Category Archives: Defoe

Pandemics, plagues, and literature

Detail from the cover of Camus, La Peste. Public Domain, Wikimedia

I’m sure there will be more, but I thought it timely to pull together in one place the various blogs and articles that have been drawing parallels between the coronovirus pandemic and the plagues of the eighteenth century (this is an admittedly very ‘long’ eighteenth century, but I rely on your mercy). Most of these drew my attention becuase they mention Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722 and dealing with the Great Plague of 1664-65 (but implicitly addressing an outbreak in France in 1721).

First (I think) is Marina Hyde’s masterfully biting parallel between the politics and public reactions of Britain in March 2020 and Defoe’s depiction of the populace of 1664-65.

This can be expanded by reading Adam James Smith’s blog post (with Jo Waugh) on social distancing in the Journal.

Next up was Marcel Theroux’s fascinating round-up of plague literature, including Defoe’s Journal, Boccaccio’s The Decameron, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, and ending with Camus’ 1947 novel, The Plague.

This is a response to someone who pointed out that this didn’t incliude Mary Shelley’s underated The Last Man (1826) – Olivia Murphy’s blog post discusses the novel’s disturbing prophecy of global catastophe.

Last, but not least, this op-ed in The Washington Post on the Journal, with the eye-catching title ‘The author of Robinson Crusoe was the Anthiony Fauci of his age.’


Remembering Robinson Crusoe: 1719, 1970, 2019

April 2019 and I’m thinking about Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, first published in April 1719 (it was entered on the Stationer’s Register on April 23rd).

Engraving and title page. Credits: Public Domain,

However, I’m reminded of my first encounter. This was the the black and white Anglo-French TV series first produced in 1964 and shown on BBC TV in the late 60s and early 70s, usually in an afternoon slot during my school holidays (see the image at the top of the post). The memory of this is suffused with an aura of contentment – my own, that is – lazily watching TV on an afternoon. And my memory of it is selective since the dominant images that come from the series also construct the time of Crusoe’s shipwreck on the island rather like my own school holidays: exciting and yet boring, carefree and occasionally and perhaps unintentionally comic. And what really sticks in my mind is Crusoe’s building and making (see episode 5). Now, I’m not sure now why this should be, since I’m no DIY-er. But there were still places near the suburbs where I lived as a child in Leeds that were uncultivated and undeveloped: places where I could go on my own or with friends among weeds growing to shoulder height and explore woods (one with a derelict WWII bunker). So there was something in my solitary rambles of the isolation, freedom and making things with sticks that the TV series evoked. Yet seeing these episodes again, I realise I had completely forgotten the flashbacks to Crusoe’s time with his father in (a strangely rural) York. Was it because that – sitting in front of the TV – I had no need to know about fathers and parents and home? Or was it that the promise that what Crusoe himself called his ‘rambling’ impulse was precisely the opposite of the world of home and contentment, where men ‘went silently and smoothly thro’ the World’, as Crusoe’s father puts it.

Memories of my own life as child, images from the Crusoe TV series, and my memory of the effect of these images move and shift around themselves in peculiar ways. Now, as a Defoe scholar and a father of boys, inspecting my memory becomes a far more complicated task. Certainly, my nostalgia of childhood ‘rambling’ owes much to a projection of present-day loss: “would I let my own children now do the kind of solitary adventuring I did then?” That myth of adventure passed on to me throught this TV series is now tempered by how I can see that it’s a sanitised version of Defoe’s 1719 novel: the TV version is slightly emptied of Defoe’s religious and moral rhetoric. More troubling is how the issue of Friday’s subservience is reduced to a kind of friendship, which now makes for very uncomfortable veiwing. And I even mentioned that I remembered watching the series with contentment …

Maybe it’s the musician in me, but the strongest memory I have is of the series’ music: it is this that most precisely captures the mixed images of Crusoe’s poignant isolation and my nostalgia for carefree adventure.

The opening theme’s grand, rolling strings evokes the crashing of seas and waves and suggesting the epic nature of escape, journey, and adventure. But it’s one of the incidental scores that has the most powerful place in my memory since it concentrates solely on giving shape to the underside of adventure, poignantly evoking the tedium and loneliness of shipwreck (this runs from about 0. 45 in, to 5.18).

(Note: first version of this post published 2013; updated 2019).

Newness in Defoe’s Tour

In our MA in Literature, Landscape & Environment me and my students have been looking at the influence of Virgil’s Georgics in eighteenth-century literature, and the theme of change and decay came up fairly frequently in our discussions. Indeed, the ‘Preface’ to Daniel Defoe’s A Tour ‘thro the Whole Island of Great Britain emphasises this aspect as key to understanding Britain in the 1720s:

The Fate of Things gives a new Face to Things … plants and supplants Families, … Great Towns decay, and small Towns rise; … great Rivers and good Harbours dry up, and grow useless; again, new Ports are open’d, Brooks are made Rivers, … navigable Ports and Harbours are made where none were before, and the like.[1]

Defoe’s particular emphasis on change in the British nation can be seen by the simple expedient of counting up how many times he uses the word ‘new’ in the Preface (thirteen times). Even more striking is to see this visualisation of a word frequency analysis (using Voyant):

Click on image to access the full Voyant analysis

On the face of it, Defoe pays equal attention to rise and decay, but – like Virgil’s Georgics – the aspect of dynamism in the nation’s landscape that Defoe gets most excited about is one of vital newness. (For another reading of mutability in the Tour and the city of London, see my post ‘Defoe, Google, cities and Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore’.)

[1] Defoe, A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (London: printed, and sold by G. Strahan, … MDCCXXIV [1724]), p. iv. [ECCO, 5/12/15].

Were flowers thrown at Defoe in the pillory?

John Waller in the pillory. The Newgate Calendar. Via wikimedia commons.
John Waller in the pillory. The Newgate Calendar. Via wikimedia commons.

The pillory was a purposefully ignominious punishment meted out to those, according the Old Bailey Online, convicted of ‘notorious crimes such as attempted sodomy, seditious words, extortion, fraud, and perjury’. It was also sometimes very dangerous: crowds might throw more than just garbage at the criminal.

