Tag Archives: Forgetting

What about the Women?

Two Samaritan coins from the collection of Jacob de Wilde, depicted by Maria de Wilde in: Adriaan Reland, Dissertatio altera de Inscriptione Nummorum quorundam Samaritanorum, Utrecht: Thomas Appels 1704.

Friday n° 26, April 5th, 2019

I have touched upon many topics in this blog so far, but gender has not been one of them yet. Not because gender does not play a role in here but because it is – alas – very hard to tackle which role precisely given the circumstances of my project.

How to find women?

First of all, it suffers from the near-universal male bias in intellectual history, history of knowledge, and history of science. Although there have been many attempts to break this male gaze and to also focus on the roles of women in academia for the past centuries, these studies are still isolated in so far as they highlight particular individuals – and because none of these plays into the circles of my protagonists, as far as I can see at the moment, I am a bit lost there. All I can do is try to check my data for the more general patterns of including women and their contributions into academic information circulation. But as the history of knowledge and scholarship in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, which is where most of my sources and data come from, most of the time just silently passed over female contributions of all kinds, I only very rarely am able to substantiate the scattered findings in my sources with more specific information which would point me to further lanes of inquiry.

How to deal with those women found?

Second, there are only scattered findings: my protagonists themselves have left only few traces of their female connections, most of them pertaining to their family life. This was not only their fault. Much of it is due to the ways in which the source materials available today were produced, traded, and ultimately kept, which were quite unconducive to transmit materials connected to women. The surviving letters of all of my protagonists were not directly filed into institutional archives at their death – which is where they are kept today -, but rather passed on privately by inheritance and sale before being donated to or bought by the institutions in possession of them now. While inheritance processes would be favourable to conserving materials connected to women for family reasons, generally spoken they are less favourable to preserve materials connected to women outside of domestic affairs. One might well keep letters and documents dealing with one’s female ancestors or relations, but might accord less value to such materials dealing with female artists, or perhaps even with women engaging in scholarly pursuits. The selections involved in selling the papers of a dead scholar would, on the other hand, be less favourable to materials ‘only’ connected to his (as my protagonists are all male) domestic affairs and relations, as they were for long, and sadly still are sometimes today, considered of minor if any importance to scholarly matters. Autograph collectors would prize letters from famous scholars to other famous scholars but in general be less interested in those materials dealing with less prominent figures, which in their eyes normally applied to women. In both processes, inheritance and sale, some source materials which I would really like to have at hand to provide me with information about the gender dimension in my protagonist’s academic world are likely to have been deselected from being passed on, and as both processes happened in the transmission of these materials, sometimes more than once, this has geared the sources available into a perspective which is hard to overcome.

With official documents it is quite the same; the female contacts figure in these most prominently in domestic matters (contexts such as birth, death, marriage, inheritance) if they are in them at all. And not all documents of such interest are still available.

From 1.838 to 74

But all these restrictions and biased perspectives aside, what do I have got concerning women so far? If I take a look at my database, the figures are not very encouraging: Of 1838 persons in there (as of today), only 74 are female, or a meagre 4 %. Of these 12 modern-day female scientists have to be deducted, leaving me with 62 women mentioned in my sources.

From 74 to 30

If I now also deduce all those who only entered as historical figures, that is, wifes, mothers or sisters of scholars from generations preceding my protagonists, I am left with 30 women for which I recorded anything between 1650 and 1750. Compared to 1128 men for which I have anything recorded for that period, the figure dwindles down to 2.6 %.

This imbalance is of course to be lamented from a point of view concentrating on historical justice. It is quite clear that these numbers are likely not to be accurate in terms of intellectual contributions. Those case studies that we have indicate that women could be involved in academic intellectual production in various roles, at almost each stage of the process, and that their contributions are not to be seen as negligible. There surely is a lot of unacknowledged female labour that went into the publications and discussions featuring my protagonists. But my interest in this particular case of research is not so much in discovering or restoring such female contributions, although this would be a fascinating topic in itself. As I am trying to make sense of processes of structural forgetting here, I take these heavily gender-biased data as a fact in its own sense, and a noteworthy one at that.

Because I have not consciously tried to avoid women in my research, the reason that their presence in the database is so low is not due to my bias but to the source material’s bias. The co-citation approach I am pursuing means that I collect references to persons who are not my protagonists based on three criteria:

  1. these persons are referred to on the same page as one of my protagonists and/or one of his publications
  2. these persons have contributed to a publication cited on the same page as one of my protagonists and/or one of his publications
  3. these persons are necessary to construct the relationships between other persons in the database.

From 30 to 3

The bias in the database now originates from the fact that women are, throughout my sources, almost completely blended out from categories 1) and 2). This results in most women who are in database being entered by way of category 3), that is, they are needed – as wifes, mothers, or sisters – to complete family relations between persons from categories 1) and 2). And while I am convinced that such relations played a vital role in the social formation of early modern academia, it is very difficult to reconstruct them without recourse to primal source material (if it exists), as secondary literature has much too often been silent about kinship ties of academics, too. And if they are acknowledged, this is seldom done in the form of giving concrete references to individual women, such as names, birth and death dates and other information which would come in handy for my purposes, but most often in the form of “X, who was married to the daughter of Y, …”.

So if I now again deduce all women which only are referenced in my database via kinship ties from the 30 women left for the century between 1650 and 1750, I am down to three.

From 3 to 2

The three women who are actually being co-cited with my protagonists in my sources upon closer inspection narrow down to two, because one is the formidable and inescapable Madame Dacier (Anne Dacier, née Le Fèvre, 1654-1720). This is not to belittle her considerable achievements but shall only be taken to mean that she was part and parcel of the discourse about the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, and it was in that context that she was co-cited together with Thomas Gale and 53 other scholars in the October 1734 issue of the Journal des Savants (see here).[1] This rather heavy case of name-dropping does not serve to indicate any deeper connection between Dacier and Gale but rather testifies to both being part of the same epistemic community, in this case of the Anciens party. As this was a rather large community, shared membership only points to some shared assumptions and thus to a purely topical relation.

With Anne Dacier thus deducted, only two women remain who are mentioned in a closer kind of connection to one of my protagonists. These two ladies are Maria de Wilde (1682-1729) from Amsterdam and Anna Waser (1678-1714) from Zürich. Both are not only mentioned in connection to the same of my protagonists, Adriaan Reland (who seems to become kind of inevitable within this project, too), but also by the same source: The June 1705 issue of the Acta Eruditorum (see here). The references were part of the review of Reland’s second treatise on the coins of the ancient Samaritans, the Dissertatio altera de Nummorum quorundam Samaritanorum of 1704 (see here for the whole review).[2] In fact, they were both mentioned together in the closing lines of the review:

“That those [coins] of Reland’s the most excellent maiden, Maria de Wilde, from her father’s[3] collection most elegantly depicted, as Anna Waser, great-great-grandchild of Caspar Waser[4], this posthumously most laudable man, those of Ott;[5] therefore our Reland has finished his little work with two poems in praise of de Wilde’s very excellent artworks, and what more could be remembered in Ott’s letter, will be set aside for another time and leisure.”

Acta Eruditorum 34, 06/1705, pp. 284-285.
Two Samaritan coins from the collection of Johann Rudolf Waser depicted by Anna Waser, in: Adriaan Reland, Dissertatio altera de Inscriptione Nummorum quorundam Samaritanorum, Utrecht: Thomas Appels 1704.

