Welcome to Shakespeare’s World, and… why we love letters

Welcome to Shakespeare’s World! EMMO (Early Modern Manuscripts Online at the Folger Shakespeare Library), Zooniverse, and the Oxford English Dictionary are thrilled to partner on this groundbreaking project to transcribe the Folger’s amazing collection of manuscripts from Shakespeare’s era. The research potentials are endless—we can’t wait to see what people will find and learn and create once this treasure trove of thousands of manuscript texts is made available to all.

Our inaugural blog post touches on letters, one of the first two genres we are introducing to our Shakespeare’s World contributors. The second post will focus on recipe books, the other genre.

Letter from Jane Skipwith to Lewis Bagot, ca. 1610.

Letter from Jane Skipwith to Lewis Bagot, ca. 1610. Folger Shakespeare Library, MS L.a.852.

Here’s why we love letters from the 16th and 17th centuries: they are full of personal details and tidbits about the lives of real people with real problems and concerns and needs – information that you would never encounter in a printed work from the period. It turns out that then, like now, one of the biggest worries was… money.

Detail ("the money") from a letter from Ralph Adderley to Walter Bagot, 4 March 1607. Folger Shakespeare Library, MS L.a.7.

Detail (“the money”) from a letter from Ralph Adderley to Walter Bagot, 4 March 1607. Folger Shakespeare Library, MS L.a.7.

Here’s another reason: you can actually “hear” the voices of women, servants, college students, children, tradespeople, and other individuals who are not well represented in the printed world. The spelling is often phonetic in the letters of people who were not highly literate, which provides great insight into how certain words were pronounced in the period.

“i umbli tacke leue,” or, as we would write it, “I humbly take leave.” Detail from a letter from Elizabeth Cavendish to her mother, the formidable Bess of Hardwick. Folger Shakespeare Library, MS X.d.428 (50).

“i umbli tacke leue,” or, as we would write it, “I humbly take leave.” Detail from a letter from Elizabeth Cavendish to her mother, the formidable Bess of Hardwick. Folger Shakespeare Library, MS X.d.428 (50).

You can also witness queens and kings communicating with each other on an “unofficial” level, as in Elizabeth I’s intimate letters in her own handwriting to James VI of Scotland.

Beginning of letter to "My deare brother," from Elizabeth I to James VI, 16 March 1593.

Beginning of letter to “My deare brother,” from Elizabeth I to James VI, 16 March 1593 (they weren’t really brother and sister). Folger Shakespeare Library, MS X.d.397.

One could argue that the letter was the single most important genre in the Renaissance period, since it was the primary form of direct communication across long distances. Letterwriting was the means by which Shakespeare and his world established contact, kept in touch, swapped news and gossip, forged alliances, conducted business, asked for forgiveness, and fell in love. Letters can be funnier, richer, more bizarre, and more moving than anything that the fiction of the period has to offer.

–Heather Wolfe, @hwolfe

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About Heather Wolfe

Heather Wolfe (Zooniverse handle @hwolfe) is principal investigator of EMMO (Early Modern Manuscripts Online) and curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She loves being knee-deep in old manuscripts.

8 responses to “Welcome to Shakespeare’s World, and… why we love letters”

  1. J. Edwards says :

    Apologies for leaving this as a blog comment, but I couldn’t find the information anywhere on your site: What are the appropriate means by which to communicate with the Shakespeare’s World coordinators (i.e. with basic questions unaddressed in the Guide)? Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. simona says :

    Hi, I am able to help you! I’ve a lot of stuff I worked on in the past, mostly related to fashion, colours, and so on in Shakesperian/Elizabethan age! I’m used to read “old english” 🙂 How can I be useful?

    Like

  3. Heather Wolfe says :

    You can be useful in so many ways, Simona, and we are thrilled to have you on board! If you go to shakespearesworld.org, you can get started right away with either recipe books or letters. We’ll be adding some inventories at a later date, which will include descriptions of textiles and clothing–right up your alley.

    Like

  4. Karen says :

    I’m enjoying transcribing — actually, I’m addicted. Sometimes I wish there were a way to see both pages of a two-page letter, though. I suppose it’d be tough, programming-wise, but let me at least explain why it would be desirable.
    Already I’ve seen that writers sometimes have very idiosyncratic forms of letters, and sometimes I get a theory that a particular squiggle means this or that, but I can find only one other example of the same squiggle on the page. A larger sample of the same handwriting would be helpful. Also, sometimes by the end of one page, I feel pretty expert in deciphering this one individual’s scrawl, and it seems a shame to squander that by not doing the other page.

    On another topic, I’ve gotten much better at using the tools. At first I was deleting things I’d transcribed correctly (I realize that now, now that it’s too late to go back and change them — I think I turned in a couple with the majority of the transcription mistakenly removed) because I didn’t understand how the tools worked. Apparently there’s a learning curve to understanding how to use the Edit and Delete commands — at least for me.

    Like

    • Heather Wolfe says :

      Hi Karen, Nice to meet a fellow addict! I’m glad you are getting used to the tools for transcribing. There is a way to see other pages of a letter or recipe book. Click on the “original” button in the upper left of the transcribe screen. That takes you to the image in the Folger’s digital image database. If you copy the “source call number” (visible in the left column) into the search box, you will see all other images associated with that call number. Hope this helps.

      Like

      • Karen says :

        Oh yes, that’s awesome. So like when I get a theory that an individual has come up with their own bizarre glyph for ‘p’, I can look for more examples. Excellent!

        Like

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  1. And …why we love recipes | shakespearesworldzoo - December 15, 2015

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