The Survival of Manuscripts

by Giles E. Dawson and Laetitia Kennedy-Skipton

from their book

Elizabethan Handwriting, 1500-1650: A Manual

(W. W. Norton and Company, 1966)

Until quite recently all literature, most records, and most communications other than those spoken were written by hand. Since the fifteenth century, literary compositions judged to be of wide interest have, in the main, been put speedily into print, chiefly for the sake of dissemination. And for the same reason certain classes of official records, such as proclamations and statutes, have likewise been printed more or less promptly. Still this is true of no more than a small percentage of official records. Archive and manuscript repositories great and small house millions of written documents as yet unprinted, many unexplored. Historians have not neglected these mines, but neither have they exhausted them, and what riches remain no one knows. Furthermore since editors have not always proved infallible, the manuscript of a printed work retains a practical value for the historian. Wherever exact knowledge of the record is important the original writing will always possess the ultimate authority.

For students of English literature the same importance attaches to an author's original manuscript. But of such literary manuscripts the incidence of survival is much lower than for many classes of historical documents. Why this is so we shall consider presently. The fact is that authors' autograph manuscripts of, say, the sixteenth century have with few exceptions vanished. Of Shakespeare's plays, for example, no manuscript in his autograph is known, and much the same is true of the productions of the other playwrights who worked in the great period of drama from 1580 to 1642. No manuscript of any play has survived in the autograph of Kyd, Greene, Jonson, Chapman, Dekker, Heywood, Marston, Webster, Beaumont, Fletcher, or Ford -- to name only the better known dramatists. The facts can be summarized in this way: no play by a professional playwright which was successful on the stage and which was printed before 1642 is known to have come down to our time or near it.

[NOTE: There is a manuscript of The Masque of Queens in Ben Jonson's autograph, but that is not a play. There are a number of contemporary manuscripts of academic plays (written for production at Oxford or Cambridge), but these were not professional plays and most were not soon printed. A professional play by Philip Massinger, Believe As You List, of which the autograph manuscript is preserved in the British Museum, was not successful on the stage and was first printed in 1849. Marlowe's name could appear in the list of playwrights above, but there exists a fragment of a single leaf from the manuscript of his Massacre at Paris which may be in his autograph, though this is impossible to prove because the only other specimen of his handwriting is an early signature. We cannot leave Shakespeare without mentioning a small part of a play which again may be in his autograph: 148 lines in a manuscript play called Sir Thomas More, a collaborative effort by several men, of whom Shakespeare seems to have been one. That he was the author of the lines is supported by a good deal of evidence, none of it quite conclusive. That they were written, as we have them, by his own hand is highly probable if he was their author. Here, as with Marlowe's Massacre at Paris, we have no other writing with which to compare these 148 lines except six unquestionable signatures and two other words, "by me." Signatures, even six of them, are not reliable in comparisons of this sort because they tend to be stylized and formal, bearing little observable relationship to a man's ordinary working hand.]

To understand why some classes of manuscripts have survived in abundance while others have mainly vanished we must inquire into the conditions that have governed preservation or destruction. We may start with a truism: care will be taken to preserve those things recognized as possessing value -- and only those things. Recognized value is not always the determining factor, though it is the most important one. Things wanted may be lost through carelessness, accident, or uncontrollable decay. Things not wanted may yet survive if they are not in the way, if they do not speedily decay, and if no secondary values lead to their removal or destruction. Huge dumps of worn-out automobiles would not mar the landscape on the outskirts of every big city if the secondary value of scrap iron were high enough to pay for their removal. In discussing the survival of manuscripts, then, we need to assess not only the value attached to the several classes of manuscripts at various times but also such forces as favored their destruction.

Some classes of manuscript records possess an obvious continuing value. A will must be kept safe not only till the testator dies and it is probated but for the indeterminate period during which its provisions may conceivably exert an influence in the disposition of real property -- possibly for many generations. Statutes, proclamations, sentences pronounced by courts of law, acts of the Privy Council, treasury and exchequer records -- all these and more were recognized at the time of their creation in the Tudor and Stuart age as possessing values extending indefinitely into the future. Failure on the part of government agencies to provide for the preservation of such records could only have led to chaos. A. Agard's Repertorie of Records (1631) lists many classes of archives stored in the Tower of London and in the treasury at Westminster -- archives going back in long series to the reign of King John (d.1216). Thomas Powell in his Direction for Search of Records (1622) is interested solely in the practical uses of these records for lawyers concerned with disputed titles to land. Because of complex medieval tenures, largely remaining in effect in the seventeenth century, such search was commonly pushed back for centuries.

The practice of keeping records was not confined to the great offices and courts at Westminster but was widespread among men involved in government at all levels. The justice of the peace in a remote shire was intimately involved in government. He was likely to be a substantial landed gentleman, to be, once or twice, sheriff of his county, also a commissioner for the suppression of recusants or for the breed of horse or for the supply of the royal household. He might be a deputy lieutenant of his county or a vice admiral of a coastal area or the steward of crown estates lying near his seat. In any of these capacities he would be accustomed to receiving letters from the Exchequer, the lord treasurer, or the Privy Council, from the bishop of the diocese or the lord lieutenant or the lord admiral. These letters often required him to take some action -- to mediate between two disputants, to apprehend a malefactor, to make a report; they gave him authority to act, and they had to be preserved. In addition he had his own private interests involving records that had to be kept -- leases running for a term of years or for a number of lives, marriage settlements, evidences of indebtedness. The safekeeping of these documents was obviously important, and it was possible because their owners lived in big houses where storage presented no problems. These men, having perforce developed the habit of filing important documents, tented to keep even unimportant ones. Also their descendants commonly occupied the same house for many generations, and when an heir succeeded to the ownership of the house and the estate and the attendant responsibilities, it was easier for him to leave undisturbed the inherited bundles of old papers than to sort them out. In short, records were assumed to have some value, they were not in the way, and they would not easily decay.

