ISU historian Paul Griffiths earns highly competitive NEH fellowship

Picturing an English town or village around 1600 may not conjure images of careful data collection, but Paul Griffiths’ current research argues that the system was actually quite sophisticated for its time.

Griffiths’ examination of the subject has earned him a highly competitive yearlong fellowship from the National Endowment of Humanities (NEH) – a $50,400 grant that will allow him to further pursue the topic by completing a new book. The fellowship ranks Griffiths, an Iowa State University history professor, in the top tier of his discipline.

This fellowship also is one of a small number of humanities awards which the Association of American Universities (AAU) counts among the most prestigious faculty honors. The AAU, of which Iowa State is a member, is an association of 62 leading public and private research universities in the United States and Canada.

“NEH fellowships are extremely competitive awards,” said Dean Beate Schmittmann. “They recognize scholarship of the highest quality and sustain ISU’s prestige as an AAU member and major national research university.”

The award is Griffiths’ second highly prestigious honor. He received the Frank H. Kenan Fellowship by the National Humanities Center in 2002-03.

The Department of History is an academic unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Iowa State.

In late 2013, the NEH announced it would award $14.6 million in grants for 202 of the nation’s finest humanities projects. The funding supports research fellowships and awards, traveling exhibitions, training programs and more.

Griffiths’ proposal was one of the few chosen from thousands of submissions.

“We tend to date sophisticated surveillance to after 1800,” he wrote in a narrative of his research. “But if we go back to 1600, we are not in a backwater before data was taken seriously at local levels. The formulation of policy and policing through collecting and sorting information was routine by then, and local governors were more surveillance-minded than has been appreciated so far.”

Griffiths’ book, “Inside Government,” will be the first full study of information gathering from the “bottom up” in 16th- and 17th-century England. He will use the grant – which will provide funds from Aug. 1, 2014 to Aug. 1, 2015 – to finish the book.

“The late 16th century in England was a period of very rapid change,” he said. “The population doubled in just 80 years, and I’ve always been interested in the implications of that growth.”

The population surge caused job and resource scarcity, creating new problems that were not easy to unscramble. Social change brought about issues with crime, migration, hardship and public hygiene.

So, local governments began to collect information. “There was more to count and catalog,” Griffiths said. “Increasingly able to read, write and count…they developed data systems specific to local needs to a level of finesse that was distinctive.”

He explores local governments’ methods in recording, counting, labeling and categorizing crime using data that was collected in an effort to make things clear. Then, he looks at the opposite of this transparency – cheating, disguise, forgery, perjury – to examine the mentalities and processes in which authorities used information.

Griffiths said he began thinking about this project two decades ago. During that time, he has published numerous articles and five books. He has worked on government and judicial records in more than 30 record offices across England for this book, and he and intends to spend the next year finishing it in Ames, London and Canada.

He plans to publish the book in 2016 for scholars and students, as well as an interested broad audience on both sides of the pond.

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College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Iowa State University
Contacts:
Paul Griffiths, History, (515) 294-6266, pgriff@iastate.edu
Jess Guess, Liberal Arts and Sciences Communications, (515) 294-9906, jguess@iastate.edu