Posts Tagged ‘handwriting’


Photo: Culture Club/Getty Images
Detail from CW Quinnell’s portrait of 17th century poet John Milton.

Never doubt the ability of a motivated academic researcher plodding along in dusty library carrels to uncover miracles. I credit the intense focus of youth, imagination, and the thrill of the chase.

Alison Flood writes at The Guardian, “Almost 400 years after the first folio of Shakespeare was published in 1623, scholars believe they have identified the early owner of one copy of the text, who made hundreds of insightful annotations throughout: John Milton.

“The astonishing find, which academics say could be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times, was made by Cambridge University fellow Jason Scott-Warren when he was reading an article about the anonymous annotator by Pennsylvania State University English professor Claire Bourne. Bourne’s study of this copy, which has been housed in the Free Library of Philadelphia since 1944, dated the annotator to the mid-17th century. … She also provided many images of the handwritten notes, which struck Scott-Warren as looking oddly similar to Milton’s hand.

“ ‘But I always think “I recognise that handwriting,” ‘ Scott-Warren said, ‘[and] normally I’m wrong. This time I thought: “The case is getting stronger and stronger.” ‘

As evidence stacked up, he said he became ‘quite trembly … You’re gathering evidence with your heart in your mouth.’ …

“Scott-Warren has made a detailed comparison of the annotator’s handwriting with the Paradise Lost poet’s. He also believes that the work the annotator did to improve the text of the folio – suggesting corrections and supplying additional material such as the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, along with cross-references to other works – is similar to work Milton did in other books that survive from his library, including his copy of Boccaccio’s Life of Dante.

“The scholar tentatively suggested in a blogpost that he might have identified John Milton’s copy of the Shakespeare First Folio of 1623, admitting that, ‘in this as in other cases, there’s usually a lot of wishful thinking, plus copious spinning of the evidence to make it seem plausible, and elision of anything that doesn’t seem to fit.’

“But he soon found that other scholars were agreeing with him. ‘Not only does this hand look like Milton’s, but it behaves like Milton’s writing elsewhere does, doing exactly the things Milton does when he annotates books, and using exactly the same marks,’ said Dr Will Poole at New College Oxford. … ‘This may be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times.’ …

“One highlighted section in The Tempest is the song: ‘Come unto these yellow sands, / And then take hands: / Courtsied when you have and kiss’d / The wild waves whist.’ The unusual rhyme, of ‘kiss’d’ and ‘whist,’ is echoed in Milton’s On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity: ‘The winds with wonder whist, / Smoothly the waters kist.’

“ ‘We would already have known about that allusion, they are the only two writers who used that rhyme, but you can see him marking it in the text and responding to it,’ said Scott-Warren. ‘It gives you a sense of his sensitivity and alertness to Shakespeare.’ ” More here.

(Looking for a comment from blogger Laurie Graves, a devoted Shakespeare fan.)

Photo: The Guardian
Milton’s annotated first folio of Shakespeare, recently discovered in the Free Library of Philadelphia Library by a Cambridge University fellow. “He said he became ‘quite trembly … You’re gathering evidence with your heart in your mouth.’ ”


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Photo: Beinecke Flickr Laboratory/CC BY 2.0
A 17th century “commonplace” book. Linda Watson, a transcriber on the Isle of Man, can decipher pretty much any document.

One of the great things about word processors (well, typewriters, too) is that people with terrible handwriting can make themselves understood. The secretary who used to be the only person in the company who could read the boss’s handwriting can now spend time on more valuable work.

But documents written out long ago still need to be deciphered, often for legal purposes. Enter transcriber Linda Watson on the Isle of Man (a British Crown dependency in the Irish Sea). Watson has built an unusual talent into a business employing transcribers in an array of languages.

