The use of Virtual Research Environments and eScience to enhance use of online resources: the History of Political Discourse VRE Project

Simon Hodson
University of Hull, University of East Anglia

Simon Hodson. "The use of Virtual Research Environments and eScience to enhance use of online resources: the History of Political Discourse VRE Project.". Early Modern Literary Studies 14.2/Special Issue 17 (September, 2008) 4.1-39 <URL:>.


  1. The purpose of this paper is to suggest that new technologies and practices associated with Virtual Research Environments (VREs) and eScience communication techniques can enhance the already considerable benefits which resources such as EEBO have brought to the study of early modern texts and their contexts.  It reports on the innovative work of a consortium comprising the University of Hull and the University of East Anglia (both UK), implementing such technologies in the delivery of a jointly-taught MA Programme and in the practice of a dispersed Research Group studying early-modern political discourse.  A third, still largely aspirational programme, suggests ways in which such technology may be used for large-scale collaboration by EEBO-using scholars.

    Scholarly developments in the history of political discourse and the study of early modern texts

  2. What is the scholarly and research need for the use of VREs and eScience techniques for the study of the history of political discourse?  Recent developments in the history of political thought have transformed that discipline from the history of political ideas tout court, to the history of political discourses.  By this we mean that although the study of canonical texts has not been abandoned, it has been transformed by a greater awareness of the context, the broad cultural milieu in which they were created.  This has been accompanied by an active engagement with other forms of expression and cultural products: encompassing those produced by non-elite and marginalized groups, those produced in other genres or media, ranging from popular printed ‘ephemera’, broadsheets, pamphlets and songs, court depositions, visual sources of various sorts through to rituals and gestures.  All these forms of expression provide evidence of political discourse, in the broad sense towards which that term drives.  They provide context and counterpoint to the ideas laid out by more formal theorists or professional politicians.  Important methodological features of this process might be characterised thus:

    • The need for cultural products expressing political ideas to be fully contextualised in order to be properly understood has been accepted.  But in turn, this gives rise to necessary but challenging debates about the relative significance and the interelation of a plurality of contexts: whether diachronic or synchronic, religious, economic, cultural, social, gender-based etc, as well as the social dynamics of expression, covering affective, friendship, patron-client, household, village, state….
    • The methodological realisation, best enunciated perhaps by Reinhart Koselleck and the continental school of conceptual historians, that social history is necessarily a history of concepts, and a history of concepts is necessarily a study of discourse and language.[1]
    • The ‘linguistic turn’ taken by historians of political ideas, and an expanding appreciation of literary forms and genres, has been met by a new historicism in the study of literary texts.

  3. The upshot of these developments is an erosion of boundaries between hitherto discrete approaches and the creation of a fertile interdisciplinarity.  This makes for an exciting period in this branch of history.  Above all, as I have indicated, historians of political discourse are increasingly ambitious in terms of the range and variety of sources they feel it is necessary to bring to bear on the subject.  This in turn has created a demand for collaborative scholarship in order best to combine complementary approaches to different sources and sets of evidence, and in order to encourage genuinely comparative studies of the interrelation of text and contexts.  What is more, a lot of innovative work has been encouraged by the increased availability of a wide range of digital resources.

    The explosion in digital resources

  4. The creation of large databases providing access to digital resources has been an incredibly exciting development for historians of all stripes.  There are innumerable such resources and their impact has surely been immense.  For historians with an interest in early modern texts, the most important are Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO), both of which are commercial endeavours.  Between them one can access from one’s desktop almost any printed work produced in these Islands between roughly 1480 and 1800.  It is an astonishing resource.  In the UK, the creation of digital resources for history by Arts and Humanities Research Council funded projects has also been significant: take the Newton project, or the Hartlib Papers.  The international dimensions of digital resource creation also deserves mention.  Privately-funded American databases such as the Liberty and Constitution online libraries are extremely useful.  And, as an historian with European interests I would also like to mention Gallica, provided by the Bibliothèque national de France[2] and a remarkable Spanish project, La biblioteca virtuel Saavredra Fajardo de pensamiento politico,[3] which provides eBooks, archival facsimiles, etc.
  5. The immediate availability of the sources in such collections has undoubtedly had a transformative effect on scholarship and pedagogy.  In the history of political discourse, resources such as EEBO have amplified the significant interpretative and methodological trends which I have already mentioned.  The ready availability of pamphlets, ephemera and the textual records of various ‘lost’ voices have accentuated the debate over ‘which context matters’ and further contributed to the shattering (or diversification) of the canon.  Likewise, for example, the ease with which students and scholars might access contemporary translations (as opposed to modern critical editions) has arguably turned minds further towards the re-packaging, reception and re-reading of certain texts (as opposed simply to their ‘production’).  Finally, in the case of EEBO, as the work of the Text Creation Partnership progresses the prospect of an expanding corpus of full-text, key-word searchable documents offers implications of an transformative nature, holding out the possibility of collaboration with corpus linguists and the integration of their techniques with more traditional methods of textual analysis.  What is the best way to react to and exploit these developments?  This is the question our VRE project has sought to offer some preliminary answers.