A familiar pattern…

The pattern visible here is a familiar one. Both “the most excellent maiden” Maria de Wilde and her obviously as praiseworthy fellow female Anna Waser contributed the engravings for Reland’s dissertation and Ott’s reply to it. Both were daughters of well-connected men in their respective communities: Jacob de Wilde, a collector of arts and antiquities of international renown, and Johann Rudolf Waser, city official and chief warden of Zürich’s Grossmünsterstift. Both excelled in painting and drawing and were given a good education in these crafts, and through their father’s contacts were introduced to scholars who then utilized their services for making their arguments. Although both of them were close contemporaries of Reland – Anna Waser was two years younger, and Maria de Wilde six years – they served as illustrators at a time when Reland had already advanced to a professorial post in Utrecht. This compares well to the biographies of other scholarly active women of the time, the most prominent example surely being Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). Unlike Merian, Maria de Wilde ceased publishing with her marriage in 1710; while Anna Waser never married and advanced up to the post of court paintress to the count of Solms-Braunfels for three years, 1700-1702, before returning to Zürich where she quit painting around 1708 for unclear reasons.

…and an all-too familiar conclusion

Regardless of their achievements, apart from one scattered reference I have been able to find so far their activities were simply glossed over by contemporary academic publications which were written by men for men. A prime factor for being removed from circulation and thus becoming structurally forgotten obviously was gender. If you were a woman, your chances to be forgotten very soon were 25 times higher than that of a random male scholar of your age bracket.


[1] Journal des Savants 70, 10/1734, p. 699.

[2] Anon., Review of: Adriaan Reland, Dissertatio altera de Inscriptione Nummorum quorundam Samaritanorum, Utrecht: Thomas Appels 1704, in: Acta Eruditorum 34, 06/1705, pp. 279-285.

[3] Jacob de Wilde, 1645-1725.

[4] Caspar Waser, 1565-1625.

[5] Johann Baptist Ott, 1661-1744.

For Family, Knowledge, and Country

Philip Sydenham to Thomas Hearne, Brympton St Every, 23 May [1725?] (Bodleian Library, MS Rawls letters 15, f. 473-474)

Friday N° 24, March 22nd, 2019

I have been writing about the entanglements between lexicographical biographic memoralization and national ideas in my last post and had originally announced going further in this direction only in next week’s post. As I was in Oxford for archival research at the Bodleian library to consult correspondences I had not awaited to find anything in there fitting this thread of investigation of my sources. But sometimes one’s in for a bit of a surprise, and so I might try to connect some of my findings in these letters to the theme of national framings of knowledge.

Last week I already observed that British dictionaries and encyclopaedias where going for the national label early in the 19th century. This of course provokes the question whether this was a new development, coming out of the blue, or something which might be connected to longer-running developments. 

The introductory clipping from Philip Sydenham’s (c.1676-1739) letter to Thomas Hearne (1678-1735) points in the latter direction. In his letter, Sydenham complements Hearne to his edition of the itinerary of John Leland (c.1506-552);[1] the full passage runs:

“I hope y[ou]r publick Services for ye Honor & good of this Nation will receive publick approbation. this will be one m[anu]s[cript] to preserve & recover our old Noble Constitution many very valuable M[anu]s[cript]s deserv ye publick reading & encouragment & I hope y[ou] will proceed. ye more ancient ye more brave & Noble.”[2]

Sydenham thus entangled the antiquarian pursuits of Hearne’s, who was an avid editor of medieval manuscripts besides being librarian to the Bodleian library, with the national “Honor” in two ways, on the one hand by the scholarly value of his results and their potential of contributing to a better “publick” understanding of the nation’s past, and on the other hand by linking this more directly to the conditions for being a nation, to “our old Noble Constitution” to be retrieved this way. While this way of searching the origin and the primordial good laws of a community in the past was entirely in keeping with early modern conceptions of how time and historical research operated, the appeal to “publick approbation […] reading & encouragment” is somewhat more unusual and already seems to point to later developments in constructing national identities on a larger scale.

But Sydenham had more to offer still. In the next paragraph, he directly linked Hearne’s other professional activities, that as a librarian, both to the advancement of learning in general – as was a fairly common topos – and – a less common inflection –, to national honour also:

“I am glad [that] y[ou]r Library (=the Bodleian) is daily improving. it is so much for ye Honor of ye Nation, & interest of Learning.[3]

The three intersecting topoi of interest here, from the perspective of my project, are 1) ‘Fighting Oblivion’, 2) ‘Advancement of Learning’, and 3) ‘National Glory’. To see how this affects my protagonists, of whom there has been no mention yet in this post, I’ll have to take you to another of Hearne’s editions, the development of which was indeed coupled to the Leland volumes Sydenham already praised.

In 1716, Roger Gale (1672-1744), eldest son of Thomas Gale, approached Thomas Hearne in the same way as Sydenham would do nine years later, by complementing him on his just published Leland edition. The real aim of the letter was something else, though. Gale wanted to secure Hearne’s editorship for a manuscript in his possession, the Scotichronicon of John of Fordun (or Ffordun, c.1320-c.1386), which already had been partly edited by his father.[4] Hearne willingly accepted Gale’s offer of providing him with the manuscript and every assistance necessary for the edition and publication of the chronicle.[5] Both entered a long-drawn out process of working on the edition in which Roger Gale was constantly checking on Hearne to ensure the progress of the work, to provide him with colligations from other manuscripts, and helping him to gain enough subscribers for publication, he himself taking 20 copies.[6] When in 1722 the Fordun edition finally went to the press,[7] the Gale family was highly pleased with the result.

First, it represented a success in the endeavours of both Roger and his younger brother Samuel Gale, who both had been founding members of the Society of Antiquaries in 1718, in fighting oblivion. To do so represented a recurrent thread in their discussions of all fields of research they were actively engaged in, and print seemed a convenient way of doing it. When on February 25th, 1723, Samuel Gale held a speech before the Society of Lincoln, he spoke about the benefits of engraving:

“Give me Leave, Gentlemen, to Congratulate ye latter age on this Noble Invention, this Beneficial Discovery, and which alone seems to surpass all the great Things the Ancients ever did. Since eben the mouldring Fragments of theire proudest Structures, ye Temples of ye Gods, ye Statues of ye Heroes, ye Hippodromes ye Amphitheatres the Triumphal Arches, Aquaeducts, Military Ways, Baths, Colums, Medals, and Inscriptions, which yet, feebly beare up against ye power of corroding Time: even these Remaines I say of Athens, Corinth, and of Rome can be, and are now, only by this diffusive Art, triumphantly rescu’d from that total Havock, ye everlasting oblivion: Which a few more revolving years must inevitably bring on, and that of the Poet, then be too sadly verified: etiam periere Ruinae.”[8]

In 1726, Roger Gale took recourse to almost the same words in a letter to John Clerk to explain the purpose of the Society of Antiquaries, only with less rhetorical flourish:

“Besides the ½ guinea payd upon admission, one shilling is deposited every month by each member, and this money has been hitherto expended in buying a few books, but more in drawing and engraving, whereby a great many old seals, ruins, and other monuments of antiquity have been preserved from oblivion, and the danger of being intirely lost in a little time.”[9]

 Second, it was connected to the advancement of learning, which Samuel Gale not only connected to printing, but also to the scholars who had been paragons of learning. At the end of his speech, he made the connection quite explicit and directed it not only to the memory of the past, but also to the future.

“These [engravers] are They who by an uncommon Genius have almost outdone Nature, and have given Life & Spirit to Good Men after Death, Who is there yet Beholds ye Aspects of the Great & Learned, and Burns not with secret Æmulation to imitate their High Example.”[10]

And this connection might have been the driving force behind Roger Gale playing the driving force behind putting the manuscript inherited and already partly edited by his father to the press through Thomas Hearne although it costed him time, labour, and money. Samuel Gale put this into words in his letter congratulating Hearne on finishing the Fordun edition, thanking him because:

“Ye Hon[o]r You have done my Father, in mentioning him so often in It, is a great Satisfaction to Me in particular […].”[11]

And thus the history of knowledge, scholarly biographies, and – following Philip Sydenham – national honour which could be derived from both seem to have become entangled in Britain already in the early 18th century. The question is only to what end?


