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Major European subsidy for Nadine Akkerman and detective work into old, handwritten documents

Nadine Akkerman has received a subsidy of two million euros from the European Research Council (ERC) for research into 16th and 17th century English manuscripts. Akkerman: ‘Working with handwritten texts and unravelling their mysteries is one of my passions, and it’s especially rewarding when this work allows me to recover a voice from the past that has lain hidden for centuries.’

These handwritten texts were often the result of collaboration between an author and a scribe. Like a modern secretary, these scribes would often correct, edit and amend the words given them by their employer as they put their goose feather quills to paper. Akkerman will analyse these texts in order to disentangle the different voices that may therefore appear in a manuscript. We asked Nadine Akkerman about her research.

What drives you to do this research, what is your passion?

‘I have been constructing the plan for this research for some years now, the idea of how to identify individuals who did not necessarily write a text but nevertheless had some influence upon it – and therefore how to view 16th and 17th century manuscripts in a different way. At this time, an employer would often dictate a letter to a secretary, who did the physical work of actually committing it to paper. It is often suggested that letters from Queen Elizabeth I that were physically written by a secretary were not actually dictated by her: no one would ever suggest such a thing of King James VI/I, of course. But the same problems arise at the other end of the spectrum: just who was the actual author of a petition dictated by an illiterate person and written down by a lawyer? How can we separate the two voices when they are conflated in this way? Working with manuscript sources in archives and recovering long-hidden voices, whether that of Queen Elizabeth I or a milkmaid, that is my passion.’

How does such an investigation work?

‘This grant will enable me to set up a small team of scholars consisting of three PhD students, one post-doc and a research assistant. Over the course of four to five years, this team will work with three types of manuscripts: letters, legal texts and literary sources. We will use a whole range of techniques, from digital analysis to considering their materiality in order to better understand the manner of their creation. It’s the combining of methods from different disciplines that makes it innovative.

One example of the materiality of a letter is the manner in which it is folded to function as its own envelope (see letterlocking.org) – and everyone had their own particular style. Other clues are available in the watermarks of the paper used, and the seals with which the folded packets were held secure. By limiting the investigation to specific types of manuscript, we can also limit the potential number of different secretaries or scribes who might be involved.

Once we have collected all of the information, analysing thousands of manuscripts, we will use this to develop a blueprint which might be applied to other periods and countries. This project will change the way that we think about authorship in the early modern period.’

You also teach, how does this work together with this research?

‘Every aspect of my research informs my teaching, both in terms of pedagogical practice and content. One truly cannot exist without the other. Not only will this research provide new insights that I can pass down the line, much as I do with students taking the Masters in Literary Studies who attend my course Shakespeare’s Sisters, but it allows me the opportunity to train the next generation of researchers and university lecturers, as these are what my team will become in time.

It’s difficult to assess just how long it took me to prepare the proposal for this grant – and with only a very small percentage of proposals being awarded, it was no small commitment – but it’s certainly been a few years since I was able to take a proper holiday! If I can use this funding to fire my students’ interest in manuscript sources and inspire the next generation of scholars, it will have been worth it.’

An ERC Consolidator Grant is intended for scientists who want to further develop their research with a research team to be established, or have just put together such a team and want to further strengthen it. In general, a researcher is able to apply between seven and twelve years after receiving their doctorate. The Consolidator Grant amounts to a maximum of 2 million euros.

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