Aphorism therapy, or, How to cope with dishonest relatives

Poor Walter Bagot (1557-1622). A busy county official in Staffordshire and head of a large extended family with typically complicated financial arrangements, he was on the receiving end of a constant flow of requests, complaints, and excuses. Occasionally, these letters inspired him to reach for his commonplace book and inscribe an appropriate aphorism on them, or else to compose his own proverbs in order to express his growing frustration.

"Viuat Anthonius / for Francis is worse."

Detail from Folger MS L.a.570, Letter from Anthony Kinnersley to Walter Bagot, May 11, 1613. Click on this image and all other images to see the full letters.

At first I thought these aphorisms were random jottings unrelated to the content of the letters on which they were written. After all, there are other notes on many of the letters, including calculations, lists, and handwriting practice. Some letters in the collection contain proper endorsements in the same italic hand, such as “My sister Lane,” “My sister Trew.” But after reading the letters, the connection between the aphorisms and the content that triggered them was easy to spot. 

Bagot’s sister Lettice Kinnersley, her husband Francis Kinnersley, and her father-in-law Anthony Kinnersley pushed Bagot perhaps more than anyone else. While there are at least twenty letters in the Bagot family papers at the Folger that include Bagot’s pointed commentary, this post will only look here at the ones that pertain to this part of the family, who were all feuding with one another over property and money.

At the bottom of a letter from Anthony Kinnersley, his sister’s father-in-law, Bagot writes, and then smudges out, “Viuat Anthonius for Francis is worse.” In this letter, Anthony requests that Bagot verify the nature of an insult to Kinnersley and his cousin Aston by Edward Mastergent, who had allegedly called them twopenny and threepenny (i.e., worthless) justices. This request was apparently less onerous than the ones he had been receiving from Francis.

My mynd with furie...

Folger MS L.a.571, Letter from Anthony Kinnersley to Harvey Bagot, July 31, 1613.

Walter’s preference for Anthony over Francis was short-lived. His son Harvey received a letter from Anthony in 1613 as well, which he handed over to his father. Anthony rails at Harvey in the letter—”I wonder you soe much forgott yourself,” “you doe not keepe your word with me,” “you shame me”—for not keeping his promise to send “two brethren Ashes, with sufficient sureties.” To this letter, Walter Bagot added some verse: “My mynd with furie searse(?) inflame / of late I know not how” and “God helpe those subiectes that must lyue / vnder the lawe prerogatiue / Yf nether oath nor feare of god / can stay his hand that shaks that rodd / Lord in thy mercie think on mee / That I those dayes maye neauer see.”  

When her portion was taken...

Detail from Folger MS L.a.941, Letter from Edward Waring and Francis Kinnersley to Walter Bagot, May 29, 1615.

Relationships continued to be frought in 1615, when Bagot received a letter from Francis Kinnersley and his sister Anne’s son-in-law, Edward Waring, who occasionally helped out with legal issues concerning the Kinnersley inheritances. Bagot annotates the letter, “when her portion was taken / Then the ladie was forsaken,” most likely in reference to his sister Lettice’s worsening relationship with her husband Francis and their financial desperation. The letter requests that Bagot send them a conveyance between Francis and his father Anthony that was in Bagot’s possession.

Lettice herself justifiably complained frequently to her brother.  On the back of a letter in which she describes her “distressed” situation and asks Bagot’s advice about an upcoming court appearance of her husband’s, Bagot inscribes a medieval formula which appears on many tombs.

Detail from Folger MS L.a.605, Letter from Lettice Kinnersley to Walter Bagot, May 23, 1618(?).

Detail from Folger MS L.a.605, Letter from Lettice Kinnersley to Walter Bagot, May 23, 1618(?).

“Terra terram tegat Demon peccat resumat / mundus res habeat spiritus alta petat” (Let earth cover earth, let the Devil take back my sins, let the world have my goods, let my spirit seek high Heaven), he writes. The phrase “litera scripta manet” (the written word remains) also appears, in secretary hand rather than italic, on the same leaf. Bagot’s sense of the direness of the situation is chilling.

What would Ovid say?

Detail from bottom of Folger MS L.a.573, Letter from Anthony Kinnersley to Walter Bagot, date...

