Skill and Handwriting

This exploration of early modern skill in handwriting comes from Hannah Lilley, who joins the project as a Postdoctoral Research Associate this month and is based at the University of Birmingham.

My first post for this blog approaches one of the project’s keywords: skill. This term, and how to interpret it, is something I’ve been thinking about over the course of my PhD on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scribes writing for a living and their material, spatial and social practices. Although skill can be read into any number of activities, I’m going to focus on writing, specifically handwriting. Literacy ‘as learned and embodied skill, and as a site of cultural connection’ has already been established in a previous post as a ‘mark of middling status’, alongside other activities. Knowing how to write could lead to gaining office and entry into administrative roles, and many of those middling sorts emerging for this project are those with the literacy to participate in record creation (though this could be artisanal, in the form of craft and the material record, as well as textually…). 

What is it?

The OED defines skill in multiple ways, including: ‘to have discrimination or knowledge […] in a specified matter’ (5a) and to possess ‘capability of accomplishing something with precision and certainty; practical knowledge in combination with ability; cleverness, expertness. Also an ability to perform a function, acquired or learnt with practice’ (6a).[1] These definitions establish skill as a term that can be applied to any number of activities: from baking to walking to storytelling to shopping. What is clear is that skill is usually applied positively to denote someone who has spent time learning, honing and practising an activity to develop the ‘discrimination’ or ‘knowledge’ to be perceived as holding expertise. Outside perception and judgement is essential to an understanding of a person as skilled, and this could take place in a commercial transaction – when commissioning work or buying a product, for example – or through sharing space with a person performing a task.

Speaking Skill

There are, however, multiple methodological issues when it comes to discussing skill. For example:

  1. Skill is expressed through action and so it might be difficult for the actor to verbalise how they do a task/ it does not need to be passed on in writing or through speech.[2]
  2. Skill’s definition rests on those perceiving the result of an action as practised and, as such, is subjective and dependent on multiple factors such as: age, gender, geographical location, education, and purpose. Skill is also entwined with moral, political and economic value judgements.
  3. Environmental factors could play a role in its development/ expression: access to materials, spaces, and social networks.

Handwriting

When thinking about these issues and handwriting, then, here are a few questions (of many) that come up, and I’m going to think about a couple of them later in this post:

  • How is skill individual and how is it social?
  • How might it be local or national?
  • What role does gender or social status have on perception of handwriting skill?/ Can we describe a skill as being ‘middling’?
  • How does it develop within different spaces (workshops, homes, classrooms etc.)?
  • How might perceptions of practical skill be entwined with abstract concepts?
  • How can practice be interpreted?

Interpreting Practice Using Image Processing

One of the methods I’ve been using to explore questions around individual and social skill in handwriting is a digital approach called Image Processing, alongside a digital forensic handwriting analysis expert Dr Richard Guest. Although this is preliminary research with regards to using Image Processing to analyse sixteenth- and seventeenth-century handwriting practices, it does show promise as a means of exploring similarities and differences between demographic groups of scribes as well as between individuals. I used letterforms as a means of comparison (imperfect, but a good way of seeing whether the method works before moving onto full words) and some interesting interpretations of handwriting practice came out of the data.

To give a brief example, one of the experiments was on clerks working in the Kentish town of Lydd 1560-1640. I looked at how their handwriting practices changed over the period and thought about how this relates to changing perceptions of what constitutes handwriting skill in the town at this time. The examples below are from some of the simpler measurements applied to the letterforms – area and perimeter – and the charts show both the median and mean results.

Chart 1 showing mean area (in pixels) of samples of letterforms for Lydd clerks (earliest to latest) [sample for letter y doesn’t cover full period]. More information in my thesis: Interpreting Practice: Scribes, Materials and Occupational Identities 1560-1640.
Chart 2 showing median area (in pixels) of samples of letterforms for Lydd clerks (earliest to latest) [sample for letter y doesn’t cover full period]. More information in my thesis: Interpreting Practice: Scribes, Materials and Occupational Identities 1560-1640.
Chart 3 showing mean perimeter (in pixels) of samples of letterforms for Lydd clerks (earliest to latest) [sample for letter y doesn’t cover full period]. More information in my thesis: Interpreting Practice: Scribes, Materials and Occupational Identities 1560-1640.
Chart 4 showing median perimeter (in pixels) of samples of letterforms for Lydd clerks (earliest to latest) [sample for letter y doesn’t cover full period]. More information in my thesis: Interpreting Practice: Scribes, Materials and Occupational Identities 1560-1640.

