Alex Wright

The Poetess and the She-monster

March 26, 2005

GynaikeionIn 1624, the English playwright Thomas Heywood published the Gunaikeion, an encyclopedic study of his favorite subject: women.

Inside this thick volume, readers would find tales of brave queens, learned ladies, chaste damsels, Amazons, witches, even a transgendered woman or two.

Although Heywood's name appears on the cover, the Gunaikeion was really a compilation of material culled from other popular books of the day, condensed, as Heywood put it, into �a small Manuell, containing all the pith and marrow of the greater.�

As one of the earliest such encyclopedic works ever written, the Gunaikeion marks not only a landmark in English literature, but, I believe, a watershed in the history of information architecture.

Like a kind of primordial hypertext, Heywood's book has no conceptual "top" or Aristotelian subject hierarchy. Instead, it employs a kind of descriptive, bottom-up structure that leaves much of the interpretration - and even classification - up to the reader.

In trying to synthesize a vast corpus of recorded knowledge about women, Heywood seemed to grapple with what Crook and Rhodes call the "intractability of his subject matter." Rather than try to shepherd his fair subjects into a fixed, top-down classification, Heywood instead hit upon a novel scheme:

I have not introduced them in order, neither Alphabetically, nor according to custome or president; which I thus excuse: The most cunning and curious Musick, is that which is made out of discords. The term "discords" strikes me as a useful way of thinking about the problem of information architecture today. In our era of self-organizing systems - social networks, folksonomies, and other incarnations of the messy web, we struggle with the problem of deriving meaning from an ever-expanding melee of unstructured data.

Heywood faced the same problem, albeit on a far more limited scale. Long before anyone started using terms like "intertextuality," Heywood articulated a vision of an information space that emerged through a dialogue between author, readers, and other books that had come before. As Heywood put it, his new book was: all mine and none mine. As a good hous-wife out of divers fleeces weaves one peece of Cloath, a Bee gathers Wax and Hony out of many Flowers, and makes a new bundle of all� I have laboriously collected this Cento out of divers Writers. That process of condensation led Heywood to grapple with questions of classification hitherto barely explored. For example, when Heywood recounts the startling deeds of a woman who wrote an illustrated sex manual, he wonders whether she might best be classified a "poetess" or a "she-monster." Similarly, when he tells of the great Queen Semiramis, a brave and noble woman of antiquity, he lets readers gauge whether she might best be tagged a:
  • Valorous Queen
  • Murderess
  • Transvestite
  • or, Practitioner of bestiality
(Insert obligatory Borges reference here)

Writing of Queen Elizabeth, Heywood sings her praises in polymorphous terms: Elizabeth, of late memory, Queene of England, she that was a Saba for her wiseome, an Harpalice for her magnanimitie... a Cleopatra for her bountie, a Camilla for her chastitie, an Amalasuntha for her temperance, a Zenobia for her learning and skill in language; of whose omniscience, pantarite, and goodnesse, all men heretofore have spoke too little. These symbolic categorizations, as Crooks and Rhodes argue, "throw into startling relief questions of classification and the logical disposition of knowledge in the period before the establishment of classical taxonomies from the late seventeenth through to the nineteenth centuries."

I believe Heywood does more than just call those taxonomies into question. He seems to suggest a strikingly prescient alternative to top-down hierarchies. For example, in considering possible approaches to classifying historical events, Heywood writes: �Of History there be foure species, either taken from place, as Geography; from time, as Chronologie; from Generation as Genealogie, or from gests (deeds) really done, which � may be called Annologie: The elements of which it consisteth are Person, place, time manner, instrument, matter and thing .� Three hundred years before Ranganathan devised his famous Colon Classification, Heywood seems to have stumbled upon a notion not far removed from the idea of faceted classification. The parallels to Ranganathan's system are striking:

Time MannerTime

Heywood's notions of descriptive classification seem to foreshadow the possibility of the Web itself. As Crook and Rhodes write, �[t]he digressiveness of both hypertext and the Gunaikeion represents a departure from the kind of narrow, linear thinking that we traditionally characterize as male, and approximates more closely to ways of thinking and learning which in our present culture are considered by some to be the result of women�s socialization.�

In other words, Heywood's women - like the Web - resist categorization.

File under: Informatics

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