In The Secretary in Fashion (1654), Jean-Puget de la Serre (via his translator John Massinger) instructed his readers that their letters:

must be written fair without any blots, upon fine perfumed and guilded Paper (if you please) and with large Margins. (1654, sig. B8r)

Not everyone could, or wanted to, take this advice - but there is nevertheless overwhelming evidence that the paper on which a letter was written constituted part of its statement. A letter from Thomas Dooksie of 10 March 1611 contains a post-script which indicates assumptions about the use of paper in letterwriting, some of which were more obviously noticed in the breach than the observance:

I must craue pardon for wryting on soe bad paper for I haue lost the key of my desk and ^can^ come to noe other/

John Donne, meanwhile, never seemed able to find a piece of paper large, strong or fine enough to stand as a metaphor for his deep feelings of friendship:

there is not a size of paper in the Palace, large enough to tell you how much I esteeme my selfe honoured in your remembrances; nor strong enough to wrap up a heart so ful of good affections towards you, as mine is. ... I Would I were so good an Alchimist to perswade you that all the vertue of the best affections, that one could expresse in a sheet, were in this ragge of paper. (1651: 254, 264)

To use a generous amount of paper when writing was a way to signal respect, especially to a superior. Almost a century after Bess was writing, Antoine de Courtin, in The Rules of Civility (1675), urged his readers to use a whole sheet of large paper in order to show due respect to their readers:

To make use of large Paper rather than small, and a whole sheet (though we write but six lines in the first Page) rather than half a one, is no inconsiderable piece of ceremony, one shewing reverence and esteem, the other familiarity or indifference.

Certainly this advice would have been understood by Bess and her contemporaries. Three letters among the Bess corpus attest to her use of larger paper in this manner (that is, larger than the more typical sized page of 20 x 30cms) and it is noteworthy that two are to her most high-ranking correspondents and one to her husband during their marriage crisis: to Elizabeth I (23 x 34.5cms, ID 120, 17 March 1577/8), the earl of Leicester (22.5 x 36cms, ID 110, 27 June c.1576) and Shrewsbury (22.5 x 34cms, ID 229, 14 October 1585). As Alison Wiggins argues, 'In each case, the extra-large paper complements the letter's linguistic content, in which Bess offers effusive expressions of deferential gratitude and loyalty'. Clearly, critical situations demanded special measures. It was not only the size of the paper that mattered, but also the quality. Fine paper was expensive, and thus functioned as a marker of respect. Mark Bland make several important observations about the materiality of paper:

The first obvious thing about paper is its colour and, at touch, its texture: whether it is coarse or smooth, and its weight. Some paper may be subject to discolouration from water-staining or chemical washing (which turns it a pale brown), but most 'white' paper will vary from a milky opalescence through cream, to shades of yellow and brown if displaying signs of ageing. Inevitably, the better qualities of paper are less prone to visible ageing than the cheaper ones (2010: 39)

To give the best impression, one would use the premier-standard white paper imported from Italy or France. We know from Bess's household account books about the kinds of paper she bought in 1591, which included six quires of Frankfurt paper, six of Venice paper, and ten of white paper. Since a quire contained 25 sheets, purchases of six and more quires clearly indicates the anticipation of regular epistolary activity. Furthermore, the specification of 'brown' and 'white' paper, paper featuring a 'pott' watermark, or imported from 'Venice' or 'Frankfort', confirms that paper quality was actively monitored in Bess's household.

There is no indication from these account book records (or the extant letters) as to whether Bess ever used gilt-edged paper, although gilded paper was a strategy employed by other early modern letter-writers to impress. Other contemporary colour-edged papers are also known. A letter from John Donne to his brother-in-law Sir Robert More, which jokes about the blue clothing of fashionably-attired Danish courtiers, is edged in blue; some of the very few other coloured edgings noted to date were sent by Donne's friend, newsletter-writer George Garrard whose green-edged paper gave his regular updates in the 1630s, '40s and '50s a sense of elegant exclusivity. After the death of her husband, Elizabeth of Bohemia blackened the edges of her writing paper to communicate her mourning. In fact, when considering paper, the edges are always worth examining, not only for colour but in order to establish whether they are deckle (rough) or have been trimmed. For example, Francis Willoughby's note to Bess, 26 April 1589, still has deckle edges, meaning that since its removal from the paper-maker's tray, where it would emerge rough, it had not been cut with a pair of scissors to make a smooth edge ID 095. This distinction can potentially be suggestive about the care or haste of the sender. It can be compared to the fine paper with cut edges used by Bess for her letter to Elizabeth I on 9 January 1602/3 ID 128.

The most extraordinary paper among Bess's correspondence was used by Aletheia Talbot, Bess's granddaughter, in an undated letter probably sent between 1606 and 1608 ID 237. A letter bearing both a wax seal and white floss, it is nevertheless most remarkable for its extravagantly decorated borders, glittering with golden leaf-patterns and monogram letters. Aletheia would have been in her early twenties when she sent this note, which apologises to Bess for not having written earlier. The lavish attention spent by Aletheia on creating this object of beauty for her elderly grandmother bespeaks love and affection, and it is tempting to see a relationship between the intricate patterns inscribed on the paper and the careful embroidery patterns so highly prized by Bess at Hardwick.

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References and Further Reading

  • John Massinger is quoted from the second edition of his translation of Jean-Puget de la Serre's The Secretary in Fashion (London, 1654); John Donne from Letters to Severall Persons of Honour (London, 1651).
  • Thomas Dooksie is quoted from Folger MS L.a.414, also cited in Alan Stewart and Heather Wolfe, Letterwriting in Renaissance England (Washington, DC: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 2004), pp. 50-51.
  • For more on paper see: Richard Hills, Papermaking in Britain 1488-1988: A Short History (London: Athlone Press, 1988); D. C. Coleman, The British Paper Industry 1495-1860: A Study in Industrial Growth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958); D. L. Gants, 'Identifying and Tracking Paper Stocks in Early Modern London', Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 94 (2000): 531-40; Jonathan M. Bloom, Paper Before Print (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press 2000/2001). The website of the International Association of Paper Historians [external site] is also a useful resource.
  • Donne's blue-edged paper can be found in Folger MS L.b.539, 10 August 1614. It is reproduce in John Donne's Marriage Letters in The Folger Shakespeare Library, ed. by M. Thomas Hester, Robert Parker Sorlien and Dennis Flynn (Washington, DC: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 2005), pp. 96-98 and 56-58. For an example of Gerrard's green-edged paper, see SP 16/329/45. Antoine de Courtin's advice is given in The Rules of Civility (London, 1675), p. 146 and p. 154, also cited in Alan Stewart, Shakespeare's Letters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 50.
  • Bland's comments are taken from A Guide to Early Printed Books and Manuscripts (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).
  • The letter from Aletheia on pretty paper was sold into private ownership and its location is now unknown. A black-and-white image of the letter, and short description of its gilt decoration, is available in the Sotheby's sale catalogue for Wednesday 26 June 1974, Lot 2840.
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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