A guest post by Megan Heffernan
Working in the Folger Shakespeare Library this year has opened my eyes to the important role that research centers play in shaping knowledge. If this sounds like a truism, bear with me for a moment because I want to use this post to think through some of the ways that scholarship is sustained by access to archives. This is a topic that feels increasingly critical in this time when we risk losing support for the careful work we do as humanists and historians. The institutions that help us begin to glimpse the past are essential for the continued vitality of our intellectual futures.
I’m currently a long-term fellow at the Folger, in residence while I finish a book on the history of collecting poetry in early modern England. This study focuses on books printed in the century after Songes and Sonettes (1557), the unprecedented collection of English lyrics issued by the legal printer Richard Tottel, but also thinks about how later textual cultures intervened in the literary history of compiled poems. My primary argument is that we have been misreading sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poetry collections by approaching them as “miscellanies” or “anthologies”: as volumes that are mixed, or disordered, or otherwise insensitive to the poems they contain. The problem is that these genre designations are decidedly modern, a product of our expectation that books will reflect the influence of authors. Early modern readers were better able to see the local connections between items and, ultimately, to recognize the piecemeal, stopgap, or provisional arrangement of texts as a process that intertwined poems with the physical structures of the books in which they circulated.
Over and over again, this research has reminded me that the histories we tell are bound up in the institutions that give material shape to the scattered objects of the past. One fortunate discovery, which I stumbled on by chance but which exists because of the Folger’s careful preservation of its own records, has started me on a new project about manuscript waste, the odd pieces of vellum and strips of paper used to stiffen bindings. I’m beginning to see how “waste,” like “miscellany,” is a modern designation that misgauges the artifacts of earlier cultures. What might seem to us to be worthless pieces of trash were actually tools to protect and care for books, an early conservation method. I’d like to share the items that inspired this work because these recycled materials illustrate how our scholarship is in dialogue with the generations of people who owned, used, abused, and saved the books we read today.
In May 1966, the Folger’s copy of Austin Saker’s Narbonus. The Laberynth of Libertie (1580; STC 21593) was rebound by Robert Lunow, the library’s binder. At the back of the volume, there is a typescript note from Giles Dawson, the Folger’s first curator of manuscripts and books, with a collation formula and a description of the deteriorated state of the book prior to conservation: “this work was stabbed and stitched in a leaf from an old manuscript on vellum, with another, outer sheet of vellum, perhaps added later—both sheets filthy, thattered, and torn.”
The current state of STC 21593 speaks to just how fragile the book must have been when Dawson described it. Multiple leaves are filled in with small or large patches, and only three small fragments could be preserved from the title page.
On the one hand, this conservation tells a story of loss, the prying apart of the materials that had preserved Narbonus for nearly four centuries. Yet if the rebinding disassembled the form in which STC 21593 entered the library, making it hew closer to the ideal text described in Dawson’s collation, that conservation did not entirely discard the history of the hybrid manuscript and print artifact. We have Laetitia Yeandle, former curator of manuscripts, to thank for this stroke of good fortune. When the Folger embarked on a rebinding campaign in the middle of the twentieth century, Yeandle had the foresight to salvage components from many of these books by entering them in the collection under new manuscript numbers.1 Indeed, a later hand (not Yeandle’s) has added a pencil note to Dawson’s description of STC 21593, matching the printed book to its vellum wrapper: “1 sheet now Ms. X.d.515 (11a, b)—Its other half formerly wrapped around STC 20996.2, copy 1.”
Paging STC 20996.2, copy 1 calls up Barnabe Riche’s Riche his farewell to militarie profession (1583), a similarly conserved book, complete with a modern binding, patched pages, and another note from Dawson dated February 1967: “Before it was rebound (by R. Lunow) this copy had never been bound but was stabbed and stished in two sheets of vellum, one part of an indenture, the other a leave from an old manuscript book—both now preserved in the collection of scraps removed from old bindings.”
Again, the same later hand has penciled in the call number of this new item: “now MS. X.d.515 (11a, b). Its other half formerly wrapped STC 21593.”
These notes seem, possibly, to suggest a very strange path for the former bindings of these two books, proposing that the single call number X.d.515 (11a, b) might reunite split halves of a document. When I called up this manuscript, I was thrilled to see an indenture that showed signs of use as a binding, as well as traces of conservation treatments like those in both STC books.
The manuscript is torn vertically down the middle. Each half shows a wavy edge from the original indenture, as well as turndowns from its time as a binding. Both halves have been silked, covered with a transparent mesh to protect the sheet from crumbling away. The text is faded, but the names of Margarett Owen and Symon Herbert can be made out on both sides of the central tear. The lower left corner is the most legible, and it also names Mary St. John, John Herbert, and Simon Griffith, as well as a sum of “foure pence and ffyve pounde” and a place, Coleham. This “filthy, tattered, and torn” piece of vellum was once a lease, the record of a legal agreement that had passed its expiration date and was repurposed for its value as a physical object that could protect a printed book. This fate was reversed in the 1960s when the long unread manuscript was preserved, not for its material properties, but for its value as a text.
