Material Features

Database Catalogue

It is in the nature of print and digital editions to efface the material features of letters. Even high-quality colour images, where they are available, do not capture all the information or come close to simulating the actual experience of reading a handwritten letter. The loss of material features is a problem for readers of editions of Renaissance letters, not least of Bess's letters, where physical and visual forms frequently carry meaning and rhetorical significance (as outlined by Daniel Starza Smith on this site, The Material Features of Early Modern Letters: A Reader's Guide). One of the aims of this Project has been to develop methods to enable browsing and searching by material features in order to give due acknowledgement to their important communicative function, both in Bess's letters in particular and in Renaissance letters more broadly.

The process of editing Bess's letters has therefore involved examination of how materiality relates to meaning, in order to develop strategies to take these into account. A number of key questions are raised:

  • What are the material features of Bess's letters that an edition should ideally record and prioritise?
  • How can these features be systematically recorded so as to be suitable for searching and browsing? What standards and workflows should be applied, and what level of detail is appropriate?
  • What are the optimum ways of presenting these features, either in the metadata, in the transcripts, as images or by a combination of these?

These questions require us to engage with larger issues to do with how we define the properties of a letter as a physical object. It demands we interrogate which features should be regarded as essential to the identity of an object as opposed to features that are merely accidental attributes. They are questions that require we acknowledge that a letter's materiality relates both to its past and present physical states. That is, on the one hand, a letter's materiality relates to the circumstances of its earliest production and reception and, on the other hand, to its current state and appearance.

The information related to materiality has been captured in the Project's relational database catalogue. With regard to work-flow, in order to capture the data consistently and efficiently under archival conditions, a questionnaire has been developed within the context of the Project to be applied to each letter. This questionnaire, in actuality, exists as a form within the Project database catalogue to allow for ease of viewing and simultaneous data-input. The structure of the questionnaire (or form) can be summarised around 21 points:

21 things to say about a Renaissance manuscript letter:

  1. Provenance (Volume or collection. Circumstances of acquisition and names of owners. Other items bound or acquired with the letter.)
  2. Delivery status (Sent. Unsent. Draft. Contemporary copy. Post-mortem copy. Letter-book copy.)
  3. Bearer mentioned? (Is the bearer's name given? Is biographical information about the bearer available?)
  4. Enclosure mentioned? (Can the enclosure be identified and located?)
  5. Size (Size of whole sheet of paper. Size when folded, usually bifolium, for writing area. Size of letter packet, vertical and horizontal. Area of letter packet. Size folded for storage.)
  6. Folds (Pattern of folds for letter packet, horizontal and vertical. Creases on letter packet. Pattern of folds for storage.)
  7. Seal (Traces of wax, broken seal or seal intact? Papered? Colour of wax. Image or heraldic insignia embossed. Size of seal. One seal or double sealed? Position on the letter packet.)
  8. Ribbon and floss (Position on the letter packet. Method of attachment, sealed or stitched? Does it lock the packet? Colour. Length. Fray.)
  9. Slits (Correlate with folding? Number. Size. Horizontal or vertical.)
  10. Sewing holes (Correlate with folding? Number. Size. Patterning.)
  11. Paper (Deckle edges. Coloured or gilded edges. Quality. Colour. Condition. Bleed-through.)
  12. Watermark and chain lines (Description. Identifiable in Briquet?)
  13. Handwriting (Script, duct, penmanship.)
  14. Scribe(s) (For each part of the letter, e.g. letter, postscript, address leaf, marginalia. Identity of scribe(s)?)
  15. Ink (Colour. Changes of Ink. Bleed-through.)
  16. Slope of handwriting
  17. White space (Size of writing area in relation to the area available. Use of white space, measurements between letter, subscription, signature. Use of margins, measurements.)
  18. Layout and use of space (Is the letter longer than one side? Position of subscription and signature. Position of superscription.)
  19. Dirt and damage (Dirty, torn, wear and tear, other kinds of damage.)
  20. Restoration and conservation
  21. Additional notes

As the questionnaire starts to show, to capture the material and physical features of a letter is far from a straightforward matter. Each of the items listed may or may not be present and each includes sub-items that may have unique features or idiosyncrasies; such is the variable and unstable nature of manuscript culture.

