In this interview with authors from the Society for Renaissance Studies book series, we talk to Sjoerd Levelt, Esther van Raamsdonk and Michael D. Rose about their edited collection of essays Anglo-Dutch Connections in the Early Modern World, unexplored Anglo-Dutch links, and the unexpected benefits of small word limits.
1. What drew you towards Renaissance and Early Modern studies in general, and then humanism and intellectual history in particular?
Sjoerd: Books. What is in them, but also what they are made of, and how they are put together. And then more books.
Esther: A great personal love for the work of John Milton.
Mike: Non-conformist religious thinking and philosophy.
2. Apart from your own, what book would you recommend for people to read to learn more about your field of study?
Nicholas McDowell’s Poet of Revolution, a biography of John Milton that also reveals a lot of the intellectual fervour of the period; Gary K. Waite’s Jews and Muslims in Seventeenth Century Discourse, which enlighteningly nuances how we should understand religious life in Europe; Steven Nadler’s accessible and exciting A Book Forged in Hell; Donna Merwick’s Death of a Notary for a fascinating case study of an exciting moment and place in historical Anglo-Dutch relations.
3. What are the key facts or arguments from your book that you would like people to take away?
The intersectionality and versatility of Anglo-Dutch relations informs all our entries. These not only flourished in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but have deep, intertwined roots. We also wanted to emphasise the delights of working across disciplines with expert scholars, and show the vibrancy of Anglo-Dutch relations as a research area. If there is an ‘argument’ it’s that wherever you choose to look there will be interesting Anglo-Dutch links, many of them as yet under-explored.
4. How did your scholarly journey develop over the course of your research for this book? Did you end up where you always intended to?
The majority of the work in this collection was conducted during lockdown, which engendered new ways of collaborating as editors and communicating with our authors. Although it would be difficult to pinpoint how this impacted on specific aspects of the final book, perhaps one can detect a heightened interest in the importance of human connection and interaction at all social levels. The book does what we wanted it to in terms of its shape, scope and style, but of course our individual authors all brought their own perspectives and interests to the table.
5. What were the most fruitful sources you found in your research?
In our ambition to create a collection that hinted to the richness of Anglo-Dutch relations, we immediately found that we wanted to include as wide a range of scholarship as possible, which included architecture, technology, language and literature, diplomacy, travel, etc., and as a result, each chapter brought something new, often from underused primary sources and databases. Some major authors from the time appear in multiple chapters, such as Grotius, Selden and Huygens, but we were just as excited to learn more about figures rescued from the archives, or the big-picture possibilities of more data-driven approaches, included from datasets created by our authors.
6. What was the biggest obstacle to conducting your research?
Although all our authors were terrific and we are grateful for their energy and enthusiasm, the sheer number of contributors made it an interesting organisational challenge to keep on top of correspondence, feedback and deadlines. Covid also made access to archives more difficult in many cases, so we have renewed appreciation for the digitisation efforts being made by so many institutions.
7. Did you discover anything that made you rethink some of your initial ideas?
Although we knew that Anglo-Dutch relation permeated every layer of society, we were surprised at times at the wealth of examples, and how many of them interacted with one another. It is a web of connection. One productive constraint was the short chapter lengths (around 3000 words) which forced each chapter to concentrate on one telling example or figure, rather than giving an overview of their field of study. As a consequence, we found that the chapters feel very focused and actually treat their subjects in more detail that might have been the case with a wider brief; the power of the small case study to bring an area of research to life was striking.
8. Was there anything that you were unable to include in the book?
It would have been easy to have had a second volume. Several areas have yet remained unexplored; think for example of food and drink, further examination of global imperialism in the East and West, the wider North Sea region, fashion, botany, metaphysics, etc.
9. Do you have a favourite discovery or favourite fact from your research?
Because each chapter is relatively short, they have tended to pick examples that each bring a really lovely insight into a specific area. We especially enjoyed it when the authors quoted from primary materials, so we got to hear the voices of the people from the period directly, such as the exasperation coming through from all sides as the Dutch and English in Livorno wrangled over their rights to celebrate navy victories, or students and tourists complaining about the food.
