Stopping to Smell Our Data Points: Muggletonians, Ester Sowernam, and Maria Ruth Sanders

Muggle License Plate

I always want to blog about the Stainforth Library authors and works I come across while transcribing, editing data, or encoding, and yet I have a very hard time stopping what I’m doing to actually do this–that is, to share the non-canonical authors that we find during our work, and even the canonical authors that I haven’t studied because they lie outside of my mid-18 to mid-19c zone of expertise. Yet creating awareness of these authors and their texts, and making the texts available, are some of the primary motivators of this project. When it is something I consider so critically important as well as (truthfully) fun work, why is it so difficult to make time to stop, smell the data as it were, and share what we’re finding?

For one, I often learn about interesting authors while in the middle of an editorial task, such as transcribing or editing transcription data. During these processes, I find myself looking up author names in Worldcat and Google Books, checking titles and publication dates against the auction catalog generated from Sotheby’s auction of Stainforth’s library in 1866, or searching the Orlando Project for records that will link a pseudonym to an author’s birth or married name. If I pull up a record in Orlando that looks interesting and that sends me down a research rabbit hole, away from the manuscript page I’m transcribing, I feel the tug of the task I need to complete (transcription), climb back up out of the rabbit hole and return to the spreadsheet that I am supposed to be working in and leave the entry that intrigued me behind as I move on to the next line and the next page.

I know too well how much time I feel that I lose when I let my curiosity wander, and I track down digital copies of the texts Stainforth lists in his library catalog. In these moments, the digital humanist in me who is building a large, unwieldly electronic library wrestles with the literary scholar who wants to read poems rather than transcribe a library catalog and edit XML tags. The reader usually loses because reading seems to be just for me, and it is not part of the process of making an electronic resource that will reconstitute a lost vital collection of women’s writing for other researchers, teachers, and students–the job of building this electronic library that got me this incredible postdoctoral fellowship. Reading isn’t making anything and doesn’t count toward checking off editorial tasks “completed” in our log.

I feel guilty when I spend “Stainforth” time reading and not making data. However, this post is about how I do dig in and read anyway, what situations help me do that, and a sample of what I find.

The collaborative and constantly-in-process, never-done-transcribing-or-editing nature of this textual digitization project has produced situations conducive to sharing knowledge about the texts and women authors in Stainforth’s collection. While we could do more at this stage, in organized efforts, to share what we’re learning, this post reflects on a few memorable moments, among many more, of Stainforth library discoveries and discussion. Maria, my research assistant, and I often do turn to each other and share the cool, funny, or interesting bits of information we find as we work. Transcription work on the Stainforth project can easily be done remotely;  the entire team does often work on our own and communicate via email. However, for the better part of this year I have been working side-by-side with Maria for around 8 hours per week, and we both find that useful, especially while transcribing, editing data, or encoding. We bounce transcription questions off of one another. Most often they sound like “is that a 1 or a 7?”, and we frequently turn our screens to the other to squint at and discuss our interpretations of Stainforth’s handwriting (while often fairly easy to read, it does have its opacities). But perhaps equally important, we are each others’ audience for sharing the tidbits about authors and texts that we come across as we create the data that will be the foundation of the electronic library: the transcription of Stainforth’s library catalog full of women writers and their titles.

As a light example, Maria often cracks up when she comes across one of Stainforth’s many listings of “Hymns in Muggleton” simply because Muggleton is a funny name and it reminds her of Harry Potter. It makes us stop editing and laugh. I haven’t read much Harry Potter, so I looked up “Muggleton” in Google Books, which brings up an issue of The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular (vol 33, 1892) that explains Muggletonianism as a 17th-century Christian sect that believed, among other things, that two tailors, Ludovic Muggleton and John Reeve, were the last prophets mentioned in the book of Revelation. Furthermore, this short essay tells us about the hymnal that Stainforth owned and that he so often refers to in his Catalog. For example, it contained 228 “songs,” it was published by subscription with 84 names listed as subscribers, and the volume has a portrait of Muggleton as a frontispiece. The author comments that he believed Muggleton followers “raised their own poets,” as he did not find poets in the book whose songs could be attributed to anything but a Muggletonian-specific purpose. The author then quotes several examples of verse from the book, which we know contained poetry written by women and that was valuable to the bibliographer we’re studying.

Another instance in which I got to know the writers in our data better occurred in response to a talk I gave to librarians at Dartmouth last Spring. After my talk, a colleague in the libraries emailed me with a very detailed question: while flipping casually through the manuscript catalog he came across a strange entry: “Arraignment of Women.” On the same line, it says “See Sowernam.” He flipped forward alphabetically in the catalog to where Sowernam should be but found nothing. He then Googled the title and sent me a link to a Wikipedia entry for Joseph Swetnam, who he believed to be the author alluded to by the entry, and a male author at that, he noted, of a 1615 pamphlet of sexist jokes. My colleague was confused, and ended his email with a note to the effect that his research on this strange title and entry led nowhere but to a male author(!) in a catalog that was supposed to be full only of women writers. What a great email — I immediately dropped the transcription editing I was in the middle of (again sitting with Maria) and went on the hunt for answers regarding this curious entry. Here is my reply:

Dear [colleague], Thank you very much for coming to the session and for your email. I’m right now following your trail of m&ms, and I learned something! It certainly does lead somewhere. This is a great reminder to me to stop and smell the data points occasionally. I found the entry on page n15 of the manuscript catalog Arraignment of Women – See Sowernam I then googled the title to see what I could learn: I also found the Swetnam pamphlet by the title listed “The Arraignment of Women” (1615), but reading down his Wikipedia page, I learned that there were three published feminist responses to the misogynist pamphlet, and one of them is by an author who goes by Esther Sowernam – she responded to him in 1617. The second response came in 1617 from a writer under the pseudonym Esther Sowernam (“Sour”nam, as opposed to “Sweet”nam). “Ester Hath Hang’d Haman” is most notable for its reasoned and well-ordered argument. I found Ester Sowernam [in the manuscript] on page n425, the recto. Here is the digital ed of the text. He has her listed as the author of “Hath Hanged Haman.” The full title of her response does contain his original title within it, in the subtitle, so perhaps to connect the original pamphlet to the response, or to abbreviate the response, the collector just called it Swetnam’s original title (so confusing!) “The Arraignment of Women”. Here’s Est(h)er:; her response is [appropriately] entitled “Ester Hath Hanged Haman; or An Answer to a Lewd Pamphlet, Entitled The Arraignment of Women”! So, to me his “See Sowerman” reference makes perfect sense now. What I find interesting is that Stainforth didn’t *just* have an entry for Sowernam. Perhaps the pamphlet was so well-known that he wanted one who browsed his holdings to be able to see that well-known title and then locate the feminist response to it in his collection, under Sowernam. But it may also be that this is my own feminist lens on the catalog connecting dots that need more investigating … I’m going to read through a little of this pamphlet today because the pamphlet wars make perfect after-lunch material. Thanks again, Kirstyn

I sent this email in April, the same day I gave my talk, and I have been meaning to share what we learned about Ester Sowernam on this blog for six months now. I’m happy that it finally made it beyond my sent mail. It was a memorable episode of taking the time to understand Stainforth’s library better by learning about an individual line entry that I don’t even remember transcribing. But the work of transcribing and editing did eventually lead to writing/delivering a talk about this DH project and our process, which did finally, in turn, result in the conversation with my colleague in the Dartmouth library, that led to his flipping through the catalog and his email about the quizzical entry he found. The last scenario I’ll share is from my work this evening. I have a bunch of TEI encoding to do, but found myself at home without my large monitor that makes encoding easier, and what I felt most like doing was looking over my notes about Stainforth’s books that I researched at the British Library this summer. I remembered requesting a rare book of poetry by Maria R. Sanders, reading several of the poems and thinking about them, and wishing I could find a digital copy of the volume so that I could spend more time with the text after I left the reading room. Sanders does not have an entry in The Orlando Project, nor does she have an authority entry in the Library of Congress catalog. She’s one of the poets that the Stainforth project has the potential to reintroduce to our cultural knowledge base. My notes include the pub info and a frustratingly scant description of contents:

Original Rhymes, on Various Subjects, by Maria R. Sanders. [Sanders is underlined in pencil and has the K after it also in pencil] London: Printed for the Authoress by Roberts and Blatch, 21, Park Side, Knightsbridge, 1833 11646bb28 With Stainforth’s bookplate Favorites “London”; “On the Death of Spriggens”; “The Dream” features Scott, Leigh Hunt, Byron, etc.; and lots more. On pages 199-200, there is a short essay — just a blurb — that explains how she includes both spiritual and non-spiritual verse in her collection. She feels it necessary to offer an apology for mixing these two subjects.

I loved this book, but was feeling pressed for time–with over 100 of Stainforth’s books left to examine–and so did not spend a lot of time taking notes on its contents when I had it at my desk in the British Library reading room. Tonight I decided to try again to find a copy of this book online. With the help of the BL catalog and a Google search, I found that R. stands for “Ruth,” and searches on “Maria Ruth Sanders” and “Original Rhymes” were far more successful than my rushed attempts this summer.

Tonight I found what looked like a copy of the book I inspected at the British Library, however it is, in fact, another book with nearly the same title and by the same author, but published about 20 years later. I know that it is also a book Stainforth owned since his bookplate appears in the digitized frontmatter. It seems plausible that this 1851 edition is the one Stainforth lists in his catalog after the 1833. Searching the volume, I did not find the poems I mentioned in my notes, but I did find a fascinating preface as well as an essay in the back of the volume that helped me get to know this obscure author a little better. The preface tells us that Sanders feels she needs to explain why the pieces in this volume are disjointed and do not form a more cohesive whole. She states firmly that “apology is neither asked for or needed,” and she printed these poems and pieces “to get rid of the rubbish, the ill-written scraps of paper flying about in all directions, and not having courage to commit to the flames, these sweet little offsprings of my past as well as my present thoughts, I had resolved on printing them” (ii).

This part of her preface reminds me of what I always mean to do, that is, share these bits and scraps that I read while I transcribe or edit entries in Stainforth’s manuscript, and that I banter about in conversation with colleagues, rather than just let them fade into my memory from a day of data work or as a comment made to Maria not transmitted forward in a more useful, semi-permanent medium that might reach others outside of our small team. This unknown poet, Maria Ruth Sanders, recovered by our project, and a preface that probably hasn’t been studied by any modern scholars, inspired this blog post. I/we need to stop and dig into our data more often and share what we unearth in this library catalog in more useful ways, such as blogging. I’ll end this blog post by sharing a short memoir episode from the end of Sanders’ volume. It’s called “An Adventure of My Great Grandmother.” I hope you’ll take the time to read it.


Photo credit: Alex Shultz,

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