Detail from bottom of Folger MS L.a.573, Letter from Anthony Kinnersley to Walter Bagot, March 12, 1613/14.

Bagot turned to classical sources for much of his commentary. On a letter from Anthony from early 1614, Bagot writes “Lurida terribiles mis[c]ent aconita Novercae” (Terrible stepmothers mix deadly aconite [wolf's bane]), which comes straight from Ovid (Metamorphoses, 1.147). This line is part of a section of Metamorphoses that associates the age of iron mining with greed, which causes family strife, disputes over money and property, and the breakdown of family bonds—an apt description of Bagot’s sense of Anthony Kinnersley’s motives in asking him to sell him half of the bailiffship of Totmonslowe Hundred.

Detail from address leaf of Folger MS L.a.573, Letter from Anthony Kinnersley to Walter Bagot.

Detail from address leaf of Folger MS L.a.573, Letter from Anthony Kinnersley to Walter Bagot, March 12, 1613/14.

On the address leaf of this same letter, Bagot adds another aphorism: “Quid magis durum saxo quid mollius vnda? / Dura tamen molli saxa cauantur aqua.” He draws from Ovid again, this time from the first book of Ars Amatoria: “What is harder than a rock, and softer than water? Yet hard rocks are hollowed by soft water.” Speaking less to the art of seduction and more to the art of persistence in general, Bagot perhaps equates Kinnersley’s constant requests and promises as the water attempting to erode Bagot’s resolve. After all, the letter ends with Kinnersley promising that he will “requite the same in any thinge that falleth within my Compasse,” and in a postscript, promising further, “For which frenshippe if I may haue,” some coach geldings for Bagot’s wife.

In another letter which came into his hands, from Francis Kinnersley to Edward Waring, Bagot adds a range of notes. In the letter, Francis asks Waring to ask Bagot to move Francis’s father Anthony to clear Loxley from all encumbrance.

Detail from letter from Francis to Edmund, obtained by Bagot. Folger MS L.a.581, fol. 2v detail.

Detail from letter from Francis Kinnersley to Edmund Waring, March 21, ca. 1618, obtained by Walter Bagot. Folger MS L.a.581, fol. 2v.

Bagot responds: “What better fare then well content,” which comes from Thomas Tusser’s Fiue hundred points of good husbandry, and “Vix Priamus” (Hardly was Priam [and all of Troy worth such a fuss]), which comes from Ovid’s Heroides, specifically from Penelope’s epistle to Ulysses, epistle 1 verse 4. A further medley of partial phrases addressing Francis’s unwarranted sense of self-importance and urgency appears on the inner leaf.

Letter from same to same, detail from fol. 1v.

Letter from same to same, detail from fol. 1v.

“Quicquid in aduersis contingit gloria pat[r]i” (Whatever happens in adversity, glory be) and “O vos degeneres procerum quid queritis aidas / dedecus est vobis illis tribuantur honores / Quae fecere patres et quae non fecimus ipsi / non ea nostra voco” are the main ones. The last two lines come from book 13 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, this time in a speech by Ulysses to the Greeks after the death of Achilles, in which he states that things inherited cannot be called one’s own.

What was Bagot thinking?

Up until Bagot’s death in 1622, he continued to deal with Francis Kinnersley’s financial problems and ill treatment of Bagot’s sister Lettice.

Detail from Folger MS L.a.584.

Detail from letter from Francis Kinnersley to Walter Bagot, 1620. Folger MS L.a.584.

In 1620, Francis began yet another letter by offering his “trewest loufe [love]” to Walter and his wife, and then asking his advice on Badger, a property which he thought had already been settled, but which is now inhabited by “a companey of ragged rogues.” He ends by asking Bagot not to be displeased that he has not returned a horse that he borrowed. Bagot proceeds with his annotations: “Nullis ad amissas / ibit [amicus opes]” (when you lose your wealth, you lose your friends) and “Veritas non quaerit / angulus” (truth does not hide in corners).

The final letter from Francis to Bagot informs him that he is sending a bearer to pick up a letter that Bagot had promised him, “praying Itt may bee to good effect, and that wee may haue merrey meyting vnto the better comfort of your poree sister.” Francis was deeply in debt, and Lettice had sent Bagot a letter around the same time asking her brother’s advice, since she saw “no resone, to pas away any of my estate to pay him: for I haue bin used with all crueltie” (Folger MS L.a.606).

