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Archives and Information in the Early Modern World$

Kate Peters, Alexandra Walsham, and Liesbeth Corens

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266250

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266250.001.0001

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The Material Culture of Record-Keeping in Early Modern England

The Material Culture of Record-Keeping in Early Modern England

(p.179) 8 The Material Culture of Record-Keeping in Early Modern England
Archives and Information in the Early Modern World

Heather Wolfe

Peter Stallybrass

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on the material aspects of early modern filing systems—files, bundles, bags, boxes, and drawers—and their roles in the short and long-term retention of a wide range of documents. Household filing systems largely mirrored institutional ones, and yet flexible retention policies allowed for the storage of documents with evidentiary status as well as documents that serve as family history. These early filing systems are largely invisible to us now, as generations of custodians have rearranged and rehoused family papers. However, physical clues on the documents—such as holes, folds, and endorsements—as well as ‘occupational portraits’ of early modern bureaucrats and surviving ‘filing’ furniture—reveal a rich and complicated system for organising and retrieving vast quantities of paper and parchment.

Keywords:   filing, bundles, bags, boxes, drawers, string, archives, loose papers, storage, Northern genre paintings, Gossaert


THIS CHAPTER EXAMINES the material vestiges of early modern filing and storage systems, as well as visual and textual representations and descriptions of these systems, to argue that ‘loose papers’ were incredibly vulnerable, and liable to become ‘waste papers’, unless they were physically attached to other similar papers.1 The surviving evidence of early modern archival systems—filing holes, folds, endorsements, as well as pouches, chests, and drawers—enables us to reconstruct the record-keeping practices of both contemporary and subsequent custodians, and of both household and bureaucratic record-keepers. The range of systems used by these record-keepers reflects the life-cycles of various types of document and the ‘layered purposes’ for keeping and maintaining them over time, purposes that encompass both record-keeping (documents with evidentiary status) and memory-keeping (correspondence and other documents that serve a historical function).2 Recovering these systems and practices enables us to better understand the documents themselves and the intentions of their earliest custodians.

(p.180) Surviving evidence suggests that there was no clear distinction in early modern English elite households between domestic (personal and financial) and state records. In contrast to the state archives of at least some Italian city-states, English state papers remained primarily ‘household’ papers (whether of monarchs, aristocrats, or small landowners) well into the 17th century, and the material practices of record-keeping, consistently applied to collections of family, business, and state papers, reflect this shared origin.3 The physical arrangement of official papers in the National Archives and elsewhere today obscures how they were once scattered, bundled, bagged, filed, and stored in a wide range of public and private collections in London and the provinces, including in the new prodigy houses such as Longleat, Hardwick House, and Hatfield House, and in the houses of the local gentry who acted as justices of the peace.4 For both large and small collections, and for legal, financial, and personal documents alike, the first stage of archiving began with the simple expedient of gathering items together either in bundles or on a piece of string, which is where we begin.

Filing as the First Stage of Records Management

The word ‘file’ derives from the Latin filum, meaning a thread or piece of string.5 According to multiple early modern dictionaries, a file was a thread or wire used to fasten together loose documents, such as writs, ‘for the more safe keeping of them’.6 A 1708 Dutch–English dictionary makes clear the relation between string and filing: the Dutch noun snoer is defined as ‘a String, cord’, and the verb snoeren is translated as ‘to String, to file up’.7 While today we associate (p.181) the verb ‘to file’ with the concept of folders put away in filing cabinets or stored in computers, early modern filing consisted of arranging groups of documents ‘upon’ a wall. Files were hung prominently for easy retrieval—a visible presence meant to prompt one’s memory as needed—and their contents were handily arranged in chronological order.

‘Filing up’ documents was commonplace at the Exchequer, Chancery, the Court of Common Pleas, and Oxford and Cambridge, and surviving intact files (as well as the holes in ‘defiled’ papers) in the National Archives at Kew provide insight into the technologies and materials of filing. Filing was equally a strategy for managing loose papers in domestic settings. The reason it has gone unnoticed is because the technology is largely invisible to us today unless we look for a few simple yet conspicuous clues, since the papers have long since been taken off their files (had their strings removed).

