On blank pages of manuscript letters

Just over a week ago, the excellent Sarah Werner blogged about blank pages in early modern printed books. She starts with blank type and moves on to the way in which blank pages are represented in digitised resources without actually being reproduced (cf. “This page intentionally left blank”). It’s a great post and you should go read it now if you haven’t already.

Her blog post made me think about blank pages in early modern manuscripts. Like blank pages in printed books, they too can be surprisingly interesting. Here are some ways in which blank – and “blank” – manuscript pages can be worth a closer look.

(Note: I mostly work with letters, and have spent most of my time digging around in the British State Papers, and what I have to say here is coloured by the materials I am familiar with. Some of what follows may not hold for the manuscripts you work on.)

“Blank” manuscript pages

When is a blank page actually blank? People appear to have greatly varying criteria for blankness, if we take that to mean ‘a page not worth noting’. For instance, manuscripts in archives are often foliated rather than paginated, but sometimes only pages with text on them are deemed worthy of folio numbers. I’ve blogged about this as it applies to the Cecil Papers so I won’t repeat myself here – in short, empty pages are not always foliated, which makes the boundary between foliation and item numbers fuzzy, and can make citing a ‘blank’ page surprisingly tricky.

Most of the letters in the British state papers of the early 1600s are written on bifoliums – sheets of paper folded in two, pretty much the same size as an A3 sheet folded over to form four A4-sized pages. Here’s an example, a letter from Sir Charles Cornwallis, the English ambassador to Spain, to Sir Robert Cecil in London, dated 10 September 1605 (TNA SP 94/12 ff. 28-29; images from State Papers Online, 1509–1714 [SPOL]):

Very typically, letters in the state papers have text only on the first page, and leave the  inside of the bifolium blank (pages 2–3, if you like). But even from these tiny images you can see that p. 3 isn’t entirely blank, as in the top right corner there are some numbers: the TNA foliation stamp (“29”), above which is a much older page number (“913”). This page, then, was blank when the letter was sent; when the papers were filed at some point in the 17th century, a page number was added; and when the papers were bound at TNA two centuries later, a folio number was stamped next to it.

The next document presents a more complex case: this is a letter from Richard Cocks to Thomas Wilson, dated 25 March 1603 (TNA SP 94/11 ff. 20–21; SPOL):

Here, the text of the letter continues onto page 2. The following page looks blank at first, until you notice jottings on it; and the verso (p. 4) is half covered with writing. Here are pages 3–4 in larger size (click for even bigger versions):

In the top right corner of p. 3 there’s the foliation stamp again. But scattered across the page are half a sentence and what looks like calculations of something. These are in the hand of the recipient, so it looks like Wilson at some point used this blank page as scrap paper. And this is also what he did with p. 4 – even though that was not blank, as it has the superscription on it:

  • Red rectangle = superscription by sender (address panel)
  • Small blue rectangle = endorsement by the recipient (just the year, “1603”)
  • Large blue rectangle = blank space used as scrap paper by the recipient (about leasing a house)
  • Pink rectangle = pencilled note by archivist (the date, “1604/5 Mar 15/25”) [the year is wrong because Cocks misdated the letter]

Now here’s the thing: very commonly, these two pages would be described as ‘blank’, and even reproduced as such. Editions of letters rarely mention endorsements, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that notes, describes, never mind reproduces scribblings such as those that Wilson has written on this letter. Some editions even omit superscriptions. I’ve also never seen an edition note the presence of earlier pagination and foliation numbering – although the newest one (or the conventional reference) tends to be retained in the archival reference.

In other words, not only do we have layers of ‘blankness’ in the material record of the manuscript itself, but these get variably erased by editors (and other users) of the manuscripts.

At this point, it’s more than fair to ask that critical question: So what? Are Wilson’s scribblings here worth reproducing in an edition? Do you really need to pay attention to ancient page numbers that no longer apply? Well, for the most part, of course not. But speaking as an editor, I believe there’s a big difference between completely ignoring all non-authorial (or non-scribal) marks on a manuscript and thus giving the impression that a page is ‘blank’, and simply noting their presence in the apparatus or introduction. In the case of endorsements by recipients, however, I feel that these are an intimate part of the synchronic life of an early modern letter, and that they should be reproduced in editions.

Why would you look at a blank page?

There are two reasons why you would pay close attention to a ‘blank’ manuscript page:

  1. It can tell you more about the text on the other side of the page; and
  2. It can tell you more about the entire manuscript.

Most of the state papers have been bound into volumes, and damaged manuscripts have been fixed with supporting material. For instance, it’s very common for the inside of a foxed, badgered or wolverined bifolium to be completely covered with a supporting sheet of paper (a blank sheet thus covering blank pages!). Most of the supports occur along the spine of a manuscript – partly as that part of a letter faces much natural wear & tear, and partly because that’s the part that needs to be made strong enough for the manuscript to be bound into a volume. Often, such pasted supports cover parts of the text on the manuscript. We already saw one case, where the pasted paper in fact covers a part of the archival endorsement – here’s a close-up (SP 94/11 f. 21v; SPOL):

By the by, this also reveals that these papers were first “reduced into order” (as Thomas Wilson put it earlier) before being restored/cleaned up and finally bound into volumes at TNA.

Here’s another example, not quite of a blank leaf, but a mostly blank recto, and the verso covered in a protective sheet. This is another letter from Cocks to Wilson, dated 26 September 1606 (SP 94 13 ff. 99r–v (from ff. 97-99); SPOL):

If you look at the superscription closely, you can see that some of the text appears to be covered by the protective sheet:

For instance, the final <e> in bridge, the last word of the third line. But something bigger is missing: this address doesn’t appear to contain the name of the city, i.e. London. But if we look at the recto of the leaf, f. 99r, we can make out its presence on the other side (reversed close-up):

About two lines below vjd and a bit to the right, you can just make out the end of a word: -don.

The easy way to make text hidden like this visible is to use a backlight. And indeed, hey presto, just lifting the leaf up and taking a photo against the light reveals the missing word: London (photo by me):

Another feature of paper manuscripts that are usually for the most part hidden, but which are revealed quite clearly when the paper is backlit, are watermarks. These can help you with the provenance of the paper (although this is one huge, muddy field so be warned if you think of foraying into proper paper history). Here’s one example from another letter from Cocks to Wilson, this one dated 21 June 1603 (SP 94/9 f. 36r (ff. 35-36); photos by me):

The watermark is barely visible without a backlight:

With a picture of the watermark in hand, you can then go browse Briquet and hope for the best.

Finally, there are the folds. — And not only folds, but also holes, slits, cuts and tears, and also soiling, water stains, damage, etc. Virtually every blank manuscript page contains information about the material treatment of the manuscript. This is most salient in the case of letters, which by definition were folded into packets and sent to addressees, but it also applies to other kinds of documents. Papers were filed by, for instance, being punctured and stored on files (strings); by being folded into long narrow shapes and tied into bundles; or by being bound into volumes. All filing methods leave a more or less permanent mark on the filed papers, which are there for the reading if you know what to look for (these include filing punctures repaired by archivists!).

For instance, if we look back at the first two letters above, even in the small images you can see three fairly strong horizontal lines crossing the pages: that is, the paper has been folded twice in two. But whereas for the second letter, this is a part of the letterlocking – that is to say, it was folded that way as part of how it was secured for sending – in the case of the first letter, you can see in the fourth image that the middle fold goes right through the superscription (address panel). This is not something that a letter-writer would do – especially not when, like here, it is the case of an ambassador writing to the Principal Secretary of State! – and not only because the result creates an ugly crease right through the ‘face’ of the letter packet. Instead, the letter was folded that way by the recipients upon filing it for storage. If you look at the bottom right corner of the fourth image, you can see a few lines of text that fit between the edge of the paper and the third horizontal fold: this is an endorsement written by the recipient: first, they folded the letter into a long packet; then they endorsed it with a summary of its contents (“10 Septembr 1605 | Sr Charles Cornwalleys | to my Lord | by his sonne Sr Wm. | rec’. 4. Octob. | concerning his revolted Chaplaine.”). In other words, then, i) the folds reveal they were made after the sending of the letter, and ii) the endorsement reveals there is a connection (likely a causal one) between the recipient and the folds.

But to return to blanks: these examples are probably typical cases, where such material details and the surviving texts work together to reveal more about the contents and the contexts of the manuscripts. But sometimes, there is little or no text to work with, and all you have is a blank page or leaf – but if the page has been folded in a certain way, or punctured or cut in a certain way, then it is possible to infer more about the manuscript based on such information.

