The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Print or manuscript? Civilité type in early modern England

Have you ever received a fundraising letter in the mail that looks handwritten, or has a “handwritten” postscript or post-it note? This is an attempt, of course, to make the letter feel more personal. The recipient of the request is supposed to be intrigued: “Gee, this organization actually put some thought and time into their message, and I owe them a response.” This can backfire, of course, when the recipient realizes that the letter is a direct mail campaign, with nothing personal about it.

Fundraising is a time-honored tradition. Hark back to the seventeenth century, when James I began his own money raising campaign with a series of handwritten privy seal letters requesting loans, to be paid back within eighteen months.

Below is an example of an appeal for a loan to fund military provisions in Ireland. It has the equivalent of a James’s signature at the top (“By the King”) and is counter-signed at the bottom by Frances Mylles. 

James I's appeal for funding military provisions for the Navy and forts in Ireland. Folger STC 8475.5. Note that this is the call number. The STC (2nd ed.) number is 9175i.9 (state 4). Click this and all other images to enlarge.
James I’s appeal for funding military provisions for the Navy and forts in Ireland. (Folger call number is STC 8475.5; the STC (2nd ed.) number is 9175i.9 (state 4).) Click this and all other images to enlarge.

Like almost all letters from this period, it is written on a bifolium sheet with a handwritten superscription on the outside of the packet: “To our trustie and welbeloved George Heathcoate of Loades.” The address leaf also contains a helpful signed postscript from the local collector of the loan: “The sume of monie within mencioned is to be paide att Chesterfeild in this Countie of Derbie on mvndaie the xxth of Januarie 1611: vnto me. Peter Frecheuile Collector“. (George Heathcoate made his payment six days early, according to the note of receipt on the recto!) It bears the remnant of James I’s wax privy seal, and the slits through which a paper strip was threaded through the letter to lock it, underneath the seal.

Folger STC 8475.5, this time with the integral address leaf.
Folger STC 8475.5, this time with the integral address leaf.

Just like a real letter, right? Well, sort of. Let’s look at a detail of the text of the letter:

Detail of Folger STC 8475.5.
Detail of Folger STC 8475.5.

If you click to enlarge this image, it becomes apparent that the privy seal letter is set in secretary type (note the damage to some individual pieces of type), with blank gaps populated by words written in secretary hand: “Tenn Poundes,” “Sir Peter ffrechevile knight,” and “Tenth” day of “December.”

A secretary font? Now known as “civilité type,” this gothic cursive type originated in France. It was first made by the punch-cutter Robert Granjon in 1557 in Lyon, for a book by Innocenzio Ringhieiri and translated by Jean Louveau, Dialogue de la vie et de la mort. In his dedicatory address, Granjon explained that he had created, cut, and cast the font because it was appropriate to depict the French language in the hand in which it is written, just like the Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, and others did. 1

By the mid-eighteenth century it was referred to as civilité type because it was used primarily for childrens’ courtesy and etiquette books in France. An example at the Folger is La Ciuilité honneste pour l’instruction des enfans (Tours, 1600). Harry Carter and H.D.L. Vervliet, in Civilité Types, suggest that books and broadsides printed in French civilité were more intimate, and were easier to read for beginning writers and the general, semi-literate public (p. 17).

The font was neither practical nor economical since it contained far more sorts than roman and italic fonts: dozens of ligatures and tied letters were required, as well as additional sorts for alternative forms of lower-case letters in their medial and final positions. It was quick to wear out because of the fine lines in the minims, ascenders and descenders. Despite these limitations, it spread to other European countries. According to Carter and Verliet, an English version of secretary type first appeared in England in 1576, in the colophon to Andrea Guarna, Bellum grammaticale (London, Henry Bynneman, 1576), a book translated from French into English and aimed at children. 2

Colophon of Folger copy of STC 12420. An early reader tried copying the secretary type of the colophon in a secretary hand.
Colophon of Folger copy of STC 12420. An early reader tried copying the secretary type of the colophon in a secretary hand.

By the late sixteenth century, secretary type was occasionally used in England for administrative forms, bonds, licenses, indentures, and privy seal letters such as the one at the beginning of this post. These pseudo-manuscripts resembled their manuscript predecessors, but perhaps also had the virtue of seeming more personalized than a request for money or legal obligation set in roman type. Surviving examples suggest that it was used sporadically by the royal printer and others, but because of the ephemerality of printed blank forms, it is hard to know exactly how widespread its use was. And many questions still remain about its use in England. Was it seen as an “English” font or an easy-to-read font, like black letter? When would a printer choose civilité over roman or italic? Was it preferred for blank forms that were circulated in letter format, to imitate the handwritten nature of letters?