The following discussion considers editorial issues and challenges in relation to capture of material features, as encountered during development of this web-edition. It should be noted that certain fields in the Project database catalogue have been designated for internal project use only, i.e. they are not output within this web-edition, although they have often contributed to establishing editorial criteria. For example, the 'dirt and damage' field (which corresponds to item 19 in the questionnaire above) has not been output in this web-edition but has contributed towards allocation of the 'delivery status' of letters. To take another example, measurements of letter-packet size (which corresponds to item 5 in the questionnaire above) have not been output in this web-edition, but have contributed towards allocation of 'letter packet type'.

Delivery Status, Bearers and Enclosures

The different categories of delivery status found across Bess's correspondence have been captured in the Project database catalogue in coded form, in order to ensure consistency of data input and to aid searching and sorting. There are 10 categories of delivery status, coded A - J, and it is worth listing these here as they illustrate the range of letter types under consideration:

  • A: from Bess, sent
  • B: from Bess, not sent (i.e. a draft or contemporary copy)
  • C: from Bess, sent and then forwarded by the recipient
  • D: from Bess and Shrewsbury, or from Bess and William Cavendish, sent
  • E: to Bess, sent
  • F: to Bess, not sent (i.e. a draft or contemporary copy)
  • G: to Bess, sent and then forwarded by her
  • H: to Bess and Shrewsbury, sent
  • I: to Bess and Shrewsbury, not sent (i.e. a draft or contemporary copy)
  • J: historical copy (i.e. a copy made post-mortem, after 1608)

The information has been output in this web-edition in the header to each individual letter, transformed as follows:

  • Sent (= A, D, E, H)
  • Not sent (draft/copy) (= B, F, I)
  • Sent and forwarded (= C, G)
  • Historical copy (= J)

In each header, 'delivery status' is combined with the 'sender', 'recipient' and 'date' fields, so as to provide a full picture of the earliest production and reception circumstances for every letter. Where we have two versions of a letter, such as draft and sent versions, links between the two are included in the header. The filter for joint senders and recipients brings together letters coded as category C, D, G and H.

Occasionally, we find a letter that resists easy categorisation. For example, ID 108 could arguably be categorised as either type D, F or G, depending upon the line of reasoning applied:

  • ID 108 as 'type F': Almost the entire textual content of ID 108 is constituted by a copy of another letter, one which was sent from Lord Burghley to Bess (i.e. ID 108 is, in large part, a transcript of a type E sent letter). As ID 108 is, then, a copy of a letter to Bess (in fact, the only copy we have of this letter) it would be reasonable to categorise it at type F, i.e. a copy of a letter to Bess (in this case one that just happens to have been circulated onwards to another party).
  • ID 108 as 'type G': The remaining textual content of ID 108 is a covering note by Bess's son William Cavendish, addressed to John Manners, in which he says that he here encloses the letter on behalf of his mother and asks Manners to return it once he has read it. That is, William explains that he is acting only as proxy for his mother, and it is she who sends the letter. This would be type G, i.e. a letter sent to Bess and then forwarded by her. (We might additionally note, here, that William's comments referring to 'this inclosed' letter, may not refer to the copy we have, ID 108, but may suggest that the original letter was sent to Manners as well as the copy, and that Manners returned the original as requested by William, and kept the copy, ID 108, for himself.)
  • ID 108 as 'type D': On the other hand, ID 108 could more simply be described as a letter which sent from Bess and her son William Cavendish to Manners and is therefore type D.

To categories ID 108 as type F would be to prioritise the linguistic codes; to categorise it as type D would be to prioritise the bibliographic codes; whereas to categorise it as type G would be to attempt to account for both. The important point to emphasise here is that the system of codes A - I, used in this web-edition, is intended to refer to the document and to prioritise bibliographic codes. Therefore, according to this system, ID 108 should be categorised as type D ('sent from Bess and William Cavendish') because the document was, itself, sent and sent once only (and it can be contrasted with, say, a ID 009, which was sent twice, once to Bess and then forwarded by her, and is therefore type G 'to Bess, sent and forwarded by her'; or with ID 119, which is a copy that was never sent, and is therefore type F 'to Bess, not sent').

