by their own zealous adherents. There are not many guides to help us choose the best. It is in our interest to make use of past experience as one tool. We should look again at the variety of convictions that our ancestors held, the arguments they advanced, the actions they took, and the results they experienced. To be sure, history cannot tell us exactly what to do, or what choices to make. The responsibility for those decisions will be ours alone. But the time to take the decisions is surely coming. History can help us prepare for it.
(Adrian Johns, Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, 518)
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