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Welcome to the Journal of the Northern RenaissanceJNR is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal dedicated to the study of the full variety of early modern Northern European cultural practices. We place a special emphasis upon questioning the derivation of our inherited paradigms and upon exploring alternative conceptualisations, geographies and periodisations of the Renaissance.

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12. Communities and Margins in Early Modern Scotland (2021)
___Guest-edited by Laura Doak and Rebecca Mason: read their editorial here.
11. Imagineering Violence (2020)
___Guest-edited by Cornelis van der Haven and Karel Vanhaesebrouck: read their editorial here.

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Harry Newman, Impressive Shakespeare (Routledge, 2019) ~ reviewed by Juliet Fleming
☞  G. Guidicini, Triumphal Entries and Festivals in Early Modern Scotland (Brepols, 2020) ~ reviewed by Michael Bath
☞  A. McRae and P. Schwyzer (eds), Poly-Olbion: New Perspectives (Boydell & Brewer, 2020) ~ reviewed by Sukanya Dasgupta

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☞    Doppelgänger Dilemmas? Anglo-Dutch relations in the early modern period ~ Martine Julia van Ittersum
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☞   Symposium for Seventeenth-Century Scottish Literature ~ report
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Holly Dugan, The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011)

Holly Dugan, The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4214-0234-5. Hbk $65

Reviewed by Sally Pointer

[1]  Focussing on early modern English evidence, Dugan argues that ‘smell is culturally and biologically central to human life, yet it often seems enigmatic’ and stresses the role that metaphors play in the material history of smell. She argues that they function as a ‘historical archive of sensation’, and explores the diverse vocabulary of the period (5). Many of these words are no longer in current use: we no longer describe objects as civeted or ambered, though we might recognise the intent behind the description. Other terms are entirely unfamiliar—to describe something as halited, smeeked, or suffite today would get you a blank look in most cases. Tracing the experience of smell allows a unique insight into the everyday world of the English Renaissance.

[2]  The tone is scholarly, particularly in the introductory chapter where Dugan provides plentiful references to academic discussion and theory. The result is thought provoking, challenging the reader from the start to question how our modern assumptions about smell affect our understanding of smell, and its effects, in previous generations.

[3]  Six aromas dispersed in various ways in specific places are focussed on: the scent of incense in church, rosewater at court, sassafras in the contact zone, rosemary in the household, ambergris in luxury shopping markets and jasmine in pleasure gardens. To explore these, evidence is drawn from manuscripts and recipes to anatomies, herbals, gardening manuscripts, pomanders, censers and even prosthetic noses. Balancing each ingredient against a method of dispensing it and the environment in which it would be encountered, Dugan weaves together the evidence to create an understanding of both the scent itself and the world in which it was experienced.

[4]  In Chapter 1, ‘Censing god’, the association of scent with divinity is explored with specific reference to frankincense, investigating its uses both in organised religious practice and in secular interaction with religion. The overlap between ‘censing and sensing’ is illustrated through reference to religious plays and their use of aromatics both as dramatic props and as ways of conveying the nature and concerns of the key characters.

[5]  Rosewater is the focus of Chapter 2, highlighting the way in which Henry VIII and Elizabeth I used luxury goods to reinforce their role and position. We are invited to view the damask rose, newly cultivated in England, as the sensory embodiment of the Tudor Rose emblem, and the process of distillation as both a transformation and an olfactory expression of the understanding of kingship in the sixteenth century. In contrast to the previous chapter, the use of aromatics is also seen in firmly earthy scenarios, as accessories to erotic dalliance and a part of contriving a public image and indeed a national identity. As people start perfuming their bodies more, the smell of one’s body becomes firmly linked with sensual pleasure.

[6]  Chapter 3, ‘Discovering Sassafras’, addresses how reports of the New World written by explorers in the 1580s stressed the strong sensory impressions created by the fragrant vegetation and dramatically varied environment. Sassafras is chosen here to represent the aromatic botanical riches sought and traded over vast distances.  Prized as a potential cure for syphilis, it paradoxically also conjured associations with luxury and sensuous perfumery due to its distinctive aroma. Behind the trade in sassafras is a story of hope in its potential as a panacea, of hardship for those that sought and shipped it, and of the interactions of the Anglo-Indian contact zone.

[7]  In Chapter 4, ‘Smelling Disease’, Dugan writes, ‘the presence of any strong smell was a reminder of how the body was vulnerable to its environment and to unseen influences circulating within it’ (89). Exploring theories about the dangers of breathing ‘dangerous’ air during outbreaks of plague and other disease, we examine rosemary and its mixed role both as a symbol of promise and as a preventative of death. Sensory perception of foulness carried real as well as perceived dangers and was thus a matter for great concern in the early modern period. Miasmas were dangerous, and perfumes offered potential prevention or cure, though the user must also take care not to fall foul of the moral culpability associated with the use of exotic scents.

