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13 The Manuscript after the Coming of Print

The Oxford Companion to the Book

Harold Love

13 The Manuscript after the Coming of Print 

Harold Love

  • 1 Introduction

  • 2 From the Enlightenment to the 16th century

  • 3 Production and dissemination

  • 4 Conclusion

1 Introduction

A century ago there were still many inky-fingered individuals, who in Britain were called clerks, whose job was to prepare handwritten records—usually in large volumes called ledgers—of transactions in business, the law, and science. Their forerunners had been active since the first *stylus incised the first clay *tablet. Much of their work, like that of Melville’s Bartleby, Gogol’s Akaky Akakevich, and Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, was the soul-destroying creation of duplicate records. In Shaw’s Misalliance, a copy-clerk is driven to attempted murder by the monotony and pointlessness of his job. Most inscriptional tasks have now moved via *typewriting to the computer. Handwriting today is used to create evanescent records such as shopping lists, lecture notes, or postcards; to fill in crosswords and sudokus; or to complete questionnaires. Even the personal letter is most likely to pass by email. Only the sometimes threatened demise of the keyboard seems likely to modify this situation.

Certainly, there cannot be many important cultural records in the Western world that are conveyed solely by means of handwriting. Under Soviet rule, *samizdat copies of dissident texts were circulated in typed copies for works in Russian and in handwritten copies for works in Western languages—this was not a question of choice, but dictated by the limitations for that purpose of the Cyrillic typewriter. In China and Japan, where writing systems are much less amenable to keyboarding, the handwritten exemplar retains its prominence, though its multiplication is likely to be performed by the photocopier. Thus that miracle of technology, the Japanese automatic pencil with extrudable eraser, used with the same upwards and downwards alternation as the ancient stylus writing on wax tablets. But a century and a half ago, work by a handful of major writers and thinkers was still being circulated in MS as a matter of preference. The verse of Emily *Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins received nearly all its circulation in this way, as did the lucubrations of many humbler authors who sought no audience beyond immediate friends and family, or whose themes were unacceptable to the press. The Brontës’ juvenilia are a far from unique example of a family writing exclusively for its own enjoyment. The handwritten work was still prized as a gift to a friend or close relative. Travellers would send letter-diaries to their loved ones with a list of others to whom they were to be circulated, who might in turn make personal copies. Someone requiring an out-of-print book, especially one from an earlier century, would see nothing unusual about making a handwritten copy: many antiquarian records passed in this way from scholar to scholar. At universities, well-off students would buy MS books summarizing the lectures of their professors. Poorer students earned money by inscribing these. And then as now, there were *calligraphers, creators of writing as a thing of beauty.

2 From the Enlightenment to the 16th century

A century earlier still, the Europe of the Enlightenment witnessed the closing stages of a tradition of professional MS book production that had been maintained unbroken since the Middle Ages. In countries subject to draconian state *censorship, philosophically heterodox and politically oppositional texts were still copied for sale by scribes working for booksellers. While surreptitious publication through the press was certainly common, the handwritten copy of a suspect work retained a cachet that made it a desirable form of luxury product. It was also written to order with sale assured. Music circulated principally through MS, or through a mixed mode in which partbooks might need to be consolidated into a handwritten score, or a published score supplemented by handwritten parts. J. S. Bach in his lifetime published only a relatively small body of music, chiefly for the keyboard. His liturgical and instrumental music with few exceptions remained in MS; and yet much of the latter was widely circulated through copies and copies of copies. Work by his more popular contemporary, Telemann, travelled in MS to all corners of Europe. In early 18th-century Britain, there was a covert market in sumptuously bound *folio and large-*quarto volumes of MS satires and lampoons, some with their contents arranged in alphabetical order so as to constitute a kind of secret history of the nation since the Restoration of Charles II. Country parsons might purchase collections of MS sermons to see them through the year; lawyers might buy professionally written collections of writs, precedents, or reports.

Moving even further backwards, to the early 17th century, we find scribal production still competitive with the press whenever the ability to create large numbers of copies in a short time was not an issue, or when there were obstacles to the printing of a given work. In Britain, one of these obstacles was the reluctance of many authors, especially women, to have their works appear as articles of sale—what Saunders christened ‘the stigma of print’, though unwillingness gave little protection when booksellers were free to print any fortuitously encountered MS without permission. Yet, Donne was able to restrict the printing of his poems during a lifetime in which they circulated freely in MS, often in large collections. Carew’s and, later, Rochester’s verse first appeared in print immediately after their deaths, in pirated *editions based on already current MS *anthologies. Sidney may never have seen any of his writings in printed form. Writers would woo patrons with works in MS, which were seen to possess a greater exclusivity than print: Shakespeare’s Sonnets give every appearance of such an origin.

