Virtual Show & Tell: The ‘Work’ of Early Modern Paperwork

May 17, 2020
By Derek Dunne

Report of online event, held on April 29 2020

‘Thou paper-faced villain’, (Doll Tearsheet, 2 Henry IV, 5.2)

  • Rebecca Carnevali (Warwick University), on a printed licence for carrying weapons, Bologna post-1640
  • Jonathan Patterson (St. Hilda’s College, Oxford), on the Registres des Deliberations du Bureau de la ville de Paris, Paris 1735, recording late seventeenth-century practice
  • Derek Dunne (Cardiff University), on Henry VIII’s patent to Thomas Cawarden for Master of the Revels, London 1545
  • Ceri Sullivan (Cardiff University), on early modern listicle from John Wilkins of Wadham College, Oxford mid-seventeenth century


‘The job isn’t done until the paperwork is finished’ – as an academic this is a sentiment with which I can identify. The aim of this virtual ‘Show & Tell’ was to think about to what extent this was true for writers of the early modern period also.

There’s no lack of paperwork in Shakespeare, from misplaced pardons in Richard III to the fateful bond of The Merchant of Venice. To balance out my own Shakespearean bias I enlisted the help of Ceri Sullivan, author of Literature in the Public Service: Sublime Bureaucracy (Palgrave, 2013) who is currently investigating the efficacy and appeal of lists within a theological context. I also thought it important to extend the scope beyond the British Isles, and so I invited Jonathan Patterson, Fellow in Early Modern French, and Rebecca Carnevali, who writes on cheap print and political discourse in early modern Italy. This allowed the beginnings of a comparative approach, as well as a recognition that early modern England does not have a monopoly on paperwork.

Having attended the double book launch of Pascale Aebischer and Sonia Massai the day before, I was struck by how clear and ordered both were in their thoughts. My own thoughts on early modern bureaucracy are far more messy, and I wanted the session to be about opening up a conversation rather than presenting finished ideas. To that end each of the four speakers contributed to a Google doc, which we invited participants to engage with and add to also. I was heartened to see people adding their own suggested reading during the event, and I think there’s huge scope for such ‘crowdsourced’ bibliographies, particularly during lockdown. Online resources like the Folger’s LUNA tool also facilitated remote sharing.

Paperwork was chosen as the unifying topic as a kind of ‘proof of concept’ for the development of a ‘Literature & Bureaucracy’ research network. These two modes of writing are generally thought to have little in common, and yet both are immensely powerful in their various ways. What does it mean to think of Milton as ‘bureaucratic’ or to investigate the paperwork of poetry? An hour was not long enough to provide definitive answers, but it did bolster for me the need to ask such questions. My door is open to anyone who wants to join such a network.

The talks themselves were 5 minutes each, with the remaining time handed over to questions and discussion. There were some really perceptive questions from the room, on the print/MS divide, methodological differences between literary scholars and historians, and the challenges of archival research. Speakers told me that they had many new leads to follow up afterwards. You can find detailed descriptions of the items themselves on the Google doc, and a recording of the event itself is available thanks to the labours of Rachel Willie.* While it is important to maintain a sense of ‘liveness’ to scholarly communication, I think the afterlives of these SRS events also model a kind of asynchronous learning that have all sorts of extra advantages and affordances, during the current health crisis and beyond.

International cooperation is one of my favourite aspects of academia as a profession, and it has never been so necessary in the wider world. For that reason I was glad to see colleagues from London, Belfast, Germany, New York and Italy all joining the conversation and ‘chatting’ in the sidebar. Nothing can replace face-to-face meetings, but we must remember also who does and does not get to attend international conferences due to visa restrictions, caring commitments or simply financial barriers. Yes in many ways an online event can feel like a poor substitute for ‘real life’ presentations, but there are ways in which the opposite may also be true.



*Rachel single-handedly wrangled all the speakers in my absence while providing technical support to myself, before stepping in to act as chair with less than a minute’s notice, for which she deserves the SRS Medal of Valour.

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