Life & Style
From the Political to the Personal, the Poignant to the Puerile, Handwriting Reveals Hearts, Minds, Souls
Thomas More, annotated prayer book from Tower of London, reveals More’s handwritten prayers to his daughter just before his execution. From the Beinecke More Collection)
The “Indictment against Mary English for bewitching Elizabeth Hobert: Essex in the province of Massachusetts Bay,” 1692 reads a bit like a form letter, complete with fill-in-the-blanks, perhaps attesting to the rapid clip at which people were being accused of witchcraft in this era. From the Beinecke)
In March 1607, Henry Ludlow, a young member of the Parliament, farted just after another member finished his address. That event led to a popular poem called “The Parliament Fart,” versions of which continued to be written and revised and passed around more than 50 years later. “The Motion was good; but for the stincking/Well quoth Sr. Henry Poole it was a bold tricke/To Fart in the nose of the bodie pollitique,” ran one version. From the Beinecke’s Osborn Collection)
Lady June Cavendish and her younger sister Lady Elizabeth lived during a period of civil warfare in the mid-17th century that resulted in their fathers and brothers having to go into exile. The family home was captured by enemy forces. Still, within the house, life went on. To keep themselves occupied and amused, Lady June and Lady Elizabeth wrote A Pastorall, a play featuring witches, goodwives, and shepherds. They dedicated it to their father. From the Beinecke Osborn Collection)
Design for underwater diver, in notebook of inventions of military machines and other devices, England, mid-16th century From the Beinecke Osborn Collection)
After serving as Lord High Chancellor of England for several years, Sir Thomas More had a serious falling out with his boss, King Henry VIII.
More, accused of treason, was sentenced to death in 1535, and sent to the Tower of London to await his execution. He was initially provided with books, pen, and paper, but those were taken away, and he was left with his prayer book and some shards of coal.
In the margins of the prayer book, with the coal shards and just days left to live, he wrote prayers to his daughter.
Give me thy grace, good Lord:
To set the world at nought;
To set my mind fast upon thee,
And not to hang upon the blast of men’s mouths;
To be content to be solitary,
Not to long for worldly company;
Little and little utterly to cast off the world,
And rid my mind of all the business thereof.
The poem is poignant, the handwriting even more so.
“This is a tremendously educated humanist scholar. He usually writes in Latin. And his Latin hand in this book is very formal. The prayer is written in English; he is writing to his daughter. He writes in a familiar vernacular tone,” says Kathryn James, the curator of Early Modern Books and Manuscripts & the Osborn Collection at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New Haven. “The handwriting in English is very messy in the prayerbook, you can see these two states of minds for these two audiences. One is very formal. And the other shows his personal relationship with his daughter.”
After More was beheaded and his parboiled head put on a stake for public viewing, somehow his prayerbook survived; it was acquired by the Beinecke in 1965. It is one of many remarkable items on display at the Beinecke in a new exhibit Subscribed: The Manuscript in Britain, 1500-1800 through Sunday, April 19. Together these handwritten items help tell a story about how people, from high-ranking politicians to ordinary men and women, dealt with changing political winds, civil war, plagues, and other societal disruptions.
James’s section of the exhibit includes items related to statehood, imperial life, and power from 1500 to 1800, a time period in Britain when wars were waged, dynasties rose and fell, and religious, social, and technological changes transformed every aspect of life. Another part of the exhibit focuses on how ordinary, everyday people dealt with this period of massive change and upheaval.
A third part of the exhibit is an array of eclectic items called “The Critics’ Gallery; The Manuscript as Critical Object,” featuring manuscripts from an even broader time period, objects of fascination plucked from the Beinecke’s vast collections by a wide range of scholars and experts.
These critics’ objects are displayed in individual glass display cases, called vitrines, around the perimeter of the walls, the white, gray-veined Vermont marble panes framed by light gray Vermont Woodbury granite, designed to filter the outside light so that it does not damage the priceless objects within.
More’s books are examined in a vitrine by David Scott Kasten, a professor of English at Yale.
