A Document Speaks

Even in its first few lines, the ‘Foot Voyage’ had provided some pretty startling insights, and raised some pretty big questions. But it clearly promised, and raised, many more: what else could be hidden in this less than prepossessing thing? There wasn’t time, on that first visit, to make a thorough transcription, so it seemed best to try to take a proper look at the whole document, and then to gauge the extent of the account I had begun to read.

The manuscript had obviously not attracted much attention for a very long time. While this can be a problem, of course – and the evidence of mouse bites and water damage wasn’t all that encouraging – it also meant that it didn’t seem to have been much tampered with. It looked like these were all of the original sheets, still bound together in their original order. No later owner had had it trimmed or rebound, losing either marginal text or evidence of how it was put together. These 32 leaves, or 64 pages, were made from 8 sheets of paper; each sheet had been folded twice to produce ‘quarto‘ sized gatherings. The outermost leaves, both front and back, seemed not to have been opened to make separate pages; they were also made of a different kind of paper from that used by the writer of the account. It looked as if they had been added on to provide some basic covers for the sheets they enclosed. The whole thing had been stitched along the spine in a basic but competent fashion; leafing through the pages it was easy to see that this had happened after the account had been written, since the ends of some lines disappeared under the stitching.

Shelton, Tachygraphy

Thomas Shelton, Tachygraphy

There was, though, evidence of a further early stage in its history. At what appeared to be the back of the manuscript there were several pages of code or cipher in a seventeenth century hand, all of it upside down: someone had ‘reversed’ the manuscript, and begun to write on the blank pages left at its end. This was hardly unusual – people in the seventeenth century were disinclined to waste paper, and often used up blank pages and spaces even in printed books. But that indicated that this little manuscript had been repurposed fairly early on its history, since the coded writing made use of the system of shorthand devised by Thomas Shelton, first published in its full form in a 1635 book entitled Tachygraphy, and used most famously by Samuel Pepys in his diary. The writer here, though, had written out nothing more exciting than the first chapters of the Book of Job – shorthand exercises, perhaps.

So what could be made of this? Someone had made themselves a little booklet, written the account in it, then bound it between paper covers and stitched it all together. The attempt to enclose and protect perhaps suggested that it had been intended for circulation among readers, rather than to lie in a private desk. At some point, possibly as early as a decade after it was made, it had found itself in the possession of an owner who was more interested in practising shorthand than in reading up on the adventures of Ben Jonson. And then there were no further signs of ownership or use. The waves, as it were, closed over it.

James Loxley

Professor of Early Modern Literature, Department of English Literature, University of Edinburgh; Principal Investigator, Ben Jonson's Walk to Scotland

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2 thoughts on “A Document Speaks

  1. Thanks so much for posting this. I was lucky enough to run Hawthornden Castle which is now a writer’s retreat, between 2002 and 2004 while I was doing my PhD at Edinburgh. There is an oak tree still there under which legend has it that Jonson rested when he arrived. Drummond is supposed to have prepared a line for his arrival: “Welcome, welcome Royal Ben”, to which Jonson instantly replied “Thank you, thank you, Hawthornden!” I had the fortune to use Drummond’s personal study as my own while writing on Walter Scott. He would have watched Jonson walk down towards the castle from that particular room. The current owner of the castle is Dame Drue Heinz, who may have more information or material. I’m personally fascinated by this walk and Drummond, so thank you for posting this material.

  2. Thanks Richard – I’m very glad you’re enjoying it so far, and how brilliant to have used Drummond’s study! We’re going to be posting about Jonson’s friendship with his Hawthornden host in more detail later this summer – there’s still a bit more to that story than has been generally realised, I think.

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