    What is a VRE?

  6. The UK Working Group on Virtual Research Communities for the OST e-Infrastructure Steering Group offered a useful definition of a VRE.
  7. A VRE is a set of online tools, systems and processes interoperating to facilitate or enhance the research process within and without institutional boundaries. The purpose of a Virtual Research Environment (VRE) is to provide researchers with the tools and services they need to do research of any type as efficiently and effectively as possible.  This means VREs will help individual researchers manage the increasingly complex range of tasks involved in doing research.  In addition they will facilitate collaboration among communities of researchers, often across disciplinary and national boundaries.[4]

    What does a VRE for the Arts and Humanities, and more specifically for the History of Political discourse look like?  What tools must it comprise and what processes must it support?  The RePAH (Research Portals in the Arts and Humanities) report run by Professor Mark Greengrass, University of Sheffield, included among its recommendations a description of the potential it discerned in ‘Managed Research Environments’, which, among other things would give historians easy access to the sort of research tools which have the potential to transform their research (including the sort of easily customizable workflow management tools, resource discovery tools on which historians must increasingly rely).[5]  In the results of RePAH and elsewhere, there is also a strong feeling that many aspects of contemporary historical research must benefit from the wider adoption, implementation and development of eScience techniques.  Recent scoping surveys in the Arts and Humanities in general and the History subject area in particular have in various ways emphasized the importance and potential for connecting, i.e.:

  8. Each of these connections has considerable virtue and potential.  Although they necessarily impinge upon and affect each other, the project upon which I work has been interested above all in the last two ‘connections’.  We see our VRE primarily as facilitating and aiding collaborative research, and to do this by connecting scholars or students working largely – but not exclusively – on digitally available resources such as EEBO.  The corollary of this, which I want to be stressed at the outset is our project’s view, in line with that expressed by the VRC’s Working Group, is that creating and implementing a VRE, must comprise creating a Virtual Research Community.  And it is precisely this that we have set out to do in through the creation of a ‘VRE for the History of Political Discourse’, and what we have called the ‘Early Modern VRE Research Group’.  Our project’s activities seek above all to address the emerging research agendas within in the subject area, it seeks to exploit an occazione provided by conjunctura of collaborative technologies and digital resources.  Might such creative alchemy have a transformative effect on research practice and outputs?  This is what we have set out to explore.

    The VRE for the History of Political discourse

  9. The VRE for the History of Political Discourse[7] project received initial funding from the UK’s Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) and then a further grant, explicitly to expand our work, from the British Academy.  This funding has allowed us to explore the potential for collaborative research in our sub-discipline.  We have explored the use of two main technological solutions through three associated strands of activity.

    Technologies: Access Grid and Sakai

  10. Access Grid[8] is a form of web-based video-conferencing which can be used to run seminars between geographically dispersed researchers.  It can operate from fully kitted-out rooms, with four cameras and a full wall of projection, or from a desktop node, or PIG.  By using it in conjunction with something called VNC (Virtual Network Computing) such meetings can be enhanced with shared document viewing.  Access Grid has open-source and commercial variants: we have preferred the commercial solution provided by inSORS, based in Chicago.  However, we collaborate regularly with users of the open source alternative.

  11. Sakai[9] is a web-based collaborative environment which at first glance shares many features associated with Virtual Learning Environments.  But as open-source software, created by a large international consortium and foundation and engagement from major educational institutions, it has the potential to become very much more than that.  The integration of a wiki tool indicates there is good reason for believing in that potential.  In the medium term, the expressed aims of achieving forms of integration between Sakai and Portal and Portlet technology – and with data repositories – promises a host of useful collaborative and research tools.