To complete the indices for ID 108, the delivery status code D is combined with information from the 'sender' and 'recipient' fields in the database, which allows for multiple senders and recipients to be added. Therefore, the header records that ID 108 was 'Sent' (which is the status output for type D letters) and records the involvement of three senders (Lord Burghley, Bess and William Cavendish) and two recipients (Bess and John Manners). The letter can thus be accessed in this web-edition by browsing for any of these individuals or by filtering for forwarded or jointly sent letters.

The example of ID 108 indicates some of the potential complexities involved in the capture of information about a letter's earliest production and reception circumstances. In addition, there are further dimensions to the complex issue of the delivery of early modern letters. Most crucial are the extensions to the letter itself: the bearer or person who carried the letter, and enclosures or other items that accompanied the letter. We regularly find the main message is not in the letter itself, but was spoken (delivered orally) by the bearer, written in enclosed documents or coded symbolically by an accompanying gift. In such cases the letter itself featured as a covering note to authorise or authenticate the delivery, and now represents only a trace fragment of the full communicative encounter.

The importance of bearers and enclosures to the communicative function of early modern letters is beyond doubt (and further discussion is provided in The Material Features of Early Modern Letters > Postage and Bearers and Bess of Hardwick's Life in 12 Letters > 'I haue bene glade to se my lady sayntloa but now more dyssirous to se my lady shrewsbury' (Elizabeth I, 1568)). This web-edition therefore encodes references to bearers and enclosures, such as they appear in the letters, accessible using the filters by letters with bearers or letters with enclosures. Most commonly, these are reference simply to 'this bearer' or to 'this letter enclosed'. However, in some cases further information is given, such as commentaries on accompanying items (that range from jewellery, to pots, to seeds for the garden) or the identity of the bearer. In particular we can observe that Bess appears to have used her son William Cavendish as bearer at least 4 times when writing to the Elizabeth I's councillors Lord Burghley, Sir Francis Walsingham and Sir Robert Cecil (ID 125, ID 144, ID 139 'my sonne this bearer' and ID 156 which mentions 'your Lettar sente by my sonne Wylliam Cauendish' and 'my sonne this bearar'), a factor which we must consider as we read these particular letters.


One of the features inevitably effaced by a modern edition, even where high-quality colour images are available, is the size and quality of paper. Images are beneficial because they can show us certain features of paper, such as the difference between deckle edges and cut edges, or paper which is decorated like ID 237 (which is, unfortunately, one of the letters for which it has not so far been possible to provide an image in this web-edition). Yet, other material features of paper, such as watermarks, chain lines, pricking, traces of pounce, thickness and whiteness, are not visible from an image. These are features which resist easy codification, and it seems unlikely we will ever find a perfect method to meaningfully record, say, the quality or whiteness of sixteenth-century paper.

When it comes to size it is, at least, possible to record a measurement. For example, we find that most letters from Bess were written on a sheet of paper folded bifolium to create a writing space of around 20 x 30cms (this is fairly consistent, if we allow for a centimetre or so either way, and was also typical among her correspondents). However (and as is discussed in full in The Material Features of Early Modern Letters > Paper), Bess sent three letters on slightly larger-sized paper to her most elite and formidable correspondents: to Elizabeth I (23 x 34.5cms, ID 120) and the earl of Leicester (22.5 x 36cms, ID 110) were sent letters of profuse thanks, and to Shrewsbury (22.5 x 34cms, ID 229) a letter pleading for forgiveness during their marriage crisis. In each case, the extra-large paper complements the letter's linguistic content, in which Bess offers effusive expressions of deferential gratitude and loyalty.

These examples of letters on larger paper, then, remind us that the size of the paper on which a letter is written can have rhetorical impact. It raises the question of how we most appropriately present this information within an edition. To output all the measurements that have been captured (i.e. of paper size, writing space size, letter packet size and area, as well as measurements of margins and other data related to writing area) would be to run the risk, in this web-edition, of information overload. That is to say, it demands a decision over where the line is to be drawn between the output web-edition and the full database which lies beneath. Most helpful, it seems, and more appropriate to an edition than to output all unprocessed data, has been to offer summary analyses, such as the one provided just above, in this section, and again in The Material Features of Early Modern Letters > Paper.

