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The Folger Spotlight

Collection Connections: ‘A Tip for the Hangman' by Allison Epstein

Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, speakers provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, we revisit the presentation by Abner Aldarondo, Dumbarton Oaks Fellow, about Folger collection items related to the novel A Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein. Discussion questions for the novel can be found here.

A Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein follows Kit Marlowe—yes, the playwright Christopher Marlowe!—and his espionage efforts for the Queen of England. Ciphers (messages written in code) make appearances all throughout the book, and Kit spends much of his time breaking his head decoding these messages.

[Essays. Italian. Selections] Opuscoli morali / di Leon Batista Alberti. 1568. Folger Shakespeare Library: PQ4562.A6 1568 Cage, sig. O3r (p. 213)
Polygraphiae libri sex Ioannis Trithemij Abbatis Peapolitani, quondam Spanheimensis : ad Maximilianum Caesarem by Johannes Trithemius. 1518. Folger Shakespeare Library: Z103.T7 P6 1518 Cage (folio).

Leon Battista Alberti wrote one of the oldest cryptographic books. This short 15th-century text, Opuscoli morali, is Europe’s oldest surviving treatise on ciphers. While not the first cryptographic book by any means, Johannes Trithemius’ Polygraphiae libri sex (1518) is the first printed one (Battista Alberti’s was printed in a 1568 essay collection a century after he wrote his teatrise). Trithemius worked on polygraphic systems, a type of complex cryptography that divides the letter into groups (by letters, phrases, or words) and substitutes them with different letters or symbols.  The title page shows the author presenting the book to Emperor Maximilian I, to whom the author dedicated the book. Even if Kit had these two cryptographic books in the Folger collection, chances are he could not have decoded Mary Stuart’s complex ciphers—she had a lifetime of practice, having learned how to write in cipher when she was nine years old!

Francis Walsingham, secretary and spymaster of Queen Elizabeth I, also makes an appearance in Hangman. The historical and fictional character of Walsingham used ciphers to keep state secrets exactly that: a secret. Diplomatic and commercial business in the Medieval and early modern periods relied on handwritten codes and ciphers. Mysterious symbols decorated correspondence and private documents so that only those with the key could read them. In this letter, with the most sensitive information in a cipher, Walsingham advises caution surrounding the King of France’s death.

The Hinman Collator is a bibliophile’s tool to discover the history of book printing, which can be thought of as its own type of code. This machine allows you to examine two copies of a book at the same time in order to identify subtle differences between them. The differences you find in copies of a book can help paint a picture of the book’s printing history, a question that intrigued Shakespeare scholar Charlton Hinman. He created the Hinman collator for comparing the Folger’s copies of the First Folio during the 1940s and 1950s for his study The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare. He made a prototype from a pair of projectors, parts of an apple box, some sheets of cardboard, and items from an old erector set. The machine’s industrial manufacture took place right outside of Washington, D.C. in Silver Spring, Maryland, and 59 of these collators were made before 1979.

Letter to Leonhart Fuchs. 1542. Folger Shakespeare Library: 245- 323f, back endleaf 3r.
Hinman Collator of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Here’s how it works: you place two copies of a book, opened to the same page, on both sides of the machine. When you look through the viewer in the middle, you see one image. It’s actually a superimposed image of both pages, one on top of the other thanks to a system of mirrors and lights.

Once you press a pair of buttons on the face of the machine, the lights illuminating each of the two copies start to move slowly back and forth. You can only see one copy at a time when you do this. The light pans from left to the right, and you might find small movements in the viewer: perhaps because of a different letter or word or typographical variation.

An example of a difference that you can find between First Folios is that of sophisticated leaves. The collecting obsession with the First Folios in the 1800s led to what is known as “sophisticated” or “made-up” Folios. Incomplete copies were “perfected” by adding pages from other incomplete First Folios or by creating printed or handwritten facsimile pages. Upon an examination of the same leaf from two different copies, small movements in the collator may reveal a sophisticated leaf hiding in plain sight. A number of reasons may uncover their hiding, like a spelling error or typographical variation due to an imperfect facsimile. Sophisticated leaves are only as good as the ‘sophisticator,’ along with their intentions as to why they perfected pages. In the case of sophisticated leaves, the differences between a leaf of one copy and another uncover a story of book-collecting, desire, and perfection.

Mr. VVilliam Shakespeares comedies, histories, and tragedies. : Published according to the true originall copies. 1632. Folger Shakespeare Library: STC 22274 Fo.2 no.07.

The Protestant and Catholic religious conflict is referenced throughout Hangman and is reflected in a particular volume of Shakespeare’s works. The Valladolid Folio is a second edition of Shakespeare’s plays published in 1632, and Shakespeare scholars refer to this specific copy as the “Valladolid Folio” because it once belonged to the St. Alban’s College Library in Valladolid, Spain. This College was an English Jesuit seminary, a school that teaches its students to become part of the Church clergy. The English Jesuit Mission was established around 1580, a few years before Mary Stuart’s beheading and during Kit’s schooling at Cambridge.

This is an infamous Second Folio because it has been censored by the Inquisition with black ink, and in the case of Measure for Measure, removed by razor. Guillermo Sánchez, the Valladolid Folio’s censor, was likely the pen name of William Sankey, an English Catholic exile. Born in 1609 in England, he eventually moved to 1641 to serve at St. Alban’s. To learn more about the censorship in the book, read my blog post on this Second Folio here.

A curious fact about seminaries like St. Alban’s College is that once a week students participated in debates where one group would defend Catholic doctrine while the other group leveraged Protestant views. Robert Persons, a founder of the English Jesuit mission, believed that the mission would fail if they could not prove the beliefs of Protestants incorrect, so these weekly debates were quite essential to their training. The belief that rhetorical prowess could win over English Protestants is reflected in how Kit used his own education to win over the Catholics he spied on.

For the full collection of presentation images, visit us on LUNA. [Click here for the full media group]

We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program

Capitol Hill Community Foundation
Junior League of Washington

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