Travel Back in Time (Virtually) to Hear John Donne Preach

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Ever wish you could visit a great moment in history? Until we figure out time travel, carefully crafted virtual journeys will have to suffice.

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At the convergence of church and state in 17th-century England was a pulpit in the churchyard of St. Paul's Cathedral called Paul's Cross. There, crowds would gather -- joined by members of the monarchy on occasion -- to hear announcements of official policies and weekly Sunday sermons.

In 1622 King James published a document called "Directions Concerning Preachers," an effort to tamp down what he saw as too-adventurous preaching by some in the Church of England. John Donne (1572-1631), best remembered as a poet but then serving as the Dean of St. Paul's cathedral, was called upon to defend both King James's authority and his directive. That sermon, delivered on September 15, 1622, at Paul's Cross, exemplifies how church and state existed and worked together at that specific place in early modern London.

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Less than 50 years later, the old St. Paul's was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. The cathedral that stands today was built between 1675 and 1710.

It's never easy to imagine what it would have been like to be present at any particular moment in history, a task made all the more difficult if the site of that moment no longer exists. But students of English history can't help but wonder, what would John Donne have sounded like? Would it have been possible to hear him -- in an age before microphones and speakers -- above the din of the gathered crowd and attendant animals?

It is, sadly, impossible to travel back to 1622 to answer these questions, but researchers at North Carolina State University are working on a project that will help English-history buffs get a taste of what it would have been like to hear Donne preach.

With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, professors John Wall and David Hill and architect Joshua Stephens are working to virtually replicate the architecture of the old St. Paul's Cathedral to recreate what early modern Londoners would have heard on that day. Their model of the structure is based on the work of John Schofield, an archaeologist who works for St. Paul's, who has surveyed the foundation of the old cathedral, which is still in the ground though partially underneath the existing cathedral.

To recreate the experience of hearing Donne's sermon, linguist and historian David Crystal is working with his son, the actor Ben Crystal, to craft a reading that will follow the specific accent and style of 17th-century London English. Ben will make his recording in an anechoic (or acoustically neutral) chamber. Wall, Hill, and Stephens -- together with Ben Markham, an acoustic simulation specialist in Cambridge, Massachusetts -- will then be able to mash up that recording with the architectural design to simulate how Donne's voice would have traveled when he stood in the churchyard. They are also mixing in ambient sounds that would have been common in London at that time, such as neighing horses, barking dogs, and running water.

By the end of 2012, Wall plans to have the recreation up and running as a website, where people can go to hear Donne's sermon. They'll be able to adjust the sound for different locations on the grounds and crowd sizes. The only thing missing are the delightful aromas of 17th-century London. Some things are perhaps better left in the past.

Images: 1. John Wall, David Hill, and Joshua Stephens; 2. John Gipkyn/Wikimedia Commons.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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