Social Media in Manuscript

I’m a big fan of Tom Standage’s History of the World in Six Glasses and Edible History of Humanity, so I was excited to get my hands on a copy of his new book, Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years. The premise, which is almost relentlessly topical, is that until the nineteenth century most news and knowledge passed not in mass produced publications but in what we would call peer-to-peer networks: individuals sharing news, or collecting information from those they knew. It’s a fairly slight idea, but Standage digs deep to come up with interesting examples of “social media” through the ages.

Take, for example, the Devonshire Manuscript, a collection of original poems, notes, and copied texts that seems to have been passed among a group of young nobles at the court of Henry VIII. The Manuscript included contributions, signed or anonymous, by Margaret Douglas, Mary Shelton, Sir Thomas Wyatt, and – perhaps – Anne Boleyn, the queen. (There’s on ongoing editing project on the manuscript at Wikibooks.)

While the Devonshire Manuscript is unusual for having so many contributors, each taking an equal role in its creation, handwritten miscellanies were common in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. These “commonplace books” were private notebooks where readers wrote down interesting bits of information they read or heard. Though usually the work of one writer, commonplace books also passed between readers, each of whom might also write comments.

One of my classmates at Ohio State University, Sarah Shippey, digitized one of those books for the OSU Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Henry Bellingham’s Book was a miscellany compiled by the English lawyer and MP Sir Henry Bellingham in the seventeenth century and three or four other writers, at least two writing after his death. They copied down notes on science (“Whether the Water or the Fire be the more Excellent Element?”), politics (“Mr. Pym’s speech after the charges against the Earle of Strafford”), and history (“A Table of the Lines of Succession in the Brittish history”), as well as various miscellaneous odds and edds.

Handwritten collections were still circulating in the late nineteenth century, even if less frequently than before. When I was doing research for my dissertation at the Manchester Central Library I found several issues of the “manuscript magazine” of the St. Paul’s Literary and Educational Society, which was exactly what it sounds like: a magazine with short stories and non-fiction articles, all written out in a beautiful handwriting rather than printed.

Writing On the Wall takes the story of these circulating manuscripts and puts it alongside Roman scriptoria, newsletters, pamphlets, and the first scholarly journals to create an entertaining account of the many types of media that preceded the mass media and are now thriving again.


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