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Shakespeare’s World launches Newdigate newsletters!

By Heather Wolfe (@hwolfe on Talk)

newdigate screen grab

Folger MS L.c.411, Letter to Richard Newdigate, 1676 December 16

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.

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A huge find for the OED – a startling antedating for partner meaning ‘spouse’

By @philipdurkin

When the Oxford English Dictionary got involved with Shakespeare’s World, we knew that these documents would provide invaluable data on Early Modern English in everyday, non-print use. What we hoped, but couldn’t be so sure of, was that this project would also produce some changes to the historical record of English so startling and immediately relatable that they can help explain to the general public why it’s worth doing this sort of painstaking work. Early in the project we found an example of the phrase white lie that pushed the record back by nearly two centuries, from 1741 to 1567. But we suspected that better was still to come, and now we’ve found it, with really breath-taking earlier evidence of partner in the sense of ‘spouse’.

When we revised the entry for partner for OED in 2005, we searched hard for earlier evidence of all eleven of its separately defined senses. One sense that couldn’t help but attract a lot of attention was the one that OED defines as (sense 5a):

A person who is linked by marriage to another, a spouse; a member of a couple who live together or are habitual companions; a lover.

Especially in the UK, this use of the word has considerable currency, especially as a convenient means of referring to the ‘significant other’ in a person’s life without any particular implications as to legal marital status, sexuality, etc. As OED notes, it is:

Now increasingly used in legal and contractual contexts to refer to a member of a couple in a long-standing relationship of any kind, so as to give equal recognition to marriage, cohabitation, same-sex relationships, etc.

Where does Shakespeare’s World fit into this picture? Back in 2005, the earliest example of this sense that OED’s researchers could find was from Milton’s Paradise Lost (Book X, line 128):

I stand Before my Judge, either to undergoe My self the total Crime, or to accuse My other self, the partner of my life.

Not only is this example from a core canonical literary author, it is also essentially self-explaining, as part of the longer phrase “the partner of my life”. Other early examples are similar, like this one from Tobias Smollett’s tragedy The Regicide in 1749:

What means the gentle Part’ner of my Heart?

But in 2017, Shakespeare’s World volunteers started to report that they were finding partner meaning ‘spouse’ in correspondence from the late 1500s and early 1600s. I must confess that my initial response was scepticism. I went back and searched text collections such as Early English Books Online again: there were one or two uses in phrases that could (maybe just) be seen as precursors of the use in Milton, but nothing to really suggest that partner had developed the meaning ‘spouse’ by this date. But Shakespeare’s World was definitely turning up the goods, like this example from 1577:

If by death my partner should lose her partner I shall prouide for her out of that litle a competent partners part. as touchinge my partners apparell I haue sent vnto her the graue determynacion of a taylor.

 

Pulling together the examples showed something else: there were lots of instances, but they were all from the correspondence of two people, Richard Broughton and his wife Anne (née Bagot), writing to members of their close family circle (especially Anne’s father, Richard Bagot). In fact, they began using partner in reference to one another before their wedding. Here is another example, from one of Anne’s letters:

My Euer good brother mr. Higines opinione was, that my Partner mvst bee att the bathe before maye, hie is gone thether & on satter day I shall heare Doctar shurwoodes opinione.

So what is going on here? Perhaps partner was in widespread use meaning ‘spouse’ in the late 1500s and early 1600s, and we just need more access to personal letters, diaries, etc. to give us more examples. But, if so, it’s surprising that we have no other examples from any other source – including other documents that have been transcribed on Shakespeare’s World, as well as other collections of correspondence from the period. Perhaps instead this was something that Richard and Anne Broughton innovated for themselves – it’s not so very surprising a development from the other earlier meanings of partner, and we can say fairly confidently that it was available as part of the potential meaning of the word. And, although Richard Broughton appears a rather unattractive figure from the historical record of his legal and business activities, the picture that emerges from the letters is of two people with a (linguistically) playful side, with anagrammatic respellings such as “Agant Bona” for Anna Bagot, and nicknames for various family members.

