The Folger Shakespeare Library Presents A Manuscript Miscellany

A Summer 2005 Institute
Directed by Steven W. May

Gendering Hands, Gendering Business: A Letter from Elizabeth Bagot

Rebecca Laroche
University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

An initial glance at its transcription suggests that this letter is an unremarkable missive from a woman, Elizabeth Bagot, writing from her home, Bromley Bagot, to her husband Walter, who is away in London taking care of business matters. There are, however, several things we can learn from this seemingly ordinary piece of correspondence, things that are available to us only through such pieces of manuscript culture. In particular, especially when considering Elizabeth Bagot's manuscript presence elsewhere, this letter gives us key insights into the gendering of handwriting and of domestic spaces in early modern England.

The original manuscript reveals the presence of four hands within this one everyday artifact. Hand A, a secretary hand, composes the body of the letter, the closing, and the address. Hand B, an italic hand, comprises the signature. While the signature presumably belongs to Elizabeth Bagot herself, the secretary hand could very well belong to a household secretary or amanuensis, given the relative wealth of the Bagot family. While we cannot wholly assume that Hand A was written by a man, the typical household secretary was usually male, as both fictional and non-fictional accounts tell us. Certainly, it is not unheard of that a woman could be capable of the more difficult secretary hand, but the more steady confidence in penstroke of the body of the letter versus the hesitancy in the signature suggest that the two hands correspond with two separate writers.

However, the presence of yet two more hands confounds an easy, binary gendering of the secretary and italic hands. Hand C is secretary; Hand D is italic; they probably both belong to the same person, Walter Bagot. A comparison with other correspondence in secretary hand by Walter Bagot shows he has written the words including "Richard," and "To my" at the bottom of the page (Hand C). At the same time, the italic "C's" of "Cuoma" and "Come" are comparable to the italic C's in a letter Bagot received from his son Lewes and annotated, "Lewes his last Le[tte]rs," in the same hand (Folger MS L.a.67).

Walter Bagot's writings on the bottom half of the letter also raise questions about the uses being made of this one piece of paper (and the time frame of its multiple writings). The address "To my" and the intimate nature of the crossed out passage perhaps suggest that Walter intended to respond to his wife on the same sheet, possibly through the same bearer. If so, that he does so in italic rather than the secretary hand he uses in most of his correspondence suggests that Elizabeth Bagot was more comfortable with reading italic writing. Or was it rather that Walter's writings came first? Did Elizabeth use a scrap of paper, possibly an aborted address leaf, for her letter?

The letter also reveals the seeming separation of spaces occupied by the husband and wife. Most notably, the letter depicts a purportedly rare foray of the wife into her husband's study. The study held certain writings of both legal and financial import, all of which, if found, would be rich examples from manuscript culture: the fines having to do with lawsuit agreements, a feoffment with a tenant contract, and an exemplification with a deed. Lady Bagot's pride in knowing these documents "without help" hints that she has had some exposure both to the space of the study and to such documents but was expected not to be comfortable when confronted with either. One can imagine, however, that Walter Bagot's absence from the household puts much of the estate affairs in the hands of his wife. We can see this in the way she alludes to "our business," referring to the workings of the family estate, while Walter's "business" is what keeps him separate and away from home.

While the letter reflects Elizabeth Bagot's actions and business in her husband's stead, the corresponding signature "Elizabeth: Bagot" found in a folio volume at Yale's Medical Historical Library declares a "space" that is definitively her own. The inscription can be found on the title page of Henry Lyte's translation of Rembert Dodoen's A Niewe Herball, or Historie of Plantes (1578), a treatise on herbs and their medicinal uses. Dozens of extant medicinal receipt books (many held at the Folger) from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries bear witness to women's medical practice in the period. As with Elizabeth Bagot's own A Niewe Herball, many women's signatures found in herbals and health manuals from the period similarly point to that practice. I would argue, however, that, unlike the receipt books that cite both male and female sources, women's inscriptions on male authoritative texts such as the large folio at Yale, show women's claim to knowledge that is otherwise inscribed in these volumes as belonging mainly to men. In a sense, she has entered another man's study and found what she needed there.

Suggested Reading:

Laroche, Rebecca. "Catherine Tollemache's Library." Forthcoming in Notes and Queries.

Stewart, Alan and Heather Wolfe. Letterwriting in Renaissance England. Washington, DC.: Folger Shakespeare Library, 2004.

Wall, Wendy. Staging Domesticity: Household Work and English Identity in Early Modern Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.