As examples of family continuity and the preservation of papers we might mention the Cecil family. The first Cecil to attain national prominence was William, Lord Burghley. As lord treasurer for twenty-six years, master of the Court of Wards and Liveries for thirty-seven, and chief minister to Queen Elizabeth, he amassed big estates, built big houses, and accumulated an immense quantity of papers, both official and private. Today these are the property of his descendant, the Marquess of Salisbury, who lives in a house built by the first Lord Burghley's son. On a lower level of importance was Sir William Petre, secretary of state to Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Queen Mary. About 1540 he built a house at Ingatestone, in Essex, and here his descendant, Lord Petre, lives to this day. Still preserved in the house are masses of family muniments and other records, some written before the Norman Conquest. Many other examples could be cited, though the past half century has seen the dissolution of countless great houses and the wanton destruction of tons of records.

It is not to be imagined that the Cecils and the Petres preserved the family papers because they recognized historical value in them. Such recognition may have occurred occasionally, but it was mainly with practical values that these men were concerned. Recognition of historical value in such artifacts is rarely to be found before about the second half of the eighteenth century; too often the realization that old family archives possessed no practical value resulted in their destruction.

If we take William Shakespeare as a representative of the middle class about whom we happen to know a good deal, we shall find a rather different picture. He sprang from simple yeoman stock. His father came, about 1550, to Stratford-on-Avon, where he became a householder and prospered moderately as a tradesman. William's own prosperity, as playwright, actor, and theatrical businessman, was substantial and came to him early in his life. By 1597, when he was thirty-two and his greatest successes lay ahead of him, he was able to buy New Place, the biggest and most imposing house in Stratford. In this house he spent his last years and died in 1616, and the property passed to his heirs, the last of whom -- his last surviving descendant -- died in 1670. New Place then passed into alien hands, and about 1702 it was rebuilt and in 1759 was pulled down. Members of the Shakespeare family had lived in Stratford for a hundred and twenty years and in one house for seventy-three. This was obviously neither the kind of house nor the kind of family favorable to the preservation of manuscripts.

The manuscripts of Shakespeare's plays -- or anybody else's -- were of value only so long as they had a recognized practical value -- until, that is, they had been made available in print. Plays in general ranked not as literature but as ephemeral entertainment. Shakespeare himself seems never to have taken steps to obtain for any of his plays the immortality of print. Only about half of them (not including Macbeth, Othello, Julius Caesar, or As You Like It) were printed in his lifetime. Though many of his plays enjoyed a durable popular success, there is clear evidence that he was not generally regarded as towering over other playwrights of his day. The evidence is to be found mainly in the extant comments made by some fifty of his contemporaries. People were interested in plays and to some extent in actors, but not, so far as the evidence shows, in playwrights. In any case, men did not then pursue hobbies; they did not much collect articles that were not of evident practical value. If they collected signatures and autograph manuscripts they were only those of great men like kings and noblemen. For the author's original manuscript of Hamlet, once it had been made available in print, there would have been no market. The heyday of Shakespeare idolatry dawned more than a century after his death.

If the autograph manuscript of Hamlet possessed no value as a relic, it did possess value as paper. We must realize that in those days newspapers were unknown, also paper napkins, paper towels, toilet paper, kitchen paper, and so on. What is even more important, wrapping paper, though it existed, was used only for a few special purposes and so was seldom seen by most people. All the paper in England was made by hand, was imported (mainly from France), and was by our standards very expensive. What new paper there was, therefore, could be used in the main only for printing or writing. Paper was available for the packaging of small quantities of pepper, spices or tobacco, for wrapping fish, starting fires, or a hundred other lowly commercial or domestic uses. But this was used paper, printed or written on, and even it was hard to come by. In a play by Beaumont and Fletcher, A King and No King, Bessus, boasting of the number of challenges he received, says that he makes a profit by selling the paper they are written on to the grocers. Bookbinders too used wastepaper -- strips to strengthen their hinges, whole sheets laminated to make cardboard or binders' board, half sheets for lining or flyleaves. When these are extant in old books today they consist, with few exceptions, of printed paper or manuscript matter. In London printers and bookbinders were closely associated, for they belonged to the same trade company (or guild), and it is reasonable to assume that a printer would regularly sell his wastepaper to the binder down the street. This waste would consist of sheets spoiled in the printing and also of manuscripts that had, through printing, lost their value as written matter. To the bookbinder the fact that the paper he used bore print or writing was of no concern, and buyers of books must have been equally indifferent to it. The same attitude was evidently held by the housewife or cook, one of the prime consumers of wastepaper. According to a well-authenticated story, John Warburton, a herald and antiquary, about the middle of the eighteenth century deposited in his kitchen a pile of old manuscripts that he wanted, and when he looked for them a year or so later and found only a few remaining, his cook explained that she had used the others to line baking dishes.

Altogether there is abundant evidence to show that used paper was a marketable commodity much in demand for a great variety of uses. This fact by itself sufficiently accounts for the disappearance of certain classes of manuscript matter to which we would attach great importance but in which men of three centuries ago recognized no value either as literature or as relics.

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