Patterns of Early Modern Authorship: Using Metadata as Historical Record

paper, specified "long paper"
  1. 1. Mark J. Hill

    University of Helsinki

  2. 2. Tanja Säily

    University of Helsinki

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This paper makes use of complex bibliographic metadata – the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) – to create a dataset which is analysed with quantitative tools in a way allowing for novel insights into historical perceptions of authorship and the structural backdrop for them. In doing this it demonstrates the relevance of both these tools and datasets for humanistic research.

Historical conceptions of authorship, despite perhaps initially seeming obvious in meaning, are far from clear. Theories of authorship have evolved from the Romantic “isolated, originary author”, through the Foucauldian author as a discursive formation, to the New Bibliography’s definitional idea of authorship attribution, and finally to a point where scholarship has come to regard “authorship and the status of the author not as ahistorical givens but as contingent constructs and institutions whose changing shapes represent responses to particular social, cultural, and economic pressures” (Hirschfeld, 2001: 610). Recent research into the early modern period (Kastan, 2002; Feather, 2011) builds upon this perspective by emphasizing the role of the book trade in the development of the concept of authorship. Dobranski (2014: 3), for example, highlights the paradox of the “author’s growing symbolic presence versus early modern writers’ limited practical authority”; while authors were increasingly named in publications, which sometimes even included a likeness and biographical information, they did not have control over the publication itself. It was the publishers – and, to some extent, printers, booksellers, and other actors in the book trade – who controlled publication, decided which details about authors to print, owned the copyright, and reaped most of the financial benefits. In this way, one could not be an author without being part of a more complicated network of actors within the book trade.
The relationships between authors and these other book trade actors were not abstract. By a large margin, the majority of early modern publications in English came from London, and the book trade was made up of unique interconnected networks (Raven, 2007: 155–157). Even internationally, London played a key role in the book trade – as publishing established itself within North America, imports from Britain increased more quickly than domestic production (Green, 2009). Thus, the importance of the changing historical relationships which made up the book trade as a whole cannot be ignored when examining authorship as a constituent aspect of it. And while scholarship agrees that the situation changed over time, and that the institutions and relationships which made up the book trade were key to these changes, the details of this transformation remain debated and murky (Dobranski, 2014; Rose, 2009).

A Quantitative Approach
Partly due to lack of suitable data, quantitatively oriented studies of early modern authorship have been sparse (Crawford, 1985; Stanton, 1988; Raven, 2000). However, advances in the digital analysis of traditionally humanistic resources – both bibliographic catalogues and full-text databases – are facilitating new quantitative approaches (Lahti et al., 2015; 2019; Underwood et al., 2018). This paper, therefore, turns to the historical records of the book trade – specifically bibliographic metadata in the form of a harmonized and enriched version of the ESTC – to digitally reconstruct the historical details of authorship in a way which allows for quantitative measurement.
While the process has been complex, with tens of thousands of lines of code required to parse the catalogue, the outputs are promising: we have extracted over 800,000 actors involved with roughly 480,000 printed documents, from which a total of 52,917 unique authors have been identified. Additionally, the data has been enriched with information including publishing location, years of activity, and pseudonyms - and by making use of open data resources (the Virtual International Authority File) and building a custom name-gender dictionary out of UK parish records, gender has also been attributed.
In doing this we have been able to construct a dataset which can be used to test previous historical claims – both quantitative and qualitative – and, by making new historical claims, demonstrate the value of these digital methods and approaches when combined with traditional, yet novel, historical data. To this end, the paper has two approaches: testing the relationship between the data and historical reality, and making new quantitative claims.

Testing Previous Claims
As noted, there is existing research with regard to the history of authorship and the book trade. However, this research has been built upon smaller datasets (often subsets of the ESTC) which has meant simpler quantitative measurements were sufficient for analyses. This does not mean the claims are incorrect, however. Thus, we begin by making use of both our dataset and new quantitative methods to test previous research claims. Specifically, we follow up on the early quantitative findings by Crawford (1985) and Stanton (1988) on female authorship in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These include the influence of the civil war, population growth, and literacy rates on the number of female writers. Additionally, Rose (2009) suggests that changes in copyright legislation, such as the elimination of perpetual copyright in 1774 (to which we may want to add the 1710 Statute of Anne) encouraged publishers to support new authors to acquire copyrights.
There are also more general historical events which impact our data, such as the civil war and great fire of London (Figure 1). To demonstrate the relationship between this quantitative data and historical reality we also turn to these specific historical moments as case studies.

FIGURE 1: Actors involved in the book trade 1500–1800.

New Quantitative Approaches
Built upon previous research claims which note the key role the book trade itself played in concepts of authorship (Hirschfeld, 2001; Bell, 2002; Dobranski, 2014), we make use of our data to develop new quantitative descriptions of historical authorship. Specifically, we demonstrate that complex analyses are necessary to develop competing representations of authorship both over time and during a given moment.
With regard to the former, we are able to create a historical typology of authors which measures the transformation of the role through, for example, the number and type of professional relationships authors had, and how this changed over time (Figure 2).

FIGURE 2: Authorial connections by actor-type 1500–1800.
With regard to the latter – for example, the eighteenth century debate between authors as “hacks” and “gentlemen” (Rose, 2009; Griffin, 2009) – we can move beyond making qualitative claims and instead recognize distinct categories of authorship within our data. Additionally, we are able to measure how these changes are reflected in distinct categories of authorship (i.e., gender, political or religious affiliation, genre, etc.). For example, with network analysis it is possible to identify distinct categories of authors through their relationships with outsiders (Figure 3).

FIGURE 3. Subsection of intellectual communities (1650–1659) as detected in the ESTC. Quakers: blue; poets: green; main book trade community: red.
All of this allows us to recognize a number of interesting details within the data which could not be assessed previously. For example, it becomes possible to statistically identify individuals whom we consider historically important in ways which more basic analyses of publication records are unable to. Figure 4, for example, is a graph constructed out of four network centrality measurements and overall publication counts. It can be seen as a set of competing historical timelines constructed out of the statistical significance attached to particular authors during the early modern period. What is of particular methodological interest here is that the “Most Published” category is generally the worst metric for constructing this type of timeline. Thus, we are able to use the data in a way which satisfies historical intuition and addresses methodological concerns.

FIGURE 4: Timelines based on categories of authors identified using network centrality measurements.

Although throughout the paper we aim to show how these types of analyses are able to draw accurate conclusions with regard to both qualitative historical tradition and quantitative historical data, it is not the aim of this work to simply make historically accurate quantitative claims which have been extracted from a non-traditional dataset. Instead, we hope to demonstrate how the structural frameworks of the book trade were directly linked to the complex act of authorship, and that these relations are a part of the way one could be conceptualized as an author at a given time. That is to say, the transformation from the “hack” to the “professional”, or the profound shift of women from an underrepresented group to exemplars of the 19th century novel, are changes tied as much to historical structures of authorship as they are to conceptual changes. It is these structures – as they are identifiable within the data – which allow us to recognize this complexity, and it is in this way that the paper makes both methodological and historical contributions: By demonstrating how historical metadata can be transformed into historical records with their own particular, and important, insights into the concept of authorship, we demonstrate ways in which existing, yet complex, data and historical knowledge can be used to make new historical claims.

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