Early Modern Archaisms

One early modern convention leads to another. How self-perpetuating.

In a previous post I’d described the basic knowledge of early modern handwriting (paleography) that one needs in order to do well in the archives. In an attempt to crowdsource my research in the English archives, I included a photo of a particular word that was giving me fits. Several interpretations were offered, with the most plausible candidate (when measured by letter shapes) seemingly disqualified – it looked like that word (more or less), but that word didn’t make any sense in the context of that sentence. Or did it?

Welcome to the world of archaisms.

Historians have plenty to deal with when studying the past. On the most basic level, we need to: read the ever-growing historiography (i.e. “literature”) of a given subfield and develop our own questions for study; master older versions of foreign languages; navigate dispersed, labyrinthine archival holdings; and then decipher the sketchy and often-illegible handwriting we find therein. Once we’ve uncovered the documentary past, the real work begins: connecting documents to each other; decoding obscure historio-cultural references (both pop and highbrow); converting defunct measures and terminology into modern equivalencies, all in the hopes of eventually being able to establish relationships between historical actors and elucidate historical processes in order to build up models of the past.

Given all this, the last thing the historian wants to deal with is difficult-to-discern variant definitions of the words themselves. And yet sometimes we must.

Three examples:

1. The first I noticed back in my grad school days. One of the joys of studying 18C England is that they often gave wonderfully long, descriptive titles to their books. To give an example: A Compendious Journal of all the Marches, Famous Battles, Sieges And other most noteworthy, heroical and ever memorable Actions of the Triumphant Armies, Of the ever glorious Confederate High Allies, In their late and victorious War Against the Powerful Armies of proud and lofty France, In and on the Confines of Holland, Germany, & Flanders, So far as our successful British Troops extended in Conjunction therein. Digested into Twelve Campaigns, begun AD 1701, and ended 1712.  All but the first and last, the Grand Confederate Armies were under the conduct and command of our Honourable & much Honor-worthy, ever-renown’d, graceful, & excellent war-like Hero John, duke of Marlborough, Prince of the Holy Empire, etc. Truly & punctually collected, form’d, compos’d & written in the Time of the said War, By John Millner, Serjeant in the Honourable Royal Regiment of Foot of Ireland. Having been therewith during the War an Eye-witness of the most of the following Marches & Actions of the said War. Completed at Ghent on the 31st Day of December, 1712.

Looking over various 18C histories of the Duke of Marlborough’s campaigns, I noticed a peculiar word that would appear again and again in these voluminous titles, yet one that seemed somewhat out-of-place. You’ve undoubtedly noticed it as well, heck, I even used it in the title of one of my first posts: the word “curious,” often modifying the word “engraving.” The meaning of a word rarely evokes the very definition of that word, but their use of “curious” evoked my curiosity. I looked its etymology up, to discover that curious also had an archaic connotation in the early modern period: detailed or careful or precise. So printers advertising their “curious engravings” were in fact bragging about how careful and precise their illustrations were. (I don’t know if the fact that several of them advertise that they were made with copper plates is another marker for quality.)

Curiously Strong

2. A second archaic example comes from the textbook for my HIS 200 methods course. In its discussion on whether we can believe the judgments of contemporaries when assessing historical actor’s personalities, it mentioned the example of King James I of England. We can trust that this king was an “obnoxious” person, the textbook tells us, because contemporaries referred to him in this manner. I, however, was somewhat skeptical. Not only does this strike me as a rather unreflective reading of primary sources (does the same logic apply to the numerous Nazi German portrayals of Jews?), but from my prep for a Tudor/Stuart course, my impression of James was hardly one of a drunken frat boy. Rather, he was described as a shy, rather passive and even submissive type of king – you know how those academics are. With my curiosity piqued (but not piqued enough to take the time to scour through the primary sources and the biographies of James), I researched the etymology of the term “obnoxious.” Lo and behold, there is indeed another archaic meaning for the term, along the lines of being exposed/putting oneself in harm’s way, being subject to harm, subject to authority. The modern connotation of obnoxious, according to Etymology Online, only dates from the 1670s, which would be twenty years after James had already died. So my ad hoc speculation: when contemporaries referred to James I as “obnoxious,” they meant that he wasn’t acting like a true king, that he was lowering himself below his courtiers and in the process subjecting himself and the royal office to harm by his unkingly behavior (i.e. being taken advantage of by his courtiers and not laying down the law). This certainly seems to fit what I’ve read of James better than the idea that he was a loud, boorish irritant. Or maybe I’m reading modern qualities of obnoxiousness back into the early modern period, i.e. the things that irritated people back then might have been totally different from what irritates us (or me) today? Better to perish the thought, lest I get too dizzy with the possibilities…

