Early Modern Masque Programmes

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Ben Jonson’s 1624 masque Neptune’s Triumph for the Return of Albion opens with ‘The Poet, entering on the stage to disperse the argument’. The Spanish Tragedy shows Hieronymo presenting the King with a ‘Copie of the Play’ and an ‘Argument of that they show’ before the performance of Solyman and Perseda. Nowadays we might refer to such synopses or summaries distributed to the audience as ‘programmes’. As they are today, programmes would have been useful during performances for their explanation of the masques’ action and symbolism, and as records or tokens of the performance.

Manuscript summaries of speeches and devices were already being distributed in the late sixteenth century at Elizabethan tilts. Philip Gawdy wrote to his father on 24 November 1587, enclosing ‘ij small books for a token, the one of them was given me that day that they ran at tilt’. Roy Strong draws attention to a Revels account payment ‘for the fair writing of all the devices on the 17 day of November … in two copies for the Queen’.

Synopsis of Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Queenes, in BL Harley MS 6947, fol. 143r. By permission of the British Library.

Do any programmes survive from masque performances? Some extant manuscript summaries of masques may have their roots in these elusive books. For example, the summary of Carew’s Coelum Britannicum (1634) now found in BL Harley MS 4931 goes to greater lengths than the printed edition to clarify the masque’s symbolism. It would be easy, however, to confuse these ‘programmes’ with summaries produced for other reasons, such as post-performance accounts, or pre-performance plot proposals for the Court. The summary of Jonson’s Masque of Queenes (1609) now in BL Harley MS 6947, for example, which contains different names for two of the characters, is more likely to have been written for the Court’s inspection before the performance, than copied from a masque programme.

The book which most fits the bill is an undated printed quarto attributed to Aurelian Townshend called The Ante-Masques which, as Karen Britland has recently demonstrated using the evidence of broken type, was printed by Felix Kingston for an entertainment at Oatlands House in August 1635. This quarto summarises the entertainment, including verses from the anti-masques and a ‘Subiect of the Masque’, which explains the masque’s proceedings.

Masques have long been understood as multimedia experiences, incorporating music, gesture, language, stage design and dance. These references to performance programmes reveal that the printed or written page could have also been a part of this experience, and may have been consulted for further information, clarification, or as a record of an ephemeral performance. Unfortunately, these programmes appear to have also lived ephemeral lives themselves.

‘Provide to be sent too morrow in the Cart some Greenfish’

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Fascinating to learn last week that three seventeenth-century letters that have been found beneath the floorboards in an attic at Knole House in Kent. The National Trust has reproduced the text of one of the letters, which asks for various goods to be brought from London to a house in Essex:

Mr Bilby, I pray p[ro]vide to be sent too morrow in ye Cart some Greenfish, The Lights from my Lady Cranfeild[es] Cham[ber] 2 dozen of Pewter spoon[es]: one greate fireshovell for ye nursery; and ye o[t]hers which were sent to be exchanged for some of a better fashion, a new frying pan together with a note of ye prises of such Commoditie for ye rest.

Your loving friend
Robert Draper

Octobre 1633

The Trust knows exactly how this letter came to Knole, since ‘my Lady Cranfeilde’ married Richard Sackville, Earl of Dorset, in 1637, and there are documents showing that trunks full of linen, items of furniture and collections of papers were transferred from Copt Hall to Knole in the early eighteenth century.

What I like about the letter is that, both in its contents and in its later history, it is all about the transfer of stuff–the constant, pleasurable yet headache-inducing exchanges that we have with the things in our lives. I also love those ‘greenfish’. The term refers simply to fresh, unsalted fish, but one can’t help wondering whether they weren’t a bit off-colour when they arrived in the cart.


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colourLast Tuesday, a gaggle of CMT members were treated to a guided tour of the Fitzwilliam’s ‘Colour’ exhibition by the curator, Stella Panayotova. Entering the dimly-lit space and seeing the greens, reds and blues that surround the meeting of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden would be a sublime experience in anyone’s book. But this exhibition is really about the meeting of art and science, and in particular the use of modern non-invasive methods to work out which pigments were used in each image. Part of the reason why this image was heading up the show was that it turned out to be concealing instructions for its own colouring. Like a painting-by-numbers, particular areas had written instructions for the colours to be employed in them. And while the manuscript is Parisian, the instructions were in Dutch, which tells you something about flows of expertise around the time of the illumination in 1414.

