Workshop in the  History of  Material Texts
HMT About Search Events Impact

Welcome to the website for the University of Pennsylvania's Workshop in the History of Material Texts! Here you can find announcements about upcoming events as well as a searchable database of seminars we have held since the fall of 1996. (Information about speakers and talks from the initial years of the Workshop has unfortunately been lost. If you have such information, please contact us.)


We meet each Monday on the 6th floor of Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania. We also live-stream our events via Zoom. For updates and Zoom links, please sign up for our listserv.

Recordings of previous talks are available on our YouTube channel.


Next Meeting

On Monday, February 19th at 5:15 PM We will be welcoming Joseph Howley (Columbia) for a talk entitled: "Toward a New Typology of Roman Writing Equipment"

Joseph writes: With what materials and tools did ancient Romans write, in what contexts, and for what purposes? What affordances and factors determined these choices? A scholar of Roman literature will give one answer to this question; a legal historian will give another; a documentary historian will answer it differently still. Archaeology will answer the question differently in different parts of the Roman world with different environments and histories. For example, the Roman waxed wooden tablet is at once the temporary medium of literary drafting and note-taking, making use of the erasable properties of wax and, with slight modifications, the permanent storage format for documents and records, making use of the forensic benefits of wax's sensitivity to emendation and tampering; yet other parts of the empire see Romans writing directly on wood in ink, while literary evidence speaks of erasable tablets of parchment and ivory. Some evidence shows tablets in the hands of subordinates or slaves, but we also see them in the hands of elites and masters. Is it even possible to give a totalizing definition or account of the Roman tablet? This presentation will outline a new attempt to describe the intersections of affordance, practice, literacies, and labor configurations by which we might categorize and describe Roman writing technologies for purposes literary and non-literary, permanent and ephemeral, personal and official.

Joseph A. Howley is Associate Professor of Classics at Columbia University and a Senior Fellow in Critical Bibliography at Rare Book School. He is a scholar of ancient Rome with interests in intellectual culture and the history of the book and reading. He has published on book-burning, study abroad, and essay collections in Ancient Rome, tables of contents in fifteenth-century printed books, and phonograph recordings of Greek and Latin from the early twentieth century, and is currently writing a book about enslaved labor and Roman book culture. He is also currently the Paul Brooke Program Chair for Literature Humanities, the flagship general education literature course for first-year students in Columbia College’s Core Curriculum.


The Stallybrass Prize in the History of Material Texts, 2023

The Stallybrass Prize in the History of Material Texts will be awarded annually to the two best essays by students in any school at Penn—one by an undergraduate, one by a graduate student—on any aspect of how texts take material form and circulate in the world. Our field covers texts of all kinds, from printed books, manuscripts, scrolls, and tablets, to e-readers, websites, hard disks, and server farms; from illuminations, woodcuts, and engravings, to GIFs and TIFFs; from title pages, flyleaf advertisements, and dealer catalogues, to listservs and email signatures. We are interested in printing and publishing histories, authorship, reception, piracy, censorship, and all themes related to the networks through which these texts circulate.

The Prize honors Peter Stallybrass, Walter H. and Leonore C. Annenberg Professor Emeritus of English, who founded Penn's Workshop in the History of Material Texts in 1993. The seminar has been meeting every Monday evening since then, at 5:15 in the Kislak Center, Van Pelt Library. It has been one of the most influential institutions in the field and has led to numerous similar workshops around the world.

Like the Workshop itself, we encourage work that brings together the technical, material, and cultural aspects of texts. Essays will be judged by the directors of the Workshop and members of its Advisory Board, listed on the About page.

Congratulations to our Spring 2023 winners!

Undergraduate Category:

Winner: Erin Brennan, "Popular Culture: The Cries of London and Elite Exoticism of the Common People"

Honorable Mention: Magnolia Wang, “A Woman’s Work is Never Done: Examining the Intersection of Gender Identity and Racialization in Indigenous Governance and Early American Colonization”

Graduate Category:

Co-winners: Zain Mian, "Through the Lens of Urdu: Reading World Literature in Adabī dunyā" and Anna Lehr Mueser " 'So the memories need not fade': Writing Continuity Across Rupture"


2023-2024 Recordings

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