Immersing Oneself in the Past: The Virtual Paul’s Cross Project

Submitted by mgwust on Fri, 06/22/2018 - 16:13

This is a guest post from Dr. John Wall (English, North Carolina State University), the principal investigator of the Virtual Paul's Cross Project. As an example of immersive scholarship, we invited Dr. Wall to describe this project in detail. This post also describes the intensive and necessarily collaborative nature of work like this, a topic that we expect to be central to the Immersive Scholar project overall; how should this type of scholarship be evaluated, assigned credit, and apportioned intellectual merit?

Virtual Paul's Cross Project Logo

The Virtual Paul’s Cross Project enables us to explore the experience of preaching in early modern London. This Project, supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, uses architectural modeling software and acoustic simulation software to give us experiential access to an event that took place every Sunday, and on other special occasions, from the early sixteenth century until the 1640’s, in the northeast corner of Paul’s Churchyard, outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Here, large crowds gathered week by week to hear a sermon of up to two hours in length. Some paid to sit on benches; the majority stood for the entire duration of the event.

Image from Paul's Cross Demo Video

The Virtual Paul’s Cross Project features a sermon prepared for delivery by John Donne at Paul’s Cross on November 5th, 1622. Those familiar with English history will recognize November 5th as Gunpowder Day or Guy Fawkes’ Day, the day folks in England remember the uncovering of a plot led by Guy Fawkes to assassinate King James I and his government by blowing up the Houses of Parliament while the King was giving a speech.  Gunpowder Day in the early seventeenth century was not the time for bonfires and fireworks but a time when the entire nation gathered to give thanks for the King’s deliverance. 

The Paul’s Cross sermon was an early modern form of mass communication as well as an important feature of religious practice in post-Reformation England. The Paul’s Cross Project provides us with the opportunity to experience the Paul’s Cross sermon John Donne delivered on Tuesday, November 5th, 1622, as a performance, as an event unfolding in real time in the space for which Donne composed the sermon and as part of an interactive and collaborative occasion. 

Access to the Project

One can experience the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project by visiting the website.  Here, the user can learn how the project developed and hear a Paul’s Cross sermon from eight different listening positions inside Paul’s Churchyard and in the presence of four different sizes of crowd.

Virtual Paul's Cross Installation at Hunt Library Teaching and Visualization Lab

One can also have a fully immersive experience of the Project by visiting the Teaching + Visualization Lab in the James B. Hunt Library on NC State’s Centennial Campus.  The T+V Lab’s ten projectors and 21 speakers provide a fully immersive visual experience of our cathedral model and acoustic experience of our cathedral model.

The Visual Model

To make all this possible, we have used digital tools that are customarily used by architects and designers to anticipate the visual and acoustic properties of spaces that are not yet constructed. We have used them instead to recreate the visual and acoustic properties of spaces that have not existed for hundreds of years.  These tools enable us to integrate the physical traces of pre-Fire St Paul’s Cathedral with the surviving visual record of the cathedral and its surroundings to create a visual model of the Cathedral and its churchyard. They also enable us to experience a historically faithful interpretation of Donne’s preaching style, based on contemporary descriptions of his capacity to engage his congregations imaginatively and emotionally and to delight them with his wit.

Contemporary painting of square outside of St. Paul's Cathedral


To insure the highest possible degree of historical accuracy for our models, we have drawn on a large body of paintings, engravings, and other historic materials that document the visual appearance of St Paul’s Cathedral in the early 1600’s. We have also made use of contemporary surveys of these buildings’ foundations as well as on more recent archaeological excavations of their remains, left behind by the Great Fire of London that swept them away in 1666.


We chose to recreate a sermon by John Donne because Donne continues to have a major reputation as poet, essayist, and preacher. Also, Donne’s preaching this sermon illustrates the complex interweaving of religion and politics in the early seventeenth century. In the fall of 1622, John Donne, at the age of 49, had been Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral for just over a year. He owed his position at St Paul’s to James I. The King had promised Donne that if he would agree to ordination to the priesthood in the Church of England, the King would guarantee Donne a significant position in the Church.

Portrait of John Donne

By 1622, Donne had become an experienced preacher of the one- and two-hour sermons expected of clergy in the seventeenth century. Because of Donne’s close connections with James I, it was appropriate that Donne be called on by the King to preach sermons in defense of or apologizing for the King’s policies in religious affairs and, therefore, indirectly, political affairs as well.

Donne preached two sermons at Paul’s Cross in the fall of 1622 at James’ request, the second of which is the one at the center of the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project. The first, Donne’s sermon for September 15th, 1622, is worthy of mention because it sets the stage for Donne’s Gunpowder Day sermon, delivered November 5th, 1622.

The broader political context for both these sermons was the desire, on James‘ part, to secure a political alliance with the Spanish by arranging the “Spanish Match,” a marriage for his son Charles with the Spanish princess Maria Anna, who like her father was a Roman Catholic. By 1622, efforts to secure this marriage had been going on for some 8 years, with the religious implications of a potential marriage between a Protestant groom and a Catholic bride begin among the major points of contention in the negotiations.