This page intentionally not photographed (because it’s ‘blank’)

I think that it will be clear to anyone who has read this far what my opinion is regarding taking photographs of early modern manuscripts. Regardless of whether the pictures are being taken for a large or small online resource, commercial or not, or by an individual researcher, you should always photograph the blank pages too.

I learned this the hard way: the manuscripts I work on are held in repositories in England. I live in Finland. This means that my primary method of working on the manuscripts has been to fly over, visit a repository, take a thousand photographs of manuscripts, and only to work on them once I’ve flown home. The only bit of work I do on the images while in England or on my trip (usually on the flight home), is to organize and rename all the photographs I took. (Pro tip: name all your images accurately, and do it immediately. You’ll forget, and then where are we. I name by archival reference, but design a system that works for you.)

Over many years of visiting TNA, I’ve found that unless I pay assiduous attention to the number and quality of the photographs I take, I will need to return to take new, better photographs of the same manuscripts. You might think that this isn’t a particularly difficult lesson to learn, but there are at least five letters that I’ve taken photos of on four different visits. I think the first time I returned to TNA to take more photos of manuscripts I’d already seen, most of my new shots were of their ‘blank’ pages. Once I’d started to seriously work on the letters, I found that these pages were not at all devoid of interest.

I’ll conclude by returning to the point I started with – when does a page not merit notice? Just as ‘blank’ pages may remain unfoliated, in many collections of manuscript surrogates such pages have not been photographed. At least this is the case for microfilmed manuscripts, which often simply skip ‘blank’ pages. This creates problems for those of us interested in material aspects of letter-writing and the material manifestations of social relationships. For instance, material respect dictated that it was more polite and proper to send a bifolium but only write on the first page. Since in many microfilms the middle pages have not been photographed, it can often be difficult to tell from the microfilm images whether the surviving manuscript is a single leaf or a bifolium. Sometimes you can reconstruct the presence of unphotographed pages from the microfilm images, but this is not always possible.

In the case of the Cornwallis-Bacon papers (Essex RO D/DBy C11–27), even the blank pages have been foliated, but they were not photographed for the microfilm. Here is a letter from Nathaniel Bacon to his wife, Lady Jane Cornwallis, written in 1623 (D/DBy C15 ff. 104r & 105v (ff. 104-105)):

Although the microfilm contains only these two images of this letter, we can tell the manuscript is a bifolium because of the very clear tear on f. 105v (the paper was torn when the letter was opened). This is not present on f. 104r, the page with the text – although there is a shadow in the microfilm photo at that point.

Mind the blanks!

Notes from the plague years 1603, 1605 & 1607

Early modern letters contain frequent mentions to illness and contagious diseases. Four hundred years ago, the plague was a recurring, er, pestilence. When it hit London, those who were able to do so left the city for the relative safety of the countryside. Such temporary evacuees included Shakespeare’s acting company – but also most of the nobility, and the royal court.

The current coronavirus pandemic is making me think of references to the plague in letters that I’ve edited written by English merchant Richard Cocks (1566-1624). In the early 1600s, Cocks lived in Bayonne in southern France, near the Spanish border. For some five-six years, he was involved with Sir Robert Cecil’s intelligence and correspondence network, forwarding packets of letters from the English ambassador in Spain to London, and also writing letters to erstwhile intelligencer and Cecil’s secretary, Thomas Wilson (1565-1629). Wilson later became Keeper of State Papers at Whitehall, and much of his own papers ended up in the British State Papers. Among them are about 100 letters from Cocks to Wilson, now mostly held at TNA among the State Papers Foreign, France (SP 94).

Cocks writes about the plague in nine letters to Wilson from 1603–1607. Almost all of the mentions have something to do with the practicalities of sending letters between Bayonne and London.

The earliest mention is from late 1603:

I haue writton yow dyvers others sence I receved any answer of the Recept of them wch I doe attribute to the Sicknes in the Cyttie of London : wch hath Caused yow to retyre yor Selfe into the Cuntrey / […] / I beseek god of his mercy to Cease the sicknes in London. (27 October 1603, SP 94/9 ff. 79-80)

In 1603, the plague reached London in March, but the disease took until June to start claiming dozens of lives weekly. By the end of July, over a thousand people a week were dying of the plague; the peak was reached in early September (3,037 deaths from the plague), after which the numbers slowly decreased, although the pestilence was still very much present in December. (Source)

Such disturbances of normality of course affected all activities, including the carriage of mail. Cocks’s next mentions of the plague date from 1605, and all have to do with the disease playing havoc in Bordeaux.

Alsoe it is said the sicknes is very hotte at Bourdeaulx soe that non wch com from thence may be suffered to enter into this towne of Bayon / (14 July 1605, CP 111/119)

it is said that the sicknes is very hott in Bourdeaulx / (25 July 1605, SP 94/11 ff. 176-177)

The plague had hit Bordeaux in 1604 and lingered until 1606; to cope, the city even established le bureau de la santé. Although the epidemic of 1629–1630 was much greater, even in 1605 much of the city was quarantined and the gates strictly guarded (source). To prevent or at least to obstruct the spreading of the pestilence, other cities also guarded their gates with equal vigilance – cities like Bayonne, as Cocks reported in the fall:

I am sorry that they of Bayon had soe small respect of Ser wm. Cornwallis for they would not suffer hym to pas thorow the towne wthout makinge any stay at all soe that he was forsed to goe downe allmost to the barr of Bayon and soe to passe alonge the sand hills wch was the occation that he could not aryve at StJnodeluz vntill wthin night, soe that yf it had not byn his Chanse to haue met wth me he would haue byn but badly lodged / the occation they would not let hym pas thorow Bayon is for that he came by Bourdeaulx in wch place the plage is very hott, & as it is said doth increse eavery day / soe that heare is very strickt ward kept that non may enter into the towne that cometh from those parts . nether haue parmition of 40 dayes after they present ther request allthough it weare a presedent of Bourdeaulx / (31 August 1605, SP 94/11 ff. 232-233)

Sir William Cornwallis was the son of the English ambassador to Spain, Sir Charles Cornwallis, and was making his way down to Spain over land. Cocks met him by chance in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a small town down the coast from Bayonne, very close to the Spanish border. Note how the quarantine he mentions is indeed 40 days!

As before, the plague made the carriage of mail even more precarious than it already was:

I know not what else to writ yow. but yf any matter of Emportance be offered yow shall heare from me by the first, but yow must not mar{vel} yf it be not soe often as yow exspect, for passedg per Sea is not every day at pleasure / & that wch is a great hinderance is the sicknes at Bourdeaulx for now it is soe hott . that ther is noe conveance of lettrs per that way / nether per consequence per Rochell /. (7 September 1605, CP 112/60)

yf yow haue not receved soe many letters from me as yow haue expected, truly the falt is not in me for I haue not wanted to writ per all conveances / but the way of france is now soe dangerose, that I haue noe mynde to meddell that way . & the rather because of the Sicknes in bourdeaulx . wch is more hote then ever / & yow. know that conveances per Sea are somtyms quick & somtyms longe / (2 November 1605, SP 94/12 ff. 92-93)

Bordeaux was of course an important stage on the post routes, and its closure effectively cut off overland conveyance of mail. At the same time, Cocks in many letters is careful to note how, plague or no plague, conveyance over sea is always uncertain.

By late 1605, the plague had spread to Spain – where it met a tabardillo, a type of typhus, coming the other way:

And it is generally reported heare . that the plage is in Bilbo . Allaredo & those parts of Spaine / and that the Tabardillõ is very hott at valladolid / soe that heare is such strickt lookinge vnto passingers from what part soever the com / that the may not be Suffered to enter into the towne /. and to say the trewth they haue reason , for yf the sicknes should once enter into the towne , it would quyt vndon them / (23 & 25 October 1605, SP 94/12 ff. 84-85)

The next time Cocks mentions the plague are from 1607. Once again, the disease has hit Bordeaux; once again, it is “very hott”. And once again, isolation, border control and quarantine are the methods used to try to control the situation:

Alsoe it is said that the sicknes abegyneth very hott at bourdeaulx /. & amongst the rest a monestary infected & shut vp / soe now the post is remoued downe to the Nunrye at St barnardes . & gardes set that non wch com from bourdeaulx may pase thorow this towne, it is said alsoe that the sicknes is in other places in france / soe it is proclemed by Sownde of Trompet that noe fayre shalbe kept in this place this yeare / (7 August 1607, SP 94/14 ff. 97-98)

But at present the Sicknes is soe hott at bourdeaulx . that noe man that Cometh from those partes may be Suffered to enter into this towne / for as it is said ther weare now of Late aboue 100 howses enfected & shut vp in the Space of one wicke / (20 August 1607, SP 94/14 ff. 109-111 & 113)

This time, Cocks also mentions proclamations made to the “Sownde of Trompet” cancelling any fairs scheduled for the rest of the year. Apart from the trumpets, this sounds very familiar today, as increasingly the corona virus is driving authorities to both cancel mass events, and close places of gathering.

Until, that is, the heat dissipates, and the epidemic passes.

A g[h]ost story

Once upon a time in a faraway land – or to be exact, some 550 years ago in England, a non-native English-speaker from Flanders who was a compositor or typesetter for the printer William Caxton, decided to add the letter <h> into the word ghost. Or so the story goes, as per e.g. and i.a., the OED1:

In English, the usual spelling in the late 15th century was gost; the compositor was probably following the spelling of Flemish gheest. You still see this spelling convention in various European languages (other than English), in which a consonant can be either ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ depending on the following vowel. Usually, in these cases, the consonant becomes ‘soft’ or palatalized before front vowels (i, y, e, æ), and remains ‘hard’ before back vowels (u, o, a). For instance, Italian caffè /kaffe/ ‘coffee’, but cinque /tʃiŋkwe/ ‘five’. When the other sound is desired – /ki/ instead of /tʃi/ – an <h> is added: chiave /kjave/ ‘key’.

So it makes sense for Flemish to have inserted an <h> after <g> for a hard /g/ sound in gheest, preventing it from being read something like /ji:st/ (forgive my lack of Flemish). …but it makes No Sense for that <h> to be inserted before the back vowel <o> in English gost!

Well, finding the source of that <h> is beyond this short blog post, but I wanted to see if I could have a look at what was going on in the spellings of GHOST in 15th- and 16th-century English.

According to the OED (NB this is the first edition of 1899: I’m sure they already have much updated information, although the entry itself has yet to be updated), the <gh>-spelling “remained rare until the middle of the 16th cent., and was not completely established before about 1590”. If we have a look in EEBO, using the ever-wonderful EEBO-TCP N-gram Browser, we see that the printed record agrees with the second part of this interpretation, but rather than being rare, the <gh>-spelling dominates over the simple <g>.

This is, of course, just the printed record; previous readers of this blog will know that my next question is: what about in manuscript texts? So I looked in the CEEC (Corpus of Early English Correspondence). Unfortunately, GHOST is a fairly rare word, and I found only 68 instances in the entire corpus of 5.2m words. But although the numbers are small, they do appear to tell the received story: gost hangs in there during the 16th century, but by the end of the century, ghost is the winner.

But I also found a few instances of goost – so without an <h>, but with a doubled <o>. In the 16th century CEEC data, it isn’t a contest between <g> and <gh>, but a three-way battle.

This prompted me to go back to EEBO to have another look. And whadda you know:

If we add the <go> numbers to those of <g>, <gh> doesn’t take the lead until the 1550s.

I wanted to have a better look at what happens in the manuscript record, particularly in the 1500s, but as far as I can tell, there isn’t really any suitable corpus out there. After dipping into various sources I’ve used before (like ETED: nil hits), I found two (semi-)diplomatic editions of wills on the ever-wonderful British History Online: Lincoln Wills (Lincoln Record Society vols 5, 10 & 24), and London Consistory Court Wills, 1492-1547 (London Record Society vol 2). Lincoln wills end in 1532, and London wills in 1547, but together they cover nearly half the century where the main action seems to be. The total number of hits is 64, so relatively many more than in CEEC – undoubtedly due to the text type (more of this below).

This looks remarkably like the results for CEEC, except <gh> appears but once.

Obviously, a word like GHOST strongly correlates with text type. Sadly, in Early Modern English this doesn’t mean ghost stories! 37 of the 68 hits in CEEC are for the Holy Ghost; and many if not most of the adjectival uses are to ‘my ghostly father’, meaning spiritual father, and thus chaplain or confessor. In wills, these two concepts of course occur quite frequently, explaining the presence of GHOST.

How does this g[h]ost story end? With the revelation that the killer is known to be <gh>, but there are two bodies instead of just one, as <g> was joined in its long struggle for life by <go>.

…but is there a ghost in this story? I’d say it’s the <h> in ghost – doomed to curse learners of English spelling to remember its presence without a sensible rule allowing them to anticipate it. And it’s far from the only ghost in English orthography…

What were English East India Company merchants drinking in Japan?

A note on terminology, and an addendum (and correction) to my PhD thesis

1. How did I miss that?

Doing research, it’s easy to find yourself going down rabbit holes, chasing answers that seem to always elude your grasp. You do your best, but still have to resign yourself to unsatisfactory results.

In my case, my PhD thesis consisted of lexical studies – mostly of words borrowed from various languages into English, as found in the letters of English East India Company merchants residing in Japan and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, in the early 1600s. For two of the words – out of about 120 – I had to concede defeat in pinpointing their exact sources. I knew what they meant, as that was very clear from the context: it was just their etymology which I was unable to pinpoint.

Fast-forward about 16 months from finishing the corrections to my PhD. I was revisiting my list of borrowed words for a talk (that I gave to the Helsinki Society for Historical Lexicography), when I stumbled upon a source which immediately gave me the etymology to one of the two unclear terms, and pointed me in the right direction to solve the other one.

At times like this, you have to ask yourself: is it pure chance that I found this source now, or was I sloppy when I conducted the original survey? I suppose the answer lies somewhere in between – after all, you are never able to find or see every relevant source; but at the same time, in searching for sources, the keywords you use can make all the difference between finding answers and finding none.

2. First word: “xxij barsos singe

The material I wrote my PhD on are letters written by English EIC merchants stationed in Japan, 1613–1623 (Farrington 1991). In their letters to each other, the English merchants frequently discuss food and drink. In one stretch of letters from 1620, they write about ordering “singe”. From the context, this appears to be a local alcoholic beverage, at a guess some type of sake or rice wine: it is ordered from “Ichemon Dono our wyne man”.

Now, “singe” is not immediately etymologically transparent. Phonologically, if read as something like [∫ɪnʤ], it could be Japanese (or Chinese) – but I could not find corresponding words in PDJ dictionaries. An alternative that I suggested in my thesis is that the writer is punning on French vin du singe, “wine of ape”, referring to a state or type of inebriation. (The English merchants did like their puns and nicknames, so this is not as unlikely as it may sound).

In the end, however, I could find nothing corroborating either interpretation.

Until, that is, 16 months after submitting my PhD to the printer, when I stumbled upon (i.e. located via googling), an article titled the ‘Introduction of Japanese sake by foreign visitors’ (Yoshida 1993). The writer had done something similar to what I was doing in the talk I was preparing, and looked at Japanese words recorded in the Vocabvlario da Lingoa de Iapam, a Japanese-Portuguese dictionary published in Japan by the Jesuits in 1603. He had searched through the dictionary for words relating to sake (and alcohol more generally), and in the article gives them in a list grouped thematically. Each line/entry has a headword occurring in the Vocabulario, and then a definition. The list starts with:

In English:

A. Types of sake
(1) shinju (xinxu, xinju)   new/fresh sake (ataraxij saqe).
(2) koshu (coxu)   old sake (furui saqe).

(The words in parentheses are from the Vocabulario: the dictionary uses <x> for /sh/, <j> for /j/ (word-final <j> after <i> is a spelling convention: there, <j> stands for /i/), and word-medial <q> and word-initial <c> for /k/).

The very first word in Yoshida’s list is ‘new sake’, which, as the Vocabulario records, has two pronunciations: shinshu and shinju.

Having thus found a contemporary European instance of the English merchants’ “singe”, together with its identification in Japanese, there is, I think, no need to hesitate in identifying “singe” as 新酒 shinju ‘new sake’.

3. Second word: “xxij barsos of singe”

The other word I couldn’t find the root of occurs in the same letters as “singe”: where “singe” is the liquid, “barsos” are the containers. It’s quite clear from the context that a “barso” is a small barrel – from other sources it’s possible to determine that a “barso” holds c.10 litres. But the etymology evaded me: I couldn’t find “barso” in any form in Present-Day Portuguese or Spanish dictionaries, and despite the apparent connection to other words meaning ‘cask’ such as barrel, but also barrillo, barillejo, and barrico, the lack of evidence made me put my hands up.

Once again, Yoshida (1993: 59) comes to the rescue. On the same page as discussed above, his list continues to section B, 酒屋, 酒造道具, 製造工程など ‘sake shop/brewery, sake production tools, manufacturing process etc’. And number 9 in this list is as follows:

In English:

(9) saka-oke (saca uoqe)   a container for sake, like an oke [barrel] or a taru [cask] (barça).

(The <u> in “saka uoqe” reflects historical pronunciation, a /u/ or /w/ before /o/).

To repeat what I said above, the words in parentheses are from the Vocabulario – in other words, the dictionary contains the very word I was looking for. But not as a headword, since it’s a Japanese-Portuguese dictionary. So I turned to its definition of “saca uoqe” – as well as for just “uoqe”, 桶 oke, and also 樽 taru:

The definition of “saca uoqe” does indeed include the word barça! The definition translates as ‘A type of vessel, like a tina or barça for wine’. Meanwhile, “Voqe” is defined as Balde, and Taru is defined as a ‘Piparote, or barça‘.

Google translate gives ‘tub’ for tina, ‘bucket’ for balde, but doesn’t help with piparote. Happily, there are plenty of old dictionaries of Portuguese on Google Books, and some of them purposely contain obsolete and trade terms. One from 1871 (de Lacerda) has the following definitions:


PIPOTE, s. dimin. from Pipa, a small cask or vessel.

TINA, s. f. a tub, a wooden vessel. — de vinho, a vat for wine.

In fine, then: it seems quite evident that barça was a common Portuguese word for a (small) barrel or a cask.

(There seems to be overlap in the terms for making and keeping alcohol, and for transporting it. That is to say, I wouldn’t immediately consider buckets, tubs and vats as vessels for carrying liquids over longer distances in, but on the other hand, I suppose it can be simply a matter of whether the vessel has a lid or not).

4. A third word, to illustrate the limitations of extant sources: “a cuple barrels skarbeare”

Among all the other words relating to drinking that the English merchants used which can be identified, there is one that appears to have avoided capture by lexicographers (to my knowledge, anyway). In this case, the beverage was brewed by the merchants themselves: “skarbeare” – that is, scar beer.

Although unrecorded by the OED, this appears to be another term for small beer, or beer low in alcohol (as opposed to strong beer). Scar in scar beer may be an abbreviated variant of scarce, for one merchant writes that

“I … have fownd out the use of making scarce ale, but I want good mault”. [emphasis added]

Thus, the scar in scar beer probably means ‘small’ – or, rather, ‘weak; thin’.

Is the word dialectal? The writer using the term scar beer in the EIC letters was from Staffordshire, and the (West) Midlands dialect is evident in his use of language (spelling and lexical choice). Similarly, “scarce ale” occurs in a letter by another merchant from the West Country, although from further south, Wiltshire. A search of the English Dialect Dictionary (EDD) finds scar(r), meaning “small quantity; a morsel; a particle”, recorded in Shetland and the Orkneys (EDD, s.v.). The Orkneys are far from the West Country, but neither is close to London (which in practice drove the development of standard English), and old terms tend to live on in the periphery.

But perhaps the term is common: scar beer does crop up in contemporary literature. Henry Peacham (born in Hertfordshire) uses it in his The worth of a peny (1641):

Comparing scar beer to “a kinde of pitifull small Beere, too bad to be drunk” suggests the term has a negative connotation (I take it that “brewed with broom” means that the beer is flavoured with broom, rather than hops). This negative connotation can be found in an earlier text, a play by Henry Glapthorne (from Cambridgeshire), “Albertus Wallenstein” (printed 1639):

Further surveys (more than quick googling) would undoubtedly find more instances, but I think this case is quite straightforward. We can conclude that scar beer is more or less the same as, if not indeed a synonym for, small beer.

5. Don’t stop now! What else were they drinking?

This blog post is already long enough, but I’ll close with two more tidbits about the drinking habits of the EIC merchants in Japan.

The Englishmen brewed their own (small) beer, as seen above. And they also made cider – which could at times be undrinkable:

“I would I had a little of your pery …, I mean of the first bruinge, w’ch I suppose is not yet sower. I have a littell sider heare, but it is so sharp as viniger and cuts my throat in drincking.”

Finally, the degree to which the EIC merchants enjoyed drinking is reflected in how much they wrote about various drinks in their letters. One proxy for this is the index in the source edition I have used (Farrington 1991). Here is its list of pages on which wine is mentioned:

I should add that this is not an exhaustive list, for wine is mentioned in the documents not only as “wine”, but also with many other terms, such as “singe” as seen above – and also words like “morofack” (morohaku 諸白, a fine sake).


EDD = The English Dialect Dictionary. 1896–1905. 6 vols. Ed. by Joseph Wright. London: Henry Frowde. Available on the Internet Archive. A digitized version (EDD Online) is available at eddonline-proj.uibk.ac.at.

Farrington, Anthony (ed.). 1991. The English Factory in Japan 1613–1623. London: British Library.

Glapthorne, Henry. 1639. “Albertus Wallenstein”. In: The Old English Drama: A Selection of Plays from the Old English Dramatists, Vol. 2 (London, 1825). Google Books. Harvard College Library. books.google.com/books?id=gGX2sAcXnrUC.

de Lacerda, José. 1871. A New Dictionary of the Portuguese and English Languages: Containing All the Vocables in Common Use, with a Selection of Terms Obsolescent Or Obsolete Connected with Polite Literature Technical Terms, Or Such as are in General Use in the Arts, Manufactures, and Sciences, in Naval and Military Language, in Law, Trade, and Commerce, &c., &c., &c. Lisbon. Google Books. University of California Library. books.google.com/books?id=NrNLAQAAMAAJ.

OED = Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press. Subscription service. www.oed.com.

Peacham, Henry. 1641. The worth of a peny, or, A caution to keep money with the causes of the scarcity and misery of the want hereof in these hard and mercilesse times : as also how to save it in our diet, apparell, recreations, &c.: and also what honest courses men in want may take to live. London. EEBO. Huntington Library.

Vocabvlario da Lingoa de Iapam com adeclaração em Portugues, feito por algvns padres, e irmaõs da Companhia de Iesv / Nippo Jisho: Pari-bon 日葡辞書: パリ本 [‘A vocabulary of the Japanese language, with Portuguese pronunciation, made by certain priests and brothers of the Company of Jesus / Japanese-Portuguese Dictionary: The Paris Copy’]. 1603. Nagasaki. Facsimile repr. with discussion by Harumichi Ishizuka 晴通石塚. 1976. Tokyo. Bensei 勉誠社. Google Books. Ohio State University Library. books.google.com/books?id=TFJAAQAAMAAJ.

Yoshida, Hajime 吉田元. 1993. 外国人による日本酒の紹介(I) ‘Introduction of Japanese sake by foreign visitors (1)’. 日本醸造協会誌 Journal of the Brewing Society of Japan 88(1): 56–61.

Transfer, transform, translate

My old blog was on a platform provided by my old employer, the University of Helsinki. When my contract ended in January, that blog, too, was excised – rather too quickly for my taste, but there you have it.

But before my old blog passed into the æther, I copied its contents, and have uploaded them to this new platform on my own server. Annoyingly, all the images are gone. But I’ll try to add them back over this spring (if I can find them again).

ETA 11.4.2019:

I’ve now gone and found and added all the missing images. I may have missed some, but hopefully not. I’ve not touched any links, I’m sure many of them are dead. But this is an old blog, even in its reincarnation, so that’s to be expected, really.

The formatting is largely shot, too; the last (?) thing to do in this ‘translation’ is to find a decent theme and/or fiddle with the settings. As all things, it’ll happen anon – or later!

Letterlocking: How did you fold a letter in the early modern period and what did it mean?

First impressions are important. When I receive mail – physical items by post, that is – simply the size and shape of the envelope tells me something about the sender. A5-sized envelopes (well, C5-sized, but you know what I mean; ditto below) tend to be bills or notes from the bank, A6 and smaller are probably greeting cards and concentrate around public holidays and birthdays and the like; A4-sized envelopes are rarer, but can contain official papers as well as missives of condolences. There is cultural variation, of course, and the range of shapes and sizes of envelopes as well as their meanings vary between countries and continents.

Most people probably don’t stop to think about why we have a range of envelope shapes and sizes, although having to figure out which is appropriate for a specific purpose is probably a familiar task. Job application – A4; love-letter – a long and thin envelope, like an A5 folded lengthwise. But I’m not sure anyone today would be upset if they received mail in the “wrong” envelope – possibly puzzled, but not offended. (Having said that, it’s probably a safer bet to stick to instructions when posting job applications, though. The recipients might not take offense per se, but may well discard your application..)

Some modern envelope sizes

In the early modern period, envelopes in the modern sense did not exist. Instead, letters would be folded to form their own covers. This skill was taught as a matter of course as a part of other letter-writing skills, such as learning the right opening and closing formulas, and how to write superscriptions (addresses). Jana Dambrogio has coined the term letterlocking for the practices of folding, securing and sealing letters. At this stage, we still know next to nothing about the vast field that is letterlocking. We have only begun to chart the myriad ways in which letters were folded, secured and sealed. We know very little about change over time from Antiquity to the present day, or about regional variation. And we have only vague conceptions about all the meaning that different types of letterlocking conveyed across time and space.

This is incredibly exciting: so much unexplored territory!

Research on epistolary materiality has already shown that material features can reveal social codes and meanings (see esp. James Daybell’s 2012 book-length overview). This applies not only to what letters are physically made of and how they are folded, but also to what I call textual materiality, features like layout or mise-en-page, and also more subtle aspects such as script and hand. Layout, being the most immediately visible  ..er, visual non-linguistic aspect of the text of a letter, naturally attracted the attention of scholars first, and thanks to scholars such as Jonathan Gibson (1997) the concept of significant space is now widely known.

Significant space refers to politeness and deference expressed as space on the page of a letter. Very simply put, the width of the margins, and particularly the amount of space at the top and bottom of the letter – between the salutation at the top and the main chunk of text, and between the end of the text and the signature at the bottom – can indicate deference by the writer to the recipient (cf. the image below). Scholars who have discussed significant space have looked at the letters of the elite social ranks, which abound in the minutiae of negotiating social status. In the letters of the aristocracy, how much space one left at the top of the letter could translate into fawning, respect, arrogance, or downright insult. This topic is excellently explored by Giora Sternberg (2009), who, following French scholars, calls it epistolary ceremonial.

French letter from 1598 with clear use of significant space (TNA SP 94/6 f. 78r; photograph by author)

But to return to letterlocking.

What do we know about early modern letterlocking so far? Can we tell how recipients would have reacted to different ways in which letters were folded, secured and sealed?

Well, we have learned to recognize some of the more common types of letterlocking used in early modern England.

One of the most common varieties of letterlocking in the early modern period is usually called tuck-and-seal. This appears to be particularly frequent in personal correspondence, which makes sense as the folding requires little effort but the seal ensures security. In tuck-and-sealed letters, the letter is first folded (hiding the text) so that it forms an oblong shape, and then one end is ‘tucked’ into the other, and an adhesive – usually sealing wax – is applied over the seam and pressed with a signet seal; or then, as in the letter in the following images, the wax is placed between the layers of the tucked side, and the signet is pressed through the paper.

Tuck-and-seal letter: Sir Robert Cecil to Sir John Peyton, 1603? (Folger X.c.439; images from Folger Luna, © CC BY-SA)

Another, slightly more secure type of letterlocking is sometimes called slit-and-band. In this type, the letter is again folded into an oblong shape, but this is then folded over in two and the ends tied together by cutting a narrow slit through the entire end of the packet, and inserting a thin strip of paper through the slit and then securing it with sealing wax (note the short vertical slits near the edges of the paper in the following images). Instead of a band of paper, string was also commonly used to secure the packet.

Slit-and-band letter: Sir George Talbot to Bess of Hardwick, c.1575? (Folger ; images from Folger Luna, © CC BY-SA)

A third type of letterlock is usually seen as particularly intimate, and might be called (to coin a term) plait-and-floss. In this type, the letter is folded into a minute packet – possibly by plaiting (aka accordion folding) rather than folding the paper repeatedly over itself – and, as in slit-and-band, the ends of the resulting oblong are tied together, but this time using colourful floss or ribbon. The resulting packet was very small and could fit into a palm and easily be hid in a sleeve, making it perfect for passing surreptitious messages – or love letters. Heather Wolfe (2012) has explored these kinds of letters in a fascinating article.

Pleated letter fastened with silk floss: Jane Skipwith to Lewes Bagot, 14 April c.1610 (Folger L.a.852; images from Folger Luna, © CC BY-SA)

Comparison of plait-and-floss packet with modern envelope sizes: early modern folded letters could be tiny!

I could go on for longer, but will finish with a fourth type of letterlocking, another one which has gained a name, and has been called a blank margin lock. This type of lock is in essence a slit-and-band where the paper band is still attached to the letter it is used to secure. When such a letter is sealed with an adhesive, the resulting packet is practically impossible to open without damaging the paper (hence the long hole in the following images), and is essentially as secure as you could make a letter in the early modern period. (Secure in the sense that it cannot be opened without evidence of having been tampered with. Security in letterlocking is linked to being able to see if received letters have been opened en route; obviously any letter can be forced open.)

Blank margin lock: Simeon Fox to Sir Robert Cecil, 13 March 1602 (TNA SP 101/81 ff. 348-349; photographs by author)

To date, the most systematic attempt to categorise types of letterlocking is being conducted by Jana Dambrogio and Daniel Starza Smith; Jana’s website lists 8 different categories (as I write this). You should also check out their Youtube channel for videos of how to fold, secure and seal these kinds of letters, and many others!

Being a member of a team of historical sociolinguists, I am by default interested in social variation. In order to see how different people locked letters in different circumstances – to try to understand early modern letterlocking practices and the meanings they carried – will require charting said practices across time and space, in order to identify any trends. Although recent years have seen large-scale digitized databases and catalogues of letters – from the commercial resource State Papers Online to the online catalogue Early Modern Letters Online – at present we lack editions, databases or catalogues which record such information.* A pioneering one can be found in Bess of Hardwick’s Letters, an online edition of the surviving correspondence of the countess Shrewsbury (compiled by Alison Wiggins et al.), which includes information about letterlocking. This is fantastic, and a great start – although the corpus is fairly small at only 234 letters, spanning 1552-1607, and with letterlocking information on 194 letters.

A recently launched project will expand the scope of our understanding of early modern letterlocking practices tenfold. The Signed, Sealed & Undelivered project is investigating a wonderful resource: a chest of some 2,600 letters from 1689-1707, being in essence the dead letter repository of a postmaster from 300 years ago. These letters come from across Western Europe from a wide range of letter-writers, and their study will allow for a fantastic synchronic overview of letterlocking practices. The most exciting thing about the project, or rather about their material, is that 600 of the undelivered letters in the chest remain sealed and unopened. Check out their wonderful website for more.

Chest of undelivered letters (image copied from brienne.org, with apologies and thanks)

For my part – since obviously I am blogging about letterlocking because it is something I work on too – I have working on the British State Papers from the early 1600s, and have started to see trends in the material. For instance, in the material I work on (mainly State Papers Foreign, Spain, c. 1600-1610), tuck-and-sealed letters are relatively uncommon, and most of the surviving letters have been sent as fairly large packets fastened at one end with a paper band or with string. This appears to carry similar meaning to other aspects of material respect mentioned above, such as significant space. That is to say, this type of letterlock appears to have been the expected form when writing in a (semi-)official capacity in early modern England – not unlike sending forms and documents in an A4-size envelope to your job centre today.

But at the moment, my findings – if you can call them that – are little more than impressionistic. As a (part-time) corpus linguist, I firmly believe in quantitative evidence, and am reluctant to identify trends unless I can see the numbers. But I mean to keep working on this and hope to publish in due course.

But let’s go back to the question I posed above: can we tell how people would have reacted to different ways in which letters they received were locked?

Next week, I will be attending the Epistolary Cultures conference at York, and a part of my paper touches on this very question. In the Cecil Papers, there survives a delightful sequence of letters between Sir Robert Cecil, Secretary of State for King James I/VI, and his teenage son William. In a letter dated 15 May [1607?] (CP 228/19), Cecil comments on his son’s developing letter-writing skills:

I haue also sent yow a peece of paper fowlded as gentlemen vse to write theire letters, where yours are lyke those that come out of a grammer schoole.

Explicit information or instructions regarding material practices of letter-writing in the early modern period are in fact quite rare. Passages revealing how contemporaries understood and interpreted said material practices are even rarer. Most of our information on letterlocking has to be reconstructed from surviving letters themselves, since passages like this one ultimately raise more questions than they answer. Having said that, I still think this is a great passage, and we can gather several points out of it:

    1. letterlocking was taught in grammar school;
    1. gentlemen folded their letters differently from what was taught in grammar school;
  1. this fact is significant enough for Cecil to want to correct his teenage son in his letterlocking practices.

But there are several things that we cannot immediately infer:

    1. how were children in grammar school taught to fold and secure their letters?
    1. how did gentlemen fold their letters?
    1. did William Cecil learn grammar-school-letterlocking in grammar school, or somewhere else? and why did he use it at all in writing to his father?
  1. and, to my mind most curiously, why did Robert Cecil enclose “a peece of paper fowlded as gentlemen vse to write theire letters” – instead of just folding the letter he says this in in the desired way??

For my answers to these questions, you’ll have to come to York next week!  ..But I hope to write this study up for publication anon. My fingers itch for a broader quantitative survey, but we also need lots of case studies in order to get at the nuances of early modern letterlocking practices.

ETA 13.3.2016:

I forgot to point to two posts about letterlocking on Collation, the wonderful Folger Shakespeare Library blog:

ETA 21.6.2016: some small corrections made to the text.


* One person who may have compiled a requisite database for a broad survey of letterlocking practices is Susan Whyman, who writes of having “systematically examined” numerous collections of letters for criteria including “paper, handwriting, spelling, outside address and title, stamps, docketing practices, franks, inside spacing and layout, margins, salutation, forms of address, closure and signature”, etc (Whyman 1999: 3). Whether she has charted letterlocking as well is uncertain; as is if this information will ever be made publicly available.


Daybell, James. 2012. The Material Letter in Early Modern England. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gibson, Jonathan. 1997. “Significant space in manuscript letters.” The Seventeenth Century 12(1): 1–9.

Sternberg, Giora. 2009. “Epistolary ceremonial: Corresponding status at the time of Louis XIV”. Past & Present 204: 33-88.

Whyman, Susan. 1999. ” ‘Paper visits’: The post-Restoration letter as seen through the Verney archive”. In Rebecca Earle (ed.), Epistolary Selves: Letters and Letter Writers 1600-1945. Aldershot: Ashgate Press, 15-36.

Wolfe, Heather. 2012. ” ‘Neatly sealed, with silk, and Spanish wax or otherwise’. The practice of letter-locking with silk floss in early modern England”. In S. P. Cerasano & Steven W. May (eds.), In the Prayse of Writing: Early Modern Manuscript Studies. Essays in Honour of Peter Beal. London: The British Library, 169-189.

An addendum on the history of the word “linguist” in the sense ‘interpreter’

One of my first publications was an article titled “Jurebassos and Linguists: The East India Company and Early Modern English words for ‘interpreter’” (abstract; full paper as a pdf). The article is a fairly straightforward and I admit rather light-weight investigation of the Early Modern English semantic field of ‘interpreter’, in which I note that instead of a single word (interpreter), there were several (interpreter, truchman, dragoman, linguist, jurebasso), the use of which depended upon, among other things, geographical and linguistic setting. (So that dragoman was used in the Arabic sphere of cultural and linguistic influence; and jurebasso where Malay was used as a lingua franca).

In any case, the article’s conclusions were in part a (good-natured) stab at the OED. Not because I want to detract from the worth of that lexicographical giant, but rather because antedating the OED is, at the end of the day, and as the OED stands at the moment, all too easy, and for those of us with an antiquarian-philological-lexicographical mindset, also quite good sport. And also, because in doing so I joined the ranks of previous scholars pointing out how the OED draws most of its evidence from literature (and a rather small canonical corpus at that), and that when you look outside that corpus of evidence, there are wonders awaiting the historical lexicographer. As my conclusion says quite plainly, the records of the early English East India Company are fantastic material for historical linguists (I continue pointing this out in everything I publish which draws on English East India Company material). (They’re fantastic sources for historians too, to be sure, but as far as I know, I still remain the only linguisticist-type to have used EIC materials).

But to move on to the point of this post:

The fate of one who engages in a game of one-upping with the OED is ultimately to be defeated at their own game.

That is to say, the reason why it’s easy to antedate the OED is that a substantial number of the entries still date from the first edition (1884-1928). A quick search in any old historical corpus will bring up antedatings to much of that material; and the same applies to the 1989 second edition which, although benefiting from the appearance of computers, still dates from long before EEBO-TCP, Google Books and other massive historical text resources.

Not so in the case of the third edition – begun in 2000, currently work in progress, and estimated to be completed by 2037 or so. In my article, I had of course used the OED entries to all the words for ‘interpreter’ I list above. Most of them came from the first edition of the OED, and linguist from the second. I concluded that whereas according to the OED, linguist wasn’t used in the sense ‘interpreter’ until 1711, in my material I found instances from a century earlier. However, if you now go to OED Online, you will see that linguist has since been updated to the third edition (September 2013). The entry now duly gives instances of linguist in the sense ‘interpreter’ from 1612 on. Overall too, the definitions given for linguist have been overhauled.

..I initially thought to subtitle this blog post, “Or, how OED antedated my antedating of OED’s definition of linguist” – but actually, in my article I wrote that “[t]he first occurrence of linguist in the sense of ‘interpreter’ is from 1610″. Which is two years earlier than the OED’s current earliest attestation. And going back to my notes, I find that this 1610 attestation comes from Nicholas Downton’s journal of the EIC sixth voyage. Here’s the extract and the reference:

As soon as the fleet anchored, the Governor sent an Arab to inspect the ships, who, on the following day, boarded the Admiral to inquire who and what they were; at the same time, “Jno. Williams and Walter the trumpetter, linguists” , with others, were sent on shore with a present to the Governor

– written at Aden, early November 1610
(Markham 1877: 168; emphasis mine)

Source: “Journal of the Sixth Voyage, kept by Nicholas Downton, 1610–1613”. In The Voyages of Sir James Lancaster, Kt., to the East Indies: with abstracts of journals of voyages to the East Indies during the seventeenth century, preserved in the India Office: and the voyage of Captain John Knight (1606), to seek the North-west Passage. Ed. by Markham, Clements R.. London: Hakluyt Society, 1877. pp. 151–227. Available on the Internet Archive.

Rather unfortunately, Markham edited Downton’s journal quite heavily, so that much of it consists of paraphrase, with the occasional direct quote retained for flavour – as in the excerpt above. Yet luckily for me, the word linguists occurs in one of these direct quotes.

To sum up, then.

The new third edition of the OED does a fantastic job in charting the meanings and attestations of words in the English language across time. In doing so, it puts to shame lightweight excursion into historical lexicography like my 2009 article, namely those which do not properly consider the implications of their findings. I feel I should have been able to draw some firmer conclusions from my data, and not hedged my final thoughts. And also, I guess I ought to have done a more thorough job in searching through sources and also in documenting my sources and search results.

At the same time, despite all the new tools, resources and text databases, much of historical lexicography rests on serendipity. I came across an attestation of linguist in the sense ‘interpreter’ dating from 1610; the OED editorial team didn’t. (Incidentally, I’m sure a day or two of further digging would uncover earlier attestations.)

Finally, this case makes me feel that humanities scholars should aim to publish the data they draw on – when this requirement is applicable, of course. For instance in the case of my 2009 article, most of the texts are indeed available online as full texts, but largely as OCR’d from variable quality scans of the source books, which bring their own inaccuracies and complications. So publishing a KWIC list of my word searches (with references) would have been useful in terms of reviews of my work and future work drawing on my initial endeavours.

On marking language-switching in speech and writing

So what I have to say is too long to fit in a tweet or even a handful of tweets. I followed the link in this tweet –

…which lead to this video by Daniel José Older, titled “Why We Don’t Italicize Spanish”, where he explains why language-switches in his books are not italicized (I’m assuming, anyway, that this applies to all languages, ie. not only is Spanish not italicised, but neither is Italian, German, etc):

I have two thoughts/observations/comments:

1) Regarding speech.

Older argues that since we don’t flag language-switching in speech, it shouldn’t be flagged in writing.

Well, I disagree that languages are not marked when language-switching in speech. All languages have, apart from different vocabulary and grammar, also different prosody: they stress words differently, and have different intonation patterns. Thus when someone speaks a non-native language “with an accent”, this refers to the stress and intonation they use. So someone speaking English with a Finnish accent is using the stress and intonation patterns of Finnish while producing English syntax and vocabulary. Languages sound different.

Therefore while a speaker may not intend to emphasise either language when language-switching in speech, both languages are nonetheless flagged.

2) Regarding writing.

I find this very interesting. I work on the links between scripts/typefaces and languages in the Early Modern period, and am fascinated by aspects of such practices which have survived into present-day use. Such as the practice of italicising foreign words, phrases and passages. What people in general will have no idea about is that this practice has its roots in the very earliest writing practices where languages were marked by different scripts. The general idea is familiar to everyone from having seen texts written in different writing systems: for instance, I’m using the Roman alphabet to write this blog post, and you can immediately distinguish it from Japanese writing:


What is less well known, is that it used to be common to use different scripts and typefaces to write, for instance, English and Spanish. That is to say, not different writing systems or even different alphabets – such as is the case with, say, Greek:

Αυτό δεν είναι γραμμένο με λατινικούς χαρακτήρες.

In the 16th century, Northern European vernaculars (German, Dutch, English, Swedish, etc) were usually written in a gothic cursive script, whereas Italian and Spanish used scripts based on italic characters. And the same applied in print:

Berlemont, dialogues in 6 languages, 1608 (STC (2nd ed.) / 1431.19A)

Anyway, long story short, this distinction of course disappeared, although gothic typefaces and scripts survived until very recently – for instance newspaper titles are often still found in blackletter. But the practice of switching script or typeface to indicate switching language was, in part, retained.

Of course, the story is far from this simple: at the same time, practices of textual emphasis developed. These included, for instance, colour, enlarged initials (capitalisation), underlining, quotation marks – and also script- and typeface-switching. Therefore whereas you might italicise a foreign word to flag it, and you might also italicise a word to emphasise it, these are in effect two different practices – even if, from a present-day perspective, they have for the most part merged. And today you could even see the italicisation of foreign words and passages as just one of many reasons you might want to emphasise text.

And this last point appears to me to be the one Older makes in his argument against italicising Spanish in his books: the italics make it look like the text is emphasised. Whereas this is not the case. And I take it he doesn’t want to give the impression that authorial emphasis is intended. It is just language-switching, that’s all.

This is great – people rarely voice their conceptions on these matters, and I find it fascinating to find out how people see methods of textual emphasis and their uses.

Anyway, I find these things incredibly interesting and bizarrely understudied. I have several publications on this coming out next year (gods willing), in which I hope to make my case and points better (and at more length) than I do here.

NB I purposely stayed away from discussing code-switching here. I don’t think it matters regarding the general points I make above.

Counting correspondence, listing letters

A number of years ago, I gave a talk on mapping correspondence – that is, about the ways in which you can plot letters and epistolary exchanges on a map. Perhaps the most important point arising from that talk, for me anyway, was the understanding that mapping correspondence was by no means a straightforward matter. What exactly do you map, when you map correspondence? The writers’ locations? Or that of both the writers and the recipients? Or the path of delivery the letter? The duration of conveyance? The amount of correspondence? And in doing any or all of these, what use is the map?

Similar ponderings are behind this blog post – not about mapping, but about counting correspondence. What do you count, really, when you count letters? How can counting help? Are graphs useful?

These thoughts arose from reading Brenton Dickieson’s blog post, “A Statistical Look at C.S. Lewis’ Letter Writing”. Working from three published volumes of C.S. Lewis’s collected letters, Dickieson plotted the 3,274 letters on graphs, basically looking at the volume of letters Lewis wrote over time, and discussing contextual events that are reflected in the sheer numbers of Lewis’s letters. Here’s his graph of the number of letters over time (copied from his blog, with my apologies and thanks):

This graph is much as you’d expect for someone like Lewis, whose fame grew over time, bringing the inevitable mountain of letters with it: it shows overall growth over time.1 I’m sure you can immediately see that some of the peaks can be mapped to publications (the Narnia books started coming out in 1950), and other events (WWI in 1914-1918).

But hang on: what does this graph actually show? What does it count?

I think that when we look at a graph like this we tend to make a lot of assumptions. For instance, it is easy to take the above graph as depicting ‘the amount of letters written by Lewis during his lifetime’ – especially as the number of letters is so high. Dickieson actually titles the chart as “the number of letters we have from Lewis each year” – which you might call ‘the amount of letters which are extant today’. But what the chart in fact shows is a third figure, namely ‘the amount of letters published in this one edition’.  These are different things:

  1. the actual number of letters written by a writer during their lifetime;
  2. a subset of (1), being the number of letters which survive; and
  3. a subset of (2), being the number of letters which we (or the editors, rather) know about.

These are all cases of ‘all the letters of X’ – a common phrase in titles of editions is “the complete correspondence”. Of course, attaining a true count of (1) is practically impossible – do you have copies of all the emails you ever sent? Exactly. So editions of “the complete letters of X” tend to strive to be (2) and say that they are (2), while they are of course (3). In fairness, (3) can equal (2), but it is not uncommon for further letters to be found after the publication of volumes of “the complete letters”.

So if we look back to the graph of Lewis’s letters above, now with the understanding that it represents (3) and, possibly, (2), but that it does not show (1), a second question arises. Given that the graph shows a subset of (1), is this subset representative of the whole? More specifically:

  • Do the ups and downs of the graph reflect actual fluctuations in the number of letters written by Lewis, or just in the number of letters that survive?
  • Similarly, does the overall trend reflect the actual overall trend – that of (1)?

For instance, for much of the 1930s, only about 20 letters per year survive from Lewis. Did he really write fewer letters during this decade?

Given that the graph is based on more than three thousand letters, I think that the overall trend – an increasing number of letters over time – probably does reflect (1). But its minor fluctuations are more likely to reflect what has survived than what was originally there.

More commonly, editions of letters offer only a selection of the correspondence of a writer or a group of writers. In these cases, the points I have raised become even more significant.

As an example, let’s take the letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. As far as I know, only one volume of his letters has been published, being The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Allen & Unwin, 1981) – although more letters have been published since in various books and articles.2

The Letters published 354 letters. A very quick search online found about the same number again in a list on the Tolkien Gateway site; if we exclude letters of uncertain date, this list gives us another 349 letters, for a total of 703. A far cry from Lewis’s 3,000+, and I would imagine that many more of Tolkien’s letters survive; but this is enough to plot in a chart to make my point:

In this chart, the blue columns show the number of letters per decade published in the Letters, and the red columns the number of further letters given in the list on the Tolkien Gateway website. Obviously, neither set of letters reflects (1), or even (2) or (3) as discussed above. But the point I want to make here regards overall trends teased from these counts. If we look at the blue columns, it would appear that the peak of Tolkien’s letter-writing activities was in the 1950s, being fairly even from the 1940s through the 1960s. But the red columns indicate that the peak was not until the 1960s, and not many letters date from the 1940s. So we can immediately see that neither the blue nor the red columns appear to be representative of (1), of the actual number of letters written by Tolkien.

So, to recap and summarize. The overall trend we can extract from data depends on the dataset. This is really quite obvious. What is harder to remember is that the constitution of the dataset can be something else than what is expected by the reader, and this can have serious implications on the interpretation and understanding of the data.

This discrepancy becomes especially relevant in situations when only a fraction of (1) survives. Which of course in the case of historical material is almost always. Unless we have an extremely carefully made estimate of a letter-writer’s full output, we need to be really careful when counting their letters and making inferences based on those numbers.

Here’s an example. The following chart shows the number of letters sent from England by Thomas Wilson, servant and secretary to Sir Robert Cecil, to the English merchant Richard Cocks in Bayonne, France.

In this chart, blue shows the number of letters that survive (N = 1), red the number of letters that are mentioned in other surviving sources, but which don’t survive (N = 29). Based on the surviving letters, there is no trend. Based on the number of letters reconstructed from intertextual references, there was a continuous correspondence over this whole period.

I hope I haven’t given the impression with this blog post that I’m somehow criticizing Dickieson’s exploration of Lewis’s letters. On the contrary, I found his blog post fascinating, and I have in the past made similar graphs when trying to make sense of correspondences (as the last graph shows). I just wanted to raise some quite basic questions regarding the assumptions we make when using quantitative methods to make sense of data that we usually explore and study qualitatively.

[This post didn’t quite go where I thought it would, but it’s too long to rewrite. I’m not sure it’s particularly interesting, either, but I hope to remedy that anon with a post about dates (the calendar, not the fruit) in Early Modern letters.]


