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:
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.
A few weeks ago I wrote about my trip to Buckfast Abbey to work on the hair shirt of Sir Thomas More. While I was there, I enjoyed walking in the grounds and seeing the beautifully cultivated gardens, including a medieval-style garden divided by trellises, box hedges, and trained fruit trees, and broken into four amply sized quadrants: culinary, medicinal, sensory and poisonous.
I’ve been to a few medieval and renaissance garden re-creations in my time. The beautiful grounds at the Cloisters Museum in New York City; the gardens at the Geoffrey House Museum in London, which exhibits a range of garden styles and domestic interiors from several centuries, and Rowntree public park in the city of York, England. There are countless others, I am sure. But never before had I seen a poisonous plants garden, and I was really impressed with the elegance and thought that went into this one.
How would you present a poisonous plants garden intended for the public to admire, without setting off a string of health and safety alarm bells?
The monks’ (or their gardeners’) solution is to place the plants within a raised planter at the centre of a pool of water.
Of course you could clear the water with a leap, but it’s just wide enough to discourage little wandering hands and feet, and it provides a buffer for the distracted adult, too. You can’t reach out and grab a berry or a leaf: the water, whether you notice it or just think of it as a nice additional feature, is an effective space between you and the plants. It implies these plants are not like the other plants.
What creative uses of space have you come across in libraries, museums or gardens that offer non-verbal signals like this one? How can architecture and layout tell us what to do and what not to do, without using signs like ‘don’t touch’ or ‘no flash photography’? Have you seen a poisons garden or transcribed an antidote in the recipes category over on Shakespeare’s World? What have you found? Tell us about it here or over on Talk.
I recently spent a few days at Buckfast Abbey, in the South of England, in order to conduct research and write an article about the hair shirt worn by Sir Thomas More, Chancellor of England under Henry VIII between 1529–32.
More is believed to have worn this penitential garment for much of his adult life. According to his numerous early biographers he was unusually devout for a lay person. The hair shirt has had a long journey over the centuries from England to the Low Countries, and back to England, through several monastic and diocesan owners, before it came to Buckfast, where it is on permanent public display in the chapel of the Holy Cross.
More is reputed not only to have worn his hair shirt secretly for much of his life, he also reportedly carried out other ascetic practices that were unusual for a lay person. When he moved his family to Chelsea outside of London, he built a chapel for his private prayer and the use of a ‘discipline’, a device utilized by some Catholics of the time to repent for sins and as an aid to devotion. When Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon and married Anne Bolyn, More resigned his office in preference for a quiet life in which he would not be expected to aid in or even comment upon these proceedings. Yet More’s silence irked the king, and within a few years of his retirement he was imprisoned, tried and executed for treason by Henry VIII, who was angry with More for refusing to attend his wedding to Anne, and refusing to acknowledge Henry’s claim to be the supreme head of the Church of England.
In the century after More’s death a few competing stories sprang up about the hair shirt, and these are what I’m trying to unpick at the moment. One tradition has it that More sent the hair shirt to his daughter, the extraordinarily learned Margaret More Roper (1505–1544), who gave it to her equally learned sister by adoption, Margaret Giggs Clement (1508–1570), who later went into exile with her family to practice her faith, reportedly taking the hair shirt and other More relic-objects with her. Other traditions hold that Thomas More sent it to Giggs rather than Roper, who kept it until her death. Still other traditions state that he sent it to Giggs, who gave it to Roper, who returned it to Giggs, while another source claims that he sent it to his wife Alice. In any case, the hair shirt ultimately passed to Giggs Clements’ youngest daughter, Prioress Margaret Clement (1539–1612), a nun of the English convent of St Monica’s, founded in Louvain during the period when it was illegal to practice Catholicism in England. The nuns of St Monica’s claim to be More’s spiritual heirs through Margaret Giggs and her daughter Margaret Clement.
