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The Renaissance Writing Tablet

The first reference to a Renaissance writing tablet I remember reading is in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, just after Hamlet’s first meeting with the ghost wherein the ghost tells Hamlet that Hamlet’s father the king was murdered by the king’s brother Claudius, Hamlet echoes the ghost’s last injunction to “remember me” in one of his soliloquies:

Remember thee?
Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee?
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial, fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter. Yes, by heaven!
O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile and smile and be a villain.
At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark (Shakespeare’s Hamlet Act 1 scene 5).

I want to look closely at the word table as used by Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play. Table here is short for tablet as in definition 2b in AHD:

2.
a. A thin sheet or leaf, used as a writing surface.
b. A set of such leaves fastened together, as in a book.
c. A pad of writing paper glued together along one edge.
d. A lightweight, portable computer having a touchscreen as the method by which data is input.

This is the meaning of table discussed in the OED as Table 2b.

A small portable tablet for writing upon, esp. for notes or memoranda; a writing tablet. Frequently in a pair (of) tables. Now chiefly historical (s.v. OED table 2b).

Hamlet’s table is a writing tablet that’s a re-usable writing surface. These are not the wax tablets favored by the Romans and others of the Classical era. Instead, these tablets are made of specially coated parchment or paper, and are erased by means of a damp cloth. The hint that Hamlet’s tables are not wax is the use of wipe rather than the word smooth. There was, moreover, a gradual historical movement from wax tablets towards coated paper or parchment for use as an erasable temporary writing surface. Generally the parchment or paper was prepared by coating it with gesso, then carefully smoothed and a top coating of varnish or glue or another sealant was applied.

The best place to start researching the Renaissance erasable writing tablet is probably the 2004 article “Hamlet’s Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England” by Peter Stallybrass, Roger Chartier, John Franklin Mowery, and Heather Wolfe.[1]FN Stallybrass, Peter and Roger Chartier, John Franklin Mowery, and Heather Wolfe. “Hamlet’s Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England.” <cite>Shakespeare … Continue reading Stallybrass et al discuss multiple extant Renaissance erasable tablets, several of which are in the Folger’s collections, and I’ve used their research liberally in this post.

Most eraseable tables or writing tablets consisted of blank tables bound with small pamphlets, typically  almanacs. These contained a front section of printed data; calendars, charts of weight and currency values, followed by several leaves of specially treated paper for use as an erasable writing surface. Most often, a metal stylus was used to write on the treated pages, though water soluble ink was also used. One almanac bound with several pages of erasable tables has the following instructions for erasing a page after use:

To make cleane your Tables, when they are written on.

Take a lyttle peece of a Spunge, or a Linnen cloath, being cleane without any soyle: wet it in water, and wring it hard, & wipe that you haue written very lightly, and it wyll out, and within one quarter of an howre, you maye wryte in the same place agayne: put not your leaues together, whylst they be very wet with wyping.[2]From Stallybrass p. 382 from Robert Triplet, Writing Tables with a Kalender for xxiiii. yeeres, with sundry necessarie rules (London, 1604).

The ability to erase or wipe clean the writing tablet was a distinct feature of the tablet’s utility; the writing was temporary, and old data could be replaced by new data. When Hamlet says

Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial, fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,

Hamlet is referring to wiping away the old, prior data in the table (tablet) of his memory (wetware; his brain). He describes the kinds of data he has currently stored in his memory; his “saws of books” is a clear reference to the commonplaces entered in commonplace books. Hamlet will wipe away the commonplaces, and instead, store information the ghost has given him regarding the murder of Hamlet’s father. But then Hamlet closes the soliloquy asking for his tables, his writing tablet, so that he may “set it down / That one may smile and smile and be a villain,” that is, Hamlet wishes to write in his tablet a commonplace.

Many writing tablets or tables were pocket-sized, and were used in very similar ways to modern paper “pocket notebooks.” Some of the tables were elaborately decorated and bound; others were very inexpensive, and sold as household commodities.

open leather cover of an English 16th century table book
Late 16th century English table book with panel stamped covers covering an erasable tablet. Image: Folger Library STC 101.2.
Inside the tables showing the coated tablet page with writing
Inside tablet page showing coated surface, Image: Folger Library STC 101.2.