Letter Packets, Folds, Slits and Sewing Holes

Folds and creases captured the imagination of early modern letter-writers (as Daniel Starza Smith describes on this site in The Material Features of Early Modern Letters > Folds and Creases). The exact size, shape, look and feel of an early modern letter when it arrived into the hands of a recipient set the tone for the communicative encounter, and did so before the letter had been opened. In order to acknowledge the role of the unfolding and unlocking a letter, as part of the early modern reading experience, this web-edition encodes sent letters according to type of delivery letter packet.

Over 180 sent letters from Bess's correspondence can be sorted into an approximate typology of 4 kinds of letter-packet (accessible by the filter by letter packet; for a few more letters it is not possible to discern the delivery packet type, and these are encoded either as 'uncertain' or 'unsecured'; the remaining letters were either unsent or unavailable for analysis):

  • Tuck and Fold (usually folded 3x horizontally and 2x vertically and secured with wax, to create a delivery pack of around 8 x 12cms)
  • Slit and Band (usually slightly smaller than tuck-and-fold packets, these were folded 4x horizontally, then in half vertically and slit and secured with a paper tab threaded through the packet)
  • Accordion Folded (folded between 5x and 10x horizontally then in half or twice vertically to create a small delivery packet of 3-5 x 7-10cms; these packets were sometimes locked with ribbon or floss and are associated with special politeness, respect and deference, or with emotional letters or courtly letters)
  • Sewn (apparently a method used ad hoc and typically for fairly short notes between Bess and her daughters or daughter-in-law)

These 4 types refer to the delivery packets into which letters were folded for sending (rather than for purposes of storage or preservation, which is a different matter to the one under consideration here). The first three types - tuck and fold, slit and band and accordion - are well known and have been documented in the scholarly research of Christopher Burlinson, Andrew Zurcher and Heather Wolfe. The fourth type - sewn letter packets - has only been previously acknowledged as a method for storing and collecting bundles of letter, not, elsewhere, as a method of locking a letter packet for delivery. That is to say, it seems that Bess's correspondence gives us this fourth type of delivery packet. Given that Bess was a woman famous for her textiles, it seems rather appropriate that the method she gives us is one that involved needle and thread.

There are numerous small-scale variations within each of these categories - i.e. in the exact details of fold patterns, folded size, position of slits, method of sealing and so on for each individual letter - but these are the basic delivery packet types. From an editorial point of view, there is much to be gained by encoding these 4 types in the Project catalogue. Much less, it seems, would be gained by outputting all measurements and all details of exact folding patterns: as has already been discussed, above, in relation to paper, it is not the role of an edition to output masses of raw data, but, rather, an edition should offer and suggest routes through the primary materials. To enable users to sort the correspondence according to the proposed typology - to isolate, say, only the accordion folded letters - is to acknowledge that letter packets are an aspect of reception, one that immediately set the tone before a word of the letter had been read.

Ribbon and Floss

Some time before October 1574, Elizabeth (Cavendish) Stuart, countess of Lennox, sent a letter to her mother Bess (countess of Shrewsbury) ID 041. Before Bess had opened the letter she would have known immediately, from glancing at the outside of the letter packet, that it was a note of deferential gratitude from her daughter. The letter packet is sealed with the Lennox Stuart arms and the superscription is in Elizabeth Lennox's own hand, both of which indicate the identity of the sender. The purport of the letter is anticipated by the carefully written calligraphic script on the address leaf, which features clubbed looped descenders, as well as by the overtly deferential and scrupulously respectful wording of the superscription: 'To the right honorable and my most reuerenced Lady the countes of shrewsbery att hardwick thense'. But the content of the unopened letter is most clearly signalled by the letter packet's most eye-catching feature of all: the gold-coloured silk floss beneath the wax seal.

The combination of features on the outer delivery packet sets the tone for the letter inside and it is the earliest of 5 extant letters with brightly coloured silk or ribbon that were sent to Bess. All 5 are short notes confected from a mass of politeness formulae, all non-committal offerings that express gratitude, thanks or apology. These letters are amongst the most content-light of all those received by Bess: brief insubstantial puffs of politeness. It would be tempting, as a modern reader, to suggest that the shiny floss on the outside is a suitable forewarning of the fluff on the inside. More helpfully, we might describe these letters as the products of a culture of epistolary politeness, and as gifts in themselves.

