World Wide Web Resources for Early Modern Studies, 1500-1700: A Survey of Select Textual Resources
Perry Willett
Indiana University

Willett, Perry. "World Wide Web Resources for Early Modern Studies, 1500-1700: A Survey of Select Textual Resources." Early Modern Literary Studies 1.1 (1995): 11.1-30 <URL:


  1. There are a great many resources available for both research and instruction in early modern studies through the World Wide Web (WWW), some of them quite extensive and dazzling. The most impressive of them have thorough introductions, outlines, overviews, and help aids both to the materials they contain and to the internet in general. These resources can be thought of as scholarly editions, museum exhibits, reference books, course materials, demonstrations, library collections, or, of course, scholarly journals, and they all make use of the WWW's power to make texts, images or sound available around the world at the touch of a button. Among these resources, there is a wide range, covering early modern literature, art, architecture, music, science, medicine, and other areas, some of which will be reviewed in future issues of EMLS; this review will focus in particular on electronic textual resources, and those under review here can be grouped into three categories: textual editions and lexicographical resources, home pages with a textual focus, and services which catalogue and archive electronic texts.

    Textual Scholarly Resources and the Nature of Electronic Publishing on the WWW

  2. The WWW is organized not according to a hierarchy but by series of virtual pages which contain hypertextual links out to other pages (from which one can then return home). A home page is a page which acts as a central gathering area for a particular user, project, group, or organization, which contains links to all materials related to its owner and to related materials elsewhere. The home page is typically used as a starting point for movement on the WWW.

  3. The term home page, however, has also become synonymous with the idea of the personal home page. Although home pages of this nature are self-publications and can be in some hands quite amateurish from a scholarly perspective, the author/editors of home pages in this review have created or provided access to materials every bit as valid for scholarly research as those from the most reputable publisher or institution distributing in the electronic medium or otherwise. Moreover, the contributions of independent scholars--some even without institutional affiliations in the area of their contribution--can be most striking, for this medium allows their work to be increasingly integrated into the mainstream of scholarly activity. Within this small sample of resources under review are the works of several individuals who have created editions or research tools, with no other motivation, it seems, than a desire to contribute to scholarship. Like these individuals, in general the professors, librarians, students, and other scholars who have worked to make the resources under review available are to be commended for their hard work, for they have shown how materials for serious study can be created and published independent (for the time being) of commercial publishers.

  4. This said, it must be pointed out that there are also a great many WWW resources available which have very little scholarly value. One must, thus, constantly question the provenance and editorial principles of electronic textual materials received through the WWW because almost anyone can be author, editor and publisher in the electronic medium. There are, for example, many electronic texts available in the public domain for which the editor/transcriber does not even provide a citation for the source edition used. This is seen most prominently in the case of electronic texts of Shakespeare's works; Ian Lancashire, for one, has argued quite persuasively why not to trust electronic editions of Shakespeare in the public domain. In such cases the unreliability, thus, of the text itself (not to mention the absence of such essentials as critical apparatuses) make such texts unsuitable for scholarly use.

  5. Electronic publishing, suffice it to say, is quite different than print publishing for a number of reasons, none perhaps more influential than the dynamic nature of the new electronic medium. Resources available through the WWW may be fairly stable, with routine changes announced and executed. However, some publications are launched with most of the planned resources still "under construction," which may or may not ever be completed. Other resources may suddenly appear and expand, contract, move location, and disappear in an unexpected and unexplained fashion. Even something as simple and basic as a bibliographic citation becomes somewhat complicated when one is not sure exactly where a resource is located, or when it was published or last revised--and none of this will be obvious unless the author/publisher has given some indication within the resource itself. This uncertainty and instability, however, does not mean that there are no electronic textual resources of value for literary research on the Internet. On the contrary, though caution must be exercised, scholars have begun to create reputable resources for literary research, including reliable electronic editions of literary works; pointers to some of these are listed with the discussion below.

    Electronic Texts and Textual Markup

  6. When viewing a scholarly electronic text obtained from the internet or otherwise, often its most noticeable feature (to the new user and the expert alike) is the textual markup codes that are interspersed within the text itself. While not all scholarly texts will have some type of markup, most will. Most texts which have been edited in a less-than-scholarly fashion and then made available on the internet will lack markup of any sort. Typically, those texts that have reliable and consistent markup are the most useful.

