Teaching the Early Modern Printed Text within a University Archive

Teaching the Early Modern Printed Text within a University Archive

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, teaching in Higher Education Institutions (HEI) is facing new challenges and undergoing several changes, one of these being the shift from face-to-face teaching to teaching through using new technologies. This has also meant that there needs to be a change in the way that both staff and students use university resources; this includes university archives, which are an invaluable teaching tool.

With quarantine measures in place and the limitations of social distancing, attention has turned to how archive collections can be used pedagogically within a virtual setting (Andrew Lines, Reading Room Supervisor and Collections Academic Liaison Officer at the University of Reading, discussed alternative methods to engage students with collections at the ARA South East workshop ‘Engagement Outside the Searchroom’). Having formerly been an Assistant Lecturer at the University of Kent, one of my biggest joys was taking students to Special Collections & Archives (SC&A) at the University and introducing them to primary sources. Knowing that students will not get these chances now is saddening but it has also made me feel nostalgic and think about my days taking undergraduates to SC&A, giving them their first taste of what it’s like to work with the items they study on their course.

Reflecting on these days bygone inspired me to write this post and I’ll be focusing on seminars I taught for first-year undergraduate History students during the final year of my doctorate. The course I taught was called ‘Europe c.1450-1600: The Age of Reformation’, covering the history of early modern Europe and focusing on topics ranging from the ‘Renaissance’ to ‘Politics and State Formation’. Key to this period of history was the advent of the printing press, built and designed by Johannes Gutenberg, and in particular its impact on religion, society, scholarship and culture in early modern Europe. The evolution of the printing press also meant that modes of communication could be expanded, and it transformed the relationship of all sorts of people to the various worlds they inhabited – including the church, the state, the past and the present.

Movable type used for a Gutenberg Press
The text used forms William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 1
Photo take at Quadrivium XI held at De Montfort University, Leicester, February 2016

An entire seminar was dedicated to this topic and I was delighted to learn from the module convenor, Dr Suzanna Ivanič, that seminars would be held at SC&A. Filled with excitement, I absolutely couldn’t wait to tell my students about our upcoming trip and the fact that they’d be examining sixteenth- and seventeenth-century printed texts; visiting archives and examining historic items was the best part of doing a PhD and I was ecstatic to have the chance to impart my knowledge and make these collections more accessible to my students.

Ready and raring to go, I met my students outside the front of Templeman Library (the University of Kent’s Canterbury campus library) and led them to SC&A. We were met by Joanna Baines, Senior Library Assistant, who had prepared the printed texts we’d be examining. She and I then explained archival protocols, reminding students that only pencils were allowed for example, before I gave an overview of how the session would play out. Presentations were a compulsory part of the seminars I ran, and we had two of my students firstly deliver a presentation about a late sixteenth-century witchcraft pamphlet, Newes from Scotland, which provides a detailed narrative about the North Berwick witch trials that took place in the 1590s. The students focused on why the text was made and its circulation, which created great discussion about the dissemination of information through the medium of the early modern printed text, thereby setting the tone for the seminar.

Archives are treasure troves and Joanna treated us to some spectacular items! A particular highlight was a magnificent edition of The workes of our antient and learned English poet, Geffrey Chaucer, printed in 1598.

The workes of our antient and learned English poet, Geffrey Chaucer
Catalogue reference: SC&A, C598.CHA (printed 1598)
Photo courtesy of SC&A

One of the things we wanted students to think about was what the texts we looked at actually were, what they told us about who would have used them and their owners, and what the intended purpose of the text was, thereby linking to how the revolution of the printing press allowed for information to be circulated more widely. A text we looked at, and which really varied in size to the printed edition of The workes of our antient and learned English poet, Geffrey Chaucer, was a printed text called the Verbum Sempiternum. This is a miniature text known as a Thumb Bible, which was first written by John Taylor in 1614 (the edition we examined was printed in 1693).

Verbum Sempiternum
Catalogue reference: SC&A, C 693 TAY (printed 1693)
Photo courtesy of SC&A

In contrast to its much larger counterpart, the Verbum Sempiternum was used for devotional purposes and is demonstrative of how religious instruction could be taught through printed text.

Thinking about the difference in size of these texts also gave the students the opportunity to think lots about the practicality of these texts and how they would be used – the students concluded that unlike the Verbum Sempiternum, The workes of our antient and learned English poet, Geffrey Chaucer would not be easy for its owner to carry round and would have been an item that remained within the home.

Inevitably when faced with handling rare or historic items for the very first time, the group of students were naturally nervous and a little hesitant when faced with these materials (this was 100% me when I went on my first ever trip to an archive – I felt like I had no clue what I was doing!). To help the students, we explained how to handle the items, outlining why we had placed the printed texts on supports and what the function of weights – including snake weights – were, emphasising that these were used to allow the pages of books to be held open for display and research. Having divided the students into groups, we also worked with them individually to provide further assistance, answer any questions they had about how to analyse the texts, and clarify anything they didn’t understand.

This was a great way for the students to build confidence in handling historic materials and gave them a sense of what it was like to research in an archive. The session also highlighted key elements of what the printing press meant for the way that early modern European society, culture and politics changed during this period.

The students absolutely loved the seminar, emphasising just how much they had enjoyed themselves and how they would benefit from having more sessions dedicated to examining physical primary sources in future. I took this feedback on-board and only a few weeks later took students from this module to Canterbury Cathedral Archives and Library to examine a variety of materials, ranging from Cathedral inventories to wills (don’t worry, we kept the theme of early modern printed texts going and examined some amazing printed texts like an edition of Henry VIII’s Great Bible printed in 1540!).

I hope that I have demonstrated how archives are a key educational tool that enhance the learning experience of students, providing them with vital research skills. Whilst they may not necessarily be getting the same experience given the current climate – for there is nothing quite like having a historic record within reach – it is important to continue developing alternative ways of making these records available for students’ learning in some capacity. Social distancing and remote teaching may be the ‘new normal’ but that doesn’t mean that archives and their wonderful collections won’t play a vital role in enhancing the experience of students up and down the country!

Dr Daniella Marie Gonzalez – Communications Officer for the Section for New Professionals, Social Media Fellow for the British Association of Local History (BALH), Co-founder and Editor of MEMSLib. Former Assistant Lecturer for the School of History at the University of Kent.

She can be followed on Twitter at @DeeGonz92 or on her personal website The Archive Diaries.

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