Such migrations of artists and materials are at the heart of the exhibition. Precious substances travelled thousands of miles along the silk road to be ground up and used in pigments; techniques such as the application of egg yolk to lend sheen to a surface migrated (perhaps) from panel painting to manuscript illumination; identifying particular rare materials in a manuscript can be used to solve mysteries about a manuscript’s provenance, to place or displace it. (The presence of smalt from ground glass in a manuscript by the ‘Murano Master’ appears to confirm that he did indeed work in that centre of glass production, however much the stylistic evidence might tell against this).

Part of the point of the exhibition is to show that a vast amount of medieval painting, particularly from northern Europe, survives between the covers of books. But this overlap between the bookish and the visual has had unfortunate consequences, since over the years many manuscripts have been broken up and mounted as wall-paintings, for display in frames. ‘Colour’ reunites a number of these scattered fragments to see what can be learnt from them, and pulls together the work of researchers at a number of institutes devoted to exploring the chemistry of manuscripts. It’s a wonderful example of what can be achieved by crossing borders, and a tribute to Stella’s infectious enthusiasm for her subject.

curiouser and curiouser

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cwvbkixxaaarvln-jpg-largeThe new Cambridge University Library exhibition opens today. Entitled ‘Curious Objects’, it’s a fascinating display of some of the things that the library accumulated, mostly in a period before the strict demarcation between libraries (for books) and museums (for objects) had kicked in.

Among the curiouser articles on display is a leather boot from Lithuania, which was presented to the library along with a shoe and a copy of the New Testament in Lithuanian by the widow of the translator, Tomasz Ramsaeus. Quite why she thought the library needed this footwear is not fully explained. There is also a ‘luminous trumpet’ or spirit trumpet, for use in a séance, together with some ectoplasm in the form of a ‘cloth-like substance’ (which appears to the untrained eye merely to be cloth). ‘This example was captured during a séance given by the medium Helen Duncan and is part of the archive of the Society for Psychical Research’.

For devotees of literature like me, there’s a tobacco stopper made of wood from the mulberry tree supposedly planted by Shakespeare at New Place in Stratford. The catalogue tells us that the tree was cut down by the Reverend Francis Gastrell in the 1750s because he had ‘grown tired of tourists asking to see it’. (That’s one solution to the blight of tourism). Souvenirs made from Shakespeare’s mulberry were apparently commonplace in later eighteenth-century England. A neighbouring cabinet has a beautiful silk bookmark with thirteen strings, each woven with a verse from a medieval Latin prayer to Jesus.

Those of us who suspect that the theory of evolution would not have been formulated had it not been for the proliferation of facial hair in Victorian England will have their views confirmed by another item in the exhibition: a set of cuttings from the beard and whiskers of Frank Chance, who considered himself an exception to Darwin’s rule that ‘when in man the beard differs in colour from the hair of the head … it is … invariably of a lighter tint’, and who wrote to Darwin (with enclosures) to tell him so.

Stone-age tools from Nigeria, wall-paintings from Pompeii, children’s games from Paris, slippers from South India, oracle-bones from Sumatra, spear-heads from Western Australia: there is a whole world of stuff in there. Go see!

on non-reading

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Two lovely news stories about non-reading this weekend. The first was about how scientists have discovered that you can use terahertz radiation (a band of radiation between microwaves and infrared) to read closed books, to a depth of nine pages. The technology is facilitated by the fact that the pages of a book trap a pocket of air that is twenty microns deep (one-fifth of the thickness of the average human hair). The bending of the rays allows you to distinguish the signals from different pages and to reconstruct the writing on them. Possible applications include: reading letters without opening the envelopes, and reading books that are too fragile to open.

The second story really relates to what literary critics call ‘distant reading’, rather than non-reading. Two intrepid book-scanners have come up with an algorithm for a bestseller. Advance press reports of what exactly the algorithm shows are rather contradictory. Having scanned 5,000 (or 20,000) books, it can pick out future bestsellers with 80% accuracy. Bestsellers address ‘topics grounded in reality, like marriage, love and crime’ rather than making up fantasy worlds. Bestsellers confine themselves to two topics, such as ‘work’ and ‘human closeness’ (or ‘children and guns’, or ‘love and vampires’–vampires being grounded in reality, I assume), each of which should take up 30% of the space. Bestsellers use the word ‘need’ more than the word ‘want’, and their characters spend their time being rather than seeming. I guess we will have to wait and read the book to make sense of this.

