The significance of scripts

by Elisabeth Chaghafi, aka @mutabilitie

One of the first things you’ll notice with early modern manuscripts is that some writers use odd, unfamiliar letter-shapes which take a while to get the hang of. Soon afterwards you’ll probably notice that, for some reason, there are also early modern writers whose handwriting is actually quite legible and “modern”-looking. Broadly speaking, these early modern writers are using two different scripts: secretary and cursive. As far as writing goes, secretary is the script that was predominantly used for all sorts of official documents and formal, business-y correspondence, i.e. the kind of writing that busy and important people needn’t actually do themselves but only put their signatures to, hence the name “secretary”. When busy and important people did take the trouble to dash off a personal note in their own hand as a postscript, they often preferred writing in cursive – partly because they probably lacked their secretaries’ writing routine (that’s the downside of having somebody write out the bulk of your correspondence for you), but also to emphasise the personal touch of writing in their own hand, or to add weight to a request. Robert Devereux, the second earl of Essex (1565–1601) is a typical example of such a busy and important person. He would scrawl the occasional postscript, of course, but unless the recipient was the queen herself, the main part of the letter would normally be written by a secretary.

So much for the writing part. What about reading, though? Literacy levels in the sixteenth century are actually notoriously hard to estimate, because of the various factors involved. Not everyone able to read print was necessarily able to read handwritten letters; not everyone able to read cursive script was necessarily able to read secretary hand, let alone write it. This matters because the type of script in which an early modern letter is written says something about the context of the letter, and in some cases it may even reveal information about the letter-writer and/or the recipient. The letter L.a.241 is a particularly interesting case:

 L.a.241 leaf 1 recto

Folger MS L.a.241 leaf 1 recto

This is a letter from Richard Broughton to Richard Bagot, dated 27 June 1577, written about a month before he married Bagot’s daughter Anne. Broughton was a prolific writer and normally wrote in a flowing secretary hand (often using short forms, abbreviations and brevigraphs, to save time). About halfway through this letter, though, something odd happens. Instead of continuing in his normal handwriting, Broughton suddenly switches to cursive. A possible clue as to what might be happening here can be found in the contents of the letter. The letter begins with work-related matters, but then swiftly moves on to what is probably the main occasion for the letter: he is sending his fiancée—or, as he chooses to call her, his “partner”—a schedule of all his work commitments, “so that vpon viewe therof she may appoint the day / to her best liking & yours. for my self I am hers at half an houres warninge”. While this is an amusing image, the main idea of course remains the relatively boring business of fixing a date.

Once he switches to cursive Broughton also subtly shifts the focus from himself and his “Bysynes” towards the Bagot family, expressing his regret that he hasn’t been able to get a buck (a deer) for Richard Bagot’s son, before launching into a detailed account near the end of the letter, of how he has been rushing about having various items of clothing made for his “partner”, admitting that he partly ignored her wish of having the lot made in London:

…& if it be not so aptly & fitly made I trust my Partner will forgeue me my ^first offence. & for the charges of makinge which will be more then vsuall in the contrey, I challenge that as a thinge due for my part who hitherto enclyned my self to small thrift or sauynge nor do not meane at this instant to Begynne, till hereafter my Partner shall persuade me thereunto & whatsoeuer exces is bestowed, I must take the blame therof…

Which more or less translates to “I know she wanted to save a bit of money by having some of these clothes made in the country, but I’m a generous sort of chap, so I hope my future wife will allow me to spoil her a bit. After all, she can always teach me to be a bit more frugal once we’re married!”

Most of us would probably find it a lot easier to write in cursive, but in Broughton’s letter there are signs he is struggling a little with the unfamiliar script: the size and the shape of the letters are far less consistent than in the first half of the letter. The B in “Bestowinge”, in the penultimate line, is barely half the size of the two B’s in “By reason of Busynes” towards the top of the cursive section, and the three B’s all have slightly different shapes and proportions. Also, the writing gets progressively smaller towards the bottom of the page—not because there’s any need to save space (the verso of this page is left mostly blank)—so this is probably just an unintentional result of Broughton’s efforts to write neatly. He is also making a conscious effort to avoid abbreviations and brevigraphs, of which he is usually very fond, because they save time. In the cursive section he writes out words he would normally shorten, like “neuerthelesse”, “treasourer”, “persuade”, and “Partner”, although he does slip back into his old habits a few times, for example by indicating the n in “contrey” through a “dash” (known as a macron) and using a special p for “prouided”.

What is the purpose of these italic efforts? While the main addressee of the letter of course remains Richard Bagot, it’s clear from the contents that this section is aimed at Anne, and Broughton is doing his best to write legibly for her benefit. That way, she’ll be able to see for herself what a nice, generous and considerate man she is about to marry—so considerate, she won’t need to ask her father to read out the letter to her, and she’ll be able to think of the neatly written sign-off “Yours euer as his owne” as being at least partly meant for her.

It might be wrong to attribute only romantic motivations to Broughton’s decision to switch to a different script so that his future wife would be able to read some of the letter. At one level, there might also be an element of pragmatism involved; they’re not married yet and  it’s in his own interest to be nice to her so she won’t change her mind at the last minute. In fact, about a month earlier, in May 1577, Broughton had sent Richard Bagot a lengthy account of his financial situation and his relationship with his family in L.a.240. This letter’s purpose was presumably to help with the marriage transactions (written entirely in cursive, probably for Anne’s benefit). Whatever his motivations one thing that Richard Broughton’s script-switching does show is consideration for his readers who were not able to read his secretary hand, much like in this letter L.a.279, sent some 20 years later to his brother-in-law Walter Bagot and co-signed by Anne.


As in the earlier letter, the cursive script is hardly intended for the benefit of the main addressee, but for the other family members: Bagot’s wife Elizabeth, his sister Lettice, his young sons Lewis and Harvey, as well as Broughton’s own children, Mary and Robert (whom he calls by their nicknames, Mall and Robin). In this instance there is no alternative, pragmatic explanation for the choice of script. It seems from this evidence, and his unusual use of the term “partner” to describe his wife, that Richard Broughton was a devoted husband and family-man whose choice of script, as much as his words, reveal his interest in and affection for his family.


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