  7. One issue, then, which is central to the creation of electronic texts is that of text markup. Even with the earliest electronic text projects, scholars recognized the need to include information in the electronic edition which is not strictly speaking part of the text, such as bibliographic information, editorial principles, or indications of structural, syntactic or semantic elements. While there are a number of formats for markup available--COCOA, used with the Oxford Concordance Package (OCP) and the Textual Analysis Computing Tools (TACT) package being a prominent format--an international standard for encoding this kind of information is the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), a set of rules and codes used by government agencies, businesses and, increasingly, scholars in the creation of electronic documents of all kinds.

  8. A sentence from an SGML-encoded text, such as this one from The Elizabethan Homilies (reviewed below) looks like this:

    <ttdv4 n="I.1.1-43"><bkdv3 n="200"> We may learne also
    <ttdv4 n="I.1.1-44"><bkdv3 n="201">in these Bookes to know <f t="bll">GODS<ft="bl"> will and pleasure, as much as (for
    <ttdv4 n="I.1.1-45"><bkdv3 n="202">this present time) is conuenient for vs to know.

    This kind of encoding, which uses angle brackets to embed information, seems to distract from a reading of the text, but it allows for inclusion of certain information about the text vital to its automated processing, display and analysis. To use these texts as encoded, one would need software that recognizes SGML, of which there is an increasing variety. (For a brief overview of SGML, see A Gentle Introduction to SGML or The SGML Web Page. For a list of tools for use with SGML, see the Whirlwind Guide to SGML Tools).

  9. Standard SGML, however, does not entirely meet the needs of scholars in the humanities and, in response, several humanities organizations, including the Association for Computers and the Humanities, the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing, and the Association for Computational Linguistics, have sponsored the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). The TEI has published a set of guidelines, co-edited by Michael Sperberg-McQueen and Lou Burnard, for the encoding of electronic texts in the humanities; the Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia has made an electronic version of the TEI Guidelines for Text Encoding and Interchange (TEI P3) available over the WWW.

    Other Resources

  10. The number of WWW pages available for research and instruction in early modern studies has increased rapidly, even in the short period in which this review was prepared. As well, there are many other types of electronic resources available through the WWW besides those mentioned in this review. For instance, there are a number of electronic discussion groups of interest to those studying the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Specific research interests are discussed, as well as broad issues important to the humanities, including the uses for, importance of, and problems with, new technologies. There are also search tools to aid in exploring the rapidly expanding number of resources available over the Internet.

  11. Future issues of EMLS will continue to review electronic resources, and will maintain a list of other WWW resources for early modern studies as well.

    Return to top of review

    Renaissance Electronic Texts. Ian Lancashire, general editor. Toronto: Centre for Computing in the Humanities, 1994-.

  12. The Renaissance Electronic Texts (RET) series is a demonstration of the current importance of the WWW for literary scholarship; here the reader will find "a series of old-spelling SGML encoded editions of Renaissance books and manuscripts (with critical introductions), transcriptions of basic texts, and supplementary studies . . ." (from the introduction). Works in the RET series will follow clearly defined standards and principles to create and make available high quality electronic editions of literary texts. As of the writing of this review, there is only one RET edition available, The Elizabethan Homilies (1623). An electronic version of Robert Cawdrey's A Table Alphabetical of Hard Usual English Words (1604) is also available, and a forthcoming edition of Shakespeare's sonnets has been announced.

  13. In looking at The Elizabeth Homilies as an example of the texts that RET will produce, there is, in addition to the text itself, an introduction, a brief history of the text, discussions of authorship and of the editorial practices followed in preparing the electronic version, and a bibliography of editions of the Homilies, related works, and scholarly work on them. While such apparatus is expected in printed scholarly editions, it is still all too rare to see such work accompanying electronic texts, and should be commended.

  14. Lancashire has chosen not to follow the TEI guidelines in his RET editions, for (as stated in the introductory matter to the series) he feels that the TEI does not adequately allow for encoding of the bibliographic elements of the book. The TEI emphasizes the textual hierarchy of paragraph, chapter, and volume, over the bibliographic hierarchy of page, forme and gathering. Lancashire has encoded the two structural hierarchies concurrently, which has required that he devise his own encoding guidelines, described in some detail in a separate document ( Renaissance Electronic Texts: Encoding Guidelines. Centre for Computing in the Humanities, University of Toronto, 1994).

  15. The RET series is quite ambitious in its goals, and shows by its first publication that it is possible to produce high-quality electronic editions and make them freely available. This project should serve as a model for all scholars who are thinking of creating electronic texts.

    Return to top of review

    Michigan Early Modern English Materials. Compiled by Richard W. Bailey, Jay L. Robinson, James W. Downer, with Patricia V. Lehman. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Library, 1994. Printed guide: Richard Bailey, et al. Michigan Early Modern English Materials. Ann Arbor: Xerox University Microfilms, 1975.

