Thursday, May 16, 2013

Being There: November 5, 1622

This is so cool: a digital and aural re-enactment of John Donne's 1622 Gunpowder Plot sermon, preached from St. Paul's Cross in Old St. Paul's Churchyard!
The Virtual Paul’s Cross Project helps us to explore public preaching in early modern London, enabling us to experience a Paul’s Cross sermon as a performance, as an event unfolding in real time in the context of an interactive and collaborative occasion. This Project uses architectural modeling software and acoustic simulation software to give us access experientially to a particular event from the past – the Paul’s Cross sermon John Donne delivered on Tuesday, November 5th, 1622.

These digital tools, customarily used by architects and designers to anticipate the visual and acoustic properties of spaces that are not yet constructed, are here used to recreate the visual and acoustic properties of spaces that have not existed for hundreds of years.

The site includes a recording of a speaker recreating what the producers of this site think would have been the style of delivery required of such an event: clarity and volume:

The sound of Donne’s voice is of course lost to us. The greatest challenge of the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project has been to decide how to represent that style, in the absence of hard evidence as to how Donne sounded. Nevertheless, as in other aspects of this project, the fact that we do not have a live recording of Donne preaching does not mean that we know nothing about how Donne sounded when he preached.
There is the matter of audibility and clarity of expression, especially important when preaching in an outdoor space where members of one’s congregation could stand up to 150 feet from the Paul’s Cross Preaching Station. When Ben Crystal took on the task of recording Donne’s Gunpowder Day sermon for 1622, he was told that audibility and clarity of expression were major concerns of the Project. As a result, he spoke loudly, strongly, and with a very deliberate pace.

People who hear Ben’s recording of Donne’s sermon for the first time say that the pace seems slow, even ponderous, a response, I am told by Ben Markham and Matt Azevedo, our acoustic engineers, that is a result of our being accustomed to the artificial naturalness of amplified speech. In fact, Ben’s pace and volume are perfect for the site, working with he reverberations provided by the surrounding buildings to extend the theoretical range of audibility from about 90 feet to over 140 feet.

When you listen to this recreation, you hear all the ambient noise of the congregation and the outdoor setting--dogs barking in the near distance, birds's calls overhead, etc. You can even hear the sermon from two different locations!

Finally, the site includes a fascinating biography of John Donne, Dean of Old St. Paul's:

In the fall of 1622, John Donne, at the age of 49, had been Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral for just over a year. He owed his position at St Paul’s to James I. The King had promised Donne that if he would agree to ordination to the priesthood in the Church of England, the King would guarantee Donne a significant position in the Church.

When Donne was ordained, in 1615, the King secured Donne a Doctor of Divinity degree from Cambridge University and named Donne a Royal Chaplain, amid rumors that he intended to have Donne appointed Dean of Canterbury Cathedral. This did not happen, however, and Donne went on to other jobs in the Church of England, most especially serving as Reader in Divinity at Lincoln’s Inn from 1616 until his appointment, at the King’s request, as Dean of St Paul’s in 1621.

By 1622, Donne had become an experienced preacher of the one- and two-hour sermons expected of clergy in the seventeenth century. Because of Donne’s close connections with James I, it was appropriate that Donne be called on by the King to preach sermons in defense of or apologizing for the King’s policies in religious affairs and, therefore, indirectly, political affairs as well.

Donne preached two sermons at Paul’s Cross in the fall of 1622 at James’ request, the second of which is the one at the center of the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project.

The site has great detail, about the weather that day, the virtual reconstruction of Old St. Paul's, based on the records available, and many other aspects of that day: November 5, 1622.

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