Archive | Uncategorized RSS for this section

The Newsy Baronet: how Richard Newdigate (per)used his newsletters

By Elisabeth Chaghafi (@mutabilitie on Talk)

Cross- posted on The Collation 

Large collections of books or manuscripts may be interesting for two reasons: the actual content of the items they contain, and also what they reveal about the collector who compiled them. The Folger’s Newdigate family collection of newsletters (Folger MS L.c.1-3950) is an excellent example of this. The inclusion of these newsletters in the Shakespeare’s World site has led to the transcription of a large portion of them, which in turn leads to a greater understanding of the collection as a whole. This collection is fascinating partly because of its sheer scale—well over 3,000 newsletters, most of them collected by Sir Richard Newdigate, 2nd baronet (1644-1710)—making it a fairly comprehensive archive of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century news. But the collection also contains quite a few clues about Newdigate himself and the ways in which he read and used his newsletters. Some of these traces of Newdigate’s news-reading habits (especially his underscorings) are easily overlooked. When the newsletters are studied in bulk, however, patterns emerge that allow modern readers to witness Newdigate’s strategies of gathering, comparing, and evaluating news from several manuscript and print sources.

Newdigate’s underscoring (Folger MS L.c.2589, 1r)

To begin by stating the obvious: the second baronet Newdigate was clearly a particularly avid reader of news—something of a news junkie, in fact. He subscribed to different newsletters that covered both domestic and international news, including the popular Dyer newsletters. Dyer was the most successful commercial provider of scribal news and had subscribers who lived as far away as Ireland.1 There appear to be no Dyer newsletters in the collection dated after the second baronet’s death, however, which may be an indication that his son (also called Richard Newdigate) did not entirely share his father’s news-obsession and allowed the subscription to lapse. In addition to the newsletters that now make up the collection, Newdigate subscribed to printed gazettes (several newsletters have traces of offsetting that show the gazettes were often sent in the same packet, although only one of them, L.c.2360 (2), survives as part of the collection).

The only surviving printed gazette in the Newdigate collection. (Folger MS L.c.2360 (2), 1r)

That Newdigate subscribed to multiple newsletters and gazettes might not be so very special, because the late 17th century was a news-hungry period, but Newdigate’s own annotations indicate that he not only used his newsletters and gazettes for his daily news fix but also carefully filed them away for future reference and sought to fill gaps in his collection in a quest for “completeness.” On L.c.420, for example, Newdigate wrote a note (later crossed out) that indicates the newsletter may at some point have been placed at the top of a box or bundle of newsletters: “News from Ian: 76/7 to Ian 77/8 but many wanting at first.” There are similar notes on several other letters, most of them in Newdigate’s handwriting.

The top of a year’s worth of news perhaps? (Folger MS L.c.420, 1r detail)

L.c.79 contains a list of “Gazetts wanting”—though all number are crossed out, so Newdigate may eventually have managed to get hold of them after all. In a few cases, Newdigate left a note on newsletters that had arrived without the gazette (which apparently cost an extra twopence), as on L.c.2352, which has a note that reads: “2d overchardg no Gazet in it.” He also endorsed some newsletters with their dates (and in some cases the type of newsletter, such as D. N for “Dyer Newsletter” in the endorsement of L.c.3155) and instructed a servant, who signed his initials “I. S.” or “I.Sc.”, to go over old bundles and double-check them for newsletters that were out of sequence or missing—two of his notes survive on L.c.1513 and L.c.14 (b).2

“few are wanting” from this bundle containing four years worth of news letters (Folger MS L.c.1513, 2v)

While Newdigate’s system for archiving his newsletters suggests they were important to him and he was keen to collect and preserve them, this did not necessarily make him any more scrupulous about keeping them in a pristine state than the average person. This collection contains the usual account notes, calculations, and drafts of leases and legal agreements that the recipients of early modern letters routinely used address leaves for—some of them in Newdigate’s own hand, while others are in the hand of a person who also docqueted newsletters in preparation for filing (perhaps his secretary). On one of the earlier newsletters, sent in 1674, (L.c.107), Newdigate went even further and covered the entire address leaf in a draft for a letter to an unnamed person, instructing him to do something about the appalling state of disrepair that several highways had fallen into, “so that no Coach nor horse man or woman could passe without much Danger and Difficulty.”3

