Technologies of Writing in the Age of Print

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Technologies of Writing in the Age of Print, part of the Exhibitions at the Folger opened September 28, 2006 and closed on February 17, 2007. The exhibition was curated by Peter Stallybrass, Michael Mendle, and Heather Wolfe.

Technologies of Writing in the Age of Print explores innovations and transformations in writing after the invention of the printing press. While beautifully-decorated manuscripts continued to be produced and treasured by their creators, new implements, scripts, surfaces, and techniques forever changed the textual landscape of early modern England. Developments included graphite pencils, the earliest fountain pens, shorthand, the precursors of modern cursive handwriting, portable and erasable writing tables that could be used with a metal stylus when pen and ink were impractical, and improved methods for note-taking and accounting. Invisible ink, ciphers, and other forms of secret writing grew in popularity, and the invention of an instrument that could make two copies of a manuscripts at the same time received considerable attention. Through the proliferation of almanacs interleaved with blank paper, printed forms that needed to by completed by hand, and ornately engraved writing manuals, printing was a radical incitement to write, rather than a signal of the demise of handwritten texts.

Exhibition materials

Tools for Writing

Writing in early modern England required more effort than it does today. Ink had to be made, quills maintained, and paper treated to prevent it from absorbing too much ink. During the writing process, the quill required frequent dipping in the inkwell. Afterwards, sand was spread over the manuscript to hasten the drying of the ink. While pen and ink remained the dominant writing medium, new surfaces and implements were developed to increase efficiency and allow for greater portability.

The first known description and illustration of graphite, seen above, is in Konrad Gesner’s book on geology, De omni rerum , where he refers to it as “English antimony.” Graphite was discovered in England’s Lake District in the 1560s. Graphite pencils, commonly referred to as “black-lead” pencils, initially were used by artists for sketching. In fact, the word “pencil” usually referred to an artist’s brush. Later in the seventeenth century, graphite pencils were increasingly used for taking notes.

One of the earliest writing manuals to be published in England, New booke illustrates the proper way to hold a quill pen. It also contains a set of rules written in verse "for his children to learn to write by" and numerous engraved plates displaying different styles of handwriting currently in use in Europe.

The secretary hand was the first cursive hand to be developed in early modern England. Derived from the gothic scripts of the Middle Ages, it went through a number of phases in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, evolving alongside the other new script of the age, italic. By the mid-seventeenth century, a mixed hand that combined the most efficient features of italic and secretary came to dominate, followed by a round hand, which serves as the basis for the modern era of handwriting.

Items included

  • Conrad Gessner. De omni rerum fossilium genere, gemmis, lapidibus, metallis, et huvivmodi, libri aliquotm plerique nunc primum editi. Zurich, 1565. Call number: QE362 G4 1565 Cage; displayed f. 104v
  • New booke, containing all sortes of handes usually written at this daie. London: by Richard Field, 1611. Call number: STC 6449.2 Bd.w. STC 3062 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Jehan de Beau-Chesne. A booke containing divers sortes of hands, as well as the English as French secretarie with the Italian, Roman, chancelry & court hands. London: by Richard Field, 1602. Call number: STC 6450.2 and LUNA Digital Image.

Learning to Write

England underwent a handwriting revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Three new hands emerged: the secretary hand evolved out of the medieval gothic tradition, while the simple and elegant italic hand was based upon an Italian revival of Carolingian handwriting (from the time of Charlemagne). Students learned to write both hands by repeatedly tracing and copying strokes, letters, alphabets, and sentences. By the end of the seventeenth century, secretary and italic merged into the “round” hand, a precursor to modern handwriting.

Edward Cocker, one of the most prolific writing masters of his time, distinguished himself by engraving his own writing manuals, which included fanciful knots, flourishes, and animals drawn in looping strokes without lifting his pen. Here he simplifies the learning process by breaking each letter into individual strokes. One student has attempted to complete some of the letter forms, and has partially copied the alphabet underneath.