In July 1703, Daniel Defoe was convicted of sedition and on July 29th began the first of three appearances in the pillory: the first day in Cornhill, near the Royal Exchange; the second day at Cheapside; the third day at Fleet Street near Temple Bar. However, Defoe’s appearances were far from humiliating – at least on the first day. According to contemporary, and hostile, reports, on the 29th Defoe was surrounded by supportive crowds, including City big-wigs as well as ‘the rabble.’ Moreover, Defoe’s works were being ‘Hauk’d and Publickly Sold’ (including the very work he was convicted for, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, as well as his Hymn to the Pillory) while he ‘Glory’d’ in the experience.[1] But there is also a tradition that flowers were strewn around Defoe as he stood in the pillory. The image of Defoe standing nobly in the stocks whilst the populace of the City lay down flowers in admiration was memorialised most memorably in the 1862 painting by Eyre Crowe (see here for more details); it was also engraved in the same year by James Charles Armytage (see here at the National Portrait Gallery). The painting’s caption is worth quoting:

July 31, 1703, Daniel Foe, alias De Foe, this day stood in the pillory at Temple Bar in pursuance of his sentence, given against him at the last sessions at the Old Bailey for writing and publishing a seditious libel, entitled The Shortest way with the Dissenters. During his exhibition he was protected by the same friends from the missiles of his enemies: and the mob, instead of pelting him, resorted to the unmannerly act of drinking his health, etc..

This depiction also appears a few years later in William Lee’s 1869 biography of Defoe, The Life and Recently Discovered Writings of Daniel Defoe.[2] We also know that Lee had been writing on and researching Defoe since at least 1860, so would have likely seen the Crowe painting.[3] We can go back further: Walter Wilson, in his 1830 biography, Memoirs of the Life and Times of Daniel De Foe, had this to say:

Tradition reports, that the machine, which was graced with one of the keenest wits of the day; was adorned with garlands, it being in the midst of summer. The same authority states, that refreshments were provided for him after his exhibition.[4]

But Wilson doesn’t cite his ‘authority.’[5] Recent biographers have been more reticent: while John Richetti recounts the story of his works being sold, he considers the flower-throwing as ‘a less likely tradition’ and Maximillian E. Novak chooses not to mention it at all.[6]

It may be a ‘tradition’ but the shakiness of its foundations can be glimpsed in a few ways. Eyre’s painting sets Defoe’s pillorying at Fleet Street, Temple Bar (which can be seen in the background). There might have been a nice piece of bookish irony to place Defoe’s triumph at the heart of the eighteenth-century publishing industry. However, his appearance at Fleet street was on the third day, July 31st: the surviving contemporary reports place the scene of a supportive crowd only at his first appearance on July 29th at Cornhill. Moreover, Wilson’s evocation of a summer’s day complete with drinking and flowers is given the lie via another contemporaneous account. The diarist John Evelyn noted that on July 31st and August 1st there was ‘Thunder & lightning & raine’.[7] [my emphasis]. The scene of a summer’s day, with a pillory strewn with flowers and surrounded by merriment seems the stuff of myth.

[1] Contemporary accounts quoted in Paul Backscheider Daniel Defoe: His Life (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), p.118; Maximillian E. Novak, Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p.191.

[2] Lee (3 vols), 1:73. Eyre’s painting is reproduced between pages 74 and 75.

[3] Furbank, P. N., and W. R. Owens, The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), p.64.

[4] Wilson (3 vols), 2:69.

[5] Paula Backscheider, in the one of the most detailed accounts of Defoe’s imprisonment, questioning and pillorying, replicates this scene without giving a source: ‘By all accounts, … the only things thrown at him were flowers,’ p.118; P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens also repeat the claim of flower-pelting by ‘contemporary accounts’ , but without citing their authority. A Political Biography of Daniel Defoe (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2007), p.24.

[6] John Richetti, The Life of Daniel Defoe (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), p.24

[7] Evelyn cited in F. Bastion, Defoe’s Early Life (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1981), p.300.

Why you shouldn’t call yourself a True-Born Englishman.

The belief that ancient family lineage enables a person to claim a superior legitimacy of national belonging has been given a shocking airing recently. So it’s worth remembering that Daniel Defoe punctured this poisonous myth over 300 years ago.

coo.31924013179399-14The True-Born Englishman. A Satyr was initially a counter-response to John Tutchin’s The Foreigners: an attack on William III’s rule by focusing on his Dutch origins. Yet it catalysed a much wider-ranging satire on xenophobia and the idea of ethnic purity. Defoe’s poem starts with the idea of ingratitude towards what he views as the nation’s saviour (William III) and accuses the English nation of pride. He aims to prick this ‘bubbled Nation’ (27):

To Englishmen their own beginnings show,

And ask them why they slight their neighbours so.

Go back to elder times, and ages past,

And nations into long oblivion cast;

To old Britannia’s youthful days retire.

And there for true-born Englishman enquire.

Britannia freely will disown the name,

And hardly knows herself from whence they came:

Wonders that they of all men should pretend

To birth and blood, and for a name to contend. (43-52)

National pride based on lineage gets a rough ride. Defoe’s scorching reminder that England’s history is one of continual invasion from Romans, Picts, Scots, and Normans:

From whose mixed relics our compounded breed,

By spurious generation does succeed;

Making a race uncertain and unev’n,

Derived from all the nations under Heav’n.(171-75)

The English, then, are an illegitimate race whose claim to ‘ancient pedigree’ is based on nothing more that,

’Tis that from some French trooper they derive,

Who with the Norman Bastard did arrive:

The trophies of the families appear;

Some show the sword, the bow, and some the spear,

Which their great ancestor, forsooth, did wear. (212-18)

Defoe’s energy is focused on undermining pride in status and lineage: with each repetition of the phrase ‘true-born Englishman,’ the emptier it becomes. To this end, one of the most repeated ideas that drives Defoe’s satire links illegitimacy and mixture:

Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,

That het’rogenous thing, an Englishman:

In eager rapes and, a furious lust begot,

Betwixt and painted Briton and a Scot. (334-37)

This, Defoe scornfully cries, is the source of the ‘well-extracted blood of Englishmen’ (347). His incredulity, then, is to hear such people attack the non-English:

The wonder which remains is at our pride,

To value that which all wise men deride,

For Englishmen to boast of generation,

Cancels their knowledge, and lampoons the nation.

