Discourses of Suffering


The first time I held an early modern book in my hands was in the Munby Rare Books Room in Cambridge University Library. It was the autumn of 1975, and I was a newly-registered PhD student, working on translations of (mainly religious) Spanish texts into English during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I turned the pages of Teresa of Avila, Mateo Alemán, Juan Luis Vives and many others with a sense of awe, imagining the world at the time they were published, wondering who owned and read them all those years ago…

On this website, I aim to reconstruct, as far as possible, that experience online. I found that the flipbook was about the closest I could get. It’s not the same, of course, but it captures something of the feel of turning the pages of the original text.

Where possible, I use facsimile PDF files to give the best reading experience. Where facsimiles are not available, I use greyscale PDFs. Apart from manuscripts, the PDF files are text-searchable.

When I embarked on my postgraduate studies, A. W. Pollard and G. R. Redgrave’s A Short-title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and of English Books Printed Abroad, 1475–1640 (better known as the Short-Title Catalogue, or STC) was my Bible, along with Donald Wing’s Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and British America and of English Books Printed in Other Countries, 1641–1700. These told me what was out there and where to find it. If it wasn’t in the University Library, perhaps it was in one of the college libraries, or in the British Library in London, or the Bodleian Library at Oxford, or in a private collection somewhere. Rarely did I need to access a text via microfilm, and when I did it was a draining experience; after a few hours, my eyes would be strained and I’d start to have a headache.

All that changed when the microfilm began to be digitised in greyscale in the 1990s. By that time, though, I was living and working in Japan, and my university (Sophia University, Tokyo), while it did have the microfilms, did not subscribe to the Early English Books Online (EEBO) database, which, to this day, remains behind a paywall. I enjoyed having the use of it on my visits to Cambridge, but otherwise it was back to the dreaded microfilm.

The Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership (EEBO TCP) was a major development. This, too, was originally behind a paywall and only accessible to members of subscribing institutions, but is now publicly available.

From a research point of view, EEBO TCP is a game changer. Now, for the first time, much of the corpus of early modern printed books is available in text-searchable form. During a sabbatical year in Cambridge, I was able, with the help of EEBO TCP, to write a monograph on early modern attitudes towards suffering. I could not have written this – at least, I could not have written in it the way I did – without access to this database.

EEBO TCP makes a huge amount of early modern literature available in text-searchable form, but there’s a catch. EEBO TCP is all in plain text. Without an institutional login, you can’t access the PDF scans that correspond to the original texts, so, while EEBO TCP is an invaluable aid to scholarship, it is quite divorced from the texts as they were originally published and read. In many cases, even the pagination of the originals cannot be accessed.

Other initiatives making facsimiles of early modern books accessible online include the Internet Archive Open Library and Google Books, but both are hampered by the lack of an optimised search interface. The project that comes closest to what I am aiming for on this website is the Post-Reformation Digital Library (PRDL), a The Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research initiative, a much more extensive and ambitious project than my own, which comprises a large database of links to text-searchable facsimile and greyscale PDF files of early modern European texts. The main difference – apart from scale – is that many of the PRDL files are from a later period, whereas I, with very few exceptions, am only really interested in publications prior to 1700.

This Discourses of Suffering project is characterised by its focus on religiopolitical texts written in English and/or published in Britain, its emphasis on giving both readers and researchers the best possible online experience, with user-friendly tables of contents and (where possible) using flipbooks and text-searchable facsimile PDF scans of original – or, failing that, early – editions, the inclusion of open-access references and materials for further study and research, and a blog. Over the years my research interests have broadened out from specifically Spanish texts to Protestant adaptations of Catholic texts and early modern religious controversy in general, and this is reflected in the choice of material included here.

None of what you will find on these pages is comprehensive, nor, in all likelihood, will it ever be; this is a project in progress, and comments, suggestions, etc. – not to mention contributions and offers of help! – are most welcome.

John R. Yamamoto-Wilson (aka Ano sensei!)

Professor, Department of English Literature, Sophia University, Tokyo (retired)