The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Golden quills and paleography skills

In my last post about EMMO‘s progress, I briefly mentioned Practical Paleography or “PracPaleo,” our intentionally relaxed, no-registration-required introduction to transcribing secretary hand for readers and staff at the Folger Shakespeare Library. This time around, I thought it would be interesting to share some of the notable and versatile results of this new initiative.


Since paleography has usually been taught at the Folger in an intensive, controlled class format—a group of regular participants meeting on a set schedule—this series of ten one-hour sessions, each one optional, meeting every other week with an always changing set of participants was a bit of an experiment to see how—or if—paleography could work in such a decidedly different configuration. The experimental series concluded at the end of March, and I think that by a variety of measures the experiment has been a success.

In addition to the achievements of providing paleographical knowledge, letting people connect with the Folger’s collections in a new way, and getting several manuscript pages transcribed, the EMMO team has been able to test our process of encoding-while-transcribing further with the Dromio software. And broadening accessibility to manuscripts—one of EMMO’s main goals—helps us vet and interpret transcriptions. An account of a few golden quill awards from PracPaleo highlights some of these intellectual benefits. 

Folger Fellow Erika Lin with her golden quill (carefully prepared by Elyse Martin, Folger Institute Program Assistant)
Folger Fellow Erika Lin with her golden quill (carefully prepared by Elyse Martin, Folger Institute Program Assistant)

First, a short note on the genesis of these prizes: at the suggestion of Kathleen Lynch, specially painted golden quills were prepared and then presented to the participant who made an outstanding contribution to each session. The exact definition of that contribution was not stipulated: it could be (and has been) for making it through a troublesome line of in-the-round transcription, getting the farthest in a transcription “sprint,” or determining a word from a particularly weird creative spelling, but in certain cases, something else occurs.

As we went through a transcription during the very first session, an explanation of minims led to a fascinating observation about a speech in Romeo and Juliet. In paleography, a minim is a term for the short vertical stroke used to form the letters “i,” “m,” “n,” and “u.” While learning secretary (or italic) hand, one is often directed to “count the minims” in order to identify a letter correctly: for example, there are three minims in an “m.” When Katharine Pitt, Humanities Program Assistant at the Folger and one of the PracPaleo participants, heard this sense of minim, however, she recalled another reference to the word from Mercutio’s description of Tybalt:

More than prince of cats. O, he’s the courageous
captain of compliments. He fights as you sing
prick-song, keeps time, distance, and proportion.
He rests his minim rests, one, two, and the third in
your bosom—the very butcher of a silk button, a
duelist, a duelist, a gentleman of the very first house
of the first and second cause. Ah, the immortal
passado, the punto reverso, the hay! (2.4.20–27)

The word “minim” in line 23 is usually understood as part of “minim rests” in a musical sense that accords with the rest of the speech. But, Kate wondered, given Mercutio’s fate and name, could an extra layer of meaning lay within the lines? Could the “one, two, and the third in your bosom” metaphorically link musical, sword, and pen strokes together? At Kate’s suggestion, a perceptible hush fell over the Folger’s board room where Practical Paleography meets as everyone present considered the possibility. Our first golden quill was awarded for what was later called a “dazzling interpretive summersault, the kind of summersault Shakespeare knew how to perform” by Michael Witmore, Director of the Folger. Subsequent discussions on this and other similar discoveries made through paleographic efforts have given rise to thoughts of crafting some type of philological record of instances. Stay tuned for more on this idea.

Not all of the discussions about transcribing particular letters and words involve such hermeneutics, but deliberations over difficult sections arising from PracPaleo selections are frequently intriguing. One example of such deliberations comes from an inventory from the Townshend family (V.b.147). The inventory twice mentions “Lininge,” which participants had originally read as “lining”: as the OED defines it, “The stuff with which garments are lined; the inner or under surface of material stitched into a coat, robe, hat, etc. for protection or warmth.” 1 But that sense didn’t seem to fit the inventory’s usage:

troubling lines (click to see the full page in our digital image collection)
troubling lines (click to see the full page in our digital image collection)

Item one greate standerd with Lininge
Item ii presses for to putt Lininge in /

A little research—and a knowledge of French—led to a reference that “Lininge” was a regularly-used spelling in this period for “linen,” a discovery that led to a golden quill for Erin Blake.

Sometimes the thorny issue is not what a word means, but what a word is. In a newsletter in the Newdigate collection (L.c.1-3954), a word was resisting transcription efforts:

an undecipherable word (click to view full page)
an undecipherable word (click to view full page)

Ideas for the third word in the bottom line (shown here with expanded or supplied letters in italics) ranged from “Seuerall” to “Geull” (perhaps an unusually spelled form of Gaol?) to “Leuell” to “Reuell.” But when Folger reader Peter Lukehart suggested “Generall,” and after some reflection most agreed that was the most likely word, he was rewarded with a golden quill.

Kings Bench bar were by order of the Duke of
Linster theire Generall confined to theire

These examples show some of the results of widening the accessibility to manuscripts and of teaching paleography in new ways. Not only was EMMO able to produce approximately 40 pages of encoded, vetted transcriptions through this sporadic series—some with very sharp interpretive flashes—but more than 30 people learned about or revived their existing expertise in the joys and challenges of paleography. Our view at EMMO is the more sets of educated eyes focused on transcribing these documents, the better, with new interpretations of and questions about manuscripts as a result.

By popular demand, Practical Paleography will return for a second series next month and run through the summer. If you find yourself at the Folger on a Tuesday afternoon when we meet, stop by! A continuing experiment in non-threatening paleography awaits you, and maybe a golden quill.

  1. “lining, n.1”. OED Online. March 2015. Oxford University Press.


    • Thanks for your interest in our transcription of this page of inventory from the Townshend collection. I encourage you to look over the whole image and the various materials noted. This mention of a”greate standerd with Lininge” appears at the top of the left-hand page under the “In the Cofer Chamber” heading. Farther down the same page, under the “In the Dornex Chamber” heading, there is a mention of “ij greate standerdes bounde with Ierne.” From these two brief descriptions, however, it is difficult to say much more about the items other than they were probably flags of some kind or other insignia of heraldry.

  • Is there any thought of opening up the process to a wider group, those who can only participate from afar? The way 18thConnect does for printed texts (correction bad OCR).

  • I’m glad you asked about this idea for EMMO as we have had many thoughts on the subject. While we certainly may open up a PracPalo session or two in this next series to some kind of virtual/remote participation, short virtual transcribe-a-thons are another option under consideration. The broader way for people to join the transcribing effort from afar will be through “Shakespeare’s World,” a state-of-the-art crowdsourcing website that the EMMO team at the Folger is working on developing with Zooniverse. This site should be ready for beta testing by September of this year.

  • I wonder “what would happen” if you also sometimes included forensic experts on handwriting (those that try and figure out if a signature on a cheque was forged etc.). The idea was prompted by your logic about “minims”. So with the Dromio software I understand it “retraces”, i.e. makes a note of the quill movements and stores these in a database to later make, like in Optical Characater Recognition, “sense” of the spelling? I wonder if that could not also be used to “rewrite” such manuscripts later, i.e. if a master paleographer copied such a manuscript rather perfectly, the software would then be able to reproduce such a manuscript (give a “robotic quill” that also could mimic all the up- and downstrokes like the human did them to add the characteristics of ink spread that a human hand would evoke) and I am sure, like for the more sophisticated reproductions of paintings that are down in a layer-by-layer fashion with original paints and cost thousands, there would be a market for these manu- or rather “roboscripts”?

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