Reading the Letter: Past and Present

The final thing you should pay attention to when reading an early modern letter is yourself: specifically, where you are sitting. It is likely that you have caught a bus or train to the archive in which it is kept, or driven there. Perhaps you have flown to another country to see this document, or you are viewing it digitally in an archive on the other side of the world. Possibly you have required security clearance, presenting a letter of introduction from a senior academic, showing identification, undergoing a bag-check on the way in to ensure you are not carrying a leaky pen, or concealing a pair of scissors. You may be required to wear gloves, or sit somewhere you can be monitored. All these factors already influence your understanding of a historical document, instilling in you a sense of its value today, as a unique, fragile, important and (often) priceless artefact.

But there is another index of value in operation here: the fact the document you are reading has survived at all is strongly suggestive about its value to owners over the years. Someone once took the time to fold this letter and store it, preserving it for re-reading, safekeeping or future use, actual or potential, and perhaps encoding it within an existing filing system. The letter may have been endorsed or docketed (or 'doqueted'), in order to record a brief summary of its contents, or a note of information relating to it (sender, date received and so forth), and this kind of information also signals the ways in which letters were categorised by their early owners. In some cases the letter may have accrued layers of notes, readers' marks and library stamps, variously added at different points during its afterlife. For example, on the address leaf of Francis Willoughby's urgent letter to Bess (to ask to borrow her comfortable litter to transport his ailing wife from Buxton), first, Willoughby's scribe added the superscription, second, one of Bess's scribes added an endorsement ('master wyllobye' and 'Bwxton') and then, subsequently, the antiquary Joseph Hunter added notes on Willoughby whilst preparing his History of Hallamshire (1819) ID 095.

In some cases we find that a particularly full endorsement has been added to a letter. One reason for a fuller endorsement would be to summarise the main gist of the letter, especially for individuals who received high numbers of letters. For example, Bess's letter to Burghley is endorsed by one of his many secretaries (necessary to process his enormous correspondence), who summarises the pith of Bess's petition regarding her granddaughter Arbella Stuart's inheritance entitlements ID 162. Another reason for a particularly full endorsement would be to provide explication in the case of an obscure letter. For example, the enigmatic extracts from two 'secret' letters concerning Mary, Queen of Scots, sent without a signature or superscription to indicate their origin but now in the State Papers, are endorsed: 'Extract of a secret Lettre sent to my Lady Shrewsbury with another dated in Iuly by Master Charles Cavendishe .1582.' ID 147. Another reason for a fuller endorsement would be the anticipated future use of a letter. For example, the letter in the State Papers from Bess in which she gives details of how she claims to have been mistreated by her husband holds obvious potential future value as legal evidence and is endorsed: '2. August 1584 ye Countess of Salopp. hir hard vsage by my Lord hir husband' ID 150. Our knowledge of a document's provenance can thus directly inform our understanding of the kind of communication it constitutes.

How might the circumstances of a letter's survival tell you something about its 'genre'? Compare the two letters that open the volume of essays Early Modern Women's Letter Writing, 1450-1700, one from Margaret Paston, a letter of business dictated to a scribe, the other a more scandalous missive from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. The former would have been kept as legal evidence in case of future disputes, whereas the second, more self-consciously literary, was written in several drafts, carefully filed and published after the author's death. When a letter's original recipient died, his or her inheritor decided to keep it - or, at least, did not tear it up, use it to line pie-tins or cast it into 'the safest secretary in the world, the fire'. Eventually this document passed into the hands of a library or private collector, at which point it was assigned financial value as a historical artefact and incorporated into a new ordering system with its own codes. In a 'reading' of an early modern letter, all these factors now contribute to our essential understanding of this document's meaning through history.

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References and Further Reading

  • For discussion of the Paston and Montagu letters see James Daybell, 'Introduction', Early Modern Women's Letter Writing, 1450-1700, ed. by Daybell (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 1-15 (at pp. 1-2).
  • For manuscripts as pie-liners, see W. W. Greg, 'The Bakings of Betsy', The Library, 3rd ser., 2 (1911): 225-59.
  • The reference to the fire as a safe secretary is from TNA, C115/M35/8388, John Pory to Viscount Scudamore, 17 December 1631.
Author(s): Daniel Starza Smith, April 2013


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Developed by The University of Glasgow

Technical Development

Technical development by The Humanities Research Institute

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Funded by the AHRC

'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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