At a time when Parliament jealously guarded the privacy of its deliberations, there was a roaring trade in sessional diaries and the texts of speeches—either noted down, reconstructed from memory by fellow members, or provided by the members themselves to entrepreneurial *scriveners. From the same agencies came a wide variety of political commentaries of a kind often unwelcome to the Crown. The tracts of the great antiquary *Cotton fall into this category. *Selden, too, circulated a number of his writings only through the scribal medium. After his death, his free-speaking Table Talk, compiled by his chaplain Richard Milward, was reproduced for sale by a *scriptorium, not being judged fit for the press until after the Glorious Revolution. One body of early 17th-century material of this kind is linked by the easily recognizable hand of Beal’s ‘*Feathery Scribe’. Even plays, when withheld from the press by acting companies, might be acquired in MS, Middleton’s A Game at Chess being a famous example. *Crane, a scribe with links to Shakespeare’s company, left several play *transcripts apparently made for readers.

All these British practices had their counterparts in continental Europe. In addition, there was a lively international exchange of scientific, *alchemical, and astrological MSS in Latin. Alchemy, as an occult science, was particularly hostile to the press. Latin epigrams originally exchanged between the statues of *Pasquino and Marforio in Rome, or celebrating or burlesqueing Louis XIV’s rebuilding of the Louvre, travelled both singly and in bulk along mazelike channels of erudite correspondence. Religious persecution encouraged organized scribal circulation of oppositional writings—in England, Catholic and Puritan, in France, Huguenot and Jansenist. In Spain and Italy, where the *Inquisition reigned and suspicious books were confiscated from travellers, what penetration there was of Protestant, heterodox, and freethinking texts was largely through MS. To move even further into the past is to arrive at the Reformation and then to the founding decades of print in the late 15th century, prior to which all texts circulated in either oral or handwritten form. For monks and nuns of that transitional age, copying remained a regular duty prescribed under the rule of St Benedict. For many scholars and churchmen of a humanist persuasion, the beauty of a fine hand and the exclusiveness of a handwritten Horace or *book of hours outweighed considerations of price and convenience. In other fields of text production, there is a surprising (but on reflection perfectly predictable) confluence of the media. *McKitterick has pointed to the prevalence of printed books with handwritten elements and of handwritten works containing printed components. Nor were printed books and MSS rigidly shelved apart from each other as happens in today’s libraries. Instead, they might well be bound together into larger assemblages, now usually dismembered. It was also common for printed books to be heavily annotated and interleaved by their owners. The note-taking scholars studied by Blair worked in order to return print to MS in the form of vast accumulations of excerpts. Manuals were available on how information was to be assigned to and retrieved from these.

3 Production and dissemination

Reversing the direction of this passage through time, the process by which the handwritten word perpetuated its ancient traditions in the face of competition from the press needs to be considered. It did this chiefly by specialization. Once a bible, a Latin grammar, or the text of a royal proclamation could be reproduced more cheaply and in a shorter time by a printer than by a scribe, there was little point in trying to compete in that field; but in the case of a smaller text, these advantages were not so pronounced and might be offset by others. A scribe could make several copies of a 1,000-word document during the time taken up by the cumbersome print processes of *casting off, setting, *proofreading, *presswork, and *collating; in cases where fewer than 50 copies were required, print publication might well prove wasteful. (Even today, as Amory has observed, a large part of print production remains unsold, and much that is sold unread.) A handwritten copy could also claim a greater exclusivity, which often led to it being more carefully read and preserved. It was a much better way of reaching a narrow niche audience. Scribal technology was cheap and portable.

A bundle of *quills, a supply of paper and ink, sufficient light, and a table was all that was required to set such work in motion. The time of a clerk came cheaply enough. A team of scribes, gathered together in a scriptorium or contracting individually to write batches for a bookseller or scrivener, was also capable of quite high levels of output when that was necessary. Even for scribal editions of 100 or more documented in the 17th century for newsletters, the economic advantages were probably pretty equally balanced with those of print. Organized production of this kind minimized the textual deterioration that is the bane of seriatim copying while permitting changes to be made at any time to a master copy—a luxury denied the press. Serial publication could also be a way of exploiting otherwise underused labour. Legal offices employed large numbers of clerks whose regular duties would peak when courts were in session and decline during vacations. To take on copying for booksellers offered a solution. Professional scribal services could also be engaged by an aspiring but print-shy author—although this could prove dangerous, since the scribe or scrivener by retaining an extra copy was in a position to commence production on his own behalf. It was usually safer for authors wishing to distribute a text in MS to entrust production to a secretary, family member, or reliable amanuensis—or to copy it themselves—though many were reluctant to have their words appear in their own, recognizable handwriting.