For the present, examples of use by both Richard and Anne have been added to the OED entry, with a note:

Early usage history: Quots. 1577 and 1603 come from the correspondence of Richard and Anne Broughton (née Bagot), who use the term repeatedly in referring to one another in correspondence with other members of their family circle. Such use has not been found elsewhere at this date.

But perhaps new evidence can change that picture again. If you find such evidence, please let us know – we’ll be as thrilled as you.

Some great finds for the OED

uncaple – eye-skip, or a new form for the OED?

@parsfan was transcribing a letter from 1715, summing it up as “Basically, a complaint by some Warwick Innkeepers that they haven’t been paid for four months for quartering a troop of Dragoons”. There’s an unusual spelling “uncaple”, which appears at the beginning of the second line here:

three lines of text from a letter

Lines from letter in the Collection of Items relating to the Borough and Parish of Warwick, England, Folger MS: X.d.2 (100)

The word clearly means “uncapable”, and at first glance, this perhaps looks like a case of eye-skip, someone skipping ahead to the second “a”, which seems especially plausible as the letter gives the impression of being written in something of a hurry. However, a bit of further sleuthing shows “uncaple” also occurs in a 1629 quotation already in the OED, and there appear to be a number of further examples in the Early English Books Online database of digitized early modern printed books. So, although a lot more research work will be needed, it looks like we may well be onto an addition for the OED here.

An image of the full letter is below, and more information about this manuscript from the Folger catalog may be found here.

Full image of letter

Full image of letter, MS Folger: X.d.2 (100)

the tolfte of November

@mutabilitie spotted this interesting spelling of twelfth as tolfte:

lines from a letter

Lines from a letter in the Papers of the Bagot Family of Blithfield, Staffordshire, Folger MS: L.a.586

It comes from a letter from Francis Kynnersley, written in Badger in Shropshire, to Walter Bagot, circa 1620. We’ve not yet found other Early Modern examples of this spelling, but the Linguistic Atlas of Later Medieval English records some similar forms – and, very interestingly, they come from Shropshire, just like this letter. So often you find that when you start to put together isolated bits of information like this, an interesting pattern begins to emerge, and we learn a bit more about the history of English.

Again, an image of the full letter page is below, and information from the catalog record may be accessed here.

Full image of letter

Full image of letter, Folger MS: L.a.586

by Philip Durkin (@PhilipDurkin), Deputy Chief Editor, Oxford English Dictionary

Shakespeare’s World and updating the OED: a splendid antedating of “white lie”

line of text from the image of a letter

text from Folger Manuscript L.a.2, a letter in the Bagot Family Papers

“Antedatings” for the Oxford English Dictionary are always exciting, showing that a word or meaning has been around for longer than previously thought. Sometimes, though, they just take your breath away. For instance, the OED’s editors recently prepared a new version of WHITE and its various compounds and derivatives. This involved, among other things, carefully combing through all of OED’s existing quotation files, and numerous online databases of historical linguistic evidence. In this process the earliest example we found of white lie (“A harmless or trivial lie, especially one told in order to avoid hurting another person’s feelings”) was from 1741. Imagine, then, our surprise and delight (and yes, it is delight, rather than lexicographical sour grapes!) when keen-eyed Shakespeare’s World participant mutabilitie found this in a letter from 1567:

image of letter

Letter from Ralph Adderley I to Sir Nicholas Bagnal, marshal (of army) in Ireland, 1567, Papers of the Bagot Family of Blithfield, Staffordshire (Folger MS L.a.2)

Lines 8/9 give us “Albeit I do assure you he is vnsusspected of / any vntruithe or oder notable cryme (excepte a white lye)”, pushing “white lie” back nearly two centuries earlier than we previously suspected.

An obvious question is why we haven’t added this to the OED the day that @mutabilitie spotted it. In this instance, we’ll need to do a bit more work on this manuscript letter, to be sure of how we want to cite it, and especially date it, in the OED – and we very much hope that the experts at the Folger will be able to cast an eye over that as well.