3. The irritating James I naturally brings us to our third example, our paleographical puzzle:
[NB: the vertical line before the ‘break’ is almost certainly a descender from the above line, so you can probably ignore it.]

After some discussion in the paleography thread, I think the word does, as Gavin suggested, look a lot like “irritate”, although it is a difficult word in that it might be two words, and there are numerous possible permutations for many of the letters – in fact, the only letter that I am 100% sure about is the last, the -e, and that’s not very helpful. I had already eliminated “irritate” as a possibility, however, because the context required a word that was antonymous with wearying the enemy, and irritating the enemy is actually quite similar to wearying them, and not destroying them quickly/completely as I suspect the author meant. But then Gavin pointed out that an archaic legal definition of “irritate” (according to the OED) is to nullify, make void, possibly eliminate completely.  The only contemporary dictionary that mentions a word like this that I’ve found, Elisha Coles from 1717, defines “irrite” as “void, of no effect or weight.” Searching through Google Books gives no help, with all of the contemporaneous usages of irritate using the modern definition. But I don’t have time to access EEBO/ECCO or the OED right now.

So now I’m presented with two possibilities: a) accept that this word(s) is something else, even though it looks a lot like irritate, or else b) accept that it is “irritate.” I really have no idea what else it could be – “just take” comes closest, but isn’t a perfect fit, particularly the “just” part. Accepting irritate means first coming up with a plausible explanation for why the author would’ve chosen this archaic (even then) legal word. It turns out that the author was in fact a “doctor,” an Anglican cleric I believe, who was educated enough to have possibly used such terms. The only way to really tell would be to look at contemporary English legal writings (perhaps an English law dictionary might do the trick, although a 1708 law dictionary doesn’t help), and to see if “irritate” was used, either as a verbal form of “irrite,” or on its own. Another possibility, although historians hate to consider it, is that the author was just being idiosyncratic with his usage, in which case we’d need to look at all his writings to see if he used the term elsewhere, or if he tended to use legalistic terms, or if he just liked to use funny words sometimes. Or maybe the Latin root (“excite”, “provoke”) has an alternate connotation that would’ve been more evident to contemporaries, even though it seems to have been little used by others c. 1700… So many possibilities for so little a word.

This quite narrow discussion raises a broader, more frightening possibility that I hadn’t even considered before: archaisms might hinder our ability to decipher difficult handwriting because we’re using a (modern) meaning to eliminate a possible word, when an alternate (archaic) definition of that word would in fact validate that reading. Do we decipher difficult words based on what our eyes are telling us the letters look like – within what margin of error? Or should we interpret difficult words based on what our knowledge of the language says it should be, and if so, then how loose a reading of the letters are we willing to accept as a result? Which should take priority when the letters vs. the meaning are in conflict? Sometimes archaisms are obvious: we might be able to recognize that Renaissance artistic portrayals of Alexander the Great clad in plate mail and wielding cannon are anachronistic. But when we lack such knowledge about the context, or when there isn’t a lot of context, or when we think we “know” the language since we speak it, such archaic meanings may skip right past us. Words that simply don’t make contextual sense are usually pretty obvious, as with our “curious” example above. Misreading an archaism is more likely to happen when shades of meaning (connotations) have subtly changed yet remain similar enough, as with “obnoxious,” which generally describes a bad person, but bad in different ways. The worst case, however, is our “irritate” example above, because we are using the meaning (which we are assuming, based off of our modern understanding of its meaning and the context of the word) to, almost a priori, determine the word in the first place. This is sometimes necessary with bad handwriting, but it can also lead to error if they used a word differently than what we are expecting, or used a different word that we aren’t expecting at all. We can only see what we know, but we don’t always know what they knew.

