The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

I learned to read Secretary Hand!!!! (And so can you)

Ever seen little kids at the swimming pool excitedly shouting “Look what I can do!!!!” after daring to jump off the big-kid diving board? That’s me right now, having just returned from Rare Book School in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I took Heather Wolfe’s week-long paleography class, “The Handwriting & Culture of Early Modern English Manuscripts.” Look what I can do!!!! I can read Secretary Hand!!!! And so can the eleven other people in the class, and so could you, given the chance.

For me, the biggest learning curve came from the unfamiliar letterforms. Or rather, from the letterforms that are familiar, but represent a different letter than my brain expects.  Years of reading letterpress and engraved English text from the period means that the vocabulary and syntax are already familiar, and the long-s doesn’t phase me, but when “r” looks like “w”, and “c” looks like “r”, and “e” looks like “o”, and an “s” at the end of a word looks like “b” you have to slow down and read each letter before you can read the word. Take this string of nine letters from a document dating to around 1585, for example:

Highlighted word "practices"
Detail from: Information given by Walter Massie against Mr. Thomas Littleton and William Houghe, Folger L.a.1029 leaf 1, recto.

Reading it as a word, I instantly saw “pwartisob,” and had no trouble knowing that couldn’t be right (I also took some comfort in the fact that I knew for sure it wasn’t “pwartifob”—my brain already knows that an “s” in the middle or at the start of a 16th-century word looks like an uncrossed or half-crossed “f”). However, everything cleared up when I read it as a series of letters first, then sounded out the word: p-r-a-c-t-i-s-e-s, “practices.” Here it is in context, third word of the fifth line:

Handwritten paragraph
Fourth paragraph of: Information given by Walter Massie against Mr. Thomas Littleton and William Houghe, Folger L.a.1029 leaf 1, recto.

The class also gave me a chance to see Folger colleague Heather Wolfe in action as a teacher. Wow! She patiently gave us the building blocks we’d need to start making sense of 16th- and 17-century English handwriting, and one of the most important building blocks is patience itself. She knows that telling someone the answer as soon as they hesitate or get something wrong won’t help, so she gave us plenty of “Good…. you’ve got the last part…. now look at the first few letters again…. Okaaaaay…. that’s right, but that’s not the first letter…. there’s something before that….. It looks like a stray pen-stroke, but you’ve seen it before…. Can you find the same letter a few lines up?” The “Aha!” moment is a natural high. Each of us, at one point or another, had to sound out hard words letter by letter, hoping to latch on to something familiar. And usually, eventually, we did.

If taking turns haltingly reading sentences aloud took our minds back to our earliest schooldays, trying to write Secretary Hand with a quill pen took our bodies back, too. This is me attempting to copy the recipe for “Black Inke” from the print-out of a digital image visible at the bottom left.

Handwriting practice
Copying out a recipe for Black Inke from a manuscript miscellany (Folger V.a.159 fol. 78v). Photograph courtesy of Rare Book School.

It took an enormous amount of effort to push and pull the pen into unfamiliar shapes, and to make familiar shapes in an unfamiliar way. My normal cursive “p” is linked from the previous letter with a short upstroke, then goes all the way down, then all the way back up, then around clockwise to make the bowl. A Secretary Hand “p” also begins with a short upstroke, but only goes down to the mid-point, where a counterclockwise bowl begins, circles all the way around, then continues down to form the descender. If you want to join it to the next letter, the join starts at the very bottom of the letter.

Handwritten letter "p"
Comparison of the handwritten “p” Mrs. McMahon taught me in grade two (1) and the letter “p” in Secretary Hand (2). The order of operations in Secretary Hand is clear from examples where the writer left a gap when making the descender (2b).

I didn’t get the hang of it until the fourth “p” I encountered, at the beginning of the word I was writing when the photographer happened to snap the picture, “pomgranatt” (or, in modern spelling, “pomegranate”). It might look like my left hand is lightly holding the corner of the paper, but in fact, I’m concentrating so hard that I’ve got a white-knuckled death-grip on the top of the writing desk. It was worth it, though. Getting a feel for how the letters are formed made it easier to tease out the possibilities when typing out our transcriptions.

Near the end of the course, Heather presented us with the greatest challenge of the week: pages from one of John Ward’s notebooks. These notebooks, commonly referred to as “the Ward diaries,” came from the hand of Rev. John Ward, vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon from 1662 until his death in 1681. Ward’s notebooks are important to the study of Shakespeare because they contain the only known description of Shakespeare’s death.1 For me, the Ward diaries have a different significance: they epitomize “Impossible to Read.” Seventeen years ago, when I first started working at the Folger, I happened to see one of the volumes open in the Conservation lab and was traumatized by the sight: two tiny pages of inpenetrable mess. The lines were so dense with ink that they looked solid brown. Nothing even resembling a word could be made out. I was certain from that moment on that no amount of training could ever change that for me. But guess what? Heather isn’t the sort of person who would set us up to fail. It turns out that John Ward’s handwriting can be read once you get used to it.

