Ghost Edges and References

Snippet from the Acta Eruditorum, June 1711 issue, p. 269.

Friday n° 29, April 25th, 2019

If being remembered or forgotten is a function of reference frequency, of circulating information, an obvious conclusion seems to be that if you want to be remembered, you yourself should start circulating information lest you get forgotten. In scholarly contexts, this basically means spreading the word about what one is doing or has produced. This might in turn trigger references to you and your publications, discoveries, theories or other achievements which in turn might provide starting points for other references. Self-advertisement, for this and other, more directly visible reasons, has been and is part and parcel of academic communication. In network analysis, the reasons why such attempts at self-promotion were successful or not is often explained or even predicted by the structural features of the individual’s networks.

Shadowy networks

But what about the networks we are only partially able to reconstruct because of source loss? In some cases, I know that there were connections but can’t say much more about depth and nature of these connections because the source documents necessary to judge this have been lost. Any network reconstructed under such circumstances will be distorted, because the parts of it traces of which have survived as documents will be privileged over those parts where this is not the case. So what to do with the parts of the network which can only be traced as shadows, as ghosts of nodes and edges that once were?

Self-advertisement, done successfully

Let me start with a small piece of circumstantial evidence with throws one such ghost edge in my network of letters into sharper relief. In June 1711, the Acta Eruditorum published a small piece of seven pages titled “On the manuscript commentary of Blessed Jerome which exists in the library of Marcus Meibom in Amsterdam”.[1] Most of the text was composed of excerpts from the manuscript in question, but ahead of this the editorial board of the Acta Eruditorum lost a few words on how they got the paper in form of a short introduction:

“Lately the illustrious Adriaan Reland whom we already have given honourable mention in these Acta more than once has sent us some excerpts from a manuscript commentary on Job by [St.] Jerome, whishing them to be included in our Acta with the intention that scholars may by this specimen pass judgment on whether it is a genuine work by Jerome or not.”[2]  

[Mencke]: De b[eati] Hieronymi commentario m[anu]s[cri]pto in Jobum, AE 30, June 1711, p. 269.

This passage now not only fits in quite well with my overall framework of references and their valorisation in scholarly circles. It also explicitly states what I – based on studies such as that of Huub Laeven on the networks of Otto Mencke (1644–1707) and his son Johann Burchard Mencke (1674–1732), the successive editors of the Acta Eruditorum[3] – already had suspected: that either Mencke sr. or jr., or both, were in direct correspondence with Reland. Until now I just had no tangible evidence for such a connection, as the letters of all parties involved, Otto Mencke, Johann Burchard Mencke, and Adriaan Reland, have only fragmentarily survived. The letter concerning the codex containing the work in question here, the commentary on the Old Testament book of Job supposedly written by St. Jerome, the church father, does not exist anymore (at least not to my knowledge). But the easiest way to account for the passage just quoted is to assume that it indeed did exist.

Ghost edges

As glad as I am to finally have made sure that this particular ghost edge really existed, I am nevertheless aware that the basic problem context underlying this discovery has just become a bit more serious at the same time.

For on the one hand some of his surviving letters already point to Reland being a conscious and very active self-promoter who had a keen eye and good hand in picking opportunities to distribute his publications, and to this another distribution channel – that of the Acta Eruditorum – has just been added now. As there are quite a few “honourable mentions” of Reland by the Acta Eruditorum, like Johann Burchard Mencke wrote (or let write: as leading editor he has to be held responsible for anonymous texts in his journal), this prompts the question of how they were caused in the first place. As there are at least two letters by Reland to Jean-Paul Bignon (1662–1743), editor of the Journal des Savants in Paris, which deal with Reland sending Bignon his publications for distributing them amongst his French connections including review copies,[4] there is no reason to assume that something similar might not have taken place in his correspondence with the leading German scholarly journal as well as with its French model. This might seem to be supported by the rising reference frequency in the Acta Eruditorum concerning Reland between 1701 and 1711:

(Only the text pieces containing references to Reland are counted, not the total of references.)