    Three Strands of Activity

    • Our initial funding, from the JISC was to establish the MA in the History of Political Discourse, using VRE and eScience technology to allow collaborative teaching between the University of Hull and UEA.  We use Access Grid to run joint seminars in the core units or modules; and we support the students’ learning experience with our Sakai VRE.  The emphasis in the MA’s pedagogy is upon the acquisition of up-to-the minute research skills.  As much as is possible, we encourage the students to take ownership of their virtual space and use it for collaboration.
    • Extra funding from the British Academy was given explicitly to expand our activities and our VRE through creating a Research Group using collaborative technologies to advance their work.  The Early Modern VRE Research Group uses Access Grid to hold monthly research seminars and uses Sakai for asynchronous collaboration.  Our aim has been to encourage established, world-class scholars to take advantage of technology with which they have hitherto had little experience.  The current project has taken the working title: Different constructions of the Commonwealth and polity.  It’s purpose to develop a rich collaborative and synthetic analysis of certain key terms in early modern political discourse, including Republic, Commonwealth and their cognates.  The project is explicitly a pilot for a larger scale collaboration on a broader set of keyword/concepts, for which we have applied for AHRC funding.
    • The third strand of activity is more aspirational in nature.  It seeks to pilot the use of Sakai to support a large scale community research forum.  Scoping exercises have been held and gaps identified.  We think that there is community enthusiasm for a large scale collaborative portal, but, in the case of Sakai at least, further technological progress is required before function truly coincides with aspiration.

  12. All of these strands of activity make considerable use of digital resources in general and EEBO in particular.  As they each focus on a different type of Virtual Research Community, our implementation and use of the technology has been adapted in each case in ways which I shall describe.

    MA in the history of political discourse

  13. The MA in the History of Political Discourse 1500-1800[10] was piloted in the academic year 2005-6 and is now being run for the first time as a full programme with an external examiner.  Three core units are taught in full collaboration using Access Grid for weekly seminars and the Sakai VRE for seminar preparation and follow-up.  Authority and Ideology in Seventeenth Century England is led by UEA; Obedience and Dissent in the Age for Renaissance and Reformation, a module with a more European perspective, is taught from Hull; and a unit of Historiography and Methodology in the history of political discourse is a full blown collaboration in its conception and teaching.  The potential here is for modules and programmes to be run across institutions, giving students access to a greater range of expertise and a greater variety of course content.  It is hoped, from an institutional level, that this will allow niche subject areas to enhance their viability in hard-pressed times by permitting pooled seminars.

  14. Both in terms of managing Access Grid Seminars and in using effectively the Sakai portal, the MA programme has provided us with useful experience and insights.  All the course materials are provided electronically: all texts or images to be studied are obtained from online sources, primarily EEBO.  We have used the VRE to make full-text extracts or sections of facsimiles in PDF available to the students as appropriate.  The work of compiling selections and images to create these resources has been considerable, but has been essential to the success of the programme.  Here, as elsewhere, student feedback as been extremely positive.  The Sakai Wiki has been used to provide an attractive and easily manipulable interface for access to these resources.  The students are required to use the Discussion Board to exchange ideas in advance of the joint seminar.  These comments are then fed directly into seminar content.  More detailed presentations and textual elucidations are made in the Wiki.  The portal is used directly in seminars to view comments, documents etc.  We have sought at all stages to put the accent upon a research-centred, student-led pedagogy, one which enhances the use of the digital resources at our disposal and equips the students with up-to-the-minute research techniques appropriate to a rapidly evolving discipline.  Three features of our experience are worthy of particular mention.

    Student Ownership of the VRE

  15. As much as possible we tried to encourage the students to take ownership of their Collaborative Environment.  And to a large extent they have risen to this challenge.  Their use of the discussion board in particular has been excellent and has provided a real kick-start to the seminars.  When more in-depth research was called for in the context of student-led follow-up seminars, students have used the VRE to share their research.  The environment has allowed them to make digital resources available to their colleagues, to use the Discussion Board or the Wiki to communicate their papers and present them to the group in Seminars.  This has been most successful in seminars on Civil War Radicalism where research exercises focussing on Petitioning and the activities of the Levellers have encouraged excellent use of EEBO and the VRE for primary research and collaboration.


    Figure 1: Use of the Sakai Wiki for textual analysis

    Enhancement of Digital Resources and Joint Visualisation
  16. Access Grid allows the sharing of PowerPoint presentations and this has been used successfully in a number of seminars.  Even more interesting, however, is the use of VNC (Virtual Network Computing) to provide shared access to jointly-viewed documents, made available through the collaborative environment or it might be obtained directly from a web-based resource such as EEBO.  This was used very successfully to allow close textual analysis and discussion and even the comparison of analogous texts.  Below we see the view from Hull of a seminar, led by Dr Mark Knights at UEA, in which the students are discussing the indeterminacy or ambiguity of meaning in early modern printed texts, and paying particular attention to the insights to be drawn from the title page engraving displayed to both sites.  The text under discussion is an anonymous pamphlet Rome’s Hunting Match for Three Kingdoms,[11] part of a web of polemics and parodies which call into question the nature of truth in political argument.