In other cases, the work involved for the OED will be more extensive, and take longer. The task of revising an OED entry is complex, and typically involves a number of different specialists – for instance, researchers checking numerous data collections for examples of the word (especially ones that are earlier or later, or point to different meanings or constructions); expert definers, assessing how the meaning is described; specialists compiling data on the typical spellings a word has shown through its history; etymologists, tracing how the word has been formed, where it has come from, and how it has been influenced by other languages; bibliographers, scrutinizing how examples are cited and dated and ensuring that the cited text is accurate – and this is before we take account of areas that typically impinge less on the Shakespeare’s World data, such as pronunciations, or definitions of scientific vocabulary. Coordinating all of this work involves an intricate sequence of inter-connected tasks, and inevitably takes time – particularly when your wordlist runs to over a quarter of a million words. That’s why some of the Shakespeare’s World material that will ultimately have a big impact on OED entries will get an enthusiastic “thank you” from OED editors but may not show up in the published dictionary text until it can be incorporated as part of a full revision of the dictionary entry where it belongs. This is probably going to prove the case with the discoveries about taffety tarts and farts of Portugal in two earlier posts: the entries for both taffeta and fart are due for full revision for the OED at some point in the not too far distant future, which will enable us to take full account of how this new information helps transform our understanding of the history of these words.

by Philip Durkin (@PhilipDurkin), Deputy Chief Editor, Oxford English Dictionary

Four Seasons in Shakespeare’s World…

Cross-posted on The Recipes Project with some slight differences.

One year ago the Early Modern Manuscripts Online project at the Folger Shakespeare Library partnered with Zooniverse to officially launch Shakespeare’s World, in association with the Oxford English Dictionary. What better way to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016, than to invite people into our manuscript collection so that we could learn together about the everyday experiences and scribblings of his contemporaries? For 12 months we have been puzzling through thousands of pages from recipe books and correspondence (in 2017, further images and genres will be added).

shaxworld-jpg5

Screen shot taken from Shakespeare’s World main site

 

On our first day we put out a world-wide welcome all call to join us in transcribing “handwritten documents by Shakespeare’s contemporaries and help us understand his life and times. Along the way you’ll find words that have yet to be recorded in the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary.”

We were thrilled by the response! Transcribers in Australia, Germany, The Netherlands, UK and USA, as well as elsewhere, promptly jumped on board. At one point, within hours of launching, 300 users were simultaneously transcribing. From that day forward the Shakespeare’s World community was formed.

The handwritten words in Shakespeare’s World manuscripts are far more intimate than what you might read on a printed page. Their immediacy – a letter or recipe written in haste, a letter accompanied by a couple of old ling, a cheese or fresh nectarines, a pewter box of mithridatum and angelica roots sent in the time of plague – is compelling. We hope transcribing on Shakespeare’s World transports our volunteers from the modern day and drops them directly into the midst of the early modern world, with all the noise and smells (good or bad) that this entailed. Through the recipes and letters we encounter busy lives communicating, cooking, negotiating, quarrelling, cajoling, healing, burning, itching, vomiting, scolding, bleeding and more.

The website itself follows an inductive learning sequence. It has a brief tutorial with sample alphabets to help users identify early modern letters. Users have the option to skip an image if the writing or subject matter is not to their taste. Shortcut buttons make it easy to expand abbreviations (wch / which; wth / with; yr / your).

Here is a snapshot of what you would have encountered, should you have decided to transcribe a letter at 4.05pm EST, December 8, 2016!

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Screen shot taken from Shakespeare’s World, 4.05pm eastern time, December 8th 2016

Here is whistle stop tour of our very full year, season by season!

Winter

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Folger MS V.b.232, folio 14 verso

Shakespeare’s World has a ‘Talk’ platform which hosts interaction between transcribers and the research team, supporting wide-ranging discussions about paleography and specific manuscripts on a daily basis. When users log their transcriptions, they can comment on the image by adding #hashtags. Winter is a time of baking and nesting so it came as no surprise to see that our first #recipes2try were comfort foods such as marmalade, damson plum tart and caraway buns.