 

In the first half of the sixteenth century Netherlandish paint Jan Gossaert painted a merchant in his office, surrounded by his everyday tools, including a writing tablet. As the National Gallery says:

Gossaert’s portrait shows a merchant seated in a cramped yet cozy space, surrounded by the tools of his trade. Scattered over the table are such useful items as a talc shaker used to dry ink, an ink pot, a pair of scales for testing the weight (and hence the quality) of coins, and a metal receptacle for sealing wax, quill pens, and paper. Attached to the wall are balls of twine and batches of papers labeled “miscellaneous letters” and “miscellaneous drafts.” The monogram on the sitter’s hat pin and index finger ring have led to his tentative identification as Jan Jacobsz Snoeck.

Jan Gossaert Portrait of a Merchant
Netherlandish c. 1530
Oil on panel National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Detail from Jan Gossaert Portrait of a Merchant Netherlandish c. 1530 Oil on panel National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

If you look closely at the painting, at the far right of the painting  (on the merchant’s left) is a small leather bound writing tablet. It’s a little obscured by the round set of coin scales on top of it. I’ve inserted a detail showing the bound tablet and stylus to the right. This small bound notebook is an almanac with reusable tables. The clue that this is a writing tablet rather than a normal bound book is the hooked stylus on the cover. The stylus serves a double purpose in that it keeps the tablet closed when it is not in use.

There are several references, like this from John Aubrey’s biography of Sir Phillip Sydney, that suggest that writing tablets were often used the way we might today use Field Notes or other pocket-sized notebooks; to make notes while on the go. Aubrey writes:

My great uncle, Mr. Thomas Browne, remembred him; and sayd that he was often wont, as he was hunting on our pleasant plaines, to take his table booke out of his pocket, and write downe his notions as they came into his head, when he was writing his Arcadia, (which was never finished by him).[3]John Aubrey, in Brief Lives, 1669-1696. Ed. Clark (1898) 2:247-52. Available here

The Renaissance writing tablet was valued for erasability and reuse, and for its portable nature, allowing someone like Sidney to write while standing, because tablets didn’t require an ink-stand, and, properly bound, didn’t require a hard surface. They were both temporary and portable.

 

 

References

1 FN Stallybrass, Peter and Roger Chartier, John Franklin Mowery, and Heather Wolfe. “Hamlet’s Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England.” <cite>Shakespeare Quarterly</cite>. Volume 55, Number 4, (Winter 2004): pp. 379–419.
2 From Stallybrass p. 382 from Robert Triplet, Writing Tables with a Kalender for xxiiii. yeeres, with sundry necessarie rules (London, 1604).
3 John Aubrey, in Brief Lives, 1669-1696. Ed. Clark (1898) 2:247-52. Available here

Lady Charlotte Guest

Portrait of Lady Charlotte GuestThe Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’s “Life of the Week” post this week is a biography of Lady Charlotte Guest, the translator of the Mabinogion, including the four mabinogi proper, as well as the three Welsh tales, and the four Arthurian romances, as well as several other tales, including the prose Taliesin fragment from the sixteenth century, edited by Patrick Ford as the Ystoria Taliesin in 1991.

Lady Guest’s translation, with the accompanying notes, is actually quite wonderful; it was the first translation I ever read, and it still remains well-worth reading. It has become fashionable to sneer at her—and imply that she wasn’t responsible for the work. She was; I’ve seen some of her handwritten notes, and while she has, quite understandably, Victorian sensibilities, she had a scholarly frame of mind. I wish that her notes from the first editions were still printed; they are well worth reading, and in fact her translations of the four romances, particularly Gereint (the Welsh version of the tale Chretien called Erec et Enide) inspired Tennyson’s take in Idylls of the King.

You can read more about Lady Charlotte Guest here and here. Angela V. John has written a solid biography: Lady Charlotte Guest. An Extraordinary Life

Smart Essay about Tolkien’s Monster and the Critics

Michael Drout, he of the almost completed second edition of Beowulf and the Critics, has a short piece on a LOTR forum on “”Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”: The Brilliant Essay that Broke Beowulf Studies.” The essay is, not surprisingly, smart, and well-worth reading. It’s a good background and introduction to Tolkien’s essay, and I suspect even those who haven’t read Tolkien’s essay will read Drout’s piece. I like very much that Drout nods at some more recent Beowulf scholarship in providing a better context for the reactions and reception of Tolkien’s essay. The comments (you can find them here) are worth reading as well, as Drout notes.