The upward trend visible here might be taken as just the depiction of a young scholar’s rise of fame while making his way through academia. Reland had been awarded his first professorial post in Harderwijk in 1698/99, only to move to a more prestigious chair at Utrecht in 1700/01, publishing continuously. Or it might be an illustration of a correspondence successfully feeding the editorial board at Leipzig with relevant news and thus ensuring continuous reference to oneself. As I cannot say much more about the ghost edge than that it existed, but not for how long and how intensively it was used, the question has to remain open for now.

And on the other hand, the fragmentary state of the Reland correspondence has by now turned up quite a handful of such connections where there are either indications of direct correspondence and no surviving letters or one or two letters surviving, indicative of a communication channel which must originally have accommodated many letters more. As I already pointed out in one of my earlier posts, the correspondence between Mathurin Veyssière de la Croze (1661–1739) and Reland is only documented by three letters, all of which are no longer extant in the original. Given the close intersection of research interests between the two of them it is highly unlikely that there were not much more originally; but how could this be translated into a meaningful part of a network? The same is true for Johann Baptist Ott (1661–1744) the communication between whom and Reland is only evidenced by one printed letter in Reland’s second treatise on the Samaritan coins, as I pointed out here. It is also true for Marcus Meibom (1630–1711), the scholar whose manuscript was the reason for the note in the Acta Eruditorum which caused me to write this post in the first place. It is even true for another of my protagonists, Johannes Braun, as there are a few letters between him and Reland still extant but the bulk of Braun’s correspondence is also lost. This is by far no complete list, but I am determined to draw one up as far as this will be possible.  

The Chicken-and-Egg of Loss, Forgetting, and References

The question posed by ghost edges is of course how they relate to forgetting. They are clearly indicative of structural forgetting taking place, but in which way? Their presence could be seen as a natural effect of processes of structural forgetting: As someone fades from structural remembrance, his papers or letters become devalued and thus more likely to be sold off, discarded, or altogether lost. But their presence could also be the cause rather than the effect of becoming forgotten: As the papers and letters of someone become sold off, were discarded, or otherwise lost, materials are removed from the archival record which might have triggered new references had they still been there, which in turn leads to a drop in reference frequency and thus to structural forgetting. This is a new variant of the ages-old chicken-and-egg problem, so I have go to searching for additional factor which might help me figuring out if a particular shadowy part of the network is a ghost edge chicken or a ghost edge egg.


[1] [Johann Burchard Mencke]: De b[eati] Hieronymi commentario m[anu]s[cri]pto in Jobum, qui Amstelodami in Bibliotheca Marci Meibomii exstat, in: Acta Eruditorum 30, June 1711, pp. 269-275.

[2] Ibid, p. 269: „Misit nuper ad nos Vir Cl. Hadrianus Relandus, cujus non semel honorificam in his Actis fecimus mentionem, Excerpta quaedam ex Commentario MS. Hieronymi in Jobum, eaque Actis nostris inseri cupivit eo consilio, ut eruditis hoc e specimine iudicandi copia fieret, sitne is genuinus Hieronymi foetus nec ne.”

[3] Cf. Huub Laeven: Otto Mencke (1644–1707): The Outlines of his Network of Correspondents, in: C. Berkvens-Stevelinck, H. Bots, J. Häseler (eds.): Les grands intermédiaires culturels de la république des lettres. Études de réseaux de correspondances du XVIe au XVIIIe siècles, Paris: Champion 2005, pp. 229–256 ; —: “Dies ist wol ohne Streit die größte unter denen Holländischen Public-Bibliotheken“. Johann Burkhard Mencke’s bezoek aan Leiden in 1698, in: Omslag. Bulletin van de Universiteitsbibliotheek Leiden en het Scaliger Instituut 4, 1/2006, pp. 1–3.

[4] UB Leiden BPL 885 – 052 (Rabault-Risseeuw): Adriaan Reland to Jean-Paul Bignon, Utrecht 13 June 1714 (19th century copy), and KB Den Haag 72 D 37, 11 A: Adriaan Reland to Jean-Paul Bignon, 23 June 1714.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.