Long before writing became a skill that every child was expected to learn, all sorts of people still scribbled away.
Some men and women did so for mostly practical reasons – keeping track of their finances, corresponding with distant family and friends, or preserving successful recipes for future use. Many others wrote in order to monitor the state of their soul or to record godly wisdom preached at the pulpit. A few tried to create texts that told the story of their life in more self-consciously ‘literary’ ways, sometimes even aiming for eventual publication.
Scholars have long used such ‘personal’ sources to study the early modern period, often mining them for information about topics that are more rarely documented in ‘official’ archives. More recently, a growing number of researchers have turned to analysing such sources as texts in their own right, seeking to understand how and why these writers wrote. The study of ‘life-writing’ and manuscript culture is now a well-established academic field, with excellent studies of the process of writing diaries, letters, financial accounts, sermon notes, commonplace books, and so on. As you’ll see from even the very abbreviated bibliography below, there is no lack of interest in early modern writing practices.
Thanks to the efforts of several tireless groups of scholars and students, there are also some great online resources cataloguing and illuminating such sources, such as the Perdita Project, Early Modern Letters Online, and – for a more recent period – Writing Lives. These often build on the more traditional lists and catalogues created by William Matthews, Heather Creaton and others. Laura Gowing has now started a crowdsourced handlist of early modern first-person writing in print. As a result, we now know about hundreds of writers who would otherwise be forgotten.
However, I think there is more that can be done. In a new article on ‘Writing History from Below’ in early modern England, I tried to use material from some writers who have received little or no scholarly attention yet, focusing in particular on those who lacked substantial wealth or education. Why did they decide to write chronicles and gather archives? What did they select to preserve for posterity? How did they tell the story of their lives and their communities?
While writing the article, I realized that what I really wanted to do was to spread the word about these understudied texts and the extraordinary people who created them. Specifically, I wanted to give a taste of what these texts actually looked like, rather than simply grabbing a few juicy quotations from each.
So, this series will do just that. Each post will introduce a new writer through a full transcription and – where possible – an image of a page of their writing. I’ve got things started with a brief look at my current obsession, an Essex tradesman named Joseph Bufton, but posts from my co-bloggers and guest bloggers will follow later.
- Brodie Waddell, ‘A Page in the Life of Joseph Bufton: Murder, Robbery and New Church Pews’ (23 March 2018)
- Brodie Waddell, ‘A Page in the Life of Jacob Bee: Four Kirkings and a Funeral’ (9 April 2018)
- Emily May Vine, ‘A Page in the Life Anna Margaretta Larpert: Reading about Revolution and Writing about Writing’ (16 April 2018)
- Laura Sangha, ‘A Page in the Life of Ralph Thoresby’ (23 April 2018)
- Tawny Paul, ‘A Page in the Life of Thomas Parsons: Masculinity and the Lifecycle in a Stonemason’s Diary’ (14 May 2018)
- Anne Murphy, ‘A Page in the Life of Elizabeth Jeake: Unfeigned Love among Mercantile Matters’ (29 May 2018)
- Brodie Waddell, ‘A Page in the Life of John Dane: A Tailor Tempted by Dancing’ (11 June 2018)
- Amanda Herbert, ‘A Page in the Life of Sarah Savage: Love Among Women’ (14 November 2018)
- Esther Sahle, ‘A Page in the Life of Betty Fothergill: Marriage and Liberty in the Diary of a Teenage Girl’ (4 December 2018)
- Judy Stephenson, ‘A Page in the Life of William Kempster: Master Mason and Scribbling Accountant’ (11 February 2019)
- More to follow…
Highly Abbreviated Bibliography of Early Modern Literacy and Life-Writing
- James Amelang, The Flight of Icarus: Artisan Autobiography in Early Modern Europe (1998)
- Andrew Cambers, ‘Reading, the Godly, and Self-Writing in England, circa 1580-1720’, Journal of British Studies, 46:4 (2007)
- Kate Chedgzoy, Women’s Writing in the British Atlantic World: Memory, Place and History, 1550-1750 (2007)
- Heather Creaton, Unpublished London Diaries: A Checklist (2003)
- David Cressy, Literacy and the Social Order: Reading and Writing in Tudor and Stuart England (1980)
- Early Modern Letters Online, Cultures of Knowledge (2009-)
- Katharine Hodgkin, ‘Women, Memory and Family History in Seventeenth-Century England’, in Ericka Kuijpers et al. (eds), Memory Before Modernity (2013)
- R.A. Houston, Scottish Literacy and the Scottish Identity: Illiteracy and Society in Scotland and Northern England, 1660-1800 (1985)
- Matthew Kadane, The Watchful Clothier: The Life of an Eighteenth-Century Protestant Capitalist (2013)
- Megan Matchinske, Women Writing History in Early Modern England (2009)
- William Matthews, British Diaries: An Annotated Bibliography (1950)
- Elaine McKay, ‘English Diarists: Gender, Geography and Occupation, 1500-1700’, History, 90:2 (2005)
- Jill Millman et al., The Perdita Project: Early modern women’s manuscript compilations (ungated; gated)
- Sheila Ottway, ‘Autobiography’, in Anita Pacheco (ed.), A Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing (2002)
- Tawny Paul, ‘Accounting for Men’s Work: Multiple Employments and Occupational Identities in Early Modern England’, History Workshop Journal (2018)
- Helen Rogers et al., ‘Writing Lives’ (2013-)
- Paul Seaver, Wallington’s World: A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-Century London (1985)
- Adam Smyth, Autobiography in Early Modern England (2010)
- Margaret Spufford, Small Books and Pleasant Histories: Popular Fiction and its Readership in Seventeenth-Century England (1981)
- Mihoko Suzuki, ‘Anne Clifford and the Gendering of History’, Clio, 30:2 (2001), pp. 195-229
- Wendy Wall, ‘Literacy and the Domestic Arts’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 73:3 (2010), pp. 383-412.
- Tom Webster, ‘Writing to Redundancy: Approaches to Spiritual Journals and Early Modern Spirituality’, Historical Journal, 39:1 (1996)
- Susan Wiseman, Conspiracy and Virtue: Women, Writing and Poetry in Seventeenth-Century England (2006)
- Susan Whyman, The Pen and the People: English Letter Writers, 1660-1800 (2009)