NC State researchers bring famed poet, 17th century England to digital life

jprice@newsobserver.comNovember 5, 2013 

— A team led by N.C. State University researchers has brought to life two hours in 17th century London by re-creating the sights and sounds of an outdoor sermon by a famed English poet, cleric and political figure.

In the process, they created a new approach to scholarly research that employs a host of disciplines and technologies.

The Virtual Paul’s Cross Project uses digital models based on archaeological research and historical records to recreate a cathedral courtyard and the acoustics that would have been shaped by the surrounding buildings and by the crowds. Specifically it conjures John Donne’s sermon of Nov. 5, 1622.

It took three years and more than 50 researchers and technicians, including experts in history, archaeology, religion, drama, linguistics, English literature, architecture and audio engineering.

The team unveiled the results Tuesday as an installation at the high-technology Teaching and Visualization Lab in NCSU’s James B. Hunt Jr. Library. It also is available online, where viewers can do things such as navigate around the courtyard, explore the acoustics of the sermon and learn more about it, Donne and the project.

The multidisciplinary approach that was required put literature scholars side-by-side with acoustics engineers and experts in digital architectural modeling from NCSU’s design school. The need for as much accuracy as possible led to consultations with the likes of John Schofield, the cathedral archaeologist at St. Paul’s and an expert on urban archaeology, who sat on a panel advising the project.

It’s a new way to explore old questions and old events, not just through a single field, but by blending a host of them to bring a particular event, in a particular place and time, as close to life as possible.

“We wanted to create new research tools – new tools for considering events of the past, new tools for, in effect, bringing words off the page – and for reintroducing ideas like performance and hearing instead of reading,” said John Wall, an NCSU English professor who led the project.

‘The future of research’

Much of the software involved is commonly used by architects to model potential buildings and spaces. But using it to explore the Donne sermon was a valuable lesson in working across disciplines, said David Hill, an associate professor of architecture at NCSU’s College of Design, who oversaw the modeling.

“We have a roomful of people here from humanities and from the College of Design, and that’s the future of research,” Hill said, looking around the lab, which was packed with about 100 people.

Piecing it all together allowed exploration of a host of questions about life in 17th century London, Wall said.

“How did communication occur, for example,” he said. “How did people know what royal policy was? How did people gain inspiration for their religious lives? How did all of that work, and how did this particular event fit into the social life of London and of England?”

Donne, then the dean of the cathedral and a towering literary figure, delivered the sermon from a pulpit in a courtyard adjacent to St. Paul’s Cathedral, at the request of King James.

Sermons there were a major event in London and drew an influential crowd, as well as commoners. The king, whose support had been weakening, wanted a strong sermon worded to help bolster his standing, said Wall.

The cathedral was the largest enclosed space in London then, but it was too small to accommodate the crowds of perhaps as many as 5,000 people who would gather for the sermons, which were not only aimed at delivering religious messages, but also served as political speech and entertainment. That’s why they were held outside, in a courtyard ringed by not only the cathedral, but booksellers.

Wall quipped that the best explanation he can offer for the size of the crowds was that the NFL hadn’t been invented yet.

Donne made sense as a subject for several reasons, among them the fact that the sermons had important implications for history and politics. In the case of this particular speech, the king later asked Donne what he had said, so the poet quickly wrote down the sermon. That meant the precise words would have been fresh in his memory, Wall said, so the text seemed likely to offer an unusually accurate version of a sermon.

Donne’s poetry is among other things known for its careful use of the space between words. One thing that became clear from the modeling was that his sermons would have had to rely on careful pacing, as well.

Hearing the sermon

Wall said scholars hadn’t even been sure all of the people who came to the sermons could hear them. There were, of course, no public address systems then.

But the acoustic model showed that the shape of the space would have naturally amplified his words, and that everyone would have been able to hear them, at least if the crowd was quiet. Still, the echoes were so powerful that Donne would have had to measure out his words slowly so that one didn’t blur the next, Wall said.

Essentially, the team created two massive digital models of the space – one of them visual, the other of its acoustics.

Both can be manipulated so that the virtual location from which the speech is experienced can be shifted. Other aspects can be manipulated, such as the size of the crowd, which can significantly affect acoustics.

The modeling is so elaborate that it can also take into account the weather and use ambient noise. And the actor, who uses the best current guess of the accent of the time, also performs snippets of the sermon with different approaches to tone, because no one knows whether Donne delivered it emotionally, flat, or with a bit of humor in his voice.

Wall repeatedly made the point Tuesday that the project was not time travel, meaning it wasn’t perfect. Rather, it was the best that the team members could do with available information. But they think it’s plenty close enough for groundbreaking scholarship.

“I’d say I’m 95 percent happy with it,” said Schofield, the archaeologist from St. Paul’s, who attended the opening ceremony.

Schofield said he can envision a day when the entire medieval version of the city could be modeled in similar fashion and be available on an app to enjoy and learn from as users walk around the present city holding up smartphones. A kind of Google Earth for medieval London.

Both Wall and Hill said they’re using the project as a teaching tool in their very different fields. Hill said he is already fielding inquiries from other faculty members in the English department who are interested in modeling other historic moments and places.

The project was funded by a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Wall said the team is seeking another NEH grant to expand the project to include such things as the inside of the cathedral.

Members of the team said that, for all the technology and all the focus on multidisciplinary collaboration, the project was simply about that most basic of scholarly and human motivations: curiosity.

“I want to know,” Schofield said. “I just want to know what it was like.”

Price: 919-829-4526

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service