It makes me very happy to see this sort of outreach and deliberate cross-pollination; we need more.

Luke from Wycliffe

26 But in the sixte moneth the aungel Gabriel was sent fro God in to a citee of Galilee, whos name was Nazareth,

27 to a maidyn, weddid to a man, whos name was Joseph, of the hous of Dauid; and the name of the maidun was Marie.

28 And the aungel entride to hir, and seide, Heil, ful of grace; the Lord be with thee; blessid be thou among wymmen.

29 And whanne sche hadde herd, sche was troublid in his word, and thouyte what maner salutacioun this was.

30 And the aungel seide to hir, Ne drede thou not, Marie, for thou hast foundun grace anentis God.

31 Lo! thou schalt conceyue in wombe, and schalt bere a sone, and thou schalt clepe his name Jhesus.

32 This schal be greet, and he schal be clepid the sone of the Hiyeste; and the Lord God schal yeue to hym the seete of Dauid, his fadir, and he schal regne in the hous of Jacob with outen ende,

33 and of his rewme schal be noon ende.

34 And Marie seide to the aungel, On what maner schal this thing be doon, for Y knowe not man?

35 And the aungel answeride, and seide to hir, The Hooly Goost schal come fro aboue in to thee, and the vertu of the Hiyeste schal ouerschadewe thee; and therfor that hooli thing that schal be borun of thee, schal be clepid the sone of God.

36 And lo! Elizabeth, thi cosyn, and sche also hath conceyued a sone in hir eelde, and this moneth is the sixte to hir that is clepid bareyn;

37 for euery word schal not be inpossible anentis God.

38 And Marie seide, Lo! the handmaydyn of the Lord; be it don to me aftir thi word. And the aungel departide fro hir.

39 And Marie roos vp in tho daies, and wente with haaste in to the mounteyns, in to a citee of Judee.

40 And sche entride in to the hous of Zacarie, and grette Elizabeth.

41 And it was don, as Elizabeth herde the salutacioun of Marie, the yong child in hir wombe gladide. And Elizabeth was fulfillid with the Hooli Goost,

42 and criede with a greet vois, and seide, Blessid be thou among wymmen, and blessid be the fruyt of thi wombe.

43 And whereof is this thing to me, that the modir of my Lord come to me?

44 For lo! as the voice of thi salutacioun was maad in myn eeris, the yong child gladide in ioye in my wombe.

45 And blessid be thou, that hast bileued, for thilke thingis that ben seid of the Lord to thee, schulen be parfitli don.

46 And Marie seide, Mi soule magnyfieth the Lord,

47 and my spirit hath gladid in God, myn helthe.

48 For he hath biholdun the mekenesse of his handmaidun.

49 For lo! of this alle generaciouns schulen seie that Y am blessid. For he that is myyti hath don to me grete thingis, and his name is hooli.

50 And his mercy is fro kynrede in to kynredes, to men that dreden hym.

51 He made myyt in his arme, he scaterede proude men with the thouyte of his herte.

52 He sette doun myyti men fro sete, and enhaunside meke men.

53 He hath fulfillid hungri men with goodis, and he hath left riche men voide.

54 He, hauynge mynde of his mercy, took Israel, his child;

55 as he hath spokun to oure fadris, to Abraham and to his seed, in to worldis.

56 And Marie dwellide with hir, as it were thre monethis, and turnede ayen in to hir hous.

57 But the tyme of beryng child was fulfillid to Elizabeth, and sche bare a sone.

58 And the neiyboris and cosyns of hir herden, that the Lord hadde magnyfied his mercy with hir; and thei thankiden hym.

59 And it was don in the eiyte dai, thei camen to circumcide the child; and thei clepiden hym Zacarie, bi the name of his fadir.

