KU News Release

May 4, 2011
Contact: Kristine Latta, Hall Center for the Humanities, 785-864-7823

Hall Center’s Collaborative Seed Grant to fund project on Salem witch trials

LAWRENCE — A faculty member at the University of Kansas is undertaking a research project to find out more about the scribes who recorded testimonies during the Salem witch trials.

The research by Peter Grund, assistant professor of English, and his collaborators will eventually result in a database available to the public for free via the Web and a scholarly volume on the Salem documents and their implications for manuscript culture and writing literacy in colonial New England.

The team’s preliminary research will be funded by the Hall Center for the Humanities 2011 Collaborative Research Seed Grant. Grund’s partners are Margo Burns, a database specialist and digital editor based in New Hampshire, and Matti Peikola, the Academy of Finland Research Fellow in English at the University of Turku.

The researchers hope to learn about who these scribes were and to expand understanding of literacy in early New England. The research team’s primary goal is to compile an inventory of people involved in recording the documents. Initial research by the group has already tentatively identified about 40 percent of the approximately 250 trial scribes by name.

To achieve this, researchers analyze letter-forms, marks of punctuation, abbreviations and spelling patterns, which all offer clues about the people behind the recordings, including their sex, age, social status, possible geographic origin and occupation. Combined with additional archival research, the handwriting analysis allows them to link the otherwise anonymous trial documents to public records of named individuals.

“One of the tantalizing questions that we hope this research will elucidate is whether women were involved in recording Salem documents, and if so, what are the implications for our understanding of the trials and women’s literacy more generally,” said Grund.

Their research will break new ground by offering a unique snapshot of networks of mostly unprofessional writers of legal documents operating in a chronologically and geographically confined community, allowing Grund and his associates to assess how writing skills were transmitted in early New England and how writing operated as a commodity to sell and hire.

“Professor Grund’s project is exactly what we hoped would come of this new collaborative seed grant,” said Hall Center Director Victor Bailey. “He and his collaborators will employ their different research skills to tackle questions concerning literacy and writing in colonial America that no single researcher could accomplish.”

The Collaborative Research Seed Grant supports the early stages of projects that capitalize on multiple forms of expertise to tackle the most methodologically and theoretically challenging questions faced by humanities scholars. KU’s Center for Research provides funding for the seed grant program.

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