The art of making and using invisible ink, James Daybell informs us, was both described in printed books of secrets and manuscript recipe books and practised by letter-writers in early modern England (pp. 166–8). Ingredients such as vinegar, urine, and the juice of oranges, lemons and onions were used to write covert messages in letters that could only be revealed through the application of water, heat or a fine powder like coal dust. During his imprisonment in the Tower of London in the late 1590s, the Jesuit priest John Gerard employed orange juice to write – with a quill toothpick – secret messages to friends outside. While acting as a spy in the 1580s, Thomas Rogers regularly used invisible ink in letters to Sir Francis Walsingham and Sir Henry Palavicino. Through these examples and many more, Daybell – as if applying a pinch of coal dust – makes visible the materiality of invisible ink, revealing the physical properties of a substance which concealed its physical presence. Indeed, as a whole The Material Letter in Early Modern England might be said to render the invisible visible. Daybell’s ‘material readings’ of the early modern letter in its almost infinite variety of forms draw attention to and elucidate the significance of a wide range of material characteristics that are obscured by both modern printed editions of letters and studies that focus on these documents’ ‘literariness’ rather than their physical features. From the outset, the book urges the importance of letters’ material details, including those that cannot be transcribed or categorised as text. Take, for example, the sketch of a gallows on the address leaf of a 1601 letter from Sir Robert Cecil to Sir Francis Darcy, a document which adorns the front cover of Daybell’s book and supplies his opening case study. Positioned below the words ‘post hast hast hast for life life life lyfe’, the drawing was probably intended to communicate the urgency of the letter to a partially literate bearer (p. 6; also see p. 142). While such details are not always a matter of life and death, they are, Daybell demonstrates, worthy of scholarly attention.
Daybell has produced ‘the first full-length monograph study of manuscript letters and the culture and social practices of letter-writing in early modern England’ (p. 10). He concentrates on a period that begins in 1512, when Sir Brian Tuke became Henry VIII’s Master of the Posts, and ends in 1635, when Charles I issued a proclamation that opened up the royal post service to private correspondence. This period witnessed many important changes in epistolary culture, including ‘a significant extension of letter-writing skills throughout society, an expansion in the range of uses to which letters were put and significant developments in epistolary theory and practices’ (p. 10). Daybell’s material approach aligns him with Alan Stewart, Jonathan Gibson and others whose work highlights the importance of material aspects of letters, as well as bibliographers and other interpreters of texts that have demonstrated the need to consider ‘the material meanings of texts’ in early modern studies more generally (pp. 14–15).(1) Daybell draws extensively on these and many other secondary sources, but also on his own published work, for he has already effectively demonstrated the advantages of attending to letters’ materiality elsewhere.(2) Readers of The Material Letter are never allowed to forget that the epistle was not just a genre but a thing, an object that generated – and, in the case of extant letters, continues to generate – meanings through complex, variable and interrelated material signs. Having consulted over 10,000 manuscript letters as well as a great variety of other primary sources in both manuscript and print, Daybell transports us into the archive as he examines physical characteristics of letters such as ink, handwriting, watermarks, chain lines, folds and wax seals. His general observations about epistolary culture and practices are always reinforced by references to specific letters, which he analyses through diverse bibliographical techniques, including codicology (the physical description of manuscripts), palaeography (the study of handwriting), sigillography (the study of seals) and diplomatics (the study of documents). And this is not materiality for materiality’s sake. Daybell shows that thorough investigations of letters’ physical features extend our understanding of what he calls the ‘social materiality’ of the letter, that is, ‘the social and cultural practices of manuscript letters and the material conditions and contexts in which they were produced, disseminated and consumed’ (p. 230). It is largely for this reason that Daybell is justified in identifying his interdisciplinary engagement with the materiality of the letter as ‘a mode of analysis that complements traditional historical and literary approaches, as well as more recent linguistic and gender-based analyses’ (p. 229). Whatever their particular focus and methodology, future studies of early modern letters will doubtless be indebted to this groundbreaking work.
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