everything I love gets lost in drawers

Doing a tiny bit of cleaning at th’office, I come across small sticky piles of old post-it notes with, for the most part, cryptic messages or references scribbled on them. But there is also the occasional gem:

“I am a philologist and all my work is philological. I avoid hobbies because I am a very serious person and cannot distinguish between private amusement and duty. I am affable, but unsociable. I only work for private amusement, since I find my duties privately amusing.”

– JRRT 1955, letter to Harvey Breit*

Continue reading “everything I love gets lost in drawers”

Rabble of Mac Rebels

Thomas Wilson, writing to Sir Robert Cecil in March 1604 from Spain, describes the Irishmen in Spain (spelling and punctuation modernised):

“Besides this Mac Williams here is a great sort of other Macs and macaques as Mac Sweeny, Mac Shannon (or ‘Mac a shame on him’), Maurice Mac-I-know-not-who, Mac an Earl, Mac a devil, & such a rabble of Mac Rebels as never [a] Christian king had, that a man cannot stir in any corner but he shalbe confronted with some of them.”

In the Early Modern letters I work on, it’s quite rare to find passionate outbursts of this kind, so this was a nice change from the straightforward newsspeak that’s the norm. 🙂

Why am I doing this again?

I cannot claim to be an organized person who follows through agendas to their logical conclusions. Instead, more often than not, I find myself running down tangential paths, chasing unicorns or lemurs or hunches of inklings of ticklings of possibilities. Pots of gold at the end of rainbows, that kind of thing.

Recently, as part of the process of tracking extant and lost correspondence through the use of lists of correspondence – ie. comparing lists of letters to extant letters to see what survives, and using such lists to gain more information about both surviving and lost letters (such as names of carriers, routes of conveyance, dates of sending and receipt, etc) – I went through my notes made at the Bodleian library of Bodleian MS Rawlinson D 1035, ff. 6-23. This document is a list of letters sent by Sir Robert Cecil between 12 February 1606 and July 1607. I was interested in the letters sent to Sir Charles Cornwallis, the English ambassador in Spain, so I compared what is listed in the Rawlinson manuscript to other sources I had studied. And this is what I found:

Bodleian Bodleian BL TNA TNA Hatfield House Winwood
Rawl. D 1035 Tanner 75 Cotton Vesp. C SP 9/150 SP 9/213 CP
ff. 6-23 ff. 249-316
ref. ref. ref. ref. ref. ref. ref.
12r ix 469b p. 592 ? II 176
14v ix 479b p. 602 ? 227/267, 276, 278 II 179, pp. 249-253
17r p. 197 ? 206/29; 118/74 II 187, pp. 271-273
19v ix 672 p. 209 ? p. 805 ? II 194
20v 249r x 35-41 p. 215 ? II 198, p. 290/300*
23r 279v (x 146b, 150b) p. 238 ? II 222, 223, p. 325*
23r 279v x 146b, 150b p. 249 ? II 222, 223, p. 325*

Having done this, I came to think: So What? Why had I spent time in compiling this table? Did it tell me something I couldn’t deduce otherwise?

I was forced to concede that no, it did not, and that if I had a motive for making this table other than making sense of (parts of) Rawlinson D 1035 ff. 6-23, I had forgotten what it was. This was particularly the case as there was only one letter in the Rawlinson list which was directly relevant to my thesis – the letter listed on fol. 20v, of 5 February 1607, sent via Bayonne, which was where my man Richard Cocks was, and who would have forwarded the letter to Madrid. So in a sense, this was wasted effort – at least for my present purposes.

Then I started thinking about my findings in light of the question of why do letter-books survive. The sources for my table are as follows:

Bodleian MS Rawlinson D 1035 ff. 6-23: List of letters sent by Cecil, Feb 1606 – Jul 1607 (in a diary/notebook of Thomas Wilson, secretary of Cecil)
Bodleian MS Tanner 75 ff. 249-316: Copies of the correspondence of Sir Charles Cornwallis during his embassage in Spain (contemporary copies)
BL MS Cotton Vespasian C ix and x: The “Official Copy Book” of the in and out letters of Sir Charles Cornwallis, English ambassador in Spain, 1605-7 and 1607-8
TNA SP 9/150: Letter book of Sir Robert Cecil, 1605-1611 (contemporary copies)
TNA SP 9/213: An Entry Book of correspondence received and sent by Sir Charles Cornwallis, Ambassador in Spain, 1605-7 (contemporary copies)
Hatfield House, Cecil Papers: Papers of Sir Robert Cecil, Earl Salisbury, preserved at Hatfield House (originals, drafts and contemporary copies)
‘Winwood’s Memorials’: Memorials of affairs of state in the reigns of Q. Elizabeth and K. James I … from the … papers of … Sir Ralph Winwood, ed. Edmund Sawyer, 1725 (printed book, mostly from Cotton mss)