Charts One to Four are brief examples showing a clear change in handwriting practices in Lydd across the period, with the majuscules for the earliest three clerks having mean and median values that far exceed the measurements for the later three clerks, meaning that the three earlier clerks are using much larger letterforms. This demonstrates a change in attitude towards letterform size over the late sixteenth into the early seventeenth century and is one example of how we might think about practical skill as being social. Collectively, the clerks in Lydd show a trend towards smaller letterforms. Furthermore, these clerks are all of middling status, literate and play an important role in their corporation. Skill at writing has enabled them to become part of their community’s record creation. There is more to be done here, and more in my recently completed thesis – but this is just a glimpse into how a digital method can be used to approach non-verbalised practical skill.

Moralising Handwriting Skill

The aesthetic expectations for handwriting during this period included: script style appropriate to document type, purpose, or context, and this is one of the ways in which we might understand what scribes thought constituted skill at writing during this period. For example, mastery of chancery hand was essential for clerks working at the chancery court. Beyond this, there were plenty of printed prescriptive texts circulating during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, extolling the importance of fair handwriting and good practice. Although these present problems with regards to gaining insight into actual scribal practices because they are prescriptive texts, they do give information about how handwriting skill was connected to positive individual qualities.

Image 1. John De Beauchasne and John Baildon, A Booke Containing Diverse Sorts of Hands (1571). Italic hand example. Text: It is the part of a yonge man to reuerence his elders, and of suche/ to choose out the beste and moste commended whose counsayle/ and auctoritie hee maye leane vnto: For the vnskilfulnesse of/ tender yeares myst by old mens experience be ordered & gouern.

Although there are many examples of this in printed handwriting texts, the example in Image 1 is from John De Beauchasne’s and John Baildon’s A Booke Containing Diverse Sorts of Hands. Here, the handwriting exemplar for the starting-out scribe carries a moral message about revering and respecting elders and being governed by their experience. Due to the audience for this text likely being students at home or in the grammar school, the message for the ‘yonge man’ is pertinent. Furthermore, there is an example of a young middling scribe using this text to learn to write in Ann Bowyer, Elias Ashmole’s mother, whose commonplace book (Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 51) includes exercises drawn from this text. Consequently, good handwriting practice would also likely involve close attention to moral sentiments, connecting skill at writing to good character (something which instructional texts – such as Peter Bales’, The Writing Scholemaster – do very explicitly).

As such, for literate middling sorts of scribes, who would have likely gained their initial education in literacy at grammar school, at home, and at church, mastering scripts would have been important not only to their future employment but also to the way in which they may have been perceived by their social network. An example of this is can be seen in the chamberlain’s accounts for Lydd, where the town clerk until 1574, John Heblethwaite, scribes the accounts because the chamberlains are ‘unlearned’. He goes on to state in his will that he has written it ‘with my owne hand welleknowne’ demonstrating how important his handwriting becomes to his social standing – it leaves a recognisable mark.[3]

Writing not only rested on forming words in a legible and aesthetically appropriate manner and learning standard formats for documents, but also involved the mastery of the tools and materials of writing including cutting a quill fit for the hand, making ink or sourcing some of good quality to buy, and choosing paper. All of these processes generated a certain perception of both the document and its scribe.[4] The material knowledge displayed by scribes is also artisanal expertise; it rests upon a relationship between the equipment used in writing and the scribes’ repeated practice with it in order to gain writing skill. 

By way of concluding this post, then, skill might be thought of as involving the dialogue between a person, materials and their social world. As these brief examples show, practice was entwined with the social world in which it was embedded, where it was entwined with the collective activities of proximate scribes and their moral, as well as practical, education.   


[1] “skill, n.1.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2019, <www.oed.com/view/Entry/180865>. Accessed 17 September 2019.

[2] For useful reflections on this point/ further reading see: John Sutton and Nicholas Keene, ‘Cognitive History and Material Culture’, The Routledge Handbook of Material Culture in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Catherine Richardson, Tara Hamling and David Gaimster (Oxford: Routledge, 2017), Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), Pamela Smith, The Body of the Artisan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), and Tim Ingold, Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture (London: Routledge, 2013).

[3] Kent History and Library Centre, LY/2/1/1/3 and PRC 31/95 S1.

[4] For letter writing, see James Daybell, The Material Letter in Early Modern England (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

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