Epistolary Tools and the Letter-Writing Process

When Bess sat down to write a letter at Chatsworth House in December 1551 - when she was Lady Cavendish, aged between 24 and 30, and having been married to Sir William Cavendish for almost four-and-a-half years - she did so at her own desk, which was furnished with the necessary tools and equipment for writing. We know this from one of the contemporary Cavendish household account books, which records payment for

a penknyve iijd, balance & weaghts xxd. paper iiijd. waxe ob. & an ynkhorne jd all this was to furnish my ladys wryting deske - iiijs vd ob ex

We find subsequent payments made over the next few years, regularly for 'Reddewaxe' (usually 2d), frequently for 'a qware off paper' (usually 4d) and one time for 'ij dossen swanne qwells & iij dossen peggs. xvjd', all of which provide evidence of the couple's ongoing literate activities.

These reference remind us that early modern letter-writing involved an array of tools, only some of which remain familiar to us today. A letter-writer would need: an inkwell, a standish (inkstand), a candle, a feather quill (usually a goose feather; the word 'pen' derives from penna, Latin for feather), a seal matrix (the stamp which added an impression to the wax), a dust-box, scissors, a knife, whetstones, rulers and perhaps a pair of compasses. His or her writing surface would probably not be a flat table, but a portable box with an angled writing surface, which might also be used to store the rest of the equipment. Paper would be cut to size with scissors, then its surface rubbed to ensure it was correctly absorbent, and not soak up too much ink. Early modern letter-writers usually made their own ink at home, rather than buying it in. It was a precise process: too much acid and the ink could eat through the paper over time, although it is not clear if this was known at the time. (As Peter Beal notes, the acidic elements of ink were reduced in the nineteenth century after the introduction of steel-tipped pens, which otherwise rusted.) Early modern ink that now looks brown was probably black originally; the darker colour comes from vegetable matter which has now decayed.

The pen would be prepared by cutting a quill to a good holding size and sharpening a nib. The pen would then have to be refreshed constantly with ink and repeatedly sharpened with a pen-knife. A letter from Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, to Bess, c.1580, written in his own hand, clearly shows variation in the ink density, caused by Dudley dipping his pen, at one point part-way through a word: 'hartyest prayers' ID 118. In contrast we may note the more accomplished penmanship of the main scribe Bess uses for her letter to Sir Julius Caesar, January 1603/4, in which ink variation is hardly discernible, as the scribe was able to disguise the refreshing of the pen ID 161. Sand or absorbent paper would be applied to the letter after writing, before folding, in order to soak up any excess ink; sometimes grains of sand may still be seen or felt on the paper. In short, to write in the early modern period was a laborious process, a considerable skill and even something of an ordeal.

An interpretation of a letter begins with an understanding of these practical and physical circumstances of composition. Recovering the writing process demonstrates that an early modern letter could not simply be rushed off. Even a short, informal note would require some degree of planning and preparation. We should therefore not be hasty to label any early modern letter as frivolous, and even communications that may seem light on content should be carefully mined for implicit messages. A letter-writer with what seems like little substance to impart - a school-child to his or her parents, for example - might write in order to demonstrate increasing proficiency with the pen. The communication represented a significant badge of humanist education. The letter from Arbella Stuart aged 12 years old to her grandmother Bess ID 106 is a good example of a missive light on content but carrying material evidence of her developing penmanship.

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References and Further Reading

  • The Account Book cited is Chatsworth House, Devonshire Manuscripts, Hardwick MS 1 (Account Book of Sir William and Lady Cavendish, 1 November 1551 - 23 June 1553).
  • For images of oak galls for ink, a quill, bag of pounce, inkstand and knife see Early Modern Handwriting: An Introduction by Elisabeth Leedham-Green (external site; part of the University of Cambridge English Handwriting: An Online Course).
  • For an authoritative illustrated guide to this subject, from which this web-essay benefits throughout, see Alan Stewart and Heather Wolfe, Letterwriting in Renaissance England (Washington, DC: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 2004).
  • For the details about ink see Peter Beal, A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology 1450-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 203.
  • The main resource for early modern ink research is William Phillip, A Booke of Secrets: Shewing diuers waies to make and prepare all sorts of Inke, and Colours (London: Adam Islip for Edward White, 1596). See also Michael Finlay, Western Writing Implements in the Age of the Quill Pen (Carlisle: Plains, 1990).
  • For more on the writing process see Peter Stallybrass, Roger Chartier, John Franklin Mowery and Heather Wolfe, 'Hamlet's Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England', Shakespeare Quarterly, 55 (2004): 379-419.
  • Mark Bland's A Guide to Early Printed Books and Manuscripts (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), p. 88, gives a description of the ordeal of writing.
  • The locations where Bess wrote her letters and the equipment she used for writing are discussed by Alison Wiggins, Bess of Hardwick: Reading and Writing Renaissance Letters, Material Readings in Early Modern Culture (Ashgate, forthcoming 2014).
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 Digital Humanities Institute at The University of Sheffield
Version 1.0 | ISBN 978-0-9571022-3-1
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