Draft of a letter, written on the back of a newsletter (Folger MS L.c.107, 2v)

To one of the later newsletters (L.c.3156) he added the cryptic note “This they tore in the Nursery”—which makes slightly more sense if you bear in mind that the person who franked most of Newdigate’s non-Dyer newsletters from London (i.e. who exercised his privilege to send letters without postage, and thus saved Newdigate money), was an MP called William Stephens, who also happened to be his son-in-law. Thus, presumably the newsletter meant for Newdigate had accidentally been shredded by his own darling grandchildren, so he was forced to obtain another copy elsewhere!4 But Newdigate also occasionally used available space on newsletters to copy some poetry (Francis Quarles’ “My Sins are Like the haires upon my head” on the address leaf of L.c.192 and an elegy for the Earl of Rochester, who had died six months earlier, on L.c.1170), to make an—unsuccessful—attempt at turning his own name into an anagram, stumbling after “Grace and” (L.c.185) and memoranda to himself and others that had no obvious connection to the newsletters they were written on, such as a note to “Enquire for Mr Palmer Glover Leather seller at Mr Pelcoms a Milliner at the Golden Goat in Cheap side” (L.c.1329), or another one that shows Newdigate in pursuit of yet more sources of news in February 1695/6: “Mem let Iohn Merry enquire at Nuneaton ffor the News cald the Post boy & Flying post & borrow them at night. Sparrow may bring them up” (L.c.2589).

More news sources, more better, for Newdigate (Folger MS L.c.2589, 2v detail)

While we don’t know exactly who John Merry was, we do know that he was not the only person to keep Newdigate supplied with news. The newsletters contain references to a whole network of people whom Newdigate at some point employed to forward him newsletters, or sometimes copy them for him. For example, one newsletter in the collection (L.c.816) was originally addressed to a certain Ralph Hope in Warwick and subsequently redirected to Newdigate. This was not a one-off, however. The collection also contains a letter from Ralph Hope to a Mr Johnson (L.c.520) in which he outlines the reasons for a current dearth of news and refers to a gazette enclosed with the letter, suggesting Hope routinely acted as a news-agent. Additionally, the letter provides a clue that the note to Newdigate at the end of L.c.422, which is in the same handwriting, was also written by Ralph Hope—as were a number of the earlier newsletters in the collection, including, but not limited to L.c.230, which Newdigate endorsed “R. H Newes being a transcript of Sir Joseph Wiliamson.” Nevertheless, Newdigate was not always entirely happy with the service provided by Ralph Hope. One newsletter (L.c.114) contains several corrections in Newdigate’s hand (changing “Lord Vaughan” to “Arlington,” inserting words that the newswriter had apparently omitted and correcting “gagering” to “gathering”), followed by a reproachful note that reads: “Mr Hope Pray peruse this, & make sence of it if you can without the amendments above, & hereafter pray seal all the letters which you send to Your freind R N.” Ouch.

Newdigate, throwing shade (Folger MS L.c.114, 2r detail)

Richard Newdigate did not confine himself to adding snarky notes, memoranda, and bits of poetry to his newsletters, however. As his note to Ralph Hope indicates, Newdigate promptly amended errors. Thus he also corrected the date of L.c.10 (another one of Hope’s) from “ffeb the 2d” to “Ian: 31”; changed “yeild” to “yeilded” on L.c.2295; “the byeing” to “them by raising” on L.c.2386; “Buckingham shire” to “Bedford” on L.c.2584; and the misspelt place names “Torkey” and “Best” to “Turkey” and “Brest” respectively on L.c.2590.

Making an editor’s heart proud. (Folger MS L.c.2386, 1r detail)

Other notes reveal that Richard Newdigate was a critical reader of news as well as a pedantic one. In one case he questioned the newswriter’s ambiguous use of “here” in a news item, adding “qu. Where? at Vienna he meanes at London I suppose” (L.c.2352). At other times he responded skeptically to implausible stories, adding “qu very unlikely” to an unsupported report that a man was in the process of raising and clothing an entire regiment, all at his own expense (L.c.2575); sometimes he noted his intention to seek out more details about a story, as with a report involving a corrupt colonel in L.c.2427 (“Mem write Sir I K to know who is Corub Grubs Colonel & What becomes of this Affair”), or to find confirmation from an authoritative source. Next to a news item about the murder of a tax collector by an angry mob after a number of poor people had had their goods unlawfully seized because they were unable to pay their taxes (L.c.2585), Newdigate added the guarded comment: “This is very remarkeable, but I stay for a confirmation in the Gazet.” On a different occasion, however, when he was certain the newsletter was incorrect regarding Sir Nathan Wright’s appointment as knight of the shire for Warwickshire (L.c.2944) he did not hesitate to note his discontent and complain to the people responsible: “this a [sic] very great Untruth & so I have written the News writer Word RN.”

