The Cambridge University Library’s Research and Collections Programme funds a number of incredible research projects: among them, the Thinking Paper project led by Dr. Orietta Da Rold (of the English Faculty) and Dr. Suzanne Paul (of the University Library). Thinking Paper refocuses attention on a medium that in Europe’s premodern era heralded a technological revolution: paper represents an important interdisciplinary conversation between literary scholars, historians of the book, economists, archivists, conservators, curators, artists, material scientists, surface chemists, bioarcheologists, and more. Understanding paper’s historical significance to these fields creates conversation that moves the materiality of the book not just to the forefront of scholarship, but to the center of research focused on the multivalence of a medium that continues to be essential to contemporary study—and life.
Generating cross-disciplinary conversations was the focus of 2022’s Lent Term Thinking Paper Workshop, entitled ‘Legacies of Paper: in the Archives and Beyond’. By ‘legacy’, we intended to think about paper as an influential medium across multiple contexts ranging from the scientific to the historical to the literary. To engage that conversation from multiple angles, we invited speakers from an array of expert backgrounds to articulate how paper figured in their research. The results were stunning: speakers generously gave papers on early modern economies and class-structures, the contemporary ethics of the archives, new readings of texts like Ben Jonson’s Sejanus His Fall, and much more.
Title page of the 1616 folio edition, with list of actors opposite.
Arthur F. Marotti’s The Circulation of Poetry in Manuscript in Early Modern England (Routledge, 2021) is a study that examines the transmission and compilation of poetic texts through manuscripts from the late-Elizabethan era through the mid-seventeenth century, paying attention to the distinctive material, social, and literary features of these documents.The study has two main focuses: the first, the particular social environments in which texts were compiled and, second, the presence within this system of a large body of (usually anonymous) rare or unique poems. Manuscripts from aristocratic, academic, and urban professional environments are examined in separate chapters that highlight particular collections. Two chapters consider the social networking within the university and London that facilitated the transmission within these environments and between them. Although the topic is addressed throughout the study, the place of rare or unique poems in manuscript collections is at the center of the final three chapters.The book as a whole argues that scholars need to pay more attention to the social life of texts in the period and to little-known or unknown rare or unique poems that represent a field of writing broader than that defined in a literary history based mainly on the products of print culture.
The life of a book holds many stories, all leaving an invisible signature trapped in the pages, waiting to be read by those with the keenest eye. However, what if an eye is not enough? Invisible traces have seemed impossible to recover, but this is all changing with recent technological advances available to us. The emerging field of Biocodicology1 offers the tantalising prospect to read these long forgotten biographies, revealing complex stories of use, handling, storage and production.
But why is this relevant? What can we really learn that cannot already be ascertained from reading the text? The value of the materiality of manuscript production cannot be overstated. Understanding the craftsmanship involved in the production of materials, so intrinsically linked to the users themselves, are as much a part of the codex as the words inscribed on the page. Understanding book production in terms of the livestock economies that sustained them, the choice of animals (age, sex, breed), the idocincracies of each skin requiring specialist knowledge of treatment and production. But then there are additional stories imprinted on the completed text, how was it being used? Were these objects of reverence with barely a scratch as proof of their sacred status, or are they everyday books to be used and thumbed and splashed and cleaned? Much the same way as our favourite recipe books contain evidence of the ingredients we use, manuscripts may present similar signatures from their users, a drop of wine here, a stain of milk there, a veritable feast of biomolecules preserved for posterity, lying dormant waiting to be revealed.
I’m currently working on a doctoral thesis on an analysis and editing of a 15th century dictionary written by the school-master, chronicler and theologist Dietrich Engelhus (ca. 1362-1434). The dictionary contains lemmata in both Latin and Greek (using the Latin alphabet), followed by a multitude of explanations such as definitions, translations into Middle Low German, examples of use, derivations and grammatical information.
My PhD research concerns the copyist Ralph Crane, a poet and scribe who is best known for his transcription of several plays for Shakespeare’s 1623 First Folio. Although typically described as a ‘playhouse scrivener’ or ‘copyist to the King’s Men’, Crane is known to have also copied for the Privy Council and Privy Seal Offices, and the Inns of Court. His manuscripts contain the work of the poets Randolph, Davison, and Austin, the naval officer Sir Henry Mainwaring, the playwrights Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, Massinger, Middleton and Webster, and the Lord Chancellor Sir Francis Bacon. At other points in his life, Crane was working alone, in the production of presentation manuscripts and verse miscellanies which contain poetry circulated only by him.
Crane’s hand, National Maritime Museum Caird Library MS LEC/9 fols. 25v-26r.
CUL, MS Ee.2.15, fol. 20r. Paper stock: crown. Copyright Cambridge University Library
The ‘Mapping Medieval Paper in England’ Project was funded by a Cambridge Humanities Research Grants Scheme 2014/15 with the aim of preparing a new dataset of Medieval Paper Manuscripts written in England between 1300 to about 1500 to consolidate the data that Dr Da Rold has collected to date.