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Journal Special Issue: New Directions in Early Modern Correspondence

Those seeking to balance the port and mince pies this holiday season with some state-of-the-art reflections on early modern epistolarity are in luck: the latest issue of Lives & Letters – the free online journal of UCL’s Centre for Editing Lives and Letters – is devoted to New Directions in the Study of Early Modern Correspondence.

Guest-edited by James Daybell and Andrew Gordon, and developing out of a conference held at Plymouth University in 2011, the issue features an introduction to the latest developments in the field (in which EMLO gets a name-check); eight case studies of particular correspondents and correspondence networks; and a spectacularly useful select bibliography on the manuscript letter in early modern England. All articles are free for download from the journal website. James also contributed to our 2011 seminar series (here’s the podcast), while his latest book on the material letter has just been reviewed by the IHR.

Material Witness: Editing Bess of Hardwick’s Letters Online

Podcast available on the seminar page!


Alison fields questions.


Bess in the 1590s.

Dr Alison Wiggins of the University of Glasgow got our third seminar series off to a brilliant start on 26 April with a sophisticated and thought-provoking presentation on Editing Bess of Hardwick’s Letters Online. As Principal Investigator of the Letters of Bess Hardwick Project (funded by the AHRC), Alison described the benefits and methodological challenges of digitizing this unique Renaissance correspondence, which consists of approximately 245 extant letters (160 to and 85 from Bess) scattered across 18 different repositories spanning a period of nearly 60 years.

Using several examples drawn from the corpus, Alison argued that making all of the letters available in an open-access, fully searchable online edition will enable scholars to pursue a wide range of linguistic, sociological, and historical questions, and will allow them to arrive at a much more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the character of Bess herself, who has been variously depicted as a materialistic virago or as an admirable defender of women’s honour.

bess_news_3Moving on to more methodological questions, Alison explained that capturing and communicating significant information on the material and visual features of letters, such as the writer’s use of ‘significant space’, paper quality and size, the employment of colourful silk ribbons and flosses, seal choice, and the many varieties of folding, can be particularly difficult in a digital environment, which has a tendency to reify disembodied text at the expense of the letter-object (concerns also raised by Henry Woudhuysen and James Daybell in previous talks). This is a significant problem, since such information is not just antiquarian micro-detail; on the contrary, for contemporary recipients, all of these carefully considered material decisions on the part of the sender conveyed specific social meanings about politeness, deference, and hierarchy which set important parameters for the reception and consumption of a letter’s written content. However, such physical variables and their nuances are not easy to capture faithfully with a simple measurement or colour chart reference in a metadata field. The solutions developed by Alison and her team in the context of the Bess project (such as encoding each of the four recognized kinds of letter-fold − tuck and fold, slit and band, accordion, and sewn − within each letter’s XML to facilitate searching and filtering by plicature and packet type) genuinely move forward thinking in this oft-neglected area and will be of great interest to other digital initiatives.

Following a brief, appetite-whetting demonstration of the Bess letters alpha software, a lively question and answer session concluded the seminar, which covered such topics as the sociolinguistic significance of employing scribes and the iconographic implications of Bess using her ‘ES’ signature both in letters and as architectural embellishment on her stately home, Hardwick Hall. Broader concerns were also addressed, including the need for digital projects to produce REF-friendly outputs – an increasingly important theme – and ways of ensuring the preservation and accessibility of online resources long after project funding comes to an end. The soon-to-be-released Bess of Hardwick Letters Online will include annotated transcriptions of all of the letters and images of many, as well as articles and podcasts offering further contextual analyses of the correspondence. For news about its release date, stay tuned!

Seminars take place in the Faculty of History on George Street on Thursdays at 3pm. For future talks in the series – and to listen to the podcast of Alison’s paper – please see the seminar webpage. All are welcome!

Seminar 5: The Scribal Circulation of Letters

In the fifth paper of our seminar series on Thursday 2 June, Professor James Daybell (University of Plymouth) delivered a fascinating paper entitled ‘The Scribal Circulation of Early Modern Letters’. Debuting material from his forthcoming book on the materiality of the letter, and in a slight change from the advertised title, Daybell provided a sophisticated overview of the ‘complex textual afterlives’ of letters beyond their initial composition, sending, and receipt; a conceptualization which challenges prevailing views of early modern epistolarity as a private, historically anchored exchange between only two individuals. By means of a rich range of political and religious examples from early modern England, Daybell traced several consecutive phases of subsequent manuscript dissemination: the controlled circulation of epistolary separates through private copying within discrete manuscript networks; a less discriminate casting abroad; commercial scribal publication within anthologies and miscellanies (in which copies of letters co-mingled with verse, libels, prose, and other manuscript genres); and finally, in many cases, print publication. Daybell also provided insights into the postal conditions which facilitated scribal transmission in early modern England, a surprisingly makeshift mixture of different delivery methods (ordinary posts, royal posts, messengers, carriers, servants, and chance travellers) until the introduction of a more stable and predictable postal structure with the founding of the post office in 1635. Questions focussed on the role of London and the universities as entrepôts for scribal dissemination; the costs of delivery; the anxieties and self-censorship engendered by the instability and porosity of the early modern postal network; and the distinction between ordinary street copies and scribal separates produced by commercial scriptoria. Seminars take place in the Faculty of History on George Street on Thursdays at 3pm. For future talks in the series, please see the seminar webpage.

Podcast now available on the seminar page!

Seminar 4: The Materiality of the Letter

Detail of letter from John Wallis to Jan Hevelius. Oxford, 26 October 1668 (Waller Collection, Uppsala Universitet, Uppsala; Waller MS gb-01783).

In the fourth installment of the Project’s seminar series on Thursday 20 May, Professor Henry Woudhusyen (University College London) examined the material dimensions of epistolary practice in a fascinating paper entitled ‘Writing a Letter in Early Modern England: Forms and Formats’. Arguing that the ‘social life’ (or ‘cultural biography’) of the letter-as-object has attracted little sustained scholarly attention (a trend reinforced by the tendency of online repositories of letters to efface their material attributes), Woudhuysen used a wide range of examples to explore varieties of and markets for paper and ink; handwriting, superscriptions and addresses, salutations, signatures, and ‘significant space’ (those portions of the page left deliberately black for symbolic or practical reasons); the complex relationship between the formatting of letters and economics, in particular in terms of the strategies employed by letter-writers to maximise available space in order to reduce the cost of postage (such as cross-hatching and the forced invasion of margins); and different styles of folding and sealing, and their associated connotations. Woudhusyen’s contribution was further enriched by a commentary from Dr Peter Beal (School of Advanced Study), formerly of Sotheby’s, and the creator of the Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts (CELM). In a wide-ranging addendum, Beal discussed (inter alia) the cultural transmission of epistolary styles, casting doubt in particular on the ability of prescriptive letter-writing manuals to shed light on these complex processes; considered the relationship between the formatting of letters and that of the other products of early modern scribal culture (such as petitions); and explored the ways in which letters were stored and filed by their recipients. Seminars take place in the Faculty of History on George Street on Thursdays at 3pm. For future seminars in the series, please see here.

podcast_icon2Podcast now available on the seminar page!