Top: Folger MS L.c.2944, 1r detail
Bottom: Folger MS L.c.2585, 1v detail

The letters also contain a large number of underlined passages and reader’s annotations in Newdigate’s handwriting that collectively reveal something about his reading habits as well as the kinds of news items that attracted his particular interest. One key interest that probably sounds familiar to a lot of modern news-readers was stories relating to crime: he underlined accounts of various murders and “self-murthers,” as well as robberies, assaults, and duels. For example, on a page from L.c.2375, Newdigate underlined and glossed “A Duell,” “An Assault,” “Duell.” He was also interested in news about lotteries and naval news, especially stories involving the capture or destruction of French ships, which he repeatedly glossed with notes such as “French losse” (e.g. on L.c.2289), “French prizes taken” or “French Misery” (L.c.2404), and he was keen to note instances of “French Treachery” (L.c.2377 and L.c.2589) or “Iacobite insolence” (L.c.2203 and L.c.2386).

“Jacobite insolence”—boisterous celebrations of James II’s birthday (Folger MS L.c.2386, 2r detail)

A few of the newsletters not only contain underscoring and brief annotations by Newdigate, but also a summary note on the address leaf that compiled all of the news items he had highlighted in one place. Examples of such notes can be found on L.c.2110 and L.c.2152, the latter of which begins with the exciting news that the Earl of Portland may have found a way of stopping his hiccup by “laying the entralls of Lamb to his stomach” (warm entrails, as Newdigate later amended, perhaps thinking that detail might turn out to be important).

A cure for hiccups? (Folger MS L.c.2152, 2v)

These summary notes suggest that Newdigate’s annotations and underlinings in the newsletters were not simply something he did habitually as part of the reading process, but that he actually wanted to preserve the most interesting pieces of information he had gleaned from the newsletters, so he would be able to refer to them again later. This can also be seen in L.c.2285, one of the most copiously underscored and annotated newsletters in the collection, dated 10 February 1693/4. The first page alone has four annotations by Newdigate (or five, depending on whether you consider “Englds Danger” part of the annotation on “French Insolence in H of Com” or not). What is striking about them is the peculiar way some of them are worded: “Baden Prince ill in Engld,” “Scot Dr dead this week,” and “Collonels New.” In all of these, as well as in “Highway men 3 seized” on the next page, Newdigate’s annotations are written in a format that brings the most important keywords to the front of the note, as you might in an index. L.c.2286, the next item in the collection is in fact a compilation of all the underlined bits of L.c.2285, with marginal glosses that are identical to Newdigate’s annotations (though “Englands Danger” has been dropped, perhaps because it was considered redundant).

Left: examples of Newdigate’s underlining (Folger MS L.c.2285, 1v)
Right: compiled list of note-worthy points (Folger MS L.c.2286, 1r)

While L.c.2286 is the only example of such a news digest in the Folger’s collection, and it is possible that Newdigate eventually abandoned the idea as too troublesome or not as useful as he had originally thought, the way in which Newdigate marked his newsletters after 1694 suggests that he continued to underline interesting passages with a view to later compilation. In L.c.2589, he labelled his annotations with alphabetical letters ranging from a-g, which only makes sense if he intended to write (or instruct someone else to write) an index or digest afterwards. On the second leaf of L.c.2379 (shown below) is a particularly good example of the style of annotation that gradually seems to have become Newdigate’s preferred format: a combination of underlining, numbering, and insertions that, when read in the correct sequence, became a lightly-condensed version of the news item in question. So for example, the second underlined news item on that particular page would have turned into “project by Doctor Chamberlaine to raise 2 Millions of money without burthening of the Subjects,” while in the last highlighted item on the page (continued along the margin), Newdigate’s version omits the gory detail of the two failed suicide attempts, arriving at just “Self Murther by a Stocking fframe knitter in Moore fields.”