Meanwhile a world where unopened bestsellers are written and read by machines is approaching. We may not notice much of a difference.

phi phi

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The latest issue of the Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society has an entertaining article by Liam Sims on the formation of the ‘Arc’ classification in the Cambridge University Library. ‘Arc’ is short for ‘Arcana’, and this is CUL’s equivalent of the British Library’s ‘Private Case’ or the Bodleian’s Φ [Phi] classmark — the latter apparently a clever-clever pun on the English word ‘Fie!’ This is, in short, the rude stuff — banned books; sexual psychology and physiology; books of nudes.

Sims describes how hard it is to work out where the ‘Arc’ shelfmark came from, or how anyone knew it was there–the problem books were already being grouped together in the 1880s but it wasn’t until the 1910s that readers were told about them. He also shows that Oxford and Cambridge librarians were privately sharing notes about their handling of obscene materials in letters of the late 1930s. Stephen Wright at Oxford wrote that Φ books were only given out freely to those ‘whose moral character we consider sufficiently irreproachable’, whilst ‘undergraduates and doubtful applicants’ needed to provide ‘convincing evidence of their good faith’. H. C. Stanford at Cambridge–where books were usually borrowable–said that volumes of nudes (drawn or photographed) couldn’t be lent out, as they tend ‘to return adorned … with phallic additions’. Stanford added a handwritten postscript to one of his letters, noting that the Bodleian had Lady Chatterley, but CUL didn’t; ‘but I happen to have a copy of the first edition which will, I suppose, ultimately find a home here’.

Swollen with gifts of erotica from A. E. Housman and Stephen Gaselee, a former Pepys Librarian, along with libellous books and with ‘cancelled’ misprinted books (which live a kind of shadow life, since they can never be brought out for readers), the Arc category now contains around 1200 volumes. Sims suggests that the books that were hidden away from public view may have been much consulted by ‘attractive young men’ among the librarians, some of whom went on to write Arc books themselves. He gives us a picture of one such librarian in his jacket and tie, so that we can see just how attractive he was. This is a comparatively mild form of erotica, given what the article might have offered.

paper bodies

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As we reach the last few days of campaigning for the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, a pro-remain friend reports on Facebook that she has found a torn-up ‘IN’ poster outside her front door. Coming a few days after the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox, this is scary stuff.

It may be harder to read the words on a torn-up poster, but its message is all too legible. It also reveals something important about the medium: about paper, with its susceptibility to tearing, to shredding, to violence–its palpability, which is also its palpable ability to act as a metaphor for the body. If you hate this blog post, you can leave an abusive message in response to it; you can troll me or mount a cyber-attack. But you cannot convey your anger through the universal language of the tear. Ripping the page to shreds is a micro-drama that is rapidly fading from our everyday life. The power of paper turns out to be its weakness, its disposability.

troilusletterThere are a few moments in Shakespeare that capture these aspects of paper. Amid the utter bleakness of the ending of Troilus and Cressida, Troilus receives a letter from Cressida. We never find out what it says; Troilus dismisses the contents as ‘words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart’, before tearing it up. ‘Goe wind to wind, there turn and change together’. The fluttering of the paper becomes a visual metaphor for what Troilus perceives to be his beloved’s faithlessness.

At a similar moment of trauma in Cymbeline, Imogen learns that her beloved Posthumus Leonatus wants her killed. She doesn’t yet know why this should be so, and guesses that he has met a new love; ‘Poor I am stale, a garment out of fashion, / […] I must be ripped: To pieces with me!’ She asks her servant Pisanio to get on with the job of stabbing her, and bares her heart to make the job easier. But she finds the way to her heart barred: ‘What is here? / The scriptures of the loyal Leonatus, / All turn’d to heresie?’ It turns out that she has been storing the letters inside her clothing, like a lining. In this case, she merely throws the letters away (‘Away, away / Corrupters of my faith, you shall no more / Be stomachers to my heart’). In a play that is full of images of bodily dismemberment, it matters that she doesn’t seem to rip them up, and that Pisanio refuses to rip her up. This is a play about restitution–the words will come together, and will be full of meaning once more, by the end.

