Lecturer illuminates the interdependence of early modern scholars and their work

On Thursday, Oct. 31, Vassar hosted the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Harvard University, Ann Blair. Blair’s talk “In the Workshop of the Mind: Collaborative Relationships in Early Modern Europe” took place in the Class of 1951 Reading Room of the Library where students, faculty, and a handful of Poughkeepsie locals gathered to listen to the dynamic speaker.  Her focus was on the collaborative relationships that marked early modern, 16th–17th century, intellectual work in Europe. In particular, she advertised her talk as an analysis of early modern paintings, manuscripts and printed books to illustrate that early modern collaboration was just as essential to scholarship as it is today.

The Media Studies Program, the History Department, the Library, and the Office of the Dean of Faculty sponsored the event. Student interest reflected the variety of departments involved. Tomas Guarnizo ’16 heard about it in his Media Studies class. “We are also reading a book by the lecturer and I thought it would be interesting to meet her,” he said. Erin Leahy ’16 also attended, stating, “I tagged along with a friend who went for her history class. But I still love attending talks on topics that I’m unfamiliar with.”

After a familiar and warm introduction by Professor of English on the Henry Noble MacCracken Chair, Robert Demaria, Blair began with a quote from Roger Stoddard, “‘Authors don’t make books.’” The truth, according to Blair, is that behind most famous works are many unseen voices and hands; those of the author’s peers, patrons, and helpers—family members, secretaries. Blair complemented her talk with a prepared slideshow, which incorporated famous examples from the works of Pliny the Elder, Thomas Aquinas and Erasmus. Typically their published books do not credit their collaborative partners. Blair attributes this to the way in which commercial printing emphasized the publicity of the author. Of the process of how books entice buyers, Blair argued, “[They] hide the process of making them.”

This might not be altogether too different from current publishing standards. “Today we still want to sell brands,” commented Demaria. “I believe that some authors—such as the late Norman Mailer and presidential historian Doris Kerns—employed many under-workers in making their books, but these people tend not to get much credit. In other arts—such as sculpture and architecture—I think the helpers may do even more than they do in literary work, and get even less credit.”

Blair also noted the importance of technology in the development of sales practices. The growth of the printing press set in motion a new emphasis on brand name, attribution notations, and where to place credit in order to give a work the best possible sales future. She additionally credits printing with the innovations common in our modern presentation of text; title page, indexes, pagination, and the white space that highlights section breaks. Printing allowed, and encouraged, books to truly become best sellers with recurrent and extended new editions.

All the same, Blair points out this by no means limited collaboration. Authors continued to rely heavily on their note takers and glue-binders.

Leahy said, “I had never thought about the help authors had with the physical production of their books. I found it particularly interesting when she mentioned that wives or servants would assist authors by gluing pieces into their books. I’m not surprised they weren’t credited but it is a shame that they aren’t even remembered.”

Of the modern approach to collaboration Demaria adds, “[collaboration via letters and face-to-face encounters] is still going on, though the ‘letter’ carrier is the internet rather than the penny post, and people from all over the world see each other more frequently at conferences than they used to do.”

She continued, “As for amanuenses, copyists, gluers, and note-takers, we mostly have our computers, though there are some famous and important writers who still have workshops full of assistants.”

Other topics brought up during the talk concerned the issues that manifested due to the distrust between authors and their secretaries and the importance of handwriting as an imprint of the author’s personality in the work they were writing.

The hour-long talk was followed by a short Q&A, in which questions regarding Blair’s own experience with collaboration were raised. After the event formally closed many in the audience stuck around to ask Demaria further questions.

Demaria said of the takeaway, “You really don’t know what happened historically—or, for that matter, in recent events—until you start looking closely… Ultimately, numerous small observations can generate entirely fresh ways of seeing artistic production.”

He added, “The big lesson that you learn over and over from ground-breaking scholars is that you must examine the evidence for yourself and let the evidence generate the answers to your questions.”

Students generally responded positively to the event and the speaker as well. “Nothing she said was particularly shocking or unexpected but I was definitely intrigued with some of the anecdotes she had about particular authors,” said Leahy.

She continued, “Like that story where Erasmus had to buy back his notes from his secretary who ran away and ransomed them, I don’t know if we value notes in the same way. The speaker did a great job painting a picture of a completely different time.”

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