The historian’s benediction: May you never study a person with difficult penmanship.

Abandoning our circular logic and speculative parsing of three hundred year old scribbles, here are some resources I’ve found useful when reading early modern English in the 17C:

  • Various contemporary dictionaries by authors such as Henry Cockeram, Elisha Coles, Edward Phillips, John Kersey, Thomas Blount, John Wilkins.
  • Various contemporary English-foreign language dictionaries (English-French, English-Dutch…)
  • OED: the Oxford English Dictionary is the gold standard when it comes to etymology. Perhaps the older among us might remember the compact bound edition that came with its own magnifying lens so you could read the tiny print (9 pages-to-one). I assume more recent versions have taken advantage of the lexica available from the digital age.
  • LEME: Lexicons of Early Modern English. A searchable collection of several of the above dictionaries and other works.
  • EEBO/ECCO/Google Books: if you really want to see the context of word usage, you need to search these databases to see how they are actually used. Google’s Ngram Viewer will show you their usage (based off of a sample from Google Books) over time.

PS: I created a separate tag for all these Early Modern Convention posts.



7 responses to “Early Modern Archaisms”

  1. Gavin Robinson says :

    If he was a clergyman that makes ‘irritate’ even more likely. The Anglican clergy would be familiar with Roman civil law because it was the basis of English ecclesiastical law. Was his doctorate LLD?

    The OED gives examples from 1605 to 1880, so it’s certainly not archaic in this period. A quick search of ECCO shows it used in this sense in some legal books in the early 18th century.

    Maybe you could add theory to the list of things historians need to get on top of. This dilemma is all about Derrida’s emptiness of the signifier.

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks. I haven’t had time to look his biography up. Perhaps specialized ‘jargon’ is a better term than ‘archaism’ in that instance.

      Re: Derrida. I hope you’re not expecting me to wave the theory banner! I never really got into too much continental theory, other than slogging through a few of the Olympians in the Pantheon. The more useful parts for me seem to consist of restating obvious things in obscure language: language is slippery and people can (intentionally or not) mean different things even if they use the same words; words help shape the way people think about things so definitions/usages are disputed; people are inconsistent when it suits them; some people may take the ‘official’ version and turn it on its head for other purposes; arguments have internal contradictions within them…. I emphasize all these things to undergrads, and they’re useful to always keep in mind, but I don’t bother assigning the idea to Foucault, Saussure or whomever.

      Fortunately the meaning(s) of most prose/vocabulary doesn’t “float” too much – are there any linguistic estimates of the definitional ‘drift’ of the average word over a given time span? If there were too many potential meanings/contexts for many words, we couldn’t have this conversation, much less ‘understand’ what’s being said in another language from several hundred years ago. But that’s just my armchair view. Those cultural theory wars of the 1980s-2000s seem to be over, at least as far as history is concerned. If it managed to remind people of these basic points in critical thinking and argumentation, I guess it was worth it.

      • Gavin Robinson says :

        Yes, most people do already understand that meanings can change without having to go through difficult French philosophy. Also a lot of the philosophy of language is obsolete because it doesn’t take joint attention into account. It now looks like slippage can be put on a more scientific basis because language is closely related to perception, and we know from lots of cognitive psychology experiments that perceptions are very unreliable. That still doesn’t help us to predict or correct for slippage though. It does seem that Derrida was right on the money about writing being a special thing in its own right and not just a substitute for speech. Breaking the attention triplet is bound to have some crazy effects.

        I’m not heavily into theory but I find it can be a useful source of interesting ideas and different perspectives. When it comes to testing a hypothesis I’m totally empirical (probably more so than a lot of historians who claim to be empirical). And I really am obsessed with documents.

        Ironically you’ve taken a more postmodern position on the mystery word, presenting it as an undecideable aporia, while I’m more convinced that I’ve found the objectively correct answer!

