Can we even talk of an early modern public?

Today marked the first day of the Reading Publics summer school at the University of Warwick. So far it has been exceptionally stimulating and has exploded some concepts that I thought that I had a half decent understanding of. One of these is the concept of a public, or more specifically the idea of a reading public. During the first half of day we tried to flesh out what a public was, how do you define it and distinguish it from the private. As we discussed the concept, I started to have an uneasiness of talking about a public. Particular in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The first reason for this was because in terms of books and readership there seemed to be several limitations to who could read the book. For instance, some books were expensive and could only be afforded by a rich cultural elite. Can we really consider a book that is only read by a select group of rich people public? Books even if they were affordable, were not universally accessible, and if you were illiterate then access to a book would not be any use to you at all. Given that so many were limited or unable to access books can we call this a public? In the discussion regarding the idea of a public we attempted to articulate the boundary between a community and a public. Some of the possible differences are that a community has some form of limits, or boundary. Whilst the precise nature of the communities edges are often fuzzy and ill-defined there are at least a limit to it. A community, at least in theory, is capable of being known or identifying the members of it. A public in contrast is largely anonymous and has no limit.

Whilst, the terminological laxity was concerning as public seems to be an ill-defined label, and we failed to really find a satisfactory way of defining it, the main concern that I had was the extent to which the concept of a public was anachronistic. Was the idea of a public something that actors in the renaissance and early modern period would have understood themselves as part of? Certainly, some of the ways in which they behaved resembled what we would now call a public, but how did they understood their reality? My suspicion was that they didn’t really conceptualise themselves using the terminology of a public. I decided to test this out by doing a keyword search of ‘public’ in the key-stroked texts of Early English Books Online. The result seemed to prove that I was right. Public was not used for the most part at all in the sixteenth century. The only time it appeared was in one text which was not used in any sense the way in which we understand public. As the graph below shows, the use of the word public really increases in the 1640s. This validated my claim that to think of the renaissance readerships in terms of ‘reading publics’

The problem with the above graph, is that its anachronistic to even use the term ‘public.’ The early modern period did not have a standardised spelling and most words were spelt in a multitude of ways. The word public could be spelt in several ways, it was spelt as public, public, pub like, publique, publik, amongst other less common configurations. Realising this I went back to see if the same pattern of rising in the 1640s was found when I included the variant spellings of the word. The graph below shows the various spellings and the combined frequency of all variants together. As you can see it again shows a clear rise in the 1640s. Whilst there was usage of the word in the late sixteenth century it is dwarfed by the level of use after 1640.

However, this graph distorts the true use. The rise in the 1640s is less remarkable when it is seen in relation to the levels of print generally.

As the graph charting the level of publications through the sixteenth and seventeenth century shows, there was a dramatic rise in the level of publications in 1641, so we would expect an increase in the use of the phrase in this period, as more books results in more words, and the laws of scale mean its hardly remarkable to find more of any word in the 1640s. There is a way however, to deal with this. It is to look at the level of the words in proportion to texts generally. To do this you get the frequency of words you are looking at and then you put into proportion to the number of words found in that decade generally to see how much it features in the corpus as a whole. The standard way is to look at it in terms of per million words. The graph below shows the use of public and its variants relative to the entire corpus.

What the above graph shows is that proportionally we still see a rise in the use of the term public. From looking at some of the various uses, it is still apparent that the way in which it is used is semantically different from how we use it today, but it shows that there is an increase in a use of public. Which seems to map onto the rise of a Habermasian public sphere that emerges in the late seventeenth, early eighteenth century. Interestingly, the modern spelling ‘public’ is statistically insignificant in its use, and that over the course of the century we see a decline in the variant spellings with ‘publick’ becoming the dominant spelling of the word at the end of the century. This suggests that at least in terms of the word public we are seeing a standardisation of spelling that occurs in the 1650s and 1660s. That we see a change from ‘publike’ being the dominant spelling form prior to that, to ‘publick.’ Without investigating the dynamics and semantics of each spelling it is impossible to know what caused this change, why didn’t the spelling of public coalesce around the already dominant spelling ‘publike’? Was this a political motivated change? Was publike associated with an outmoded political philosophy, and publick a subversive variant? The work of Roger Chartier and Bourdieu would suggest that at least there would be some social institutional reason for a change in the language, yet, to excavate this would be a difficult task. More then I am capable of doing in this post. However, if we are to take Quentine Skinners point that:

‘The surest sign that a society has entered into the secure possession of a new concept is that a new vocabulary will be developed in terms of which the concept can then be publicly articulated and discussed.’ Q. Skinner, The Foundations Of Modern Political Thought, vol 2 (Cambridge, 1978)

Then we would expect a new formation of a word within a vocabulary to map onto a new conceptualisation of a public. Of course, at this point it is only speculation, and upon closer analysis it will show that, in fact, it is simply a generally shift in spelling, and is not related to a conceptual change. As an interesting point to end on, whilst public is not so clear in its rise and conceptualisation, it is clear that we see the emergence of a republican discourse in the 1650s through to the end of the seventeenth century.

This is simply an initial exploration of a word, and it would need to be related to work on the concept of the ‘commonwealth’ such as that done by Mark Knights, and the Early Modern Research Group. Along with the work by Phil Withington on the history of the commonwealth, however, it does suggest an interesting point of departure for further study. Hopefully, this has served as a reminder that keyword searches, especially for the early modern period carries with it many risks. Such as, neglecting to look at alternate spellings, and to not put the keyword in relation to the whole corpus. But, at least in my opinion text-mining and keyword tracing is a fruitful way in to examine conceptual history and the history of ideas.

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2 responses to “Can we even talk of an early modern public?

  1. Thanks for re-blogging this, Jake. I think there was a lot more to say about the political valences of the term. Thanks for sharing, and I am following your blog now too!

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