  16. The Michigan Early Modern English Materials (MEMEM), comprising some 50,000 records, were collected for a dictionary of early modern English based on historical principles. The records are citations that illustrate English language usage from 1475 to 1700, and as such are meant as a more comprehensive historical dictionary for this period than the Oxford English Dictionary, with some 16,000 entries antedating the OED. The project was begun in the 1930s by Charles C. Fries at the University of Michigan, with an electronic version created from 1968-73 under the leadership of Richard Bailey. This electronic file was encoded in SGML in 1992 by John Price-Wilkin of the University of Michigan (then at the University of Virginia).

  17. Price-Wilkin has devised a simple yet powerful WWW interface for searching the database, in which one may search for single words or phrases, or combine words into more complex search strategies using proximity searching. In addition to using the database online, one may obtain the entire file of citations in the database (which, even when compressed, is 5 megabytes in size).

  18. The citations themselves are meant to illustrate modal verbs in early modern English, but any word in the citation may be searched. A typical citation, such as this one found when searching the word "Adam", looks like this:

    Occurring forms: were; ben;
    In to so moche that and Adam were alyue he myght haue no wyfe
    in this worlde[,] for all men and women in the worlde be[n] lynally
    and dyrectely descendynge from hym.

    harrington, matrymony, b.ii.r

    This sentence, taken from William Harrington's Matrimony (1528), was selected by the editors to illustrate the use of the verb "to be." The full citation of the source can, unfortunately, only be found using the printed guide (Bailey, 1975), which also includes an in-depth introduction to MEMEM and an explanation of the citation form. It would be helpful to have more introductory information available about the origins and scope of the project as part of this WWW resource, for its long history makes for fascinating reading. Nevertheless, MEMEM is a valuable source for linguistic and philologic research in early modern English.

    Return to top of review

    New Tools for Teaching: James J. O'Donnell Home Page. Philadelphia: Center for Computer Analysis of Text, University of Pennsylvania.

  19. O'Donnell, a professor of Classics at the University of Pennsylvania, co-edits the online journals The Bryn Mawr Classical Review and The Bryn Mawr Medieval Review and has taught courses on Augustine and Boethius over the Internet. He combines the personal with the scholarly into a series of interwoven biographical and bibliographical essays and reports. He has made the greatest use of any of the resources in this review of the hypertextual power of the WWW to link texts on various subjects, and link texts with graphical images.

  20. O'Donnell has included texts that concern both his research and instructional interests. He has provided access to the Latin texts of Augustine and Boethius, accompanied by English translations, versions of the Bible, and excerpts of texts and commentary by and about Erasmus, Gregory the Great, Jerome and others. Not all these works have the extensive introductions and lengthy discussions of editorial decisions common to the other works under review; Augustine's De dialectica is presented without much markup or commentary, while Boethius's Consolatio philosophiae has been edited according to the TEI Guidelines, and is given more careful consideration. In all fairness, however, he notes that work on the Augustine is "in progress," and he has provided a number of his own research papers on Augustine, and those from his graduate seminar, to form a small critical library.

  21. He has also provided access to a number of "postprints," electronic versions of journal articles already published. He also includes the postprint of his book Cassiodorus (Berkeley: U of California P, 1979), noting that the rights had reverted to him after the press run had sold out in 1993. In addition, he has written at length about the integration of electronic texts and communication into instruction, and provides examples on the use of electronic mail, discussion groups, library catalogues and other electronic resources in courses to foster better student communication and research. He has also posted introductions and syllabi to the courses he has taught both in the classroom and over the Internet. This concept of a personal library gives one a glimpse of the power of the new medium for storage of and access to primary and secondary research materials and hints at the changes in research that the new technologies promise.

    Return to top of review

    Stony Run: Richard Bear's Home Page. University of Oregon, 1994-.

  22. Bear, an independent Renaissance scholar and manager of the Scriptorum, the Humanities Text Archive at the University of Oregon, has created a collection of electronic editions of texts from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as well as an Edmund Spenser Home Page, which will contain pointers to materials pertaining to Spenser's life and work. His text collection includes Spenser's The Shephearde's Calendar (1579), Sidney's The Defence of Poesie (1595) and The Lady of May (1605). As with the other sources reviewed here, he has included extensive introductions, notes and bibliographies to accompany his texts. In a departure from the other items reviewed, however, SGML has not been used for text encoding. While this makes reading them on the screen a little easier (at least for those not used to SGML), he has employed a type of encoding scheme to handle certain elements of the text. For instance, in The Shephearde's Calendar he has enclosed italicized words in slash-marks, and Greek words and printer's errors are indicated within brackets. He notes these uses in his introduction and, should anyone wish to encode these texts in SGML (which he quite graciously indicates that he would allow), it would not be too difficult to convert his encoding scheme to the SGML or TEI standard. Bear's home page is a laudatory example of how an independent scholar can contribute to the field through the electronic medium.