Detail from Folger MS L.a.589, fol. 2v.

Detail from letter from Francis Kinnersley to Walter Bagot, 1621(?). Folger MS L.a.589.

Bagot notes on this letter: “Latet Anguis in herba” (Beware of a snake in the grass—Virgil, Eclogues, 3) and directly underneath, “A labiis iniques et a lingua dolosa libera me domine” (Deliver me, o God, from wicked lips and a deceitful tongue—Psalm 119). Any vestige of sympathy for his brother-in-law’s problems was subsumed by complete distrust.

Clearly, Bagot disliked Francis Kinnersley and his father, but because he was Lettice’s eldest brother, he was obligated to help them in order to help her. It seems that when his patience wore particularly thin, or when he sniffed disingenuity or outright dishonesty, he placed the letters and letterwriters in a broader, humanist and Scriptural context, in order to make sense of their actions.

Many questions still remain. Why are some of the annotations smudged? Did Bagot make a half-hearted attempt to erase them before the ink dried? The letters span a number of years—did Bagot annotate them as they arrived, or when he was reviewing his correspondence at a later date? Did he pull the aphorisms from printed books in his collection, or from a personalized manuscript miscellany or commonplace book, or from memory? Are some of them original to him? Why are some unfinished? Did he incorporate any of the aphorisms into his epistolary responses? Has anyone seen anything like this before on other letters?

I’ve created a media group in Luna called “Walter Bagot commonplaces” that includes the additional non-Kinnersley annotated letters, with quotations from Cicero, John Hoskins, and others. Do let us know if you identify sources for anything not already mentioned! We’ve discussed parts of the Bagot papers in previous Collation posts as well, so have a browse. The papers of the Bagot family of Staffordshire are listed in an online finding aid, where you can find links to individual digital images, or you can browse the entire digital collection of Bagot papers directly in Luna. 

Author: Heather Wolfe

HEATHER WOLFE is Curator of Manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and teaches early modern English paleography for the Folger Institute and Rare Book School.

4 Comments

  1. The mixture of hands is interesting: secretary in the detail from the letter from Francis Kinnersley to Edmund Waring, March 21, ca. 1618; italic (or close) in the detail from letter from Francis Kinnersley to Walter Bagot, 1621(?). Folger MS L.a.589 (or is this Lettice writing–since, as a woman, she likely learned italic ). Did Walter deliberately use different hands? Does the variation suggest that Walter wrote the comments at different periods of his life? Or could multiple people have read and commented on the family’s letters at once?I’ve been dealing with this mixing of hands in another context–the hands of French immigrants and their English-educated children and grandchildren in the 1640s and 50s.

    • Thanks for your observation, Katie. Walter seems to have used mostly italic for his endorsements and aphorisms on the address leaves, and exclusively secretary for the texts of his letters. Perhaps the few times he annotates the address leaves in secretary, it is because he is in letter-writing mode, rather than letter-organizing mode?

  2. I believe the difficult word read as “searse(?)” is in fact “fearse” i.e. fierce.

    These two lines come from Barnaby Googe’s 1561 translation of Book 1 (Aries) of the “Zodiacus Vitae” by Italian poet Marcellus Palingenius Stellatus:

    My mind with fury fierce inflam’d
    Of late, I know not how,
    Doth burn Parnassus’ hills to see
    Adorn’d with laurel bough.
    etc

    Apparently this poem was placed on the first list of banned books produced by the Catholic Church!

    See http://books.google.co.nz/books?id=6fOmKxxfGo4C&pg=PA133&lpg=PA133&source=bl&ots=giNtJUKH9J&sig=F1VUQwXWcLygIvFYsrpREpZvMAs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=MLAsU6T9OMnZigfisIDwBw&ved=0CCgQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false for the poem, and https://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/MathCulture/Zodiac.html for the poet.

    • Dear Philip,
      Thank you so much for locating the source of this poem for us! That makes total sense–I don’t have my notes to hand, but I remember an aphorism from another letter, not mentioned above, coming from this same source.

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