Reading Material Signs

The last letter you received probably came from your bank, utilities provider or maybe the tax office. You automatically grimaced when you saw the envelope, fairly certain already about its contents - a demand for money or a notice about price rises - even though you had not yet read the letter. Perhaps the envelope was precisely large enough to contain some A4 paper, folded once, and bore a disingenuously friendly corporate logo. Maybe it featured the clear plastic address panel that only official business ever employs (certainly not your civilised friends). But cast your mind back to that time, weeks or months ago, when a different kind of envelope arrived, addressed by hand. Your interest piqued, you studied the handwriting for familiarity, quietly gauged the urgency of the message from the stamp value, peered at the post office stamp and looked for a return address to discern its provenance. Your 'reading' of the letter began before you opened it, based on the silent cultural assumptions embedded in its material features.

To a greater or lesser extent, an early modern letter would have been treated with the same kind of scrutiny before it was opened. However, the implicit material messages were different. After Alan Stewart and Heather Wolfe curated an exhibition on early modern letters at the Folger Shakespeare Library in 2004-05, they concluded that it was

in [the] letters' very tangibility that we discovered most: in the folds that are now four hundred years old, the grime and fingerprints deposited by the writer and readers and the men who delivered them, the broken seals, the torn ribbons, the ink blots, the maddeningly personalised spelling, the flourishing signatures … [These] material features … contain and preserve much of the real message of the letters. (2004: 10)

This web-essay aims to set Bess of Hardwick's letters in the context of contemporary cultures of letter-writing and the production and circulation of early modern manuscripts. It urges users of this online edition of her letters to consider the physical features of these documents when reading them, and to think about the ways those features contribute to a letter's message. The field of early modern letters has recently undergone a burst of activity, and this article introduces many of the key discoveries that this research has produced. It draws not only on the books and articles of the academics and archivists undertaking this research, but also on their personal observations and advice to students beginning a study of letters.

We might begin by looking at a letter by one of Bess's contemporaries, Thomas Lake, which shows just how complex and precise an affair the process of writing and sending a letter could be, potentially lasting for days and involving a team of professionals. Lake, an Elizabethan administrator, recorded the genesis of an official dispatch to Turkey in 1596, which introduces many of the major themes discussed below:

This morning Her Majesty hath signed the letters you left with me: those to the Turk I send by this bearer, ready folded up, while because they are to be directed with the same hand that wrote them, it may pleasure you to cause Sir John Wolley's man to do it, who knoweth the style, and that he give warning to the merchants to have some silk ready for the sealing of them, for the Clerks of the Privy Seal are loth to bear the charge, who will tomorrow attend you and my lord for the seal: these letters are accustomed to be sealed with the Privy Seal.

After the Privy Council had formulated the letter's contents, it was drafted by a secretary, the draft checked by Cecil and a fair copy made by a professional scribe (perhaps the same secretary). Cecil then passed the letter to Lake, who took it to Elizabeth for her approval and signature. Lake then had the letter folded up in the correct way, clearly deeming it unwise to entrust this important part of the process to someone else, and had a bearer deliver it back to Cecil. The secretary who transcribed the letter was responsible for writing the address; on this occasion someone in Sir John Wolley's household who understood Turkish epistolary conventions. Yet more people were needed to arrange and cover the cost of the decorative silk floss that would be used to mark this letter out as special, something that, like expensive paper, had to be bought from specialist merchants. Finally, the letter would be sealed shut with wax and stamped with the Privy Seal in order to emboss it with the Queen's authority. An understanding of all the stages in this process can greatly inform the reading of an early modern letter.

When it comes to reproducing material features, no edition of a letter (or poem, or play) is a substitute for seeing the real thing. However, with dispersal over time and numerous other difficulties of access, this is not always possible. This web-edition of Bess of Hardwick's Letters enables users to think about some of these questions in an informed way. Traditional printed editions can only approximate features such as layout, and rarely consider the communicative impact of features such as choice of paper or handwriting style. For practical and commercial reasons, a printed edition cannot include many images, but a digital edition is less constrained and this web-edition provides high quality colour images of 186 letters. This web-edition therefore brings us a step closer to the original documents. As such it awakens our awareness of the physicality and materiality of Bess's letters. Furthermore, this web-edition offers a number of material co-ordinates for exploring Bess's letters, enabling users to filter by material features. For example, we can filter for letters with enclosures, letters locked with ribbon, letters where the seal is still intact; letters can be searched by scribe or by type of letter-packet, such as accordion-folded or sewn letter packets, among other features. The emphasis on the letters' materiality, therefore, is embedded in the site's editorial framework, and this article presents the interpretive tools necessary for exploring those features. Nevertheless, there are many physical features that a digital image cannot reproduce, including the feel of quality paper or the impact of a large bifolium letter with acres of white space. We must remember that the meaning of an early modern letter is communicated not only in its linguistic forms but in its material signs - but when reading this web-essay, and following the links to images from the Bess corpus, we should always consider which of those signs can be discerned, and which remain invisible.

References and Further Reading

  • This essay benefits from the generous contributions of many letter experts who have shared their personal experiences of working with historical letters. They are each credited individually, but I would like to express my gratitude to them all here.
  • The letter from Thomas Lake to Sir Robert Cecil, 28 January 1596 is calendared in Reports of the Historical Manuscripts Commission: Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Most Hon. The Marquis of Salisbury, K.G., Preserved at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, 24 vols. (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1883-1976), VI, 32. The Cecil Papers (ProQuest, 2010-12; external site) have recently been digitised, making this important source much more accessible to researchers.
  • Two important articles which introduce major themes explored in this essay are Sara Jane Steen, 'Reading Beyond the Words: Material Letters and the Process of the Interpretation Process', Quidditas, 22 (2001): 55-69, and James Daybell, 'Material Meanings and the Social Signs of Manuscript Letters in Early Modern England', Literature Compass, 6 (2009): 647-67. Daybell's monograph The Material Letter: Manuscript Letters and the Culture and Practices of Letter-Writing in Early Modern England, 1580-1635 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) is the most recent book on this subject at time of writing, and develops many of the points made in his article and in this essay.
  • This article refers to several British State Papers, which can be viewed in high-quality digital reproductions on State Papers Online (Gale Cengage Learning, 2007): all documents cited 'SP' in this article are held in physical form at The National Archives, Kew (TNA).
  • Anyone interesting in pursuing further research into letters can draw on a number of excellent online resources developed in recent years (as follows; all external sites). Foremost among these is the ever-developing Cultures of Knowledge Project, University of Oxford: the podcasts and videos on their website offer useful introductions to key topics such as material features and networks of transmission. The talks by Alan Stewart (13 May 2010), Henry Woudhuysen (20 May 2010), James Daybell (2 June 2011), Alison Wiggins (26 April 2012) and Nadine Akkerman (24 May 2012) are particularly relevant to this article. A number of pioneering electronic editions of letters can be found on the website of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters (CELL), University College London, including the letters of Francis Bacon, Thomas Bodley and the intelligencer William Herle. These letters include a number of material features that pose unique editorial challenges, and it is instructive to see how the editors of these projects have dealt with them. CELL has usefully collected together links to a number of digital letters projects, not just documents from the seventeenth century. The CELL website also features a number of podcasts, such as 'Early Modern Letters: Lines of Communication'.
Author(s): Daniel Starza Smith, April 2013


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'Bess of Hardwick's Letters' was developed by The University of Glasgow with technical development provided by The Humanities Research Institute at The University of Sheffield
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