Month: January 2019

You SHOULD…Read: the On the Origin of Species


“Why should you read a 19th-century book on the already familiar concept of evolution? The most obvious reason is banal: it is one the most important books ever written, which changed the way we see the world and our place in it. But that aside, why is this a useful book for someone who works in the humanities?


The book is a monumental example of epistemic humility. Darwin valued facts and cared deeply about the truth. He appreciated that revolutionary ideas require strong evidence, which is why he worked on his manuscript for 20 long years, testing, discussing, and fact-checking his ideas and amassing a mountain of evidence from a variety of disciplines in his systematic quest for the truth.


It is also a magnificent story of intellectual courage and integrity. Darwin knew that many would be offended or disappointed by his findings, including the powerful religious establishment and his beloved wife. He regretted that his ideas would make them feel uncomfortable, but he knew that as a scholar, his paramount duty was to tell the truth as he perceived it.


In addition to its scientific value, the book has great literary merit. Darwin was an excellent communicator of ideas, and his elegant style makes his grand narrative vigorous as well as inspiring. This is why the last sentences of the volume are so often quoted:


Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”



Dimitris Xygalatas
Department of Anthropology & Cognitive Science Program
Former UCHI Fellow

Scandal and Murder in the Folger Archives

Today’s post comes from the Early Modern Studies Working Group’s Co-Coordinator, Melissa Rohrer. Melissa is a PhD Candidate in the English Department.

In October of 2018, I visited the Folger Shakespeare Library with generous funding from the UConn Early Modern Studies Working Group and the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute.  My dissertation investigates how playwrights of the early modern period adapted notorious true events for the stage—events such as true crimes and scandals.  I already had access to the plays which adapted these events, so I my trip to the Folger was centered largely on learning more about how these events were understood, circulated, and commented upon, both at the time of their unfolding and in the centuries after they transpired.

The archival materials I investigated during this trip centered on a scandal known as the Overbury Affair, a bizarre murder conspiracy that unfolded between 1613 and 1616 and which implicated one of the most powerful royal couples in King James I’s court.  Sir Thomas Overbury died in 1613 while imprisoned in the Tower of London, and two years later it came to light that he had been murdered at the behest of the Countess of Somerset.  Enraged that Overbury had tried to thwart her marriage, the Countess (Lady Frances Carr née Howard) enlisted several co-conspirators of lower birth to poison him during his imprisonment; though poison was slipped into several tarts and jellies sent to Overbury, a poison-laced enema is what eventually killed him.  The revelation that Overbury had been murdered caused an uproar in both in the royal court and in larger society; Robert Carr, the Earl of Somerset, was James I’s great favorite, and it was unclear to what extent Carr—or even the King himself—were complicit in the murder.  Large crowds turned up to attend the trials of all who were associated with the conspiracy, and transcripts of these proceedings were circulated contemporaneously in manuscript.

Figure 1: This portrait may be of Sir Thomas Overbury. It is currently hanging in the reading room at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

The first part of my research was examining some of these manuscript copies, particularly those which transcribed the arraignments of Frances Howard’s co-conspirators: Richard Weston (an assistant jailor), Anne Turner (Howard’s confidante), and Gervase Helwys (Lord Lieutenant of the Tower).  These manuscripts demonstrate contemporary interest in the court proceedings, which could not be published and so were circulated via manuscript.  Whoever transcribed these documents took great care to recreate these arraignments as closely as possible.  For example, the manuscript of Anne Turner’s arraignment includes a word-for-word copy of a letter Frances Howard sent to Turner, including the instructions “Burne this.”  Transcripts such as these acted as a kind of news report about the trial, and for those who could read or copy them, it was the best way access the real accusations against and confessions of those who were involved in the Overbury Affair.

Figure 2: Manuscript transcription of the arraignment of Anne Turner, including Frances Howard’s letter to Turner.

During my time at the Folger, I also examined the 1651 quarto, A True and Historical Relation of the Poysoning of Sir Thomas Overbury, With the Severall Arraingments and Speeches of those that were executed thereupon.  This tract was published at the close of the English Civil War, when it was no longer prohibited to publish content that presented a critical view of the monarchy and aristocracy.  Without these restrictions, the pamphlet gathered together a multitude of official and legal documents—such as arraignments, confessions, and royal speeches—concerning both Overbury’s murder and the divorce Frances Howard orchestrated in order to marry Robert Carr.  While the materials included in this pamphlet include no commentary by the compiler, the original owner of the Folger’s copy made several comments and corrections in the margins.  These marginal comments are what make this pamphlet useful to my project, as they demonstrate how ordinary citizens engaged with the scandal of Overbury’s murder.  The owner’s careful correction of errors suggest that the scandal was still well-known nearly 40 years after it occurred, and his comment of “preposterous” alongside an opinion given by King James in Frances Howard’s divorce trial suggests that ill feeling about the scandal and its participants still lingered in the public consciousness.

Figure 3: Page from A True and Historical Relation of the Poysoning of Sir Thomas Overbury (B4) with marginal commentary.

I spent the rest of my research time looking at various other materials related to the Overbury Affair, including responses to the scandal written centuries after Overbury was murdered.  I transcribed a handwritten theater review, supposedly written by David Garrick, for the 1777 production of Sir Thomas Overbury: A Tragedy by Richard Savage.  My dissertation is largely concerned with scandals that were adapted for dramatization in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but Savage’s play and Garrick’s review of it indicate that these scandals remained relevant and of interest to theater audiences over a hundred years after they occurred.  A similar interest inspired Andrew Amos to write his 1846 book, The Great Oyer of Poisoning: The Trial of the Earl of Somerset for the Poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury.  Amos is one of the first writers to treat the Overbury Affair as a subject of significant legal and scholarly inquiry, and his book remains an important source on the trials for historians and legal scholars.