Sara Powell, a research librarian at the Beinecke, wants us to see the indictment against Mary English for bewitching Elizabeth Hobert of Salem from 1692. Michael Warner, a professor of English and American studies at Yale, shows us the handwritten notes for a sermon on Deuteronomy 32:35 (“There is nothing that keeps wicked men at each moment out of hell but the meer pleasure of God.”), written and used by the Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards, ca. 1756.
Lucy Mulroney, the associate director of Collections, Research, and Education at the Beinecke, created a vitrine combining John Donne’s poem “A Valediction: of My Name in the Window,” and a photograph by Francis Lee taken 300 years later of a woman brutally and publicly shamed after being accused of being a Nazi collaborator.
The juxtaposition is breathtaking.
James, the curator, notes Donne’s poem, shown in the display as an early 17th century manuscript copy, likely by someone other than Donne himself, is normally read as a love poem, “but Lucy paired it with the street photograph of the woman collaborator, with the swastika written on her forehead, looking at the camera as she is being publicly shamed. In both cases, the external onlookers...have written themselves on the woman subject, defining her,” James says. “It’s honestly one of the most brilliant readings of that poem I’ve ever encountered.”
The three parts of the exhibit have this in common, handwriting.
Profound, Moving, Funny
“Technically, the word ‘manuscript’ derives from the Latin, by hand. Written by hand. The exhibit explores the tension around that,” says James. “It can be really moving. You can see moments where people were writing in haste. Or they were blotting things. Or water spilled. You have a sense of the person who was writing, who was a living being just like you are, embodied and moving through the culture.”
Many of the items are profound and moving.
Some are witty, others are just funny.
Eve Houghton, a graduate student in the Department of English at Yale, curated the portion of the exhibit titled “Pastime with Good Company: Writing and Leisure in Early Modern England.”
“These are items that are not state-sanctioned, they circulate in private and domestic spaces. It makes you think about what people thought,” she says. “It makes people from the 1500s and 1600s feel more contemporary. It makes you think about how people would share jokes. Once you figure out how to read these manuscripts, it shows us a whole social world that wouldn’t be accessible to us otherwise.”
Part of the “Pastime with Good Company” section of the exhibit focuses on Thomas Hobson, a mailman for the University of Cambridge in the 1600s, a time when The Great Plague of London, the bubonic plague, killed an estimated 100,000 people, almost a quarter of London’s population, over about a year and a half.
Devastating. And yet, the handwritten objects show that, for some, even while kept in quarantine and shut off from the outside world, creating connection with others through the written word and a sense of humor was vital.
Hobson, the University of Cambridge mailman, was well known and liked on campus and, when he died in 1631 there was an enormous outpouring of songs, jokes, anecdotes, and poems memorializing him.
“For a while, it seemed like everyone at Cambridge was writing and copying poems about Hobson,” Houghton writes in the exhibit booklet. “Posed somewhere between facetiousness and sincerity, Hobson poems became an outlet for creative expression, a form of social bonding, and perhaps a way to while away the winter nights in a Cambridge stricken with cold and disease.”
The tributes are a bit like the memes that circulate online today, she says.
“My exhibit features a kind of viral poetry,” she says. “The poems were repeatedly copied and every version of the poem was a little different. It’s like a game of telephone...It became a massive trend and a meme to write these poems celebrating the life of Thomas Hobson.”
And then, there is there is the intersection of the political with the highly personal.
In 1607, Henry Ludlow, a young member of the Parliament, farted just after another member finished his address. That event was memorialized in a poem. And then another. And then, many more.
“It gets to be hundreds of lines. It’s a low, juvenile joke, but it becomes the vehicle of political poetry,” Houghton says. “A solid 50 years later it is still circulating.”
Subscribed: The Manuscript in Britain, 1500-1800 is on display through Sunday, April 19 at the Beinecke, 121 Wall Street, New Haven. To find out more about the exhibit, and to view and download the exhibition brochure, visit beinecke.library.yale.edu/subscribed. Also on the page is a calendar of related events, videos related to the exhibit, and information on how to play the Paleographic Challenge 2020, where participants can test their manuscript mettle with items from the early modern British manuscript collection. “Our motto: strength and beauty through paleography.”