Here’s the page my group of three worked on:

Handwritten page
Page from volume 9 of the Notebooks of John Ward (Folger V.a.292 fol. 145v)

Three people working together is exactly the right number. Each of us was able to make out parts the others couldn’t at first, and when we’d get stuck, we divided our labor: one person would start entering key words in Google and EEBO in the hope that John Ward was paraphrasing something he’d read, and that what he’d read had been quoted or made available as full text online; another person would look up possibilities in the Oxford English Dictionary to see if things we didn’t recognize as words really did mean something; the third person used the lull to review what had already been typed out to make sure the spellings and the encoding of abbreviations were correct (it’s very easy for muscle memory to kick in when typing; for example, after working at the Folger a certain amount of time, it becomes almost impossible to type the word “folder” correctly on the first try). We felt pretty darned proud of ourselves when we managed to finish the whole page.2

If Heather’s cunning plan was to convince me that transcribing pages from the Ward diaries can be a fun and rewarding hobby, it worked. Normally, I crochet or do a crossword puzzle to unwind, but back in my room that evening, I did two more John Ward pages instead. Now I’m hooked.

Want to join the fun? Rare Book School is offering Heather’s course again the week of 22 October 2017 (you can apply via the course description page), and two opportunities are coming up through the Folger Institute here in Washington: the week-long Introduction to Paleography from 11–15 December 2017, and the month-long English Paleography seminar funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from 4–29 June 2018, Monday through Thursday afternoons.


  1. John Ward was born after Shakespeare died, so the description is definitely not first hand, and sounds apocryphal, “Shakespear Drayton and Ben Jhonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard for Shakespear died of a feavour there contracted.” For modernized transcriptions of this and the few other incidental mentions of Shakespeare, see “John Ward’s Notebook” in Shakespeare Documented.
  2. Here’s the full transcription, with expansions in italics, superscripts in brown, and early modern conventions like a macron for doubling a letter or a “y” for the “th” sound in green:

    Befor Sr. Thomas Moor, Clergy-
    men generaly were Chancelors:

    Cardinals from Cardo the​ end
    of a Tenon put into a Mortise
    to fixe it, so they fixed to
    their Church. not from Cardo a hinge.

    God graunt th​a​t​ afflictions may only
    burne the​ Bonds not the​ men. Daniel

    The deputies of Ireland
    giue Knight-hood ove​r​ all
    places except Bishops &

    All Common-law-Books bought for
    threescore pound says ffuller:

    some think the​ Sea was made
    to quench and allay the​ heat of
    the Sunne:

    some say Clement Alexandrines gave
    this Reason why Weddensdays and
    ffridays were fasting days because
    one was dedicated to Mercurie the god
    of cheating the other to Venus goddess the​ goddess
    of lust:

    what need of Lawyers
    in the primitive times where
    all was comm​​on and of phy-
    sitians when the​ Apostles
    cured all diseases by their
    power: yet mention made
    of Zenas and Luke the​ phy-

    Tom ffuller​ saies ordinairie fidlers
    are properly called Crowders, because
    they crowd into Companie.


  • Thank you, Erin Blake, and thank you, Collation, for this excellent contribution.
    I especially appreciate Erin’s close eye & good judgment in image selection.
    (May I but mention: My work with literary mss is mostly 17thC material, mostly
    readable scripts, though, of course, script styles will conform to the occasion
    & subject matter; e.g., mss by Aphra Behn, Morgan Library (one a letter to her
    London publisher, Jacob Tonson; the other, an elegy, as I recall), display a far
    different script from, say, an official legal document, such as Morgan’s ms of the
    will of Geo. Villiers, second Duke of Buckingham, a neat, readable scribal copy,
    evidently.) Inge DuPont, Reading Room supervisor, Morgan Library, late 1980s,
    brought my attention to these pieces during a memorable visit.
    I’ll be forwarding the link to Erin’s post to a few colleagues & former students.
    All best, MEM.

  • Question: if transcribing ME, I think most would capture the initial double-f form as a capital, i.e. “Fuller,” not “ffuller” “Fridays” not “ffridays”. Is that not the convention in transcribing 17th-cent hands? .. Thanks for all the links and the inspirational message.

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