Death’s Paperwork: Gender, Authority, and Memory in Early Modern Science

Death’s Paperwork: Gender, Authority, and Memory in Early Modern Science

I propose to consider the posthumous handling of the papers of seventeenth-century British naturalists and medical practitioners. When a naturalist died, contemporaries expected that writing would be extracted from their papers (with more or less editing) for publication. Translating this writing into print posed both opportunities and challenges. There were opportunities to make money, to share knowledge that might otherwise perish, to figure lines of filiation between the deceased and those caring for his memory by publishing his writings. Yet posthumous writings were also suspect: Were they authentic? Or had they been forged? How could the authenticity of written texts be demonstrated in print?

To address these questions, I examine two cases of posthumous publication: the battle surrounding the authenticity of publications drawn from medical practitioner Nicholas Culpeper’s papers in the 1650s, and the publication of the naturalist John Ray’s letters, observations, and treatises after his death in 1705. Widows and children negotiated with publishers and manuscript collectors to set the value of these writings, and, at times, served as publishers themselves. Male editors and publishers relied upon the testimony of widows to authenticate these works and communicate that authenticity to the public using gendered metaphors of childbirth and family. As they remediated written texts into print, male colleagues and female relatives pointed to the materiality of written texts—the deceased’s writing habits and handwriting—as a way of both authenticating the printed versions and communicating the spiritual, moral, and intellectual qualities of the deceased. In completing death’s paperwork, women, in particular, stood at the threshold between domestic contexts of writing and the public world of print as authorizing and authenticating figures.