HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World

How to Read an Early Modern Book

This Week's Big Question

How did an early modern journalist and novelist named Daniel Defoe portray life in London in the 1660s when the Bubonic Plague was spreading there?

This Week's Big Challenge

To answer this big question, you will need to be able to read early modern texts in their original form. To learn how to read these texts, you will practice transcribing them.

To "transcribe" means to reproduce someone else's writing in modern form.
Take a look at the text above. It is sampled from 4 different early modern English books. To transcribe this text sample, we would record the following:

  • Transcrib-ing Early MODERN Sources

Why should this first word be "Transcrib-ing" and not "Tranfcrib-ing"? Your task for this week is to learn the answer, and in the process to become comfortable reading early modern books in their original form. In other words, you should learn how to transcribe the printed versions of early modern books.

Video Introduction

Learning Outcomes

Questions to Consider, and Learning Activities


Today we think of journalists as people who chronicle the real and true events of their times. Accuracy and truthfulness in reporting are certainly among the main values that journalists today strive for, but these are values that are increasingly under suspicion. Twenty-four hour news stations feel obligated to produce enough content to fill the hours, a pressure which can lead to sloppy reporting. To make matters worse, there are active disinformation campaigns (also sometimes called propaganda) that exploit the growing need for content in the constant flow of news. And then there are the complications that come from the popularity of social media discussions, since people sometimes share disinformation and misinformation unwittingly.

Today (in 2021) we are reading and hearing and watching news everyday about the progress of a pandemic and about the Canadian Federal Election. Amid the health crisis and political debates, we are also experiencing a crisis of trust in the sources of information that help guide us through the world. Some politicians have even charged that all unfavourable news is "fake news." In these worrying times, it is sometimes difficult to tell who to trust.

Historical studies might be able to help us learn how to deal with the flood of information. The reason is that in courses such as HIST 2F90 you learn how to analyze sources. The skills that you have started to practice in this course so far (for example: close reading, corroboration, contextualization, and sourcing) are really good foundations for thinking critically not only about sources from the past but also sources from today. For example, once we source a document and ask "Who is the author?" we can ask the further step and ask: "Can we trust that author?"

This is among the questions that you can keep in mind when you read Daniel Defoe's "Memoirs of the Plague." Daniel Defoe is sometimes described as an early journalist. Furthermore, what we consider journalism today traces its roots to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, since that is when newspapers in a form that is recognizable to us started to establish themselves in places like London, Amsterdam, and Paris. However, Defoe was also an early writer of novels. Keep this in mind when you watch the first few minutes of Robert McCrum's video introduction to Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe (note that McCrum starts by discussing another earlier novel: Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan):

Pay particular attention to McCrum's statements about Defoe's attitudes toward fact and fiction!

For this week we will be focusing on a different book by Daniel Defoe. The title of the text that you will read is "Memoirs of the Plague" (it is part of a larger book -- and that book is the subject of your first assignment). In these pages Defoe writes about the Great Plague of London that happened just before another disaster: the Great Fire of London of 1666! You should read at least the first 20 pages of the Google Books version of Defoe's text (but you may read more for this lesson, and you must read some more for the assignment). It is important that you read this version and not others, because one of the most important learning outcomes for this week is that you should learn how to read early modern books in the format that they were printed in originally. As the course progresses, we will be providing you with lots of sources that are only available in this form, so if you do not learn the basic skills of reading these texts now, you will be at a real disadvantage later in the course!

A Practical (and Humorous) Introduction to Reading Early Modern Books

A scene from the long-running BBC sitcom The Vicar of Dibley (1994-2007) illustrates really effectively the kind of problems that you might have when you try reading older books. In this scene, the somewhat slow but sweet-hearted Alice Tinker (played brilliantly by Emma Chambers) tries to read several Bible verses (supposedly from the Song of Solomon) in a church service. The trouble is, she is using an antique Bible that the parish church has received. She is not familiar with it, and the Bible she is reading from uses an older style of typography (i.e., early modern fonts). Here's the excerpt from episode 2 of the sitcom's first season:

If you are worried and distressed because you are not sure what "succour" means, put on your researcher's hat and help yourself out! Provide yourself some succour!

We found this excerpt with the help of Devon Eastland's helpful introduction from last year (2020) to reading older English books. It's on your list of secondary sources for this week. The title of Eastland's essay is "Why do old books use F's instead of S's?" Eastland's answer is that they don't. The confusion is a mistake on the inexperienced reader's part.