A True-Born Englishman’s a contradiction,

In speech an irony, in fact a fiction. (368-73)

So, next time you begin to argue about what it is to be English (or indeed what being British means), just think on Defoe’s poem

Daniel Defoe and the Scottish referendum

Old_bridge,_Stirling,_Scotland-LCCN2002695059A guest post by Sharon Alker
and Holly Faith Nelson

As two expatriate Scots, we believe that the upcoming referendum vote needs to be decided by Scots who live in Scotland, rather than Scots abroad who tend to romanticize the homeland, enjoying it vicariously, and often unrealistically, through various cultural events and artifacts, including the Highland Games, Burns’ suppers, and the occasional Scottish novel and film. As students of Daniel Defoe, however, we know that if he were alive today, he would have taken a far more hands on approach to the upcoming vote for an Independent Scotland, and he would be adamantly against the dissolution of the Act of Union. In the first few decades of the eighteenth century, Defoe wrote that the union was to be an eternal act which would undoubtedly and unequivocally benefit both the Scots and the English. Working for the powerful English politician Robert Harley at the turn of the century, Defoe was a spy in Scotland, gathering pre-union opinions about the possibility of Union, an untiring journalist, writing myriad pamphlets and other works that both factually and imaginatively naturalized the Union, and a Dissenter, who was a great admirer of the Scottish Kirk and recognized the need for its preservation in Union negotiations. In his capacity as a great Unionist, Defoe has taken on a central role in Tim Barrow’s new play, Union.

In her groundbreaking book Acts of Union, Leith Davis captures the way many writers on both sides of the border negotiated British identity in the century after the Union.[1] She has written on Defoe’s pro-union work, pointing out that he tends to use rational language in many of his pamphlets to counter the mythological force of the figurative language used by those who argued against the Union, such as Lord Belhaven. Defoe had his work cut out for him. The anti-Union position was deeply rooted in a long history of cross-border hostility and it nurtured sentiments of Scottish distinctness and unity. The passionate resonance of history and mythology were a powerful tool to motivate Scots against the Union. The benefits that would accrue from the Union also seemed nebulous. Scotland’s king had migrated to London with his court in the early seventeenth century and it seemed unthinkable that the limited representation of Scots in the British parliament, on the dissolution of the Scottish parliament, could benefit Scotland economically or otherwise. What is more, while Scotland was a known entity, there was no reliable notion of what a united Britain would look like, other than what existed in the anxious imagination of the Scots. Defoe’s job was to help people both north and south of the border to imagine a unified British nation in the best possible terms.

Practical rational arguments (as Davis contends) were a very effective way to accomplish this objective. And we have certainly seen myriad arguments in the current union debates on both sides. On the one hand, it is possible to argue that the strength of Alistair Darling’s arguments has been his emphasis on fact and detail. In this regard, he may seem to be following directly in Defoe’s footsteps. Commenting on the first debate between Darling and Alex Salmond, The Guardian noted, “The no campaign has always believed that as the vote approached, Darling’s forensic dullness would switch from liability to asset.” In fact, the discourse of reason and fact dominates the whole “Better Together” website. There are sections on “The Facts about the Pound,” “The Facts about Jobs,” and “The Facts about Defense,” among others.

On the other hand, the current Scottish arguments for the dissolution of the Union are also solidly grounded in reason. Defoe would likely approve of this attention to reason, even if disagreeing with the overall desire for separation or disputing the accuracy of the facts presented as he was accustomed to doing in the original Union debate. It is perhaps even more important that a rational case be made in 2014 than in 1706 because now Scotland is in an inverted position in the debate. Whereas in the early eighteenth century, readers in both England and Scotland would have been worried about how precisely this unknown thing, Union, would appear and function, now the Union is a known entity and Scots may be concerned about the precise nature and operation of an independent Scotland. The 2013 white paper has been crafted precisely to alleviate this concern by providing facts and specific plans about such matters as Scotland’s autonomy over its political future, business and tax issues, transportation, immigration, childcare, education and agriculture. The weight of the booklet alone (which is over 600 pages in length) affirms that an independent Scotland is no mere chimera, no mythologically powerful but antiquated idea that is irrelevant to everyday life in the twenty-first century. Rather it is grounded in specific, detailed ideas about global governance. It argues that dissolving the Union will provide an array of practical benefits, and that there is a solid and detailed goal that is achievable after a transition period. Alex Salmond has framed this array of policy ideas in an overarching idea of Scottish autonomy and distinctness.

In a recent essay in the New Statesman, Robert Colls comments on the emphasis on the pragmatic over the mythological in the Yes campaign, writing “Alex Salmond has waged a good campaign, make no mistake, and that he has done so without invoking a time when Fingal lived and Ossian sang is creditworthy.” However, Colls adds, “Even so, it is as dangerous for a people’s politician to neglect the people’s myths as it is dangerous for an independence party to avoid looking beyond independence.” Colls comments might make us wonder whether the battle cannot be fought, either then or now, by reason alone. The facts may need to work alongside the power and appeal of the vision of either a firmly unified Britain or a strongly independent Scotland. It is for that reason that Defoe did not rely on reason alone in explaining what an imagined Britain might look like. Rather, he turned to metaphor and symbol.

We have written on Defoe’s use of tropes at length, following in the footsteps of the work of Evan Gottlieb, who, in his 2007 book, Feeling British, writes of the way Defoe uses metaphor to naturalize the Union.[2] Defoe was very aware that the way the Union was described figuratively was crucial to enhancing its appeal, but also very tricky. On the one hand, any symbol or literary figure designed to describe the Anglo-Scottish union needed to stress its indissolvability. On the other hand, it had to emphasize that both nations would continue to be distinct and would be valued for their differences. Not every metaphor could balance these two meanings.[3]

The marriage trope, for example, was not a good one to represent Britishness, particularly given the inequality in marriage in the early eighteenth century. Representing either Scotland or England as the bride in this Union would have been a problem, suggesting profound and unchangeable inequality. For that reason, marriage tropes were most often used by the anti-Union crowd. About seven years after the Union, Defoe explained in The Scots Nation and Union Vindicated (London, 1714) that “the simile or allusion of a marriage is lame and halts in the case very much; for in a marriage the woman is a subject, an inferior; promises obedience, and is call’d by the name of her husband: But here is an entire dissolution of the former capacities and circumstances, and both become subjected equally to a new constitution, and take up a new name.”

Tom Devine, who has recently publically shared his decision to vote yes, uses the marriage trope in a modern context to naturalize dissolution. Devine explained, “The union of England and Scotland was not a marriage based on love. It was a marriage of convenience. It was pragmatic. From the 1750s down to the 1980s there was stability in the relationship. Now, all the primary foundations of that stability have gone or been massively diluted.” If the Union is like a marriage, both nations are seen as distinct and can move toward divorce if the marriage no longer works. Other familial metaphors can be equally problematic, given the inequity of power in families. John Arbuthnot, for example, in crafting a sibling trope to explain the Union, presents a well-fed, powerful brother, John Bull, alongside a feisty but impoverished sister Peg. Yet the natural affection of familial metaphors means that they still have a pretty powerful appeal in pro-Union arguments. David Cameron, for example, commented in September 2013, “We are a family of nations within one United Kingdom. Now is not the time to reduce that relationship to one of second cousins, once removed.” Using such a trope leaves the No side open to accusations that Britain may be a family of sorts, but it is a highly dysfunctional one.