The BL Cotton manuscripts are official records kept by the secretariat of Sir Charles Cornwallis, and SP 9/213 seems to be another copy. SP 9/150 is a similar volume by Sir Robert Cecil’s secretariat. The originals – together with drafts and file copies – are preserved in the Cecil Papers at Hatfield House (and also for much of the broader correspondence, although not for these letters, in TNA SP 94 and, I think, some among the Cotton mss). Rawlinson D 1035 is a diary/notebook kept by one of Cecil’s secretaries (for personal reference?); Tanner 75 are contemporary copies – for purposes unknown. And finally, Winwood’s Memorials is a printed book based on, for the most part, the letter-books in the Cotton mss.

What is interesting here are the differences between these several sources.

It is interesting to find how Winwood’s Memorials seems to be the most comprehensive source for letter texts. Rawlinson D 1035 may be a comprehensive list – but then it is rather short considering Cecil’s voluminous correspondence; perhaps it is a record of those letters its writer was involved in the composition or delivery of? Why is one of these letters missing from the “Official Copy Book” in the Cotton mss? Did it, too, suffer from the same reasons letters were omitted from copy letter-books, as evident in SP 9/150 and SP 9/213 – namely i) culling letters of ‘less import’ (whatever that means – probably varying greatly between writers and compilers of letter-books), and ii) omission through accident (letters lost in the office, letters lost en route (drafts/home copies would survive), letters not copied due to various reasons such as neglect). (I’m sure there are many other reasons too.) The copies in Tanner 75 were presumably made to order, and thus reflect the interest of the copyist or his client. And the survival of originals is always a matter of chance: these letters do not survive even as copies in TNA SP 94, where most of Cornwallis’s correspondence remains extant, but several can be found in the Cecil Papers – which really are largely state papers and part of the same historical collection as TNA SP.

It would be very interesting to see this kind of comparison and tracing done for an entire collection of historical correspondence. Creating such a list would be laborious and tedious in the extreme, and I am not sure if in the end it would reveal enough about Early Modern letter-writing and culture to justify the work required. It would definitely enable us to learn more about motivations behind the creation of letter-books, and the circulation of letters and copies in the period, among other things. But these insights might better be gained without engaging in a mad scheme of scholarly minutiae – while I (too) am of an antiquarian mindset, I’m not sure I’d like for my life’s work to end up being described as a display of “towering but somehow unvital erudition” (as John Larner called Paul Pelliot’s massive two-volume Notes on Marco Polo (1959-1963)).

Woo, palaeography! (argh)

So, I’m transcribing bits of documents I photographed at the Staffordshire Record Office and the William Salt Library in Stafford last September. Most of the docs are older than the ones I usually deal with, which means I have to struggle a bit to read the handwriting. Today’s post is a celebration of the idiocy of features of hands and scripts, and a puzzle for you, dear reader (dear spambot? dear me?):

What is the second word in the phrase in the image above?

Tip: the partly deleted phrase reads “Stafford | [something] | Stalbroke”

Continue reading “Woo, palaeography! (argh)”

more on the vexing matter of assigning dates to documents

TNA SP 94/12 ff.144-147 is a 4-page document entitled:

“Note of my letters of aduertisments from spayne, Italy & other parts from Jan 1605 vntill [missing]”

In other words, it is a list of letters received during 1605. It was compiled by Thomas Wilson, secretary to Sir Robert Cecil, in charge of intelligencing relating to Spain.