The curatorial file on X.d.515 includes a slip in Yeandle’s hand that traces both 11a and 11b back to STC 21593 and STC 20996.2, copy 1.
It would be an amazing story if each half of this manuscript arrived at the Folger wrapped around different books, like the fated reunion of Plato’s twinned lovers, or like the material form of the indenture itself, a legal instrument for which (at least in theory) each party retained matching copies jaggedly sliced from a single sheet. But unfortunately, we don’t have the evidence to support this story.
The Folger’s copy of Saker’s Narbonus was purchased in February 1937 from G. H. Last, while Riche’s Riche his farewell arrived from Maggs Brothers in December 1933, so we can’t immediately trace the provenance to a single source. While both were similar works of narrative prose fiction, which might have inspired an early owner to bind them together, the wear on both title pages suggests that they could not have spent most of their lives in a Sammelbänd. Likewise, the folds on the manuscript outline a page that was shorter than the text block of either book, though the vellum might have shrunk when it was silked.
A cardboard housing that held the manuscript first hid the verso, or the outside of the binding, so Curator of Manuscripts Heather Wolfe kindly arranged for Conservator Rhea DeStefano to remove each half of X.d.515 (11a, b) to mylar (clear, archivally safe plastic) folders.
A few more clues then became legible. The 11b half did have “STC 20996.2, 1” lightly penciled in. Oddly, the 11a half did not have the call number for Saker’s Narbonus, but STC 20922, for Reynard the Fox (1550).
The Folger owns one full copy of Reynard the Fox, and sheets from another copy appear as endpapers in the binding of a different book, but provenance and size suggest that neither could have been bundled together with X.d.515 (11a, b).
If I had to wager (and I really wish I didn’t), I would guess that this lease was only wrapped around Riche his farewell and that something was confused in the disbinding process. There are no connections to Narbonus on the lease itself, and the jagged central split in the vellum is consistent with the patterns of wear in other bindings, outlining where a spine would have been. The verso side of the lease also shows ink offsets on the turndowns, which might correspond to other manuscripts in the original binding. We can see that multiple texts were bound together with Riche his farewell in the microfilm images made in 1952, though there is no trace of X.d.515 (11a, b).
Then recently, after months of thinking about this mystery, I had the great luck to happen on the other part of this binding from Riche his farewell, now catalogued in a separate call number range as X.d.513 (12), because it is a liturgical rather than a legal document.
Like its indenture twin, this vellum manuscript has been silked and shows wear and stitching holes where the spine would have been. It also has “STC 20996.2 /1” very lightly penciled on the verso. Again, I want to emphasize that this happy sleuthing, which from my perspective feels like blindly stumbling through the archive, was made possible by the care shown for these manuscripts across multiple moments in their histories. I may continue to find information that contradicts my guess that the manuscript indenture was only wrapped around one of the STC books I’ve been looking at in this post.
Still I’m enchanted by the possibility that the lease was split in two by early bookbinders, perhaps a family looking for any material on hand to preserve their fiction collection, and then reunited centuries later as a result of the Folger Library’s extensive purchases and Yeandle’s keen eye. I’m not sure I can prove or disprove this scenario, but if the story of Margarett Owen’s lease resists any neat conclusion, it also opens up worlds that we often overlook in our work in early modern archives, which sometimes seem to promise wormholes that will transport us directly back to the instant of a poet’s composition or a stationer’s sale of a book. Put another way, Margarett Owen is incidental to the literary history of Saker’s Narbonus and Riche’s Riche his farewell, but she figures in the conservation history of multiple items in the Folger’s collection. She endures as part of an institutional memory that outlives any single individual.
We might even think of Owen as an early member of a community formed across time and through the traces that we all leave on the books we read together. It is her history and our history that we encounter every time we enter a library, log in to an electronic database, or consult a finding aid. In the face of the real precarity of our profession, and (in some circles) the current distaste for the expert knowledge our work demands, it seems crucial to remember that the archival research that puts us in touch with Owen is far from esoteric, elitist, or hostile to the lives of ordinary people, even to the lives of people who might not find their way to rare book rooms. The scope of our histories is both broader and more inclusive than it might at first seem. Every item in our archives testifies to the efforts of the thousands of known and unknown hands that have helped make the past accessible today.
Megan Heffernan is Assistant Professor of English at DePaul University, where she teaches courses on early modern literature, book and media history, poetry and poetics, and Shakespeare. During the 2016–2017 academic year, she is a long-term fellow in residence at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Her research focuses on the intersection of imaginative writing, especially lyric poetry, and textual practices in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. She is completing a monograph that recovers the formal dimensions of handpress-era books by tracing the development of the poetry collection as a tool for managing a new abundance of English lyrics.