As Evan Gottleib has pointed out, rather than working with familial metaphors, Defoe wisely turned to organic ones, arguing, for example, that ‘[i]f the Union be an Incorporation…it must then be a Union of the very SOUL OF THE NATION, all its Constitution, Customs, Trade and Manners, must be blended together, digested and concocted for the mutual united, undistinguished, good, growth and health of the one whole united Body; and this I understand by Union.” This quotation, reproduced from Gottleib’s book (13), is from Defoe’s 1706 Essay at Removing National Prejudices Against a Union with England. The material body was to become a prominent trope for Defoe, whether he was writing about the wounded body of a divided British isles or the monstrous body of a pre-Union Britain that was only partially connected with the Union of the Crowns in 1603. Both conditions could, of course, be healed by Union.

Have the Yes and No campaigns found such powerful metaphors either to celebrate union or independence? There certainly have been countless tropes used, some of which have caused frustration.  In February of 2014, a comment in The Economist in response to an article on the role of currency in the Union debate explicitly rejects many metaphors disseminated by the media such as “the ‘teenager leaving home’ metaphor, the ‘divorcee seeking to maintain the joint account’ metaphor and now from the TE we have the ‘discarding common sense for ice-cream’ metaphor.” Rather, the writer suggests, “the more realistic ‘partnership’ metaphor, which is, the BOE, is a 300 year old partnership, with 4 equity partners, England, Wales, N. Ireland and Scotland.” This seems like a trope that more accurately captures the Union than familial ones, but it is hardly an emotionally appealing one. Possibly the strongest trope on the Yes side might be the concept of the autonomous individual, with agency over his or her own future.

Defoe was on the winning side of the Union argument. The Union did indeed take place and has survived for a substantial amount of time, despite volatile disagreements in the years that immediately followed. In fact, in 1713, there was a vote to repeal the Union that only failed by four proxy votes. Of course we can dispute the idea that the Union was originally won by a persuasive blend of rational argument and magnificent metaphors by turning to another of our favorite writers, Robert Burns, who would likely gladly go toe-to-toe with Defoe about whether the Union was beneficial to Scotland. The Union, Burns argued, was forged neither in reason nor in a sparkling rhetoric, but in bribery and betrayal. Of the behavior of Scottish politicians and aristocrats during the last days before the passing of the Act of Union, Burns lamented:

We’re bought and sold for English gold-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

And indeed, Robert Harley himself later noted of the Scots that “we bought them.”[4] Defoe, however, wasn’t as cynical. His writings on the Union, though certainly published for propagandistic purposes, suggest that he was genuinely hopeful that it would be a success. He continued writing about Scotland after the Union, defending the Church of Scotland, in particular, suggesting that he recognized that to achieve such success, rhetoric or policy that attacked the Scots would have to be diminished, and replaced by an ongoing discourse of mutual respect. Whether that has been the case over the past 300 years is certainly questionable.   So, for our friends who live north of the Tweed, however you vote on the 18th of September, know that you may be haunted in the voting booth by the residual competing hopes and fears of Defoe and Burns for the future of a nation each of them loved. We’ll let you determine which is the good angel and which is the bad.


[1] Davis, Leith, Acts of Union: Scotland and the Literary Negotiation of the British Nation 1707−1830 (Stanford University Press, 1999).

[2] Gottleib, Evan. Feeling British: Sympathy and National Identity in Scottish and English Writing 1707-1832 (Bucknell University Press, 2007).

[3] Alker, Sharon. “John Arbuthnot’s Family Ties: Anglo-Scottish Relations in the John Bull Pamphlets.” Scottish Studies Review 9.2 (2008), 1-20; Alker, Sharon, and Holly Faith Nelson. “Pamphlet Wars: Tropological Union in Defoe’s Anglo-Scottish Works.” Positioning Daniel Defoe’s Non-Fiction: Form, Function, Genre. Ed. Aino Mäkikalli and Andreas K.E. Mueller (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011); Nelson, Holly Faith, and Sharon Alker. “Daniel Defoe and the Scottish Church.” Digital Defoe: Studies in Defoe & His Contemporaries 5.1 (2013), 1-19.

[4] Eales, Jacqueline. “Harley, Sir Robert (bap. 1579, d. 1656).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004); online edn. May 2007. 27 Aug 2014.

Sharon Alker is an Associate Professor of English at Whitman College,  and Holly Faith Nelson is a Professor and Chair of English at Trinity Western University, Canada.

Image is of Stirling Bridge. By Photochrom Print Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Imagining the Storm

The Storm by Daniel Defoe cover pageThe Lord hath his way in the Whirlwind, and in the Storm, and the Clouds are the dust of his Feet. (Nahum. 1:3)

Re-reading Defoe’s The Storm and looking out at the sometimes scudding, sometimes lowering clouds over the past month, it has been impossible not to connect the present UK weather with Defoe’s memorial to the hurricane that pummelled northern Europe in 1703. Published in 1704, it is a remarkable combination of eyewitness reports from all over England, folkloric, classical, scientific, and biblical explanations of storms, and Defoe’s own attempt to account for this ‘Dreadful TEMPEST’.[1]

The epigraph, quoted above, is perhaps an unsurprising gloss on a natural disaster for most people living in the early eighteenth century (even the most rational natural or experimental philosopher synthesised to some degree or other their scientific explanations with the divine order of things). And for anyone familiar with Defoe’s novels, it should come as little surprise that storms are the expression of God’s intervention in human life: think about the storms at sea in Robinson Crusoe or Roxana: atmospheric disturbances are a figure for the intimations from heaven. Clouds perform a similar function, they are ‘the dust of his Feet’, manifestations of divine warning and harbingers of God’s approach.

Clouds are also a reflection – albeit an unreliable one – of the wind’s movement. In a remarkable extended conceit that imagines the storm as an army marching to war, Defoe declares ‘I confess, I have never studied the Motion of the Clouds so nicely, as to calculate how much time the Army of Terror might take up in its furious March’ (60). The difficulty to provide a rational explanation for the movement of winds and the function of clouds is underlined when Defoe quotes natural philosopher Ralph Bohun:

‘The Winds,’ says the Learned Mr. Bohun, ‘are generated in the Intermediate Space between the Earth and the Clouds, either by Rarefaction or Repletion, and sometimes haply by pressure of Clouds, Elastical Virtue of the Air, &c. from the Earth or Seas, as by Submarine or Subterraneal Eruption or Descension or Resilition from the middle Region.’