On the surface, this document is unproblematic, as it is indeed a list of letters starting in January 1605, and continuing through December 1605. However, my astute readers will already remember what I wrote in my previous entry on Early Modern dates, dates are never as simple as they seem. In 1605, dates on the continent were usually marked in New Style (NS), and dates in England in Old Style (OS). A careful investigation of this document led me to realize that the list basically follows OS dating, but with complications worthy of being labelled inanities:

– dates between 1 January and 25 March are given the year OS
– this means that those letters are actually from 1606, and that the list begins in 1606 and then jumps back a whole year when it passes 25 March
– that is to say, the list is not chronological

Let me illustrate:

– however, all letters in the list are in fact dated New Style (a comparison with extant documents in SP 94 confirms this), and it is the NS dates which are copied in the list, rather than OS conversions, but with OS years!
– this means that the dates before 25 March are bizarre hybrids of NS day and month but OS year

In this case, I was lucky enough for most of the letters in the list to have survived so that I could determine what was going on in this list. But really this leaves me to conclude that much work remains to be done on Early Modern dating practices. For instance:

– why would Wilson compile a list of letters in this manner – surely a chronological (real-time) arrangement would be the obvious one? i.e.
a) the OS year 1604-5: 1.1.-24.3.1604 OS (= 1605 NS*) + 25.3.-31.12.1605 OS (=NS), or
b) the OS year 1605: 25.3.-31.12.1605 OS (=NS) + 1.1.-24.3.1605 OS (= 1606 NS), or
c) the modern = NS calendar year 1605: 1.1.-31.12.1605 NS

– did Wilson compile the list later, being confused with OS/NS discrepancies? did he bundle up his letters by date and year, or were bundles/lists created from loose, unordered documents, but in any case in returning to them later the years became fuzzy? (Wilson’s endorsements usually mark the year, but this changes between marking it NS and OS, which would suggest this was a lapse in systematicity)

– what about the matter of when did the year begin? Judging by this list 1 January was the beginning of the year for practical purposes, but then the year count did not change until 25 March

– what does this document say about other Early Modern lists of dates or dated documents? Is this kind of hybrid dating more common than we realize? Is this a frequent pitfall for people working on historical material? – I mean, I was of course aware of the OS/NS schism, but I would never have thought that anyone would create a list like this except by mistake

– what does all this say about Early Modern conceptions of dates and years and time?

There’s probably a book out there that explains all this.

* These dates are simplified: in 1600 NS dates were 10 days ahead of OS, so in fact 1.1.-24.3.1604 OS = 11.1.-3.4.1605 NS, etc.

Lady Day (and the vexing matter of assigning dates to documents)

I just realized that today is Lady Day – that is, Annunciation. Once upon a time, this was New Year’s Day. It probably derives from the date being originally set on the Spring equinox, which makes a pretty sensible first day of the year if your concept of the world derives from observations of the sun. (Not that the autumn equinox nor the solstices would be any worse, but Spring = growth = life = youth and we all grow old and die, so I would argue Spring is the more likely candidate for ‘beginning of the year’ than the other seasons.)

At the moment I’m thinking about dates. Or to be exact, I am working on dating documents. One might think that dating was one of the easier tasks in creating an edition – the difficulties of determining dates of some documents notwithstanding. As I’m working on an edition of, mainly, letters, happily they almost always include a dateline.

If only it was this simple. I have found to my cost that there were three problems which I needed to solve.

1) New Style vs. Old Style

a. The Gregorian Calendar

In the early 1600s, two (main) calendars were used in Europe: the Julian calendar, dating back to Antiquity, and the Gregorian calendar, newly installed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. The Gregorian calendar was designed to deal with the problem of solar years being slightly longer than 364 days, which the Julian calendar failed to adequately compensate for, for which reason by 1600 festivities originally set by solar dates (namely the equinoxes and solstices) had drifted 10 days in the solar calendar. In addition to improving the correlation between the numerical and solar calendars, the Gregorian calendar shifted the entire year ten days forward in order to fix the present discrepancy, so that ten days were “skipped” or “lost”. (Or twelve days in the case of UK, which adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, by which time the discrepancy between calendars had increased to twelve days. This, by the by, is why the fiscal year in the UK starts on 6 April: the commercial sphere found it easier to stick to a 365-day period for calculating annual rents, taxes, etc, than to skip the 12 days and recalculate everything.)

