Monthly Archives: February 2017

Reading the folds: students of letter-locking

The fourth Bodleian Libraries Manuscript and Textual Editing Workshops is scheduled to take place this week, and I’m thrilled to announce that the metadata and transcriptions generated during the three previous sessions may all be consulted now in EMLO within the Bodleian Student Editions catalogue. As a project, we are delighted also to have been able to bring together in the Weston Library a number of our esteemed contributors and colleagues in a fascinating hands-on demonstration of letterlocking. The extraordinary workshop was led by Jana Dambrogio (Thomas F. Peterson Conservator for Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Library in Cambridge, Mass.) and Daniel Starza Smith (Lecturer in Early Modern English at KCL), and places were made available to students who had signed up for the Bodleian Student Editions’ manuscript and editing workshops and to a group of second year students from the ‘Writing in the Early Modern Period, 1550–1750’ Further Subject headed by Professor Giora Sternberg, as well as to staff from the Bodleian, CofK, and EMLO.

letter_thread_closed_SMALLLetterlocking, the term coined by this dynamic and eloquent duo, who constitute an integral and invaluable part of the Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered project team, is the process of folding and securing a letter that was used before mass-produced ready gummed envelopes became de rigueur in the nineteenth century. If, when your letter was ready for dispatch, you did not employ a combination of these time-honoured techniques of folding, cutting, tying, stitching, and/or sealing, what you had written would not have remained private. As Dan explained, sending an unlocked letter four centuries ago would be like pressing the button today on emails without encryption and using accounts with no password.

Jana and Dan taught the assembled company how to complete a staggering variety of different folding and securing techniques, none as straightforward a process as you might imagine. In fact, many of the formats were personalized and extremely elaborate. As Jana demonstrated with a selection of the Bodleian’s early modern manuscript letters which were displayed (and re-boxed by their curator, Mike Webb, and removed to a sensible distance from the ‘wax table’ when participants queued to have their folded letters sealed) the evidence of this essential practice may still be pieced together from such tell-tale signs as the tears found in the paper, the slits, the holes, and the seals. John Donne devised with his own unique lock that involved a paper hook (yes, said Dan, this turned out to be just like Donne: ‘over the top, witty, and kind of sexy’); and Elizabeth of Bohemia was shown to have tied her letters with exquisite silk thread (just look at this gorgeous replica which was given to me).

Letter_openSMALLWe were warned beforehand we would never look at a manuscript letter in the same way again, and the emails of thanks that have flooded in over the ensuing days confirmed this: ‘transfixing’; ‘absolutely bowled over’; ‘I will indeed see them so differently’; and ‘I can’t wait to visit the Reading Room again!’ If you wish to experience a little of letterlocking, it’s well worth setting aside time to watch Jan and Dan’s videos, and to recreate yourself some of these complex and beautiful locking types and their formats. Jana and Dan’s work emerges as a clarion call for letters — so often valued by scholars above all for the information contained in their text — to be considered also as objects.

Hadriaan Beverland, routes to and from the Dutch Republic, and the postmasters Brienne

It may be no more than the season, but EMLO is brim full of the ‘joys of spring’. Thanks to the publication of his catalogue in EMLO, we have Hadriaan Beverland and his ‘companion’ gracing the home page (yes, the louche free thinker is the first to be seen here in such ‘company’).

Portrait of Hadriaan Beverland, by Godfrey Kneller. 1689. Oil on canvas, 76 by 63.5cm. (Bodleian Libraries; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation and downloaded from Wikimedia Commons)

Beverland is an intriguing and unusual character. Expelled from the University of Leiden for profane and perverse writing, he was exiled in 1679 from the provinces of Holland, Zeeland, and West-Friesland. The following year he crossed to England, where he spent the remainder of his life (despite receiving in 1693 a pardon from William III). He settled in London with his partner (and maid) Rebekah Tibbith, with whom is he known to have fathered two children. Beverland continued to publish in London, and worked as a secretary and librarian to such eminent collectors and scholars as Hans Sloane and Isaac Vossius. This calendar of Beverland’s correspondence has been compiled by EMLO Digital Fellow Dr Karen Hollewand, who worked on his letters as part of her doctoral thesis ‘The Banishment of Beverland: Sex, Scripture, and Scholarship in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic’. Poor Beverland did not enjoy a comfortable old age. As Karen explains, during the 1690s both his financial situation and his mental state deteriorated to the extent that he was forced to sell most of his books and his art collection and he died, in a sorry state of paranoia, in London in 1716.

While Beverland was corresponding with such luminaries in the Dutch Republic as Graevius, Heinsius, and Jacobus Gronovius, postmaster Simon Veillaume (known more widely as Simon de Brienne) and his wife Maria Germain were filling a trunk with letters, each of which had ended up in their post office in The Hague rather than in the hands of its intended recipient. The letters were destined never to be delivered for a myriad of reasons that ranged from the all-too-familiar ‘not known at this address’, to ‘recipient told post office to save the letter’, or ‘will not read’. Over the past week, EMLO has played host to a Dutch-based project — Signed, Sealed, Undelivered — and intense discussions have revolved around the intricacies of folding, wrapping, and sealing a late seventeenth- or early eighteenth-century letter, as well as the tortuous routes and re-directions involved in its journey post dispatch. The two projects have been establishing how best to capture the route of the letters for which detailed postal information is preserved on the wrappers; and discussions, together with Professor Dagmar Freist, who is working on the Prize Papers at The National Archives, and Dr Ineke Huysman, who is working on the correspondence of Johan de Witt, considered intended versus actual destinations, postal routes and stamps, costs, wrappers, and enclosures. Brienne, a Frenchman who had served Rupert of the Rhine, was appointed Postmaster in The Hague in 1676 (and his wife, Maria, became Postmistress in 1686); together they were responsible for letters passing in and out of the city from and to France, the Southern Netherlands, and Spain. Apart from a decade in London with William III from 1688, the Briennes continued to work in The Hague (still filling their chest) until their deaths in 1703 (Maria) and 1707 (Simon). Their legacy of some 600 unopened — and very many more partly opened, and all still folded — treasures (which presumably they kept as a potential source of future income, should the recipients be located) have yet to yield their secrets, but with the Brienne team treating these letters as objects and leaving them in their folded and sealed states, studying the material evidence they can provide (and only later imaging with highly specialized equipment to explore the content and the text of the letter[s] inside), it is guaranteed that a wealth of truly invaluable and unique metadata will be collated meticulously and preserved for posterity.