All this, though no Man is more capable of the Enquiry than this Gentleman, yet to the Demonstration of the thing, amounts to no more than what we had before, and still leaves it as Abstruse and Cloudy to our Understanding as ever. (8-9)

Despite the clunky pun at Bohun’s expense, Defoe forcefully emphasises the gap left by the failure of human understanding about the weather, quoting John (3:8): ‘The Wind blows where it listeth, and thou hearest the Sound thereof, but knowest not whence it cometh’ (10).

Storm clouds (7462161170)Into this gap pours our fancy and our humours, both so easily swayed by the clouds within and without. The parallel between figurative and literal clouds are an image for that traditional association, already strong by the eighteenth century, between English weather and a national disposition to melancholy. Inserted strangely alongside the factual accounts of the storm is a pastoral poem in the style of Virgil fitted to the subject of the hurricane, ostensibly sent in by an ‘ingenious Author’ (41). Damon asks his friend, ‘the melancholy Shepherd’ Melibæus, ‘what Cloud dares overcast  your brow … ?’ (42). The author – whom I strongly suspect to be Defoe himself – exploits the gap between the pastoral form and the ‘havoc’ (43) of the weather to emphasise the serious affliction and corresponding duty facing the English nation.

As nature writer Richard Mabey sets out in Turned out Nice Again: On Living With the Weather (2013), there is an indissoluble link between our subjective experience of the weather and those macro-events that we call climate. Defoe’s account of the great storm, looking back over accounts of weather from classical discussions, events from the seventeenth-century, as well as the more immediate reports of his correspondents, moves between several different levels of time: human history; typological time, in which events are suffused with Biblical resonance; the recent and immediate period of English history; and the subjective and affective moment. The difficulty facing Defoe is how to negotiate and balance all these levels in order to, as he says, ‘bring the Story into a Compass tolerable to the Reader’ (270). The remarkable thing is to see how effectively The Storm succeeds.

[1] Daniel Defoe, The Storm: Or, A Collection of the Most Remarkable Casualties and Disasters Which Happen’d in the Late Dreadful Tempest, Both by Sea and Land (London, 1704), page references to this edition.

Defoe, Google, cities and Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Re-reading Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, I was struck by a passage that reminded me of some the issues that came up recently when teaching Daniel Defoe’s A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain on our MA in Literature, Landscape and Environment. It was, to say the least, a surprising association between “a novel about books and technology, cryptography and conspiracy, friendship and love” and a description of eighteenth-century London. But here’s the passage from Sloan’s novel in which Neel Shah (CEO of a niche software company) and Kat Potente (west-coast evangelistic Google data-visualizer) are contemplating a New York sidewalk:

“It’s so small but there are so many people,” she says, watching the human flow. “They’re … it’s like fish. Or birds or ants, I don’t know. Some superorganism.” …

Neel nods knowingly. “The suburban mind cannot comprehend the emergent complexity of a New York sidewalk.”

“I don’t know about that,” Kay says, narrowing her eyes. “I’m pretty good with complexity.”

“See, I know what you’re thinking,” Neel says, shaking his head. “You’re thinking it’s just an agent-based simulation, and everybody out there follows a pretty simple set of rules” – Kat is nodding – “and if you can figure out those rules. You can model it. You can simulate the street, then the neighbourhood, then the whole city. Right?”

“Exactly. I mean, sure, I don’t know what the rules are yet, but I could experiment and figure them out, and then it would be trivial – “


Neel believes that no computer of Google’s could ever be big enough to analyse the city’s complex and organic interactions. The allusions are rich, the most obvious of which is to the Simcity and The Sims franchises. But Sloan makes a Google employee extol the possibilities of designing an algorithm for a city of people; a fact that brings to mind Google’s efforts to map and photograph the world in its entirety. Indeed, in a previous passage, Kat has used Google Street View to locate a secret library in New York. Both platforms have a set of related aims: to comprehend and model a complex ecology. But there’s a gentle irony in this scene that it is Neel who is sceptical about such modelling. It’s a question of scale, and – as any student of satire will know – comparing the ostensibly small with the apparently epic produces some interesting ironic effects. Neel’s company designs the software to enable 3D digital simulations of female breasts, and the irony of a dubious industry in simulating a relatively small part of the female anatomy critiquing the gargantuan designs of Google Earth cuts both ways. However, it is Neel that has the last word – the city cannot be modelled or contained – so Sloan seems to be directing the irony primarily at Kat’s, or Google’s, totalizing hubris.

Now on the MA in Literature, Landscape and Environment, we were paying close attention to the modes through which eighteenth-century authors represent landscapes of various kinds, and at this point comparing Pope and Defoe’s attitudes to the city of London.  So here’s the section from Defoe’s Tour in which he grapples with the size and complexity of early eighteenth-century London:

This great Work is infinitely difficult in its Particulars, though not in itself; not that the City is so difficult to be described, but to do it in the narrow Compass of a Letter, which we see so fully takes up Two large Volumes in Folio, and which, yet, if I may venture to give an Opinion of it, is done but by Halves neither.[2]

Defoe, like Neel, acknowledges the limitations of contemporary technology: the attempt encompass London within a letter, when even John Strype’s 1720 multi-volume folio edition of Stow’s Survey is ‘done by halves’, may come at the cost of the complex ‘Particulars’ of the city. Defoe goes on to say that perhaps the City itself may indeed ‘be viewed in a small Compass’ (2:95). However, the attempt to contain and represent London as a whole is thwarted by its uncontrolled and complexly organic evolution:

It is the Disaster of London, as to the Beauty of its Figure, that it is thus stretched out in Buildings, just at the Pleasure of every Builder, or Undertaker of Buildings, and as the Convenience of the People directs, whether for Trade or otherwise; and this has spread the Face of it in a most straggling, confused Manner, out of all Shape, uncompact, and unequal. (2:95)

In response, Defoe circumscribes this vital London by drawing a ‘A LINE of Measurement’ (2:98), effectively creating a static model of London – a simulation, if you like – in order for it to be properly analysed.

There is a neat parallel between Defoe’s and Kat Potente’s – and Google’s – attempts to model the complex ecology of cities. Both of these scenarios speak to the desire to be, in the words of Michel de Certeau, ‘the solar eye’, the voyeur elevated above a city laid before them. Such a perspective ‘makes the complexity of the city readable, and immobilizes its opaque mobility in a transparent text’ and creates, he argues, a ‘panorama-city … a “theoretical” (that is, visual) simulacrum.’[3] It is a desire to overwrite the messy real city with a fictive version of the city.

