Manuscripts from the Age of Print

Senior manuscript cataloger, Alison Bridger, curated Manuscripts from the Age of Print for The Curatorial Eye: Discoveries from the Folger Vault, part of the Exhibitions at the Folger.

In the time before typewriters, photocopiers, and the internet, information could be spread through word of mouth, handwritten documents, or printed texts. While beautifully illuminated manuscripts produced on expensive vellum were mostly a thing of the past, by the sixteenth century everyday manuscript writing expanded in early modern Europe because paper was becoming more readily available and cheaper to produce, and literacy rates were increasing. The astonishing number of manuscripts produced is evidenced by the number that still remain—the Folger acquires approximately forty to fifty manuscripts annually, including the recent acquisitions of poetry, royal letters, a manuscript newsletter, and a highly unusual almanac scroll.

The Folger's manuscript copy of the first two of Donne’s five Satyres (first written in the 1590s) was most likely made after Donne’s death in 1631 and before the first printed edition of Donne’s Poems (London, 1633). The manuscript also includes five legal precepts relating to bastardy and robbery, and of greatest interest, a list of thirty poems “lent to Mr Murhouse.” Poetry was transmitted primarily in manuscript in early modern England. While scholars have always assumed that poems circulated as manuscript “separates” which were then copied into “miscellanies,” until this list was discovered they had little evidence for their theory.

Another example of this type of transmission or sharing of information is found in twelve lines of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis which have been copied onto the back of a draft receipt. It is unknown who copied them—perhaps the clerk who wrote the receipt, or a member of the family in whose papers it was preserved. Obviously these salacious lines, probably copied from a borrowed print copy, needed to be saved for enjoyment again. Early seventeenth century manuscript copies of Shakespeare’s writings are extraordinarily rare.

Literature wasn't the only thing being copied onto paper. Even with the rise of printed newspapers at the end of the seventeenth century, some news was still being relayed in manuscript. William Bolton’s company shipped wine to both sides of the Atlantic and his newsletter reports how their shipment was protected by a warship on its way to the West Indies to hunt pirates. Just as stockholders today receive printed annual reports, investors back home were sent periodic reports from business owners.

One particularly unusual manuscript is a very recent acquisition: a manuscript almanac from the year 1688. Written on a long piece of vellum and rolled up in a bone cylindrical casing, this almanac could be carried around by its owner for easy reference, though it includes only essential information (phases of the moon and saint's days). Almanacs constituted some of the largest sales of printed books in the seventeenth century and were very inexpensive to purchase, making this manuscript version a rare treasure.

Audio tour

Listen to senior manuscript cataloger Alison Bridger's investigative findings about this unusual manuscript almanac by clicking the linked heading.