Early Modern Post

The Hand of the Author


Last week, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who wants to become a documentary film maker on the subject of the fallacy of objective truth in story-telling, and of the merits of ‘fessing up to a subjective approach or attempting to obscure the presence of the story-teller. The subject was equally relevant to our respective aims of becoming something of a narrator, whether in modern documentaries or historical research.

Erasmus pens a quick letter

I had been writing on the very same topic earlier that day, in work defending my methodology centred around using archival detail and analysis of early modern handwriting to support inferences on the possible motivations of compilers of sixteenth century diplomatic letter-books. I had quoted handwriting expert and scholar Tom Davis in discussion of the lack of, and arguable lack of need for, certainty in historical narrative, and reproduce it here:

‘Scholarship about the past is not scientific: one cannot rerun the past in laboratory conditions in order to test predictions about it. History has few certainties: it is a structure of probabilities and possibilities and conjectures that would not meet the exacting standards required by a court of law or a forensic science laboratory, but does not have to.’[1]

One might wonder whether it is wise to accept, and even draw attention to, the potential weaknesses and lack of certainty in one’s argument, but I would argue that here and in the wider world, this is not only acceptable but our real responsibility as would-be figures of authority, that is, as setters of narrative.

That is not to say that a weak argument is defensible, only that a strong one does not need to close the door on development or even partial refutation. How does this philosophy hold when one uses methodologies founded in the scientific world, in this case, the ‘forensic’ analysis of handwriting? This approach can be extremely tempting for scholars: it seems to promise hard evidence and perhaps scientifically-grounded ‘fact’ of the type rare in the pursuit of the 400-year old life experience.

Concurrently, it exposes one’s argument particularly keenly: what can be proved can surely be disproved? However, rather than seeking or claiming watertight proof, perhaps we should aim in identifying hands to a personal certainty, where we are as confident as we can be, and also use hand identification in conjunction with other evidence in order to persuade the reader.

Davis may deny the need for the ‘exacting standards’ of a legal court (which also obviously uses handwriting identification), but what standards, then, should we adhere to in an historical context?

Mark Taviner in his PhD on sixteenth century diplomat and adviser Robert Beale comments on how an extreme familiarity with certain hands, built up over years of dedicated archival research, has been the casual methodology of great Renaissance scholars, but is not such an easy, or authoritative, method to mimic as a student or early career researcher.[2]

The hand-writing of diplomat Thomas Wilkes?

Taking inspiration from Davis and forensic graphologists, he makes a rather wonderful suggestion: listing references for known examples of handwriting for various statesmen, where each example is in printable format, he suggests scholars create their own reference book of hands, to be carried to the archives, ready to be flicked through when needed. Perhaps the access and space provided by the internet can develop this further, and someone can create an open-contribution database of common hands to provide a quick and easy, and authoritative, reference point…

We should argue our theories and narratives with well-founded conviction, the kind of conviction that comes from knowing your evidence as well as you possibly can (perhaps to the point of making your own Renaissance hands cheat-sheet). Yet this should not lead us to pretend that we have uncovered an objective narrative that was lying in wait for us like a Pompeii under ash or a Viking hoard underground. We uncover facts and likelihoods like archaeological treasure; putting these into a narrative unavoidably involves mediation and interpretation, and we should not erase our own presence in this process.

The same applies for anyone wanting to persuade the public, whether specialists in a certain field or lay persons: we must remain aware that anything beyond bare fact is someone’s, perhaps our own, version of events, and even that bare facts are also subjective, in that their selection necessarily excludes other information. Fear the fundamentalist narrative wherever you find it; accept pluralism. This post echoes previous ones in its message, but – my hands are up – it is only because the subject is on my mind, and it bears telling twice: liberally season the information you consume with a proverbial sprinkling of salt; it tastes better that way.

[1] Tom Davis, ‘The Practice of Handwriting Identification’ in The Library: The Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, Volume 8, Number 3, September 2007, pp. 251-276.  p269

[2] Mark Taviner, ‘Robert Beale and the Elizabethan Polity’, Unpublished PhD. Thesis, (St. Andrews, 2000)


4 thoughts on “The Hand of the Author

  1. Accepting pluralism is the key to this. If someone dislikes a methodology or indeed refutes an interpretation, especially keenly felt in case of narrative, then they too can access the original documentation and look for themselves.

    Knowing our limitations as historians and making them public is very important. We know when we have crossed the boundary between fact and fiction and as long as we own up to that grey-cloudy area, we can rest assured we have done the best we can.

    Historians are human and our human instincts must be allowed to play a part.

    Many thanks for your post,

    Steve Garnett

  2. Thanks for your comment, Steve; I agree entirely. Pluralism, honesty and good referencing is our armoury here. I often find that the grey-cloudy area is where the most interesting and exciting things are found; if we stuck to black and white our narratives would be rather boring, and I’ll bet quite short. I like the idea of allowing our human instincts a part in research – it’s a nice thought.

  3. It may be bad form to keep commenting on one’s own blog, but I thought it would be a good space to respond to @HistoryNeedsYou’s great suggestions from twitter.

    ”Reading it again, a technological solution springs to mind. Professional writers of the C16th & C17th were generally very consistent and even in their script. It would be relatively easy to create auto-recognition s/w using existing resources an analysis of ‘hands’ has been done on many documents such as Domesday etc, your idea would be very useful I would also like to know if there were writers who were in the habit of varying their script for different uses i.e. Chancery or Secretary, or whether they tended to stick to one hand for all their writing” (by @HistoryNeedsYou)

    Some thoughts in response: I have wondered about auto-recognition s/w before, but I’m afraid I really don’t know enough about its capabilities to judge. However, my impression is that it’s not exactly fool-proof, and takes a while to ‘learn’ someone’s hand – this might end up being a case of the result not being worth a lengthy and tricky process. I would be very keen to be proved wrong though! Some writers are also particularly difficult to decipher (merchant Otwell Smith and diplomat William Herle are nigh impossible), and I wonder if software could cope. It might be more possible for more regular hands, but then again the less ‘individual’ and more scribal the hand, the more difficult it would be to distinguish authorship. I would love to know if anyone has had a go with this?

    I don’t know of the Domesday hand project, but it sounds very interesting. There are definitely resources on identifying specific hands out there, though perhaps more so in the literary world (I’m thinking of Petti’s ‘English Literary Hands from Chaucer to Dryden’) and fewer for early modern statesmen and diplomats. To create an Elizabethan ‘adminstrative hands’ resource would be so useful – to me at least!

    Finally, about different hands for different occasions – yes, as I understand it, professional scribes and (in my experience) other letter-writers were able to use different scripts, and did. Usually this is a matter of using an italic hand for emphasis, titles and often proper nouns, and a secretary (or secretary with italic features) as a ‘normal’ administrative hand. You can see this in the Wilkes extract – ‘Monnsr Caron’ is in an italic script.

    Thanks for your stimulating comments, feel free to add more, and I do hope you don’t mind me reproducing your tweets here!

  4. The software that I am referring too is designed for recognizing styles of script rather than being optical character recognition. Once a good range of hands had been converted to vectors and added to the database, scanning in a few clear letters would give it enough ‘ammunition’ to work.
    The software would only work when there are consistent unique characteristics for it to latch upon. It does not need to be able to decipher what a script says, just be able to recognise the shapes of letters.

    Try picking one distinctive letter and comparing it across several hands to see if enough variation exists. Character recognition software is now well-established but outside of CSI et al, I am not aware if it has ever been used for historical research.

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