A famous painting by Jan Gossaert, traditionally titled Portrait of a Merchant (c.1530), was recently identified by Herman Colenbrander as an ‘office portrait’ of Jan Snoeck, commemorating his appointment as collector of the river tolls at Gorinchem, an important and profitable tax in Holland (Figure 8.1a).8 There are many remarkable features of this painting, perhaps none more strange than the four balls of thin string and multiple white laces knotted together, hanging beside an elegant dagger (Figure 8.1b). The dagger, like the expensive clothing, asserts Snoeck’s patrician identity, while the balls of string and the laces assert his identity as a well-equipped bureaucrat. They are part of his office equipment, to be used for his filing systems. Gossaert’s 1530 portrait is, to our knowledge, the first such painting to depict the patrician as office-worker—as if the dagger, used, for example, in portraits of Henry VIII to suggest his virile military qualities, had remarkably been transformed into a pen-knife for use in cutting string.

Until Maryan Ainsworth’s excellent description in 2010,9 the great majority of accounts of the painting have situated Gossaert’s portrait of a ‘merchant’ or ‘banker’ in relation to genre paintings of accountants, lawyers, and usurers, where criticism of or at least ambivalence towards money had traditionally been a central concern. In such readings, however much Gossaert’s portrait records a particular sitter, it also implicitly critiques him for his obsession with the coins that are conspicuously displayed with the scales for weighing them at the bottom right of the painting. However, as Ainsworth suggests, it is far more plausible to situate the painting within the context of ‘a group of occupational portraits’, a genre (p.182)

The Material Culture of Record-Keeping in Early Modern England

8.1a Jan Gossaert, Portrait of a Merchant, c.1530. Oil on panel.

Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

The Material Culture of Record-Keeping in Early Modern England

8.1b Detail of laces, string, and dagger in Jan Gossaert, Portrait of a Merchant.

(p.183) that first appeared in the mid-15th century but ‘became increasingly popular in the early sixteenth century’.10 Above all, Gossaert’s painting celebrates the young man’s wide-ranging record-keeping skills.

We have written elsewhere on Gossaert’s depiction of an erasable notebook with a brass stylus, barely visible in the bottom right of the painting. A pair of scales rest on this notebook, one pan containing a weight, the other a doble excelente, a Spanish gold coin made at the Seville mint and depicting the crowned busts of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile.11 The Spanish coin makes it clear that Snoeck is not weighing generic ‘money’. Rather, he is weighing a specific coin that testifies both to the possession of Antwerp and the Low Countries by the Spanish monarchy, and to the circulation of coins from all over Europe in a major commercial entrepot, coins which had to be weighed and their value ascertained not only by their weight but also by their variable gold content. The latter information, accompanied by woodcuts of common coins in circulation and tables of their varying gold contents, was included in the notebook below the scales. The notebook binds together printed texts, images, and tables, along with erasable blank leaves on which to take notes with a stylus. The notebook is even more specific than the coins: judging from the binding, it was probably made by Jan Severszoon, who sold just such erasable notebooks in Antwerp in this period. A copy of one such notebook with a nearly identical binding as in the Gossaert portrait is now at the New York Public Library. Titled Calengier (1527), it contains a table of the value of specific coins as well as the correct weight for coins from several countries and places, including Castille, Utrecht, Italy, and England.12 What is astonishing about this portrait, then, is not its ambivalence towards money but the level of detail with which it depicts the latest technologies of the modern tax-collector—a tax-collector whose patrician status is declared by (p.184) the dagger above his head but whose scrupulous attention to his chosen profession is celebrated by every other aspect of the painting.

