Last week’s crocodile mystery concerned the nature of a fragment of paper used to repair a letter from Thomas Cromwell to Nicholas Wotton written in 1539. This mystery is probably not the first, or the last, time that our answers are not perfectly satisfactory. We offer some identifications, theories, hunches, and further questions, below. If you think we are on the wrong track, be sure to let us know!
The presence of a faint impression of printing on the fragment led us initially to two main threads of inquiry: What is the printed text from which this artifact derives, and, What part of the printing process or post-printing process does this fragment represent?
At first glance, it seems likely that the source of the text is a preliminary leaf, the imprimatur, from the second volume of Knightley D’Anvers’ A General Abridgment of the Common Law (London, 1713).
The text is identical, although the border seems to be missing in the main repair fragment. The only problem is that the smaller repair fragment has two variants.
The first variant is the name at the bottom is spelled “Eyre.” in the repair fragment but spelled “Eyres.” in the published text (or at least, the Princeton copy of the published text, available via HathiTrust). The second variant is in the presence of the name at the top of the fragment (or bottom half of the name, I should say): Robert Dorm[er], a justice of the court of common pleas, appears in our repair, but not in the page as published, even though the chief justice and other two Common Pleas justices, Trevor, Blencowe, and Tracy, do. The other names listed on the leaf are judges from the King’s Bench and barons of the Exchequer of Pleas, and the only one besides Dormer that is missing from the published version is the chief justice of the King’s Bench, Sir Thomas Parker. But the work is dedicated to him, so it makes sense that he is not one of the “allowers.” The discovery of these variants raises new questions. Did the printer remove Dormer’s name at the last minute, perhaps because Dormer disapproved of the second volume for some reason? Or is the repair fragment actually more accurate, since it includes Dormer’s name and the usual spelling of Sir Robert Eyre’s name, Eyre instead of Eyres? One would need to check some of the 37 copies listed in WorldCat, or the three variant copies, to get to the bottom of this.
We are still left with the question of how this shadow impression happened. One theory, suggested by a commenter last week, was that this fragment represents a vestige of the cleaning process. The printer cleaned his type, and this sheet took one of the last impressions to remove the last bits of ink. Another, more remote possibility, is that the sheet served as a tympan sheet.
However, Goran Proot, the Folger’s Curator of Rare Books, suggested a theory that sounds the most promising. He looked at the rest of the preliminary leaves of the digitized version of the Princeton copy and found this image:
He suggests that the white noise on the leaf above is the result of a combination of bleed-through (ink on the verso of the leaf bleeding through to the recto) and offsetting (the transfer of ink from the bleed-through of a neighboring leaf). The bleed-through results in a mirror image of the printed text from the verso side of the leaf. The offsetting is more complicated. If you look at the sequence of pages in the HathiTrust digitization, you’ll see the process happening: the title-page is clearly heavily inked, offsetting onto the verso of the preceding leaf (the imprimatur) and bleeding through onto the verso of the title-page; that, in turn, offsets onto the following leaf (shown above), de-mirroring the text so that it is now reading the right way again.
This makes sense of the repair fragment. One of our commenters suggested bleed-through as a possibility, but I agree with Goran that the repair fragment is a result of offsetting from bleed-through: if it was only offsetting, the text would be reversed, as seen on the imprimatur pictured above. The list of judges and the conjugate title page could have been printed, one-sided, on a folio sheet, and then this sheet could have been placed on a blank sheet at the bottom of the pile. Because of overinking, and/or overdamp paper, and/or improper sizing, and/or the weight of the growing stack of printed sheets, the process of bleed-through from the front to the back and then offsetting from the back to the blank sheet could result in a piece of paper such as the one used to make the repair. One could also argue, by this logic (if one considers it as a long-term event, rather than happening in the printing house), that the piece of paper was an endleaf that has the offset from bleed-through.
Both of our initial questions lead to more, perhaps unanswerable, questions: Why would a 1539 manuscript be repaired with an early eighteenth-century fragment of printers’ waste? When was the repair made? Did someone remove a front endleaf of A General Abridgment of the Common Law to make the repair? Was it made by someone involved in the print trade, or was this stray piece of paper used as a protective wrapper for printed matter that was sent to a stationer, and then the stationer used it as a wrapper for a customer, and then the customer used it to repair his letter?
The letter itself was part of the Towneley manuscripts, many of which were transcribed or collected by the antiquary Christopher Towneley (1604-1674), of Towneley Hall, Lancashire. It was bound in volume 31, along with another Cromwell letter and fourteen other items largely relating to Kent. The manuscripts and library were dispersed in a series of auctions at Sotheby’s in 1883, so one might check those catalogues to see if Towneley’s descendants owned A General Abridgment, from which the front endleaf might have been removed to make the repair, or check other manuscripts from the collection (now dispersed among various libraries in England, and elsewhere) to see if they were repaired in a similar manner.
And so we have yet another delightfully distracting bibliographical rabbit hole, one that has nothing to do with why Thomas Cromwell was berating Nicholas Wotton in 1539 (because Henry VIII was impatient with the delay in the ratification of his marriage to Anne of Cleves), and everything to do with “what manner o’ thing is your repair?”