Underlines and insertions (Folger MS L.c.2379, 2r)

Since this system of annotating would have required additional effort on Newdigate’s part, because he had to think about how to rephrase those news items and which words to insert as he was reading, it also only makes sense if either he or one of his servants at least intended to compile them into a news digest similar to L.c.2286 at a later point.

Collectively, Richard Newdigate’s many underlinings, annotations, and memoranda on his newsletters do two things. They provide a glimpse of the ways in which early modern readers in the late 17th and early 18th century obtained and consumed news as a commodity, and they also sketch out the picture of one particularly news-hungry individual: a newsy baronet who compiled and curated his own collection of news over the course of several decades. From his own notes, Newdigate emerges not only as an avid collector, but as a perceptive, critical reader who thought carefully about the news he consumed and preserved a healthy sense of skepticism even towards news he considered “remarkeable,” waiting for them to be confirmed through the gazette or through his private news network.

Elisabeth Chaghafi is based at Tübingen University. Her research mainly involves Edmund Spenser or book history (or both), but she also likes palaeography and moonlights as a researcher and moderator on Shakespeare’s World.

  1. On the address leaf of L.c.3395, the words “To Sr Richd Kenne” have been struck out, which points towards Sir Richard Kennedy, 4th baronet of Newtownmountkennedy (c. 1686-1710). Evidently Dyer’s list of subscribers was ordered by first name and the newswriter accidentally selected the wrong Sir Richard. For a detailed account of Dyer’s career see Alex Barber’s article “‘It is not easy what to say of our condition, much less to write it’: the continued importance of scribal news in the early 18th century.” Parliamentary History, v. 32, pt. 2 (2013), p. 293-316.
  2. “I. S.” may have been John Scott, whose name is written on the address leaf of L.c.1657. For other archiving methods see Heather Wolfe’s 2013 Collation post on Filing, seventeenth-century style.
  3. The letter is written on behalf of “my Master”—probably Newdigate’s father, the first baronet, who was still alive at the time. We can tell that this is the second Richard Newdigate’s handwriting, because it matches that of three signed letters in the Folger’s collection (), which he sent to his brother-in-law Sir Walter Bagot in 1676.
  4. The handwriting is less clearly identifiable as Newdigate’s than the other samples (although it looks similar to the somewhat shaky writing on L.c.2944), so an alternative explanation would be that the note was written by Stephens, who invoked the image of the newsletter being torn in the nursery by his children as a way of deflecting his father-in-law’s anger about the potential gap in his newsletter collection.

EMMO database update

By Victoria Van Hyning (Talk handle @vvh) & Sarah Powell (Talk handle @S_Powell)

In late October we sent an email to all registered volunteers about our progress on Shakespeare’s World, which included some information about how transcriptions get moved from the project interface into their longterm home, the Folger Shakespeare Library’s new Early Modern Manuscripts Online database (EMMO). This post is a recap for all volunteers who joined after that newsletter went out, and for those who aren’t registered Zooniverse users.

Over 5,000 pages have been fully transcribed by volunteers (thank you!) and we’ll be uploading more data to Shakespeare’s World soon. But the process of getting the crowdsourced transcriptions into EMMO is complex because of additional information that gets added to these transcriptions.

To date there are 15 letters (~50 pages) ready to browse, to which Shakespeare’s World transcribers have contributed, including: L.a. 625, X.c.50, L.a. 428, L.a. 400, L.a. 347, L.a. 914, L.a. 902, L.a. 2, L.a. 179, L.a. 115, X.c.15, L.a. 195, L.a. 594, and L.a. 561 (once you’re on EMMO you can alter the last few characters of the url to navigate to the appropriate page, for example deleting La625 and replacing it with La195). A further 23 items are under review and soon to be published, and many more are to follow.