    Return to top of review

    Alex: A Catalogue of Electronic Texts on the Internet. Hunter Monroe, general editor. Oxford University Computing Services and North Carolina State University Libraries.

    Oxford Text Archive. Lou Burnard, general director. Oxford University Computing Services.

  23. One of the most frequent and vexing questions on any electronic discussion group concerned with literary studies is where to find electronic versions of certain texts. In response to the need for locating resources of this nature, the Alex project is an attempt to catalog the many different electronic texts available on the Internet. It points not only to the location of the text, but to the full electronic text itself, and includes many different types of texts, from literary texts to government documents, and from plain ASCII texts to SGML-encoded texts. Given the rapid and chaotic growth of the availability of electronic texts, Alex is by no means definitive in its listings, but is often seen as an invaluable resource by those who use it.

  24. As Alex is not responsible for the creation of any of these texts, so the texts available through this service will vary greatly in quality. This means that scholars must evaluate the quality of the particular electronic text for themselves. Fortunately, there are sources of criteria for judging quality. The Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (CETH), jointly sponsored by Princeton and Rutgers Universities, has published criteria for quality electronic editions, and Peter Shillingsburg, in the ETEXTCTR discussion group, has listed several general scholarly principles for electronic texts.

  25. Alex is also an example of the virtual collaborations possible through the WWW and internet. Hunter Monroe, an independent scholar living in Washington, DC, created Alex and posts updates through a computer at Oxford. This information is mirrored, or copied, to the WWW server at the North Carolina State University Library, where Eric Lease Morgan has created the WWW interface and search engine. Sadly, as announced at the top of the Alex WWW Page, Monroe is looking for outside sources of funding to continue to maintain it, an event which also exemplifies how local decisions on funding and computer storage have an impact on scholars worldwide in this new medium, for this valuable service may suddenly disappear due to lack of institutional sponsorship. One hopes that Alex is able to continue to offer its service, because of its ability to help users sort through at least some of the chaos of the WWW to find electronic texts.

  26. Unlike Alex, which lists and points to texts on the WWW, the Oxford Text Archive (OTA) acts chiefly as a repository for such resources, and is one of the oldest and largest electronic text archives in existence, containing holdings in Old, Middle and Modern English as well as many other languages. Lou Burnard, co-editor of the TEI Guidelines discussed above, is director of the OTA. The OTA does not itself create texts, but acts instead as an archive that relies on scholars to deposit electronic texts. There are varying degrees of access to specific texts, with some freely available in the public domain while others require explicit permission from the depositor for use.

  27. Several OTA electronic texts are in the public domain and available over the Internet and through Alex. (The file server at OTA, however, can be a little slow, so some patience is required for connecting and acquiring texts.) A measure of quality control has been taken with these public domain texts, for they have been encoded in SGML with sources well documented. Typically, they are split into two files. One file contains the encoded text, while another file contains the "header," where the information about sources and editorial principles is stored. For instance, the electronic version of Paradise Lost is in two files, one named plost.1827, which contains the text, and the other, d_plost.1827, which contains the header information for the electronic edition.

  28. Only a small fraction of the texts deposited at the OTA, however, are available over the Internet; the full collection is available directly from the OTA itself, and a catalogue is available which lists the entire holdings and provides information on accessing them. The work of Burnard and the OTA staff to archive electronic texts and make them freely available should be appreciated by anyone interested in electronic editions of literary works.

    Return to top of review


  29. For the most part, the resources under review are purely textual and focused on providing editions of literary works through the WWW. They should be considered important resources for scholars in early modern studies. Impressive as these resources are, however, there is a wide range of media that fall outside of the temporal focus of this review. Projects outside of Renaissance studies, such as the Dante Gabriel Rossetti Hypermedia Research Archive (Jerome McGann, general editor) for example, provide examples of how to integrate graphical images with text in innovative and informative ways.

  30. Future reviews will consider resources for early modern studies in the arts, music, architecture and science that use hypertext to link together various media into a seamless web.

Return to top of review

Selected Articles on Electronic Texts in the Humanities

Return to top of review

[http://asgard.humn.arts.ualberta.ca/emls/EMLS footer.html]

(RGS, 12 December 1995)