Ribbon and floss, then, were a signal from sender to recipient and, where they appear, were important to the communicative function of a letter. In some cases, a letter-writer would select the colour of ribbon with a specific message in mind, and the potential meanings encoded by ribbon, and its colour, are reviewed by Daniel Starza Smith on this site The Material Features of Early Modern Letters > Other Locking Mechanisms.

From an editorial perspective, ribbon and floss raises issues with regard to how they can be best represented or incorporated into an edition. We have colour images for 4 of the 5 letters with ribbon in this web-edition. Yet, digital images do not capture texture, quality of silk or method of attachment, nor do photographs viewed on screen offer a true or consistent representation of colour. In fact, the potential for colours to appear, on screen, much darker, or brighter, or with hues unbalanced, is potentially problematic when we consider that the choice of ribbon colour could carry meaning.

Within the context of this Project (and drawing on the research findings of Heather Wolfe and Erin Blake at the Folger Shakespeare Library), we have explored methods and standards to develop work-flows to record colour of ribbon more reliably. There are a number of specific and practical challenges involved:

  • Over the centuries ribbon fades so that the underside might be a completely different shade to the upper-side, and in such cases, which part do we record? Ultimately, it is not possible to be exact when describing the colour of aged silk ribbon due to the wide spectrum of shades of variation, which result from uneven wear and fading on the different parts of the tie.
  • We have found, from experience, that recording colour is a subjective process. Different Project researchers, sent to record the colour of ribbon from the same letter, will almost invariably each record different results.
  • Every archive, library and repository has its own set of lighting conditions and, for reasons of conservation, the spaces in which we view early modern documents tend not to be very brightly lit. It is therefore not possible to establish consistency in respect of background lighting or optimum conditions of data capture.

These problems remain, but in order to aid the process, and as a method of more realistic colour approximation, we have used the Michel Colour Guide (reference below) for recording purposes. The Michel Guide provides multiple colour palettes in spiral-bound book form. Each palette consists of a spectrum of colour swatches, each punched with a hole so it can be hovered over the object (in this case the ribbon or floss) until the user decides on a colour match. Each colour swatch has a name and an ID code for recording purposes.

While use of the Michel Guide has been beneficial - and while it may sound like a ideal resource - in practice, the combination of copious very similar-looking colour swatches, poor lighting and unevenly faded ribbon means that the results can only be claimed, at best, to be an approximation. In terms of workflow, for each piece of ribbon, 3 or 4 colour codes are recorded, judged to be the closest matches, and a colour name is allocated by the researcher based on the Michel names. So, the floss on ID 041 is recorded as 'goldish-ochre (close to Michel 9-5-7, 9-0-8, 9-0-5 and 5-16-8)'. The ID codes and the names from the Michel Guide can be output using the filter by letters with ribbon.

Wax Seals

A seal can authenticate and authorise a letter, it can identify the sender and, potentially, it can encode symbolic meanings through the use of colour or by a personalised image embossed into its surface. The many forms seals can take and functions they can perform, both practical and iconographic, are outlined on this site by Daniel Starza Smith The Material Features of Early Modern Letters > Wax Seals. Across Bess's correspondence we find many letters where traces of wax and a seal-tear indicate that a seal was once present but has been lost. However, seals survive fully or partly intact for 64 letters and we have colour images of the majority of these.

These 64 letters with intact seals can be selected using the filter by letters with seals. The output results include a description which captures and specifies as far as is possible for each: whether a letter is closed with one or with two seals; the colour of the wax; whether the seal is papered; whether the seal is over ribbon or floss; whether the seal is embossed and details of the image or heraldic insignia where it can be identified.

