Getting the Measure

The moment when you open an archival document isn’t always a happy one. Sometimes, the heart sinks: the thing is unreadable for some reason – damaged, dirty, otherwise illegible – or just obviously not what you’re after. Sometimes, it’s daunting: you were expecting a thin sheaf of papers, and a huge box turns up; or it’s a folio volume with hundreds of pages, scrawled all over in a tiny and offputting hand. You know then that you’re going to be a while.

But on other occasions the manuscript is more simply inviting – it looks like you could get the measure of it soon enough, and you know it will have something to say to you if you ask it nicely. You just hope then that you’ll be able to understand what it says.

So it was with this: a small manuscript of 32 leaves, not in the best nick (the mice had been at it; the outer leaves were more than showing their age) and clearly not much messed with in several centuries. Opening the document, there were a few blank leaves still joined at the top – this first group was a single sheet, folded twice to produce, originally, four leaves, but not written on. The text began on the fifth leaf with the title quoted in the catalogue, written in an elegant italic hand that could certainly be dated to the first half of the seventeenth century. And then the main body of the text in a neat, mostly secretary hand, with regular spacing and lineation. I always find that it takes a while to get your eye in when you look at a hand for the first time, as it does when your sight adjusts to changes in light levels. Only after that can you begin to take in what you’re now starting to read.

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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