Whose Language? Letters Written by Scribes

The production of an early modern letter frequently involved the use of a scribe, in some cases more than one scribe. Even when an individual was fully capable of writing for him- or herself (and may very well have done so on other occasions), it was not uncommon to enlist the help of a friend, relative, servant or professional secretary in certain instances. Of course, to enlist another person (the scribe) meant that production of the letter was no longer a solitary or private activity, which had the potential to impact upon the content of the letter (i.e. if the sender was unwilling to disclose secret or sensitive information to a scribe). But there were other implications involved in the use of a scribe: the script in which a letter appeared, the socio-cultural implications attached and the language itself that ended up in the letter. When we read early modern letters, then, we must always be alert to the use of scribes.

A total of 17 of the extant letters from Bess are written entirely in her own hand (i.e. holograph), but a much larger number use a scribe in some capacity. The types of scribes used by Bess, and the nature of their roles seems to have varied greatly during the course of her long life. For example, we know that when she was dowager countess of Shrewsbury Bess employed highly-trained professional male secretaries. But we also know she sometimes used female scribes, as is revealed in a letter from her fourth husband, Shrewsbury, in 1574, which begins, 'Wyfe I have Resevyd your lettar of your gyrrelles hande' (i.e. 'Wife, I have received your letter written in your girl's hand') ID 073. Furthermore, if occasion demanded, Bess would call to service close family members to write for her; such as the time, in 1592, when she used her trusted favourite son, William Cavendish, to write a sensitive letter to Burghley, saying that she fears the effort of writing will give her a headache:

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 ID 163

There were many reasons for using a scribe and commonly cited (as here, by Bess) was fatigue, ill health or pain. To take another example, Susan, dowager countess of Kent, apologises to Bess in 1593 for not writing in her own hand due to her poorly finger:

prainge yow to pardon me that I write not this with my owne hand, ffor that my ffinger continuethe so evell as that I am not able to howld a penn ID 032

Whether or not these excuses based on bodily indisposition were true, or were simply courteous rhetorical covers to be used when an individual preferred not to write herself, is, of course, another consideration. Either way, given the physical demands of early modern letter-writing, it is perhaps not surprising to find references to minor aches and pains as common explanations for having someone else do the writing for you. A huge quantity of correspondence was required to maintain relations in early modern social circles. Added to which were the manual demands of writing itself, that were much more extensive than our own and included preparing quills and ink and the potentially messy task itself of applying the ink to the page.

On other occasions, the reason to use a scribe might be to do with the writer's relationship with his or her addressee. Scribes were more frequently used in cases which called for acknowledgement of social distance. For example, we find that letter-writers may well use a scribe out of respect when writing to a social superior. Or, alternatively, in cases of emotional estrangement, where the scribe provided not only a physical but an emotional buffer between writer and addressee. Some of what we might call Bess's most emotional letters are written in the italic hand of Scribe A, whose identity is (as yet) unknown, but who was in Bess's service for many years. For example, Bess used Scribe A for her letters to her husband Shrewsbury written during their marriage collapse (ID 116, ID 202, ID 229), whereas her earlier letters to him, written during the harmonious years of their marriage, are in her own hand. It was perhaps that a sense of distance and control could be achieved, through use of a scribe, in an otherwise emotionally overwrought context.

On other occasions again, we find that the function of a letter could determine the decision of whether or not to use a scribe. For example, it was common to employ a scribe for legal matters which called for a more formal type of writing (i.e. discourses which, generally speaking, women had less experience of or training in than men). In such circumstances, a scribe might be expected, encouraged even, to alter the letter-sender's own language so as to produce a more official-sounding style. So, in her later years, as dowager countess of Shrewsbury, Bess employed Scribe D in this capacity, to engage with legalese; for example, Scribe D is used by Bess for her letter, to object to a petition, sent to Sir Julius Caesar, civil lawyer, high-court judge and master in the court of requests ID 161.

As these examples start to show, the language of Bess's holograph letters can be distinguished from the language of her scribal letters. One feature suggestive of the way Bess's scribes formalised her language involves lexico-syntactic variation. Specifically, we find, in Bess's letters by scribes, a higher number of compound adverbs (whereby, hereby and so forth), which have been linked to more formal and legalistic styles of letter-writing in early modern English. For example, Bess's scribal letters to Shrewsbury in the 1580s, during their marriage breakdown, contain a higher proportion of compound adverbs by comparison with the holograph letters she wrote to him during the 1570s. Scribally-written examples of these forms include:

  • 'wherby', 'therin' ID 229
  • 'therof', 'wheras' ID 202
  • 'wherin' ID 116
  • 'hereby', 'whereby' (x2), 'wherof', 'heretofore' (x2) ID 176 (this letter, also written from Bess to Shrewsbury amidst marital discord, survives only as a scribal copy, but it too was almost certainly composed by a scribe - a hypothesis supported by the conspicuous use of compound adverbs)

The presence of compound adverbs in Bess's scribal letters to Shrewsbury contrasts with an almost complete lack of such forms in her holograph letters to him written before their feuding (save one example of 'wher of' in ID 178). We might compare these examples from Bess's writing with the scribal-holograph distinction in the writing of Bess's contemporary, Joan Thynne (c.1558-1612): like Bess, Joan's scribal letters written during similar periods of familial and legal discord show a marked increase in the use of compound adverbs (Williams: 2010).