    Figure 2: Joint Visualisation in an MA Seminar: Rome’s Hunting Match for Three Kingdoms

  17. All our MA seminars use the VNC link to provide shared visualization of the texts and/or images under discussion, or to display tudent contributions to the Discussion Board and Wiki.  In a subject which requires tight argumentation and disciplined conceptualization, such an exercise is extremely useful.  We think this is innovative pedagogy and has been very successful.  But at the same time, we think that only the ice-berg tip of its potential has been realised.  It would be nice to make more of this shared visualisation, comparisons between many texts and the potential for collaborative annotations and glosses before, during and after the seminars.

    EEBO and e-Research seminars: the Vindiciae…

  18. In one seminar on theories of resistance we took a seminal text: Duplessis-Mornay’s Vindiciae contra tyrannos: known in its English translations as A defence of liberty against tyrants.[12]  We discussed the context of its composition following the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s night during the French Wars of Religion [1574-6]; we discussed the Dutch context of its publication as a justification of William the Silent’s revolt against the Spanish [1579]; and we examined the various contexts to its numerous English translations and republications.  All the while, we looked at the various discourses which influenced the author and were deployed, manipulated and reconfigured in the various incarnations of its text: among them Aristotle’s Politics and his definition of the tyrant, Roman Law and various Biblical texts, in particular 1 Samuel 8, particularly as conveyed through the Geneva Bible and its marginal commentaries.[13]

  19. Such an approach is in line with the most recent research, equally transformed by the advent of EEBO.  Take for example, Anne McLaren’s reinterpretation of the Vindiciae,[14] in which she rejects what she describes as the (over-)emphasis on Roman law bequeathed by the interpretations of Skinner and Garnett.  One does not have to agree with all the arguments advanced – one might observe, for example, that when an author cites a biblical source, the argument being advanced is not necessarily a religious one, one might dispute which genre of discourse does the most significant work – to recognise that the methodology she applies is significant, transformative and infused with the excitement of possibilities glimpsed since ‘the advent of Early English Books Online’.[15]  Above all, her work is effective in its examination of the English ‘reception’ and ‘translations’ of the Vindiciae, raising pertinent questions about the use of contemporary reading(s) to discover the meaning(s) of text and/or authorial intention(s).  McLaren explicitly acknowledges the role that EEBO played in allowing her more readily to compare various contemporary translations of the texts and the supporting structure of texts which formed the context for early-modern ‘reading’.
  20. In somewhat less detail, a comparable approach was followed in the UEA-Hull seminars, and it is one with which the students engaged exceptionally well, participating outstandingly outstandingly well in the seminar and its preparation.  The technological platforms used to support the seminar may not have been precisely a sine qua non of this approach, but they certainly helped.  The Access Grid platform allowed Colin Davis in Norwich and, as a guest tutor, Mark Greengrass in Sheffield to lend their expertise in the elucidation of English and French contexts, respectively.  And Sakai provided an environment in which the students were given ready access to the selections made from various sources, all available digitally, and allowed them to offer their comments and interpretations in good time before the seminar.

    User feedback

  21. We have sought feedback from students and tutors at regular intervals through informal discussion and by means of questionnaires.  The pilot year was hampered by a few technical and organizational problems and this had an effect on student confidence, with some feedback relaying their self-consciousness and intimidation when confronted by unfamiliar technology.  This year, as a result of accumulated experience we have been better able to make the technology disappear and the joint seminars have run extremely well.  Similarly successive improvements – aesthetic and functional – in the Sakai interface have substantially improved students’ experience.  Indeed, feedback has been glowing.  The VRE was described as ‘An excellent forum for discussion and debate.’  The joint-seminars praised thus: ‘The audio visual format … was extremely good and gave the opportunity for more academic (tutorial) input than a conventional seminar.’  Students were not tardy in identifying the potential and the advantages presented by inter-site collaboration: ‘This has been a most stimulating and fascinating module.  All the teachers, in Hull and in Norwich, were amazing and very able at putting across their knowledge and insights.  One felt very privileged and lucky to have access to such an array of knowledge.’  We are proud of these attestations and convinced that the format has genuine promise.  The only negative observations to be made in this year’s feedback was the complaint that there were not more students involved!  That is to say they want the Virtual Research Community of which they are part to be expanded numerically.  Post-Graduate recruitment in the Arts and Humanities is straightened in these times of tuition fees, but we intend to bring in a third party, Warwick, next year.  Further partners are envisaged.