EMMO provides three different kinds of transcription: ‘diplomatic’, transcribing exactly what’s there and representing the physical features of the text as much as possible; ‘semidiplomatic’, expanding special characters and rendering implied letters visible using italics, etc.; and ‘regularized’, making a more readable version by altering spelling and punctuation, lowering superscripts etc. For example, the same line in L.a. 2: ‘Letter from Ralph Adderley to Sir Nicholas Bagnall, Ireland, 1567 April 10’ is rendered as follows:

Diplomatic: ‘hitt wold be a good chastesmt vnto hym  ^neu{er}thelesse his gou{er}nemt I do Referre’

Semi-Diplomatic: ‘hitt wold be a good chastesment vnto hym  ^neuerthelesse his gouernement I do Referre’

Regularized: ‘it would be a good chastisement unto him  nevertheless his government I do Refer’

When we transcribe on Shakespeare’s World we want to capture as much information as we can see on a page, for example transcribing spelling and punctuation exactly as it appears, without modernization, and using the ‘insertion’ and ‘deletion’ buttons to capture text inserted over the line or that has been deleted, respectively. We use the keyboard buttons to capture common brevigraphs such as ye, which will appear as ‘ye‘ in the diplomatic version, but be expanded as ‘the’ in the regularized version of the text. This process of altering the base text created by volunteers means that Folger staff who work on EMMO, including Sarah (@S_Powell over on Talk), necessarily check the base transcription against the original manuscript image.

In addition to the three kinds of transcription, the EMMO team also creates an xml markup document for each manuscript, which essentially reveals the logic underpinning these transcriptions, and contains extensive metadata about each object. The site aims to offer a long-term home for the Folger manuscripts that we transcribe on Shakespeare’s World, and a comprehensive, fully searchable series of transcriptions that will make them discoverable online. It’s a long process, but we hope to gain speed in the coming year, and start to transfer more and more transcriptions onto EMMO. While crowdsourcing certainly speeds up the rate at which the base transcriptions are produced, there is still a lot of work to be done to publish the final versions. Once again, a big thank you to everyone who makes Shakespeare’s World and EMMO a reality.

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.

The poison pool

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.

The hair shirt of Sir Thomas More #catholic

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.

2017-07-20 15.13.30

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.

2017-07-21 14.33.04

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.

2017-07-21 14.32.33

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)

Transcription aggregation update

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

____________ was here

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?


“Your very louing frend” – early modern sign-offs

By @mutabilitie

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):
Screen Shot 2017-02-14 at 14.38.14.png
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.



Histories of sustainability have typically situated the origins of our current environmental crises at the advent of industrialism, as if locating a moment in time when things were otherwise might help to remediate our current ecological crises derived from human-induced forms of destruction: air pollution, deforestation, and others. All of these histories, that is, and for obvious and very good reasons, take as their concern large-scale practices especially rooted in moments of rupture when human practices overreach.

I propose here that we might more usefully approach sustainability, however, by taking a step back, moving from the global to the local, as they say, to focus instead on smaller-scale practices, or “micro-practices” that inform what Rosi Braidotti describes as “sustainable becoming,” or “the ethical state of becoming [that] practices a humble kind of hope, rooted in the ordinary micro-practices of everyday life” (Transpositions. Maiden: Polity, 2006: 137).

Early modern receipt books express and enact the very principles of sustainability that our histories attempt to recuperate, the “micro-practices” of the everyday; their details recount an embeddedness of human and nonhuman things, the sort of mutual dependence that sustainability initiatives today aim to recuperate and reproduce. The creation and efficacy of the recipes we find in these books depend not on discrete human/nonhuman entities but instead on the intimate “micro-practices” that constitute human/nonhuman collaborations, as we see in a recipe from the Lady Frances Catchmay book, “A very good medicen for eyes that be trobled wth a pinne and web be or with any other dymnes” (12r):

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 11.32.39 AM

“A booke of medicens” (1625), Lady Frances Catchmay, Wellcome MS 184a, f.12r

Take the oyle of a new layd egge or two, beate and clappe it well till it come to afrothe, then let it stande for a little while, and let the oyle rune into a saucer, and put the juce of daysies, with the blossomes, leaves and rootes, beinge stamped and strained into the oyle of the egges, put alittle clarified honey to it and mixt all thes together well, and let the patient take every eveninge and morninge into his eye that is greaved adroppe put in with a fether, let this be used so longe as he hathe payne.


