The most important development in our field latterly has been our (re)discovery of history. This is not the result of a single piece of work, a single author, or even a single thought: it has been a product of the Internet. The kind of research once possible for only a privileged academic with access to a rare book library can now be undertaken by anyone whose university subscribes to EEBO (Early English Books Online), ECCO (Eighteenth-Century Collections Online), or LION (Literature Online); it can be dabbled in by professional academic, graduate, and undergraduate alike. New and further historical material is being mounted online all the time. Recently the Burney Collection Database has been placed on the Net, making most eighteenth- and nineteenth-century newspapers available for reading and scanning; seventeenth-century English Civil War corantos and pamphlets can be accessed through the online Thomason Collection. In addition, large quantities of early performance ephemera from the Bodleian Library’s John Johnson Collection has now been digitized and made available; while all the theatrical manuscripts belonging to the entrepreneur and theater owner Philip Henslowe and his actor son-in-law Edward Alleyn are accessible through the Henslowe-Alleyn Digitisation Project. That means that almost all printed, and some manuscript, literature from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century is, in facsimile form, now widely available to anyone whose university has paid a subscription [End Page 151] for it. The exception is the content of the REED (Records of Early English Drama) collection, which has never been put online formally. REED is another manifestation of the modern historical impulse; its volumes provide transcripts of medieval and early modern performance accounts throughout England county by county. Yet, though it lacks a formal digitized form, many REED texts can be found in facsimile on the Internet Archive of Canadian Libraries website; REED, then, also has an online outlet.
The kind of historical scholarship that the Internet has made possible is expanding and reshaping the kind of research we have the ability to do. The rare book scholar, limited by time and money, tended to concentrate on a single book or small group of books, drawing conclusions from knowing a number of rare texts well, when others did not. The Internet scholar is not necessarily drawn to do that. A lot of recent scholarship comes from scanning many texts for a word or a habit of thought: our scholarship, like our understanding of literature, regularly has the fragment at its core, and we are coming to be more generally but less specifically knowledgeable. Vast tracts of different works have latterly been searched for single notions, and it is now possible to write usefully on the early modern attitude toward gardens, or gloves, or tablebooks—in an approach that some, in the wake of Bill Brown’s 2001 publication Things, a special issue of Critical Enquiry, call “thing theory.” According to “thing theory,” commodities in texts are not just “windows” through which to judge literature but generators of meanings and questions in their own right. The resultant studies can be fascinating, though sometimes the “thing” is more thoughtfully explained than the literature it is said to elucidate.
Because of EEBO, projects with a range that used to be impossible are now usual, though sometimes their authors are being authoritative about books they haven’t actually read and contexts they don’t quite understand. For EEBO comes with certain dangers that can be forgotten: it is based on the Short Title Catalogue and lacks the documents not recorded there—including much ephemera; it is, even in what it lists bibliographically, not “complete,” as it lacks facsimiles of texts that are not to be found in the major libraries from which it was sourced. Of the texts that are represented on EEBO, less than half [End Page 152] are, or ever will be, searchable: uniquely useful as EEBO searches are, they should be seen as the beginning rather than the end of a work of scholarship.
Another approach that the Internet has allowed to flourish is “stylometrics,” a subject that, again, arises not from deeply reading a few texts but from computer-searching many...