The possibility of England’s becoming Catholic again, or even of Catholic worship being permitted openly in England again, raised fears — and anti-Catholic sentiments — among many Englishfolk, especially among Puritan clergy and their supporters. In response to active public opposition, let by the Puritan party in the Church of England, James issued in August of 1622 a document called Directions for Preachers that sought to limit the range of subject matter and approach in sermons. Clergy were ordered not to preach sermons advocating controversial theological positions or to challenge the King’s authority to conduct his foreign policy.

James called upon Donne to defend the Directions for Preachers in his Paul’s Cross sermon of September 15, 1622. Here, in addition to affirming the benefit of James’ imposition of limits on preaching, Donne reminded his auditors that the issue in this controversy was really one of royal authority, that subjects are called upon to obey their monarchs, and that obedience includes trust in their wisdom, hence subjects should trust James’ stated reasons for issuing the Directions rather than connect them to the negotiations for the Spanish Match.

Gunpowder Day in 1622 offered the crown yet another opportunity to reassure the populace about the King’s religious allegiances as well as to reassert the royal prerogative in religious as well as political affairs. After all, James was the person whom Catholic plotters intended to kill, above all others, in the original Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

In this second public effort to shore up support for James in the fall of 1622, Donne insisted that good subjects owe their trust and obedience to the monarch regardless of whether he is a good king (Josiah) or a bad king (Zedekiah). The fault of Catholics was precisely in their disobedience, in their refusal to “have this man to reign over us” (Luke 19:14). Nevertheless, Donne was also quick to defend James as a Josiah, a “good king,” and a “good text man,” important since to a Protestant audience no “good text man” would ever be a Papist.

Acoustic Modeling

To make Donne’s sermon for November 5, 1622 available as an aural experience, instead of a printed text to be read in silence, we arranged for the noted Shakespearian actor Ben Crystal to perform this sermon in an anechoic recording studio at the University of Salford, in Manchester, England.  The anechoic chamber was specially constructed to remove all ambient sound from Ben’s performance, leaving only the sound of his voice. As a result, we were able to play the recording through an acoustic model of Paul’s Churchyard, enabling us to hear it as though Ben had been speaking in that space, rather than in the space he actually occupied when performing the sermon. Ben used a script of Donne’s sermon in original early modern London pronunciation prepared by Ben’s father, the distinguished linguist David Crystal. This added yet one more level of accuracy to Ben’s performance.

Recording in anechoic recording studio

We had been especially interested to learn how audible a sermon would be if delivered in the open air, without benefit of amplification and in a space approximately 125 feet by 150 feet. The results of our project indicate that if the congregation were quiet, Donne could have been heard everywhere a member of the crowd gathered for the sermon might have stood or sat for the event.

Detailed information about Donne, the sermon, and acoustic modeling is on the project site


The Virtual Paul’s Cross website went live in the early spring of 2013. Since it became available for viewing, it has been positively reviewed. It was recognized as the Distinguished Digital Publication in Donne Studies for 2013 by the John Donne Society.  

DH Awards 2014
The Virtual Paul’s Cross Project also received the Award for Best DH Data Visualization from the DH Awards program in 2014.


We also collaborated with the library staff at NC State’s new James B. Hunt Library on an installation of the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project Installation in their Teaching and Visualization Lab. This facility, with its 10 projectors and 21 speakers, made it possible for us to create a fully immersive experience of the project. The projectors cast a full 270° seamless image of our model , wrapping the viewer in the visual world of Paul’s Churchyard.

The video starts in color, situating the viewer in the northeast end of the Churchyard, then changes to black and white and moves the viewer to a position further west into the Churchyard, at which point the image stops and color returns to the display. This process repeats itself until the viewer has been taken all the way around the Churchyard and returned to the point of origin.

At each stopping point, the user can hear portions of the sermon from that distance from the preaching station and can choose how many people to have in the crowd, ranging from 250 to 5,000 people. From two spots on the journey one can hear the entire 2-hour sermon.

One way people can learn about the background of the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project while using the T+V Lab’s installation is to watch a video featuring John Wall, Professor of English, and David Hill, Professor of Architecture, explaining the process by which the project was created.

The installation opened to public viewing on Tuesday, November 5, 2013 at 10:00 am, the 391st anniversary of John Donne’s sermon for Paul’s Cross on Tuesday, November 5th, 1622. The installation has proved to be very successful, both in terms of providing the fullest possible experience of our project to date for its users, but also in terms of capturing the imaginations of a very wide audience.

John Schofield

The local press covered the event. The photograph above, of John Schofield, the official archaeologist at St Paul’s Cathedral, discussing our model with the crowd, made the front page the next day of the Raleigh News & Observer, our major newspaper. Their story was picked up by the wire services and reprinted in newspapers across the USA as well in England’s Guardian newspaper and on a London TV station. This publicity has been extremely helpful in bringing users to the website as well as encouraging them to visit the Hunt Library to view the installation in person.