Yet complicating such a desire, Defoe and (with the caveat of irony) Neel Shah are both also fascinated by what de Certeau calls the forces of ‘human agglomeration and accumulation.’ Partly out of frustration, but partly out of admiration, Defoe asks ‘Whither will this monstrous City then extend? and where must a Circumvallation or Communication Line of it be placed?’ (2:97). When Kat mentions Google’s ‘The Big Box’ (a fictitious project of huge interlocking modular servers, and perhaps Sloan’s dig at Google’s search box[4]), Neel responds, “It’s not big enough. This box” – Neel stretches out his hands, encompasses the sidewalk, the park, the streets beyond – “is bigger.” (128). For Neel and Defoe, the city is always poised to burst beyond the confines of book or search box.

[1] Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (London: Atlantic, 2013), pp. 127-28.

[2] Daniel Defoe, A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, 3 vols (London, [1724-25]), 2:94. Further references in brackets after quotations.

[3] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 92-93.

[4] Google increased the size of its search box in 2009.

Digital editing with undergraduates: some reflections

Digital Editing Project outline and Digital editions criteria

[Added 2015]

In 2012 I started supervising an English undergraduate dissertation: this was a online digital edition and it was my first experience of supervising a student’s digital project. What follows is a joint blog post of two parts – one from me and the other from Jess MacCarthy (the student) – that reflects upon our experiences. You can see the final online edition here:

pillory banner


Thoughts from the me, the supervisor

A couple of years ago, I decided to learn a little more about the back-end end of digitized primary resources. I attended a boot-camp into the why and how of encoding, using XML encoding and the protocols of the TEI, at the Digital Humanities Summer School at Oxford University. Just over a year ago (late Spring 2012) I decided that the best way to learn is to teach. Simultaneously, I wanted to conduct a trial on producing a digital edition of a Defoe text that used up-to-date protocols of digital editing as well as the open-access ethos of the great majority of current digitization projects. So I asked our 3rd year English undergraduates whether anybody would be willing to do this for their dissertation project. Luckily, I had a volunteer, Jessica McCarthy.

I left it up to Jess to decide which Defoe texts she would like to work on: like any large-scale project, sustaining enthusiasm is essential. But it also meant that Jess would find a lot out for herself about Defoe’s writings. However, an important factor was that I was not expecting Jess to spend time transcribing the text and so we had to source a reliable electronic copy in plain text. This would give Jess the freedom to decide how she wanted to encode it and how it would be presented online. However, it also occurred to me that the question of a ‘reliable’ electronic copy in plain text was an interesting issue of discussion in itself: what different kinds of texts and what kind of reliability are offered by, for example, Project Gutenberg, Google Books, Jack Lynch’s Eighteenth-Century Resources, or Romantic Circles? Examples that directly raised other questions were close by: at Bath Spa University we are lucky enough to have access to the large-scale digital resources of EEBO and ECCO. Texts accessed via these different resources come in various forms: digital facsimiles, plain text transcriptions from post-1800 print editions, hyperlinked and encoded texts, or a combination of plain text and facsimile texts. So this first stage of the project actually involved a deeper understanding of the nature of existing electronic resources, databases and archives, and would more effectively immerse Jess in important questions concerning the format, usability and access to historical literary texts. How are issues of access related to the kind of texts one was accessing? What does the format of these texts have to say about how they can be used and who are using them? What processes are involved with the type of text available on these resources? What is a ‘text’ in a digital context anyway?

Such questions are important, first, because undergraduate students do not often understand why different online resources look and feel the way they do. So I try to make explicit to students the differences between a facsimile, an edition, and an encoded text and the significance of those differences for how the text is to be used and for whom. The facsimile usually presents no problem to understand; although, for example in the case of ECCO, the relation between the image and the text (unseen and what one actually searches) is not fully grasped by many undergraduates, which provokes some interesting discussion. Second, this contextual understanding is essential for students to decide what kind of edition they are going to create. In this I ask students to consider their readership or, as Dan Cohen put it in ‘The Social Contract of Scholarly Publishing’, the ‘demand side’ of  Cohen argued that the print model has built-in assumptions about value and audience: ‘The book and article have an abundance of these value triggers from generations of use, but we are just beginning to understand equivalent value triggers online.’ Jess, for her own project – as you can see – decided to provide two editions to appeal to a variety of readerships: one an online edition with hyperlinked notes and a textual commentary; the other an encoding of that text. (In this, we looked to an edition on Romantic Circles as our model).

So, back to an earlier stage of decision-making. If we were after plain text copies of eighteenth-century editions, and not texts that were edited at some point later, that left two options for sources: the Oxford Text Archive and 18thConnect. There are currently 728 texts attributed to Defoe available via 18thConnect and 121 via OTA. Despite the ease with which one can download texts in a variety of file formats from OTA, I deliberately steered Jess towards 18thConnect because of its use of TypeWright. This software enables users to correct a number of individual 18c texts released to 18thConnect by ECCO (as frequent users of ECCO will know, the text that users are able to search is a rather mangled version, the product of now dated OCR software trying to decipher 18c typography via microfilm).


I may well continue to use this, since the advantage for any student is not only the knowledge gained about the workings and limitations of large-scale digital resources like ECCO that might be normally taken for granted, but also the added perspective gained on the processes of transformation from material document to electronic text.

Why encode and why TEI/XML?

Most databases allow one to perform searches based on a variety of categories (author, place of publication, title, date etc) because the texts have been ordered and sorted according to these categories. One can perform ‘all text’ searches. But I struggled, at first, to explain the limitations of this kind of markup to my students. So I’ll give you a similar kind of example I gave to Jess in relation to ECCO. Let’s imagine I’m searching some works by Defoe and I want to find references to High Church clergyman Henry Sacheverell (bap. 1674, d. 1724). Unsurprisingly there are quite a few, but it misses a number of important Defoe poems. Now I happen to know Sacheverell is mentioned in More Reformation and in The Double Welcome but ECCO didn’t find these. Why? Because in The Double Welcome his name is spelt ‘Sachevrel’, and in More Reformation it is ‘Sachavrell’. We could of course put in alternative spellings or use fuzzy searching. But this wouldn’t find more oblique references such as the one in Hymn to the Pillory where his name is pseudo-anonymously presented as ‘S———ll’. A machine does not know this is Henry Sacheverell. Similarly, it would not correctly identify this if Defoe had ever called him ‘Henry’ or ‘old Sacha,’ or something more figurative like ‘the Devil in a pulpit’ that we human readers would be able to interpret. More importantly, what if we didn’t know how Defoe alluded to Sacheverell at all?