Throughout the year Shakespeare’s World transcribers have kept their eyes peeled for potential new early modern words or meanings to add to the OED. They ping these to #PhilipDurkin on Talk using #OED. Winter was probably our busiest time for #OED finds, with a flurry of words highlighted. You can read all about the first forays into word questing on Philip’s February blog post here including the Talk musings over what exactly arePortugall farts“? (answer: a kind of macaroon).

Spring

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Folger MS V.b.232, folio 6 verso

Spring saw a turn to matters of husbandry with animal care figuring largely. Transcribers discussed and observed many tips on keeping one’s horses, sheep, hens and hogs healthy. How to color paper and how to lure an earwig out of your ear with a slice of warm apple, were other charming finds.

Summer

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Folger MS V.b.232, folio 10 verso

 

As well as #OED, another popular tag among our transcribers is #paper. Shakespeare’s World transcribers have been tagging paper and its use as a tool (such as to apply a salve to a wound, or in baking) after learning that Elaine Leong was researching the use of paper in medical and culinary recipes.

One of the liveliest discussions on Talk took place in summer, over a recipe in Margaret Baker’s receipt book for convulsion fits in children, which required a mountain elf’s foot. To read more on paper and the mystery ingredient ‘elf’s foot’, or anything else, please check out our Shakespeare’s World blogs  by some great guest authors!

Also catching volunteers’ eyes were birch twigs used as whisks, pomegranate pill (the rind) used to make ink, and powders for childbirth. Timely for summer was a sunburn remedy from the diaries of John Ward, vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon from 1662 to 1681. He recommends a concoction of honey, nettle seed and daffodil roots.

Fall/Autumn

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Folger MS V.b.232, folio 11 verso

Moving into September, we were delighted that our number of registered users continued to grow. As the days grew shorter and the leaves changed color, the Shakespeare’s World community rounded up our favorite booze recipes, and the Folger received some excellent volunteer amendments to our catalogue records.

So far over 2,500 people have registered to take part in Shakespeare’s World (we have many more unregistered contributors as well). Together, we have transcribed 91,000 lines on over 3,000 pages. Shakespeare’s World’s #OED work also continues apace. The findings of our volunteers are particularly valuable because although OED lexicographers have considerable access to early modern printed material, they don’t have the same access to manuscript sources. We look forward to these word findings being incorporated into the OED in due course.

Please join us at shakespearesworld.org, if you haven’t already done so! Not only will you love the conversations on Talk, but you will also be helping to transform thousands of digital images of early modern manuscripts into a readable and searchable corpus on EMMO.folger.edu (coming soon in beta). We can tell you from experience that transcribing on Shakespeare’s World is strangely and satisfyingly addictive, like peeking into someone’s mail and Moleskins from four centuries ago. Surprises and discoveries are to be found on every page!

A huge thank you to all of our resident ‘experts’ & to you our community of valued volunteers, citizen humanists, transcribers, volunpeers…whichever term you prefer. Some familiar names on Talk are the brilliant moderators @mutabilitie & @jules – & of course our fantastic volunpeers @parsan, @Greensleeves, @IntelVoid, @Christoferos, @kodemonkey, @Cuboctahedron, @cdorsett, @Tudorcook, @Traceydix, @kerebeth, @Dizzy78, @mmmvv1, @fromere @ebaldwin @Blaudud  -but this list is nowhere near comprehensive.

Whether you chime in on Talk, or transcribe anonymously, we couldn’t do it without you. All of us at the Shakespeare’s World team look forward to greeting you back here next year!

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Folger MS F.c.21, fol 1r

Follow us on twitter @ShaxWorld

 

 

ffor Heavens sak, whi wolde a pson euer spelle yt yt waye?

