One of the main aims of the ‘Things’ seminar is to invite scholars to think beyond the textual remains of the past that have informed traditional histories. This session with Helen Smith and Elaine Leong invited us to look twice at the ubiquitous paper remains of the past which oftentimes preserve those texts, and to think about how historical actors interacted with paper – in the making of paper ‘Things’.
First up was Elaine, who spoke about the medical notebooks of wealthy Cornishwoman Margaret Boscawen (d. 1688). Exploring the materiality of these notebooks – their size and shape, their divisions and subdivisions, their multiple uses and the organisation of information within them, Elaine not only opened up the too-often sealed intellectual world of early modern women, but compelled us to think beyond texts and to consider the use of notebooks and paper slips as true information technologies. I found the different shapes of these notebooks for different purposes particularly evocative – from the hefty ruled tome designed for posterity, through the long, thin book used to make lists that ordered the year’s activities, to the smallest book which allowed knowledge to travel as it’s owner made notes of receipts she gained when visiting other households. Most tantalising of all were the paper slips of Elaine’s title – their flexibility allowed the easy ordering of information, but the very materiality which enabled this use leaves them vulnerable to loss or destruction.
Helen Smith’s paper took up the theme of paper technologies, so well encapsulated in the micro-history of Elaine’s case study, and broadened it out to give us an enrapturing glimpse of the landscape of early modern paper beyond the pages of books and the leaves of letters. In Helen’s hands, a whole world of paper comes to life – from literal paper boats, to metaphorical paper bullets; from brown paper wrappings to oil of paper, considered to contain the essence of the flax with which rag paper originated. Meditating on matter and meaning, on surfaces, and on the potential for folding, cutting, bending and moulding that paper presents, Helen restored to us the vanished paper technologies of the early modern period through the medium of her own ‘paper’. As two papers with a great deal to say to one another, Helen and Elaine’s presentations showed us the vast intellectual horizons opened up when we answer the former’s call and take the history of paper beyond the history of the book.