[1] Thomas Hearne (ed.): Joannis Lelandi antiquarii de rebus Britannicis collectanea ; Ex autographis descripsit ediditque Tho. Hearnius, 6 vol., Oxford: Sheldon Theater 1715.

[2] Philipp Sydenham to Thomas Hearne, Brympton St Every 23 May [1725?], Bodleian Library, MS Rawls letters 15, f. 473. Orthography as in the original, ligatures in [].

[3] Ibid.

[4] Roger Gale to Thomas Hearne, London 24 July 1716, Bodleian Library, MS Rawls letters 6, N° 14a, f. 311–312.

[5] Thomas Hearne to Roger Gale, [Oxford 1716 – Concept, no dates], Bodleian Library, MS Rawls letters 6, N° 15a, f. 313–314.

[6] Roger Gale to Thomas Hearne, London, 20 February 1722, MS Rawls letters 6, N° 35a, f. 355–357.

[7] Thomas Hearne (ed.): Johannis de Fordun Scotichronicon genuinum, una cum ejusdem supplemento ac continuatione. E codicibus Mss. eruit ediditque Tho. Hearnius, Oxford: Sheldon Theater 1722.

[8] Samuel Gale, Oratio Habita coram Societate Lincolniensi vicesimo quarto Die Februarii Anno C. 1723, Bodleian Library, MS Eng Misc E 147, f. 61, r.

[9] Roger Gale to John Clerk, [no place] 26 April 1726, Bodleian Library, MS Top Gen d 74, pp. 178–186; p. 184.  

[10] Ibid, f. 65, v.

[11] Samuel Gale to Thomas Hearne, London, 26 May 1722, Bodleian Library MS Rawls letters 6, f. 376–377.

Non-transitive reference patterns

Eusèbe Renaudot (ed., transl.): Anciennes relations des Indes et de la Chine, de deux voyageurs mahometans, Paris: Coignard 1718; title page.

Friday no. 20, February 22nd, 2019

In one of the earlier posts on this blog I said something about Louis-Charles Solvet (1795-1869) and his successful strategies of reference to Adrien Reland. One, and I would say the central, hypothesis that I built from the case of Solvet and his translation of the Dissertatio de jure militari Mohammedanorum contra Christianos bellum gerentium was that such strategies of a re-use of a dead scholar’s products and achievements against the grain of that scholar’s original intentions signal actual structural oblivion of the scholar in question, if they succeed. This dovetails quite nicely with the career and publications of Louis-Charles Solvet, I would say. But the risk incurred with this is of course that this may be a case of circular reasoning. Perhaps the Solvet case fits the hypothesis so nicely because the hypothesis was drawn up by it, and I just found what I wanted to find all along. So how might this be put to the test?

Test conditions and pre-test assumptions

As history does not repeat itself, I cannot just re-run Solvet’s career to see if other patterns would probably account for the same effects in the end as well. But I might look for similar cases, if possible by people from a shared background and trajectory, and look for discursive and structural interconnections – references to the same scholars and the same patterns of reference applied to similar scholars. The argument that I would like to make is that both are necessary to establish a convincing test case for the hypothesis framed around Solvet. If I do find that in a similar case, in similar circumstances, the patterns are transitive, i.e. if one matches, the other does match, too, this would indicate that structural oblivion is not the right term to put to the phenomenon. Because this would – generalized – have to be taken to mean that every scholar with similar background in similar circumstances would take recourse to the dead scholar in question in the same way. This in turn would mean that there was a shared knowledge about this scholar beforehand, and if this were the case, he or she would be structurally remembered rather than forgotten. If on the other hand I should find, that the patterns are not transitive, that is, if one matches, the other does not, structural oblivion becomes a lot more probable. But – and this is an important caveat to make – only in the case where there is structural but not discursive transitivity. If the reference pattern applied in a similar situation by a similar scholar is the same but targets another person and his or her achievements and/or publications, the divergence in dead scholars utilized might well point to the fact that they are, more or less, randomly selected from the reservoir of structurally forgotten elements of knowledge.

A test case: Joseph-Touissant Reinaud (1795-1867)

Joseph-Touissant Reinaud was born in Lambesc, between Avignon and Aix-en-Provence in Southern France, on December 4th, 1795, and destined for a clerical career. When in 1814 he was sent to Paris to broaden his education, he took to oriental languages with such fervour that he staid to study them under Silvestre de Sacy (1758–1838) instead of becoming a priest. As Solvet, who in 1814 quitted service with the Imperial Guards, Reinaud had dropped out of the career originally envisioned for him. Both now served for a while with private employers alongside their studies, Reinaud from 1818 to 1819 as secretary to the Comte de Portalis on a mission to the Holy See. After returning and completing his studies, his former employer helped him to gain a post at the Bibliothèque royale in 1824, three years earlier than Solvet, who entered the French provincial administration in 1827. Reinaud managed to continue on his librarian post despite all revolutionary upheavals in 19th century France and to continually rise within the system. In 1832, he was elected into the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, and in March 1838 after de Sacy’s death followed him as professor of Arabic at the Ecole des langues orientales vivantes. From 1847 on he was president of the Société Asiatique, and in April 1864 elected as head of the Ecole des langues orientales vivantes; Solvet had been promoted to the post of Supreme Judge at the court of Algiers in 1862. Reinaud had, perhaps because of a career without the interruptions that Solvet had been subject to, managed to enter the more prestigious posts; he had already in 1836 been admitted into the Legion of Honour, 14 years before Solvet had been in 1850. In 1858 he was raised in rank to “Officier de la legion d’honneur”, the rank that Solvet had been denied in 1865. These honorary differences besides, both men seem to be quite comparable in respect to what I am interested in here. Both were trained in Arabic, excelled at their studies, were zealous in pursuit of their duties, turned to philological pursuits in their scholarly endeavours, and translated.

Now the interesting question is whether both men are comparable also in respect to their treatment of my forgotten scholars. Louis-Charles Solvet had translated Adrien Reland, but had never referred to Eusèbe Renaudot (as far as I know). So what about Joseph-Touissant Reinaud?

In 1845, Reinaud published a corrected, augmented and annotated re-edition of an 1811 translation of an early medieval Arabic manuscript, the “Relation des voyages faits par les Arabes et les Persans dans l’Inde et à la Chine“.[1] The 1811 edition itself was already a re-edition, as the manuscript in question had first been edited in 1718 as “Anciennes relations des Indes et de la Chine, de deux voyageurs mahometans” by Eusèbe Renaudot.[2] Reinaud clearly acknowledged that in his preface where he detailed the history of the edited text, where he stated the edition no longer conformed to “les progrès que la critique orientale a faits dans ces derniers temps” and had to be redone for the sake of science, correcting both translation and annotations to purge them of Renaudot’s leniencies.[3] The prime reason he brought forward for the importance of his re-edition was that he was convinced that the manuscript provided an early source for the story which over time had evolved into the story of Sindbad as incorporated in the Arabian Nights.[4] In doing so he situated his publication in the scholarly branch of the Orientalist discourse of the mid-19th century as firmly as Solvet had situated his Reland translation in its political branch. This catered to their respective career stations at the point of publication, with Solvet part of the French colonial administration in Algiers and Reinaud in the center of French Orientalist learning in Paris.

Passing the test?

