The Folger Shakespeare Library Presents A Manuscript Miscellany

A Summer 2005 Institute
Directed by Steven W. May

An Introduction to the “Handwritten Worlds of Early Modern England”

Steven W. May

Our work on the "Handwritten Worlds of Early Modern England" began in 1400, the year of Chaucer's death, when all discourse intended for any kind of meaningful preservation was inscribed by hand on one medium or another. We closed our investigations at the turn of the seventeenth century, the year of Dryden's death. By then, the printing press in England had rivaled handwriting as an alternative means for transmitting texts in a (more or less) permanent fashion for more than 200 years. Across the disciplines, scholarly analysis of these first few centuries of competition between the two forms of transmission has been heavily weighted toward the newer technology, often to the disparagement of the old. Where editors had to choose copy texts, for example, from early printed texts or among their handwritten counterparts, the vast majority opted for printed exemplars. Similarly, studies of early modern culture, from music to biography, to gender studies and social trends, have turned overwhelmingly for primary evidence to printed sources rather than manuscript sources. And as the printing press has dominated scholarly research in these centuries, so understanding in the classroom has been almost exclusively a print-based experience.

Only in the past decade or so have these basic contours of understanding across the disciplines shifted toward a reconsideration of the importance of manuscript culture in early modern England. Pioneering studies of this culture by such scholars as Peter Beal, Mary Hobbs, Harold Love, Arthur Marotti, and Henry Woudhuysen have shown, persuasively, that transcribed documents of all sorts have much to tell us about the early modern period, much that cannot be gleaned from printed sources. Throughout the work of this Institute, our study of the period's handwritten documents was indebted to the discoveries and insights set forth by these authorities. A distinguished visiting faculty augmented our understanding of manuscript culture with case studies from a comprehensive set of disciplines. Our program was further enriched by "hands on" experience with manuscripts from the Folger Library's superbly varied and wide-ranging collection.

Ironically, handwritten testimony to early modern culture, the primary documents at the center of our investigations, proliferate throughout the handpress era. Many more legal documents, private notebooks, letters, treatises, and every other form of handwriting have survived for the sixteenth century than the fifteenth, as for the seventeenth versus the sixteenth century. Yet this trend reflects not only the normal increase in the preservation of more recent documents of all kinds at whatever time. It reveals as well the rapidly increasing production of manuscript materials in early modern England—more and more documents were being produced decade by decade if not year by year, from 1400–1700. This trend was not just a function of an increasing population coupled with increasing rates of literacy. No considerable increase in handwritten materials could have occurred had manuscripts been confined primarily to parchment and vellum, as was the case throughout the Middle Ages. Similarly, without the growing availability of relatively cheap paper, the printing press could have made little impact on European culture. Yet the advent of this cheaper (if not cheap) recording medium is perhaps the most overlooked factor in the continuous proliferation of handwritten documents that began in the fifteenth century. Paper invited middle class and eventually even lower class writers to put pen to paper. By the seventeenth century, almost anyone able to write could afford a few sheets of paper, if not a thick notebook, for writing letters, recipes (both medical and culinary), the recording of money spent and received, or memoranda of tasks accomplished and anticipated. Paper changed everything, for the pen as for the press.

The growing volume of documents handwritten on paper greatly expands the sources of evidence for understanding the culture of early modern England. However, this process also creates new challenges for students of that evidence. As long as handwriting was largely confined to expensive parchment or vellum, its practitioners were largely confined as well to a professional scribal class. Medieval documents are, on the whole, carefully prepared and relatively legible (at least in their pristine state). The medium was simply too expensive to be wasted on trivial texts scrawled by inexperienced hands. As paper made manuscript production more and more democratic, it left behind a dwindling percentage of works by professional scribes. Now ordinary writers with untrained hands scrawled whatever they thought important because they could afford to do so. What they have left us is no less valuable for its frequently careless, amateurish production—often, quite the opposite—but to understand this evidence often requires a good deal of training in how to decipher the varied quality and expertise of early modern hands.

We discovered that the printing press, far from stifling manuscript culture, flourished in a context both parallel to the older tradition and inseparably connected with it. Both means of textual production were critically nurtured by the availability of paper, and both depended on growing literacy for their expanding influence in society. Their interdependence emerges at the most basic level in the fact that printed texts were set from handwritten copy. Increasingly, too, throughout the period, printed texts were copied back into manuscript volumes. On this website, Lara Dodds analyzes an example of the practice in a manuscript copy of Dryden's dramatization of Milton's Paradise Lost that was transcribed from the ninth edition of the play. As William Quinn and Donna Crawford demonstrate in "The Marginalized Voices of Chaucer's Early Readers," blank spaces in printed books were routinely appropriated for purposes of manuscript culture by scribes wishing to annotate what they read or simply to take advantage of open space for writing. Indeed, such blank spaces might be appropriated in a given book because it seemed a particularly apt place to record the information. Nicole Clifton found one transcribed copy of a verse prophecy concerning King James I crowded onto the title page of the King's Works (1616). Or, scribes might simply use handwriting in place of the printed page as in Janet Starner's analysis of a book with three missing pages that were carefully replaced by hand to resemble the typescript page as closely as possible.

