The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

An exercise in collaborative editing: Anthony Bagot’s letters and Nathaniel Bacon’s pirate depositions

As part of their paleography training, my paleography students always spend a bit of each afternoon working in pairs on transcriptions. It gives them a break from being in the “spotlight” as we go around the room reading manuscripts line by line, and allows us to shift from reading out loud to the detail-work of semi-diplomatic transcription. Two or three sets of eyes are much better than a single set in terms of efficiency and accuracy, and students learn from each other in a way that they can’t learn from me. They enter their team transcription (after selecting a team name) into a text box in our in-house online paleography program (designed by Mike Poston), and then we collate all the transcriptions against each other, analyzing the differences in interpretation. 

The lines can be placed on top of each other to make the differences in transcription clear:

collated line
Line 9 of Folger MS L.d.738, Petition from Ralph Jermyn to James I, King of England, 1604 October 23 (transcriptions collated). Click on image to enlarge.

And if differences are identified in red, the transcriptions can be pulled apart to see each team’s version separately:

transcriptions uncollated
Line 9 of Folger MS L.d.738, Petition from Ralph Jermyn to James I, King of England, 1604 October 23 (individual transcriptions visible). Click on image to enlarge.

This sometimes leads to heated discussions and differences in opinion, which I love to see since it proves that paleography is far from being an exact science: “That has to be an ‘a’ that’s open at the top—why would he put a ‘u’ there?” “Well look at line 6—he forms the letter the same way there and it is definitely meant to be a ‘u.'” “Maybe he was writing hastily, and formed two different letters the same way as a result.” Etc.

This past summer during the Mellon Summer Institute in English Paleography, held at the Huntington Library, we took teamwork to a whole new level. For their final projects, the class broke into two teams, and each created a mini-edition of a series of documents, working from images in the Folger digital image database. The teams selected their projects on Monday afternoon, transcribed their manuscripts in Google Docs on Monday night, spent a few hours on Tuesday and Wednesday proofing each other’s transcriptions and researching the content, and presented their editions to the class on Thursday.

The final products were:

A semi-diplomatic edition of the letters of Anthony Bagot (1558-1622), edited by Kristen Deiter, Rebecca Fall, Meghan Davis Mercer, Miranda Nesler, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Susan Stafinbil, J. Case Tompkins (Click here for a slide show of the 12 letters they transcribed.)

“And one was slayne, but he cannot say who”: the pirate depositions of Nathaniel Bacon, edited by Scott Bevill, Caroline Carpenter, Lauren Griffin, John Kuhn, James Lambert, Nate Probasco, Marten Stromberg (Click here for a slide show of the eight depositions they transcribed.)

Both groups of manuscripts presented significant challenges, and I was amazed by the efficiency with which they organized their efforts and dealt with difficult hands after three weeks of paleography training. Since their focus was transcription and the goal was to provide access to manuscripts that are not easily read by people without training in English secretary hand, the “editions” are minimally glossed. They are far richer than raw transcriptions, however, since they include brief general and textual introductions, and editorial decisions about how to represent abbreviations, punctuation, damaged text, and other aspects that inevitably create a layer of distance between the original manuscripts and the modern reader. We hope that these editions (and future ones) will be taken up by others and used in their work (with proper citations), which is why we’ve “licensed” them with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

The Bagot editors had to deal with the gaps in this damaged letter caused by the removal of the seal when the packet was opened (Letter from Anthony Bagot, [France], to Richard Broughton, 1591? November 1). Click image to enlarge and to see the reverse of the letter.
The editors of the Anthony Bagot letters provide a succinct synopsis of the range of material to be found:

From studying rhetoric with his tutor (L.a.36), to giving the inside scoop about the magnificent tilt arranged at court for the French ambassador (L.a.37), to overseeing Essex’s household when the earl suddenly leaves for Plymouth (L.a.40), to visiting the French king at Attichy (L.a.43), Anthony provides a glimpse into the lives of the friends and members of the Bagot family, one of the oldest in Staffordshire… This series of letters proves useful not only to Essex scholars looking for details about the earl’s interactions with Queen Elizabeth and rise to favor, but also to those interested in the personal and political dealings of a prosperous family involved in local affairs.

The first letter, from ca. 1576-77, gives us a glimpse of Anthony’s studies at Merton College, Oxford: “our excersyes in the morninge is to studye Rhetoricke, leavinge the after noone to lodgicke & historyes. On saterdayes & sundayes we reade a peace of Mr Nowelles Catechisme…” (L.a.36). Perhaps the most famous line from all of the letters (it appears in the Oxford DNB entry for Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, among other places), is Anthony’s observation of the queen’s growing fondness for Essex, in a letter to his father, Richard Bagot, on May 6, 1587 (L.a.39): “… when she is abroade no boddy neere her, but my Lord of Essex and at night my Lord is at cardes or one game or an other with her that he commeth not to his owne Lodginge tyll birdes singe in the morninge.” The sentence that follows is also tantalizing: “Sir Walter Rawleighe he is the hated man of the wourld in court, Cytye, & cowntry, whear the court is now at Non such…” But Anthony also includes other, less political news, such as the cause of a fire on November 21, 1589, which burned six or seven houses on Fish Street Hill: “a mayde sitting vppe in the night to starche her mystresses fyne ruffes agaynst morninge” (L.a.41).