Because of its relative rarity in the STC period, civilité type and secretary hand occasionally get confused. A prime example of this is the ESTC record for STC 9175i.3, another privy seal letter from James I. The record states that the blanks are printed with varying sums of money, as well as the name of the collector and the county:

There are three major states. (1) Last line begins “Ireland”. 1a: the last 7 lines have blanks for the sum, the collector, and the county. 1b: these blanks printed with “twentie pounds”, “Thomas Scudamore Esquire”, and “Yorke”; some resetting. (2) Last 7 lines partly reset; last line begins “England”. 2a: the last 7 lines have blanks for the sum, the collector, and the county. 2b: these blanks printed with (α) £40, (β) £30, or (γ) £20 and Sir Charles Cornwallis, Norfolk. (3) Last 7 lines partly reset; last line begins “our”. All copies of state 3 have blanks. [my emphasis]

Perhaps this statement is based on the black-and-white microfilm image, which does make it difficult to differentiate between print and handwriting. But zooming in to look at a detail of part of this document shows some of the handwritten portions:

Detail of STC 9175i.3, showing handwritten parts: "S[i]r Charles," "Twenty pound[es]," and "Norffolk."
Detail of STC 9175i.3, showing handwritten parts: “S[i]r Charles,” “Twenty pound[es],” and “Norffolk.”
Note that the handwritten additions are less uniform than the print, and not as linear. The writer uses a “reverse e” instead of the printed “two-stroke e.” The second “f” in Norffolk intersects with the tail of the long-s in the line above.

The handwritten additions are easier to see in color images of two Folger copies of STC 9175.3 (the call numbers for these items are Folger STC 8356 and STC 8357). Like the privy seal letter at the beginning of the post, these were also folded, sealed, and sent as letters:

STC9175i.3, states 1a and 3 from the Folger (Folger STC 8356 and Folger STC 8357).
STC9175i.3, states 1a and 3 from the Folger (Folger STC 8356 and Folger STC 8357).

And a detail from the top privy seal letter in the above image, in which “fiftie powndes” is written twice, as well as “Sir” and “Surrey”:

Detail from state 1a of STC 9175i.3 (Folger STC 8356).
Detail from state 1a of STC 9175i.3 (Folger STC 8356).

Stay tuned for a further installment on civilité type (and the Stationers’ Company!) in my next post…


  1. See Harry Carter and H.D.L. Vervliet, Civilité Types (Oxford: Oxford Bibliographical Society, by the Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 11.
  2. The inventory of the Henry Bynneman’s (the publisher’s) goods made after his 1583 death includes “One mattris of secritary xls” and “lettres cut in wood for the secritarie xii” (Carter and Vervliet, 37-38).


  • Interesting to learn that Granjon touted civilité as “French” — I’d subconsciously filed it under “Dutch” in my mind because of the way Jan David used it in the three-language engraved captions to the illustrations in Veridicus Christianus:
    — Latin = Roman
    — Dutch = Civilité
    — French = Italic
    (see for example)

  • Great stuff! I’ve come across documents in civilité type (most of which seem to do with money), but didn’t know that’s what it was called. I wonder how many printers had a set of the typeface – I understand most of what was printed was ephemera so I guess the incentive to invest in all necessary types would have been quite strong.

    But you also get e.g. bills of debt in secretary script which have been engraved – here’s an example from 1636:
    (The fact that this engraving is of a mixed hand is also interesting – although of course it would’ve been, by the 1630s). Why was this not typeset? I’m sure there are all kinds of reasons for variation. It would be very interesting to know more about texts printed in secretary scripts – so I look forward to your next post!

    • I’m reminded of typeset versus engraved music, where engraving ended up dominating: you needed a kajillion sorts to provide every possible combination note(s) on five lines, which would have been a huge investment, and error-prone when setting, so even though a copper plate is expensive, it’s comparatively straightforward to make staves and notes. For example, compare typeset music (left) and engraved (right) in these images: Another similar comparison would be a higgledy-piggledy typeset table of distances and an engraved one, with smooth lines:

  • Discussions elsewhere give an impression that civilité had especial use in legal documents because of its extensive variety of flourishes and long forms. Use of these towards line-ends precluded other parties from inserting spurious matter at such points. It is interesting that your main document Folger STC 8475.5 has none such, and uses dashes in manual script to block areas left blank. That said, it is a delightful script, easy to read, and a shame if its delicacy made it uneconomical for widespread use.

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