      • jostwald says :

        Playing up the mystery for dramatic effect! It’s all about degrees of certainty, and 80% is good enough for me in difficult cases. When it comes to using the quotation in a published work, I just take the historian’s easy-way-out: I don’t quote it but just cite it in a footnote. Dilemma solved!

        Glad to see you mention archaic ideas in philosophy – in the 80s and 90s I was always struck reading 1970s histories of early modern Europe, how they’d jump on the latest bandwagon in another discipline (psychoanalysis anyone?), even if that was the discipline c. 1950. By the 1980s that other discipline had progressed far beyond what it was when the idea was ripped from its disciplinary context in 1950, yet historians were trying to hold on to the past in more ways than one. The same’s been true of Marxist interpretations, cultural theory, Saussure linguistics, evolutionary interpretations, chaos theory, etc. Such anachronisms certainly undercut the historical argument. It also really makes the work looked dated just a couple of decades later; ironic for a history book I guess.

        As a historian I don’t have a problem looking to other disciplines for possible models, metaphors, etc. Personally I’m kind of interested in Marvin Harris’ cultural materialism idea, but I certainly won’t structure an argument around it. But you’re right – it’s got to be rigorously tested by your historical data, not just accepted because the theory seems to explain a different event, or shoe-horned to fit your case. (What are historians to do, for example, when Foucault’s or Said’s history is just wrong?) Not to mention, it’s hard enough trying to keep up with all the historiography and keep immersed in the primary sources while trying to also stay on top of other disciplines (which we usually have little grounding in). If we’re going to be intellectually honest, we need to see how others in that discipline argue with our pet theorist, which frankly requires keeping up with two disciplines over long stretches of time. And why did we choose that particular theorist anyway, much less that particular discipline? Have we sampled all the possible theorists and disciplines, or just gone with what’s seen as the sexy discipline in our own discipline? (Sounds like an argument for atheism.) I think that’s probably why historians end up fawning over 20-year-old theory from another discipline – they came across it in grad school (or at some formative point) and then it took them 10 years to fully apply it to a particular historical case, by which time, the other discipline has moved on (kinda like the old anthropological assumption that primitive man hadn’t changed from the Stone Age to the Yanomami). From my grad school experience in the late 90s-early 2000s, you’d think every anthropologist followed Clifford Geertz. Then a few years back I find out that other historians hadn’t even heard of him, including some fresh out of grad school! Interestingly, this was in a mock job talk, where the other historians in the audience suggested that the presenter shouldn’t talk as if everyone knows (or should know) who Geertz is. Theoretical name-dropping could be dangerous in a field as eclectic history.

        Empiricism does seem to be an English specialty. After coming from a French context where even modern academic French prose seems to go on for pages without saying much of anything of substance, it’s rather refreshing. But it can also be daunting at times, given all the 17C English sources that still exist, not only in print, but in various decentralized archives and record offices everywhere.

        Sometime I should post on better ways for historians to show their evidence in their published work. Far too often (early modern) historians will cite one example and then the reader is supposed to trust that that one example is representative. I’ve always hated that.

  2. Steve Walton says :

    I love your “Historian’s Benediction”! Does it make me a bad person that in a broad study of US federal foundries, I got interested in a particular ironmaster specifically because he has glorious penmanship? (I can’t figure out how to embed and image in a comment, so see )

    That and I have shelved part of a separate project because my principle actor wrote to his wife in cross-wriging (and late 19C hand as well, which by itself was hell — I have a theory that late 19C business hand went to pot because of the typewriter in the same way that 20/21C hand did because of the ubiquity of typing on the internet).

    As to meaning and theory, I have a great deal of sympathy for cultural materialism, but then I do study technology. I’m not much of one for French theorists either, but the broad considerations of “inscriptions” (would you tie that to Foucault, or just Latour) works well in a scientific and engineering context.

    • Steve Walton says :

      dang – it stripped out my URL. So if you care about William Young’s handwriting,, go to the following URL, stripping out spaces

      dl.dropbox.com/ u/8442570/ IMGP9149%20copy.JPG

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks for the reply. If you want to email me the URL I’ll figure out a way to add it to the comments. You might be able to just add the tags around it; some regular reader know? My computer-programming wife is away at the moment, or else I’d ask her.

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