FALL 2014

Electronic Enlightenment

Men in a coffeehouse

The database Electronic Enlightenment markets itself as the most comprehensive online collection of edited correspondence from the early 17th to the mid-19th century, linking people across Europe, Asia and the Americas. It was developed by the Electronic Enlightenment Project, a research team at the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. At the time of writing there are 63,968 letters and documents from 8,008 correspondents in the database. They are from 51 nations and account for 791 occupations. The letters and documents are in 11 languages, including English, French, German and Italian. Electronic Enlightenment has 283,210 scholarly annotations, information on 59,850 manuscript and 100,285 early edition sources as well as 1,460 links to and from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. In effect, Electronic Enlightenment constitutes a very large and significant social network. Not only are the period's "great" politicians, scholars, thinkers included but numerous "ordinary" and unknown figures including housewives, servants, shopkeepers, booksellers. Thus, the letters of Electronic Enlightenment effectively challenge the notion that the Enlightenment was the domain principally of philosophers and famous writers.


Electronic Enlightenment's content comes from a very large number of "key" sources including The Correspondence of René Descartes. Ed. Charles Adam & Paul Tannery (Cambridge University Press, 1991); The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham. Ed. J. H. Burns, et al. 12 vols. (Oxford University Press, 1968–2009); The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper. Ed. James King & Charles Ryskamp. 5 vols. (Oxford University Press, 1979–1986); The Correspondence of John Locke. Ed. E. S. de Beer. 8 vols. (Oxford University Press, 1976–1989); The Digital Correspondence of Voltaire: EE born-digital edition. Ed. Nicholas Cronk, et al. Voltaire Foundation & Electronic Enlightenment, 2011–; The Correspondence of Frederick the Great: EE born-digital edition. Ed. Katrin Kohl. Trans. Katrin Kohl. Electronic Enlightenment, 2012. Numerous other authoritative sources have been used. Electronic Enlightenment is an ongoing project and there is much material still to be included. The editors are particularly interested in hearing from potential contributors, especially with regard to unpublished letters. The database also has a valuable "Reading Room" section with useful links to numerous biographical, dictionary, encyclopedic and journal resources. The latter include American National Biography; Dictionnaire historique de la Suisse (DHS); Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Dictionary of Scientific Biography; Dictionnaires d'autrefois (ARTFL Project); Grand dictionnaire historique- 1671 (ARTFL Project); Cyclopaedia: or an Universal Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences (1728, 1753); Blackwood's Magazine; Monthly Review; Année littéraire and numerous others.

Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes

With such a large number of correspondents and tens of thousands of letters and documents one may read about an astoundingly large variety of subjects and themes that interested folk in the long eighteenth century. Topics covered include aspects of health, hygiene & medicine; philosophy and theology; diplomacy and current affairs; art and literature; war and revolution; science and technology; even shopping and the weather as well as scores of other subjects. Sometimes the topics treated were odd. Mention might be made of Jonathan Swift's letter to Rev. Thomas Sheridan on 20 April, 1737:

. . . we have all expected you here at Easter, as you were used to do. — Your Muster-Roll of Meat is good, but, of Drink in sup Port able. Yew wann twine. My stress Alba via hath eaten here all your hung Beef, and said it was very good. I am now come to the noli me Tan Jerry, which begg Inns wyth mad Dam — So So I will go on by the Strength of my own Wit upon Points of the high est imp or taunts.

Sometimes the letters are of interesting historical significance. On Wednesday, 25 April 1764 French philosopher Claude Adrien Helvétius wrote to Francis Hastings, 10th Earl of Huntingdon seeking patronage for a seven year old prodigy named Mozart:

"Souffrez que je vous demande votre protection pour un des etres les plus singuliers qui existent. C'est un petit prodige allemand qui est arrivé ces jours-cy à Londres. Il execute et compoze sur-le-champ les pièces les plus difficilles et les plus agreables sur le clavesin. C'est en ce genre le compositeur le plus eloquent et le plus profond. Son pere s'apelle Mozart; il est maitre de chapelle de Salsbourg; il loge avec ce prodige de sept ans at MrCouzin, hare cutter in Cecil Court, St. Martins Lane."

