Palaeography, the study of historical handwriting, is not to be confused with the pseudoscientific discipline of graphology, defined by the OED as 'The art or science of inferring a person's character, disposition, and aptitudes from the peculiarities of his handwriting'. Certainly handwriting can offer a wealth of clues about the nature of a letter, but little evidence suggests that handwriting alone is sufficient basis for discerning a writer's psyche. So what clues are left by the handwriting of an early modern letter? Answering the question relies largely on two factors - which script a writer used, and whether or not someone else was employed to inscribe the letter on the sender's behalf. This section therefore discusses the potential communicative impact of particular scripts and the use of scribes.

The early modern period saw humanistic upright letter-forms replace medieval Gothic script. Educated men were taught to write in the older 'secretary' script, which was predominantly a business hand, and was not, on the whole, taught to women. Women were taught the italic script, which was considered easier to learn. Italic was also used by some aristocrats and humanists, and became much more standard after universities introduced it in the mid-sixteenth century. As such, it is often the case that less well-educated writers have more immediately legible scripts to a modern-day reader. For contemporaries, to perceive handwriting as simple or untutored could have specific implications: many women used their 'bad' handwriting (often not so illegible) as an opportunity to flatter their addressee, subtly placing themselves in a deferential position in order to increase the chance of receiving assistance from them.

Analysing scripts and hands, then, can be suggestive about the writer's education. In the mid-sixteenth century, italic script was relatively innovative and fresh; by the mid-seventeenth century, a writer using secretary script would have seemed old-fashioned. In the intervening period, many men (and a few exceptional women, such as Elizabeth I) trained in both traditions and combined letter-forms from both styles in their writing - known as a 'mixed hand'. Sometimes we even find different scripts used by the same writer within the same letter, such as the switch to italic just for the signature in the letters from Roger Manners ID 046 and Sir Francis Willoughby ID 095 to Bess.

Female readers were either perceived to prefer italic, or known only to be able to read that script (although most women of stature could read secretary, even if they could not write it). This reminds us that competency with different scripts relates not only to writing but also to reading ability. Even though she only wrote in italic herself, Bess had no problem reading a range of different secretary hands. These included the very difficult secretary hand of her fourth husband George Talbot, sixth earl of Shrewsbury. In fact, Shrewsbury's handwriting is so difficult to read that he has become something of a palaeographical celebrity among historians today. When I asked James Daybell to recall his own experience of transcribing Shrewsbury's hand, he commented that:

the scrawl of George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, remains one of the worst sixteenth-century hands that I have had to decipher. There is no short-cut to reading and understanding idiosyncratic, erratic and frankly appalling hands like this, other than to spend a significant time mastering their intricacies and working through letter by letter, line by line. (James Daybell, by interview, December 2011)

Despite the difficulties Shrewsbury's hand presents to us today, it seems that his correspondents, including his wife Bess, could decipher his handwriting, at least to a reasonable level. Although Shrewsbury is probably in a league of his own, he was by no means the only early modern individual with illegible writing. The handwriting of Edward Conway, Secretary of State, was so notoriously bad in his own time that a 1628 document in his name was once spotted as a forgery because the script was too legible (see SP 16/118/32). However, it is interesting to note that around 1610, long before Conway had reached a position of power and was writing to superiors in search of patronage, his handwriting is perfectly neat. Noting the development of handwriting style over the course of Elizabeth I's life, H. R. Woudhuysen argues that the queen's script 'shows the constant importance of bearing in mind or trying to reconstruct the circumstances under which a document of any kind was written' (2007: 1).

One of the principal circumstances of composition that we ought to consider is the use of scribes, whether trained official secretaries, or relatives asked to help with the writing of a document. There are many reasons why an early modern letter-writer might have employed a scribe instead of writing him- or herself. Some writers were not physically capable of carrying out the task. We know that Bess's husband Shrewsbury suffered terribly from gout, and dictated on 10 October 1580: 'Wife, I have received your several letters and am at this present so troubled with pain and stiffness in my hand that I cannot write myself …' ID 079. Shrewsbury's illness would eventually compromise his hands so much that he was completely unable to write by himself and use of a scribe became mandatory.

Another possible reason for using a scribe was illiteracy. Women, especially, were sometimes limited in their ability fully to express themselves - of 2300 letters analysed by James Daybell, sent by 650 women, roughly one-fifth had been written by a secretary (1999: 208-9). Indeed, the one letter we have from Bess's mother, Elizabeth Leche, is entirely in the hand of a scribe, including the signature, which may indicate she lacked the ability to write for herself ID 040. Such letters must be read with attention paid to the possibility of self-censorship, and this is therefore one of the areas where the letter's materiality can be used to interpret its contents.

When Bess uses a scribe to write to Lord Burghley in September 1592 she is quite careful to point out that she has not self-censored because she trusts in her scribe's secrecy - in fact, Bess carefully selected scribes who were at the top of her hierarchy of trust such as, here, her favourite son William Cavendish:

I am inforced to vse the hand of my sonn William Cavendysshe, not beinge able to wryte so much my self for feare of bringing great payne to my hed, he only is pryuy to your Lordships letter, & neyther Arbell nor any other lyuinge, nor shalbe./ ID 163

In this instance, the reason Bess gives for using a scribe is that she does not want to give herself a headache. As dowager countess, and with a difficult teenage granddaughter in the house to contend with, it seems that the last thing Bess needed was to strain herself with the laborious task of writing, especially when she had a son who could do it for her. We know that Bess was generally healthy and was signing and annotating business documents well into her eighties. That is to say, there is every sign she was perfectly capable of writing out her own letters but that, especially later in life, she often chose not to go to the trouble of doing so. Instead, she would employ a scribe to do the physical work, and then add her own, rather grand, authoritative signature.

