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Nadine Akkerman uncovers hidden British voices

For the next five years, thanks to a highly competitive European grant, Nadine Akkerman will be able to focus on voices from the past that might otherwise never have been heard. This is because in the 16th and 17th centuries what we now call a ghostwriter already existed. As Akkerman explains, ‘a lot more people worked on a text than we tend to think.’

At the beginning of August, Akkerman, together with postdoctoral researcher Lotte Fikkers, began work on this massive project on manuscript culture – and they will soon be joined by three PhD students and a student assistant. This level of research is only possible thanks to a European grant of 2 million euros, a level of funding which, Akkerman says, is unusual in the humanities. ‘This kind of research is time-consuming but very rewarding,’ she adds.

Even with the printing press, there were still many handwritten sources

In her research, Akkerman is hoping to change the way we think about authorship in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, because, she says, while the printing press was already up and running, people still published handwritten documents, so-called ‘scribal publications.’ She is looking at texts ‘written’ by people from all layers of society, from those who appeared in the courts of law to those in the royal courts, and even playwrights and poets. ‘In all of these areas,’ she points out, ‘handwritten texts were produced, but often not by just one person.

The role of the secretary

According to Akkerman, we have not yet fully understood just how many people were involved in the production of handwritten texts at that time, nor have we tried hard enough to discover who these people were. In some of these texts, women and the lower classes, groups who often could not write for themselves, were able to speak. ‘They worked together with a secretary or scribe, and even the illiterate could tell their story.’ These secretaries and scribes fulfilled a vital function, one which took in many different viewpoints. ‘They might visit a court in the morning and write a baker’s will in the afternoon: much like conducting an interview, they would take their clients’ words and make them suitable for whatever purpose they were to serve.’

Nadine Akkerman

Uncovering hidden voices

Uncovering voices from the past that might otherwise never be heard, especially female voices, is something of a trademark for Dr. Akkerman. In 2018, she made headlines with her book on the women spies of seventeenth century Britain, Invisible Agents, a book that not only re-wrote history but wrote new histories. In her research, Akkerman hopes to change our view of (cultural) history, explaining that it is ‘not only kings and queens’ who have shaped it.

Big questions

Her research has already attracted a lot of interest and several prizes, and she will soon introduce it to a much larger audience. The new VPRO television programme Grote Vragen (Big Questions) features eight academics at the top of their field explaining their research by referring to people, places and objects. Only one of the programme’s eight episodes is dedicated to a scholar from the humanities, and that scholar is Dr Nadine Akkerman. As the only representative of her field amongst the mathematicians, physicists and biologists, she does not want to give too much away, but says that ‘you’ll probably see me and a lot of letters!’

When she was first approached, Akkerman was tempted to decline as she was afraid that her work might be oversimplified. She soon shook off that feeling, as ‘it's important that the humanities are also shown on TV. Academics left their ivory towers a long time ago, but the humanities should be more visible. We can't say no when the media calls. We must be involved as much as possible.'

Big Questions

Big Questions will be broadcast on NPO2 starting September 10 at 22:15, Nadine Akkerman’s episode will air on October 8

Click here for more information (in Dutch)
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