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LIMA: Manuscript Studies

The Medium of Manuscript

Manuscript is, like print or the internet, a medium through which text can be transmitted, and like those other media it has its own distinct characteristics. Manuscript did not cease to be important with the invention of the printing press, any more than the invention of the internet has led to the demise of the printed word. For several centuries after the invention of movable type, certainly until the end of the seventeenth century, manuscript remained the medium of choice for the dissemination of many kinds of text. These included accounts of newsworthy events, the texts of speeches and statesmen's letters, much lyric poetry and court drama, pornography and political invective. Many of these texts were (and in some cases still are) only accessible in manuscript, so studying manuscripts makes available a different dimension of early modern literary culture from the one with which we are familiar from the printed word.

Every manuscript has its own unique story to tell, and many of these are fascinating insights into the culture in which they were produced. Manuscripts are a valuable resource for cultural history: by studying them we can see what an individual was reading, and we can trace patterns of readership. It is possible to show how texts passed from one person to another, the groups amongst which texts were exchanged, how individual reader/writers reproduced the texts they received, and the particular value that was attached to a manuscript text. In short, we can begin to consider how manuscript functioned as a medium.

The Development of Manuscript Studies

Until quite recently, literary manuscripts were almost exclusively studied by editors of major authors, but recent years have seen an increasing interest in early modern manuscripts that goes beyond the confines of editorial work. Editors have specific interests: they are trying to work out the relationship between the various copies of a particular text in order to establish the best possible basis for an edition. Someone working in an editorial capacity studies a manuscript for what it can tell them about the copy of the text they are editing, so the manuscript itself is not the primary object of study.

Manuscripts can be used to study areas that were occluded by the dominant culture of the period, and which have been neglected by previous generations of scholarship. The Perdita Project on early modern women's manuscript is an excellent example of this.

The widening interest in the culture of manuscripts is also part of a wider trends in bibliography, the development of the 'history of the book' as a field of study and interest in the 'sociology of texts' - a term coined by D. F. MacKenzie in his seminal Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (London: The British Library, 1986). MacKenzie argued that the material form of a text has an important effect on its meaning, and that every material text should be thought of as a distinct cultural event.

A more detailed introduction to the various aspects of manuscript studies can be found on the Medieval and Early Modern Manuscript Studies website by Stephen R. Reimer of the University of Alberta.

Select Bibliography

A landmark publication for the study of early modern literary manuscripts was the Index of English Literary Manuscripts, which provides brief bibliographical details of every known manuscript for canonical authors. Volume 1: 1450-1625, 2 parts (London: Mansell, 1980) and Volume 2: 1625-1700, 2 parts (London: Mansell, 1987-93), were compiled by Peter Beal. Later volumes of the Index, compiled by Barbara Rosenbaum, Pamela White, and Margaret M. Smith, have taken it up to 1900. Work on the Index is still ongoing, however, and Peter Beal has talked of a revised edition of the earlier volumes.

There is also a journal dedicated to manuscripts, the annual English Manuscript Studies, 1100-1700, edited by Peter Beal.

The following lists some of the recent books, along with a few articles, that have been published on early modern manuscript culture.

This list does not include more specialised textual bibliographic (or codicological) work on manuscripts. Mark Bland and David Gants are two important figures in this field, but many of their articles are discussed elsewhere on LIMA.

  • Bajetta, Carlo M., 'The Manuscripts of Verse Presented to Queen Elizabeth', Ben Jonson Journal, 8 (2001), 147-205
  • Brown, Nancy Pollard, 'Paperchase: The Dissemination of Catholic Texts in Elizabethan England', English Manuscript Studies, 1 (1989), 120-43
  • Burke, Victoria E. and Sarah E. Ross, 'Elizabeth Middleton, John Bourchier, and the Compilation of Seventeenth Century Religious Manuscripts', The Library, 7th Series, 2 (2001), 131-60
  • Cameron, W. J., 'A Late Seventeenth-Century Scriptorium', Renaissance and Modern Studies, 7 (1963), 25-52
  • Carlson, David R., English Humanist Books: Writers and Patrons, Manuscript and Print, 1485-1525 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993)
  • Hobbs, Mary, Early Seventeenth Century Verse Miscellany Manuscripts (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1992)
  • Love, Harold, Scribal Publication in Seventeenth Century England (Oxford, 1993)
  • Love, Harold, 'The Cameron Scriptorium Revisited', in An Index of Civilisation: Studies of Printing and Publishing History in Honour of Keith Malsen, ed. by R. Harvey (Clayton, Victoria: Monash University, 1993), pp. 79-87
  • Marcus, Leah, 'The Veil of Manuscript', Renaissance Drama, n. s. 30 (1999-2000), 115-31
  • Marotti, Arthur F., Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995)
  • Marotti, Arthur F. and Michael D. Bristol, eds., Print, Manuscript, and Performance: the Changing Relations of the Media in Early Modern England (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2000)
  • McKenzie, D. F., Bibliography and the sociology of texts (London: British Library, 1986)
  • McKenzie, D. F., 'Speech-Manuscript-Print', The Library Chronicle of the University of Texas at Austin, 20 (1990), 86-109
  • Murphy, Andrew, ed., The Renaissance text: Theory, editing, textuality (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000)
  • Pebworth, Ted-Larry, 'John Donne, Coterie Poetry, and the Text as Performance', Studies in English Literature, 29 (1989), 61-75
  • Scott-Warren, Jason, Sir John Harrington and the Book as Gift (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)
  • Sharpe, Kevin, Reading Revolutions: the Politics of Reading in Early Modern England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000)
  • Woudhuysen, H. R., Sir Philip Sidney and the Circulation of Manuscripts, 1558-1640 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)



Links for Manuscript Studies


The Perdita Project

'Routes Towards Early Modern Literary Manuscripts', a guide to finding-aids originally by the late Dr Jeremy Maule.