The ever-expanding reading public of early modern England was nurtured, of course, by a growing availability of print publications. At the same time, a parallel source of handwritten reading material spread in networks across the country with the advantage that its contents were essentially free rather than purchased. These networks of manuscript transmission conveyed a wide variety of subject matter in formats ranging from scraps of paper to hefty volumes. Their contents included practical information, from current events to instructions for alchemical experiments. Speeches, prayers, poetry, satire, jokes, and full-blown literary works were copied and recopied as they were passed along to others. The system in many ways resembled today's gratuitous transmission of all kinds of texts by email, and it included quite substantial works. In Sir Philip Sidney and the Circulation of Manuscripts 1558–1640 (1996), for example, Henry Woudhuysen has shown that Sidney's Old Arcadia, averaging more than 300 manuscript pages of prose and verse, was transmitted in multiple copies to the far corners of the kingdom in a few years' time.

Accordingly, early modern authors learned to use the networks of manuscript transmission to circulate texts that, variously, were and were not intended for eventual publication. One aspect of this practice was the restriction of manuscript works to a coterie of readers who, supposedly, confined their circulation to a tightly knit social circle. Shakespeare's sonnets, for example, were said to be circulating among his "private friends" as early as 1598. A few of these lyrics appeared in print during Elizabeth's reign but the entire sequence was not published until 1609. Yet no pre-publication text of any of the sonnets has survived in manuscript. Did Shakespeare circulate the poems in order to stimulate a market for the 1609 edition? Chris Ivic notes that Ben Jonson may have attempted something of the sort by circulating in manuscript poems he addressed to John Donne and Lucy, Countess of Bedford, then including them in his 1616 Workes. George Justice documents Pope's similar practice a century later. Matthew Rusnak notes examples of pastoral verse published only in manuscript in a tradition parallel to the simultaneous print publication of works in the same genre. Authors who submitted their works to manuscript circulation, however, lost control over all aspects of their texts, including attributions. Garth Bond shows how Donne's "To His Mistress Going to Bed" accumulated multiple variant readings as it was copied by scribe after scribe, the normal fate of all texts in verse or prose that entered the channels of manuscript circulation.

In many other instances, we found, manuscript practice never yielded to print. Letters, for example, both public and private, remained handwritten throughout the period (and, indeed, until the invention of the typewriter). Personal correspondence was the mainstay of communication for those separated by distance and, again, the volume of letter writing increased throughout the early modern period, unrivaled by telephones, cell phones, or email. The conventions of early modern correspondence were, however, somewhat different from today's in the absence of typewriter, word processing, or a uniform postal service. Rebecca Laroche examines these elements in one letter in the Bagot family papers. The letter was sent, if not wholly written, by a wife to her absent husband. Beyond such utilitarian functions, letters became a recognized genre of writing. Collections of letters began to appear in print during the first half of the sixteenth century, and were, increasingly, transcribed into manuscript anthologies as well. Timothy Billings argues that one such letter, purportedly written to Queen Elizabeth by the Emperor of China, is in fact a parody that plays off the widespread recognition of letters as a serious form of writing.

Andrew Walkling reminds us, meanwhile, that the central government carried out its business and preserved its records almost entirely in manuscript. The official repository of these documents in England, termed the "Paper Office" in the late seventeenth century, evolved into the Public Record Office (now the National Archives). Here were preserved the handwritten State Papers, records of the royal court, Exchequer, Chancery and other law courts, the Admiralty and related bureaucratic departments. Add to this archive the handwritten records of the state church and local courts of law, and this cumulative mass of manuscript material comprises the primary source for most research into medieval and early modern English civilization.

Meanwhile, handwritten documents were prominent as well at the most private levels of discourse. A common physical medium for recording private memoranda of all kinds was the "table book" or "tables." Jason Powell and Tricia McElroy explain the make-up and function of such notebooks in relation to other pedagogical practices, including the keeping of commonplace books. Table books were compact, erasable equivalents of modern datebooks, shopping lists, and stickum notes rolled into one. Students also copied their lessons into "exercise books" which, Emily Smith demonstrates, might involve practice with calligraphy as well as mastery of a content field such as arithmetic. Smith also considers "receipt" books, collections often compiled in manuscript by women in order to preserve culinary recipes, medicinal formulae, or both. From the standpoint of content, other subjects were largely restricted to manuscript circulation including political satire and libel, although George Justice examines a potentially libelous poem that did eventually find its way into print.

The heritage of English manuscripts from 1400 to 1700 supplies us with a wealth of material for expanding our understanding of the period. These documents range in content from mundane accounts, memoranda, and legal records, to personal correspondence and official records of church and state, to the age's highest literary accomplishments in poetry, prose, and drama. Handwritten documents range as well from works intimately linked to print culture (indeed, physically combined with it at times) to a broad, interdisciplinary spectrum of cultural evidence that survives only in manuscript. To date, this corpus of material has not been thoroughly studied. It has only recently begun to attract the scholarly attention it deserves, and it remains an unparalleled source for new insights into the early modern era.