  22. The feedback from tutors has been similarly enthusiastic.  Team teaching across institutions has been exciting, if challenging experience.  Above all, the technological platforms have enhanced the seminars in ways which coincide with our pedagogical and methodological convictions: student-led and research-led, enhanced use of digital resources, combining an interdisciplinary and contextualist approach to sources and with detailed and rigorous inter-textual analysis.  All these themes, present in the discipline and enhanced by the technology have also been explored in the context of the Virtual Research Group.

    The Early Modern VRE Research Group

  23. The expansion of the project facilitated by British Academy funding has two aims: the creation of the Virtual Research Community, meeting in regular Access Grid Seminars and supported by an online Collaborative Environment; and to pursue an innovative and exciting research agenda.  The ‘Early Modern VRE Research Group’ was launched at a face-to-face workshop held at UEA on 11 September 2006.  Participants were introduced to ways in which supporting technology would be used (monthly Access Grid seminars supported by the Sakai portal); and the project’s scholarly objectives were discussed and defined (interdisciplinary collaboration under the working title of ‘Different constructions of the Commonwealth and polity’).  This theme was chosen collectively by the members of the research group because it was felt that it offered the most fertile territory for the sort of interdisciplinary collaboration and consideration of diachronic issues that the technological platform would facilitate.  Although conscious of the potential obstacles (perhaps more cultural than technological) to certain forms of collaboration, participants – many of whom were hitherto little aware of VRE technologies – expressed resounding enthusiasm for exploring the transformative potential of technologically enhanced collaboration for Arts and Humanities research.  The group we have assembled is composed of leading scholars in the field and, for the purposes of disseminating the potential of this technology, usefully distributed across a range of institutions around the UK.[16]

  24. The participants bring a diversity of approaches to the early modern period (their disciplines ranging from political science, history of political thought, history of political discourse, social and cultural history, and English literature) and, geographically, their interests cover at least Great Britain, North America and France.  This diversity is core to the project’s research objectives: the VRE technology at our disposal allows research collaboration to be sustained at a previously unimaginable intensity; the project is motivated by the belief that this will have a transformative impact upon the nature of research and research outputs, and that this will be even more dramatically the case when the different approaches represented in our group collide on a regular basis.
  25. In the present project, we aim to enhance historical understanding of a number of key terms and concepts (currently Commonwealth, Republic and their associated networks of value-laden words) by pooling the expertise of scholars across disciplines and across time. Each scholar brings to the table her or his distinctive disciplinary approach, guiding questions, means of analysis and source materials. Integral to this approach is a collective analysis of conceptual innovation and linguistic change, an exploration of the processes of conceptual redefinition and a reflection on the methodologies required of such exploration.  ‘Virtual’ research seminars have been held on a monthly basis since November 2006, and each has generally involved 12-15 of the 22 project participants at 8-10 sites. Those unable to attend particular meetings can listen to recordings of them and read documentation via the VRE site.  This represents a dramatic improvement on what an equivalent research group could hope to achieve by using conventional transport to overcome distance!  We have purchased 10 Desktop Access Grid licenses allowing more flexible participation, not governed by room availability, and holding out the possibility of smaller ad hoc working groups.  What is more, our March seminar featured the transatlantic participation of Professor Michael Winship, University of Georgia, in a seminar devoted to republicanism in seventeenth century North America.  The potential for this and similar groups to expand internationally is self-evident and would seem to depend only on the expanding availability of the technology.

    Fig 3: Our third Virtual Research Group Seminar: discussing Professor Glenn Burgess’s paper on ‘Commonwealth’

  26. Participants have used the online collaborative environment to share papers, recommended reading etc prior to seminars; and to exchange comments, discussion afterwards.  Above all, use has been made of the Wiki: a set of easily expandable web pages which to which all members of the Research Group can contribute.

  27. Here interesting human factors have been observed.  A dynamic tension exists within the subject.  On the one hand our participants are eager to collaborate and to exploit to the full the potential for intense, sustained debate which the technological platforms offer.  On the other, the scholarly culture largely eschews collaborative authorship and traditionally asserts a strong sense individual ownership of academic work.  Analogous opportunities and challenges have been thrust upon the scholarly historical community by the ‘open-source research model’ and the ‘wiki way’, as analysed by Roy Rozenzweig.[17]  As correctly identified in that article, the most significant obstacles to scholarly collaboration are social, to do with the ingrained ‘possessive individualism’ which characterises much historical practice.  On the one hand, such attitudes seem to be encouraged by the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise.  On the other, as our experience with the VRE Research Group seems to show, early modern scholars do subscribe, to a large extent, to Merton’s ‘communism of the scientific ethos’.[18]  It is too early to say exactly what sort of model for publication we will finally adopt.  Attribution and intellectual recognition are clearly important.  But the Research Group’s participants have expressed a strong commitment to collaboration, to the exchange of ideas and even appropriate forms of joint ownership of outputs.  As participants share ideas, sources, references and so on in the VRE, we have developed a useful function for the Sakai wiki which allows participants to mark their contribution.