In conjunction with compound adverbs, the use of abbreviations also varied and could to some degree indicate levels of professional instruction. Bess, for instance, uses relatively few abbreviations in comparison with the scribes who wrote in a more formal capacity for her. For example, the brevigraph, or special character 'p' (written with an elaborated descender, or 'tail') was commonly used in early modern English to abbreviate letter combinations such as per and par. Bess does not use this abbreviation in her own writing, however, her scribes do when they are writing for her. So, we find the 'p'-brevigraph in a scribal letter to Richard Bagot in 1594 to abbreviate the word 'performaunce' ID 001. This letter to Bagot also, like Bess's scribal letters to Shrewsbury, contains the compound adverbs 'thereof' and 'wherein' and the overall impression achieved is of a style of scribally-influenced writing which contrasts with Bess's own writing.

Scribal variation is likewise observable in the case of Shrewsbury and gives us some possible hints as to his own dialect or accent. For example, when writing for himself, Shrewsbury used the first person singular possessive pronoun my, such as as in his holograph letter to Bess from the 1570s: 'so sone as it cvm to my handes' (i.e. 'as soon as it comes into my hands') ID 245. By contrast, in scribal letters from Shrewsbury we find regular occurrences of myne:

  • 'myne hands' in a scribal letter sent to his son Gilbert Talbot, 1587 (Lambeth Palace Library, Talbot Papers MS 3198, fol. 357)
  • 'myne eares' in a scribal letter to his servant Thomas Baldwin, 1581 (Lambeth Palace Library, Talbot Papers MS 3198, fol. 95)
  • 'myne hertie thankes' in a scribal letter to Burghley, 1587 (Lambeth Palace Library, Talbot Papers MS 3198, fol. 372)

These forms are absent from Shrewsbury's holograph letters in which my is always used. It is a variation most likely telling of Shrewsbury's Northern dialect, as the dropping of -n in the first person singular possessive pronoun was a change of northern origin underway in the latter half of the sixteenth century (Nevalainen 2006: 78). By the early-seventeenth century, myne was out of common use and preserved only in fixed expressions such as mine own - which is the only way Shrewsbury uses it, in several early letters to Bess, whom he refers to affectionately as 'my none' (presumably 'mine own'; although he also referred to Bess as 'my one', i.e. 'my own').

An explanation for the variation between my (in Shrewsbury's holograph letters) and myne (in Shrewsbury's scribal letters) would be to say that Shrewsbury, in writing, chose what was for him the more familiar, incoming Northern form my, whereas his scribes (perhaps of southern origin) used the more conservative myne. Another possibility is that in the process of oral dictation to a scribe, Shrewsbury was conscious of using more conservative language than when he was actually writing the letter himself.

We can find other variations between the language of Shrewsbury's holograph and scribal letters. For example, his scribal letter to Bess, 10 October 1580, closes with the formula 'And so comitt you to godes tuission' (i.e. 'and so [I] commit you to God's tuition') ID 079. This rather stiff formula, which includes the performative speech-act verb commit, is never used by Shrewsbury himself in his holograph letters to his wife, which almost invariably end with a simple 'fare well' (as in ID 064, ID 065, ID 068, ID 069, ID 070, ID 071, ID 072, ID 073, ID 075, ID 077, ID 107, ID 245). The verb commit appears again in a scribal letter from Shrewsbury to Burghley, but not in holograph examples to him. That is to say, the performative commit and its associated formulae stand out, very markedly, as scribal language, which contrasts with Shrewsbury's own written language. It is a strong reminder that the use of scribes was far from being a cosmetic issue, and that any consideration of the tone of voice of a letter must take careful account of its palaeography.

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References and Further Reading

  • An account of Bess's language and use of scribes is provided by Alison Wiggins, Bess of Hardwick: Reading and Writing Renaissance Letters, Material Readings of Early Modern Culture (Ashgate, forthcoming 2014).
  • Discussion of methodologies for scribal identification, which includes linguistic and palaeographic profiles for a several of the scribes used by Bess, is provided by Imogen Marcus, 'An Investigation Into The Language and Letters of Bess of Hardwick, (c.1527-1608)', unpublished PhD thesis (University of Glasgow, September 2012)
  • The use of questionnaires, and the advantages of combing spelling and palaeographic profiles for scribal identification, are discussed by Simon Horobin, 'The Criteria for Scribal Attribution: Dublin, Trinity College MS 244 Reconsidered', Review of English Studies, n.s., 60 (2009): 371-81; and Angus McIntosh et al, 'General Introduction' to A Linguistic Atlas of Late Medieval English, Vol. 1 (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1986), pp. 1-28.
  • The issues of scribal identification in relation to early modern handwriting is discussed by Jonathan Gibson, 'The Queen's Two Hands', in Representations of Elizabeth I in Early Modern Culture, ed. by Alessandra Petrina and Laura Tosi (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 47-65.
  • An in-depth consideration of holograph vs. scribal variation in the letters of one of Bess's contemporaries is provided by Graham Williams, '"yr Scribe Can proove no nessecarye Consiquence for you"?: The Social and Linguistic Implications of Joan Thynne's Using a Scribe in Letters to Her Son, 1607-1611', in Women and Writing, c.1340-c.1650: The Domestication of Print Culture, ed. by Phillipa Hardman and Anne Lawrence-Mathers (Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer, 2010), pp. 131-45.
  • Terttu Nevalainen, 'What's in a Royal Letter? Linguistic Variation in the Correspondence of King Henry VIII', in Of Dyuersitie & Chaunge of Langage: Essays Presented to Manfred Görlach on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday, ed. K. Lentz and Ruth Möhlig (Heidelberg: Winter, 2002), pp. 169-79.
  • The legalistic style of using compound adverbs in earlier Englishes is considered by Matti Rissanen, 'Standardisation and the Language of Early Statutes', in The Development of Standard English 1300-1800: Theories, Descriptions, Conflicts, ed. by Laura Wright (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 117-30 (especially p. 127).
  • Terttu Nevalainen, An Introduction to Early Modern English (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006).
Author(s): Graham Williams, 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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