[8]  The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries saw a vogue for perfumed gloves which had a profound impact on the economics of the perfume industry and also on how perfume was conveyed from wearer to nose. Most luxurious of all was expensive ambergris, and in Chapter 5, Dugan offers evidence to show that its use was widespread both professionally and in more domestic contexts. Gloves indicated rank and power whether perfumed or not. The social and political niceties of their manufacture, use, and giving, allows us to explore many facets of society whilst also observing the emergence of the perfumes and luxury goods markets.

[9]  The desire of the jaded city populace for a fragrant garden paradise of their own introduces the scent of jasmine and its role both in poetic and real pleasure gardens and potpourris, explored in Chapter 6. Coming into our story relatively late both in time and as the closing focus aroma of the book, jasmine represents both bucolically natural, and artificially eroticised, aroma. Sex and perfume have a long partnership, and Dugan explores the realms of seductive olfactory delight with reference to the many diversions of the seventeenth century pleasure garden and the function of the potpourri vase in domestic interiors, both defining sensual spaces.

[10]  Dugan’s concluding pages consider Linnaeus and the effect of the methodological taxonomic approach on previous theories of olfaction and aromatic substances. Her studies of the ephemeral history of perfume cover several centuries of changing attitudes to scent, and explore a variety of material objects. Dugan considers both the relative futility and the meditative value of attempting to recreate scent to experience it as the people cited in this book did centuries ago, no matter how we try, ‘the world has changed and we along with it, musks and all’ (187).

[11]  This book is both a useful scholarly reference and a genuinely interesting read. I had thought I was well read in the subject of European Renaissance perfumery, but I found plenty of material that was new to me and discovered fresh insights into otherwise familiar sources. Perhaps most importantly, this book challenges the reader to reassess material they felt they knew well and to look for evidence of scent as not only a product and as a metaphor in its own right but also as a way of gaining insights into some of the key concerns and changing attitudes of this period of history and as a way of exploring how our own analytical approaches and ideas about olfactory stimulus have changed over time.

September 2012

Ann M. Blair, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (Yale University Press, 2010)

Ann M. Blair, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-300-16539-5 416 pp. Pbk $25

Reviewed by Alexandrina Buchanan

[1]  Who has never thought T.M.I. (too much information) – a common retort to modern modes of confession? Yet contemporary awareness of information overload extends beyond the introduction of formerly ‘private’ information into the public sphere. The use of email for communication, the emergence of the Web as a resource for the storage and retrieval of information and that ability to self-publish and store information in ever-expanding volumes have transformed our daily lives. Whilst we continue to rely on the written word, these changes also require us to mistrust it. Most undergraduate courses include some form of ‘study skills’, designed to teach students that there is more to research than Google and Wikipedia. Instead they are initiated into the traditional scholarly techniques of note-taking, referencing and compiling bibliographies, and are shown the scholarly resources designed to help their studies: reference books, catalogs, indexes etc. Yet, at the same time, the new ‘Digital Humanities’ aims to develop new methods to take advantage of the digital research environment. We are thus at a point of transition from a world where, with the human assistance of indexers, cataloguers and those ‘expert readers’ who write reviews and encyclopaedia entries, scholars can reasonably hope to be aware of everything defined as being ‘in their field’, to a world in which the expanded archive makes this hope unachievable.Ann Blair employs our sense that we are embarking on new territory, in which scholarship has transformed from learning facts to developing search strategies, to give contemporary relevance to her fascinating study of scholarship in a similarly transitional era. Too Much to Know focuses on sixteenth and seventeenth-century Europe, when printing transformed the information ecology. It examines how contemporary scholars and, especially, the publishers who made their living from adding to the bibliographical flood, sought to control the deluge of books by developing tools to manage the knowledge they contained. Information is here defined not as raw data but as something already digested and communicated, generally contained in book-shaped objects. Blair explores how such knowledge (from the Bible, the Church Fathers, the Classics and modern scholarship) was liberated from its original context and repackaged for potential re-use. Priority is given to textual bibliographical materials: archives, museums, herbaria, cabinets of curiosities and other information resources are mentioned but not explored, also absent are other means of compiling and disseminating data through print, such as maps and atlases, tables and graphs etc. For these, the reader might turn to Daniel R Headrick’s When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700-1850 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[2]  Despite its restrictions, the book is itself an example of the practices (and problems) discussed. It is both thesaurus and florilegium, a treasury of erudite details derived from the author’s impressively extensive reading: it is telling that the bibliography, at 58 pages, is one fifth as long as the main text (and would likely extend to a quarter if printed in the same sized font). Opened at random, the book intrigues the researcher with examples, both described and illustrated, with the use of images, albeit limited, adding enormously to the value of the work. This is not to say that there are no underpinning arguments but the mass of information is often so overwhelming that only a disciplined reader can tease them out. Faced with this challenge, one wonders whether the linear structure of traditional historiography is inadequate to Blair’s project, forcing her into creating narrative links where the branching structure of the ‘Ramist’ diagram (whose most complex genealogy is discussed), or even the random linkages of the internet would be more appropriate. The book is arranged to move from the theoretical (the concept of information management), to the practical (information resources, such as notes and published reference genres), to the personal and societal (making visible the work of the creators of reference works and their impact). Each of the five chapters has multiple sub-divisions, which could usefully have been listed on the Contents page.