60 And his moder answeride, and seide, Nay, but he schal be clepid Joon.

61 And thei seiden to hir, For no man is in thi kynrede, that is clepid this name.

62 And thei bikeneden to his fadir, what he wolde that he were clepid.

63 And he axynge a poyntil, wroot, seiynge, Joon is his name.

64 And alle men wondriden. And anoon his mouth was openyd, and his tunge, and he spak, and blesside God.

65 And drede was maad on alle her neiyboris, and alle these wordis weren pupplischid on alle the mounteyns of Judee.

66 And alle men that herden puttiden in her herte, and seiden, What maner child schal this be? For the hoond of the Lord was with hym.

67 And Zacarie, his fadir, was fulfillid with the Hooli Goost, and prophesiede,

68 and seide, Blessid be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visitid, and maad redempcioun of his puple.

69 And he hath rerid to vs an horn of heelthe in the hous of Dauid, his child.

70 As he spak bi the mouth of hise hooli prophetis, that weren fro the world.

71 Helthe fro oure enemyes, and fro the hoond of alle men that hatiden vs.

72 To do merci with oure fadris, and to haue mynde of his hooli testament.

73 The greet ooth that he swoor to Abraham, oure fadir, to yyue hym silf to vs.

74 That we with out drede delyuered fro the hoond of oure enemyes,

75 serue to hym, in hoolynesse and riytwisnesse bifor hym in alle oure daies.

76 And thou, child, schalt be clepid the prophete of the Hiyest; for thou schalt go bifor the face of the Lord, to make redi hise weies.

77 To yyue scyence of helthe to his puple, in to remyssioun of her synnes;

78 bi the inwardnesse of the merci of oure God, in the whiche he spryngynge vp fro an hiy hath visitid vs.

79 To yyue liyt to hem that sitten in derknessis and in schadewe of deeth; to dresse oure feet in to the weie of pees.

80 And the child wexide, and was coumfortid in spirit, and was in desert placis `til to the dai of his schewing to Israel.

CAP 2

1 And it was don in tho daies, a maundement wente out fro the emperour August, that al the world schulde be discryued.

2 This firste discryuyng was maad of Cyryn, iustice of Sirie.

3 And alle men wenten to make professioun, ech in to his owne citee.

4 And Joseph wente vp fro Galilee, fro the citee Nazareth, in to Judee, in to a citee of Dauid, that is clepid Bethleem, for that he was of the hous and of the meyne of Dauid,

5 that he schulde knouleche with Marie, his wijf, that was weddid to hym, and was greet with child.

6 And it was don, while thei weren there, the daies weren fulfillid, that sche schulde bere child.

7 And sche bare hir first borun sone, and wlappide hym in clothis, and leide hym in a cratche, for ther was no place to hym in no chaumbir.

8 And scheepherdis weren in the same cuntre, wakynge and kepynge the watchis of the nyyt on her flok.

9 And lo! the aungel of the Lord stood bisidis hem, and the cleernesse of God schinede aboute hem; and thei dredden with greet drede.

10 And the aungel seide to hem, Nyle ye drede; for lo! Y preche to you a greet ioye, that schal be to al puple.

11 For a sauyoure is borun to dai to you, that is Crist the Lord, in the citee of Dauid.

12 And this is a tokene to you; ye schulen fynde a yong child wlappid in clothis, and leid in a cratche.

13 And sudenli ther was maad with the aungel a multitude of heuenli knyythod, heriynge God,

14 and seiynge, Glorie be in the hiyeste thingis to God, and in erthe pees be to men of good wille.

15 And it was don, as the `aungelis passiden awei fro hem in to heuene, the scheephirdis spaken togider, and seiden, Go we ouer to Bethleem, and se we this word that is maad, which the Lord hath `maad, and schewide to vs.

16 And thei hiyynge camen, and founden Marie and Joseph, and the yong child leid in a cratche.

17 And thei seynge, knewen of the word that was seid to hem of this child.

18 And alle men that herden wondriden, and of these thingis that weren seid to hem of the scheephirdis.

19 But Marie kepte alle these wordis, berynge togider in hir herte.

20 And the scheepherdis turneden ayen, glorifyinge and heriynge God in alle thingis that thei hadden h
erd and seyn, as it was seid to hem.

21 And aftir that the eiyte daies weren endid, that the child schulde be circumcided, his name was clepid Jhesus, which was clepid of the aungel, bifor that he was conceyued in the wombe.