Sarah Laskow writes at Atlas Obscura, “On any given day, from her home on the Isle of Man, Linda Watson might be reading a handwritten letter from one Confederate soldier to another, or a list of convicts transported to Australia. Or perhaps she is reading a will, a brief from a long-forgotten legal case, an original Jane Austen manuscript. Whatever is in them, these documents made their way to her because they have one thing in common: They’re close to impossible to read. …

“The problem is not only that our ancestors’ handwriting was sometimes very bad, but also that they used abbreviations, old conventions, and styles of lettering that have fallen out of use. Understanding them takes both patience and skill. ‘I see the job as a cross between a crossword puzzle and a jigsaw puzzle,’ says Watson.

“She fell into this line of work about a decade ago, when a cousin asked for help deciphering a family will and she discovered that she has a talent for interpreting the strange, scrawling writing of the past. … Since then she’s had a steady stream of projects from amateur genealogists, grad students struggling with their long-sought primary source material, and libraries. The British Library had the company transcribe not just Austen’s work, but also manuscripts from the Brontës, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Donne, and other luminaries.

“ ‘You can actually see how they have changed their manuscript — how Jane Austen changed Pride and Prejudice as she’s writing it,’ says Watson. …

“Most of the documents that people need to understand, though, are wills and legal papers, which have their own pleasures. ‘The inventories I love,’ she says. ‘It’s like someone comes to the front door and says, come on in to my house and have a look around.’ … A woman described each piece of her wardrobe, down to her second-best red flannel petticoat, and specified which great-niece or -nephew should receive each item. …

“Older scripts — court hand, for instance, which was used by lawyers and clerks beginning in the medieval period (and eventually became stylized into illegibility) — have long, narrow strokes and letters jammed together to save space, making it a challenge to find where one word ends and another begins. Some styles of writing lean heavily on space-saving abbreviations: An extra flourish on a letter ‘p’ can turn it into a ‘per’ or ‘par,’ a ‘pro’ or ‘pre,’ depending on the exact position of the extra line. …

“Since she first started specializing in old documents, Watson has expanded beyond things written in English. She now has a stable of collaborators who can tackle manuscripts in Latin, German, Spanish, and more. She can only remember two instances that left her and her colleagues stumped. One was a Tibetan manuscript, and she couldn’t find anyone who knew the alphabet. The other was in such bad shape that she had to admit defeat.

“In the business of reading old documents, Watson has few competitors. … ‘I’ve seen some documents done by the software, and they just make you laugh. I think I’m safe in my job for a good while yet.’ ”

More at Atlas Obscura, here.

4/27/18. I just learned anyone who can read handwriting can join a transcribe-a-thon. There are events for transcribing the papers of Frederick Douglass, among others. Here is one the Massachusetts Historical Society is holding to get the voluminous diaries of John Quincy Adams online: https://www.masshist.org/calendar/event?event=2248.

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Schools are not putting as much emphasis on handwriting as they used to, given the growing use of electronic devices, and that can be a good thing in some ways. (As a teacher, I was bored witless checking penmanship workbooks.)

But guess what. The Law of Unintended Consequences is rearing its head.

Maria Konnikova writes at the NY Times, “Psychologists and neuroscientists say it is far too soon to declare handwriting a relic of the past. New evidence suggests that the links between handwriting and broader educational development run deep.

“Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how. …

“A 2012 study [published in Trends in Neuroscience and Education] led by Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University, lent support to that view. Children who had not yet learned to read and write were presented with a letter or a shape on an index card and asked to reproduce it in one of three ways: trace the image on a page with a dotted outline, draw it on a blank white sheet, or type it on a computer. They were then placed in a brain scanner and shown the image again. …

“When children had drawn a letter freehand, they exhibited increased activity in three areas of the brain that are activated in adults when they read and write … By contrast, children who typed or traced the letter or shape showed no such effect. ” More here.

Konnikova reports that even doubters of the study’s significance wonder if the act of writing by hand makes you think more.

Photo: Karin James
Samples of handwriting by young children.

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