In their own way, all these materials hint at the lingering impact scandals can have on a society and its culture.  We may think of scandals as phenomena of the moment, events which inspire outrage while current, but which fade from importance once resolved.  My study of the Folger’s holdings which relate to the Overbury Affair suggest that this is not the case; scandals can linger in a society’s collective memory for many years, serving as cultural touchstones and points of societal self-reflection.  As our own society looks back on the scandalous crimes of the 1990s and adapts these events into movies and television dramas (American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson, Casting JonBenet, Lorena, Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders), we can look back on the Overbury Affair and its legacy in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century culture for an important precursor.

You SHOULD…Watch: The Great British Baking Show



“I read a lot of contemporary fiction, and am a scholar of public opinion and American politics.   So this may sound odd, trivial and far afield, but one of my favorite cultural obsessions is the competitive baking contest, the Great British Baking Show (now in its 9th season — only 5 seasons are available on Netflix so far:

Of all the books, movies and television I love, this is one show I’ve become particularly obsessive about.   I am a long-time baker, so it is fascinating from that standpoint of course:   Some of the very best amateur bakers in Britain display their mind-bindingly creative approaches to food, and have astounding technical talents as well.   The judges are brilliant and serious:   Choosing winners and losers is a grave business to these globally-renowned baker-judges, but they do indeed realize it is about food, so they maintain the proper (i.e. witty/dry/British) sense of humor, and a high level of self-awareness.

Putting aside the food, the reason I’m drawn to this program is its profound civility, so desperately missing from American reality television and broadcast competitions.   Perhaps it is the British manners, but I think it is far more than that.   The program is a model of how human beings need to treat each other, with dignity and empathy.   Contestants are a diverse lot with regard to class, age, profession, race and ethnicity.   They develop genuine respect for each other, and indulge in the joys of friendly competition, without the juvenile and often venal attitude promoted in American reality programs (“I’m here to win, not to make friends” is the most common contestant line of every show,  from The Bachelor to Survivor to Top Chef).

Aristotle famously wrote about friendship in Ethics as the real basis for a democratic polity, and you see a mini-civil society built before your eyes on the Great British Baking Show.   There is partnership, civility, and love among contestants and judges alike, all in the context of what is most basic to us:   the visceral joy of sharing great food.   What’s not to like, in these times of a tribalistic, violent and divided America?    We’d be a better nation, and better friends and neighbors, if we’d kick back and watch a kind bunch of people demonstrate cooking-as-community with panache.   As Levi-Strauss noted, cooking is what turns nature into culture, and what a fine culture it is, somehow turned out in hour-long segments, along with many tarts, scones, biscuits and “saucy puds” (well, you’ll have to tune in to understand that…).   Bon appetit!”

-Susan Herbst
University of Connecticut


Photo Credit: Netflix

Announcing the 2019 Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows Competition



Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows Program – 2019 Fellowship Competition

The American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) is pleased to announce the ninth annual competition of the Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows Program. This initiative places humanities PhDs in substantive roles in diverse nonprofit and government organizations, demonstrating that the capacities developed in the course of earning a doctoral degree in the humanities have wide application beyond the academy. The two-year fellowships carry an annual stipend of $68,000, health insurance, a relocation allowance, and up to $3,000 in professional development funds for the fellow.

In 2019, ACLS will place up to 21 PhDs as Public Fellows in the following organizations and roles:

Alliance Theatre (Atlanta, GA) – Community Engagement & Audience Development Manager

American Public Media (St. Paul, MN) – Senior Research Analyst

Center for Court Innovation (New York, NY) – Communications Project Manager

Chicago Humanities Festival (Chicago, IL) – Program Manager

Citizens’ Committee for the Children of New York (New York, NY) – Policy & Budget Analyst

Committee to Protect Journalists (New York, NY) – Research Manager

Community Change (Washington, DC) – Policy Advisor

Data & Society Research Institute (New York, NY) – Editor

The German Marshall Fund of the United States (Washington, DC) – Program Officer

Harriet Beecher Stowe Center (Hartford, CT) – Grants Manager

Library of America (New York, NY) – Outreach Programs Manager

National Conference of State Legislatures (Denver, CO) – Legislative Policy Specialist

National Low Income Housing Coalition (Washington, DC) – Research Analyst

Natural Resources Defense Council (Washington, DC) – Campaign Advocate, Latin America Project

PEN America (New York, NY) – Festival Programs Manager

Public Books (New York, NY) – Associate Editor

Rare (Arlington, VA) – Community Engagement Manager

Reinvestment Fund (Philadelphia, PA) – Policy Analyst

San Francisco Arts Commission (San Francisco, CA) – Community Impact Analyst

Seattle Office for Civil Rights (Seattle, WA) – Senior Researcher

World Justice Project (Washington, DC) – Program Manager

Applicants must have a PhD in the humanities or humanistic social sciences conferred between September 1, 2015, and June 21, 2019, and must have defended and deposited their dissertations no later than April 5, 2019. US citizenship or permanent resident status is required. The deadline is March 13, 2019, 9 pm EDT.

Applications will be accepted only through the ACLS online application system.

Applicants should not contact any of the organizations directly. Please visit for complete position descriptions, eligibility criteria, and application information. This program is supported by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.