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Literary manuscripts 2010: finding Arcadia in the gutter

by on October 12, 2010

Manuscripts of Sir Philip Sidney’s works provided the opportunity for Professor Henry Woudhuysen (University College London) to deliver a master class in techniques for the study of early modern manuscripts. These include the recognition (if not identification) of different hands in a manuscript; consideration of the binding date and style; archaeology of the manuscript taking note of the gatherings or quires; and identification of the paper stock from watermark evidence.

For MS. Bod. e. mus. [museao] 37, Professor Woudhuysen asked students to look into the gutter, where pages meet at the spine of the book, to find stitching in the centre of gatherings. He demonstrated the importance of understanding the quire structure (as shown in the attached document detailing the structure of signature ‘O’) for detecting missing pages.

This manuscript of Sidney’s Arcadia, with ‘Certain loose sonnets & songs’, was written in at least three different hands, but a tantalizing clue is left by the scribe who signed the last written page with a flourish and his initials.

Half of a watermark (the royal coat of arms) seen in MS. Jesus College 150, with the aid of a fibre-optic light sheet.

Seeking the origin of MS. Jesus College 150, also a manuscript of Arcadia, Professor Woudhuysen looked for evidence at the watermark of the paper. This displayed a royal coat of arms, suggesting that this paper was made by the firm of John Spilman of Dartford in Kent. Spilman gained a patent from Elizabeth I in 1589, enabling him to monopolize the manufacture of high-quality white paper in the 1590s and first decade of the 17th century, and make this for the first time a profitable industry in England. On the study and use of watermark evidence, Woudhuysen cited the authority of Allan H. Stevenson, whose article ‘Watermarks are twins’ is linked here.

While these methodologies of manuscript studies are necessary tools for the scholar, Woudhuysen argued that they should not replace, but supplement, textual analysis. Following a period of intense academic interest in the material forms of both manuscript and printed texts, in pursuit of a history of scribal and print culture (defining the field of History of the Book), Professor Woudhuysen predicted that we will see a return to textual criticism, with the aim of establishing the best text. Techniques helping to date the manuscript witnesses, or place them within a stemma of the text, will continue to be valuable in this scholarly work.

Thomas Churchyard, A sparke of frendship and warme goodwill, that shewest the effect of true affection and vnfoldes the finenesse of this world VVhereunto is ioined, the commoditie of sundrie sciences, the benefit that paper bringeth, with many rare matters rehearsed in the same ... (London, 1588)

Script and print
Many of the techniques demonstrated in the examination of these manuscripts could be applied to printed books of the same period. Just as scribes had their personal styles (and foibles), so did type compositors; watermark evidence can be found by the same means; the format, gatherings, and binding repay examination in determining the intentions behind the manufacture of any book, whether in manuscript or print.

A future for handwriting analysis?
The regularity of the taught ‘secretary’ handwriting was its virtue for the 16th-century reader, but operates against modern scholars who try to find distinctive personal handwriting styles. Digital photography has the potential to enable scholars to build up a visual databank of handwriting samples.

Reading list for this session: page 1page 2

The Literary Manuscripts masterclasses take place on Monday afternoons in Michaelmas term. See the Centre for the Study of the Book calendar for details.

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