Crucial for this new kind of bureaucrat is his ability to cope with what Ann Blair has called ‘information overload’.13 The coins required an understanding of the quantity of alloys used by different mints and the accurate measurement of weights, while the letters, bills, and records needed to be sorted and filed methodically. The string and laces above Snoeck’s head are, in fact, a more effective part of this modern ‘armoury’ than the dagger. The use of laces for filing is, indeed, carefully depicted in the collection of ‘Alrehande Minuten’ (‘miscellaneous minutes, or drafts) that prominently hang to the right of Snoeck’s head (from the viewer’s perspective).14 A single lace has been knotted and then pulled through a hole in a small piece of paper that identifies the file as containing the copies of outgoing letters. The letters appear to be blank because they are hung upside down and back to front, so that each letter would be easily visible by flipping the letters up, thus revealing the texts right-side up while concealing them from any casual observer who happened to drop by. The lace, which holds the copies together, passes through them, and hangs from a nail in the wall by a loop. The excess length of the lace, which could be used to add more copies as necessary, has then been looped over the top of the file and hangs down at the front, ending in a silver tag similar to the tip (‘aiglet’) on a modern shoelace. Just as with a modern aiglet, the ‘points’ (as they were called in the Renaissance, when such laces were often used for fastening pieces of clothing together) prevented the laces from fraying when they were pushed through a hole. In Gossaert’s painting, the silver ‘point’ at the end of the lace is hard to see because it is so similar to the colour of the lace—but it is immediately apparent once one knows to look for it.

Such laces with points were part of the standard equipment for filing throughout 16th- and 17th-century Europe. In England, a 1643 parliamentary bill records a range of the writing materials that an early modern bureaucracy required. Among the requisitions are parchment skins, quills, a quire of ‘best Royall paper’, and ‘Needle thred and Lases’.15 The accounts for writing supplies acquired for the House of Commons between 16 November 1699 and 6 April 1700 further reveal the ubiquity of filing. On 16 November 1699, the Commons ordered ‘6 large Needles, ½ lb of Thread’, which could have been used either for creating files with a single thread or for sewing documents together. The ‘12 pieces of Tape’ (presumably meaning rolls of tape) that were ordered on the same day, and on (p.185)

The Material Culture of Record-Keeping in Early Modern England

8.2 Visible filing hole in a brewer’s bill from Henry Webling to Lady Jane (Stanhope) Townshend, 27 February 1590/1. Folger Manuscript Library MS L.d.798.

Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

The Material Culture of Record-Keeping in Early Modern England

8.3a Documents on a file, c.1640s–50s. The National Archives, SP 28/296(a).

Used by permission of the National Archives, Kew.

The Material Culture of Record-Keeping in Early Modern England

8.3b Detail of Figure 8.3a, showing the lace and ‘point’.

(p.186) five other occasions as well, were probably used for bundling up documents and letters.16 Laces and thread were in fact used on many such parliamentary files—but only a few now survive as intact files. Those that do sometimes preserve the laces, tipped with brass ‘points’, on which they were originally filed (Figures 8.3a and 8.3b). Laces and thread were not the only means of filing something up: twisted leather, parchment, wire, pins, and linen tape were also regularly used.17

While string and tape were ordered in large quantities by parliament, they were also purchased by individuals for filing personal papers. In a 1671 copy of John Goldsmith’s Almanack, bound up with blank paper to create a notebook, a young man has kept extensive accounts of a wide range of his purchases. Among such small items as ‘Inkhorne’ (4d.), ‘Paper a quire’ (6d.), ‘Paper book’ (1s. 6d.), and ‘Bible bound’ (2s.), one finds the more extravagant purchase of ‘Parchments thread & Tape’ for 11s. 6d.18 Such equipment for filing was commonly sold by stationers. A 1636 London bookseller’s bill lists not only various kinds of paper books and a sponge (probably for erasing writing tables) but also ‘file string’.19

