The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Imagining a lost set of commonplace books

As observed by one of our respondents, last week’s Crocodile was a detail from a blank leaf bisected by a vertical line in graphite, with a column of handwritten letters consisting of the Roman alphabet followed by the Greek alphabet.

Folger MS L.f.317, part of the E. Williams watermark collection. Photograph by Heather Wolfe. Slightly better image available upon request.

The leaf is from a commonplace book. The letters of the two alphabets might have been a way to prepare the page to receive entries in an organized manner. If so, the system was abandoned. (Like most versions of early modern Roman alphabets, this one does not include a “j” or a “v.” It also does not include an “o” or an “x,” but it does includes two versions of “s.”)  

If one climbs deeper into the crocodile burrow, the answer gets even muddier. The leaf is part of a loose bifolium; that is, a sheet of paper folded in half to create four pages. Each page contains the alphabet column and is paginated using a system of Arabic and Roman numerals: 10.ij, 10.iij, 10.xCiiij, 10.xCv. The last two pages are not consecutive with the first two pages, indicating that they were once part of a much larger gathering of at least 48 leaves (96 pages). The numbering also suggests that the pages were mis-paginated or that the manuscript started on the verso of a leaf, since we would expect the recto sides to be odd numbers (it would make more sense for the bifolium to be paginated 10.i, ij, xCv, xCvj or 10.iij, iv, xCiii, xCiv). The bifolium has three headings: “Vnprofitable,” “Trial,” and “Defraud.” 

Detail from upper left corner of the first page of Folger MS L.f.317.

And we can climb even deeper: the loose bifolium is from a collection of over 1000 items with the catchy title “E. Williams watermark collection, including the papers of the Hale family of King’s Walden and other papers.” The collection was acquired by Henry and Emily Folger in the 1920s from an eccentric bookseller named E. Williams, who gathered his watermark examples from a variety of sources in an effort to disprove the Baconian authorship theory. Nadia Sophie Seiler, our much-missed rare materials cataloger, wrote a great post about Williams’ theory and about creating the finding aid in 2011: “Watermarks & Hidden Collections.” As her post describes, almost 90% of the watermark examples are from the papers of a single family, the Hale family of King’s Walden. The remaining 10% of the watermarks are on printed books and broadsides, other manuscripts not connected to the Hale family, a few blank bifolia, and bifolia pillaged from a collection of folio commonplace books.

The E. Williams collection contains six other bifolia that are formatted and paginated in the same way as L.f.317: L.f.98, L.f.123 , L.f.161 , L.f.170, L.f.288, and L.f.330. On some of the original folders for these items, alongside the watermark description, E. Williams notes that they came from “a large collection of commonplace books, reign of Charles I,” or “a collection of manuscript commonplace books, time of Charles I.”

His casual references are both maddening and tantalizing. How large, exactly? Did he harvest his watermark examples and then discard the rest of the leaves of the commonplace books because their watermarks duplicated what he already had?

Seven commonplace bifolia reunited. Were the rest discarded because their watermarks were duplicates? Photo by Heather Wolfe.

The pagination system on the seven surviving bifolia, which includes a section or volume number followed by a page number, implies that there were at least 42 gatherings of 96 pages each:

L.f.98: pp. 23-24 and pp. 73-74 (contains references to Gerard’s Herbal)

L.f.123: pp. 3.6-3.7 and 3.79-80 (“Familiar acquaintance/Friends”)

L.f.161: pp. 42.26-42.27 and 42.70-42.71

L.f.170: pp. 20.41-20.42 and 20.55-20.56

L.f.288: pp. xxiv-xxv and lxxij-lxxiij (“Gout”)

L.f.317: pp. 10.ij-10.iij and 10.xCiiij-10.xCv (“Vnprofitable,” “Trial,” “Defraud”)

L.f.330: pp. 10.15-10.16 and 10.81-10.82 (“Conspiracy/Treachery,” “Lightness,” etc.)

The columns are sparsely populated with entries written in multiple hands and stints, suggesting that the person or people who created the note-taking template never finished the project. However, the potential richness of this lost trove is apparent if one examines the contents of just one of the surviving pages.

Folger MS L.f.330, fol. 4 (labeled as page “10.82”). Photo by Heather Wolfe. Slightly higher quality image available upon request.

The first two pages of L.f.330, 10.15 and 10.16, have the headings “Conspiracy” and “Treachery.” The fourth page of L.f.330 (shown above) is labeled 10.82; that is, section/volume 10, page 82, originally sixty-six pages after “Treachery.” In column 1, the first headings are “Lightnes,” which contains a cross reference to section/volume 2, p. 92 (“vide 2.92”) and “Inconstancy” (with a cross-reference to “9.86”), and in column 2, “Lukewarmnes (see “7.55”), “Covetousnes (see “2.68”) and “Inordinate” (see “16.64”). Other headings with cross-references appear further down the page, such as “Halting” (see “15.31”), “Novelties” (see “16.53”), “Constancy” (see “4.95”), and “Stablishing” (see “17-39”). The page contains relevant proverbs and Scriptural and classical citations and notes in English, Latin, and Greek.

Further down the first column, the heading “Vnsetlednes in condicion” is broken into two categories, “Civil” and “Religious,” and “Religious” is broken down into two further categories: “Losing old Truths” and “Seeking new.” Entries are in multiple hands, and range from “A rowling stone never gathers mos” to a series of metaphors describing the state of being unsettled in religion: “Staggering faith – – House ill grounded – – Tree ill rooted – – worm eaten fruit…”

Details from Folger MS L.f.330.

The page has cross-references to at least eight related headings in at least eight different sections/volumes, providing us with important clues to the extent and content of the thousands of pages that no longer survive, and, with further study, insight into the background, note-taking system, and world-view of their creator.

E. Williams of Hove, Sussex, has left us with a research-worthy puzzle, a hidden collection within a hidden collection. 

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