Anyway, there were two obstacles for all of Europe to happily adopt the new calendar. First, the Gregorian calendar was established by the Pope – and this being the period of the Reformation, many Protestants states did not rush to embrace things of Catholic origin. Second, old habits are hard to kick, and it took time for innovations to spread and take root. Long story short, Catholic Europe adopted the new calendar immediately or very soon, and the Protestant north did not. England did not convert to the Gregorian calendar until 1752, so that for nearly two centuries the British Isles and most of continental Europe followed different calendars. (Interestingly, Tuscany hung on to the Julian calendar until 1750, and the United Provinces of the Netherlands adopted the new calendar in 1583, so this matter did not blindly follow the religious divide.)

The Gregorian and Julian calendars very quickly became to be referred to as “New Style” (NS) and “Old Style” (OS) (or some other variants thereof).

b. New Year’s Day

The other (to a modern eye, annoying) problem with pre-Gregorian dates is that the beginning of the year was calculated from 25 March (see top). [ETA: But see the bottom of this blog entry.] In other words, a full year ran from 25 March to 24 March. Thus, for dates between January 1 and March 24, the year is one less than in our modern reckoning. However (and here it gets interesting), starting with Venice in 1522, European states slowly started to adopt calculating the beginning of the year from January 1. Much of the Catholic block had already shifted to this reckoning years before the (creation and) adoption of the Gregorian calendar.

To sum up a bit, here is a comparison of dates, depending on where the writer (dater?) was located:

      England (OS):   15 January 1605    26 March 1606    24 December 1606
      Spain (NS):       25 January 1606    5 April 1606           3 January 1607

However, the above examples are drawn from a theoretical ‘official’ calendar. In practise, many in England, and many Englishmen on the continent, used New Style dates. The catch is that while some datelines do note that the date is “stilo antiqua” or “nova”, most dates are not accompanied by a mention of which calendar they are following. This is not a problem in many contexts where the style can be guessed, and especially between 26 March and 21 December, when at least the year will be the same. But as is evident from the above examples, a date in the problematic quarter could potentially be in either year.

The traditional way to counter this problem in historical studies is to use double-dating: each year is marked so that the year according to modern reckoning is clear. For instance, 1605/6 indicates 1606 in our reckoning. This double-dating is of course only used for dates falling in the problematic quarter. (Double-dating was also used by an increasing number of English writers before 1752.)

Having shown that establishing the correct date of a document is far from a trivial or simple matter, let us move on to the second problem.

2) Assigning dates to problematic or undated documents

This was partly covered in 1b. above, but keeping in mind the problem of establishing the dates of documents according to modern reckoning as outlined in part 1, this can be a daunting task. In practice, it boils down to comparison with other documents of (ostensibly) the same period, namely other letters, and the lists and abstracts mentioned under part 2. The clues include mentions of dates and contents of previous letters as repeated in other, clearly dated, letters, and in lists and abstracts. They also include comparing information in the problematic letters with known historical dates (such as the Gunpowder Plot). The editor may also have to resort to palaeographical analysis to determine the dating of letters – this is something I have done both for entire documents (where the handwriting was “too early” for the year attributed by the repository), and for specific instances (where others had previously read “1603” I established that the number was in fact “1605”).

Sometimes a document cannot be dated to a specific date. In these cases the editor has no choice but to also use span dates, and ante quem and post quem dates.

3) Deciding on a policy of dating

What is the date of a document, and what date(s) should the editor assign to documents?

For letters, these questions have a seemingly obvious answer: the date of writing. But what about letters started on day 1 and finished on day 3? What about letters with postscripts dated 5 days after the beginning of the letter? And do we need to consider the date of sending of the letter, instead of the date of writing? (Perhaps more relevant in more modern times, where postal markings reveal dates of conveyance.)

– The easy option is to use the last date in a letter, unless the editor feels that there is some justification in assigning a span date (“1-5” or “1×5 January 1605”).

But what about copies of letters (or other documents)? Does one assign them the date of the writing of the original document (see above), or is the date of composition of the copy the one to use?

– The text-based solution is the easiest, and perhaps makes the most sense. That is, to use the date of the original document, and mark the date of copying (or estimation thereof) in the notes. Using the date of the original document allows for the copy to function as a surrogate when the letters are viewed in chronological order, so that there are no leaps in the textual continuity.

Moving on, what about notes, memoranda and the like?

– Here a date of composition seems the obvious one to use.