Sixteenth- and 17th-century northern genre paintings of merchants and lawyers show similar filing systems to those used by Snoeck and by the English parliament. In a painting of a lawyer’s office, Adrian van Ostade depicts a file of documents on the wall that are strung together on a reinforced cord and hung from a peg.20 In 1669, Bartholomeus van der Helst depicted a file of printed forms on a table, removed from the wall but still strung together on a lace.21 This filing system is an improvement upon an earlier system, depicted in a circa 1480 manuscript illumination in which the bills or letters are strung together through the (p.187) centre while still folded.22 Dora Thornton explains this illustration in The Scholar in His Study, noting that 15th-century Italian inventories often refer to strings of bills and list needles ‘for threading paper’.23 The problem with this Italian method is that in order to read a threaded document, one would first have to unstring it and then unfold it, whereas in the improved filing system depicted by Gossaert and others, one could simply flip through a file: the letters were as functional and readable strung together as they were separately.

Many of the northern genre paintings and ‘occupational’ portraits not only portray filing systems in detail but also give an extraordinary visual prominence to the humblest aspects of filing. Maarten van Heemskerck’s Portrait of a Man (1529) depicts a man in his study, a blank book with a tacketed binding open in front of him on the table in which he has written (Figure 8.4).24 Tacketed bindings were often used for account books because new quires could be easily added to or subtracted from the binding, since each quire is sewn separately with a vertical ‘tacket’ of thread or twine directly into the parchment binding. The sitter’s entry presumably relates to the money that he is in the act of counting. He has within easy reach many of the typical pieces of writing equipment that one would expect to see: an inkpot, a knife, a sandshaker (for blotting), a stick of red wax wrapped in white paper, and a desk seal. But in the very foreground of the painting, between the tacketed account book and the viewer, there is a large ball of string—the string that a bureaucrat, banker, or merchant needs for making files, but here, as in Gossaert’s portrait, transvalued as the emblem of the young man as record-keeper.

In his 1678 The Compleat Comptinghouse, John Vernon discusses the benefits of the Gossaert-type ‘filing on a point’ in a dialogue between a youth and his master. The master describes two options for dealing with correspondence: either folding letters and endorsing them on the back side with the sender’s name, date received, and date answered, and then placing them in pigeon holes (discussed in the next section)—or filing them on a string. The Youth asks ‘Which way will you advise me then to take of the two?’ The Master replies:

Truly of the two I think filing them up is the best; for there you turn to the Letter in a minute, and find out the Passage, without having the trouble of folding or unfolding Letters to look for what you have occasion, but have recourse to them immediately, and so hang them up again.25

Simply put, filing letters instead of folding them is more efficient: filed letters can be consulted with ease, without having to unfold and refold them. Another benefit (p.188)

The Material Culture of Record-Keeping in Early Modern England

8.4 A young man with all the materials associated with record-keeping: a tacketed account book, an inkpot, a knife, a sandshaker, a stick of red wax, and a desk seal.

Maarten van Heemskerck, Portrait of a Man, possibly Pieter Gerritsz Bicker (1497–1567), 1529, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, SK-A-3518.

is portability, particularly when the file is backed with a protective parchment wrapper. One can see such a protective leaf of browning parchment in Gossaert’s portrait, hanging to the back of the ‘Alrehande Missiven’ [‘miscellanous letters’ received] to the left of Snoeck’s head. A parchment wrapper prevented the lace at the back from pulling through the paper letters, which were prone to tearing. It also enabled the whole file to be rolled up within the parchment, either to be transported on business or to be further filed away in a pigeon hole, drawer, or chest for long-term storage.