The hair shirt remained in Prioress Clement’s community and the communities descended from St Monica’s up until the 1980s, by which time most of the exiled English convents had returned to England. When I first began my doctoral studies in 2010 the exact whereabouts of the hair shirt were not clear. I recently discovered that when the modern-day St Monica’s convent closed, the hair shirt went to the Diocese of Plymouth for safe keeping. In 2011 it was transferred to Buckfast at the request of Abbot David Charleswell who arranged for it to be put on public permanent display at Buckfast starting in 2016. I found this last bit out out one day whilst googling, and I simply had to go to Buckfast to see the hair shirt for myself! It was amazing to see an object up close and personal that has a link to the devotional practices of Thomas More and his descendants. This object is part of a long and complex history of Catholic identity and devotion, and it’s interesting from a historical/literary perspective to see how it continues to have meaning nearly 500 years after More’s execution.
Those of you who have participated on Talk know I’m interested in any mention of Catholics and Catholic practice in the letters and recipes we transcribe on Shakespeare’s World. You can use the #Catholic hashtag to let me know about any material relating to Catholics, nuns, papists, recusants, priests, etc. etc.! And #womanwriter to let me know when you’ve found a woman writing in any genre. Have you found any references to penitential practices? Let me know!
-By Victoria Van Hyning (@vvh/@snakeweight)
Many of our regular contributors will have seen (and indeed been interviewed for!) this article by Roberta Kwok for the New Yorker back in January of 2017. Roberta briefly describes the algorithm that merges the multiple transcriptions of pages by independent volunteers in Shakespeare’s World into a single transcription for a given page. The algorithm is called MAAFT, and is typically used to align genetic sequences. The idea behind this approach to transcription is that it allows us to combine transcriptions of smaller strings with longer strings in the same line. So, if I transcribe only one word on a line, and @parsfan and @mutabilitie transcribe the whole line, my small piece will still be counted by being compared with theirs and then slotted into the right place in the transcription. Zooniverse’s former data scientist and I decided to implement this method in an effort to enable people to contribute even small transcriptions to this relatively difficult project.
The other reasons we went for the MAAFT approach is that it means that anyone to take part in the project who wants to, without having prior paleography training. It’s ok if you make mistakes, because multiple people are transcribing the same material, so if you’ve transcribed a few letters correctly and some incorrectly, the correct ones will get taken through to the final transcription. This method of combining multiple volunteers’ efforts stems from the same scientific practices that underpin Galaxy Zoo, Penguin Watch, and all other Zooniverse projects, and is vital to the acceptance of crowdsourced data by experts in the sciences, humanities and museum and library fields. Enabling independent crowdsourcing, and then putting the results together is supposed to create a rigorous dataset, and I’m sure that it will for Shakespeare’s World in the near future, but we’re in a holding pattern until September, when a new data scientist will start working to unpick and rebuild our text aggregation process.
Rest assured that we’re not losing anyone’s work—it’s all saved in a database—but we’re not currently able to piece the separate transcriptions together reliably. This is why, in part, we have not yet published much data in the Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) database at the Folger. However, as Philip announced in previous posts on this blog, quite a few interesting finds are already being incorporated into the Oxford English Dictionary, and he says that Talk is the most effective platform for getting crowdsourced updates into the dictionary. Meanwhile our guest scholars from the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) have also been gathering invaluable data for their work via Talk, and many of you have been helping me gather #catholic and #womanwriter sources.
So, for now, one of the best ways to contribute to Shakespeare’s World is to hop on Talk and use those hashtags, for example #paper, #oed, #Catholic and #womanwriter. We hope to have our aggregation sorted soon, and the transcriptions freely available to all.
-By Victoria Van Hyning, @vvh
A few days before the Harry Potter series turned 20, I made my way to Stratford-Upon-Avon to visit the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and tour around the town for a few hours. Many authors and famous figures such as Charles Dickens, as well as a diverse band of Shakespeare lovers, contributed to a public fund to buy the Shakespeare property at auction in 1847, and turn it into a museum for the public good.
The Tudor property housed several generations of the Shakespeare family and their relations, and must have been a lively place. Shakespeare leased part of it as an inn called the Maindenhead, which was in operation until 1847. I was very struck by this window, formerly in the birthing room.