    Fig 4: Contribution Macro

  28. Some seminars have been audio recorded, and when possible these have been made available as podcasts through the online VRE (rather as it is possible to ‘listen again’ to BBC Radio 4’s programmes via the web).  An Access Grid technology called Memetic[19] has also been used to create annotated audio-visual recordings of most seminars: unfortunately, the current state of technology only allows re-use within an Access Grid room, but it is an area of development which we are tracking.

    The VRG’s Research Agenda

  29. As indicated above, a substantial ingredient in the Early Modern VRE Research Group’s innovation is to encourage and facilitate collaboration between scholars representing different historical sub-disciplines, and other cognate disciplines, applying diverse approaches and examining disparate sources and evidence.  Examining a key term such as Commonwealth, the group brings together scholarly insight into the discourse used by different social groups, through a variety of media, over a period of three and half centuries, in Great Britain, France and North America.  The Research Group’s aim is to take the matter considerably further: the potential for dramatic innovation, we posit, lies in the means for sustained collaboration which the technological platforms allow.

  30. At the time of writing, five AG Seminars have been held for the Early Modern VRE Research Group:

    1.      Introduction: history of concepts - 15 November 2006
    2.      Honesty/honestas; words and concepts - 12 December 2006
    3.      Commonwealth - 17 January 2007
    4.      Republicanism; Commonwealth in 1649 - 14 February 2007
    5.      Republicanism in North America - 14 March 2007

  31. In forthcoming seminars we will examine the concepts of ‘Res Publica and République in a French context’ and ‘Plebeian views of the Commonwealth’.  Discussion papers have been shared before seminars by means of the VRE-Wiki; many contributions have relied heavily upon texts made available through EEBO.  Already this constitutes a bank of material – citations, commentaries, interpretative and methodological observations – which is being expanded and refined.  The Group has considered methodological issues and analysed key substantive terms. The following are some of the questions we have been asking.

  32. What should be the focus of a historian of political discourse seeking to understand conceptual innovation and linguistic change (and how are these two related)?  How can we bring together different understandings of the polity held by those at different social levels? Do they share common languages and concepts? Are we concerned with words, networks of words, or concepts and how do we define these?  Or, in a move which has proved useful for the present group, should we be considering ‘summation terms’, reflexive concepts used by societies to encapsulate their mode of political life or identity?  If we accept that the groupings Commonwealth/Common Weale/Public Weal, res publica/Republic – and related term, Commonalty – are best understood as summation terms, we must also ask how change comes about in the meanings of such emblematic concepts.  How do the different strands of discourse, synchronically present in any society, relate to each other?  What, if any, is the interplay between elite and vernacular discourse, between the appropriation of terms and their redefinition in local (parochial or county) contexts, and as it occurs in national and international ‘conversations’.  To adapt the expression of a recent contribution to the VRE-Wiki before the fifth virtual seminar: ‘How do we relate occurrences in these [various] contexts to the transformation of concepts and ‘summation terms’?’  And how does the network of discourses relate to the dramatic, diachronic moments of contestation that punctuate the history of summation terms?

  33. The Group is conscious of the challenges to be confronted by raising such questions, and of the difficulty of distilling coherence and synthesis from the ferment of debate.  The group’s collaboration through AG seminars and the VRE-Wiki over the next five or six months, down to our next face-to-face meeting in September, are focused towards this end. Such collaboration is indeed part of our experiment. We are interested to learn how scholars react when confronted by different evidence-sets, variant modes of argumentation, sub-disciplinary assumptions; how readily they will work together (rather than alone or in very small groups, which is the norm for most research in the humanities) and how the technology can help achieve more intense and sustained collaboration, so as to arrive and a richer and more satisfactory synthesis.

  34. Preliminary answers to the questions we have been asking will be offered by the project’s two published outputs:

    • a collaboratively written article on substantive issues (in likelihood an analysis of the related summation terms, Commonwealth, Common Weale, Commonalty; Republic and res publica);
    • another outlining methodological issues encountered through the group’s work and its examination of the interface between discourse and practice.