As the two sets of files behind Snoeck reveal, individuals filed not only incoming correspondence, but also outgoing correspondence, in the form of drafts or copies of letters sent. If the copying of letters was not essential for personal correspondence, it was nonetheless widespread. The papers of the Bagot family (p.189) of Blithfield, Staffordshire, and the papers of the Bacon-Townshend family of Stiffkey, Norfolk, held at the Folger Shakespeare Library, contain many drafts of letters sent—retained in case the letter as sent went astray and needed to be resent, and to ensure that the recipient’s response addressed all the issues raised.26 Samuel Pepys was accustomed to making copies of all official correspondence as a civil servant, but he extended the practice to his personal correspondence as well. On 19 May 1663, he wrote in his diary: ‘walked home and to my office; and having despatched my great letters by the post to my father, of which I keep copies to show by me and for my future understanding, I went home to supper and bed, being late’.27 His filing furniture for his incoming and outgoing correspondence was custom-built. In September 1661 he records that ‘this morning Mr. Howell our turner sent me two things to file papers on very handsome’.28 Five years after he received these ‘two things’, he describes his method for deaccessioning filed papers:

At noon dined, and then to my chamber all the afternoon and night, looking over and tearing and burning all the unnecessary letters which I have had upon my File for four or five years backward—which I entend to do quite through all my papers, that I may have nothing by me but what is worth keeping, and fit to be seen if I should miscarry.29

Strikingly, Pepys here is concerned with the status of his papers if he should ‘miscarry’; that is, if he dies.30 He acknowledges that his active files are not necessarily suitable for long-term retention.

In Vernon’s The Compleat Comptinghouse, the Youth asks his Master: ‘How often must I file up or fold up these Letters?’ The Master responds: ‘As often as your Time will permit you; At the going away of each Post is the best time, for then all your Letters are answered, and you have nothing else to do with them.’31 Pepys’s diary entry suggests that such an ideal of filing was as likely to be honoured in the breach as in the observance. Pepys was left with ‘four or five’ years of ‘unnecessary’ letters to sort through, and he was undoubtedly one of the most efficient and industrious record-keepers.

(p.190) In contrast to Pepys, Sir Thomas Temple of Warwickshire was explicit in not keeping copies of the letters that he sent to his steward Harry Rose in the 1620s and 1630s, insisting that the original letters should instead be carefully returned to him on a file. Temple was constantly trying to streamline and simplify the process of running one estate while living at another, fifteen miles away. To avoid the tediousness of making an office copy of his detailed task lists to Rose, Temple taught his steward how to file. In one letter, he directs Rose ‘To thred this note & deliuer the same back to me’, and ‘To file this note of remembrance with others upon a point or string’.32 In another, he explains that filing allows them both to save time and ‘trouble’:

Harry Rose, at your next coming hither I pray yow bring my letters to yow on the pointe filed, whereby I may know how mindfull you haue bin to effect my desires, which I should otherwise wright againe to my trowble & yours to wright vnto yow, to doe that, which alredy I haue done.33

Ten months later, Temple urges Rose to continue filing, emphasising the many benefits of his system:

bring with you, when soeuer yow come, all letters & notes filed on a pointe (as I haue appointed) the trowble whereof or waighte, is so little & light, as it can be without which I can doe nothing, & therefore if yow cannot doe accordinglye yow can do nothing for me & therefor refer yow therevnto; & by a pointe fastened the papers can not be lost.34

The ‘trouble’ and ‘weight’ of filing is ‘little & light’. If Rose cannot adhere to the system, upon which Temple is dependent for running his estates, then Rose ‘can do nothing for me’. A surviving example of Temple’s method of ‘filing upon a point’ shows how it worked—forty-five acquittances for half-yearly rents at Burton Dassett between 1600 and 1626, held together by a tie made out of supple twisted leather.35 The most recent receipts are at the bottom, and the front end of the cord is tied in a larger knot to form a base, with a reinforced piece of paper providing further support. Temple’s advice to Rose makes it clear that he was using a similar filing system for his acquittances as well as his letters, even though the letters, many with small filing holes, have since been taken off their files.

