bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Postcard from Harvard IX: the genius of Esther Inglis

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 23 May, 2018

You will all have had the experience of sending postcards late in a trip, with them arriving at their destination after your own return. You may even have travelled home with them and put them in a postbox round from your house. The last two postcards to result from my time as a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Houghton Library fall into this latter category, in as much as I am now in Oxford again and the warmth of my hosts in Cambridge MA is only a memory. In the case of both this post and the next, however, all the work was done across the pond, in the Yard of Harvard.

This penultimate instalment allows me to discuss an early modern scribe whom I met for the first time three or four years ago, in Christ Church, Oxford. I was handed a small volume, with a needlework binding, which I — like anybody else I have known who has looked at it — at first assumed was a printed book: it had all the presentational features of one, and the words looked too regular to be by any human hand. But turn over the pages and you realise that the plurality of styles of letters offered from opening to opening was just too various to be the work of a machine. Nor did the volume make any secret of how and when it was produced: it announced that it had been created in Edinburgh in 1599, for Elizabeth I of England, by the pen of Esther Inglis. I was smitten, and delighted that part of my role in the catalogue of Christ Church’s manuscripts assigned to be by the Keeper of Special Collections, Cristina Neagu, was to write a full description of the book, their MS. 180. It is now fully digitised, and the description is also on-line (though it is undeniably easier to read in the hard-copy volume, which is richly illustrated and ridiculously cheap for those joining the Oxford Bibliographical Society).

There has been much good work on Inglis, which has reconstructed her career and her oeuvre, as well as (more recently) thinking about the place of gender in the identity she projected. It is known that she was the daughter of Huguenot émigrés who settled in Edinburgh and that she was first taught to write by her mother. To say that she essayed the panoply of scripts proposed for emulation by men like Jean de Beauchesne is to understate her achievement  — her mastery went beyond that of any writing master. She was also prolific: from a career of about forty years, just over sixty examples of her work survive. Five of those are now in the Houghton Library. I could not pass up the opportunity to deepen my acquaintance with her and to study all of those while I was there. It was also relevant because a future project is forming in my mind, which will consider the transformation of bookhands after print, with Inglis as the endpoint of the discussion. What I discussed in the last post, on Beauchesne, and in this one will act as a first trial for some of the ideas I am developing. I will express these thoughts through a comparison between Christ Church’s MS. 180 and one of those at the Houghton, their MS. Typ. 212, which is also available on-line. It is a volume made in 1606 and, like the earlier one relates to the Book of Psalms — that made for Elizabeth providing the text in French, while the one at Harvard, presented to Thomas Egerton, England’s Lord Chancellor, has a set of Latin verse summaries of each Psalm.

Both similarities and differences between the two manuscripts are immediately apparent. They contrast in basics like the format, the later one preferring an oblong style to the upright rectangle of the earlier one. They share some text — the commendatory verses celebrating Esther Inglis and her skill are the same in both. The connexions and the distance between them is perhaps best summed up in two images:

Oxford: Christ Church, MS. 180, fol. viii.

Cambridge: Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 212, fol. 9v.



This comparison would suggest that the scribe’s self-presentation is essentially constant except with a move from monochrome to colour. There is a truth to that, though it hides a life-defining change for Esther: between the production of the two manuscripts, she became a mother. We do not know the exact date, but her child, Samuel, graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1618, and so probably went up to university in 1615 – when his mother gave him a ‘thumb Bible’ of her own making which is also now at the Houghton (MS. Typ. 49 – remember when you look at it that each page is 46 x 32mm). As the age of matriculation was often between about twelve and fifteen, Samuel’s birth probably took place in the very first years of the seventeenth century, and, indeed, at that point there is a hiatus in Inglis’s scribal work.

It may be coincidental but I also sense an increased manipulation of her gender as part of her identity in the volume produced after her son’s birth. One element that I found interesting in the life of the 1599 manuscript was how it was part of a group of books that she made as gifts to leading figures in England, addressed to them in her name but to be delivered not by her — she remained in Scotland — but by her husband Bartholomew Kello. All the more striking, he himself was not permitted to present the gift for Elizabeth I but had to pass it to his patron, Anthony Bacon, who was himself a client of the earl of Essex. These specifics reinforce our established understanding of the intersections of gender hierarchies with those of social status, but a further detail caught my attention as I read the letters by Kello which allows us to reconstruct the narrative and which now live in the British Library: his script is fairly close to one variety practised by his wife, and it raised in my mind the question of whether she might have trained or influenced her husband’s writing.

I do not have a definitive answer to that, but a feature of the 1606 manuscript is relevant to this observation. In that volume, as in the earlier one, Esther inserts herself not just by a self-portrait and by transcription of verses in praise of herself, but by providing a dedication letter to the recipient, in French. What is different in 1606 is that this is followed by a second letter to the dedicatee, this one in Latin verse and signed at the end with the name of Bartholomew Kello. In other words, this manuscript presents itself as the result of a marital alliance. What is most notable, however, is that Bartholomew himself, though a competent penman, does not write ‘his’ letter: it is clear that Esther is the scribe and so his self-presentation is entrusted to her hands. What is on display here, in other words, is the product of a wife-husband team.

We might see this as going a little way to counter-balancing the prevalent social norms of gender relations. We might also want to interpret what follows in the manuscript as expressive of a particularly feminine identity, the range of delicately written scripts set off, on every recto, by the painting, in colour, of a flower (occasionally with a tenderly depicted animal). Perhaps there is an element of that, but I think the more significant intention is also a more complex one. Some of these images replicate and all (I would suggest) echo the title-page of the volume, where they form a border placed on a gold background.

Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 212, fol. 1.

What I find interesting here is that the style of illumination harks back to one that was popular a century earlier. Let me direct your attention to just one set of examples, in manuscripts produced for Thomas Wolsey near the end of the 1520s, and so a relatively late but particularly fine instance of the style. It would seem that Esther Inglis has become acquainted with manuscripts in this mode and was keen to engage with them. The result was essentially archaising (in that fecund term of Malcolm Parkes) and that, I would suggest, was her conscious purpose. The change between 1599 and 1606 was that Inglis had moved forward from creating a manuscript that looked identical to a printed book (but better) by looking beyond print and back to the tradition of manuscript-making. She presented herself as that tradition’s inheritrix.

As that final noun demonstrates, her identity as a ‘rarissima foemina’ (as she is called in one of the laudatory verses), was entwined with her role as a witness to the continuing possibilities of scribal production. Against the pattern of mechanical book-making in a printing-house, where men’s muscles mattered as much as their minds, her work hints at a different model of creativity, not one of a single female genius but of a family unit — a family unit, however, where the woman takes her central role. The 1606 volume ends with a motif of a crowned laurel wreath, with crossed pens and the motto ‘Vive la Plume’. In ribald humour, ‘la plume’ can be the penis, but who gives birth to that? A traditional talent, displaced in the brave new world of a mechanised economy, has to be protected and to be nurtured to survive for the next generation. The implication is that for the pen to flow, it needs the generative power of a woman, a wife, a mother.

Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 212, fol. 100.