In both cases publications were picked which were about 130 years old but could be adapted to contemporary issues quite easily, even if they became decontextualized from the oeuvre of the original author in the process, and both Reinaud and Solvet presented the original authors in the way which suited their aims best – Solvet praising Reland for use as an authority, and Reinaud downsizing Renaudot to claim scientific progress. The underlying pattern seems to be the same to me.

Now what about the cross-connections? These, and that is the interesting part of the story, really seem to be absent. Reinaud seems not to have mentioned Reland anywhere in his publications, even when he was working about topics where one might have expected it, as the religious history of Islam or the geography of the Near East. But while he refrained from referring to Reland, he owned his works. At least if the auction catalogue of his personal library can be trusted, among his possessions were Reland’s De religione mohammedica (2nd edition of 1717) and his Antiquitates sacrae veterum Hebraeorum (4th edition of 1741). That was one work more than he owned of Renaudot, of whom he only seems to have had the 1718 edition from which he started his translation.[5] So also this has been a rather quick walkthrough through the test I proposed, I would like to preliminary assume on this basis that my original hypothesis is sound, and both publications really testify to the original author’s being structurally forgotten at their time of publication. To be explored further!


[1] Joseph-Touissant Reinaud (ed., transl.) : Relation des voyages faits par les Arabes et les Persans dans l’Inde et à la Chine dans le IXe siècle de l’ère chrétienne. Texte arabe imprimé en 1811 par les soins de feu Langlès publié aves des corrections et additions et accompagné d’une traduction fran5aise et d’éclaircissements par M. Reinaud, Paris: Imprimerie royale 1845.

[2] Eusèbe Renaudot (ed., transl.): Anciennes relations des Indes et de la Chine, de deux voyageurs mahometans, qui y allerent dans le neuviéme siecle ; traduites d’arabe : avec des remarques sur les principaux endroits de ces relations, Paris: Coignard 1718.

[3] Reinaud (ed.), Relation des voyages 1845, p. v. ; p. xiii–xiv.

[4] Ibid., p. clxxx.

[5] Anon. : Catalogue des livres des manuscrits orientaux et des ouvrages en nombre composant la bibliothèque de feu M. J.-T. Reinaud. Membre de l’institut, officier de la légion d’honneur, conservateur des manuscrits de la Bibliothèque impériale, président de l’école des ll. oo. vv. de la sociéte asiatique, membre des académies de Vienne, de Berlin, de Saint-Pétersburg et de plusieurs autres sociétes savantes. Précéde d’une notice sur sa vie par M. J. Mohl, membre de l’Institut, Paris 1867, cf. pp. 13, 103, 131.

Proof of Concept

Monday, January 28th, 2019, for Friday No. 17, January 25th, 2019

Apologies first: This post took me a little longer than usual, I’m two and a half days late now. This is due to what I wanted to present here: The first two completed data sets for the tracking of processes of forgetting in the humanities from my project. And finishing the second one took me about 18 hours longer than I had planned. You never know what’s in the sources beforehand…

Data Sets

But now these two sets are done and ready to be presented – at least, a rough oversight of the yields of these collections. What I have done here is going through two journals, the Philosophical Transactions and the Journal des Savants, from 1700 until 1800 (well, in the case of the Journal des Savants until 1792). I went through two digitized Hathi Trust collections to be able to use fulltext search, so for everyone who’d like to check on my results, here you go: Journal des Savants and Philosophical Transactions. The few missing issues were added using other similar Hathi Trust collections. I entered all issues bearing references to my four protagonists into my NodeGoat database, identified all persons co-cited with my protagonists in these instances as good as possible, and also all publications cited therein which gave me lists like these here.

December issue of the Journal des Savants, 1782, Reference to Eusèbe Renaudot and co-citations

To fully explore these datasets will take me some time still, but I do already have some preliminary findings to share.

First: Comparability

There is an obvious imbalance between the two journals regarding coverage of my protagonists. The Journal des Savants returned 117 issues with matches, while the Philosophical Transactions returned 8. Yet this is obviously caused by their asymmetric schedules: While the Journal des Savants appeared weekly from the start and monthly later on, the Philosophical Transactions appeared once a year, or once every two years. So to make for a better comparison, the Philosophical Transactions issues cover 12 years between 1744 and 1771, while the Journal des Savants issues cover 54 years between 1702 und 1789. And while the Journal des Savants data set includes about 4,5 times as much issue material over time, these individual issues are richer in both references and co-citations than the Philosophical Transactions issues are, although the exact factor still has to be determined. Overall, the Journal des Savants was definitely much more interested in the results of my protagonists over time than the Philosophical Transactions ever were. Not that much of a surprise, one might say, given that both journals were active in different areas of knowledge production and that the Philosophical Transactions were much more interested in natural philosophy than in what we would today call humanities’ research (as I already discussed some time ago). So please keep this in mind for the following visualisations.

Second: Visualisations!

The combined datasets in full extensions: The complete network of references from 1702 until 1789. Directly visible: Three of my protagonists, Thomas Gale (bottom left quadrant), Adrien Reland (bottom right quadrant), and Eusèbe Renaudot (middle of top half) do have their quite separate circles of references with a shared overlap in the middle.
The full extension of the Journal des Savants dataset: The complete reference network from 1702 until 1789. Directly visible is a much weaker position of Thomas Gale (top right quadrant), and an enhanced position of Eusèbe Renaudot (bottom left quadrant).
Full extension of the Philosophical Transactions dataset. Directly visible is that it is much smaller, contains less references to authors (therefore smaller red circles), and that there is no connection between a shared reference network of Thomas Gale and Adrien Reland on the left and a much smaller Eusèbe Renaudot network on the right hand.

Moving pictures!

A diachronic visualisation of the combined datasets in (something like) moving ten-year-averages for the time in which they overlap, 1740 until 1779.
The Journal des Savants dataset in simple ten-year-averages from 1702 until 1789. The most interesting thing is that this dataset allows you to directly see the falling apart of a once shared reference network from the 1760s onwards. As this is precisely what I want to track and show in this project, I take this result for a preliminary proof of concept: It actually seems to work, if only within a certain framework as I already had supposed (cf. the combined dataset video where this does not become apparent).
And, last but not least, the ten-year-average visualisation of the Philosophical Transactions dataset also, which directly allows to see the huge differences between both journals regarding my protagonists.

To preliminary conclude

This rather fast overview over my first two completed data sets conveys two messages, I think: First of all that a rather more thorough exploration in terms of statistics and metrics is necessary to put my preliminary findings on a firmer basis, and second, that – and these are my preliminary findings for today – my system and framework actually does seem to work. While this is great, it poses a lot of new questions as to the framing: Can both data sets be acutally merged together as I did in the combined visualisations? Or are they so different that such combinations are of no use? And if they are, where do these differences come from? Different perspectives on science? National and/or confessional framings, as might be indicated by the very different weights of the English and Anglican Cleric Thomas Gale and of the French and Catholic Cleric Eusèbe Renaudot in both sets? Or something in between, or something third? 

Institutions vs. Forgetting

Friday No. 12, January 4th, 2019 (a real Friday post once again)

Individuals…

So far I have mostly tried to frame structural forgetting in terms of individual persons, of their acts or omissions. This corresponds with my deeply held conviction that individual persons are at the core of history, and tracing them therefore the first task set to any historical inquiry. But, unfortunately, individuals do not only act as individuals but have a tendency to coalesce into groups or collectives. Institutions might be thought of as structured collectives of individuals following that line of thought, as social (sub)systems might also. I always found Norbert Elias’s concept of figurations very helpful to come to terms with such supra-individual entities.[1]

…and Institutions

Now both institutions and social (sub)systems provide me with frames within which I conduct my research on structural forgetting, whether I like it or not – it is about forgetting scholars in the Humanities. Large parts of 18th to 20th century Western and Central European academia with all its peculiar institutions thus come into view and have to be accounted for, because they formed the environment the individuals I look at lived and acted in.