Nineteenth- and twentieth-century pilgrims from the UK and the USA (and elsewhere, no doubt) carved their names, and sometimes their places or origin in the glass, like so many schoolchildren on so many desks. It seems it was an accepted practice, maybe even an expected practice on the part of both the pilgrims and the caretakers of the property. Famous names include Washington Irving.
This desire to leave one’s name behind reminded me powerfully of the scene in The Deathly Hallows, the last book of the Harry Potter series, in which Harry and Hermione travel to Godrich’s Hollow in an effort to progress their quest and, though he doesn’t admit it aloud, for Harry to visit his parents’ graves. When they pass by the cottage where Harry’s parents were killed by Voldemort, and where Harry got his lightening scar, an information sign appears, which is visible to magical people only. Pilgrims have inscribed their names on it telling Harry that they’re thinking of him, wherever he is, that they’re on his side and they believe in him. Hermione is scandalized that people have graffitied the sign, but Harry is grateful for their support.
I wonder what Shakespeare would have made of this desire on the part of visitors to inscribe their names on a window of his former home? What kinds of pilgrimage marks have you come across and what do you think of them?
When was the last time you signed yourself someone’s “very loving friend” at the end of a letter or told them you were theirs to be commanded (or, even more ominously, “used”)? Thought so. Perhaps the oddest thing about early modern letters are the sign-offs, because they sound alien to modern ears and often don’t quite tally with our notions of politeness, formality or friendship.
Take, for example the phrase “your very loving friend”. In the unlikely event that you were actually to consider using it to end one of your emails, it would probably be an email to someone with whom you have a close personal relationship – and even then it might seem too touchy-feely for comfort. In early modern letters, however, the phrase gets used everywhere, even in contexts where the writer and the recipient of the letter aren’t exactly friends and the contents of the letter suggest that there wasn’t much love lost between them at the time of writing:
This is a copy of an uncharacteristically angry letter from the Earl of Shrewsbury to his deputy lieutenants Sir Walter Aston and Richard Bagot, in which he claims they “never did any thing at my commandment, which might breed content” (i.e. they’re bloody useless at their jobs) and threatens to report them to the Privy Council for their poor performance of their duties. And yet the letter is signed “your Loving friend G Shrewsbury” and addressed to “my Loving ffrendes”. So clearly friendship in the early modern sense doesn’t mean quite what you might think. The same goes for this letter from the Earl of Essex to Richard Bagot (signed “your very louing frend R Essex” in the Earl’s own hand):
The nature of Essex’ loving friendship with Richard Bagot becomes clear halfway through the letter, however, when he writes “I muste entreate you, as my very good frende, and one in whome I presume to haue some intereste, that you will giue your vttermoste aide vnto the Sheriff […] for the removinge of Robbinson and his associates” (which may be roughly paraphrased as “you owe me, Bagot, so do as you’re told”). So if “your very loving friend” doesn’t have to imply love or friendship between the letter-writer and the recipient, what does it actually mean? Perhaps the best way to think about it is as a relatively neutral, multi-purpose sign-off – a sort of early modern version of “best wishes” and “yours sincerely” rolled into one. It’s also a sign-off that’s normally reserved for letters addressed to people who are the writer’s social equals or inferiors. That’s why in their grovelling reply to Shrewsbury’s letter (L.a.74), Walter Aston and Richard Bagot don’t sign themselves his loving friends but “your Lordships most humble at comandment” – a phrase that sounds obsequious to modern ears but is in fact just the polite acknowledgement of and submission to Shrewsbury’s authority required to pacify him and make him change his mind about that report to the Privy Council. For an example of a truly obsequious early modern sign-off, compare another letter from the Earl of Essex, addressed to the queen (X.c.11), which he concludes “… and with all humble, and reverent thoughtes that may be, rest ever to be commaunded to dye at your feete”. That’s a bit much even by early modern standards.
