Courtesy of Morgan Colman

In a new exhibition at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, curators are aiming to breathe new life into a 500-year-old topic: Early Modern English manuscripts.

“Subscribed: The Manuscript in Britain, 1500–1800,” seeks to showcase the current relevance of early modern British manuscripts. The exhibition’s opening reception will occur Jan. 24 from 5 to 7 p.m. and will be on view until April 19. The exhibition is comprised of three smaller exhibits curated by Kathryn James, curator of early modern books and manuscripts at the Beinecke, Eve Houghton GRD ’24 and 18 guest critics.

“As a curator, the focus has to be on interesting people,” James said. “How do we ensure that there will be an audience 20 years from now, 50 years from now, 100 years from now?”

At 5 p.m. on April 1, Houghton will  deliver a lecture on her exhibit “Pastime with Good Company: Writing and Leisure in Early Modern England.” Other events related to “Subscribed” can be found on the Yale Program in the History of the Book website, under “Events.”

When putting together her exhibit, “Paper Businesses: Manuscript and Power in Early Modern England,” James said she was preoccupied with ensuring that future audiences would not only be able to engage with these manuscripts, but that they would want to. According to James, manuscripts from this time period share traits that often discourage people from engaging with them — like the often illegible cursive font, the antiquated language and cultural barriers to understanding. Because of this, curators must work to make such barriers fade, while asserting the texts’ current relevance.

In order to do that, the curators made efforts to compare Early Modern English poetry to memes, characterize common people from the early modern era and unravel systems of power and oppression.

Houghton’s exhibit showcases a variety of plays and poems that either present quotidian forms of literary entertainment during the period or exemplify the circulation of “viral” ideas. The poems represent these historically recurring subject matters, and demonstrate the intricacies of Early Modern English humor. One subject is Thomas Hobson, who was Cambridge University’s mailman. Hobson’s death in the early 1630s triggered a wave of poems elucidating upon his life, including two written by John Milton.

Another trope in Early Modern English poetry surrounds an incident in which Sir John Croke farted before Parliament. This incident, known as the “Parliament Fart,” became a widely popular subject for ballads. Houghton says she included this poem not only because the Beinecke has many manuscripts discussing the “Parliament Fart,” but also because it illustrates how communities formed around poems during this period.

“Subscribed” also touches upon what it meant to be a professional writer in the early modern period. Many of the manuscripts on display were copied not with the printing press, but by hand. Copying text by hand provided an obstacle to a text’s dissemination. One book featured in the exhibition is a collection of John Donne’s poems. These poems circulated only via scribe publication after Donne deemed his own poems too sexual and transgressive to be published in print. Nevertheless, these poems circulated, earning Donne not one cent.

“Subscribed” also looks at the idea of the facade in early modern manuscripts. Just as scribes wrote in the same hand as their predecessors, making their position appear anonymous and interchangeable, England hid behind handwriting as if it were a mask. According to James, England’s royal scribes used Copperplate script for its government documents, presenting a unified face to foreign countries. James referred to Copperplate script as “essentially the hand of British bureaucracy.”

In another series of manuscripts, a young man used Shakespeare’s hand to forge a series of letters.

The power structures of early modern England emerge throughout “Subscribed” in these themes. In his diary, Thomas Thistlewood, an 18th-century planter and slave owner, chronicles the management of his slaves and wealth. The meticulous diary spans 45 years and goes so far as to record weather conditions. The manuscript documents England’s wealth production and is a bloody testament to the backs upon which the country built its empire. Contemporary Enlightenment texts often discussed the morality of slavery, and Thistlewood’s musings about these texts are bound alongside his descriptions of his sexual relationships with slaves and methods for allocating provisions among them.

A case devoted to Virginia Woolf comments on an Early Modern English system of control. Woolf specialist and associate professor of comparative literature Marta Figlerowicz plays upon Woolf’s theme in “A Room of One’s Own” that, had Shakespeare had an equally gifted sister, she would have been denied the equal opportunity to develop her talents.

Another case holds Thomas More’s psalter and book of hours bound together. More held this manuscript with him in the Tower of London as he waited to be executed, and wrote in its margins a poem intended for his daughter. The notecards that Jonathan Edwards used while he delivered his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” are also exhibited.

“This is this remainder, this relic of a powerful moment,” James said, referring to Edwards’ manuscript.

But “Subscribed” addresses not only issues pertaining to power and the elite. The exhibition deals with the humblest aspects of life in early modern England: recipes for cake and for ink, records of purchases and pages out of accounting books. There are plays never performed outside the walls in which they were written and poems by amateur poets. The curators want viewers to look within the exhibition’s cases and see their own lives, however abstracted. Michael Morand, the Beinecke’s communications director, called the exhibition both an “exposition and invitation.”

James said she is captivated by the concept 21st-century people leaning over to regard pages written hundreds of years ago. Physically engaging with these relics animates them, she added.

“The power of that relationship is really the purpose of the manuscript collection,” said James. “50 years from now I would like to see people reading these manuscripts in an entirely different way, but still reading them.”

Annie Radillo | 


Annie Radillo covers museums and visual art. She is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College majoring in English.