For the wealthy, business scribes were hired penmen, often trained in a number of scripts, and frequently employed as part of an estate's or a civil servant's secretariat. Their role was to produce an anonymous neutral business hand - the early modern equivalent of sending a document word-processed in Times New Roman, or an email in Tahoma. Like modern-day typed letters, the sender would usually affix their own signature and perhaps a short personal note, such as Bess's letter to Walter Bagot on a legal matter, written in the hand of a scribe, which she signs in her own hand and adds a postscript to enforce the message ID 002. Professional scribal documents usually signal that a letter is on matters of business, whereas a document in the sender's autograph would likely be a personal communication. At the same time, it is important to note that when writing to a social superior - especially the King or Queen - the use of one's autograph was considered over familiar for most courtiers (current favourites excepted, of course). That Bess wrote to Elizabeth I in her own hand, in her letter of 1577/8, ID 120, should therefore be taken as a very decisive indication of Bess's confidence of her own high regard and special bond with the Queen.

In some letters we see longer passages in scribal and autograph hands alongside each other. For example, in one letter from Shrewsbury a scribe writes for his master 'I am well recouered of my gowte', but this is followed by a postscript in Shrewsbury's autograph hand regarding secret news. As Graham Williams discerns, the use of one's own autograph could be a clear signal to the recipient about the writing conditions: in this case, the scribe would have been sent away while the sensitive information was included in the message (Williams 2013; letter is Lambeth Palace Library, Talbot Papers, fol. 95). To take another example, in one amusing episode from 1624, John Donne's friend Sir Henry Goodere - who wrote in a beautifully clear, looping italic script - was asked to compose a letter to Sir Dudley Carleton on behalf of his son-in-law, Sir Francis Nethersole, when the latter's arm was not up to the task:

My Lorde / By my sonne Nethersolls lamenes of his arme after letting blood your Lordship: is like to have a lame relation from an ill memory which if it could have retayned his cleere relations to mee, yet you must excuse also my lamenes in the delivery … My Lord thus much I have written as neere, as I could remember to my sonne Nethersolls instructions, delivered mee yesternight in his bedd in whose behalfe I have no more to adde for ye present but his humble services and iust excuse that your Lordship is left to so ill a relator …

A post-script has been added by the pained, frustrated Nethersole in his own hand:

My Lord, / I see what alteration advertisements receive by passing through divers hands; my father Goodyeare who hath a much better pen than I, hath yet expressed what he had from me, with so much difference in many things that I must needs correct his letter, in some of the principal. … / ffrances Nethersole

Goodere's puns about his 'illness' of writing clearly were not without basis, and even with his arm in agony - bloodletting in early modern England was a rather brutal procedure - Nethersole forced himself to correct the letter. Nethersole and Carleton were important European diplomats, and it was vital for them to communicate the right message. It is interesting to note, however, that Nethersole did not just start the letter afresh, further testimony to the contemporary value of paper.

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References and Further Reading

  • There are many books which reproduce images of early modern handwriting, including Alfred Fairbank and Bethold Wople, Renaissance Handwriting: An Anthology of Italic Scripts (London: Faber and Faber, 1960); W. W. Greg, English Literary Autographs, 1550-1650; part I, dramatists; part II, poets (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1925-1932); P. J. Croft, Autograph Poetry in the English Language, 2 vols (London: Cassell, 1973); Giles E. Dawson & Laetitia Kennedy-Skipton, Elizabethan Handwriting, 1500-1650 (London: Faber and Faber, 1966); and Anthony G. Petti, English Literary Hands from Chaucer to Dryden (London: E. Arnold, 1977).
  • The letter from Hugh Holland to Cotton and his wife is now at the British Library, Cotton Julius C3, fol. 200r; it is reproduced by Katherine Duncan-Jones, 'A Feather from the Black Swan's Wing: Hugh Holland's Owen Tudyr (1601)', English Manuscript Studies, 11 (2002): 102-3.
  • Writing about Elizabeth I, H. R. Woudhuysen notes the presumption of any modern account of her script: 'she was a queen and therefore her writing was beautiful'; see 'The Queen's Own Hand: A Preliminary Account', in Elizabeth I and the Culture of Writing, ed. by Peter Beal and Grace Ioppolo (London: British Library, 2007), pp. 1-27 (p. 1; cf. pp. 25-26).
  • For Daybell's argument, see '"Ples acsep thes my skrybled lynes": The Construction and Conventions of Women's Letters in England, 1540-1603', Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association, 20 (1999): 207-23.
  • For more on secretaries, see Paul E. J. Hammer, 'The Uses of Scholarship: The Secretariat of Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, c.1581-1601', English Historical Review, 109 (1994): 26-51, and Peter Beal's In Praise of Scribes, passim.
  • Secretaries are pondered theoretically in Jonathan Goldberg, Writing Matter: From the Hands of the English Renaissance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), pp. 233-78.
  • For a detailed analysis of Shrewsbury's handwriting see Graham Williams, '"my evil favoured writing": Uglyography, Disease and the Epistolary Networks of George Talbot, sixth earl of Shrewsbury', Huntington Library Quarterly (forthcoming 2013).
  • The Goodere/Nethersole letter (18 April 1624) is SP 14/163/2.
Author(s): Daniel Starza Smith, April 2013

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