Further Developments

Following the success of the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project, we applied for additional funding to expand the project to include a full model of the entire churchyard and the full cathedral, both inside and out.  The National Endowment for the Humanities awarded us a second grant in 2015 to undertake this second phase. As part of this expanded Virtual St Paul’s Cathedral Project, we will also develop an open-source acoustic modeling package to complement existing open source visual modeling packages. As a result, scholars will be able to undertake projects like ours without incurring the high costs fo commercial software.

Cathedral model

As of this writing, the visual model is almost complete, lacking only the signs of weather and age that will render images like the one above representative of the places they depict rather than look like they were all just finished, with the paint and plaster still drying. 

In this phase of the project, we are adapting a new style of visual display for the houses, choosing to reflect current beliefs among architectural historians that residential and commercial structures in early modern London were plastered over their entire external surfaces rather than — as shown in our Paul’s Cross model — showing their wooden framing timbers, with plaster only filling in the paces between the timbers.  As one who has long held the belief that Elizabethan houses all had the dramatic outward appearance we are familiar with from existing examples in various parts of England, I am still getting accustomed to the thought that this distinctive appearance is actually an artifact of a later time.

Interior model

The acoustic side of this project will include the recreation of worship and preaching conducted inside the cathedral’s Choir. In time, we will roll out a new website that will enable users to experience a festival day in the cathedral as well as an ordinary day. The festival day will be Easter Day 1624, with all the liturgical events of the day, including choir and organ music plus a sermon in the morning by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes and a sermon in the afternoon by John Donne, Dean of the cathedral.

Interior model

The ferial, or ordinary day, will be a recreation of worship on the Tuesday after the First Sunday in Advent, 1625, with music appropriate for that kind of liturgical occasion.

In addition to a new website for the Cathedral Project, we also plan to have another installation of the project in the Hunt Library’s T+V Lab. We also plan a Virtual Reality version of the project, so that we can provide an immersive version of the Cathedral and its worship to a much larger audience than can make their way to the T+V Lab in Hunt Library.


The Virtual Paul’s Cross Project, and now its companion the Virtual St Paul’s Cathedral Project break new ground because they restore real-time experience to historical scholarship, giving the scholar the sense of being present at a public, communal, and collaborative event.  As a result, we have been able to reformulate how we think about texts prepared for public delivery because we can now explore them in the context of their original visual and aural context. No longer are they primarily words on a page to be read in the privacy of our offices but can now be once more experienced as public events unfolding moment by moment in the company of large numbers of virtual people.

This new sense of opportunity has also brought with it challenges to our traditional ways of doing historical scholarship. As my colleagues and I have worked with our model of Donne’s sermon performance, we have reached conclusions about how these events unfolded about the style of Donne’s delivery, for example, and about how he handled random or predictable events such as crowd response or the sound of the cathedral’s bells tolling the hours that are based entirely on our work with the project and for which there is no evidence in the historic record and thus no way of documenting them by making reference to traditional kinds of evidence.

For example, based on experience with the Paul’s Cross acoustic model, we have concluded that Donne delivered his sermons at Paul’s Cross in a slow and deliberate fashion both to take advantage of the amplification of his voice level due to the reverberation of sound in that space but also to avoid losing his hearers’ comprehension due to the muddling of his words that would have resulted from the reverberation if he had spoken faster.

We also believe that the sound of church bells ringing out the eleven o’clock hour at the cathedral and at the many churches surrounding St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London would have rendered his words inaudible for a minute or more if he had insisted on trying to speak while the bells were ringing. So, presumably, he would have had to pause in his delivery until the sound of these bells died away, before continuing with his sermon. We believe, further, that he was able to anticipate that pause and incorporate it into the oratorical structure of his sermon’s delivery.

These conclusions, while deriving from a model thoroughly grounded in historical data, are based entirely on inference from our experience with the Paul’s Cross model. No traditional forms of historical evidence has emerged so far no references to such a phenomenon in contemporary accounts of preaching, no diary entries, no references in poems or plays or letters, or any of the traditional documentation we customarily use to support these conclusions.

Willard McCarty, the distinguished digital humanist and creator of the Humanist listserv, has said of our project that “Virtual Paul’s Cross takes the observer to the limits of what is securely known, then offers a standpoint from which securely to infer more. (Does knowledge result? If not quite that, then what gives knowledge or what we mean by ‘knowledge’?) And by the nature of the medium, the observer, having done that, can then return to the sermon (which is, at this point, what exactly?) to look and listen again, then incorporate what has been inferred into the simulation model. And so it goes, “where no one has gone before”. I am tempted to say, if this does not make you nervous and excited all at once, then either you or I are at fault.”

The result has been a reconfiguration of our understanding of the early modern sermon, shifting our thinking from regarding the surviving texts of Donne’s sermons as the proper objects of our study to regarding them as traces, at best memorial reconstructions of the actual sermon, which for us has become the delivered text in its interactive, communal context. At the same time, we have learned more about the limits of our knowledge, or, perhaps better, learned the various and sometimes competing forms in which knowledge can come, learned the risk as well as the value of conceptualizing through approximation. That in itself represents a fundamental shift in our thinking about the early modern sermon, some compensation, perhaps, for all the aspects of Donne’s preaching that still remain beyond our reach.

Add new comment

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
CAPTCHA This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.