Stephen Poynting, possibly a student at the Free School in Gloucester, practices a pangram (a sentence containing every letter of the alphabet), "Job a Righteous man of uz waxed poor Quickly," twenty-one times. His spacing between words grows larger with each sentence so that he is increasingly unable to fit in the last word, "Quickly," before running off the page. He has pre-ruled the paper to make it easier to write in a straight horizontal line.

Items included

  • Edward Cocker. The tutor to writing and arithmetick. Invented, written, & engraven by Edward Cocker. London, 1664. Call number: 234- 037q; displayed plate 2.
  • Edward Cocker. The Compleat Writing Master. A Copy Book Furnished with all the most usefull hands now practised by the best Artists in London. Together With such plain and easie directions for young Learners, that they may in a short time (without the help of a teacher) fit themselves for any Trade or Imployment whatsoever. With Directions for making all sorts of Knots or Flourishes. Invented, Written, and Engraven, By E. Cocker. London, 1670. Call number: 260- 937q and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Mr. Veer. A riddle. Practice sentences of Stephen Poynting. Manuscript, ca. 1650. Call number: X.d.243; displayed verso.

The Necessity of Writing: Signatures, Marks, and Stamps

In an age of increasing literacy, the ability to sign one’s name was more important than the ability to read. Ranging from the humble "mark," to the tentative signatures of the newly literate, to the stylized signatures of kings, queens, and nobles, signatures (sometimes joined with wax seals) were now essential for authorizing a wide range of official and personal documents.

As seen here, a monarch’s signature on a document was usually referred to as a "sign manual" and appeared at the top of a document rather than at the conclusion. Henry VIII found the repetitive action of signing documents to be tedious and tiring. He therefore developed a wooden stamp with his signature to facilitate the process. This writ, written by one of his secretaries, has a clear example of his "stamped" signature at the top.

William Moth was quite proud to be the owner of this book, which he records as being given to him as a gift on December 26, 1692. He signs his name multiple times on the front and rear paste-downs ("William Moth is my name And with a pen I write the same"), and includes a bit of verse in which he blames his poor writing on his pen:

Little is the Robbin
And less is the Ren
bad is my writing
And worse is my pen
And if my pen had
but been better
I might have mended
Every letter

Items included

  • Henry VIII. Writ under sign manual and signet, for Christopher Moore. Loosely Collection. Manuscript, 24 November 1539. Call number: L.b.1 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • John Hull. Lectures upon a part of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. London: Printed by Barnard Alsop, 1620. With manuscript poem by William Moth, ca. 1692. Call number: STC 13932; displayed inside of back vellum cover.

The Emergence of the Hybrid Book

What happens when print and manuscript traditions collide? The first printed books emulated medieval manuscripts. Within a hundred years of the invention of the printing press, however, manuscripts began to adopt certain features of printed books, and the distinctions became less clear. Manuscript copies were made of printed books, printed books had manuscript additions, manuscripts had title pages, as in printed books, or had printed texts and engravings pasted into them.

A fad among German university students in the 1560s, alba amicorum, or "books of friends," were precursors to modern autograph albums. During their travels, students collected signatures, quotations, and dedications of friends and teachers in finely-bound blank books, sometimes commissioning artists to add illustrations. Here a student has used blank verso leaves of a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1563) for his album, transforming the book into a personal document where friends’ manuscript entries interact with printed images and verses on the facing pages.

The “imprint” on the title page of this manuscript states that it was printed in Oxford in 1653. Like many printed books, it contains a letter to the reader and dedicatory epistles to patrons (although two out of the three dedicatees had died by 1653). The verses to the author are titled "To Mr. William Basse upon the now publishing of his poems." All evidence points to this manuscript being printed, yet it never was. Did the author die before it reached the printer, or was he envisioning The Pastorals as a manuscript publication?

Items included

  • Johann Ulrich Hocklin. Album amicorum. Manuscript, 1564. Call number: Bd.w. 158- 133q; displayed p.127v and p.128.
  • William Basse. The pastorals and other workes of William Basse never before imprinted ... imprinted at Oxford ... Manuscript, 1653. Call number: V.b.235; displayed title page.

