Skip to main content
The Collation

“What’s that letter?”: Searching for water amongst the leaves

A guest post by Folger Institute participant and short-term fellow Lehua Yim

Sixteenth-century England was particularly formative in the long history of what “Britain” means for the peoples of that archipelago, as reformulations of political, legal, economic, and religious institutions added complexity to the webs of relationships that structured that society. Of particular interest to me are the shifts and innovations regarding rights to waters and lands in the history of real property. Social-political life rests upon waters and land. And any notions of territory, of the political and juridical registers of place and those who claim that place, turn to the waters and land for concretization.

Spenser and Shakespeare’s works of the 1590s represent waters and different kinds of land in their production of historical, current, and fantasy politics. My project focuses on those representations, seeking a deeper understanding of the role that fresh water played in sixteenth-century English conceptualizations of place, propriety, communities, self, and “Britain.” Part of my book’s research is a collection and map of fresh water conflicts amongst various English aristocrats and tenants who have proprietary rights to watercourses (rivers, streams, canals, etc.). For example, a water conflict might arise when a mill proprietor loses sufficient river flow to a tenant upstream who has justifiably set up a fishing weir. Or a pond used in the production of iron at a rural ironworks might overflow and flood the agricultural and pasture lands of neighboring farmers. And while you can certainly see a fair amount of fresh water conflicts in the legal cases of the time, you discover far more outside the legal records, prior to their escalation to court adjudication. These near ubiquitous entanglements between various people up and down England’s great number of watercourses can be traced in letters, deeds, leases, petitions, reports, as well as in poems and plays.


If Lehua’s post has inspired you to take Heather Wolfe’s next “Introduction to Early Modern English Paleography” semester-length skills course, it will be offered on Friday afternoons in the fall of 2012.

The Folger Institute’s full 2012-2013 program will be posted mid-March 2012, but the “First Look” is available now:

Owen Williams — December 19, 2011

When I had lunch with Alan Nelson a year ago, I asked him if early modern secretary hand is really that much harder to read than some of our contemporaries’ handwriting. He replied that he always shows his paleography students a letter, asking if they can decipher it. After they give up, he explains that it was written by his mother. So I think his answer was yes!

Richard M. Waugaman, M.D. — December 20, 2011

Sorry, that should have been “No, secretary hand is not any harder to read than some current handwriting.”

Richard M. Waugaman, M.D. — December 25, 2011