The other mode by which texts proliferated in MS was through copies successively made by readers. It is astounding with what rapidity and in what quantities this method could spread a short work. The fact that each was in effect an ‘edition’ of one could lead, as mentioned earlier, to rapid textual change. Yet there were also disciplines of textual recuperation (not least *emendation), well known to experienced transcribers, and for a popular piece there might well be more than one copy available for consultation. The fragile ‘separates’, often transported in pockets, in which these texts passed suffered an enormous loss rate, since apart from simple wear and tear, paper was in constant demand for domestic uses. Instead, what has generally survived are copies made from these separates in personal *miscellanies and often misnamed *commonplace books. The surviving MS heritage of a really popular short piece is usually a mixture of both reader-inscribed and professionally written separates (when any survive at all), copies from personal miscellanies, and copies in scribal anthologies compiled for sale.

Once in the hands of the professionals, a piece might first be gathered into a ‘linked group’ or relatively small sub-collection that then became absorbed into larger and larger collections whose relationships can be established by a study of the order of their contents. In many cases, the larger collections reveal an aspiration to comprehensive record-keeping of an antiquarian kind. English examples include the MS records (published by Notestein and Relf) of the proceedings of the 1628 Parliament and the collections (mentioned earlier) written c.1700 of political satires and libertine lampoons dating from 1660, some of which extend to over 600 pages and have their contents dated and in chronological order. These large and expensive volumes were intended for the homes of wealthy buyers, where their chances of survival were greatly enhanced, though the 9th earl of Derby did hide a volume of potentially treasonable satires in a chimney, where it was only found when the house was demolished. What began as topical, quickly became historical and was respected as such in a medium that antiquarians were often more at home with than they were with the press.

By the early 18th century, the professional arm of scribal publication still enjoyed the advantages of efficiency over very short runs, rapid response time, flexibility in its handling of texts, freedom from censorship, and controlled availability. These were enough to keep a small cadre of booksellers’ scribes at work for some decades (just how long would need to be determined by a systematic survey of surviving MSS that has yet to be attempted). MSS of this kind were certainly expensive, but so too were printed books. Yet professional *chirographical bookmaking had undoubtedly retreated to an assemblage of niche markets that was to be further eroded by advances in printing—particularly the arrival of the *steam press in the early 19th century and a concurrent sharp decline in the cost of printing paper (see 10, 11)—and then by the transfer of many scribal functions from the male clerk to the female typist. Music copyists survived longer, but even they nowadays are to be found at a computer keyboard. The theatre prompter continued with his copying of *promptbooks and actors’ ‘sides’ until well into the 19th century, by which time, in Britain, most of the standard repertoire could be acquired in cheap multiple sets from various booksellers such as Lacy’s, *French’s, and Dicks’s. What continued, as already mentioned, was the preparation and circulation of texts by their authors in small handwritten editions or single copies circulated under supervision. A vast amount of writing between the 18th and 20th centuries still reached its readers in exactly this way, sometimes because it was not acceptable to the press, but more often because that was the way authors or transcribers preferred it.

One not atypical career was that of Roger North (1653–1734), a prolific author of biographies and works on music, whose magnum opus is his vast historiographical Examen. North continually returned to and revised his writings and held many in multiple copies; yet, he seems to have had no desire to see them in print. Those that did appear were published in edited form by family members after his death. This may have been what he wanted, but it makes more sense to see that family as his intended audience, or to classify him as an author who wrote primarily for himself with no particular desire for readers, except just possibly a generalized ‘posterity’. Around 1703 Celia Fiennes opened her account of her travels: ‘As this was never designed, soe not likely to fall into the hands of any but my near relations, there needs not much to be said to excuse or recommend it’ (Fiennes, 1). Newton’s alchemical and theological writings were preserved for private use in careful MS copies: only his scientific ones went to the press. Perhaps the purest examples of composing for personal gratification are writers of diaries. In many recorded cases, the diary, however laboriously compiled, is destroyed before death, having always been intended for the writer alone. There are also cases of writing consciously performed for ritual sacrifice. At Spenser’s funeral, fellow poets threw elegies into the grave, together with the quills with which they had been written. D. G. Rossetti buried MS poems with his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, but later thought better of it and had them retrieved.