[3]  Although parallels with the modern world are regularly drawn, Blair is also alert to the risk of anachronism. Nevertheless she is wary of claiming her chosen temporal and geographical range as unique, demonstrated by the inclusion of ‘A Comparative Interlude’, making reference to Byzantium, Islam and China. Although the function of this comparison within her argument is clear, these are not her own areas of specialism and the potentially artificial interlude rather adds to the sense of information overload. Byzantium had ceased to exist by the period of Blair’s focus; Islam is not a place or time but a religion, such that a more meaningful comparison might be with how Christianity (rather than researchers within a particular spatial and temporal framework, who were culturally but not necessarily professionally Christian) managed to deal with information from outside its own core texts, whilst comparison with China seems predicated on its use of print technology, though this is not stated and, without moveable type, the technological similarities are limited. Taken as a whole, the comparisons seem closer than the contrasts, leading to a sense that there has never been a time or place when humans have not experienced information fatigue. Whether this sense of plus ça change is helpful, in a work focused on a specific historical context, is debateable, but certainly demonstrates that similar perceptions can be matched to very different circumstances and that contemporary pronouncements should not therefore be accepted at face value.

[4]  One of the welcome aspects of the breadth of Blair’s coverage is that it reveals that many of the practices she describes have earlier origins. Too often, renaissance or early modern specialists accept contemporary evaluations of their period and overlook any dependence on medieval practices. Likewise, whilst accepting that the advent of print transformed the scholarly environment, Blair’s account acknowledges the inter-dependence of print and manuscript. Her study is also pan-European in coverage, recognising the internationalism of scholarly networks in which northern Europe plays a role equally important to Italy. Blair’s research represents an archaeology of the book which extends beyond the codex to the underlying intellectual practices involved in research and writing, and the physical contexts in which these took place. As such, it offers a valuable example of modern intellectual history, integrating production with reception and asking important (if not entirely original) questions about both. How should we interpret surviving ‘notes’ and what is their relationship to knowledge experiences? How were manuscript notes shared and communicated – how ‘private’ was personal research? To what extent can citation be used as evidence of reading (or is an intermediary text, such as an encyclopaedia involved)? How should notions of ‘authorship’ be reconfigured to incorporate the unoriginal, but essential, scholarship involved in compilation, classification and summary?

[5]  What Blair’s book reveals most powerfully is that facing up to the challenge of the print environment mattered. The sheer numbers of scholars included, from big names like Erasmus to the obscure and often anonymous amanuenses; the wide variety of techniques involved and their spread and longevity is well evidenced from original manuscript material. Here we have the literal confirmation of the ‘scissors and paste’ scholarship R. G. Collingwood condemned, side by side with the more mobile methods of card indexes and the envy-inducing note closet designed to classify note-slips according to over 3,000 headings. Such endeavours took time and effort and must have shaped the way the literate thought. Yet we should also be aware that not everyone was comfortable with the new methods. As archivist at The Clothworkers’ Company in London, I was faced with contemporary indexes to books of Court Orders which not only referred to subjects by their chronology within the Clothworker-specific Master’s Year (beginning the Monday after the Sunday of, or after, the Feast of the Assumption in August) but included entries such as ‘A letter’, logically – but unhelpfully – filed under ‘A’. Whether such incongruities affected the corporate memory or daily management of the Company, however, remains unknown. Doubtless every reader, with an interest in this field will be prompted to ask similar questions, and will thus owe Blair a debt of gratitude for her thought-provoking account.

University of Liverpool, September 2012