Social (sub)systems are characterized by specific memory practices.[2] One might even argue that they are constituted by memory practices, as they make stabilizing fleeting figurations of individuals into structured supra-individual entities possible over longer spaces of time. The same holds for institutions, on a smaller scale maybe. So both should be quite antithetical to forgetting as it might damage their very foundations. Which then prompts the question:

“If you are part of an institution, does this prevent you from being structurally forgotten?”

There are two possible ways to approach this question, the theoretical and the empirical. Let me give both a short try here (for the answers in both ways are much in the open still, at least for me).

1 – Theoretically…

The most basic observation regarding institutional memory practices is simply that they can never be exhaustive: No institution can structurally remember everything about itself. Memory practices therefore always include elements of forgetting by sorting out and discarding what is no longer relevant to the upkeep of the institution in question. An institution’s memory practices normally do not only entail information circulation but also storage and retrieval. What is deemed relevant is circulated; what is not (at the moment) deemed relevant is stored away where it can (probably) be retrieved again if need be, is no longer circulated, and, in consequence, is structurally forgotten. The larger and older an institution is, the more likely it is for any individual that took part in it to be sorted out and to be removed from circulation by being stored away. But the larger an institution is, the more capacities it may have to circulate those kinds of information it still sees as somehow relevant. The theoretical way to answer the question thus seems to be a definitive yes and no: Yes, you may be structurally forgotten even as a former part of an institution; and: No, if referring back to you is of importance to the institution, you might not be forgotten so easily. That said, structural forgetting and/or remembrance may even serve as an indicator of an individual’s importance to a given institution. But there is a hen-and-egg-problem coming along with this as well: Is an individual of importance because it was (and is) remembered, or was (and is) it remembered because it was important? And vice versa for forgetting. Seems like a typical example of scientific “Well, it’s not that easy to generalize…”

2 – Empirically…

Now do my four cases provide any illumination if sorted into this framework, as an empirical take on the question?

For Adrien Reland and Johannes Braun the answer seems to be deceptively simple. Both were professors at universities – Reland at Harderwijk and Utrecht, and Braun at Groningen. Harderwijk University does not exist anymore, which leaves Utrecht and Groningen to look at. At Utrecht there has some effort been made to keep Reland in the memory of the institution, but this is a development of the 19th century and subject to ups and downs (at the moment, it’s more on the upside). At Groningen Braun is mentioned but rates a poor second, not even a likeness of him survives. Both might be held to be, at least for most periods up until now, structurally forgotten by the institutions they once belonged to. This is nothing extraordinary, as most professors are. The typical university has had just way too many of them and remembers only some chosen few. The really intriguing questions now are: Why and how came these patterns observable today into being? What was the hen, and what the egg? 

So what about institutions with fewer members – which at least statistically raises the chances for any given individual to be remembered rather than forgotten – and individuals who once played key roles in these institutions?

This brings Eusèbe Renaudot and Thomas Gale into focus. Both served rather prestigious scientific institutions in important positions. Renaudot was a member of the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-lettres, founded in 1663, and was instrumental in the restructuring of the Academie early in the 18th century. Gale in turn was one of the early members of the English Royal Society, founded in 1660, and served as its secretary from 1679 to 1681 and from 1685 to 1693.

Now both institutions still exist – although one might argue that the Academie des Inscriptions has undergone more transformations during its history than the Royal Society – and both acknowledge their former members, Renaudot and Gale, publicly, yet not very prominently.  From the point of view of both institutions I would label both Gale and Renaudot structurally forgotten: The information is there, but it is out of circulation, stored away, and not easily retrieved.

At the moment I can’t say when these patterns emerged, much less how and why – this needs further enquiry. But what I can say is that in all four cases the institutions did not shield my protagonists from being structurally forgotten in the end. What remains to be studied is whether they had serious impacts on the processes of becoming structurally forgotten at all, and if, how and why. Still a bit of work to do, but the year is young.

 

[1] Elias, Norbert (2009): Was ist Soziologie?, 11th ed., Weinheim/Munich 2009, pp. 10–11.

[2] Sebald, Gerd; Weyand, Jan (2011): Zur Formierung sozialer Gedächtnisse. On the Formation of Social Memory. In: Zeitschrift für Soziologie 40 (3), pp. 174–189; see pp. 179–181.

Where journals lead, I shall follow…?

Saturday, December 21st, for Friday No. 11, December 20th, 2018

This is the last one! No, not the end, it’s just the last one for this year, as I’m off for vacation from – what was it – ah, now. But only until January 2nd, so come next year, come new research posts.

This should be a good time to reflect upon the state of the project so far. And to take some time to see what might still be changed for the better. So what I want to present you today is no fully-fledged piece of research but rather some thoughts on the limits of the project as it stands now.

What it’s all about

To sum it all up in a few lines again, my aim was (and is!) to work out the patterns that emerge as remembrance fades and structural forgetting sets in. More precisely, I wanted to show these patterns for the societal subset of what I call the academic metier, and for humanities’ scholars whose memory faded. To do so, I follow four specific scholars – Thomas Gale of Cambridge, Johannes Braun of Groningen, Adrien Reland of Utrecht, and Eusèbe Renaudot of Paris – and track the frequency of references to them across the centuries after their deaths. For when such references dwindle and their pattern changes from one of being frequently referenced to one of only intermittently being referenced, structural forgetting can be actually made visible.

This was my basic assumption at least, and I still think that it is sound in principle. I am using a relational database and network visualization program, NodeGoat, to gather my data and visualize them diachronically, and by now patterns really do start to emerge. The question now is: Which patterns are these?

References and framing categories

I already hinted at the problem of measuring the frequency of references to a dead scholar. Of course citations and quotations can be counted – but within which kind of frame? For early modern scholarly communication, there are basically three categories of materials still available for me: letters; publications (both manuscript and print); and journals. Everything else is either no longer extant or not available in accessible format. Perhaps auction catalogues provide something like a three-point-fifth category – they survive as printed books, so basically they are publications – but that is about it.

Letters…

Now each of these categories is tricky. Letters only survive in some cases, and in those cases then most often too many survive to make it possible to scan them all for metadata such as “mentions person X”. There are projects like Early Modern Letters Online, ePistolarium, Mapping the Republic of Letters, Electronic Enlightenment and such, but they either do not fit my timeframe or do not provide the information I am looking for. So while it is crucial to keep an eye on letters wherever possible, I cannot do so in a systematic way. Which means that I will only with great care be able to extract intermittent reference patterns from this part of my data set.

Publications…

Publications do survive in massive numbers, and in massive numbers are electronically available and searchable by now. Countless digitization projects have made available masses of material. Yet the masses produced are always larger still. There is still so much out there which is not digitized, and which I therefore would have to search in a library and go through manually, that I will not be able to establish a suitable framework for my reference patterns this way, too. Even if I reduced my research to a certain discipline, area, or language, it would still be an insurmountable task. And most of it would be very frustrating, too, because the majority of these books – by far! – would not contain any references to my four protagonists (and presumably the more so as I advance in time towards today). So while I will use all means of automatically extracting information from publications that there are to find references to my protagonists where I don’t expect them, I cannot claim to establish something like a representative sample this way.

