Peter Beal. In Praise of Scribes: Manuscripts and their Makers in Seventeenth Century England. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1998. ISBN 0 19 818471 9.
Roy Flannagan
Ohio University

Flannagan, Roy. "Review of In Praise of Scribes." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.1 (May, 1999): 13.1-12<URL:

  1. What a lark, for a scholar: travel to all sorts of exotic places and meet powerful people; lecture only when you feel like it, and then for an appreciative audience, for real money; spend most of your time in the best libraries in the world and in the best special and private collections; work for the best-respected auction house in the world, with the best-educated and most sophisticated clientele; and never have to grade student papers. I am not sure if Peter Beal doesn't grade papers at least some of the time, or at least read manuscripts, but he certainly is Director of Printed Books and Manuscripts at Sotheby's and he certainly is allowed to do all those wonderful things I list. He is a collector in his own right, and he has compiled the indispensable Index of English Literary Manuscripts.

  2. His new book, In Praise of Scribes, looks, on the surface, to be about an inherently dull subject-copyists, scriveners, scribes; those inconsequential and anonymous people who did nothing but copy the manuscripts of more-important people. Really the book is a mystery story about anonymous people who are, historically speaking, every bit as important as those who built Chartres or Westminster Abbey, or any other exemplum of civilization. Why is it a mystery story? because we want to know, as literary critics or historians, how the scribes affected the presentation, say, of a great poem, or a letter from Sir Philip Sidney to Queen Elizabeth concerning her potential French marriage choice. Peter Beal has not been rummaging around in closets, he has been examining primary evidence in great transactions. The primary documents he is used to handling are very valuable, they are subject to suspicion for forgery (it is part of his business to detect the fakes), and their every dot or stain can be valuable.

  3. Beal begins with scriveners. Milton's father was one; they had a loosely-defined guild, the Company of Scriveners; they served as letter-writers for illiterates, they were para-legals, copyists, money-lenders, and real-estate agents; and they had a bad reputation among character-writers. They cheated widows of rents. As usurers, they were allied with the devil as they charged up to 40% interest. Like Chaucer's Pardoner, they mouthed law Latin without understanding it. They took advantage of profligate or adventurous aristocrats with more money (to begin with) than sense. They cheated for gain and were allied with Mammon in their worship of worldly goods. In their personal lives they were cheap and cheesy, being newly wealthy. They occasionally stooped to pimping. They risked their ears when they committed forgery by counterfeiting bonds. Of insects, they most resembled lice. Among lawyers, they most resembled the Renaissance version of the ambulance-chaser. "To be short," wrote Richard Head, "the Tricks and Wheedles of a Scrivener are so many, that they are innumerable" (quoted 207). Beal includes a delightful appendix, which is made up of character-study after character-study of wicked scriveners.

  4. That said, scriveners were an absolute necessity in a semi-literate seventeenth-century London which was writing legal correspondence and trading left and right, making money with money and commodities, charging irreligious interest above the legal limit of 6%. As the honorable career of Milton's father proves, a scrivener could use his bourgeois gain to set up his shop in a wealthy neighborhood in the center of town and to educate his sons to be lawyers and statesmen, gentlemen. Milton's coat of arms, a spread-eagle, was taken from the common sign not only for scriveners but for "printers, booksellers, and stationers" (11n).

  5. Beal concentrates on those unknown scriveners and copyists who worked for the great, in an era when manuscript culture was evolving into print culture. He is especially interested in a mysterious copyist whom he has named "The Feathery Scribe" or "Feathery" for short, for obvious descriptive reasons, since Feathery's secretary hand makes letters that look like the end of one of his quill pens. Feathery's manuscripts can be identified by their unmistakable flourishes in penmanship, by their sparse use of italic, by their generous spacing and wide margins and catchwords, and by their peculiar punctuation and somewhat luxurious orthography (with lots of silent "e's"-see 62). If the names Sir Robert Cotton, Sir Francis Bacon, John Selden, John Donne, Henry King, the Earl of Leicester, William Lord Burghley, or John Fisher mean much to you, Feathery copied a piece of their writing and Beal describes each bit copied and how, and why.

