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!

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  1. That is wonderful stuff. Let me recommend Konrad Hirschler’s recent book „A Monument to Medieval Syrian Book Culture“which addresses some of these issues in that different context. I believe Edinborough Uni press has made that available pen access.

  2. In the LRB (London Review of Books) blog, Alec Ash wrote a post dated 30 November 2022 and title “Blank Sheets of Paper”.
    The blog post is about demonstrators holding up blank pieces of paper, because the words they want to say would get them arrested – and then being arrested regardless of their apparent non-committal demonstration. The use of blank space as a way of protest can probably be found in historical manuscripts too: do let me know if you can think of examples.

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