Journals…

Which leaves me with journals, as it seems. And journals certainly do have many advantages compared to my other two sources types. First of all, they do survive in sufficiently complete form as to make general inferences possible. We know with great certainty which journals there were, and most of them survive. Second, they have been subject of lots of research by now, so that their relative importance and their outreach can be determined at least fairly well, and their workings and peculiarities are known to a large extent. Third, they are – at least the larger and more important ones – available in good editions, either in print or digitally, and thus searchable (via index or query). So I can draw up a sample of important journals for the fields, times, and places I am looking at, go through these journals, and have a data set which allows me to really infer reference frequencies for the first time. Or, given the only very partially comparable character of these early modern and 19th century learned journals, several data sets most probably. Reference spikes in the journals then would point me to the relevant developments in the reception of my protagonists.

Journals?

This does work. I found John Swinton this way (Philosophical Transactions are already done up to 1800, which was easier as thought because they only contain very few references of interest to me, fewer even than I thought they might). And, to give a less obvious example, I found the dead predikanten of the 1730s this way who by their obituaries gave occasion to reference Johannes Braun.

Everything alright, then? I frankly don’t know. It somehow doesn’t feel alright. I can only do a certain number of important journals, and I am not completely comfortable in just going where they point me. It feels a bit like being told what to do. And I am not sure if I want my enquiries directed by anonymous journalists three centuries gone. Well, time to think about it.

Have a good time, and see you next year!

Something like a parable

Friday No. 6, November 9th, 2018

Fairy tale time! Today I will tell you a strange story of a man who survived all revolutions, of how he did so, what this has to do with my topic of structural forgetting, and whether there is a moral at the end of this story (or not). Only that this time, the story is real.

Revolution No. 1

The protagonist of this tale was a Frenchman – that’s one of the reasons that took me to Paris these days – and went by the name of Louis-Charles Solvet, born in Paris on the 6th Brumaire of the Year IV, or on October 28th, 1795, as you would rather have it. He was the son of Pierre-Louis Solvet (1772–1847), bookseller, and Anne Marie Charlotte Lemoine.[1] In 1812 the young Louis-Charles joined Bonaparte’s imperial army, and until 1813 advanced into a regiment of the imperial guards. In 1814 he quitted service, apparently just in time to survive his first revolution (the guards may not surrender, but quitting seems to have been alright). He began to work as a private secretary, until in 1827 he was able to get a job in the royal French administration. Solvet entered the service of the king as a lawyer at the royal court, and in 1829 had advanced to the post of secretary general of the departement of Oise.

Revolution No. 2

The revolution of 1830 may have cost him his job, but fortunately nothing else besides, as it seems. In any case he felt the need to explain about this first demission from state service in the reports in his personnel record file. Some reports signed by Solvet state as reasons for him resigning “The revolution of 1830 and [that I was] my duty’s lover, what has happened not so rarely.”[2] In other versions, the explicit reference to the revolution of 1830 is dropped, and he only stated “[That I was] my duty’s lover, what has happened not so rarely amidst great changes.”[3] Having however survived his second revolution, he just applied again for a post in the state administration, and obviously got one, for in 1832 he was deputy crown prosecutor in Vassy, and in 1834 in Soissons. So his ‘love of duty’ might well have been a move to explain why he had changed coats so quickly. But there must have been more than a grain of truth in it also; he never married, and his superior’s assessments stated things like “zeal: tireless.”[4]

Assessments from Solvet’s personal file, 1861

Did I mention forgetting?

So far, so good, and a not unremarkable career that Louis-Charles Solvet had already made at that point, being 39 years old by now. But there has not much been about forgotten scholars in the story so far, and I promised there would be. And in indeed there was a connection between the learning which had been produced by the likes of Reland, Braun, Gale, and Renaudot, and the life and times of Solvet. During the 1820s, when he was still a private secretary, Solvet had studied in Paris, graduating in 1827. He had turned his attention not only to law but also to a subject somewhat fashionable at the time, namely Arabic. Obviously he was quite talented, for having studied under Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy (1758–1838) he had not only passed his exams with distinctions but a bit later, in 1829, also published a collected translation of Arabic sources which won some critical acclaim. With this work, entitled “Instituts du droit mahométan sur la guerre avec les infidèles”, ‘Institutions of Muslim law for the war against the unbelievers”, Louis-Charles Solvet had not only joined his two fields of interest. He also had commended himself for higher posts, as one French observer put it.[5] He really had, and his publication directly pinpoints for which kind of posts. When the French holdings secured on the North African coast in the wake of the first French intervention in Algier in 1830 were administratively restructured in 1834, Solvet successfully applied to be posted there. He was appointed judge for the French North African possessions.

Colonial aspirations

In Algier he settled into French colonial society, only that Algeria at this time still was no French colony. France only commanded some outposts. But some of the French in Algeria, as, for instance, a certain Louis-Charles Solvet, saw it as their mission to change this. In 1838 Solvet was listed on the title page of one of his publications as vice-president of the “Scociéte coloniale” of Algiers,[6] a position in which he campaigned for a more thorough French grip on the land. In the same year of 1838, he finally published a second translation, this time from Latin to French: An edition of Adrien Relands “De jure militari mohammedanorum contra christianos bellum gerendum”, which had been published among Relands collected dissertations in 1708.[7] Solvet’s version went as “Institutions du droit mahométan relatives à la guerre sainte” from the government’s press in Algiers, something official permission by the minister of war was necessary for. Solvet had applied for this successfully in 1837,[8] as his translation was intended to be something like a manual for French soldiers, to mentally arm them for the coming colonial war that French expansionists envisioned. They should know what to expect from a Muslim enemy.[9] Whether Reland’s very scholarly and sober philological commentary on Muslim legal provisions for the jihad might have actually been of any help in this case I would consider as highly doubtful. 

Revolution No. 3

But Solvet not only claimed that in a situation such as his – and the French in general – in a foreign country faced with potentially enemy Muslims Reland’s commentary quite naturally resurged from his memory.[10] It really might have been yet one more stepping stone for his administrative career afterwards. For when in 1840 the war that Solvet longed for finally started, he in the wake rose to the post of counsellor at the royal court (in 1842). A position in which he, perhaps not too surprisingly given his former luck in such circumstances, survived his third revolution, that of 1848. Though no longer a royal counsellor he still had his judicial post, and in 1850 was accepted as chevalier de la Legion d’honneur. It is not entirely clear why, because his file has not survived in the records of the Legion, but from his personnel file it seems that his long-time services in the colonial administration were the reason.[11] The family actually had a stroke of luck there, for his almost twenty-two years younger brother Jean-Alphonse Solvet (1817–1896) also was dubbed chevalier de la Legion d’honneur in 1880 for his services to the Paris magistrate as long-time secretaire général of the 7th arrondissement.[12]

Revolution No. 4 1/2 

But back to Louis-Charles Solvet: The coup d’etat of Louis Napoleon in 1852 – which was not really a revolution – he survived, too, only to become president of the chamber of the imperial court of Algiers in 1862. He died in Algiers in 1868, which but deprived him of his chance to finally also survive the fall of the Second Empire.

Did I mention my theses?

This is a story which seems to be a good proof for my general thesis that there is nothing like an innocent reference. If one refers to one’s predecessors, one does that for one’s own benefit, otherwise one would not do so. In the case of Solvet it is clearly visible how he applied his talents and crafts to make those references which fitted the social and political climate of the France of his times, allowing him to rise through all mutations of the French state to the rather high post he held in the end, and gratifying him with seeing his colonial visions fulfilled during his lifetime. It is highly probable that he had picked up his knowledge about Reland during his Arabic studies in 1820s Paris, most probably from his readings of George Sale’s (c.1696–1736) translation of the Coran, as he himself claimed later.[13] A couple of years later in North Africa, he took the opportunity to establish those connections between him and these scholars and their publications which would benefit him, and successfully so.

Solvet’s signature from his 1865 request to continue on his post.