Moreover, it should not be forgotten that for many writers the preferred form of publication was performance. This was the norm in the ancient world, when the public reading was the means by which most work became known, and only a small proportion was ever available in published form. In the theatre, this has always been the case. Shakespeare is often held to have had little concern for any written dissemination of his plays, though this view has recently been challenged. Clearly, there have always been authors in other genres who preferred the classical tradition. Kafka saw hardly any of his work in print during his lifetime, but he enjoyed reading it aloud to his circle of close friends. Kafka’s first printed texts were largely compiled by one of those friends (Max Brod) from his disorganized MSS after his death. Members of the clergy have always devoted a great deal of their energy to the writing of sermons, often on a weekly basis. Although those by recognized stars of the pulpit—or those produced for some shining occasion—might then be printed or recorded in *shorthand, and some might be lent or sold on to colleagues, the vast bulk were discarded, if not immediately after delivery, at least on the retirement or death of their authors. Most academic and public lectures suffered the same fate. In some cases those of great philosophers, such as Wittgenstein, or writers, such as Coleridge, and scientists are known only from the notes taken by their students or members of their audience.

Other writers were keen to be read, but wanted to choose by whom and under what circumstances—what Ezell has conceptualized for early modern Britain as ‘social authorship’. This would include the more literary stratum of letter writers, such as *Walpole. He cultivated correspondence as an art form intended for preservation, but always directed to particular recipients and their immediate circles, with whom they would be assumed to share the pleasures of the epistolary text. It is most unlikely that Walpole foresaw the accumulative passion of W. S. *Lewis. Hopkins, mentioned earlier, circulated new work through the post to a small circle of friends who were mostly fellow poets. For him, as for many other non-professional writers of his and earlier times, authorship was a vital means of intellectual and aesthetic exchange. Thomas Campion’s Latin epigrams contain several pieces chiding fellow neo-Latin poets for refusing to circulate their verse except to intimates. In the 18th century, the works of his distinguished successor Anthony Alsop had to be retrieved after his death from copies sent to friends.

For some writers, the management and circulation of their MSS required them to acquire the skills of both the librarian and the publisher. Bach must have filled a good-sized room of his home in Leipzig with the scores and parts for his cantatas alone. In other cases, one detects an almost fetishistic devotion to the handwritten word, often evident in the care involved in its presentation and preservation. Emily Dickinson is one famous example of a hoarder and decorator of her MSS. Other writers surprise by the care taken with their MSS, even when intended for the press. Kipling would write in a special *Indian ink on a sheet of high-quality paper and tie the sheets together with a ribbon. It was clearly the initial inscription, not the printed outcome, that represented for him the perfect embodiment of the imagined word.

4 Conclusion

The transition of textual work from the handwritten word to various forms of mechanical and electronic reproduction did not, in many cases, make much difference either to the attitudes of the worker or to how the product was used by its purchaser; but there are ways in which the effect of the ‘meaningful surface’ of MSS differs from that created by *typography or electronography. The most ambitious attempt to theorize those differences is that of the Jesuit scholar *Ong, for whom the chirographic text embodies a presence-rich ‘secondary orality’, anchoring it firmly in the world of human interaction. In contrast, the printed text reduces language to a ‘thing-like status’ and living knowledge to ‘cold non-human facts’ in a way that is inherently authoritarian. Certainly, there are degrees of overlap in both cases. A perfectly formed Renaissance italic hand or a flawlessly rounded 19th-century *copperplate achieves a suppression of individuality far greater than that of the freewheeling typography of *L’Estrange’s late 17th-century Observators with their idiosyncratic intermingling of capitals, italic, and *black letter and free use of brackets and of capitalization for emphasis. Yet Ong’s general point is a fair one. There is something remote and impersonal about a well-constructed typographic page that is the price it exacts for permitting us to read it at high speed. Few reading experiences can, on the other hand, be more intense than that of a great poem or musical work written out in the script of its creator. The late Patrick O’Brian’s last, uncompleted novel was brought out in an edition with a reproduction of the MS and a type transcript on facing pages. The MS is a corrected working draft, not a fair *copy, but instinct with the human face of authorship. The corresponding typography, by contrast, is sober and inexpressive, but of course much clearer—and one suspects that most readers of the volume quickly revert to it once they become engrossed in the narrative.


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