Detail of L.a.39
Detail from a letter from Anthony Bagot, Warwick Inn, to Richard Bagot, 1587 May 6, in which he writes of Essex spending time with the queen “tyll birdes singe in the morninge,” and of Walter Raleigh being “the hated man of the wourld.” Click image to enlarge.

The depositions concerning the piratical actions of one Captain Hubbart proved equally fascinating. As the editors of “And one was slayne…” write:

The JPs (Nathanial Bacon and Ralph Shelton) sought a range of witnesses for depositions: sailors and crewmen on the pirate ship (including Edmund Dowsing, the ship’s cook); John Allen, a local merchant who had unwittingly supplied the pirates with beef; the Dutch crew of one of the seized ships; and a local man who had purchased goods from the pirates. These depositions trace the flow of goods and victuals into and out of the hands of the pirates, as well as information about where, how, and when Hubbart’s piracies occurred…  Though piracy has been much discussed in Atlantic, anti-Spanish colonial contexts, the Bacon documents reveal a North Sea basin rife with the same imperial politics and roaring trade that have made the former topic so appealing to historians. Hubbart’s prizes included Scottish ships carrying iron pots, probably on one leg of the Scandinavian-Scottish iron trade route; Dutch fishing vessels working the herring stocks of the North Sea; and even a small, local English vessel. Even Hubbart’s crew was nationally mixed, though this was not necessarily unusual in the period: two of the depositions mention (probably pointedly, given the political situation in the 1570s) that the ship had two Spanish crewmen.

The pirate editors contended with two different difficult hands in this testimony of Roger and Henry Carew in the Thomas Hubbard piracy case, overseen by Nathaniel Bacon and Ralph Shelton ([1576] August 29). Click image to enlarge.
One of the shortest depositions is the aforementioned John Allen’s confession that he unwittingly supplied beef to Mr. Carew, Folger MS L.d.671 (which was used to “feast” Captain Hubbart’s crew [L.d.669]):

The Examinacion of Iohn Allen of the towne of Blakney, taken before Raphe Shelton and Nath. Bacon, esquiers. the 3rd day of September, 1576.

Item: this Examinante confesseth howe he sold unto Mr Carewe the younger about 16 stone of befe, which he knoweth not howe it was conveyed into the shipp.

I’ve only had a chance to prepare the Bagot letters for publication, but will update this post when the edited pirate depositions are ready for viewing. The Bagot edition is accessible via the Hamnet record for the collection, the finding aid, and by typing in the direct web address ( It is currently a PDF document, but we hope in the not-so-distant future to convert it to TEI, along with other transcriptions of pre-1700 manuscripts at the Folger, as part of a database of manuscript transcriptions, searchable by keyword and other categories. If you have transcriptions of Folger materials that you’d like to be included in this database, please get in touch with me! Also, there were two words we couldn’t figure out: one in L.a.41 and one in L.a.44 (the words are highlighted in yellow). If you can decipher them, we’d love your assistance!

UPDATE (5 October 2012): We have since figured out the word in Folger MS L.a.41 and emended p. 12 of the edition. See the fourth comment below for an explanation.


  • Great post!

    The manuscript team at the William Blake Archive ( also does a lot of collaborative transcription. But we don’t have such a great program for testing readings against each other and comparing differences! We end up using Google documents as a way to discuss variations in our readings of Blake’s hand because it’s easy to insert clipped images of the word, phrase, or line in question.

  • Re the second transcription problem, I would think it is yrh which is “your humble”
    The first is surely not James. I think it may be not Sir either but servant. The tail of the supersript ‘r’ after the S extends rather than being the ‘dot’ of an ‘i’ and thus the next letter could be ‘v’ then ‘a’ with a superscript ‘t’.
    Cliff Webb

  • That’s a possibility: so it could be “your humble Brand,” as in torch, possibly. I’ve never seen this sort of abbreviation before.

    “Sir James” was lifted from the finding aid description, but I agree with you. I had flagged it because I didn’t think it looked like “James” at all! But I’m not sure if I could convince myself that there is a “v” in it, since what you describe looks like all the other spurred “a” graphs in the letter.

    But now you’ve prompted me to look at it more closely, and I’m pretty sure it must be an abbreviation for “Serjeant Major” [Sriat, with a tilde above the a and t, and the i/j graph]. Now we just have to figure out which of his brothers or brothers-in-law was a serjeant major!

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