Amanda Herbert recently became an Assistant Director at the Folger Institute, where she directs each aspect of the Folger fellowships program, from managing the applications process to fostering a sense of scholarly community. As part of the Folger Institute team, she’s also involved in current and future digital humanities (DH) initiatives. She has a PhD in history and her first book, Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain (Yale University Press, 2014), won the Best Book prize from the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women. We are delighted to have her with us at the Folger.
You’re a historian. How did you get interested in history, and the British early-modern period in particular?
I love answering this question! On the surface, it’s very simple: I got interested in history because I took good history classes. Two helped to shape my career. My first dedicated history class (American History with Mrs. Carol Robak in the eighth grade) made me want to study the past, and my first early modern class (Elizabethan-Jacobean history with Professor Fritz Levy in my freshman year at the University of Washington) made me want to study this time period. But it’s also a very complicated question: what is it about this particular piece of time (about 1450 to 1750) and this particular place (Britain and its colonies) that makes it worthy of study or attention? Why do they matter? Those are questions that I try to answer.
The Collation staff profiles often have a question that starts “Welcome to the Folger!”—but in your case, the Folger was already part of your life. What had you previously done here?
The Folger was an important place for me when I worked on my PhD at Johns Hopkins, because it was such a great repository for early modern materials—and so close to home! As I was finishing the dissertation, I took a month-long paleography workshop with Heather Wolfe and then also got to know Owen Williams and the Folger Institute. On the last day of the paleography course, I got a call from the provost at Christopher Newport University notifying me that I’d been selected for a job as an Assistant Professor in the History Department. So I went from the Folger to CNU, and then I came from CNU back to the Folger when I took up this new position as Assistant Director at the Folger Institute, overseeing the fellowships program. Everything has come full circle.
Before taking on this assignment, you were a long-term fellow at the Huntington Library, which gives you something of an inside perspective on fellowships, although at a different institution. In general, what is the value of a fellowship?
Yes, during the 2015-16 academic year, I was the inaugural Molina Fellow in the History of Medicine at the Huntington Library, and this fellowship allowed me to work on my second book project, Spa: Faith, Public Health, and Science in the British Atlantic.
Fellowships are invaluable to any scholar, because they provide two critical things: time and resources. The time allows you to focus exclusively on your research and your writing. The resources are, in part, financial—the money that comes with a fellowship allows you to live and to work in proximity to the library—but these resources are also scholarly, constituted by the library’s collections and by the library’s people: the curators, archivists, and readers who work there every day. Engaging with other scholars with whom you can share your discoveries and ideas is one of the best things about any fellowship. Intellectual engagement and community are real hallmarks of the Folger Shakespeare Library, due in large part to the wonderful Scholarly Programs organized by my colleague Owen Williams each year.
What new ideas do you have for fellowships at the Folger?
One area I’d like to pursue is sharing the true diversity and richness of the Folger collections. The Folger is known for its materials on Shakespeare, but the institution holds many other incredible sources. Most people don’t know that we have a collection of 17th-century French political pamphlets; manuscripts and rare books about early America; a 19th-century costume collection; a 16th-century cartography collection; 17th-century books of magic; pieces of 18th-century furniture; a collection of 20th-century playbills and advertisements. . . I could keep going!
One of my goals for this year is to get lots of different kinds of scholars thinking about the good work that they could do in our varied collections. I’ve started a social media campaign to highlight the breadth and richness of the Folger’s holdings; every day from July through November, I’ll share an unusual item from the Folger vaults online. You can see these by searching #FolgerFinds on Twitter.
You are also an advocate for digital humanities initiatives. What projects are you involved with?
As readers of the Collation know, one of the things that makes the Folger so special is its dedication to advancing the digital humanities. Folger teams have built the most cutting-edge, innovative digital tools for scholars of the early modern period, from Early Modern Manuscripts Online to A Digital Anthology of Early Modern English Drama. As part of the Folger Institute team, I’ll be involved in initiatives like these and new ones that we’ve got on the horizon.
I’m also co-editor for a DH project based at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin: The Recipes Project. It provides a platform for researchers to share their work on historical recipes from any period or location.
Do you have a favorite item from the Folger collection?
In keeping with my work on the Recipes Project, I’m very interested in the recipes collection at the Folger. The Folger has an extensive and well-curated collection of hand-written, early modern European recipe books—one of the best in the world. There’s a special recipe in a book created by a woman named Rebeckah Winche (she died in about 1719). Winche put a lot of traditional British recipes into her book—oatmeal pudding, pickled turnips, beef stew, mead. But she also included a recipe for “Chackolet,” which calls for cacao, cinnamon, pepper, vanilla, sugar, and even ambergris (a substance found in the bodies of sperm whales, frequently used in the manufacture of perfumes).
These ingredients were products of early modern trade in the “new worlds” of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. The recipe shows how everyday Britons—men and women who never left the shores of their island—experienced and benefited from British conquest and colonization overseas. Winche’s chocolate recipe prompts us to consider the ways that people in the past (and maybe those in the present) can be complicit in large-scale conflicts, atrocities, and acts of injustice. These are just the kinds of “big questions” that make study of early modern Britain so important and so relevant.
[Editor’s note: Many thanks to Esther Ferington for conducting this interview.]