The morale of it all (if there is one)

Now the point of the whole story is that notwithstanding all acclaims which his publications got during his lifetime, today Louis-Charles Solvet has plunged even deeper into oblivion than Reland whom he used to advance his career. Perhaps this became already visible in 1865, when his secretary Pierry filed two requests to the Keeper of Seals, the French minister of the interior, to elevate Solvet from his 3rd grade rank of Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur to the 2nd grade rank of Officier. Pierry explicitly mentioned Solvet’s scientific activities on a par with his contributions to the colonial administration. The superimposed note on the second request only reads: “Spoken with Mr. Lent. Respond negatively.”[14] And although I do have some ideas of why that would be so, I am not sure yet – and neither if there is a morale to the story or not. So feel free to decide that for yourself, and please keep me posted! I will.


[1] Archives Nationales, Paris, LH/2533/33, Dossier du Jean-Alphonse Solvet, p. 5.

[2] Archives Nationales, Paris BB/6 (II)/396, Ministère de la justice: Notice individuelle 1861, 1859, Etat des Services: „Cause de la cessation du service: revolution de 1830 et officii amator mei, ut non raro accidit.“

[3] Archives Nationales, Paris, BB/6 (II)/396, Ministère de la justice: Notice individuelle 1863, Etat des Services: „Cause de la cessation du service: Officii amator mei, ut non raro accidit magna rerum commutatione”, signed Ch. Solvet, Algiers, July 15th, 1863.

[4] Archives Nationales, Paris, BB/6 (II)/396, Ministère de la justice: Notice individuelle 1861, Renseignements confidentiels: “Zèle: infatigable.”

[5] G. T.: 10. Instituts du droit mahométan sur la guerre sainte avec les infidèles, ou Extraits du livre d’Abou-l-hoçain-Ahmed-elKodouri, et de celui de Séid-Ali-el-Hamadani, traduits de l’arabe en français; par Ch. SoLvet. In-8° de 4o p. Paris, 1829; Dondey-Dupré. in: Bulletin general et universel des annonces et des nouvelles scientifiques, publie sous la direction du baron de Ferussac, 13, 09/1829, pp. 11-12; p. 12.

[6] Solvet, Louis-Charles: Voyage à “la Rassauta” [en Algérie], lettre à M. A… député, Marseille 1838, title: “vice-président de la société coloniale d’Alger”.

[7] Reland, Adrien; Solvet, Louis-Charles (transl.):  Institutions du droit mahométan relatives à la guerre sainte. Dissertation de Hadrien Reland, traduite du latin en francais par Ch. Solvet, Algier: Imprimerie du Gouvernement 1838; Reland, Adrien: Hadriani Relandi Dissertationum miscellanearum pars tertia, et ultima, Utrecht: Broedelet 1708.

[8] Archives Nationales, Paris, BB/6 (II)/396, Secretariat du Government des possessions francaises dans le nord de l’Afrique to the Minister of War, August 12th, 1837.

[9] Reland, Adrien; Solvet, Louis-Charles (transl.):  Institutions du droit mahométan relatives à la guerre sainte. Dissertation de Hadrien Reland, traduite du latin en francais par Ch. Solvet, Algier: Imprimerie du Gouvernement 1838, p iii: “enfin qu’elle contribuerait à faire mieux comprendre les préjugés et le genie des peuples que nous avons a combattre.”

[10] Reland, Adrian; Solvet, Louis-Charles (transl.):  Institutions du droit mahométan relatives à la guerre sainte. Dissertation de Hadrien Reland, traduite du latin en francais par Ch. Solvet, Algier: Imprimerie du Gouvernement 1838, p ii.

[11] Archives Nationales, Paris, BB/6 (II)/396, Extrait de la partie individuelle de Mr. Solvet, Conseiller à la cour d’appel de Alger, June 1850.

[12] Archives Nationales, Paris, LH/2533/33, Dossier du Jean-Alphonse Solvet, p. 7.

[13] Reland, Adrian; Solvet, Louis-Charles (transl.):  Institutions du droit mahométan relatives à la guerre sainte. Dissertation de Hadrien Reland, traduite du latin en francais par Ch. Solvet, Algier: Imprimerie du Gouvernement 1838, p. ii.

[14] Archives Nationales, Paris, BB/6 (II)/396, Pierry to Mr. Garde du Sceaux, Algiers, December 12th, 1865.

A not-so-regular update: 19th century Dutch-German memory crossings

Friday N°2 plus one (Saturday), October 13th, 2018

First lesson learned

Regularly scheduled updates may become difficult once family matters have to be reckoned with. As I was on the road with the kids yesterday as promised centuries ago, I subsequently deliver my update today. And promise to be punctual from now on. But now let’s move on to the interesting things.

What’s new?

As I am following my trails into the 19th century – treading on unfamiliar terrain here, so moving on cautiously – I have recently stumbled upon two interesting Dutch figures and an even more interesting memory crossings. But let me start from the beginning: Last Wednesday I proposed that references are the building blocks for structural remembrance –  or forgetting. But references do not just pop up and float around; they are made by specific people with a specific purpose each time. Which means that, to put it shortly, structural forgetting comes into being through mass omission: by references not being made, connections not being drawn, names not being dropped. And to be able to discern this, I have to make use of those – fewer – references that are still being made, and to use them like little spotlights in the dark: To draw clues about where to look next.

Now I had discovered long ago already a curious case of referencing and non-referencing of two of my protagonists: Adrien Reland (1676-1718) and Johannes Braun (Braunius, 1628-1708). While Reland had an entry in the ADB, the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, Braun had none. Not very interesting, where it not for the fact that there was no reason to include Reland into the ADB while Braun might well have been. For the aim of the General German Biography was to collect the biographies of the most important persons from the German-speaking areas of Europe from the early Middle Ages up until the 19th century when it was written. Now Braun was born in Kaiserslautern in 1628 and lived there until the burning of the city during the Thirty Years’ War, after which the rest of the family moved to the Netherlands. Being of German extraction, he would have made good ADB material. Reland in turn was born in 1676 in De Rijp, north of Leeuwarden in Western Frisia, and had no German family background. So, why include one but not the other? For such selections are the stuff structural forgetting is made of. One referenced, one not; one remembered, one not. Unfortunately that question cannot be answered directly, as the ADB archive is missing since decades and we frankly do not know how those who were portrayed were selected. We do know from a number of examples, however, that the editors could be quite generous in determining the ‘German-speaking area’ from which the biographies were to be drawn. What to do now? Well, when questions cannot be tackled directly, do it in a roundabout way.

Enter the first Dutch scholar

Jacob Cornelis van Slee

I already knew from other inquiries that there was one author who had portrayed some early  modern Dutch scholars for the ADB. Perhaps this would give something like a clue? And indeed it does, and this is where the first of the two 19th century Dutch scholars I announced above enters the stage. Jakob Cornelis van Slee (1841-1929), predikant in Deventer and part-time historian specialising in church history and history of knowledge with a local focus, wrote 205 entries. Most of them are about Dutchmen, and all situated within the history of church and theology – befitting a preacher, one might say. Now Slee accurately saw to it that he did not portray anyone born after 1648, the date of formal Dutch independence from the Holy Roman Empire. Which would provide good reason why he did not include Reland himself; that entry was written by Richard Hoche (1834-1906). But why did Slee not reference Braun, who was born before 1648, spent most of his life in the Netherlands, and was professor for theology at Groningen university? A question that becomes even more interesting as Braun was suspected of unorthodox views, accused of being a Spinozist, and Slee obviously had something of an interest for such people, having written a history of Socinianism in the Netherlands in 1914. And how came Slee’s connection to the ADB about? Well, as material about him is quite sparse, I am going to the sources next week and have a look at what’s left of his materials in the Stadsarchief and the Athenaeumbibliotheek Deventer. The hunt is on!