10. How is the experience different working on an edited collection project such as this as opposed to work authored individually?
Without wanting to sound boastful, we worked brilliantly as an editorial team, and every aspect of it has been joyful. We do know that such harmony is never guaranteed, especially in a project of this size, and we hope it will not be the last thing that we do as a team. It was great to combine our different perspectives and approaches when editing the chapters, and being able to lean on each other’s areas of expertise made life easier. Of course, unlike a monograph, one does have to foreground other authors’ words, so there is both the thrill of discovery in reading their ideas, and the temptation of excessive intervention to be resisted.
11. What are you working on now?
Sjoerd is working on a volume co-written by the members of the North Sea Project, as well as an edited collection from the same project in the Proceedings of the British Academy series. Mike is leading a large international online programme for Early Career Researchers called 23 Thing International, which also feeds into research into digital learning pedagogies. Esther is working on her British Academy Fellowship monograph, entitled The State Bibles: The Cultural Politics of Anglo-Dutch Translation and Adaptation (forthcoming with OUP).
12. If you were not early modernists, is there any other period or history or historical field you would like to work on?
Mike: twentieth-century poetry, Wittgenstein and modernism.
Esther: Romanticism, Wordsworth and Coleridge.
Sjoerd: already is as much as medievalist as early modernist.
13. Is it necessary to be able to read and understand Latin to work in Renaissance / early modern studies?
One can manage without, but it is very helpful, especially when working on Anglo-Dutch relations where the interacting language was often Latin.
14. If you could instantly acquire one skill or ability to help your research, what would it be?
Be able to read more indigenous languages, both in Europe and further afield, to understand the ‘unofficial’ narratives. (That is also a wish that more of these materials were available!)
15. Is there any advice you would give to PhD students or early career researchers for finding their feet or developing their work in your field?
Don’t be reticent to talking to more established people in your field. Most people are incredibly helpful and delighted to have the opportunity to talk more about their work. It’s also hugely valuable to question and to keep going back to the primary materials; even in high-quality scholarship there are frequent common-places or fixed ideas that have just accreted over time and don’t actually fit the evidence.
Sjoerd Levelt is Senior Research Associate of the Leverhulme Trust project The Literary Heritage of Anglo-Dutch Relations, c.1050–c.1600, University of Bristol. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and was awarded the Society for Renaissance Studies Book Prize 2012 for Jan van Naaldwijk’s Chronicles of Holland. His most recent book, North Sea Crossings, co-authored with Ad Putter, tells the story of cultural exchange between the people of the Low Countries and England in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period.
Esther van Raamsdonk is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance (University of Warwick), researching the politics of biblical translation and narrative in an Anglo-Dutch context. She published a recent monograph on Milton, Marvell and the Dutch Republic (Routledge, 2021). Before joining Warwick, she worked as postdoctoral researcher on the AHRC-funded Networking Archives project. She has published in Renaissance Studies, The Seventeenth Century, Milton Quarterly, and Renaissance and Reformation.
Michael D. Rose is a Researcher Developer at the University of Surrey. He writes on the intersection of philosophy and literature, completing a Ph.D. on Wittgenstein, poetry and the inexpressible in 2017. Publications include ‘I will draw a map of what you never see’ in Literary Studies and the Philosophy of Literature (Palgrave, 2016) and ‘The Wittgenstein Vector’ (Kadar Koli, 2016). He is commissioning editor of Spindlebox poetry press and co-ordinates the Surrey Arts and Humanities Research Group.
Their book, Anglo-Dutch Connections in the Early Modern World, was published in 2023: https://www.routledge.com/Anglo-Dutch-Connections-in-the-Early-Modern-World/Levelt-Raamsdonk-Rose/p/book/9780367502331