The person preparing the remedy uses a “new layd egge or two,” which means that the cure depends on the immediacy of time, participation (at least tacit) by the chickens who produce said egg/s, human movement across ground, into henhouse to gather it. And how “new” is a “new layd egg”? Is it still warm? Can it be several hours or even days old? To know what constitutes “new layd” to prepare the medicine requires the housewife (in all likelihood) to have such intimate knowledge of egg and chicken—touching the warmth of the egg newly delivered, observing the point at which eggs go bad and are no longer fresh enough for the cure; the egg “beate[n]” and “clappe[d]” incorporate egg matter, mixing bowl, and human energy to create the new substance the resulting “frothe.” And to “put the juce of daysies, with the blossomes, leaves and rootes, beinge stamped and strained into the oyle of the egges” not only synthesizes said egg-bowl-human mingling with plant matter, but it depends on the recent human harvest of daisies, which requires human form to cross household threshold into adjoining environs (immediate or further afield) to pick fresh daisies so that they might still have juice to be strained. And again, as human feet traverse the dirt- or gravel-covered pathways outside, sights and sounds of nonhuman activity penetrate human bodily boundaries—a wooden stamper encircled by human hands “stampe[s] and straine[s]” the various parts of the daisies, daisy juice (roots, leaves, and all) mingles with frothy oil of egg mixture.

This recipe illustrates how humans and nonhumans are bound to one another in yet other ways too. The clarified honey added to the plant-egg froth recalls multiple forms of the interdependency of bee and human labor: bees gather pollen, some wild-growing and some perhaps human-cultivated, which combines with the enzymes in their saliva to activate the substance we know as honey; the honey, probably extracted from a hive (or skep, perhaps itself made of plant material) built by humans, becomes the golden, sticky substance by way of its production and storage in combs; it is then harvested and “clarified,” which would have involved separating the liquid honey from the wax and residual pollen. And after mixing yet again, the resulting concoction is “put in” the patient’s “greaved” eyes (morning and evening) “with a feather,” such that human and nonhuman animals and plants intra-act to perform the cure.

Rather than focusing on geologic indicators of fissure between humans and nonhumans or destructive large-scale practices that seem to precipitate them, we might turn our attention to alternative narratives, alternative subjects. A focus on the “micro-practices” in receipt books illustrate intimate human-nonhuman relationships in the past that challenge dominant histories of sustainability; after all, household cookery and medicine was, even if driven by necessity more than a romantic sensibility, sustainable all along.




Shakespeare’s World, meet Shakespeare Documented

You may have noticed by now that there are a dearth of manuscripts by or about Shakespeare among the thousands of images in Shakespeare’s World. As far as we know, he does not make an appearance in any of the thousands of recipes or letters currently available for transcription (but please prove us wrong!). One letter to Shakespeare does in fact survive, from Richard Quiney in 1598, but the letter is at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and therefore does not appear in Shakespeare’s World.

That will change when we add the genres “miscellanies” (blank books filled with poems, notes, copies of letters, and just about anything worth writing down) and “commonplace books” (blank books with extracts arranged by theme or category) to the site later this year. If you are a close reader of the Bard, you will likely encounter extracts from Shakespeare’s plays and poems, copies of William Basse’s elegy on Shakespeare, and perhaps passages that scholars at the Folger Shakespeare Library have not yet discovered. It will be exciting for Shakespeare enthusiasts to be able to read these references and allusions in the context of the manuscript volumes in which they appear, and to think further about how early modern readers digested their Shakespeare.

Until then, you can get your fill of Shakespeare at Shakespeare Documented, an online exhibition convened by the Folger Shakespeare Library, with contributions by over thirty institutions. Also, many of the actual manuscripts related to the famous literary figure are on display in the current exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Great Hall: Shakespeare, Life of an Icon.

Home page for Shakespeare Documented, one stop shopping for all surviving manuscripts and printed works relating to Shakespeare, his family, and his works.

Home page for Shakespeare Documented (, one-stop shopping for all surviving contemporary manuscripts and printed works relating to Shakespeare, his family, and his works.

Shakespeare Documented includes high-resolution images, descriptions, metadata, and in many cases, transcriptions, of approximately 500 references to William Shakespeare and his family in their lifetimes, as well as editions of, and references and allusions to, Shakespeare’s works, in his lifetime and in the years following his death in 1616. If we discover anything Shakespeare-related in Shakespeare’s World, we would be thrilled to add it to Shakespeare Documented, and are eager to see this new resource grow and evolve!

%d bloggers like this: