400 years ago today: the death of Richard Cocks, head of the EIC trading post in Japan

On the 27th of March, 1624, a man died aboard a ship crossing the Indian Ocean, and was buried in the sea. The ship was the English East India Company (EIC) ship Anne Royal, which had left Batavia on Java a month earlier, and was heading for England. The man was Richard Cocks, late head of the EIC trading post in Japan. The death was not unusual in itself, although we don’t know its direct cause, as early EIC voyages had high mortality rates. The date is known to us from a journal kept by another man on board the Anne Royal:

[March] 27    This day wee hadde the wind att east north easte, rany weather, wee steringe awaye, our corce weste south weste. […] This daye Captan Cock died and wee [gap] of the clock threwe hime overebourd [rest of line illegible]
(Edmund Sayers’s journal; Farrington 1991, pp. 1256–57)

So passed the author of the most extensive first-hand account of early modern Japan written by a European.

EIC arms, 1632
EIC arms (1632)

The EIC had been founded in 1600, and by about 1615 it had set up some two dozen trading posts across the Asian seaboard from the Persian Gulf to Japan. The furthest one was in Hirado, in the northwest corner of Kyushu, the westernmost main island of the Japanese archipelago, where the EIC ship Clove arrived in June 1613. The English stayed in Japan for a turbulent ten years, during which, among other things, they witnessed the Siege of Osaka 1614–15 and the consolidation of the Tokugawa regime, and the proscription of Christianity in 1620. They were assisted by their countryman William Adams – a figure of resurgent interest, thanks to the current second tv serialization of his story as fictionalized by James Clavell in Shogun (1975). Adams had arrived in Japan in 1598 as the pilot to a Dutch ship that had crossed the Pacific from the east, and eventually found favour with the shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

The English merchants in Japan interacted particularly with Japanese merchants and the households of daimyo (feudal lords), but also with other Europeans in Japan. The Dutch East India Company had their trading post next door to the EIC, and Spanish and Portuguese missionaries were quite numerous in Kyushu, especially in nearby Nagasaki. The missionaries produced a lot of texts, even setting up a printing press, but the earliest notable account of Japan written by a secular European is found in the diary of Richard Cocks, head of the English merchants in Japan.

Title page of The English Factory in Japan, ed. Anthony Farrington, 1991
Title page of The English Factory in Japan, ed. Anthony Farrington, 1991

By luck, a sizable part of the documents of the EIC trading post in Japan survives. They include around 350 letters in several languages, over a dozen journals, some ten account books etc, and two diaries. These have all been edited and published. The correspondence, inventories and ships’ logs are in Anthony Farrington (ed.), The English Factory in Japan, 1613–1623 (British Library, 1991, 2 vols). Cocks’s diary has been edited twice, of which the more widely available edition is Edward Maunde Thompson (ed.), Diary of Richard Cocks, cape-merchant in the English factory in Japan 1615–1622 (Hakluyt Society 1st ser. 66–67, 1883; many reprints).

Title page of Diary of Richard Cocks vol 1, Hakluyt Society, 1883
Title page of Diary of Richard Cocks vol 1, Hakluyt Society, 1883

Although Cocks’s diary has been widely used, there haven’t been many in-depth studies of it. The best history of the English venture in Japan remains to be found in Derek Massarella’s A World Elsewhere: Europe’s Encounter with Japan in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1990). The only full-length study of the social life of the Englishmen in Japan is James Lewis’s PhD thesis, ‘Nifon catange or Japon fation’: A Study of Cultural Interaction in the English Factory in Japan, 1613–1623 (University of Sheffield, 2004).

Most of the documents written by the EIC merchants in Japan relate to business, and contain little of interest to those looking for light on cultural interactions in early 17th-century Japan. The main exceptions are Cocks’s diary, and four of his letters: quite unlike the lengthy explanations of commercial matters to the EIC committee in London, these letters are nothing but description of Japan. Three of the letters are addressed to Sir Thomas Wilson, Keeper of State Papers at Whitehall, and one to Sir Robert Cecil, Earl Salisbury, the Principal Secretary and Lord High Treasurer of England.

Why was the head of England’s furthest commercial outpost sending information to the head of the English government (under the king)?

In a word: he was asked.

Bayonne map

Cocks was 58 years old when he died. He had been born the third son of a Staffordshire yeoman farmer, baptised in January 1566. This makes him an exact contemporary with Shakespeare (b. 1564) and King James VI/I (b. 1566). Cocks was apprenticed to a clothworker in London, and at the very end of Elizabeth I’s reign found himself working as a factor – a commercial agent – in Bayonne, at the bottom of the Bay of Biscay, near the Spanish border. Some 100 letters from him from 1603–1609 survive. Perhaps surprisingly, they mostly do not relate to commercial matters, and record little of Cocks’s own trading activities.

Instead, Cocks’s early letters actually form a part of the English government’s intelligence and diplomatic correspondence. In early 1603, Elizabethan England was still at war with Spain, and had an extensive intelligence-gathering network directed at Spain. Bayonne was an important node in the communication network, being situated on the main road from Bordeaux to San Sebastian, and with a bridge over the river Adour. Although Cocks had come to France as a merchant, he was perfectly situated to keep an eye on events and passers-by – and more importantly, to forward packets of mail in both directions when asked to do so.

The need for intelligencers fell with the death of Elizabeth I and the concluding of the 1605 peace treaty between England and Spain, but there was still a need for secure communication channels between the English ambassador in Spain and England, and therefore for people like Cocks, who could insert packets of diplomatic letters in his own bundles of business correspondence.

Somerset House Conference 1604
Somerset House Conference 1604

Cocks had been recruited to this task by the intelligencer Thomas Wilson when the latter passed through Bayonne in 1602–3. In 1605 Wilson was rewarded for his years of efforts on the continent and employed in the secretariat of Sir Robert Cecil. Almost all of Cocks’s surviving early letters are written to Wilson. They tend to be lengthy, even verbose, and it’s clear that while Cocks is dutifully passing along all tidbits of information he comes across, the main purpose of the letters is to cultivate his relationship with Wilson. Cocks does not ask to be paid for his services, instead hoping to be permitted to ask for a favour from Wilson/Cecil should he need one some day.

In the event, he does need help, and receives it – something which is preserved between the lines in his memorial plaque! In 2013, as part of the celebrations to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the opening of relations between England and Japan in 1613 with the founding of the EIC trading post, a memorial plaque for Cocks was installed in the parish church of St Chad’s in Seighford, Staffordshire.

Plaque commemorating Richard Cocks, in St Chad's church, Seighford
Plaque commemorating Richard Cocks, in St Chad’s church, Seighford

The plaque contains an excerpt from a Privy Council letter of 30 July 1608, which Cocks received to help him:

“he hath done his majesty good service in foreign parts”

This is from TNA SP 14/35 f. 37, where the passage reads:

“These are to Let yow vnderstand . that the said partie is one that hath done his matie good service, in foraigne parts”

The irony here of course is that the plaque was installed to commemorate Cocks’s contribution to the history of European relations with Japan – but the Privy Council letter in fact refers to Cocks’s contribution to the correspondence networks described earlier, well before he departed for Japan.

Cocks came to be recognized as useful in conveying diplomatic correspondence – his name comes up in the letters of the English ambassadors in Spain and France. Wilson too promoted his own sources of information and intelligence, and brought Cocks’s name to Cecil’s attention. Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that Cocks appears to have met Cecil before departing for Japan. In his surviving letter to Cecil written from Japan, he writes:

“I beseech your Lor’ to p’don me yf I have byn over tediouse in this my frivolouse discourse, w’ch I have donne in respect your Lor’ should have true notis how the state of matters stand in these p’tes of the world, according as it pleased your good Lor’ to comand me at my dep’ture out of England.”
(Cocks to Cecil, 10 Dec 1614; Farrington 1991, p. 260)

The full story of Cocks’s early letters remains to be published. I have edited these letters and hope to get them out one day, hopefully with my study of how they sit in the intertwining networks of merchant, intelligencing and diplomatic correspondence.

The British East India Company in Southeast Asia, 1600–1800

I have a new publication out today!

“The British East India Company in Southeast Asia”, in the new Oxford Handbook of Southeast Asian Englishes, ed. by Andrew Moody (OUP site; Google Books).

In brief, my article has two parts. First, it is a country-by-country account of the places in Southeast Asia that the East India Company (EIC) traded to and set up trading posts in, 1600–1800, with a description of the nature and duration of the contact. Second, building on the first part on the one hand, and research on language contact situations and the development of English varieties on the other, it makes the case that during the EIC’s activities in Southeast Asia, there probably developed contact varieties of English – even if we don’t know of any.

If you would like a pdf of my article, drop me an email at firstname @ lastname.fi.

This article means quite a lot to me, so I wanted to write a blog post reflecting on the topic and contents of my piece, as well as the writing process (really not a common genre, I know).

Only when DHL brought my copy of the book last week, did I notice, belatedly, that I had missed in the proofs that “1600–1800” had been dropped from the end of the title of my article. This is annoying, since in my article I’m very careful not to stray into the 19th century (much). Not because it’s not relevant: on the contrary, the EIC are a major part of the foundation stories of Hong Kong and Singapore, for instance. Rather, my aim in writing this article was to bring to light how English-speakers were active in Southeast Asia for two full centuries before the 19th century, which is generally where histories of World Englishes in Asia and Oceania begin.

In the 19th century, the British Empire reached its greatest extent, and was at its strongest; and it is true that the direct foundations of varieties of English around the world, and of the use of English as a world language, were laid in the 19th century. By then, the EIC had turned into a two-headed beast. One half had become what was soon to turn into the Raj: a vast bureaucratic organization overseeing and controlling India, the main purpose of which was to extract rent and resources from the subcontinent. The other half was still a commercial enterprise, now concentrating on China and the tea trade. But the EIC lost its trading monopolies one by one: India in 1813, China in 1833. In 1858, the British Crown took over control of India from the EIC; in 1874, the Company was dissolved.

In other words, during the 19th century, the EIC was a major player in South and Southeast Asia. Part of it was absorbed into the British Empire, and the monopolist corporation became obsolete. It is beyond question that the EIC forms an important part of the history of all varieties of English spoken across the region. It is also quite clear that it’s in the 19th century that solid foundations of these varieties of English were cast – even in India.

However, starting in the 19th century skips over two full centuries of contact in Southeast Asia between English and Southeast Asian languages. Starting in the 19th century frames the history of World Englishes as one legacy of Imperialism – which isn’t exactly wrong, but when we place English into the broader historical linguistic ecology of the wider area, a different and more nuanced picture emerges.

I have previously worked on the language of early EIC traders in Japan (and to a lesser extent, in Southeast Asia) in the early 1600s. In my work I showed that the multilingual environments the EIC merchants found themselves in are reflected in the letters they wrote. The letters of the EIC merchants in Japan contain words borrowed from Japanese, naturally, but also from Malay, and especially from Portuguese and Spanish. The presence of Malay is explained by it having been a supra-regional lingua franca; similarly Portuguese was a lingua franca used across the Asian seaboard. Further languages found in the EIC letters (as borrowed words) include Dutch, Persian, Arabic and Chinese.

Which goes to say, early EIC merchants in Southeast and East Asia lived and worked in multilingual environments – which is more or less obvious anyway – but, importantly, you can tell this from the records they left. These English-speakers were influenced by all the other languages they came into contact with, and these influences left traces. This is no wonder, for many of the early EIC merchants had to survive in small groups in foreign communities for extended periods of time: ships didn’t necessarily visit every year, thanks to vagaries of weather and international relations. But when a ship finally arrived, the tables were dramatically turned: all of a sudden there were dozens or even hundreds of English-speakers present, often for months at a time.

The situation, then, was somewhat analogous to tourist destinations today – say, Greek islands. Year-round, you have a very small local community of migrant Englishmen, and then every summer, hordes more descend upon the place from England for a short period of time. This means that there is, in fact, two kinds of language contact going on at the same time: i) constant close contact between a small group of temporary residents and the larger local community, and ii) seasonal contact between a massive group of short-term visitors and the local community.

What’s missing from this account so far is, of course, everyone else. Just about every place where the EIC went also attracted other foreign traders, from near and far (just as Germans and Scandinavians also like the Aegean Islands). The resulting polyphony of voices goes some way to explain the aforesaid abundant use of borrowings from various languages, and especially from lingua francas. This must have been universal, and we should probably think of the linguistic environment having at one level an amorphous multilingual jargon for inter-cultural and -lingual communication, lexified from all of the languages spoken by those who used it; and that these discrete languages were in turn influenced by this jargon and borrowed heavily from it, just as English did.

But if we just think about the role of English in 17th-century Southeast Asia, the important things to consider are the two kinds of language contact I listed above, and then the all-important role of the local inhabitants. They would have picked up some English too – perhaps just a few words, but very likely more extensive if often passive understanding of common words and phrases. Since Portuguese was used as the ‘official’ language of communication, there was ostensibly no reason for people to learn English (everyone used interpreters). However, I think it’s fair to assume that on top of locally hired employees and servants, for instance local vendors (and especially local kids) would learn some rudimentary English to sell their wares – a large ship full of potential customers does not go unnoticed. And the EIC merchants also formed intimate relationships with locals, often producing children. This means that even when trading posts were closed and the EIC withdrew, if English-speakers returned not too many years later, there would still have been some knowledge of English among the locals.

Of course this argument builds on some suppositions, but the basic building blocks of my claim have been verified by various studies of language contact situations. What is missing is a systematic study of the EIC archive – and other archives – to find evidence to prove, or disprove, my theory. Yet I find it impossible to believe that, for instance, no local variety of English developed during the EIC’s presence in Bengkulu on Sumatra: after all, they were there for 140 years, 1685–1825!

Finally, a few words about the writing process.

I was asked to contribute to this volume by the editor, Andrew Moody, several years ago. At that point, I was burnt out after having defended my PhD, and I was also rather tired of working on the East India Company (EIC). But I jumped at the chance of writing about a topic that was mostly unknown and unacknowledged in histories of World Englishes.

The writing process was incredibly painful and slow, but ultimately cathartic. Very ultimately, for I delivered my first draft I think a full year late (to the day, if memory serves). The last couple years of doing my PhD had somehow eroded my ability to write, but more so to read and process academic texts. I loved the topic of this article, so it was beyond frustrating to be unable to get myself to work on it. So I remember vividly what I felt on finally sending off my draft: relief, victory, vindication, joy, and fulfilment. Like, I can do this, mofos!

It was like something had been unblocked; now I had concrete proof that I can still do this.

…It turned out that in fact I still couldn’t, as over the next year or two I had to withdraw from three or four different articles I’d initially promised to write. But since then, I’ve been able to deliver some more texts, so I reckon I’m over the worst of it.

I am a bit sad at having delivered this article late, for I still see room for improvement in it, and of course there wasn’t the time to do a thorough revision as I was well behind schedule. I don’t think the piece has any particularly weak points as such, I do feel it can stand on its own. I certainly stand behind what I wrote.

I think, however, that a very fair question to ask is, was I the right person to write this chapter?

This article is a history of the English East India Company’s movements and activities in Southeast Asia, but the EIC are just a small part of the history of Southeast Asia. I feel that the history of Southeast Asia isn’t mine to tell, and for that reason I really should have found a co-writer who could have brought that viewpoint into the piece. I’ll make sure to do that if I return to this topic again.

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.