But what about abstracts of letters (sent or received), or lists of correspondence (sent and/or received)? These often lack a date of composition, but do contain dates of letters they refer to.

– The only sensible approach would be to calculate a likely date of composition, based in part on the contents of the document (ie. on or, which is more usual, some time after the date of the last letter in the list or abstract).

Finally, a technical point: when creating a digital edition, the editor may be forced to assign specific dates when none are evident, in order to satisfy the requirements of the computing process. These should always be noted both in the notes for the document, and within the encoding.


This blog ran much longer than I thought it would. I suppose it is evidence of how the matter is far from trivial, and requires proper editorial consideration and attention. Yesterday I spent a similar while thinking about the ordering of documents in editions, and what kind of numbering or IDs to assign to them. Maybe tomorrow I’ll tackle misplaced sheets and letters – the disparity between archival ordering and chronological ordering can pose tricky problems..


ETA: regarding dating the New Year in Early Modern England

It had not crossed my mind to actually look at the evidence to see when people in Early Modern England referred to New Year. So I had a look in the Corpora of Early English Correspondence, searching for “new year”. And what did I find? In the CEEC, 27 hits for “new year”, almost all of them pointing to 1 January (in some cases the date could not be determined). In the CEEC Supplement, 1 hit for 1 January, and 1 for 25 March. (There may be more instances in the CEEC and CEECSU: this was a cursory search.)

The next step would be to try to determine from the CEEC or other corpora – or, since the CEEC corpora are compiled from editions (which often modernize dates), directly from manuscript sources, whether people changed the year in their datelines after 1 January or after 25 March. I mean people in England, and in particular people like those in CEEC who referred to 1 January as New Year’s Day. ..but maybe I need not do this now. I do need to remember to eschew generalisations which I can’t justify, but I can definitely make claims about the material in my edition, where this does not seem to occur: people seem to be consistent in using NS/OS according to their surroundings or, when deviating from their given practice, make this change explicit.

Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, know what I mean?

To be honest, I’m really quite proud of my newest publication, “Early East India Company merchants and a rare word for sex” (forthcoming June 2011 in Words in Dictionaries and History. Essays in honour of R.W. McConchie). It’s an investigation of cultural history through looking at a bawdy word that comes up a single time in the letters of the English East India Company merchants in Japan (1613-1623). I start by trawling through a huge pile of Early and Late Modern English dictionaries, then get to the beef and discuss the word and its instances in EModE and LModE texts. Somehow in my conclusion I manage to bring in the various strands and add even more, so that an investigation of historical lexicography turns into an insight on Early Modern English merchants and their reading habits, and their taste of satirical texts.

Anyway, check it out, it’s quite fun, honest! (You can always skip the bit about dictionaries.)

But my point for this blog arises from the observation that people use euphemisms when talking about sex. For scholars, as someone put it, this happens by “hiding it behind learned curtains”. That is, when discussing the naughty stuff, switch to Latin. Other people switch register (like those I discuss in my aforesaid article), or language: for instance, when Samuel Pepys writes in his diary about liaisons with women other than his wife, he often switches to French:

“I [went] to St. Margaret’s, Westminster, and there saw at church my pretty Betty Michell, and thence to the Abbey, and so to Mrs. Martin, and there did what ‘je voudrais avec her …” (3rd June 1666, emphasis mine)

Anyway. The other day I read an interesting piece in the Japan Times Online about a late-19th-century Japanese traveller who visited Europe. The article is really a book review of the traveller’s memoirs, and in it there occurs the following paragraph:

He then goes on to detail over several pages, replete with quoted poetry and scholarly allusions, the ramifications for both geisha and customer of the practice [of buying sexual favours from geisha]. One understands — though there won’t be many modern Western readers who laugh out loud — that this use of a scholarly register and erudite references, augmented with bushels of pedantic detail, to discuss commercial sex and seduction is intended to be humorous.

Switching register as a marker of satire and humour I guess is a very common phenomenon — I’m sure we’ve all sent friends emails mimicking news flashes. In the case of the book reviewed in JTO, I found it amusing to find a reference to “learned curtains” being used for satirical effect – rather than straightforward euphemism – to talk about sexual practices. It makes a nice contrast to the works I looked at in and for my article.

I wonder if someone’s looked at this (kind of) practice in more detail?