Calligraphic Moralizing

Renaissance humanists used the teaching of handwriting to instill edifying phrases. At the same time, moralizing texts were enriched by the use of beautiful handwriting, illustrations, color, and ornamentation. Memorizing a moral precept could be aided by linking it to a memorable image or a letter of the alphabet. Handwritten illustrated manuscripts could perform these functions more effectively than monochrome printed texts.

Esther Inglis

Esther Inglis, a Scotswoman of Huguenot ancestry, created more than fifty-five Protestant devotional manuscripts, which she presented to patrons and royalty in England, Scotland, and France. She was known for her virtuostic display of a variety of "designer" hands—that is, handwriting styles that had no other function than to delight the senses. Often she included self-portraits. In this self portrait her quill hovers over the words, "de dieu le bien de moy le rien" (from the Lord, goodness, from myself, nothing).

One of at least nine copies of La Roche Chandieu’s Octonaries made by Inglis, this copy is dedicated "to the vertuous and my loving freinde and landlord," William Jeffrai. The “mirror” writing is an example of Esther Inglis’s calligraphic wizardry. Each of the forty-seven “octonaries,” or eight-line stanzas, in this manuscript is penned in a different calligraphic style and illustrated with flowers.

Esther Inglis acted as both calligrapher and embroiderer for the manuscript of versified psalms in Latin that she dedicated to Prince Henry. Prince Henry's royal arms appear on the verso of the title page. The crimson velvet binding on this tiny volume is decorated with stylized flowers, leaves, and stems decorated with silver thread embroidery and seed pearls. It is closed with a silver clasp.

Thomas Trevelyon

Thomas Trevelyon’s 600-page manuscript miscellany includes three sets of moralizing alphabets. The letters of the alphabet serve as the first letters of quotations from successive books of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and an anonymous set of verses titled “A right godly and Christian A.B.C.” While all of these texts were available in print, Trevelyon’s manuscript rendering of them, with colorful and decorative letter-forms and the alignment of the alphabet with the arrangement of the books of the Geneva Bible, would help his readers to commit the verses to memory. For more on this unique book, visit the page on our 2004 exhibition, Word & Image: The Trevelyon Miscellany of 1608.

Items included

The New Writing Manuals: the Round Hand

The round hand emerged in the 1660s and quickly gained currency as the most practical and beautiful style of handwriting in England. Writing masters advertised the round hand’s utility for merchants and tradesmen, but it was in fact adopted by most individuals. Printed writing manuals increased in size and style during this period, as writing masters competed to produce the most elegant and impressive engraved examples of their handwriting.

"Sarah Cole Her Book Scholler to Elizabeth Beane Mistress in the Art of Writing Anno 1685" is proudly inscribed in round hand on the title page of this manuscript. In addition to instructions and examples in addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, the Golden Rule, bartering, and interest (copied mostly in round hand), Sarah Cole includes fanciful animals, figures, and patterns drawn in the new fashion, without the appearance of any penlifts.

By the 1660s, writing masters like John Ayers and William Banson had expanded their curriculum to include math. Literacy and “numeracy” were increasingly important for tradesmen and aristocrats alike. Because of the intense competition for students, writing masters began advertising their services on broadsides, which appeared at the back of their writing manuals.

Items included

  • Sarah Cole. Arithmetic exercise book of Sarah Cole. Manuscript, 1685. Call number: V.b.292 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • John Ayers. A tutor to penmanship, or, The writing master a copy shewing all the variety of pemanship and clerkship as now practised in England: in II parts. [London?, 1698?]. Call number: A4306.2; displayed advertisement at the back of the book.
  • William Banson. The merchant's penman: A new copy book of the usual hands now in practice by most book-keepers in Europe. London, 1702. Call number: 160- 758q; displayed last leaf.

Printing and Manuscript

Writing in Printed Books

Printing as an Incitement to Write

Erasable Writing

Manuals for Memory

Blank Books: Ruling and Binding

Manuals of a New Technology

Using, Learning, and Practicing Shorthand

Shorthand's Impact

Coded Writing and Duplication Techniques

Supplemental materials

Technologies of Writing children's exhibition