Thinking Big, starting small.
Everyone knows that the Renaissance was a period of cultural rebirth. It gave us the printing press. It heralded the beginning of the Enlightenment. It was the time of literary greats like Shakespeare! Donne! and Milton! But did you know that the English Renaissance was also a period of religious revolution? One of the questions that I study is how closely the birth of English literature was tied to the Protestant Reformation.
In my work with the Sherman Centre, I explore how changes in language patterns in the early modern period reflect shifts in English cultural patterns. But the English language is huge and underwent rapid change in the 1600s. Shakespeare alone was responsible for the popularization of a number of new words. As you can imagine, the size of this project has pushed me and my research to new limits.
Surprisingly, the solution to many of my research questions has been found by asking much smaller questions. How has the use of the word “praise” changed over time? Did it replace another word? Who talks about prayer the most? Can we count how many times someone uses the word devotion in the text? Can I graph a change in these words over time?
Digital Humanities is a relatively new field, but even more so in terms of the study of early modern literature. EEBO, or Early English Books Online, contains page images of almost every work printed in the English between 1473 and 1700. It is now a mainstay of early modern research, but was only launched in 1998. Since then, the Text Creation Partnership (TCP) has also begun to make transcriptions of EEBO texts available, but the first phase of that project was only made available publicly since 2015. A second phase of EEBO-TCP will be released sometime in the next few years. Because these resources have only recently become widely available, many of us are still trying to figure out what to do with them.
Thankfully, other scholars have begun to address these gaps. EarlyPrint.org provides Early Print Lab tools to help explore a number of interesting features in a selection of early modern texts. A sample graph from the N-Gram Browser shows how an earlier spelling of love with a u, loue, was superseded by the modern spelling of love with a v between 1620 and 1640. My own n-gram search of the word “praise” results in a graph that demonstrates it did become more popular in the seventeenth-century.
As we become more familiar with these tools, we can ask increasingly more complex questions but I’m learning not to get too far ahead of myself. Sometimes the biggest ideas require the smallest of steps.
If you would like to try out some of these tools, I highly recommend exploring the lab tools available through Early Print. More complex textual analysis tutorials can be found at The Programming Historian, another invaluable resource for those who are new to textual analysis like me.