By Heather Wolfe (@hwolfe on Talk)
Thank you to all those who transcribed the first batch of data on Shakespeare’s World–our thousands of pages of recipes and letters are now being edited and placed on Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO). The remaining recipes and letters will be available until they are completed, but next up we have a whole new dataset: an incredibly fascinating collection of nearly two thousand manuscript newsletters containing court and parliamentary news and foreign affairs from the Continent. These are part of a larger collection of 3,954 newsletters known as the “Newdigate Newsletters” because they were sent to three consecutive generations of the Newdigate family of Arbury Hall, Warwickshire, between 1674 and 1715. More information about this collection can be found in the finding aid. The newsletters were acquired by the Folger from Hodgson & Co. in the July 19, 1956 sale of 17th and 18th century books from the private library of the Newdigate family at Arbury Hall, lot 227.
Despite the fact that printed newspapers were circulating in the late 17th century, handwritten newsletters continued to be an important source for the spread of domestic and international news. Print and manuscript newsletters played different roles in the dissemination of information, and people often acquired both in order to widen their understanding of events and cut through the propaganda. Just like today, different sources might provide different accounts of an event.
Under the auspices of Sir Joseph Williamson (1633-1701), Secretary of State and Keeper of the State Papers, and his Chief Clerk Henry Ball, a small group of scribes produced approximately two hundred newsletters per week which were dispatched on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Newsletters issued by the Secretary of State’s office were principally delivered to government agents, but were also made available to an exclusive list of subscribers to which the Newdigates belonged. The topics covered in the newsletters are wide ranging, including court gossip, commercial and maritime relations in the English Atlantic and Indian colonies, the Popish Plot, and parliamentary controversy. The newsletters provide rare insight into events of notable historical significance, such as William Penn’s involvement with the early Quaker movement, the indictment of Titus Oates, and early accounts of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Northwest Passage, and Prince Rupert. These are all from the first 2,100 newsletters, which were transcribed by Philip Hines in 1994 and are available by subscription as part of ICAME (the International Computer Archive of Modern and Medieval English). The last 1,850 newsletters, however, have not been read from beginning to end, so your transcriptions will provide historians with a first glance into the entire Newdigate archive, revealing the full contents for the years 1692-1715.
Things to look out for: One hundred and fifty newsletters within the Newdigate family collection are by John Dyer (1653?-1713). Dyer’s newsletters are marked in the Collection with the abbreviation “DNl” (for “Dyer’s Newsletter”). Dyer began writing newsletters as early as 1693 and was frequently brought before the House of Commons on charges of libel and sedition. Nonetheless, Dyer’s newsletters were widely disseminated and became one of the chief sources for English news on the Continent in the early eighteenth century. Several other annotated abbreviations appear throughout the collection, especially in the period 1708-1709: nNL (New newsletter), oNL and News Old (Old newsletter), and WNL (Williamson Newsletter). Offsetting (faded printed residue) on a number of the newsletters provides evidence that the newsletters were usually sent out with a one page printed newsletter, possibly the London Gazette. Also, as you’ll read below, we are interested in identifying deletions and mistakes!
Our first guest researcher for this phase is Dr. Alex Barber of the University of Durham. Alex spent time with the newsletters during a three month fellowship at the Folger, but there was no way he could read all of the untranscribed newsletters in that amount of time or systematically compare them to the many other collections of scribal newsletters in other repositories. Transcription of our newsletters will allow for easier comparison to these other newsletters and provide insight into the extent to which they were “curated” for specific recipients.
Alex produced an important article in the journal Parliamentary History as a result of his fellowship, but that was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of his (and our) fascination with the newsletters, and he returned again in January 2018 to examine them further. In his own words: “Despite the publication of the article there was a serious problem: there was too much material here and it did not suit my purposes at the time. I was writing an intellectual history of the freedom of the press and did not have the time to complete a thorough investigation of the archive. I returned to the Folger and the Newdigate archive in January 2018 with the intention of revisiting some of my ideas, to consider what shape a bigger project on scribal news might take and, most importantly of all, to consider whether I was still interested in the strange world of scribal news. The answer, thankfully, is yes. I am fascinated by the topic in general and by the Newdigate newsletters in particular. Re-reading them I was struck by sets of questions that, as yet, I have no answers to. I can identify easily enough the Dyer letters – but who wrote the other letters; are they official, do they come from the Secretary of State’s Office, or are they another form of commercial news? I love finding quirks in the letters: sections where there are substantive crossings out (can the obscured text be deciphered?) and mistakes. I am obsessed with the skill of the letter writer – the ability of the scribe to fill the page correctly and I am always fascinated by whether the individual scribes can be identified. In other words, whilst I love finding out information from the letters (and considering where the information comes from), I want to think about the archive as a cultural form and eventually work towards a bigger project concerned with the cultural power of news writing.”
Welcome to the team, Alex! In addition to Alex @awbarber, a warm welcome to another new guest researcher Nina Lamal @NINALA. Nina is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Antwerp. Her research focuses on early modern book and communication history. She is currently finishing the first bibliography of Italian newspapers entitled Late with the news. Italian engagement with serial news publications in the seventeenth century 1639–1700, which will be published by Brill. She is particularly interested in how English news sources may have influenced or been influenced by Continental sources. As well as our new guest researchers, the project will continue to be supported by our wonderful moderators @mutabilitie and @Christoferos, Folger paleographer Sarah Powell @S_Powell, Oxford English Dictionary editor @philipdurkin, and ShaxWorld co-investigators Heather Wolfe (Folger curator of manuscripts) @hwolfe and Victoria Van Hyning @vvh. We look forward to this next phase of Shakespeare’s World.
There are many other ways to conceptualise the importance of scribal news, perhaps most obviously how it was produced, distributed and consumed—and as ever ShaxWorld volunteers are encouraged to pursue these and raise questions and lines of research on Talk.