De winkel van boekhandelaar Pieter Meijer Warnars op de Vijgendam in Amsterdam, Johannes Jelgerhuis, 1820. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum.
De winkel van boekhandelaar Pieter Meijer Warnars op de Vijgendam in Amsterdam, Johannes Jelgerhuis, 1820. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum.

Civic fictions

Modelling book-reader interactions in the Age of Revolution, c. 1760-1830

Ever since Plato, thinkers have asked what fiction does in society. Does reading fiction make people more empathic, or help them work through trauma? Does fiction contribute to citizenship and community-building? Although philosophers and literary theorists have long debated these questions, there are few historical sources to test their hypotheses. New methods are therefore needed to make the sources we do have, such as library lending records or catalogues of private libraries, speak to us. In this project, a team of cultural historians is developing innovative computational methods to understand relations between fiction and citizenship in eighteenth-century, revolutionary Europe.

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Project description

Civic fictions addresses the questions of how, if at all, fiction contributes towards citizens’ moral education by carrying out a series of longitudinal, prosopographic studies of readers and their books during the Age of Revolution (c. 1760 – 1830). Empirically testing various modern theories about fiction’s supposed ability to foster empathy, work through trauma, and build community, it integrates insights and methodologies from literary theory, history and bibliography.

Specifically, the project builds on the 'PI’s ERC-funded MEDIATE project and database', combining quantitative, big-data methods with qualitative, close-reading techniques. It counters a major challenge in book history, the lack of comprehensive reader-reception data like ego-documents, by innovatively using large-scale data on the circulation of books among identifiable, individual readers as a reader-reception source. Thus, the project links book ownership (private library catalogues, bookseller’s archives), borrowing practices (library lending-records) and other sources to individual actors and larger (socioeconomic, professional, gender, etc.) groupings. Coupling data on ownership to longitudinal studies of book owners’ lives and societal interventions, it will reveal macro-patterns allowing historians to infer how works of fiction might have historically moved readers.

Finally, Civic fictions creates much-needed digital infrastructure by aggregating different types of source material, leveraging digital tools and Linked Open Data to make data from different sources and national contexts interoperable. It deepens existing collaborations with leading eighteenth-century historical bibliometric databases, including Western Sydney’s FBTEE (French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe) and CERL (Consortium of European Research Libraries), integrating several major, curated datasets, and thereby creating accessible, Open Access data infrastructure for future generations of intellectual historians.

Team & Subprojects

The research team currently consists of one PhD candidate, two postdocs and the principal investigator (PI). The project consists of five interrelated subprojects, with supporting digital infrastructure.

  • Subproject 1, PI: Civic fictions, between theory and practice

Prof. dr. Alicia Montoya

  • Subproject 2, Postdoc 1: Empathy


  • Subproject 3, Postdoc 2: Trauma

Dr. Helwi Blom

  • Subproject 4, Postdoc 3: Community

Dr. Rindert Jagersma

  • Subproject 5, PhD: Citizenship

Rosalie Versmissen, MA


Project publications

‘Civic Fictions: Modelling book-reader interactions in the Age of Revolution’, Digital Enlightenment Studies 1.1 (2023), 59 – 80. DOI: 


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