A machine searches for strings of symbols and cannot recognise that one string of symbols represents another different string of symbols unless we tell it that each of those particular combination of symbols represent the same named entity. As Lou Bernard put it “only that which is explicit can be digitally processed,” or to put it another way encoding is to “make explicit (for a machine) what is implicit (to a person)”.

For me, then, the project has enabled me to reflect upon strategies for teaching digital technology and identifying – or beginning to – what issues are essential to introduce to students: the how and why of digital editing.

Jess McCarthy’s perspective: decentering authority?

I’m going to be going on a slightly different track; I’ll be talking about how in some ways my edition decentres some of the authority of a traditional printed edition of a text.

It wasn’t until I’d starting researching my reflective essay that I realised that my edition achieves this, to an extent, through my encoding of variants in the XML version. Most modern scholarly editions of texts work on the basis of editorial interpretation and intervention in creating a definitive edition which most closely presents the editor’s understanding of the author’s intentions. These editions are usually created through extensive use of textual apparatus, such as tables of variants and considered reasoning supporting the inclusion of one variant and the exclusion of another. Digital methods of presenting texts have brought into sharper focus how this approach to assembling an edition is based largely on limitations of its publication media. Marilyn Deegan and Kathryn Sutherland pointed out that,

for some the new technology has prompted the recognition of the prescriptive reasoning behind such editions as no more than a function of the technological limits of the book, less desirable and less persuasive now that the computer makes other possibilities available; namely, multiple distinct textual witnesses assembled in a virtual archive or library of forms. [1]

I aimed to achieve a presentation of multiple textual witnesses in my own edition by encoding variant readings into my XML document. This made it possible to present the different states of the text without privileging one state over another. This approach questions the idea of an ideal or more representative version of the text by presenting each state as equally valid and as existing simultaneously. Although I was able to present variants within my encoding without making any claims as to which witness was more authoritative, this was only really achievable within the encoded document. For example:

<l n=”19″>The undistinguish’d Fury of the Street,</l>
<l n=”20″><app>
<rdg wit=”#Q2″>With</rdg>
<rdg wit=”#Q1″>which</rdg>
</app> Mob and Malice Mankind Greet:</l>

To present the text on the website I had to choose a copy text based on what I considered to be the most complete representation of Daniel Defoe’s intentions in A Hymn to the Pillory. I based my edition of the text on the second edition, corrected with additions. This decision was reached early in the project and it was based on the logic that this was the earliest edition available that presented a fuller version of the text. Given the common editorial practice of selecting either the first available edition or the last edition known to have been produced by the author, I would reconsider my choice of copy text were I to start again. However, despite being an unorthodox approach to a copy text, contemporary editions of A Hymn to the Pillory based on the first edition include the later additions found in the second edition, and given that variants between the two texts have been included, I don’t think that my earlier decision undermines the authority of the text presented in a significantly damaging way.

This concern might seem to conflict with my encoding of variants. There I have deliberately not identified a lemma and chosen instead to present multiple, simultaneous witnesses that destabilise the assumption that there are readings that are more valid. This approach works well if you are concerned with textual criticism or data mining to create distant readings of texts. However, I wanted my edition to be as useful as possible to the widest possible audience, so the traditional concern of the humanities with close readings and interpretation had to be considered, and which depend on a stable text to interpret. Marilyn Deegan and Kathryn Sutherland acknowledge this, pointing out that ‘the editor’s exercise of proper expertise may be more liberating for more readers than seemingly total freedom of choice.’[2] Although digital technologies are highlighting how text can be treated differently in electronic formats, the primary concern for most readers of literature is still in interpreting the meaning of the text (rather than how it was composed or its variant states); and to interpret the meaning rather than the textual history, a stable edition needs to be presented.

I wanted to support the authority of my edition as a serious scholarly work so I included all of the textual apparatus that you would expect to find in a scholarly print edition. C. M. Sperberg-McQueen argues that ‘electronic editions without apparatus, without documentation of editorial principles, and without decent provisions for suitable display are unacceptable for serious scholarly work.’[3] While this doesn’t necessarily mean that apparatus for digital editions has to work in the same way or with the same concerns as print editions, it situates intellectual integrity as remaining a key concern for supporting the authority of an online edition.

I used hyperlinks as a way to discretely point to textual annotations from A Hymn to the Pillory and also in order to direct readers to further online points of interest, either from the annotations themselves, or from further reading. Phillip Doss argues that ‘by allowing escape from the context of a single documentary sequence, hypertext allows a reader to escape the linearity imposed by print media.’[4] There are positive and negative implications to the use of hypertext links that I tried to consider within my edition. An obvious limitation of using hypertext is exactly that it allows readers to escape the linearity of the text. On the other hand, by using hyperlinks I have been able to provide easy access to extra-textual material that would not be possible to include in a print edition. For instance, where I have been able to find them, I have included works by people that are mentioned in A Hymn to the Pillory. This has meant that intertextual relationships can be explicitly explored, rather than simply acknowledged. In this way the text is shown to be the product of many various influences in a way that is more difficult to achieve using physical means of publication and although the text is still the main focus of the edition it is presented less in isolation.

Lisa Spiro’s essay ‘“This Is Why We Fight”: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities’ argues that ‘for the Digital Humanities, information is not a commodity to be controlled but a social good to be shared and reused.’ This is very much an attitude that I adopted in my approach to this project. My website is open access, making it freely available to anyone who wants to use the information presented. However, although this project is not formally associated with Bath Spa University, as an undergraduate studying there I had the privilege of institutional access to specialist resources that I would not have been able to use to support my research otherwise. Access to services such as the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) allowed me to work using facsimiles of the copy text and research biographical annotation with confidence in the reliability and authority of my sources. I chose to hyperlink these sites where I have relied on them for my research to maintain the integrity of my sources. Although this means that some users may not be able to access the sites at the end of the hyperlinks I believe that being able to present information based on what these resources provide goes a small way to democratising the information that they contain. Working with the knowledge that not all users will be able to reference my sources, I tried to make my annotations as comprehensive as possible while still maintaining a focus to how they are relevant to the text.