    The Virtual Research Group is built around an original and exciting research agenda and one which is in harmony with the potential offered by the VRE it is using.  Furthermore, it is performing a useful task of disseminating the techniques to a substantial group of scholars.  It is around these features – fitness for purpose and coherence of research agenda – that a Virtual Research Community can be built.

  35.  As noted above, the current research group is explicitly a pilot for a larger project – for which we hope to receive further funding – An Online Dictionary of Early Modern Keywords and Concepts.  The primary focus is on the construction of a series of on-line ‘articles’ (together constituting a ‘dictionary’) of keywords in early modern English political and social vocabulary. These entries will be composed – with appropriate forms of collaboration – in the VRE-Wiki.  They can then be made publicly accessible via the web.  The approach will focus on exploring ‘families’ or clusters of words to provide both focus and limits to the project. It is particularly important to de-limit the material in such a way that after three years the outcomes will be self-sufficient and coherent, yet can also serve as a base for a further expansion of the project, funding permitting. The ‘families’ of words will include at least:

    • the terminology of ‘commonwealth’, including political organisation (commonwealth, body politic, civil society, state); status (citizen, subject, freeman, bondsman)
    • core antonyms: liberty/slavery; vice/virtue; obedience/disobedience
    • vocabulary of social description - terms relating to poverty and vagrancy; the language of ‘sorts’; nobility and its varieties
    • terms relating to religious belief and practice and its political implications (e.g. tolerance, toleration, persecution, charity, superstition/superstitious, conscience)
    • the language of corruption and reform/reformation
    • the terms and concepts used about images (icon, idol, representation)
    • the lexicon of rhetoric, conversation, discourse, libel and slander
    • the metaphorical language of the body and gender
    • custom (time out of mind, ancient constitution, memory, privilege, right)
    • the concept and words associated with violence
    • interest (benefit, gain, profit, advantage, self-interest, private interest)
    • loyalty and love: allegiance, friendship, disloyalty, betrayal, fickleness
    • words associated with genres (declaration, petition, remonstrance, address, association)
    • words associated with moral attributes or failings (ambition, honour, pride, lust, will, hypocrisy)
    • the lexicon of seditious words

    Many of our contributors work heavily on as yet undigitised archival and manuscript sources; images of various sorts, caricatures and engravings will also feature prominently.  However, the role of EEBO in the production of this collaborative work will be immense; and we are convinced that – funding permitting – the completed ‘dictionary’ will be an important resource for students and scholars of early modern culture and users of EEBO in general.
  36. The Early Modern VRE Research Group and the proposed Online Dictionary of Keywords present one model of collaboration using emergent technologies.  The protocols for collaboration, (possibly fine-grained) attribution, web-publication and access are yet fully to be determined; they form interesting, relatively uncharted territories.  The model, however, is clear: it puts eScience technologies and VRE-Wiki collaboration tools at the disposal of a large, but relatively circumscribed research group.  Other scoping activities we have conducted sought to identify the desiderata which would allow these initiative to expand and offer the ‘wiki way’ to larger scholarly community.

    Early modern Text forum

  37. The third strand of activity we have called the Early Modern Text Forum: this is an aspirational, blue skies strand to the project.  Our vision is of a collaborative environment providing a forum for a large number of related research projects.  We envisage an umbrella for a series of projects expanding from the Research Group already established.  Collectively, we hope they will form a heterogeneous virtual community of interrelated related projects, workgroups and researchers.  And we hope the outputs of this activity will create a resource which will become an attractive point of reference in itself.  As well as wiki entries on themes related to the study of early-modern texts and their contexts, providing a scholarly forum for debate on issues of authorship, publication, reception, translation, ‘reading’ etc, we envisage, for example, annotations and collaborative scholarly ‘editions’ of PDF files or images such as those available through EEBO.  We aspire to an academic wiki, but not wikipedia: as far as possible open to the academic and student community but ultimately confirming to quality protocols, requiring editorial standards, gate-keeping and so on. 
  38. A second workshop was held at UEA on 12 September 2007.  Attended by participants in the VRE Research Group and by a number of other parties interested in the use of VREs/eScience to enhance research in the Arts and Humanities, this workshop had the objective of helping us scope requirements for such a large scale collaborative research portal.  While the first workshop served to launch what has become an extremely dynamic and promising research group, the second workshop’s success was of a different order.  We presented to participants a pilot instance of how the Sakai VRE might be used for collaborative research on early modern texts, to create a community forum which would enhance the use of resources offered by EEBO and other online databases.  Our efforts in preparing this pilot contributed greatly towards our use of Sakai both for the MA Programme and for the VRE Research Group.  In line with this, the day’s discussion made it clear that Sakai, with its current level of functionality, would be well suited to supporting relatively small and tightly-managed research groups.  However, our notion of a large scale portal providing an umbrella for a number of related projects was found to aspire beyond what Sakai can currently offer.  Two important gaps were identified:

    • Resources vs Repository.  Sakai’s current resources tool interacts well with the other tools.  However, it is, in essence, a manually organised file-structure and as such its coherence would inevitably break down in the context of the sort of large-scale collaborative portal we envisage.  More appropriate then, would be the integration of some form of repository allowing content to be retrieved using assorted metadata.
    • Annotation.  The functionality required to allow production of collaboratively edited scholarly editions of the sort of source texts available through EEBO etc. also goes beyond the current functionality of the Sakai Wiki.  More in-depth scoping of these particular desiderata is required.

  39. We hope to be able to extend and expand the project to develop such functionality and this vision further.  In the meantime, we are looking for opportunities to initiate other research groups using the technology, and which, if appropriate may contribute to a future Early Modern Texts Forum.  We hope that initiatives in the history of censorship and indexed works and proposed collaborations with corpus linguists will bear fruit.


  40. The activities of the VRE for the History of Political Discourse project shows the potential for VREs to enhance pedagogy and research in the Arts and Humanities generally and specifically in Early Modern Studies.  In our view the application of eScience collaborative technologies and VREs is an appropriate and timely way of enhancing widely used digital resources.  Above all, the focus of this project has been upon encouraging collaboration – among post-graduate in research-led learning, between faculty in inter-site pedagogy, among established researchers exploring the potential of eScience and online technologies.  And it does so with the view that research collaboration is called for by current methodological developments in the history of political discourse and in early modern studies generally.  Such activities, moreover, are an inevitable and appropriate response to the opportunities opened by digital resources such as EEBO. 

[1] On the contribution, influence and potential of Begriffsgeschichte, see: M. Richter, The History of Political and Social Concepts (1995); Iain Hampsher-Monk, Karen Tilmans and Frank Van Vree, eds., The History of Concepts: Comparative Perspectives (Amsterdam, 1998); Pasi Ihalainen, 'Methods and Sources for a Conceptual Approach to Political Discourse', in Id., The Discourse of Political Pluralism in Early Eighteenth-Century England (Helsinki, 1999), pp.37-60.



[4]; see also

[5]; esp. p.43.

[6]; esp. p.4-8.

[7] See and the public pages at

[8] See and


[10] See also the public pages at and

[11] Rome’s Hunting Match for Three Kingdoms (1680), Wing / R1902, URL:

[12] Numerous editions, e.g. (1648), Wing / L415, URL:

[13] (1561), STC / 1649:03, URL:

[14] Anne McLaren, ‘Rethinking Republicanism: Vindiciae, contra tyrannos in context’, Historical Journal, 49 (2006), pp. 23-52.

[15] Ibid. p.32.

[16]Mike Braddick, Professor of Early Modern History, University of Sheffield

Glenn Burgess, Professor of Early Modern History, University of Hull

Justin Champion, Professor of the History of Early Modern Ideas, Royal Holloway

Colin Davis, Professor of Early Modern History, University of East Anglia

Mark Greengrass, Professor of Early Modern History, University of Sheffield

Steve Hindle, Professor of History, University of Warwick

Simon Hodson, Project Manager, University of Hull

Ann Hughes, Professor of Early Modern History, Keele University

Mark Knights, Reader in Early Modern History, University of East Anglia

Howell Lloyd, Professor of Early Modern History, University of Hull

Simon Middleton, Lecturer in American History, University of Sheffield

Mark Philp, University Lecturer in Politics, University of Oxford

Joad Raymond, Professor of English Literature, University of East Anglia

Jennifer Richards, Reader in Early Modern Literature, University of Newcastle

Alex Shepard, University Lecturer in early modern British economic and social history, University of Cambridge

Bill Sherman, Professor of Renaissance/Early Modern Studies, University of York

Cathy Shrank, Lecturer in English Literature, University of Sheffield

Alex Walsham, Professor of Reformation History, University of Exeter

John Walter, Professor of History, University of Essex

James Walvin, Professor of History, University of York

Phil Withington, Lecturer in Early Modern History, University of Leeds

Andy Wood, Reader in Early Modern History, University of East Anglia

[17] Roy Rosenzweig, ‘Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past’ in The Journal of American History, 93 (2006), pp. 117-147.

[18] Robert K. Merton, "The Normative Structure of Science," 1942, in The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations, by Robert K. Merton (Chicago, 1973), p. 275, quoted by Rosenzweig.


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