Let’s hope the political sphere will see some similar restitutions in the coming days and months…

photographic research

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Filling in a questionnaire about digital photography–since, praise the Lord, archives and libraries are increasingly allowing visitors to take photographs of materials in their collections–I start to wax lyrical:

‘Broadly speaking, I’d say that being able to photograph has allowed me to develop my sense that the visual is as important as the verbal in written communication. I think I am quite visually responsive to text—where an older generation would just want to get at the ‘content’, my generation sees content in the physical disposition of words and their endless interactions with images.’

It’s not exactly The Who, but I think it’s true all the same: for those of us who straddle the shift from print to digital, there’s something a bit scandalous about our interest in the visual. And given the ease with which images can be shared on social media, the scandal looks set to deepen with time.

marks of character

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I just caught up with an interview with the American author Don DeLillo in a recent Saturday edition of the Guardian. Two moments in it caught my eye. (Well, three, actually but I’m only going to quote two):

‘”People always use the word ‘identify’. ‘Do you identify with these individuals?’ And I really don’t. I can’t talk about characters outside the frame of the fiction. I identify with the words on the page. I identify with the paragraphs.”‘

And then

‘I ask DeLillo how he came to write [White Noise], but his recollection is hazy. The rhythms and patterns appear to be all that remain. He says, “I can remember the main character’s name, which is Jack Gladney. And there was something in that name–JA for Jack and GLA for Gladney–which felt important. I’ve done the same thing for other books. I’m always very conscious of the patterns of letters in a name. Ross Lockhart isn’t a great example, but its RO and then LO. So it’s a thing that I do. A character takes shape because of that confluence of letters.’

The comments resonate with a moment in DeLillo’s gruelling 9/11 novel Falling Man, when a (very minor) character learns that his name is his destiny:

‘Someone told Rumsey one night, it was Dockery the waggish adman, that everything in his life would be different, Rumsey’s, if one letter in his name was different. An for the u. Making him, effectively, Ramsey. It was the u, the rum, that had shaped his life and mind. The way he walks and talks, his slouchings, his very size and shape, the slowness and thickness that pour off him, the way he puts his hand down his shirt to scratch an itch. That would all be different if he’d been born a Ramsey.’

The way that a character–or a type, a way of being in the world–unfurls from a single letter in a name here is rather magical, and it’s interesting that it’s the adman who should be most attuned to the power of names. DeLillo’s writing practices take us back to the root of the word ‘character’, which was being used to indicate brands, stamps, marks and letters for a good century before it was used to signify a person’s identity. (The OED currently gives the first citation in the latter sense to Ben Jonson, and the list of characters that preceded Every Man in his Humour in 1600). Of course, though the Guardian interviewer doesn’t mark it, it must matter that Don DeLillo has himself got the most wonderful little poem of a name, a tongue-twister incorporating a miniature Manhattan skyline, and the best brand that he could have hoped for.

CMT in Boston!

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I’m really looking forward to our two panels representing what you might call the diasporic CMT at the Renaissance Society of America Annual Meeting in Boston this Thursday:

The Early Modern Material Text I: Reading, Collecting, Compiling

Thu, March 31, 8:30 to 10:00am, Park Plaza, Mezzanine, Georgian Room

Chair: Anne E. B. Coldiron, Florida State University

Jason Scott-Warren (Cambridge), ‘Cut-and-Paste Bookmaking: The Private-Public Agency of Robert Nicolson’

Harriet Phillips (QMUL), ‘The Ballad and the Source: Collecting Ephemera in the Seventeenth Century’

Juliet Fleming (NYU), ‘Gleaning’

The Early Modern Material Text II: Surface, Image, Point

Thu, March 31, 10:30am to 12:00pm, Park Plaza, Mezzanine, Georgian Room

Chair: Jason Scott-Warren, Cambridge

Lucy Razzall (QMUL), “Like to a title-leaf”: Textual Surfaces in Early Modern England

Sarah Howe (Harvard, Radcliffe Institute), “Disjunctive” Prints: Reading Illustrated Books in Early Modern England

Andrew Zurcher (Cambridge), ‘Shakespeare’s Paronomastic Pointing’

Now all we need is an audience. If you’re going to be at the RSA, please come!