Blog

Amsterdamnified! A brief project description

Amsterdamnified! A brief project description

In 1641 an English Puritan complained that his country was being “Amsterdamnified” as laypeople presumed to speak authoritatively on religion. This new research program will explore how a growing public discourse on religion and philosophy in England was greatly influenced by the many heterodox groups that for decades had flourished in Amsterdam and other cities of the Dutch Republic. It will reveal how their debates significantly challenged and reshaped traditional beliefs on the eve of the Enlightenment, especially on the critical questions of the interpretation of the scriptures and the natural world. They also encouraged inter-confessional dialogue and crafted new forms of social organization. Led by ordinary urbanites, these interrelated groups included Dutch Doopsgezinden (aka Mennonites), English Baptists, spiritualistic Familists, anti-Trinitarian Socinians and English Quakers, to name a few. In the Dutch Republic some met together formally in the gatherings of the Collegiants and reached out to Amsterdam’s Jews. They viewed innovation positively thanks to an approach to religious identity known as spiritualism which emphasized the personal inspiration of the Holy Spirit over the letter of scripture; some – including a number of Mennonites – went so far as to deny the existence of a creaturely devil, a key marker of Enlightenment thought.

It is therefore important to examine the kind of “Amsterdamnified” freethinking leading up to the groundbreaking publications of Baruch de Spinoza (d. 1677) whose rational critique of revealed religion was formulated within Amsterdam’s climate of religious variety, interaction and debate. When in 1656 Spinoza was expelled from his synagogue he sought out such Collegiant-Mennonite nonconformists to assist him to push for toleration and individual liberty. Utilizing a social history of ideas approach, this research program explores how elements of the innovative ideas of Spinoza and other Enlightenment philosophers were drawn from these radical religious groups. This will require analysis of dissenter publications from both Holland and England and careful delineation of their interactions, readership and publisher networks; for example, Spinoza’s major publisher, Jan Rieuwertsz, was a Mennonite. It will detail the changing reception of nonconformist writings and reveal the changes in attitudes that assisted the crumbling of a providentialist worldview, the promotion of religious accommodation and experimentation with new forms of social and political organization.

Reading John Taylor’s 1641 pamphlet using Voyant Tools

Reading John Taylor’s 1641 pamphlet using Voyant Tools

Taylor1870“Amsterdamnified” was a neologism created by the prolific English poet, public relations pioneer and pamphleteer John Taylor (1580-1653) in a short 1641 pamphlet, Religions enemies. Taylor was a defender of the King and tradition who engaged enthusiastically in the pamphlet wars that were growing quickly in the early 1640s in the battles between King and Parliament. On the 6th and final page of Religions enemies Taylor wrote that “Religion is made a Hotch potch, and as it were tossed in a Blanquet, and too many places of England too much Amsterdamnified by several opinions….” To learn more about Taylor and the context for his pamphlet, see the bibliography at the end of the post.

Taylor is worth highlighting in large part because he provided a clear, effective statement of a very widely held 17th-century view on the dangers of innovation, diversity and toleration. In addition to Religions enemies, he also wrote a large number of other noteworthy works. We are including title page images from two more pamphlets from about the same period as the 1641 pamphlet that is the focus of this post (note that Taylor reused the image from Mad fashions in his more famous 1647 pamphlet The world turn’d upside down). All three images are from the 1870 edition of Taylor’s works.

The longer title of Religions enemies and its image highlight Taylor’s concerns with social and religious innovation. An additional handwritten note on the title page of the copy at the British Library (not shown here) was added by a 17th-century reader to summarize the source of danger he was decrying in Religions enemies. According to the additional note the enemies of religion were “all Independents”.

After this initial introduction and a first look at Religions enemies, readers might assume that Taylor devoted most of the text to an attack on and analysis of the various groups he thought endangered Christian social order. Is this the case? What is the text about?

These kinds of very general questions face all readers when they first open up a new text. If you have a digital version of a text at hand, one way to read it initially is to use computer tools for visual text analysis. A cirrus (aka word cloud) is one such tool. Wordle is one web program for this purpose. I (Mike Driedger) prefer Voyant Tools, in comparison to which Wordle is a toy not a tool. Here is a Voyant frame with a cirrus of Religions enemies:

One of the particularly valuable features of Voyant Tools is that the program allows any reader of this Blog to analyze Religions enemies quickly and effectively by hovering over key words and clicking on the ones that might be most significant. A new window with a variety of analytical frames should open up for you. Try it!

You can experiment with the analytical options in Voyant. To learn more about the various tools available, go to Stéfan Sinclair’s page on “The Rhetoric of Text Analysis.” Here’s another example of text visualization options — the Links tools:

To make the most of this tool, click on several terms. The links should grow in number. If you find the frame to be too small, you can expand it using a button on the top right of the frame. As with the word cloud, the relative size of each term indicates its frequency in the text. The lines linking words indicate how they cluster together in the text. Here’s a screenshot of the expanded links I created:

There is no substitute for a close reading of any text, but I believe that the visual, interactive summaries of the Voyant windows are valuable in part because they are an attractive, intriguing invitation to further and deeper reading. On the substantive level, these kinds of visual summaries are also a useful way to prepare for a more detailed examination of the text. The evidence from the word cloud and word links suggests a more complicated picture than the one that I sketched out after first introducing the text and presenting the title page. For example, we can all recognize immediately that “church,” “God,” “true” and “Christ” are the most frequent terms. Presumably, they — not heresy — are the primary subjects of the pamphlet. Is this the case? An obviously important task for a close reading is figuring out how Taylor defined “church.” When we look a little more closely at the analytical frames, we can also notice that the next tier of frequent terms (e.g., “bishop,” “physician,” “lawyer,” “law,” “government,” “body,” “preservation”) seems to be about the management of a healthy body-politic. Did Taylor subscribe to an organic picture of society? How much space in the text is actually devoted to dissenters? In the visual, symbolic “language” of the title page, perhaps the actual subject of the pamphlet is not the figures on the four corners of the blanket but rather the Bible in the middle of it? In just a few minutes we can gather a richer collection of questions and hypotheses to consider when reading the text more carefully. In short, Voyant is a great aid to close reading because it can encourage more active, thoughtful reading.

Of course, we should acknowledge the limitations of these visualizations. The visualization tools do not help us understand Taylor’s specific ideas. Furthermore, some significant terms might slip through its filters. Glancing through the entire text (which is conveniently short) you might notice that Taylor used a wide variety of terms for religious deviants. Because they are not repeated, Voyant does not highlight them, even though they might collectively be quite significant. After our pre-reading, however, we should have enough questions in our minds to notice the significance of these varying terms as we read through the text more carefully.

Another limitation is that you need a clean digital text that you can insert into Voyant or another visual analysis tool. Arranging such a text sometimes takes some effort. You can find a digital version of the Works of John Taylor in an online digital version through archive.org. I am including a cleaned up version here; you can use this text to try out other tools available through Voyant Tools. Note that I have edited the text of Religions enemies to correct scanning mistakes and modernize spelling in case the older, inconsistent spellings interfere with the Voyant analysis. Another important detail is that I have added “hath” and “shall” to the standard Voyant English stop word list before I linked the analytical frames to this page.

Please note that Voyant Tools works best on a computer rather than a mobile device.

One last note: Special thanks to Keith Grant, a PhD candidate at the UNB-Fredericton, for originally pointing Gary Waite and me to Taylor’s text.

REFERENCES

Bernard Capp, The World of John Taylor the Water-Poet, 1578-1653 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999).

Bernard Capp, “John Taylor ‘the Water-Poet’: A Cultural Amphibian in 17th-Century England,” 11:1 (1989): 537-44.

David Cressy, “Revolutionary England 1640-1642,” Past & Present, no. 181 (November 1, 2003): 35–71.

Tim Harris, “Charles I and Public Opinion,” in The Nature of the English Revolution Revisited, ed. Stephen Taylor and Grant Tapsell (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2013), 1-25.

David Loewenstein, Treacherous Faith: The Specter of Heresy in Early Modern English Literature and Culture (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013).

John Taylor, Works of John Taylor, the Water Poet, Not Included in the Folio Volume of 1630 (Manchester: The Spenser Society, 1870).