1. This feels quite obvious if we think about general human lifespans, too: the longer you live, the more people you meet => the more communication events are likely to follow. And this reminds me of an article in Science (Malmgren et al, “On universality in human correspondence activity”, Science 325 (1696), 2009) in which, through some serious number-crunching, the authors discovered that i) the amount of letters a person writes increases over their lifespan, ii) letter-writing is a correspondence event (when you receive a letter, you are likely to write a reply), and iii) letter-writing times correlate with the hours the writer is awake. My summary here is probably partly wrong, and certainly rather dismissive, and I have no idea about the calculations involved which I expect are the real beef of the article, but there are two points to make from their article, both of which are relevant to my present discussion: (1) number-crunching doesn’t necessarily tell you anything new; and (2) you can only get out what you put in, aka. what, exactly, are you counting? (Actually there’s also a third: (3) the humanities and sciences are interested in different things, ask different questions, take into account different contexts, etc etc. But let’s not go there today).

2. And I have to take this opportunity to boast confess that I’ve edited one previously unpublished letter myself: see Alaric Hall & Samuli Kaislaniemi (2013), “‘You tempt me grievously to a mythological essay’: J. R. R. Tolkien’s correspondence with Arthur Ransome”, in Ex Philologia Lux: Essays in Honour of Leena Kahlas-Tarkka ed. by Jukka Tyrkkö, Olga Timofeeva & Maria Salenius. [Mémoires de la Société Néophilologique XC]. Helsinki: Société Néophilologique. pp. 261-280. Link to pdf.

Editing is Hell, and normalization is an illusion

As a procrastinatory excursion, here are some thoughts about editing historical texts. Rather than an insightful comment on editorial philosophy, the following stems from practical matters and contains nitty-gritty details, and is not written in conversation with other editors (sorry). I’m sure everything I say here has been said before, but repetitio etc.

1. Why normalization is an illusion

Years back, I found I had a problem. I was considering the expansion of abbreviated words, and one of the words in question was merchant. This word was very frequent in the text I was working on, and occurred in various forms, some of them abbreviated: “marchant”, “mrchnt”, etc. I thought it would be a straightforward matter to settle on an expanded form. I decided I would normalize according to most attested usage. That is to say, editorial expansions would reproduce the most frequent forms fully spelled out.

In other words, if for instance “marchant” was the most frequent unabbreviated spelling of merchant, then “mrchnt” would be expanded as “marchant”. (With editorial expansions indicated, e.g. “marchant”.)

My next step was to establish what was the authorial preferred spelling of the word merchant. This is what I found (word stem forms only):

mrchant* 1
mrchnt* 31
mrcht* 1
marchand* 1
marchant* 31
marchnt* 21
marshant* 1

Out of 87 hits of merchant*, only 33 were spelled out fully, i.e. 60% were abbreviated forms. And the abbreviated form “mrchnt*” was as frequent as the fully spelled out form “marchant*”.

This made me stop and think: if the fully-spelled-out form of a (stem of a) word is much rarer than abbreviated forms, can we really claim it represents authorial preference? If we chart the possible spellings of merchant as a sequence of graphs, we get the following:

Note that this image shows both the actual realized spellings in the texts, and also possible spellings which do not occur (such as “mrchand*”). (Note also that other possible contemporary spellings are not given, such as “mrchāt”, or indeed “merchant”).

I consequently completely abandoned the idea that we can ‘reconstruct’ authorial spelling, and also determined to make sure to explicitly indicate editorial intervention at all times. A spelling like “mrchnt” should never be expanded as “marchant”. Instead, modern forms should be used: the only correct expansion here is “merchant”.

Having said that, using modern spellings is of course not an option in dead language varieties, such as Middle English. And further, even in Early Modern English there are graphemic and orthographical features without counterpart in Present-Day English(es). What to do with obsolete suffixes, like in “hath”, or “didst”? And what about graphs which were already obsolete but replaced with other contemporary ones, such as <y> for thorn <þ>, as in “ye” ‘the’ and “yt” ‘that’? And what about graphs and special characters which were common in the period but which we no longer use?

2. Editing is Hell

Here is one example of how just such a special character – a brevigraph – can cause serious problems when deciding on best editorial practice.

The image below is from a document from 1599, written in a late Elizabethan cursive (aka English secretary hand), with a slightly old-fashioned ductus. It reads: “her matꝭ servyce” (or “ſervyce”, if we want to retain the long <s>1). The second word is an abbreviation of majesty’s.

The <e>-shaped graph in the abbreviated second word is what I usually call an -es-graph. Originally a medieval brevigraph2 for (usually word-final) “-is”, “-es”, and “-ys”, in Early Modern English cursive hands <ꝭ> is also used for (word-final) “-s”. Some sources claim it indicates a plural or possessive, but I have found it used in proper names, prepositions, verbs and adverbs too. (Possibly it is more frequent in one rather than another, but I expect that in its distribution scribal preference is more significant than part of speech).

So the question for today’s workshop is, what to do with the abbreviation “matꝭ”?

What indeed.

Depending on your editorial principles, I can come up with 23 different possible outcomes, based on choices regarding i) spelling, ii) contractions (abbreviations), iii) superscripts, and iv) brevigraphs (special characters).

The outcomes – and the choices – are shown in the massive table below. Let me help you read it. The top three rows indicate options when retaining original spelling. The blue section in the middle indicate choices and outcomes when normalizing spelling (since regardless of my personal opinion as stated above, normalization is a common editorial practice), and the bottom ten rows the same for modernized spelling.

The numbers show whether editorial intervention has been indicated or not. “1” indicates that the editorial intervention is marked (e.g. “majesty’s”), and “0” that it is unmarked (e.g. “majesty’s”). And “(1)” means that the feature is marked, but it is so in the original text (i.e. the superscript and the brevigraph).

Some of the features are not strictly speaking divisible – that is to say, the contraction is marked by the superscript, and hence you can’t show that you’ve changed one without doing the same for the other: expanding the contraction and lowering the superscript are in essence the same thing. Thus “(1)ss” means that contraction is marked since what has been done to superscripts is marked, and “(1)c” means that superscript is marked since what has been done to contraction is marked.

Some notes are in order:

* Arguably since the contraction (and superscript) is not marked, this does not qualify as a representation of the original spelling.

† When lowering of the superscript or expansion of the contraction are indicated, indication of the normalization or modernization of the brevigraph gets subsumed – when using italics to mark editorial interventions. If other methods are used – apostrophes, parentheses – it is possible to make this distinction, as seen in the rightmost column.

‡ Some of the possible outcomes are unlikely to be chosen by the editor, because editorial intervention can also make the word more difficult to parse, rather than less. So for instance the edited forms “mates” and “mates” seem to me undesirable outcomes – “mates” is scarcely better, whereas “ma’tes” (or “ma’tes”) at least indicates that the word is an abbreviated form.

3. Um, argh?

Well, yes exactly. And this is without going into the jungle of brackets and other symbols used by editors to distinguish between different kinds of things in the text, such as interlineal insertions, deletions, damage, etc etc (a good discussion of which, with clear examples, can be found in the appendix to Michael Hunter’s Editing Early Modern Texts (2007)).

And also, other cases – other graphs, other methods of abbreviation, other hands – produce different problems, so I’m certain that the above table does not suffice for all editorial problems.3

What can the editor do, then?

I think this question can be answered: The editor can do whatever the hell they please. What they should do, in any case, however, is to make sure that all editorial interventions in the text are visible and the original form is recoverable. How they do this is another matter, as is the extent of their meddling. But there should in any case be a chapter or document setting out very clearly the editorial principles and practices followed in the edition.


1)  Who would want to do that!, you exclaim. Well, I would, for one. Our knowledge of Early Modern English handwriting is ridiculously limited, and in particular quantifiable information is scarce. So you need geeks like me to count them long <s>s.

2)  The -es-graph in Unicode – <ꝭ> – may be okay for medieval texts, but it is quite unlike the <e>-shaped -es-graphs in Early Modern English secretary hands. For a type facsimile edition, I would need to find a better character. And indeed I have done so – as seen by the -es-graph used in the table (which I got from the Electronic Text Edition of Depositions 1560–1760, available on the CD accompanying Merja Kytö, Peter J. Grund & Terry Walker, Testifying to Language and Life in Early Modern England (Benjamins, 2011)).

3) Something to avoid are what might be called hybrid forms. For instance, combining a normalized expanded stem with the word-final brevigraph: “maiestꝭ ”. Or then expanding the contraction and modernizing the stem of the word, but normalizing the expansion of the brevigraph: “majestes”. Expanding and modernizing the contraction but leaving the superscript just looks silly: “majesty’s”.