Why Study Manuscripts?
A wide range of scholarship in the humanities depends on manuscripts. The archival work which is the basis of much historical research is an obvious example, and editors of literary texts have always gone back to the earliest manuscript sources of those texts. But, as well as carrying texts, manuscripts are also significant artefacts in their own right. They are traces of past lives and can tell us a great deal about the culture in which they were produced. This has increasingly been acknowledged in recent years, and a considerable amount of work on manuscript studies has appeared. Perhaps the best way of showing what we can learn from manuscripts, however, is to provide a specific example.
A Sample Manuscript
Egerton Manuscript 2230 in the British Library is a fairly typical manuscript with literary interest from the first half of the seventeenth century. A brief description of the manuscript can be found on the BL's on-line Manuscripts Catalogue. I picked it more or less at random and it is no more or less interesting than many thousands of other manuscripts that are scattered in repositories around the world.
The manuscript is 91 leaves long and about the size of a modern paperback, with nineteenth century green leather covers. Most of the pages are filled with early seventeenth century poems; many poetical miscellanies like this survive, containing poems (and often prose pieces as well) which had taken the copyist's fancy. Items were mostly copied from other manuscripts. Such miscellanies provide rich evidence for the huge number of social networks and exchanges through which a wide range of texts circulated during this period.
By checking the handwriting you can establish that the poems in this manuscript, and the list of aphorisms at the back of the volume, were copied out by a single writer. But other hands are also found in the manuscript: for example the person who identifies the author of one poem as "Ben Ionson" formed some letters differently (such as e) and was using a different ink. The original compiler also left gaps, which have been filled with scrawled notes - the handwriting suggests these are much later (probably from the eighteenth century).
The continuity of the manuscript suggests that it was purchased by the compiler as a pre-bound blank manuscript book This can be confirmed by analysis of the paper itself: the same paper stock is found throughout the manuscript. Many other manuscripts were produced by binding together loose leaves or smaller booklets which were already written out, but in that case you are likely to find a number of different paper stocks gathered together. Unlike such aggregations, this manuscript is a single bibliographical unit, and this means that the various items contained in the manuscript have a significant relationship to each other - they are not bound together by chance.
The paper provides some further evidence about the manuscript. It has a watermark of a Paschal lamb (i.e. a lamb with a flag, symbol of John the Baptist) in a circle, with a countermark of a pennant and the initials "G 3" (or "G B"). It is possible to determine that this watermark is unlikely to be earlier than the 1620's, a considerable time after most of the poems were first written.
Leafing through the volume, some of the contents are familiar. On the recto of the 11th leaf is a poem that begins "Marke but this flea, and marke in this/ How little that which thou deniest me is" - John Donne's 'The Flea'. Underneath the poem is a short subscription: "Du: Flea". Other Donne poems follow, including 'The Will', 'The Good Morrow', and 'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning'. Overall there are eighteen Donne poems in the manuscript, but only a few note his authorship. Donne's poems survive in a great many manuscripts, and textual analysis of these copies could help to establish how they relate to others, providing clues about their origin and the copyist's social milieu.
The Donne poems are just a small portion of the contents of the manuscript. The collection contains many love poems, along with plenty of bawdy verse that would never have been printed at the time, such as the poem on folio 17 about "A gallant lass" who saw a gentleman with an outsized nose from her window. His nose led the lusty lass to imagine he "had the thing she greatly needed". There are also satires and libels against political figures, including a number of libellous epitaphs. In a series of epitaphs on Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury (died 1612), James I's chief minister, he is variously described as "Robbin that Diuell that neuer did good", the "ape/ Of crooked fame and crooked shape" (Salisbury was hunch-backed), who lived in "Oppression, lecherye, blood and pride", and who (according to another poem) died of syphilis contracted from the Countess of Suffolk. The author of these pieces is not identified: the authors of libellous verses were not foolish enough to publicise their authorship (even a dead Earl could be dangerous, and a live Countess even more so). These examples are typical of the ways in which manuscripts provide a very different view of the literary culture of the age from that provided by printed books.
The manuscript also provides information about its provenance. Alongside notes by several nineteenth century owners until its sale at Sotheby's in 1873, there is an earlier note stating that the manuscript was owned by a London pharmacist called "Richardo Glovero" in 1637. Who was this man? His occupation is interesting - surely unusual for a collector of coterie verse. Maybe he was a fashionable pharmacist catering to wealthy Londoners. That might also explain the Italianate name. A more complete picture of this man could be built up if other books or manuscripts belonging to him could be identified.
Links for Manuscript Studies
Stephen Reimer's Manuscript Studies site.
'Routes Towards Early Modern Literary Manuscripts', a guide to finding-aids originally by the late Dr Jeremy Maule.