Most online transcription projects allow you to see or even review other people’s transcriptions, but Zooniverse projects (Operation War Diary, Ancient Lives, AnnoTate and Shakespeare’s World, to name a few) ask you to transcribe on your own. Rather than generating transcriptions and waiting for each one to be vetted by an expert, we try to harness what James Surowiecki calls ‘the wisdom of the crowd’—in this case multiple transcribers and their aggregated responses—to identify what is on a page without then doing a manual review of each page. If our small research team had the time to manually review every transcription, we would probably have the time to do it ourselves! But the dataset is much too large for that.
Multiple individuals’ responses are aggregated using two different algorithms. The first is a clustering algorithm, which uses the blue dots to identify where a line or word is, and the second is MAFFT alignment which is traditionally used for amino acid or nucleotide sequencing, and has been deployed by our friends over on Notes from Nature (see blog).
Aggregating multiple people’s responses minimizes the burden of transcription, as well as the burden of accuracy, on the individual. It’s unlikely that any two people, much less three, five or a dozen volunteers reading the same word or line will make exactly the same mistakes. But asking multiple people to do each page independently has its perils, as we have discovered on other projects: if a page is dense or the handwriting is hard to read, the average person will do a bit on the top third of the page, but often can’t complete the whole page because they don’t have the time or inclination (life happens!).
Many moons ago, when I was first thinking through how to make text transcription efficient in a system that relies upon multiple independent transcribers who can’t see one another’s work, it occurred to me that we could use a visual clue that a line or word had already been completed. Hence the grey dots that started to appear this month.
When you come across grey dots, this means that the section or line they are surrounding has been fully retired, but there may be more to do on a page. If you see a page where every line is encompassed by grey dots, this means you should click ‘I’m done’ and ‘yes, everything is transcribed’. Once three people have said a page is complete on the basis of having done the whole thing themselves or seeing the grey dots, the page will stop showing up in the transcription interface.
A few weeks ago volunteer @SarahtheEntwife posted her modernized recipe for caraway bunnes, followed by an image of the result!
It looks good, so I’ve decided to give it a go as well over this coming weekend. Would you like to try your hand at this recipe and share the results here on our blog or Talk? We’re always keen to try new things, and hear what you’re up to as well. Images of baked goods and other culinary delights are most welcome.
It’s been nearly five weeks since we embarked on Shakespeare’s World and so far quite a few transcriptions have been submitted. So first of all, thank you to everyone who has participated on the project. In addition to the transcriptions being generated on the project interface, it’s been great to see so much discussion on Talk where subjects range from recipe ingredients, to horses, to the fate of petitioners to the crown, to the questions about our research methodology and project design.
So, in the spirit of openness and trying to keep you updated about our collective progress, here are some early numbers.
24,252 transcriptions have been submitted. This can be anything from one word, to a few words in a row, to a whole line, to marking a graphic or indicating a page is blank.
2,333 ‘subjects’ (in Zooniverse parlance) have been worked on. This includes images of single or two page spreads from manuscripts in the Folger collection of recipes and letters. Of these 628 have been completely retired.*
Since launch there have been 23,165 sessions logged by 13,876 unique visitors to the site, and ~80,700 pageviews.
The top ten contributing cities are mapped here: London is in the lead, followed by ‘unknown’, New York, Washington, D.C., and Oxford, UK. Australia is gaining on the USA and UK though, so the top five spots are up for grabs.
We hope you’re enjoying the project or that you’ll be making you way over to http://www.shakespearesworld.org/ today to get involved.
* In an email to all participating users in mid December I stated that ~1400 images had been retired, as in fully transcribed by three people, but this was not the case. ~1400 images had been worked on by at least three people.
And the winner is…Judy Bell aka @specks, with ‘Happy Holidays’
Judy used text from a range of Folger manuscript sources to compile her acrostic. She took the challenge to the next level by trying to find manuscript words for each word in her message. Some of them are a bit of a stretch, but the message is great and the first letter (and word) in each line is correct, which is what counted for the challenge.
We would also like to thank our other participants who took part in the challenge.