The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

“What’s that letter?”: Searching for water amongst the leaves

A guest post by Folger Institute participant and short-term fellow Lehua Yim

Sixteenth-century England was particularly formative in the long history of what “Britain” means for the peoples of that archipelago, as reformulations of political, legal, economic, and religious institutions added complexity to the webs of relationships that structured that society. Of particular interest to me are the shifts and innovations regarding rights to waters and lands in the history of real property. Social-political life rests upon waters and land. And any notions of territory, of the political and juridical registers of place and those who claim that place, turn to the waters and land for concretization.

Spenser and Shakespeare’s works of the 1590s represent waters and different kinds of land in their production of historical, current, and fantasy politics. My project focuses on those representations, seeking a deeper understanding of the role that fresh water played in sixteenth-century English conceptualizations of place, propriety, communities, self, and “Britain.” Part of my book’s research is a collection and map of fresh water conflicts amongst various English aristocrats and tenants who have proprietary rights to watercourses (rivers, streams, canals, etc.). For example, a water conflict might arise when a mill proprietor loses sufficient river flow to a tenant upstream who has justifiably set up a fishing weir. Or a pond used in the production of iron at a rural ironworks might overflow and flood the agricultural and pasture lands of neighboring farmers. And while you can certainly see a fair amount of fresh water conflicts in the legal cases of the time, you discover far more outside the legal records, prior to their escalation to court adjudication. These near ubiquitous entanglements between various people up and down England’s great number of watercourses can be traced in letters, deeds, leases, petitions, reports, as well as in poems and plays.

A letter from John Fortescue (for the Privy Council) to Richard Bagot dated March 1, 1591/92, asking Bagot to investigate Fulke Greville’s complaint that the tenants of Bromley Hurst have broken down parts of the water features for the Cannock Iron Works (which Greville has the lease for) as well as the tenants’ complaint that this water usage has damaged their fields.

Before beginning my short-term fellowship and work on this section of my book, I knew the manuscript collections at the Folger Shakespeare Library would provide ample opportunities to find references to water lurking among the leaves of paper. But it quickly became evident that the rate of speed at which I could read the often cramped, crabby hands of those documents was just too slow; my paleography skills needed an upgrade.

A letter from Thomas Gresley to Richard Bagot claiming that Bagot has turned the normal course of the River Blithe on his lands in such a way as to have caused it not to flow as usual, downstream on Gresley’s mother’s lands in Colton. Gresley urges this be rectified, threatening possible legal action. Bagot’s response (which we have in draft) responds testily, “You may take good advice before you attempt any sute or lawe therein which I wold be very sory that you should.”

Fortunately this fall, Dr. Heather Wolfe offered her well-known Paleography skill-building seminar through the Folger Institute. Here was the upgrade I needed. So I’ve spent each of the last ten weeks with a small, merry band of other seminar participants. We’ve worked our way through various forms of early modern English writing—wills, receipt books, inventories, commonplace books, diaries, and annotated printed books, to name a few. Heather has been a skilled guide of our practice in deciphering various hands, and we’ve had the pleasure of reading her selection of items from the Folger’s collections. She has led us on a tour of many documents that the normal focus of our own research interests may not have otherwise brought to our attention.

Students of paleography know that the ritual reading of manuscripts “in the round” is essential practice. Week after week, as the squinting increased and utterances of “what’s that letter?” decreased, our seminar sessions were full of laughter as we read a son’s letters home from university asking dad for more money, a deposition about a Cavalier allegedly saying he’d like to roast Roundheads on a spit, and a curious spell to utter in order to catch a thief.

After our seminar came to a close last week, and as my own research moves speedily through the documents in preparation for my return to January teaching duties, I’m quite grateful to have had this particular opportunity to continue learning from the Folger community and its holdings. My search for fresh water property conflicts and negotiations in the lives of Elizabethans has certainly benefited from this experience.

This petition from inhabitants of Bromley/Bromley Hurst in Staffordshire to Richard Bagot addresses the Exchequer’s inquiry into a water conflict between these tenants and Fulke Greville over the latter’s alleged misuse of water from the Blithe River.

A note about the images and captions: All the images in this post are linked to the Folger’s Digital Image Collection, where you can view the entirety of the manuscripts and enlarge them to see details. The captions for each image provide a sense of what the letter or petition is about. Given the coding specificities of WordPress, brackets cannot be used in captions; they have been omitted, regretfully, even where transcription conventions would require them. Full transcriptions of the first two documents can be found by following this link (pdf).

LEHUA YIM is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at San Francisco State University.  She is a short-term fellow at the Folger this year, at work on her book Fluid Propriety: Water and Authority in Spenser and Shakespeare.



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