Tuesday, 20 April 2010

DNB Project

This is a summary of the briefing received on 13 April about the DNB part of the MA in Biography course. I ceased writing about the course at the end of our first term, for reasons I outlined in my posting on 26 February. I am resuming writing about it here because my colleague, the RFCG*, was indisposed and has asked me to record what happened. This I am happy to do, not only because she has been of immense help to me in giving me a flying start in writing about cuneiform and hieroglyphs for my website but also because it will help me in being clear about what I need to do.

In essence, we each need to write 1,000-1,500 words by 4 June related to the ODNB, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Before expanding this, here is what the Guide Michelin would call un peu d'histoire.

The DNB was begun in 1882 by Leslie Stephen, the father of Virginia Woolfe, and carried to a successful conclusion 20 years later by his lieutenant and successor, Sidney Lee, and a host of less prolific collaborators. It represented a triumph of the Victorian work ethic, the first volume appearing in January 1885 and a further 62 volumes appearing punctually every quarter until June 1900. It contained concise biographies of notable Britons from the earliest times: I found Queen Boudicca a.k.a. Boadicea (d. 60/61 AD), but couldn't find King Cole, the merry old soul. The subject of each entry had to be dead and the text had to be factual, not written in the eulogistic style of an obituary notice.

The subjects of the first edition were overwhelmingly white, male and upper middle or upper class; they were principally civil servants, politicians, clerics or empire builders. The opening paragraph was, and remains, brief and formulaic: full name, dates, claim to fame, born where and when, and details of parents (with occupation of father) and grandparents. This was followed by details of education, details of (usually successful) career, description of appearance and character and ending with a brief paragraph noting spouse(s) and issue (if any): this was the extent of the personal information.

It was updated every decade until the eighties, with new worthies being added but less worthy old ones remaining unculled. By then many of the older entries had been outdated by new research and the publication of Missing Persons by Christine Nicholls in 1993 made clear how many noteworthy people, particularly women, were not featured.

It was therefore decided to start afresh, with OUP as its publishers and Colin Matthew as its editor, under the title of The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. This was published, after Matthew's's death, in 2003 and was a success from the start, primarily because it was simultaneously published on the Web. It is now widely and freely accessible in England to members of public libraries and university students.

For the Project, we can write on three topics:

  • A person, using the standard format as described in two documents we have each been given, the Sources sheet and the Information sheet: our RFCG will need to get copies of these
  • An essay, similar to those on a list of over 250 groups listed when Themes is selected on the Search page
  • An essay, on some aspect of the history of the DNB

Our tutor admitted that the first possibility is getting increasingly difficult to do because (i) with 57,258 biographies published, it is difficult to find a new subject and (ii) with so many of the entries having recently been competently revised, it is difficult to say anything relevant or new.

The second possibility is interesting, but is made difficult by the fact that the methodology demonstrated to search the list of themes was not clearly explained and was not documented, so that, even though I was told that there was for example a group on Welsh Saints, I have not been able to replicate it to consider an essay on a sub-group of, say, Virgin Saints or Martyred Saints, into each of which group the subject of my term paper, St Gwynefri a.k.a. Winefride, would naturally fit.

I have used Search, and then People Search, to look up two groups of people, Twelfth Century Benedictine Monks and Assyriologists. The former search yielded twelve names and the latter, eleven. I have not yet read any of the 250 essays written on themes, but my provisional thinking is to do an analysis of eleventh and twelfth century Benedictines, looking at the monastic positions they held, their involvement if any with life outside the cloister and their racial origin. I hope it may give some indication of how rapidly the top jobs came to be held by Normans rather than Anglo-Saxons but even if it does not it will at least give me some context for Prior Robert Pennant, the monk responsible for the translation of the bones of St Winefride from Gwytherin in north Wales to the Abbey of St Peter in Shrewsbury.

* Resident Fertile Crescent Guru

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