22 And aftir that the daies of the purgacioun of Marie weren fulfillid, aftir Moyses lawe, thei token hym into Jerusalem, to offre hym to the Lord, as it is writun in the lawe of the Lord,

23 For euery male kynde openynge the wombe, schal be clepid holi to the Lord; and that thei schulen yyue an offryng,

24 aftir that it is seid in the lawe of the Lord, A peire of turturis, or twei culuer briddis.

Halloween, Samhain, and such

It’s the time of year when I start seeing incredibly daft posts about the antecedents of Halloween, particularly Samain (Samhain, for you moderns). This year, I’ve created an FAQ about Samain, and what it means.

For those of you already in the know, here’s a link to a translation by Kuno Meyer of the very odd Echtra Nera, mostly based on Eg. 1782. Echtra Nera is a tale tied closely to Samain, and features a sojourn in a síd, as well as the observation that “the fairy-mounds of Erinn are always opened about Halloween.”

In the beginning of the tale, a dead man directs Nera to take him to a house for a drink; he rejects houses that properly stow washing water and slop-pails at night, for one that violates purity sanctions, and has a washing-tub, and a bathing-tub and a slop pail, available.

He then drinks a draught of either of them and scatters the last sip from his lips at the faces of the people that were in the house, so that they all died. Henceforth it is not good [to have] either a tub for washing or bathing, or a fire without sparing, or a slop-pail in a house after sleeping.

We have in this medieval Irish text the same association of purity and the otherworld that Pistol alludes to in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor when he says:

Elves, list your names; silence, you airy toys.
Cricket, to Windsor chimneys shalt thou leap:
Where fires thou find’st unraked and hearths unswept,
There pinch the maids as blue as bilberry:
Our radiant queen hates sluts and sluttery (V.v).

We see this same association in the sometimes-attributed-to Ben Jonson “Robin Goodfellow,” in which Robin the fairy or Puck says:

When house or harth doth sluttish lie,
I pinch the maids there blacke and blew.

Herrick too uses the same motif of poor housekeeping earning otherworldly punishment in “The Fairies”:

IF ye will with Mab find grace,
Set each platter in his place;
Rake the fire up, and get
Water in, ere sun be set.
Wash your pails and cleanse your dairies;
Sluts are loathsome to the fairies;
Sweep your house, who doth not so,
Mab will pinch her by the toe.

Quondam et Futurus: An Arthurian Wiki

Carl S. Pyrdum of Got Medieval has created Quondam et Futurus, a new Arthurian Wiki. His invitation in part reads:

My goal for the site is to create an encyclopedia of Arthurian knowledge accessible enough for the lay, non-academic audience (fanboyspeople included) and detailed enough to be useful for academics, too, a place where you can read about Malory’s changes to the story of Pelleas and Ettard, as well as about that episode of the Transformers where they pull a Conneticut Yankee.

So, if you know anything about the Arthurian legends, please drop by the King Arthur Wiki. Trade me a few footnotes worth of your cognitive surplus. And if you want to become an official administrator, contact me offblog.

This is pretty cool; I’ll link to it at the Ning medievalists site.

Happy birthday Richard Scott Nokes!

In honor of Professor Nokes‘ birthday, and given his interest in weasel blogging, I present the following:

According to medieval bestiaries, with help from Pliny the Elder and Isidore of Seville, “the weasel conceives through the mouth and gives birth through the ear”—Isidore, after describing this genetic miracle, says it is false, but that didn’t stop John Davies from using it in a sonnet.

John Davies of Hereford, Wittes Pilgrimage, Sonnet 29

Some say the Weezel-masculine doth gender
With the Shee-Weezel only at the Eare
And she her Burden at hir Mouth doth render;
The like (sweet Love) doth in our love appear:
For I (as Masculine) beget in Thee
Love, at the Eare, which thou bearst at the Mouth
And though It came from Hart, and Reynes of me
From the Teeth outward It in thee hath growth.
My Mouth, thine Eares, doth ever chastly use
With putting in hot Seed of active Love;
Which, streight thine Ear conveyeth (like a Sluce)
Into thy Mouth; and, there but Aire doth prove:
Yet Aire is active; but, not like the fire
Then O how should the Sonne be like the Sire?

Via Cliosfolly