James Boswell's comments on the citizens of Boston are also worth noting. In a 27 January 1775 letter to Samuel Johnson Boswell, though displaying no affection for the "Bostonians", still argues that they should receive more equitable treatment:

"As for myself, I am ashamed to say I have read little and thought little on the subject of America. . . . It is a subject vast in its present extent and future consequences. The imperfect hints which now float in my mind, tend rather to the formation of an opinion that our government has been precipitant and severe in the resolutions taken against the Bostonians. Well do you know that I have no kindness for that race. But nations, or bodies of men, should, as well as individuals, have a fair trial, and not be condemned on character alone. . . ."

Interesting too is the 27 November 1791 tongue in cheek comment written by Jeremy Bentham to 7-year-old Lady Elizabeth Greville, mischievously suggesting the superiority of the "duets" of "Gretna Green", to Bach's compositions:

O dear! O dear! well, what a lucky thing it was I happened to mention Scotland; it has brought the charmingest thought into my head that ever was. Did your ladyship ever hear of a place called Gretna Green? They have a way of playing duets there, and such duets, it beats all the concerts in the world; Signor Bach's music is nothing to it. There is no such thing as learning them at home: one must absolutely go there first to see the manner of it. There is a gentleman always, and a lady; and then a blacksmith in a black gown plays with his hammer dub-a-dub-dub, and yet it is but a duet after all.

David Hume is intensely critical of the antipathy shown to him and his fellow Scots by the London elite. We read in a 22 September 1764 letter from Hume to Sir Gilbert Elliot of Minto:

Some hate me because I am not a Tory, some because I am not a Whig, some because I am not a Christian, and all because I am a Scotsman. Can you seriously talk of my continuing an Englishman? Am I, or are you, an Englishman? Will they allow us to be so? Do they not treat with Derision our Pretensions to that Name, and with Hatred our just Pretensions to surpass & to govern them?

Dr. Robert McNamee, Director of Electronic Enlightenment, was adamant that the goal of the database was to go far beyond merely transposing printed letters and documents into digital format:

Our ambitions extended far beyond simply transferring printed works into an electronic format: the Electronic Enlightenment team have spent ten years working out how best to make the letters truly accessible, rather than merely available. You have to tear each text apart into all its tiny components and then reassemble it on the page so it looks to the user like something familiar. We've built in all kinds of technology to combine textual scholarship with technical scholarship.

Someone trained in traditional research methods will be reassured to find the apparatus of notes and citations to hand. They will also discover the excitement of moving rapidly from letter to letter, tracing the genesis of great ideas; of gaining an overview of correspondence from a particular day or place; or browsing the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

titlepage of Newton's Principia mathematica

The searching and functionality of EE is both intuitive and very effective. One may search correspondents by name or title, occupation, birth or death date & place and search documents by writer or recipient, date or place; there is full text searching of all biographical notes, sources and other documents; there is browsing of documents by decade as well as browsing of the EE gazetteer (over 3,000 unique locations). One may also export records to bibliographic citation management software such as RefWorks and EndNote.

An Interesting Aside:
Utilizing the data of Electronic Enlightenment a team from Stanford University has created a digital visualization of this extensive network of correspondence. How did scholars, writers, others communicate their ideas to each other across countries and continents in this time period? What did these networks look like? How extensive were they? How did they evolve over time? The Stanford project, entitled Mapping the Republic of Letters, seeks answers to such questions through the development of sophisticated, interactive visualization tools. The following video demonstrates how Stanford's digital mapping technology works.

Brendan Rapple
Collection Development Librarian
O'Neill Library