Let's look closely at the example of a pamphlet from 1745 by the British Protestant preacher and missionary, George Whitefield. It will give us a chance to look ahead to some themes later in the course, but its main purpose here is to get us to practice reading old texts.
Whitefield is very interesting to us in this course because as he was a British-born writer who travelled frequently to America and commented on many major questions of the day. Most notably, he was a major critic of the manner in which slaves were treated. It is interesting and perhaps also perplexing for us today to note that while he condemned slave masters, he was not an abolitionist (a person who advocated for the end to slavery).  He criticized the ways slaves were treated, not the fact that they were slaves.  We can -- and we will in other Modules in this course! -- compare Whitefield's writing with others who debated the political, economic, and moral implications of the trade in human beings. For now, however, this brief passage from Whitefield's writings is merely an example of early modern fonts.

If you’re not familiar with older fonts, you might wonder why everyone spoke with a "lifp". They didn’t.  Some of the older versions of the letter "s" look more like what we would call an "f". Look closely. Can you see that that there is a horizontal bar that goes all the way through both sides of the "f", but if there's any horizontal bar on an old-fashioned "s" it's only to the left-hand side of the letter. In other words, the two letters are NOT the same. This (to us) strange version of "s" is called a "long s". It is NOT an "f". The "long s" is a BIG problem for OCR (optical character recognition) computer programs. By contrast, our minds are pliable enough to learn these very subtle distinctions, largely because we can usually figure out what these words should be (our minds do a kind of auto-correction, anticipating what should come next, how the words should look). While there are new versions of OCR programs emerging -- some even that work with handwritten manuscripts -- at this point it’s very difficult for a computer to read these old fonts as well as we can.

When the OCR program used by archive.org, the world’s largest online archival database, tried to "read" the Whitefield passage we include above, it rendered it as this:
You can probably imagine poor, sweet Alice Tinker doing about the same hatchet-job to this passage. As you can see, the computer program added a significant number of mistakes -- so many that it's really not useful for us to use this text. It’s the information age, but the machines that read this older information can’t help us here.

You can do a much better job yourself. Your first step toward this goal is to recognize that we have all kinds of confusing letters and numbers that we do not confuse when we read. Look at these combinations:
When you read early modern books in English (and in many other languages that use a Latin alphabet, too), the letters that readers often mix up (but you should not) are:
The biggest confusions come with f's and s's. Remember that fonts have histories. They have changed over the generations, sometimes significantly. Don't let these changes give you a "fhit sit!" These two non-words in quotation marks would be an incorrect way of reading and transcribing an imaginary text. We won't correct the mistake, but you should not make this kind of mistake in your reading of early modern texts! Don't panic! Read the words that are actually on the page. Don't let the older fonts confuse you. You should not change the spelling that the original writers used (even if that spelling is not correct by modern standards), but you should also not introduce mistakes that the original writers never meant to make!

Let's practice with that 1745 passage from George Whitefield. Read it slowly, word-by-word, and correct the mistakes that the computer made.  The corrected version and proper transcription of the passage from 1745 is:
YOUR last sweet Letter was very savoury
to my Taste. It brought God to my
Soul. I feel much Heart-Union with
you. I thank you for all the kind Expressions
of your increasing Love. May the Lord re-
ward you an Hundred-fold in this World, and in
that to come
! Oh what a blessed Instrument of
much Good, has the Lord made you to my
poor Soul!
This kind of work is a great exercise for the historian-in-training.  It requires you to slow down and read carefully.  Yes, this passage is strange, but making sense of this strangeness is the kind of challenge that historians try to grapple with.  We know that confronting this challenge takes time and is not easy. We sympathize: Most of you have full schedules, with jobs, domestic responsibilities, and university courses.  You’re always needing to be in a hurry, to read quickly -- you just need to get through as much of the material as possible. We professors do that, too; sometimes we even recommend "strategic reading" as an effective way to cut through the detail to get at the essentials.  But in research we often need to slow down, to read carefully, to think about what we’re reading, to sometimes stop on a word or a phrase to ponder exactly what’s going on. 

Pondering what's going on is especially important these days. After all, we're living in the middle of pandemic, which makes life more uncertain! Learning to read slooooooowly, and carefully, and thoughtfully are what we are practising often in this course, and certainly this week, too.


One of this lesson's main tasks is for you to analyze the contents of "Memoirs of the Plague." When you do this you will be practising the skills of close reading, contextualization, corroboration, and sourcing that we started applying in the previous lessons. For this week, there is also one further historical thinking skill that you you start practising -- interpretation of significance.

To learn about significance, read the short introduction at http://historicalthinking.ca/historical-significance. Try to think of ways that you can establish the significance of the sources and evidence that you read and discuss this week -- and every week.

Secondary Sources


Primary Sources

Supplemental Materials

* coming soon

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