Records of Early English Drama (REED)

Submitted by Sarah Stanley on Tue, 10/14/2014 - 20:09

In my attempts to find an interesting digital project in medieval studies, I spent weeks browsing search engines, library websites, and conference programs. Finally, thanks to the University of Toronto Libraries, I stumbled across Records of Early English Drama (REED). According to the website, this project focues on “locat[ing], transcrib[ing], and edit[ing] historical documents containing evidence of drama, secular music, and other communal entertainment and ceremony from the Middle Ages until 1642.” The project consists of an extensive print series, but I wish to focus on the Patrons and Performances Web Site.

The Patrons and Performances web site uses information collected for the REED print collections but organizes it in such a way that the user can see how patrons, troupes, performance venues, and performance events are related to each other. The search mechanism was relatively easy to use, and allowed search by multiple metadata fields. Since I’m more interested in performances and patrons before 1500, I was able to filter results by those specifications. I ended up searching “John of Gaunt” and discovering that he patronized six troupes and was related in name to 9 events.

This is where I encountered my first problem. It seems as if there is not a consistent naming convention for troupes, and as a result, troupes end up displaying more than once. Upon clicking on John of Gaunt’s “patronized troupes,” I discovered that there were three (possibly four) troupes with very similar names:

  1. Duke of Lancaster’s Entertainer
  2. Duke of Lancaster’s Entertainer/s
  3. Duke of Lancaster’s Entertainers
  4. (Duke of Lancaster’s Minstrels)¹

It’s unclear to me whether these should be considered the same troupe or if there is some reason for separating them out as discrete entities. Judging by the similarities in name, it seems probable that John of Gaunt only patronized three or four distinct groups, rather than the six implied by his patron entry.

The other stumbling block I came across while browsing the website related to the visualization of data. The only real way to understand the interrelation between patrons/troupes/venues/events was through clicking links in the sidebars of individual entries. This, I think, works well if you only want to see small-scale interrelations in early English dramatic or musical performances. However, the interface as it stands allows for very little exploration of how these networks look from a distance or on a large-scale. I definitely think that the project would benefit from something like a network visualization or other interactive visually-driven interface (possibly something like Networks of Book Makers, Owners, and Users in Late Medieval England?)

The project does have a very nice feature which allows the user to see the interrelation between various patrons. When viewing the entries for individual patrons, the user can click on the “Family Tree,” which shows both descendants and ancestors, and displays whether these family members are also listed as “patrons” in the database. By clicking on the individual family tree nodes, one can see detailed information on patronage, and related venues and performances. This type of visual tool allows the user to see how patronage to the arts and entertainment can be contained within families, and explore the implications of cultural and economic capital in medieval and early modern England.

One of the things that I found the most interesting about the performance and patronage records was the presence of payment information. Payments are listed both for individual performances and for a troupe’s total payment across multiple performances. I can definitely see myself using this data to inquire about different aspects of the payment of entertainers: were musicians paid more than actors? how did payment change over time? which patrons paid their entertainers the most? what types of events did patrons spend the most on? These questions could illuminate how and why performances were put on. It could also reveal how drama and music were valued (both literally and figuratively) in medieval and early modern England.

The “interactive maps” feature also has the potential to spark some interesting research and knowledge-making in the study of early English entertainment practices. Ultimately, the project wants to provide “data about professional performers on tour in the provinces—their patrons, the performance venues they used and the routes they took across the kingdom.” As of right now, the map interface seems best for viewing individual venues the the troupes that performed there. If it is possible to track the routes performers took across England using the current maps, I wasn’t able to figure it out. I can see the interface ultimately allowing such tracing, as the performance dates and performance venues are all recorded by REED. This type of tracking would allow researchers to inquire about the circulation of plays, masques, music, and other forms of entertainment. It can often be difficult to figure out the possible audiences for the dramatical and literary works (especially for those who study medieval literature). A tool like this may allow researchers to examine the circulation of performance texts by using the data collected by the REED project.

The data represented through REED’s maps, family trees, and entry pages, while incredibly rich and extensive, is relatively divorced from its source material. It is quite difficult to see the actual material being cited or referenced on each individual page. Many of the pages have individual bibliographies, but none have features like facsimiles of original documents or transcriptions of receipts, etc. Despite this fact, the project has quite an extensive bibliography and many digitized versions of REED’s print resources are easily accessibly through the Internet Archive. The project, admittedly, does not necessarily have perfect linking mechanisms between the source material and the searchable/browsable/”screwing-around”-able interface.² However, I do think this project’s focus on both print and digital resources proves that both formats of publication have equal (although different) merit. While the print portion of the project, provides information through verbal narratives, the digital component creates knowledge using networks, mapping, and linking.


¹It is unclear to me whether "Minstrels" should be lumped in with the entertainers. They do seem like separate troupes, but Reed defines both as "Entertainers/Minstrels."

² As in Stephen Ramsay's "The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around"