The title question above might be more recognizable as the following in a semi-diplomatic version:
ffor Heavens sak, whi wolde a person euer spelle yt that waye?
Or, in a modernized version: For Heaven’s sake, why would a person ever spell it that way?

If you spend any time reading (or trying to read) early modern manuscripts, you will quickly discover that it is best to forget much of what you have learned about modern spelling. The standard forms and rules for English in the twenty-first century—such as they are—do not apply! Most early modern writers saw no need to follow a strict orthography, and little in the way of such a thing existed in any case (a push for standardization came later). This pitfall feature of sixteenth and seventeenth century English manuscripts confounds many transcribers today, at least at first. Admittedly, the randomness of the spelling in these texts takes some getting used to, but a freedom of thought and language shows in the way words were put to paper in these manuscripts. This laissez-faire quality conveys a wonderful sense of the time as well as a certain beauty.

Aesthetics aside, the non-standardized spellings of words in these manuscripts may provide important nuggets of information for study. Along with identifying new word variants in the OED, tracking usage is useful for scholars in many ways as they research how language and thinking shifts over time, not to mention the idiosyncrasies of individual writers. A reflection of regional pronunciations is one factor to consider. For example, in the letter below, one can see the word “shute” on the ninth line as a form of “suit,” perhaps suggesting a dialect in play.

Image of letter: L.a.176

Folger MS L.a.176 (Letter in Bagot Family Papers)

Such spellings do present headaches, but a transcriber can often sound out a word from the letters she/he sees on the manuscript page. Of course, the letters should always be entered as they appear (with expansions for common abbreviations), but understanding the meaning of a word in a sentence is also important for the transcriber. Making your own modernized version, even if it’s only in your head, can help as you work through a page.

See this great discussion thread about the different values of original and modernized transcriptions on Talk. Sharing your transcriptions or modernized versions of them on Talk is often helpful to other transcribers (and yourself). It’s also an excellent way to get a discussion going and spark ideas.

Another key factor to keep in mind about early modern spelling is that a large number of new words were entering the English language during this period, either absorbed from other languages or simply created. Shakespeare is credited with generating several hundreds of neologisms in his works, and he spelled them as he pleased. Other well-known (or lesser-known) writers did the same. Their printed publications are the evidence. Those who study manuscripts wonder if at least some of the presumed neologisms identified in print had actually already appeared in manuscripts. As transcription work continues in Shakespeare’s World and elsewhere, answers to such questions may come to light.

Finally, people have asked me about finding patterns in early modern spelling to make things easier or speed up the transcribing process, and I have heard various theories put forward. Clearly, as one sees how a scribe forms particular letters—some hands are quite distinct—that knowledge aids subsequent identifications. However, I caution transcribers about putting too much confidence in a supposed pattern. Writers often do not spell the same word in the same way even on the same page. Again, the best rule is to limit assumptions and transcribe letters as you see them. Easy shortcuts for early modern spelling do not really work, but here are a few specific points to keep in mind if the spelling of a word is giving you trouble:

  • the “v” and “u” letters are often used almost interchangeably, but the “v” is more common at the start of words even where one might expect a “u,” e.g., “vp”
  • the “u” and the “n” letters look the same; as do some “e” and “d” letters; context is often the only way to figure out which is right
  • the letter that looks like a “y” is sometimes a thorn (for “th“) but other times a “y” that serves as a vowel like the modern “i,” e.g., “ys” (“is”)
  • what one might consider extra letters (e.g., an “e” at the end of a word) commonly appear, but letters we expect might also be missing (e.g., “mony” for “money”)
  • words often break in unexpected places, either at line breaks or within lines; again, context will help you figure out the meaning, but transcribe the words as they appear
  • remember to check for abbreviated forms on the interface and in the Shakespeare’s World Guide and to expand such words with the tags provided
  • ask for help on Talk if you’re stuck

Early modern spelling is a massive topic, and this post just scratches the surface. Look for more in future posts and continuing discussions on Talk.

by Paul Dingman @pding001

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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