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Posts Tagged ‘history’

We’re deep into the current election cycle now, and I urge every one of us to get out and vote.

I also encourage us all to think a bit about what we’re voting for and why. We all hear talk—from candidates, from pundits, from friends and family—of what America “is.” We hear that this election (like so may previous elections) is a “battle for the soul of our nation.” But what does that mean?

What is America?

For my right-wing relations, their answer to that question is very dissimilar to mine, and we quite unhappily go ’round and ’round about the nature of religion, government, and civil rights in our nation. But who’s right? Are any of us right? What did the framers really mean when they drafted our founding documents?

In short, what were they thinking?

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A while back, I performed a small experiment with old letter writing techniques. As a result, I learned a great deal about Paper, Ink, Sand, and Pounce, how they interact, and how our layperson’s cinema-informed opinions are (not unsurprisingly) quite wrong.

This week, I dove back down into that deep dark well, and began to obsess about another old letter writing technique: letterlocking.

We’ve all seen it in films set in the early 19th century and before. A letter writer takes their epistle, folds it up and, essentially, makes it into its own envelope. Some of you (like me) may have even tried it yourself, only to end up with an overly thick, bulging, thoroughly recalcitrant bundle that defies closure by any wax seal you attempt to place on it. Even with a larger piece of stationery, I’ve found the process difficult to duplicate on my own.

Until I read this article about letterlocking, which opened up a trove of information.

Letterlocking” is a relatively new word. Coined by Jana Dambrogio, the Thomas F. Peterson conservator at MIT Libraries, it lumps together the many, many different methods letter writers employed to seal their letters, back in the days before envelopes (and especially, gummed envelopes) were a thing.

While studying letters in the Vatican archives, Dambrogio noticed curious patterns of folds, slits, and excisions in the documents and began to catalogue them. Fresh out of graduate school, it was a while before she realized that, not only were these patterns new to her, they were new to everyone. It soon became clear that all of these marks and seals were not just methods of authentication (using a personal seal to emboss wax or the paper itself could authenticate the sender), but also ways of securing the contents, keeping them from prying eyes. 

Some methods are simple. A few folds and a wax seal are all that is needed to keep a casual letter from being perused by an unintended reader.

Other methods are very complex, with intricate folds, tucking one edge into another, or cutting slits in the letter through which paper daggers are drawn and sealed. My favorite (so far) is the method used by Robert Devereux in a letter to Queen Elizabeth I (ca. 1590), where a “tail” cut from (yet left attached to) the letter is sent through a series of punched holes, essentially stitching the letter closed with part of the letter itself. I haven’t tried this method myself—the paper I have available is not as strong (or large) as that used in the 16th century—but I’m going to, and soon.

So, here’s yet another topic I can add to my list of Proofs I Should Have Been A Museum Conservator, as the idea of spending decades studying not the words of old letters, but the way in which they had been folded and sealed, simply thrills me. 

If you want to know more about letterlocking, Dambrogio and team have a website that includes a history of their project, a dictionary of terms, and a collection of videos showing how the various methodsfrom the 1400s to 1960were employed.

I know that I’ll be spending several more hours over there, learning and testing the methods, with plans to use them in my own letters.

k

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Some may find it odd that I, a guy who makes his living dealing with data, computers, bugs, and code, am such a fan of low-tech.

It’s not that I dislike technology—I don’t, and I have the phones, tablets, and game consoles to prove it—but while technology has made the lives of millions safer, easier, and more pleasant, it’s also taken us away from our roots, separating our connection to the physical world around us.

Alexander Langlands, an archaeologist who has worked uncovering Britain’s history for decades, thinks much the same way, and in his book, Cræft, he explores some of the most basic skills in human history, skills that require us to touch the world with our hands, and that are intimately tied to our environments and ecosystems. Through historical context and personal experimentation, Langlands shows us how tasks that, today, we might deem very simple—tasks such as digging a trench, weaving cloth, making hay, and thatching a roof—actually require broad experiential knowledge to master. He uses cræft, the Old English of the word craft, to highlight the change in the word’s meaning over the centuries. (more…)

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What do a fork, a model of a ship, and a priest’s right eye have in common?

No, they’re not props from a horror movie.

They’re all objects discussed in Neil MacGregor’s book, Shakespeare’s Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects.

As readers of this blog know, I have a bit of a fascination with Shakespeare, so this book is right in my wheelhouse. The subtitle gave me a general idea of what I was getting, but what I didn’t expect was such a fascinating overview of  life in the late Elizabethan/early Jacobean periods.

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, takes a disparate collection of 16th century objects–ranging from the everyday to the unique–and gives us a chapter on each one. Naturally, he describes each object, its history, its use, and its provenance, but this is all expected content. The lavish photos of the objects themselves (as well as related items) are clear, detailed, and beautiful, but each chapter really shines when MacGregor expands the discussion beyond the basics, showing us the social context of each item. Through MacGregor’s clean, unhurried prose, we learn what each object might have meant to the average groundling in the pit or noble in the tiers. An apprentice’s cap, for instance, looks simply like a cap to us, but if you were one of the Queen’s subjects on the streets of London in 1600, it would tell you of the wearer’s social standing, might remind you of the apprentice-led riots over food prices. Later, when you went to The Rose or The Curtain to see Coriolanus, and saw the cap-wearing citizens berating Menenius over the high cost of corn, you would remember those riots, and know that things might get very ugly, very quickly.

The list of objects MacGregor has chosen is, as I mentioned, varied. He discusses a fork used to eat sweetmeats in the same detail and depth as he does the model ship used as a token, built in thanks by James I for his safe passage home from abroad. Each object is inspected both as a thing from within Shakespeare’s world–i.e., as relates to his plays and the world of the theater–as well as within his world at large. In reading this book, I learned a great deal about the lives and the mindsets of Shakespeare’s patrons, high-born and low, but also expanded my understanding of the period and its conflicts.

This book was of great interest to me, as you might expect, but I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone interested in history, the history of objects, and the tumultuous, change-filled period of late Elizabethan/early Jacobean England.

Oh, and that priest’s right eye?

Get the book.

k

Brickwork

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