In Thomas Temple’s instructions to Harry Rose, he may be referring to two different kinds of ‘point’ when he writes of ‘letters & notes filed on a pointe’ and of the papers that ‘by a pointe fastened … can not be lost’. In the first case, he could be referring to a spike rising vertically from a wooden base, such as the (p.191) ones that Pepys had made for him and which, in one form or another, survive to the present, usually as a single metal ‘bill spike’ on which to store receipts. Such a spike will itself make a hole in whatever documents are stored on it, which can then be reused for string filing. In 1656, Sir William Dugdale complained in his preface to The Antiquities of Warwickshire about ‘the neglect of the Bishop’s Secretaries, to record their Institutions’:

they seldome kept a Paper-book for that purpose; but at best, made a brief note of it upon the Instrument of Presentation, which being slightly put on a File, was soon after broke off, and lost.36

Dugdale assumes that, to remain safe, records need to be copied into ‘a Paper-book’ if they are to be properly preserved. Indeed, the importance of the book form as the increasingly dominant form of archiving from the 17th century on has been stressed by Randolph Head.37 But Dugdale’s reference to records ‘slightly put on a file’ that can easily be ‘broke off’ most likely refers to the kind of wooden spikes that one sees on desks in Flemish and Dutch paintings of lawyer’s offices rather than to the much more secure form of ‘filing on a point’ depicted by Gossaert. Nevertheless, even the latter form of archiving can only be temporary. The files behind Snoeck will be taken down eventually to make room for new wall-files, and the old files will need either to be rolled up and stored elsewhere or refiled in a different way.38

Filing was not limited to handwritten records. An exchequer receipt from November 1620 (now at the Houghton Library) has ‘one spindle hole for filing it’, according to its catalogue record. This receipt of payment by Roger Wood and Thomas Symcocke for the sole licence to print and sell ‘all manner’ of paper and parchment publications ‘which are printed on one side only’,39 is an invaluable reminder of two separate but related points: first, the vast range of printing (p.192) had nothing to do with printing books but rather with the printing of one-sided documents, such as tax forms; and secondly, most of these one-sided documents no longer survive, unless they happen to have stayed upon their files.40 In other words, this manuscript receipt, written on one side only of a small piece of parchment, concerns paper or parchment printed on one side only. Such documents are the most likely of all to disappear without a trace. That this particular receipt has not disappeared is because, as the cataloguer reminds us, it has ‘one spindle hole for filing it’, a spindle hole that was undoubtedly used as a first stage in the preservation of a tiny document that records a major aspect of early modern printing.

Bundles of Paper

As the example of Thomas Temple shows, the string-filing systems used by state bureaucracies were also used by the gentry for the filing of papers relating to their estate and private affairs. But despite John Vernon’s assertion that ‘filing [papers] up is the best’ rather than merely folding them, a great many letters, particularly in ‘private’ collections, do not have holes in them—or at least holes that are clearly the traces of how they were formerly filed. Bundling (i.e. folding and tying rather than ‘filing on a point’) seems to have been the preferred method. Nicholas Faunt, in his 1592 treatise ‘Discourse touching the office of the Principal Secretary of estate’, recommends that the ideal servant of a principal secretary (of the Privy Council) would sort all incoming paper every morning into three separate bundles, relating to ‘home lettres’, ‘councell matters’, and ‘Divers matters’. The 15th-century Italian merchant Benedetto Cotrugli’s manual on the ideal merchant, first printed in 1573, stresses the importance of creating informative endorsements prior to bundling:

for every letter that comes in you must note down from where and whom it comes, the year, month and day; you must record this in one place, answer each one and mark it ‘replied’. File the letters in separate packs for each month and keep them. And similarly file in order all the bills of exchange you pay on…41

Letters could, of course, be tied up together in the form in which they arrived, preserving their original folds—and this could even be done chronologically, in the sequence in which the letters arrived. But it was more common to sort the letters at the very beginning of the archiving process by sender or topic (and by date within those categories). At the time of sorting the letters, they were frequently refolded (p.193)

The Material Culture of Record-Keeping in Early Modern England

8.5 Bundle of acquittances from 1614 to 1615.

Townshend Archives, Raynham Hall. This bundle (box reference RAS/F2/9) is in the private possession of the 8th Marquess Townshend, whose kind permission to publish this image we very gratefully acknowledge.

into new formats for filing purposes. Such refolded bundles could then be tied together with string, laces with points, linen tape, parchment strips, or leather cords (Figure 8.5). If, as we stressed above, it is important to look for holes when considering filing systems, it is thus equally important to look for folding patterns, because so many letters record through their folds the three quite different stages in a letter’s life-cycle: composition, transmission, and preservation:42

  1. 1. Composition: letter-writers typically folded a single sheet of paper in half to make a bifolium (two leaves or four pages) before they began to write. Some writers (particularly secretaries and professional scribes) also folded the paper to create a clear guideline for the left margin.

