Early modern paleography

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the third Otago Rare Book School in Dunedin. Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, taught a small, enthusiastic class of seven about the joys and challenges of early modern English paleography. She introduced us to the quirks of secretary hand, bestowing upon nearly every letter a memorable epithet: twin-stemmed R, right-angle C, butcher-hook H (my personal favorite). The E of the period took one of three forms: reverse, two-stroke and sigma, the latter of which looks like the Greek letter of the same name… and sometimes the secretary S. Paleography, it turns out, requires us to unlearn modern letters in addition to acquainting ourselves with the shapes of their predecessors.

Dr. Wolfe taught us to recognize comparatively easier to parse italic and Roman hands, and we tried our own hands at writing with goose quills and — filling this historian of chymistry with glee — iron gall ink made using a contemporary recipe. As a southpaw I wound up with streaks of ink on my hand, some messy-looking but recognizable letters on the paper and a huge smile on my face.

We transcribed a variety of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century documents: letters exchanged by would-be kissing cousins and their horrified families, inventories, diary entries recounting gruesome murders, carefully selected and sometimes oddly arranged quotes in commonplace books, snarky wills, petitions, depositions and, best of all, receipt books. For some reason the breadth of the Folger’s holdings came as a surprise to me; it’s not just Shakespeare, though we chuckled over a forged letter by the bard and delighted in the earliest known reference to the purchase of his first work. We looked up archaic and unfamiliar words regularly, discovering that “sowing [one's] wild oats” is a much older phrase than any of us had realized. On Friday, we learned that the letter one of our classmates chose to transcribe as his final project described “white lies” nearly two centuries prior to the OED’s first reference to the term. It was awe-inspiring and fun.

What did I choose to transcribe for that final day? A search for “alchemy” on Hamnet, the Folger’s online catalog, yielded a fully digitized, Creative Commons-licensed grimoire, v.b.26 (ca. 1577-83), in two volumes. The Folger acquired the first from a bookseller in 1958, but the latter only came to Dr. Wolfe’s attention a handful of years ago, when she serendipitously noticed it in a Sotheby’s auction. The earlier volume’s pagination begins at 15 and ends at 205; the second begins with 206 and features a prominent eye motif and diminishing ABRACADABRA spell. (The first fourteen pages remain missing.)


Book of magic, with instructions for invoking spirits, etc. (ca. 1577-1583), v.b.26 (2), p. 206 (blue ink), Digital Image File Name 42430, Folger Digital Image Collection. http://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/suom68

A cursory examination suggests that the text is fairly typical of early modern magical volumes in its diversity, incorporating familiar elements from works attributed to, for instance, Roger Bacon and King Solomon. It combines angelic invocations and astrological knowledge, religious writings and and ritualistic cures like the above-mentioned charm “ffor the totheache” on page 206. The main hand is a neat, regular secretary in black ink augmented by a red italic hand that has faded to a soft, warm brown. There are some exquisite, occasionally jaw-dropping drawings by that original compiler, but, according to the catalog notes, the more colorful flourishes were added during the nineteenth century by R.C. Smith, sometime owner of the grimoire.

I rather arbitrarily selected page 55 because it’s written mostly in English. You can see Smith’s hand below in the initial earth-and-primrose-colored decorative snake M cheerfully obliterating the symbol for Mercury, as well as the blue note midway down the page.


Book of magic, with instructions for invoking spirits, etc. (ca. 1577-1583), v.b.26 (1), p. 55 (blue ink), Digital Image File Name 42258, Folger Digital Image Collection. http://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/d38hv5

We employed a semi-diplomatic transcription style, copying the original text faithfully but expanding abbreviations for the sake of clarity and identifying those changes by italicizing, superscripting, etc., accordingly. My transcription of the opening section on Mercury is as follows. The word “comon” in the second line, for example, becomes “common” because the tilda above the word indicates that the missing second M should be added.

Mercurii in Hebrue Cocab./ & of them is called the Writer & fore speaker whose nature
in all Respectes is common & convertible, masculine with Masculine, & feminine with
feminine, hote with hote & cold with cold, moist with moist dry with drie, good fortune with fortune,
& best with a good aspecte or coniunction. He is of a swift motion perfourminge his course in .i.
whole yere, he governeth in mans bodye, the tonge memorie, cogitacion, handes, & thighes, he hath
the plurisye dominion over the plurisie, madnes melancholy fallinge sicknes, cough, Rewme, & the aboundance
of distillinge spittle, & generallie all thoughtes are subiect vnto him & he hath 2 Mansions [Gemini symbol]
.& [Scorpio symbol]./. if he be lorde of the Nativitie, he maketh the children stoute, wise & apte to learne, modest
seecrete & Eloquent, of persone smale Leane pale of visage smooth heared fayer eyed, hard & bonye
handed;/

With this page our scribe exhibits familiarity with the Key of Solomon, principles of astrology, their relationship to humoral theory, and the mid-to-late-sixteenth-century penchant for apocalypticism that strikes me as not so different from the hubbub we experienced this past December. (If Saturn is destroyed, watch out.) At the bottom of the page he lists seven semi-precious stones associated with a particular angel, Zepheraziel, and then goes on to provide “The names of 24 stones” and “24 notable good herbes.” Some are recognizable, like Calcedonis and Cardamomus, but others — Celomites and Carmaferula fall into this category — require additional research to identify. As a Gemini, I found myself examining my hands to determine whether they could be described as hard and bony. Maybe? Not sure I’m stout and eloquent, though.

It was an intense, thrilling, exhausting whirlwind of a week, and I flew home on Saturday excited to begin reading the Wellcome Library manuscripts that have been waiting so patiently on my hard drive, and contemplating a trip to the Folger later this year to explore their large collection of receipt books. I can’t wait. If you’re interested in early modern handwriting, you might like to check out some of the helpful websites below…

Paleography Resources

  • Scriptorium: Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Online — This Cambridge University-run site includes background on terminology and the practice of writing as well as a course with sixteenth- and seventeenth-century hands that have been graded by difficulty. After transcribing each document you can take a brief quiz.
  • Palaeography: Reading Old Handwriting, 1500-1800 — This practical tutorial from the National Archives includes background tips, information on numbers and measurements, and offers documents to practice upon.
  • Early Modern Palaeography — Run by David Postles of the University of Leicester, this site introduces you to the alphabet, various writing styles of the period and sample hands before testing your knowledge.
  • Scottish Handwriting — Run by the National Records of Scotland, this site focuses on Scottish manuscripts from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, offering interactive tutorials, a coaching manual and weekly “posers” to keep your memory sharp.
  • Inscribe — A new online paleography course.
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2 Responses to Early modern paleography

  1. diasporran says:

    Great to read that other people are intrigued by Early Modern handwriting. It’s certainly challenging – I am reading a lot of 17th century Scots documents for a research project.

  2. Distilling spittle! What fun this looks–like treasure hunting (and you found smaragdine and topaz gems, etc., after all.)

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