Design for a theater set created by Giacomo Torelli da Fano for the ballet ‘Les Noces de Thétis’, from ‘Décorations et machines aprestées aux nopces de Tétis, Ballet Royal’, 1654 _METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART/PUBLIC DOMAIN

A meeting of the interdisciplinary Early Modern reading group: Writing Technology/the technology of writing

24 April 2019

St John’s College, 10am-1pm

Jennifer Oliver, St John’s and Marie-Thébaud-Sorger, MFO
with Frederique Ait Touati, CNRS/CRAL

This meeting will fully inaugurate our ‘Performance’ theme, with our guest speaker, Frédérique Aït-Touati (CNRS/CRAL, Paris), presenting work from her current project on seventeenth-century ‘theatres of the earth’: the presentation will focus on the links between scenography and machine-plays, Descartes’s Météores (Meteorology), and his concept of the res extensa.

10am: Main presentation and discussion on Descartes’s Météores (Meteorology)

12 noon: Presentation of Frédérique Aït-Touati’s newly released book, Terra Forma, manuel de cartographies potentielles:



Hands & Performance ‘Gestures of writing: hands and minds’

11 March 2019

11am-3pm, Maison Française d’Oxford

Making, writing, pointing, demonstrating, feeling, representing… hands work hard in early modern texts. This workshop, one in a series of interdisciplinary sessions, will consider the intersecting uses and meanings of hands in different writerly contexts. From ‘writing as reaching’ in Renaissance poetry to the pragmatics and material history of scientific and technical textual composition in the Enlightenment, we will continue to explore the language and imagery of grasping, handling, and manipulating in the early modern period. 


11am: Welcome 

11.10: Matthew Landrus, (Wolfson College and History Faculty, Oxford):

‘Hands in the Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi

11.40: Olivia Tolley (St Catherine’s College and Modern Languages Faculty, Oxford): ‘Grasping in the dark: writing as reaching in Scève’s Délie (1544)’

12.20: John Christie (History Faculty, Oxford):

‘Performance and gesture in the poetry of Anna Letitia Barbauld’

1pm:    Lunch

1.40:    Marie Thebaud-Sorger (CNRS, Paris, and Maison Française d’Oxford):

‘“Smart hands”: a brief historiographical outline’  ( C. Jacob, éd. Lieux de savoirs 2. Les mains de l’intellect)

2.20:    Rachel Hindmarsh (Trinity College and Modern Languages Faculty, Oxford):

“Groping hands, curing hands in Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel

3pm  discussion future direction of the workshop


Viktoria von Hoffman

Research Associate from the Belgian Fund for Scientific Research (F.R.S.-FNRS), affiliated to the University of Liège.

Viktoria’s  research interests cover the social and cultural history of the lower senses (taste and touch) in early modern Europe. She has published extensively on the history of taste, including two monographs on taste (Goûter le monde. Une histoire culturelle du goût à l’époque moderne, 2013, and From Gluttony to Enlightenment. The World of Taste in Early Modern Europe, 2016) and one co-edited volume on disgust (Le Dégoût, Histoire, langage, esthétique et politique d’une émotion plurielle, with M. Delville and A. Norris, 2015). She is now engaged in a new project that explores the history of touch through the lens of Italian Renaissance anatomy.

Her current research aims to uncover the rich variety of discourses and practices involving touch as an instrument to produce knowledge about the body in early modern medicine. Using a varied collection of theoretical medical texts, along with printed and archival documents more closely linked to the day to day uses of touch in healing practices – such as records of autopsies and dissections, observations for diagnosis, diaries, letters, and notebooks kept by medical students – The Anatomy of Touch examines the ways in which the sense of touch was theorized in the past, as well as the part played by haptic experience and technologies of touch in the early modern study of nature.

Marie Thebaud-Sorger

Visiting Researcher at the Maison Française d’Oxford

Marie is Associate Professor (Research) at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), based in Paris at the ‘Centre for the History of Science and Technology–Alexandre Koyré’ at the EHESS (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences). From September 2017, she has been overseeing the History and History of Science & Technology Programme at the Maison Française d’Oxford, where she intends to foster interdisciplinary exchanges and cross-cutting approaches, especially promoting a material approach to the sciences, focusing on sites of knowledge and the articulations between intellectual and material practices.

Marie is a cultural historian of technology. Her current research project, ‘Economies of improvement. Public sphere, micro-invention and industrial Enlightenment’ is grounded in a comparative study of inventive practices in Europe throughout the 18th century. She is particularly interested in the staging of technical inventions in various social settings and media: prints, drawing, projects, models, scientific tests and experiments, demonstrations, and performances. Before completing her PhD, she received a diploma in theatrical set design (ENSATT) and gained some background in theatre practice, set design, and stage direction. This drew her attention in her early academic research to the staging of early modern urban flight, (‘scénographie de l’envol’) in Ballooning in the Age of Enlightenment (her first monograph, L’aérostation au temps des Lumières, 2009, received the Académie française Louis Casteix Prize in 2010), as well to amateur appropriative practices that contributed to the building-up of a collective knowledge and understanding of invention (using periodicals, ephemera, how-to leaflets, treatises etc.).

Focusing on the socio-materiality of technical devices in the 18th century, she has been exploring the nature of ‘air’ and gases, pursuing more broadly a reflexion on the perception of the natural elements in the context of the beginnings of industrialisation, where European societies underwent profound changes. This shift affected their environment and their pursuit of the mastery of the nature, where performative techniques were seen as a mean to achieve impossible actions (transforming the toxic atmosphere into breathable air, mastering fire and heat, illuminating the night, overcoming gravity…)

Therefore she has been following a research path directed towards materialities and mediations, trying to articulate a material history of knowledge with the history of material knowledge, at the crossroads of technical and chemical operations. Beyond the working group initiated with Jenny Oliver, Writing technology/The technology of writing, in phase with new historiographical inputs –such as the ‘mindful hand’, artisanal epistemology and an approach to technical writings as a means to reduce arts and practices into theory since the early modern period – her research has also included critical reflections on methodologies, using material objects as well as restaging, re-enactments, and digital reconstructions, as various means to gain new understandings of historic knowledge production. She led a collective working group in Paris in 2015-2017 (Ateliers Campus Condorcet Grant): ‘La reconstitution – processus heuristique et/ou objet de médiation ?’ and, following a study day held in April 2018 in Oxford entitled ‘Performing and Knowing. Experimental and Sensory Approaches’, is convening a new seminar series with Charlotte Bigg and Rafael Mandressi at the EHESS: “Performance et savoirs : lectures, relectures, perspectives critiques.



Jennifer Oliver

St John’s College, Oxford

My research is centred on sixteenth-century French literature, culture, and thought. My forthcoming book, Shipwreck in French Renaissance Writing: The Direful Spectacle examines the theme of shipwreck in the French Renaissance, reading fictional and allegorical shipwrecks alongside the eyewitness accounts of travel writers in order to explore the relationship between the material and the metaphorical.

My new research project is concerned with how French writers of the sixteenth century (including Rabelais, Ronsard, Montaigne, and Agrippa d’Aubigné) contemplated the connections and tensions between poetics, technology, and the natural environment. A first article on the subject, ‘Rabelais’s Engins: War Machines, Analogy, and the Anxiety of Invention in the Quart Livre’, was published in Early Modern French Studies (December 2016).

Inaugural meeting

Image: from Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, Maison Française d’Oxford



Historians of technology and researchers in literature(s) of the early modern period are often faced with similar issues, albeit while approaching texts in different ways. Coming to the same or similar material from these complementary perspectives, they have much to learn from one another. 

On the one hand, historians of early modern technology may be working on narrative accounts of inventions, treaties and practical writings – manuscript or printed – which use literary figures as powerful tools: rhetoric, (key)words, and commonplaces deeply rooted in a wider literary culture. On the other hand, researchers in early modern literature might seek to contextualise their texts in a wider setting, including technical writings of the time, which could have operated as patterns or references. 

 Both ‘groups’ of researchers have interests and problems in common: the thin boundaries between fiction and reality, the difficulty of establishing the position or importance of a text within various forms of hierarchy, the role of the imaginary, the notion and narration of the ‘genius’ and the various editorial strategies of the inventor-as-author and author-as-inventor, as well as the uses of (literary) technologies such as analogical figures, metaphors, sketches, and drawings. 

 The aim of this workshop is to provide a preliminary space for dialogue by bringing together various points of view and areas of expertise on both the writing of technology and the technology of writing. We hope to inaugurate a series of interdisciplinary cross-readings of fictional and non-fictional texts dealing with early modern techniques and inventions. Among the wide range of issues that could be investigated, this first meeting will begin in practical fashion, by inviting each researcher to put forward some of the primary material they are working on (whether manuscript or printed, though in English translation where practicable), to be pre-circulated and then discussed collectively. We then hope to collectively sketch out topics that might be further and fruitfully explored in future workshops and/or seminars. 



 2 :10  Jenny Oliver (St John’s College, Oxford), ‘Diabolic invention? The Gaster episode of Rabelais’s Quart Livre ’ 

 2 :20  Koen Vermeir (CNRS, Paris), ‘Technology and the technique of writing the arts (Ramist texts )’

2 :30  Vittoria Fallanca (Pembroke College, Oxford), ‘ Montaigne’s Journal de voyage

2 :40  Olivia Smith (Wolfson College, Oxford), « Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World (1666) » 

2 :50  Marie Thébaud-Sorger (CNRS, MFO), ‘Efficient technology: writing, drawing, and describing inventions overcoming the dramas of nature ’   

3 :00  Caroline Warman (Jesus College, Oxford) ‘The Senses as Tools: Diderot and the Ideologues ’

3 :10 Jérôme Baudry (University of Geneva), ‘Inscribing Inventions at the Paris Academy of Sciences, 1750-1850’

3 :20 Jessica Stacey (Oxford, Queen’s),  ‘Rivarol. De la philosophie moderne 

3 :30 Break 

3 :45 Discussion 

4 :45 Future planning 



Writing Technology/The technology of Writing

Ce carnet rend compte de l’activité d’un groupe de recherche basé à Oxford, composé de chercheurs en littérature moderne et d’historiens des techniques et sciences principalement de la faculté d’Oxford et du CNRS (Maison Française d’Oxford). Il vise à créer un espace faisant dialoguer les points de vues et les expertises sur l’écriture des techniques et les techniques d’écriture, en favorisant une série de rencontres interdisciplinaires basées sur la lecture croisée de sources primaires – textes fictionnels et non fictionnels, archives manuscrites, images- relatives aux savoirs techniques et aux inventions.

Les historiens des techniques et de la littérature de la période moderne sont en effet souvent confrontés à des problématiques similaires bien qu’approchant les matériaux textuels d’une manière différente. À partir de sources semblables ces lectures croisées instaurent un dialogue fructueux par leurs perspectives complémentaires. D’un côté les historiens de la période moderne travaillent sur le récit des inventions, les formes narratives des traités technique ou textes prescriptifs (manuscrits ou imprimés) qui font des figures littéraires des outils de rhétorique puissants, ou renvoient implicitement à des mots clés ou à des lieux commun profondément enracinés dans la culture commune. D’un autre côté, les chercheurs en littérature ont besoin contextualiser les textes dans un ensemble plus large incluant les écrits techniques contemporains qui peuvent opérer comme modèle ou référence. Les intérêts et les problèmes communs se dégagent : la mince frontière entre la fiction et la réalité, la difficulté d’établir l’importance d’un texte au sein d’une hiérarchie littéraire, le rôle de l’imaginaire, la notion et la narration de la figure du génie, les stratégies éditoriales multiples de l’inventeur comme auteur et vice versa, de l’auteur comme inventeur, ainsi que les usages des technologies littéraires telles que les analogies et métaphores, mais aussi la prise en compte des supports matériels, des formats, des esquisses et dessins.

L’objet de ces échanges qui alternent ateliers informels et petites journées d’études vise à constituer un corpus de sources et une bibliographie qui seront disponibles sur ce carnet. Il met à disposition les résultats (résumés, textes) de ces discussions qui visent à établir une méthodologie commune à travers le repérage et le travail de concert sur un certains nombre de thèmes transversaux (tels que « les mains », « la performance », « les éléments de la nature »…). Dédié aux chercheurs du groupe (à Oxford et dans les pays anglo-saxons, en France et en Suisse) il vise également une communauté plus large de chercheurs en littérature et en histoire intéressés à l’articulation entre opérations matérielles et travail intellectuel, aux savoirs pratiques et aux techniques d’écriture.