At its core this project has an engaged interest in making specialist information freely available in the most useful, reliable form possible. It has supported ongoing work to make other scholarly resources more reliable by using 18thConnect’s TypeWright and hopes to engage with the widest possible audience by providing not only what is traditionally expected from an authoritative edition of a text but also by incorporating the formats that digital encoding supports for more specialist pursuits and longevity.

[1] Marilyn Deegan and Kathryn Sutherland, Transferred Illusions: Digital Technology and the Forms of Print (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), p.87.

[2] Transferred Illusions, p.71.

[3] C. M. Sperberg-McQueen, ‘Textual Criticism and the Text Encoding Initiative’, The Literary Text in the Digital Age, ed. Richard J. Finneran (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1999), p.41.

[4] Phillip E. Doss, ‘Traditional Theory and Innovative Practice: The Electronic Editor as Poststructuralist Reader’, The Literary Text in the Digital Age, p.218.

Defoe and Descartes’ beast-machine: a brief bibliography

HoundRecently, I became rather obsessed with two small pieces in Defoe’s Review of March 27th, 1705 and the ‘Supplement of January 1705’ (published after March). They debate the extent to which dogs can reason. Researching the contexts for this involved a deep dive into the complex history of the debate about reasoning animals, the animal soul, and Descartes’ ‘beast-machine’ as outlined in his Discourse on Method. The debate spun across religious, philosophical, classical, literary, journalistic and scientific writings for over a century after. But I particularly needed to map out the writings published in the years immediately before Defoe’s 1705 piece.[1] The results revealed a gratifying surge in the English debate from around 1690. Below I’ve listed these, in chronological order, with some very brief notes to indicate their position. In addition, Charles Morton – Defoe attended Morton’s Newington Green Dissenting Academy – clearly engaged in the debate in his own teaching, in a section entitled ‘Appendix of the Soules of Brutes’ in his MS dissertation ‘Pneumaticks: Or the Doctrine of Spirits’ (Morton is skeptical about the beast-machine).

T. Lucretius Carus the Epicurean philospher his six books De natura rerum done into English verse, with notes. Trans., Thomas Creech. Oxford: printed by L. Lichfield for Anthony Stephens, 1682. It had reached a fifth edition by 1700. (Creech’s notes acknowledge the possibility of animal rationality but not the logical consequence of the immortality of an animal soul).

Essays of Michael, Seigneur de Montaigne in Three Books. Trans., Charles Cotton. London, 1685. This had reached a third edition by 1700. (This is positive about animal rationality and willing to concede significant likenesses between human and animals).

Plutarch’s morals translated from the Greek by several hands. London: printed for T. Sawbridge, M. Gilliflower, R. Bently [and seven others], 1691; vol 5. Translations of the Moralia appeared from the 1680s, but only volume 5 included the two tales that debate animal rationality: ‘Which are more Crafty’ and ‘That Brute Beasts make use of Reason’. New editions in 1694 and 1704. (These two tales are sympathetic to animal reasoning).

John Ray, The wisdom of God manifested in the works of the creation being the substance of some common places delivered in the chappel of Trinity-College, in Cambridge. London: printed for Samuel Smith, 1691. Numerous expanded editions, including a fourth in 1704. (Strongly anti-Cartesian).

Gabriel Daniel, A voyage to the world of Cartesius written originally in French, and now translated into English. London: printed and sold by Thomas Bennet, 1692. (Satire on Cartesianism).

John Dunton, The Young-students-library containing extracts and abridgments of the most valuable books printed in England, and in the forreign journals, from the year sixty five, to this time … by the Athenian Society. London: printed for John Dunton, 1692. This contains That Beasts are meer Machines, divided into two Dissertations: At Amsterdam by J. Darmanson. (Anti-Cartesian).

Athenian Gazette, Feb 11, 1693. Reprinted in The Athenian oracle: being an entire collection of all the valuable questions and answers in the old Athenian mercuries. … By a member of the Athenian Society. London: printed for Andrew Bell, 1703-04. Vol. 1:504-507. (Goes over both sides of beast-machine debate).

Antoine Le Grande, An entire body of philosophy according to the principles of the famous Renate Des Cartes in three books, (I) the institution … (II) the history of nature … (III) a dissertation of the want of sense and knowledge in brute animals. Trans. Richard Blome. London, 1694. (Important dissemination of Descartes’s ideas in English).

‘The Turtle, or an Elegy, by Clarissa’, in, Gentleman’s Journal, or the Monthly Miscellany, III (August, 1694), 222.

Malebranch’s Search after truth. London: printed for J. Dunton, 1694-95. Trans. R. Sault. (Cartesian).[2]

John Norris, An essay towards the theory of the ideal or intelligible world.  Part II. London: printed for S. Manship and W. Hawes [1701]. Vol. 2, the chapter entitled ‘A Digression concerning the Souls of Brutes, whether they have any Thought or Sensation in them or no?’ (Certainly perceived as Cartesian, but allows for some doubt about the absolute difference between human and animals). [3]

William Coward, Second thoughts concerning human soul. London: printed for R. Basset, 1702. (Argues that body and soul are one entity and so for the parity of human and animal soul).[4]

John Toland, Letters to Serena. London: printed for Bernard Lintot [1704]. (Mechanistic debate about motion that implies similarity between animal and human matter).


The image is a detail from ‘The Refreshment’, 1818. Courtesy Mills Library, McMaster University, and from the files of the McMaster journal Eighteenth-Century Fiction.

[1] I was aided by Erica Fudge’s Brutal Reasoning. Animals, Rationality, and Humanity in Early Modern England. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2006, Keith Thomas’s magisterial Man and the Natural World, 1500-1800 (1983), and Wallace Shugg’s earlier ‘The Cartesian Beast-Machine in English Literature (1663-1750)’ (Journal of the History of Ideas, 29: 2 (1968)). I was able to refine some of this research and find additional material via searches on ECCO, EEBO and the ESTC.

[2] Clearly, Dunton was deeply interested in disseminating all sides of the animal-machine debate coming from continental Europe.

[3] John Locke, letter, 21 March 1703-4. The Works of John Locke in Nine Volumes, (London: Rivington, 1824 12th ed.). Vol. 9.

“Men of Mr. Norris’s way seem to me to decree, rather than to argue. They, against all evidence of sense and reason, decree brutes to be machines, only because their hypothesis requires it; and then with a like authority, suppose, as you rightly observe, what they should prove: viz. that whatsoever thinks, is immaterial.”

[4] Norris and Coward are particularly interesting because they are name-checked in Defoe’s The Consolidator: Or, Memoirs of Sundry Transactions From the World in the Moon, also published in 1705.