In Praise of Scribes: Manuscripts and Their Makers in Seventeenth-Century England

By Peter Beal | Go to book overview
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The Feathery Scribe

IN my first chapter, In praise of scribes, I spoke about knaves, as well as drudges, in the world of seventeenth-century clerks and scriveners. I now want to introduce one particular scribe--a drudge, perhaps. But whether harmless or not I shall leave an open question.

A case history of one particular scribe is not, I would suggest, unseasonable. For, as I have said before, while we have a mountain of information about seventeenth-century printers, stationers, and publishers--and even about some compositors--we know little, if anything, about individual scribes--and even those who have attracted some attention ( Ralph Crane, for instance) have done so only because they happen to be associated with particular literary or dramatic interests, not because their work is felt to deserve bibliographical study in its own right.

The anonymous but extremely distinctive and prolific scribe I am now focusing on flourished in the 1620s and 1630s. He is a scribe whom I christened many years ago the 'Feathery Scribe'.1 The reason for this epithet will, I hope, become apparent from illustrated examples of his work. Plate 25, for instance, shows a few lines in one of two manuscripts by him I own myself. He writes in a script quite unmistakable in its really quite sophisticated sense of style. In his own way, this scribe is as much a conscious, professional craftsman, with pen, ink, and paper, as a cabinet-maker is with wood and cutting-tools, and I would invite you to consider his work (at least to some extent) in this light.2 While few bibliographers would regard the seventeenth century as an age of fine printing, there is at least a case for judging its scribes from a different perspective.

This man's style is distinguished, among other things, by the very light, fine-nibbed ornamentation of the lettering: the wispy, trailing strokes to which he is prone. His is a busy, sometimes swirling, fluttery style, marked by a characteristic lightness of touch.

The epithet was originally suggested to me by the late P. J. Croft, on the steps of the British Museum, at about the time I recorded some of Feathery's manuscripts in the first volume of my Index ( 1980). My interest in this scribe has been shared by Hilton Kelliher, who independently kept notes on examples of his work in BL MSS, and by Henry Woudhuysen, who has incorporated some information about him in his Sidney and the circulation of manuscripts ( 1996), especially pp. 185-9. A plate illustrating the first page of one of my own Feathery MSS appeared in Harold Love Scribal publication ( 1993), 112 (and see p. 111), and the term incidentally achieved some prominence when Love's full-page review of Woudhuysen book in TLS 23 August 1996, p. 11, was headed 'The Feathery Scribe'.
The quality, studied formality, and professionalism of Feathery's script become more evident if it is compared, for instance, with the mass of hurried, untidy, and often inaccurate 'separates' of parliamentary speeches dashed off in haste by some other scribes of the period.


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