Bringing Early Manuscripts into the Classroom

For several years, I have been creating paleography assignment for my book history courses. Well, when I say “creating” I really mean linking this excellent website with self guided tutorials from the National Archives. In addition to providing an informative introduction to reading early handwriting, the site offers interactive tutorials, examples for further practice, and a rather fun game where you try to prevent an animated woodblock character from getting dunked in the river by using your paleographic skills. (I will admit that even though I keep the poor woman from complete immersion, she was definitely a lot wetter after I completely botched a bunch of sixteenth-century letter forms.)

Ducking stool game from the National Archives paleography site.

Ducking stool game from the National Archives paleography site.

I know other teachers of book history who supplement this standard training with workshops where students make their own quills and practice writing with them. One day I will be that cool, but in the meantime I simply use as an excuse that my class usually meets in the Rare Book Room of the library, where pens, highlighters, and quill and ink are strictly forbidden. Instead, I have students explore the online Technologies of Writing in the Age of Print exhibit from the Folger Shakespeare Library. This excellent resource provides a virtual introduction the practical, embodied experience of writing in the early modern period.

Before this semester, my paleography units were fairly abstract, with students writing short reflective pieces about writing by hand and the experience of transcription. Some embraced the assignments and even looked for further opportunities to work with early manuscripts, but others found the training merely frustrating and were glad to leave it behind. This semester, however, I linked the introductory and training exercises  to practical transcription work for my new seminar called “What’s the Matter with Early American Poetry?”, a workshop style class with an emphasis on non-canonical, obscure, and ephemeral verse production. I felt that students needed to gain confidence in reading early handwriting  as soon as possible, lest they be intimidated when they encountered manuscript sources as part of their independent research at the American Antiquarian Society later this semester.

Because this class will mostly need to read seventeenth- and eighteenth-century hands, I streamlined the tutorial assignments and forgave them the sixteenth-century training. Then I uploaded digital images of pages from two very different verse manuscripts — the late seventeenth-century miscellany of a Puritan named John Dane, available in digitized microfilm from the New England Historical and Genealogical Society, and the early eighteenth-century poetry notebooks of Benjamin Franklin’s uncle and namesake, available in newly made digital images from the AAS.

Uncle Ben screen shot

Uncle Benjamin has such nice penmanship!

The students working on the Franklin notebooks had a much easier time than those working with Dane. Not only were the images much clearer (you can even make out the texture of the paper itself), but Uncle Ben’s handwriting is neater than Dane’s, and eighteenth-century letter forms are much more legible to today’s readers anyway. Accordingly, I assigned each Franklin transcriber about four or five times the amount of text as I gave each Dane transcriber. Even so, the Franklin transcribers finished their portions in a fraction of the time it took the Dane transcribers to produce provisional readings with many places left undeciphered with a [??] for a placeholder.

Because students reported difficulties early on with the Dane in particular, I posted additional resources, including fun interactive game created by Laura Leibman at Reed College for her own early American literature students and these handy alphabet charts available through the University of Cambridge. I also included images and corresponding text for previously transcribed sections of Dane’s verse so that students could get used to his particular letter forms and various writing idiosyncrasies. In the end, one student not only managed to work though his two assigned pages but all twenty pages that were uploaded for the entire class!

Tim Gunman ('16) poses with just one of the twenty pages he transcribed.

Voracious transcriber, Tim Gunman (’16), poses with one of the twenty pages of John Dane’s manuscript that he managed to get though this week.

In class, we viewed the images together on two flat screen monitors in our well-wired seminar room. We talked through spelling oddities, abbreviation conventions, and the personal idiosyncrasies of our two versifiers. (Dane invariably writes “eth” for “the,” for example.) Several students showed how they had improved the legibility of the microfilm pages with simple image manipulation techniques. (Lowering brightness and bumping contrast helped quite a bit, as did reading the manuscript reversed out as a negative image.) Working as a group, we managed to decipher even those passages that previously had been unintelligible to individual readers. With transcription, the collaborative sum is usually more than all the parts.

Students were greatly encouraged by the session, it seemed, and gained some of the confidence that I had hoped they would find. They even agreed to return to their transcriptions and polish them over the weekend. One student in the class is our designated compiler and will will be preparing the work for a final check before posting as an open, online resource. Indeed, the prospect of making manuscript material more broadly accessible was perhaps the major factor in the success of the whole assignment. Already, several students are talking about preparing more manuscript transcriptions as part their final projects this semester. As one inspired student mentioned to me after class, the transcription itself is like a fun puzzle to figure out, but the idea of making otherwise obscure texts more accessible gives the whole process a sense of purpose.

Conquering seventeenth-century handwriting is a great way to end the week!

Conquering seventeenth-century handwriting is a great way to end the week! Partially pictured and/or mostly blurry are Johanna Seibert (MA ’15), Sam Wallace (’16), Sarah Wells (’17), Laura Matthew (’15), et al.

As libraries continue to make manuscript collections available, opportunities grow for introducing paleography in the classroom. The next time I do my early American literature survey, for example, I just might assign — along with the standard anthology selections — some of Anne Bradstreet’s handwritten verse (via the Houghton Library’s digitization of the Andover manuscript) and a couple of Phillis Wheatley’s poems in manuscript (via the American Antiquarian Society’s GIGI database). Even in the survey classroom, there are opportunities to enrich our understanding of the many ways that texts circulated in earlier periods. Awareness of the prevalence of manuscript circulation in the age of print can only deepen our sense of the texts themselves.

The Andover manuscript is one of many such digitized resources freely available via the Harvard University library catalog.

The Bradstreet “Andover manuscript” is one of many such digitized resources freely available via the Harvard University library catalog.


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