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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

Memento Mori

The phrase memento mori is usually used in the context of a literary topos, that is a commonplace, or a motif in art. The New Latin (i.e. not Classical, but late Medieval or Early Modern Latin) is derived from Latin mementō, singular imperative of meminisse, “to remember’ + Latin morī, “to die.” Memento mori is conventionally translated as “remember that you have to die,” or the even less literal “remember your death” (AHD).”

Death Comes to the Banquet Table Giovanni Martinelli (1600–1659)
Image: Wikimedia commons

Remember here has a cautionary connotation of “don’t forget.” The driving idea behind the tag (and the topos) is that all creatures die; we should thus go through life remembering that our death is inevitable. In a Christian context, the emphasis is less on fate and fatality, and more on the Christian concept of a heavenly life to come; we should thus remember our mortality, and use this life to prepare for the life to come.

As the AHD entry for memento mori notes:

n. pl. memento mori
1. A reminder of death or mortality, especially a death’s-head.
2. A reminder of human failures or errors.

there is a strong tie between the phrase memento mori, and visual representations of mortality. A death’s-head is “The human skull as a symbol of mortality or death” (AHD s. v. death’s-head).

Medieval books of hours include the Office of The Dead, a set of prayers and readings meant both to remind the living of the inevitability of death (and the necessity of a virtuous life) and prayers for the soul of the departed to shorten their stay in purgatory. The memento mori has a vast iconographic catalog of visual images associated with the motif, ranging from skeletons and skulls, to personifications of death as the Grim Reaper, to mirrors held by skeletons (sometimes reflecting the owner of the book or painting) and reminding the viewer that “you too shall die.” Tombs and gravestones feature reminders of the inevitability of death in the form of skulls and skeletons. Jewelry featuring these motifs was popular throughout the Middle ages and Renaissance. These objects are often specifically identified as a memento mori, a “reminder of death.”

Frans_van_Everbroeck (1654  – 1672) “Memento Mori”
Image: wikimedia commons

Painters in the seventeenth century portrayed elaborate banquets, with the shadow of a skeleton looking over the feast, or tables with food and drink, candles, plants or flowers, hourglasses or early timepieces (and often, books!) with a skull prominently displayed as reminder that these things are transitory; life and time are moving towards death. Eighteenth century engravers favored bipartite men and women, with one half depicted as a skeleton, as a reminder of the inevitability of death and the necessity to prepare.

Literature too is full of instances of the memento mori motif. So much so that the OED credits Shakespeare with the first use of the phrase memento mori in Henry IV (1598):

I make as good use of it as many a man doth of a death’s head, or a memento mori

Again, we see the death’s head as an example of a memento mori.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 5 scene i, the scene with Hamlet, Horatio, and the grave digger wherein Hamlet asks to whom a particular skull once belonged, is a memento mori passage of some note, and is told that it once belonged to Yorick, a jester of some note:

HAMLET
Takes the skull
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?
Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let
her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must
come; make her laugh at that. Prithee, Horatio, tell
me one thing.
Horatio What’s that, my lord?
HAMLET Dost thou think Alexander looked o’ this fashion i’
the earth?
HORATIO E’en so.
HAMLET And smelt so? pah!
Puts down the skull
HORATIO E’en so, my lord.
HAMLET
To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may
not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander,
till he find it stopping a bung-hole?
HORATIO
’Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.
HAMLET No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with
modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as
thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried,
Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of
earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he
was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!

All men die. Yorick the jester, Caesar, and Hamlet’s father the king, all have died. The way Hamlet’s rumenations about the inevitability of death are triggered by the sight of Yorick’s skull renders the skull a memento mori, though as a skull at grave-digging, it’s an obvious death’s head.

In John Donne’s “A Valediction Of My Name, In The Window” he muses on his name scratched in a window pane, and writes:

 

Or if too hard and deep
This learning be, for a scratch’d name to teach,
It as a given death’s head keep,
Lovers’ mortality to preach ;
Or think this ragged bony name to be
My ruinous anatomy (ll. 19–24).

Here Donne transforms his engraved signature to a death’s-head, an “anatomy,” in another skeletal reference, and, in later verses, as a talisman to ward off other would-be-lovers pursuing Donne’s beloved after his death. Even more contemporary poets use the memento mori topos; see Billy Collins’ “Memento Mori”:

There is no need for me to keep a skull on my desk,
to stand with one foot up on the ruins of Rome,
or wear a locket with the sliver of a saint’s bone.

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.

Shakespeare’s Quartos, Digitized

The British Library has digitized its collection of 93 copies of the 21 plays by Shakespeare printed in quarto before the theatres were closed in 1642. Shakespeare’s plays appear to have been first printed in 1594. Titus Andronicus was probably the first one. Eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays were published in quarto editions before he died in 1616. Quartos are small and very portable (think modern paperback) books that were made by folding a large sheet of paper into quarters. The first collected “official” printing of Shakespeare’s plays was the 1623 “first folio” edition of 36 plays by Shakespeare. The first folio was a production of Shakespeare’s friends, including actors from his company. The quartos are important because they’re typically the earliest, and hence presumably closest to Shakespeare’s own, versions of the plays. Some of them appear to have been versions that were edited for specific audiences, like the so-called “bad quartos” of Hamlet.