Among these seals we find examples of the use, by Bess's three sons, of various different insignia associated with the Cavendish family: the Cavendish arms featuring three bucks heads ID 005, the Cavendish serpent knotted on a cushion ID 006 and the Cavendish stag ID 021. Bess's servant James Crompe gives us an example of a non-heraldic embossed image: his seal is stamped with a heart and cross ID 017 and ID 018. For Bess herself, a number of seals survive intact from the period she was dowager countess of Shrewsbury, such as on ID 128 and ID 131. From these examples we can see that Bess stamped seals with her own Hardwick Cross, a heraldic symbol that also appears throughout the visual schemes in place at New Hardwick Hall.

While we have no letters with intact seals from earlier stages of Bess's life, a couple of clues are provided in the form of copies made by Canon Jackson, when he examined Bess's original letters some time in the nineteenth century while at Longleat House. In his copy of ID 200 (Bess's letter to Sir John Thynne, 15 March c.1550s), Jackson includes a drawing of Bess's original seal stamped (as far as it is possible to tell from his sketch) with the arms of her husband, Sir William Cavendish, that features three bucks heads. It is an insignia that later came to be regularly used by her sons and that appears throughout the heraldic schemes at New Hardwick Hall.

While Bess's use of her husband's arms in the 1550s does not seem surprising, it appears the Cavendish arms was not the only insignia Bess used to seal her letters while she was Lady Cavendish. On a second letter, a copy of ID 112 (Bess's letter to Sir John Thynne, 25 February 1558), Jackson's drawing shows that Bess's original seal was stamped with the Hardwick Cross, which he labels 'Seal of Hardwick'. It appears, then, based on Jackson's drawing, that Bess's use of the Hardwick Cross spanned at least half a century: from the time she was married to her second husband Sir William Cavendish right up until the final years of her life as dowager countess of Shrewsbury.

The ability to compare the use of seals across families, or across different stages of an individual's life, can potentially reveal information about how individuals, couples or groups forged and consolidated their identities. As more examples become available in the future, it may well be instructive to compare Bess's use of the Hardwick Cross with other contemporary women. We can observe that Bess retained, throughout her life, in the form of the Hardwick Cross, an insignia that was her own and was independent of any of her husbands. Whether this was standard practice in the era, or whether Bess was innovative in this respect, is a question which will only be answered by further examination of seals used by other early modern women.

References and Further Reading

  • Peter Beal, A Dictionary of Manuscript Terminology, 1450-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  • C. M. Briquet, Les Filigranes: The New Briquet, Jubilee edn, ed. Allan Stevenson, 4 vols (Amsterdam, 1968).
  • Victoria E. Burke, 'Let's Get Physical: Bibliography, Codicology and Seventeenth-Century Women's Manuscripts', Literature Compass 4/6 (2007): 1667-1682, DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2007.00492.x.
  • Christopher Burlinson and Andrew Zurcher, '"Secretary to Lord Grey Lord Deputie here": Edmund Spenser's Irish Papers', The Library, 6 (2005): 30-75.
  • C. R. Cheney, A Handbook of Dates for Students of British History (1945), rev. Michael Jones (Cambridge, 2000).
  • James Daybell, The Material Letter in Early Modern England: Manuscript Letters and the Culture and Practices of Letter-Writing, 1512-1635, Early Modern Literature in History (Palgrave Macmillian, 2012).
  • Michel-Farbenführer Colour Guide: Michel-Farbenführer (München, 2000).
  • Daniel W. Mosser, Michael Saffle and Ernest W. Sullivan II (eds), Puzzles in Paper: Concepts in Historical Watermarks (British Library, London, 2000).
  • Sara Jayne Steen, 'Reading Beyond the Words: Material Letters and the Process of Interpretation', Quidditas, 22 (2001): 55-69.
  • Alan Stewart, Shakespeare's Letters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), Chapter 1: The Materiality of Shakespeare's Letters, pp. 39-74.
  • Alison Wiggins, 'AHRC Letters of Bess of Hardwick Project: Physical Description Template', unpublished internal report, University of Glasgow, June 2008.
  • Alison Wiggins, Bess of Hardwick: Reading and Writing Renaissance Letters, Material Readings in Early Modern Culture (Ashgate, forthcoming 2014).
Author(s): Alison Wiggins, April 2013

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Developed by The University of Glasgow

Technical Development

Technical development by The Digital Humanities Institute

Funded by

Funded by the AHRC

'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
© 2013 The University of Glasgow
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