  6. One exciting part of Beal's work has to do with the discovery of new manuscripts and new versions of known texts, as in his second chapter, which describes the Canterbury manuscript of John Donne's Biathanatos, unknown before Beal discovered it. As Beal points out, "Canterbury contains several hundred substantive variants from the Quarto edition" (44). Beal's list of the kinds of errors scribes make is informative: "words omitted through eyeskip; words and phrases needlessly repeated (because they get lodged, as it were, in the scribe's mind); verbal misreadings resulting from inadequate attention to meaning -- the Canterbury scribe will write, for instance, 'afford' instead of 'offend', 'included' instead of 'violated', 'courage the Beasts' instead of 'corrupt the Beasts', and so on; . . . " (44). Categories of errors tell us whether or not any manuscript was under the immediate supervision of the author, as do tables of contents and marginal notes, the seventeenth-century equivalent of footnotes. An editor can trace the movement away from the author's full annotation, for instance, to its abbreviated, shorthand form in the hands of a scribe in haste to make a quota of pages and be paid.

  7. What emerges from such a close study of a manuscript version should influence the literary critic. With Biathanatos, for instance, the manuscript reveals levels of organization: paragraph-summaries, summary-sidenotes, and their links with a list of contents, all show Donne's structure and planning for the whole essay. The physical location of the text on the manuscript page, with running heads, page numbers, ruled lines to contain the text, even with catchwords, show us how close printing culture was to manuscript culture: printed texts mimicked manuscript texts, improving on them only in the right-justification of each line and in the standardized form of each letter in typefaces pleasing to the eye.

  8. Beal's research teaches editors and literary and historical scholars to look at everything on the page-errors, abbreviations, marginal material, cross-references, tables of contents and other preliminaries, indices. He teaches us to look always for the exemplar, or the original manuscript from which all others derived, and he teaches us to look at witnesses, or bits of evidence about authority.

  9. The two case studies of scribal work that Beal uses in his two concluding chapters are Sir Philip Sidney's 1579 letter to Queen Elizabeth concerning her possible marriage to Francois, Duke of Alencon and then of Anjou, her "little frog" (109); and the manuscripts of the socially insecure "Matchless Orinda," Katherine Philips.

  10. The copies of the Sidney letter, one of which came out of Feathery's scriptorum, indicate the freedom of the scribe to impose a kind of house style on the original work. In the Colbert Manuscript, for instance, "the scribe usually ignores Sidney's spelling and (admittedly sparse) punctuation," and thus "we can virtually abandon hope of recovering the author's accidentals in any text of which his original manuscript of which his original manuscript no longer exists," because scribes "felt free to follow their own habits and conventions: this was their recognized prerogative" (119).

  11. Enemies of Katherine Philips show her in the act of shameless self-promotion, seeking "approbation" sending out her own copies of poems to a select coterie (147). In his Chapter 5, Beal discusses "'The virtuous Mrs Philips' and 'that whore Castlemaine': Orinda and her apotheosis, 1664-1668," by which he means that Philips created herself as virtuous poet and made herself the "matchless Orinda" despite the bitter criticism of her enemies. From the age of nineteen, Phillips had a "keen sense of social ambition" (149). Her manuscripts were "a means of access to the beau monde itself" (149). John Taylor, from his humble origins as "Water Poet," wrote sexist invective suggesting that Philips should go hang herself, but instead he himself died in 1653. By 1663, Philips's Poems would be published in octavo, labelling her as "the incomparable, Mrs. K. P.," and by 1667 her poems were published in folio and she was called "the most deservedly Admired Mrs. Katherine Philips The matchless ORINDA" in its title (172). In 1668, Philips's apotheosis was completed when Charles II's mistress Lady Castlemaine performed in Philips's play Horace at court.

  12. Peter Beal's book is expensive, but it is in effect hand-set, or at least printed with loving care, since Beal provided something close to camera-ready copy for the Oxford typesetters to work from, and the book is lavishly illustrated, with its illustrations of manuscripts and printed texts all set conveniently next to the commentary that describes them and with side-by-side illustrations of printed texts and their manuscript counterparts. Part of the intrinsic worth of the book is that Beal is trustworthy; he deals only in verifiable primary evidence, and he has seen it all himself (I covet his frequent-flyer miles). He is extremely cautious in what he will say about artifacts he has studied; he is outspoken in disagreeing with the assessment of other editors or bibliographers; yet he gives praise where he thinks praise is due, when it is earned, and he has the best kind of scholarly humility and understatement. He is also an excellent detective, which is why he is so valuable to Sotheby's as an assessor and so valuable to us as a lucid writer about important little things that most scholars do not think about.

Work Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, Lisa Hopkins(Editor, EMLS).