  2. (p.194) 2. Transmisson: when the letter was to be sent, it was usual to fold it into a small packet (usually without a wrapper),43 leaving a second, distinct set of folding-lines, with the superscription (what we now call the address) written on the outside of the packet (which is on the fourth page once the letter is opened).

  3. 3. Storage: when a group of letters was stored together (tied together into a bundle or stacked in bags), they were often refolded into a long, narrow, vertical format, frequently with an added endorsement at what would now be the top of the letter as it was stored.

Often, later custodians would add additional identifying information as a secondary endorsement, to make the contents clearer to later audiences. It is crucial when ‘reading’ a letter for its material history to separate out these three different kinds of folding lines from each other, since they relate to three quite different temporalities.

We focus only upon the third stage here. Endorsements (names, dates, and occasionally a brief summary) by the recipient are the clearest sign of this third stage, but examining the types of folding creases can also sometimes reconnect virtually a bundle of letters that has since been disassembled. Walter Bagot, a Staffordshire justice of the peace, endorsed about a third of the approximately thousand letters that he bundled up, mainly between 1605 and 1613. Bagot’s endorsements usually contain the name of the sender and the recipient (if the recipient is not Bagot). In some cases, the endorsement on a single letter refers to multiple letters, such as ‘My sister Broughtons letters to my sister Okeover’. The fact that the word ‘letters’ is plural indicates that this is the top letter in a bundle of letters between the sisters that is no longer intact (Figure 8.6).44 Similarly, an abject apology letter from Bagot’s eldest son is endorsed ‘Lewes his last letters’.45 Lewis was Walter Bagot’s ‘problem’ child, who after a period of chronic gambling, a secret engagement to his cousin, and fathering a child out of wedlock, mysteriously died in London shortly after seeking to heal the breach with his father. Bagot presumably bundled these letters together because they were the final words of his eldest son, much like Queen Elizabeth, who endorsed her last letter from the Earl of Leicester before his death, ‘His last letter’.46

If we want to read family correspondence as an archive created by the recipient rather than a series of individual letters, then we need to pay more attention to these endorsements, and to filing holes, which rarely find their way into (p.195)

The Material Culture of Record-Keeping in Early Modern England

8.6 Address leaf with superscription, contemporary endorsement, and later endorsement. Folger Shakespeare Library MS L.a.233.

Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

catalogues or finding aids.47 We need to tease out the original bundles, or at least acknowledge the loss of the information that bundling might give us, rather than view the letters in their modern iteration as individual artefacts, literally flattened of all three-dimensionality.

Both string-filing and bundling were only the first stages of archiving in early modern Europe. During the period in which Thomas Temple needed quick access to recent letters and memoranda, he wanted them stored on a file, which was, as he emphasised, light-weight, portable, and efficient, saving time spent in copying and making life easier for both him and his steward, Harry Rose. But after Temple had ensured that ditches were dug and the fruit trees planted, he could transfer his files to long-term storage, moving them from their function as reference tools to their preservation as part of the estate’s (and the family’s) history.

