The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Pandemic Paleography

“I may be losing what are left of my marbles, but in L.b.21 look at the middle wiggly bits of the brackets on the right hand side of 5r (second & third brackets), 5v (1st bracket) 6v (1st & 2nd brackets). Do you see faces in profile with a dot for the eye?”

Conversations in the Talk Feature of Shakespeare’s World sometimes get a bit surreal.


Folger MS L.b.21, fol. 5v detail

@Noumenon, a volunteer transcriber living in Australia, posed this question a couple of weeks ago on the Talk feature of Shakespeare’s World, a crowdsourced Zooniverse project from 2015 to 2019. This experimental project resulted in thousands of transcriptions of Folger manuscripts, many of which are now searchable in the Folger Manuscript Transcriptions Collection in Luna, our digital image database. Although Shakespeare’s World went dormant in October 2019, a group of dedicated volunteers from all over the world migrated over to the Folger’s in-house transcription platform, “Dromio,” so that they could continue getting their daily transcription fix. Instead of starting a new chat on another platform, they have continued to consult with one another, and with Folger staff, on Zooniverse’s Talk platform.

The thousands of questions and observations on this platform have led to the antedating of definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary, the tweaking of the Folger’s finding aid descriptions, scholarly publications, and lively discussions about all of the weird and wonderful and poignant things that one finds when reading early modern English manuscripts. Right now the “ShaxWorlders” are knee-deep in the Loseley manuscripts and the Bennett papers, pondering inventories for Tudor masques and the paperwork of one of the leading Parliamentarians during the Commonwealth. Although I have never met a single one of the Shakespeare’s World transcribers, and I only know most of them by their usernames, I am full of admiration and gratitude for the kindness and support they have provided each other for well over four years. We have learned so much from them, and the wider community of people interested in early modern English manuscripts has benefited tremendously from their collective efforts.

Since this post is officially a belated answer to this month’s Crocodile mystery, I can confirm that @Noumenon’s marbles are very much intact, and that this is a delightful case of the anthropomorphization of curly brackets. Here are some more of the inhabitants of L.b.21:

Folger MS L.b.21, details from fol. 5r, 5v, and 6v

While inhabited initials and marginal doodles are definitely a thing in both print and manuscript, this is much more subtle. A clerk of the Revels named Thomas Phillipps has playfully transformed a common device for grouping together multiple lines, the curly bracket, into a series of playful profiles of human faces. He has done so on a routine document: the expenses of the Revels Office for the construction of a banqueting house in Hyde Park in order to entertain the French Ambassador in 1551. This is a document that would have been seen by only a small group of people—the Master of the Revels, the clerk comptroller, the sergeant painter, and perhaps a few others.

Was this a joke between Phillipps and the comptroller? Had Phillipps been copying accounts all day and needed to have a little fun? He doesn’t do it on any other account in his hand in this collection. But there they are, “inhabited” curly brackets, the product of a scribe’s sense of humor teasing us nearly 500 years later. If not for the careful eyes of our Shakespeare’s World transcriber, @Nouemenon, they might have been gone unnoticed for another 500 years.

The “ShaxWorlders” are not the only paleographers spending more time than usual in Dromio. The desire for community while remote working, and the need for occasional respite from the intensity of the heart-wrenching news cycle, has led other transcribers to Dromio as well. The dozen or so unofficial participants in the twice-weekly John Ward Happy Hour have found solace in the eclectic ramblings of John Ward, vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon and physician, who is best known for recording the only known account of Shakespeare’s death. The Folger has sixteen of his notebooks. In mid-March we started with Folger MS V.a.284, then moved on to V.a.299, and are now working our way through V.a.296. We’ve chuckled over juicy words like “herbaldrie” and “wheedler” and gotten lost in detailed accounts of distillation and religious history and early modern gossip. I’m convinced that once we finish transcribing his notebooks, vetting the transcriptions, and sharing them online, the notes of John Ward will provide fodder for many dissertations.

Transcription box in Dromio, showing transcription of Folger MS V.a.296, fol. 4v.

And then there are the merry bands of “practical paleographers” who meet weekly to strengthen their knowledge of English secretary hand while contributing to scholarship. A group of dedicated Folger docents who were part of earlier Practical Paleography cycles have gone on to transcribe thousands of pages together, and gather regularly to teach and learn from each other. For more on their work, see, for example, Elisa Tersigni’s EMROC blog post, “Code Breakers: The Hidden Labour Behind the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Recipe Book Transcriptions.” Nicole Winard, one of the original docent paleographers, is starting her own Practical Paleography series this week for 15 more docents.

One of my not-so-secret goals in life is to make sure that everyone on the Collections team at the Folger has the opportunity to learn how to read the early modern manuscripts in our vault. Over the past three months we’ve been working to achieve that goal, and I can’t thank my colleagues enough for Zooming with me every week, discovering and reading new manuscripts together, marveling at the letter forms, abbreviations, and long-neglected voices from the vault.

Are you interested in learning how to read English secretary hand? Drop me a line and we can add you to one of our beginner, intermediate, or advanced groups. In the meantime, check out our List of Online Resources for Early Modern English Paleography and try a keyword search among the 8,200 transcribed images of manuscripts on Luna.

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