Exit Slee, enter a German scholar

Now to Richard Gottfried Hoche who wrote the ADB entry on Reland. Biographical information concerning him is even harder to come by, but he was director of a Hamburg gymnasium, then became head of the Hamburg education authority, and published some works about classical philology and Roman mathematics. He wrote 183 entries for the ADB, for the most part about philologists, teachers, and scholars from somewhere between the 16th to the 19th century. He most likely picked Reland because he also was a philologist, and Hoche had no problems in including Dutch philologists, no matter if born after 1648 (see for instance his entry on Jakob Perizonius (1651-1715), a close contact of Reland). Now Braunius was neither a teacher nor a philologist in the strict sense of the word, but he was a scholar with strong philological interests pertaining to biblical Hebrew. So Hoche could have included him in principle, but he did not. I did not yet find out if any materials from Hoche have survived, but this is on the list. And will not be forgotten.

Exit Hoche, enter the second Dutch scholar

Willem Boele Sophius Boeles

If Braun was not mentioned by both Slee and Hoche, perhaps this just to be taken as a sign that he was, already at the time, quite definitely forgotten? Perhaps this is the case. But at least one 19th century Dutch author did lose a few words about him, and that is the second Dutch scholar I promised. It is Willem Boele Sophius Boeles (1832-1902) who was president of the Leeuwarden Court of Law and part-time historian, specialising in church history and history of knowledge with a local focus (sounds familiar? Yes, he and Slee might make for a good comparison couple). He wrote zero articles for the ADB, but among his many publications there is a biographical compendium of the professors of Groningen university – where Boeles himself had studied law – from 1864 which, of course (this time), features Braun as the Groningen professor he was. Boeles later wrote about the history of Franeker university also, and about some individual scholars whose memory he wanted to keep alive. Slee had done the same for the Deventer Athenaeum, and for those individual scholars whose memory he wanted to be upheld. So Boeles will be worth a closer look too, to find out more about why 19th century Dutch scholars as these referred back to their predecessors in the way they did, and why and how Johannes Braun and Adrien Reland became tangled up in this. Work to do!

Is there something like Structural Forgetting?

„So really the notion of forgetting on a societal scale is to suggest two things: first, that the collective representations held knowledge about the matter in general for all competent participants; and second, that the knowledge was progressively lost.“[1]

Is there something like ‚Structural Forgetting‘? And if there is: what’s it like? People forget; you all know the feeling. But do societies forget?

The question if a community can be affected by the same phenomenon as an individual is first of all one of language. The metaphor is engaging and easily applied; but is it apt? If it is taken to indicate, albeit implicitly, a biologist similarity between communities and individuals and to construct communities as meta-organisms, it would be misleading.[2]  The only way to make the association functional is to bring it to a functional level. Structural forgetting will only provide a useful analytical term if a functional analogy between individual human beings and communities in regard to storing information and providing for its disposability is proposed. Such a “prosthetic memory”[3] is long established and intuitively plausible. Communities do have mechanisms to store information that is not needed at the moment and to retrieve it again if needed. If such information becomes inaccessible, the process is analogous to individual forgetting.  

But this is not yet a very distinct concept. How to craft this into an analytically useful tool?

Information circulation: any piece of information X circulates by being referenced

As individuals, we know that we have forgotten something when we become aware that there once was something we knew which is not accessible to us at the moment, wherever it may be. I know I once learned my Latin vocabulary, but more often than not I have to look up the words now. And as I do, I remember again. If I however would be charged with using them frequently – having a large stack of Latin sources on my desk to go through – they would stick again after a while. From a functional point of view, the heart of the matter seems to be the frequency with which information is recalled, or circulated. For each piece of information X such a frequency could, in theory, be established – if I cared to count me looking up a Latin phrase, for example.

Continuous referencing to any piece of information X: X is remembered

And this is no different from the situation communities are presented with. Information that is often recalled, which means that it is in circulation through media by being referenced, is present, is easily accessible – or, is structurally ‘remembered’. Elena Esposito has proposed a similar reading of Niklas Luhmann when she argued that remembrance equals a recursiveness of operations which holds pieces of information present through repetition. Repetition produces redundancy, and redundant information is what is remembered by the system.[4] Without going into systems theory now, let’s move on to the practical problems.

If remembering is a function of information frequency, forgetting can be rephrased as a function of information frequency, too – one that indicates X to be so infrequently referenced that its status changes from ‘present’ to ‘absent’ information. “Forgetting” is more adequately phrased as a kind of threshold then: If the frequency with which X is referenced is lower than Z, X is forgotten.[5] Oliver Dimbath has advanced the concept of “information half-life” in this context: Once the frequency of X being referenced drops to half of peak level, it is forgotten.[6] For any historiographical inquiry, this will be impossible to establish if not framed very carefully to certain regions, time spans, media, and groups – and even then be fraught with the imponderabilities of source loss.

Information circulation is complex: how to frame it?

Intermittant referencing pattern: X is forgotten

I would thus like to propose another criterion for labelling X as forgotten: X is (structurally) forgotten if the pattern of references to X becomes intermittent. That is, if we see a pattern of alternating phases of no references to X and X being referenced (no matter how the frequency within such phases is), X is only occasionally recalled and not readily present.

While this solves the problem of quantifying frequencies, it admittedly does not do away with the framing problem. How any piece of information X is referred to is dependent on the context in which this happens, and circulation of information is only a meaningful term if we can establish a circuit in which this happens. Steven Shapin already brought this up more than twenty years ago:

“Society – including the specialist societies of scientists – might properly be regarded as a distribution of knowledge, just as the very idea of knowledge depended upon the social relations of knowers.”[7]

So framing needs to be the next step. After having discussed about structural forgetting, of course!


[1] Connerton, Paul (2013): How modernity forgets. 3rd printing. Cambridge (UK), New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 47.

[2] Cf. Assmann, Aleida (2004): Vergessene Texte: Zur Einführung. In: Aleida Assmann und Michael C. Frank (Hg.): Vergessene Texte. Konstanz: Universitätsverlag Konstanz (Texte zur Weltliteratur, 5), pp. 9 22; p. 15.

[3] Olick, Jeffrey K. (1999): Collective Memory: The Two Cultures. In: Sociological Theory 17 (3), pp. 333–348; p. 342.

[4] Esposito, Elena (2002): Soziales Vergessen. Formen und Medien des Gedächtnisses der Gesellschaft. Aus dem Italienischen von Alessandra Corti. Mit einem Nachwort von Jan Assmann. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, p. 24; similiar observations in Berger, Peter L.; Luckmann, Thomas (2010): Die gesellschaftliche Konstruktion der Wirklichkeit. Eine Theorie der Wissenssoziologie. 23rd printing. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, p. 166.

[5] Cf. Werber, Niels (2004): Vergessen / Erinnern. Die andere Seite der Gedächtniskunst. In: Günter Butzer und Manuela Günter (ed.): Kulturelles Vergessen–Medien, Rituale, Orte. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (Formen der Erinnerung, vol. 21), pp. 81–98; p. 84; and Groebner, Valentin (2014): Wissenschaftssprache digital. Die Zukunft von gestern. Paderborn: Konstanz University Press (Essay [KUP]), p. 103.

[6] Dimbath, Oliver (2014): Oblivionismus. Vergessen und Vergesslichkeit in der modernen Wissenschaft. Konstanz: UVK (Soziologie), p. 252.

[7] Shapin, Steven (1995): Here and Everywhere. Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. In: Annual Review of Sociology 21, pp. 289–321; p. 302.