The shelves or presses of a library that worked so well for books were of little use for files. The archiving practices undertaken by Temple and Pepys would have required, to employ modern records management terminology, ‘[t]he systematic and administrative control of records throughout their life cycle to ensure efficiency and economy in their creation, use, handling, control, maintenance, and disposition’.48 The life-cycle of a document in the creator or recipient’s lifetime consisted of two main stages: the active stage and the inactive stage. During the (p.196) period of time when one might need ready access to a business letter (for a year or two, potentially), it made sense to keep it open and filed upon a string, hanging, or clearly endorsed and bundled in bags or pouches for ready retrieval. Once the documents were no longer actively required, they could be shifted to larger boxes and chests.49

Bags and Pouches

The dramatic surge and equally dramatic decline in the use of pouches as a means of storage is undoubtedly skewed in the Discovery catalogue of the National Archives at Kew in a number of ways (including the semantic question of what counts as a ‘pouch’), but we believe that the number of hits that one obtains for ‘pouch’ (which, for example, include both the relevant ‘pouch-maker’ and the irrelevant people called ‘Pouch’) is not entirely misleading: 414 hits for 1400–99; 15,010 hits for 1500–99; 50,767 hits for 1600–99; 35 hits for 1700–99; 228 hits for 1800–99. There is, in fact, a wide range of material and visual evidence that supports the extraordinary proliferation of bags and pouches in the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1672, Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde depicted A Notary in his Office Handing Deeds to a Man.50 The notary has just removed the deed with two conspicuous seals from a drawer in the long desk against the wall in front of him, on which there is a gathering of paper and, above, his writing equipment. On the wall above the desk are four ‘files on a point’, hanging from nails, and, above them, two long rows of pigeon holes, filled with papers and small boxes. Lying horizontally on top of the pigeon holes are various boxes, and there are more ledgers and books in a bookcase against the back wall of the office. But conspicuously surrounding the notary’s head are eight pouches, some of grey-brown canvas, others of a lighter-coloured leather, five of them with white paper labels stuck on to identify their contents. Thousands of these kinds of pouch have been preserved in the National Archives at Kew, primarily in the records of (p.197)

The Material Culture of Record-Keeping in Early Modern England

8.7 Leather pouch from the Exchequer. The National Archives, E179/299/9.

Used by permission of the National Archives, Kew.

the Exchequer (Figure 8.7), in various sizes designed to hold various shapes of documents, from vellum rolls to single folded sheets to stacks of documents with seals.51

At the same time, the true beginning of a ‘national’ archive in England was marked by the use of new pouches and bags. In the early 17th century, Arthur Agard, the Deputy Chamberlain of the Exchequer, tried to bring some order to the motley collection of records that surrounded the Domesday Book. In 1602, when Agard began refiling the contents of chests and trunks into more manageable collections, he emptied a large chest of unsorted documents from the reign of Henry III, ‘reviewed repaired and sorted [them] and for their better preservasion placed [them] into sundrie little bagges some bagges conteyninge one sheire and some moe: And those put into three great bagges noted wth A: B: (p.198)

The Material Culture of Record-Keeping in Early Modern England

8.8 Abraham Bosse (1602–76), printmaker [The prosecutor’s study]. Paris, after 1633. Folger Shakespeare Library ART 230- 993 (size M).

Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

& C … and also upon a labell fastened to the same bagge is expressed by shire’.52 The problem with boxes, chests, and trunks, as Agard was painfully aware, is that they preserve documents without making them easily retrievable for future use. To incorporate old documents into the ongoing concerns of the state, it was necessary not only to file them into ‘little bagges’ and then file those in turn in ‘great bagges’; it was equally important to label the bags so as to record what was inside them. Among the Ellesmere Papers at the Huntington Library is a leaf, now stored by itself, headed: ‘Deposytions putt vpp into A canvasse Bage 28 No: 1588’. No doubt the careful recording of the date of the archiving on the first leaf of what would originally have been a full file was also recorded on the canvas bag itself.53

At the same time, the everyday use of pouches and bags for archiving on a smaller scale is recorded in northern European paintings and engravings of the offices of lawyers and notaries. A print by Abraham Bosse, for instance, depicts a notary’s office in which multiple bags hang from the walls, each one identified with (p.199) a paper label (Figure 8.8). Such hanging bags, like the ‘files on a point’, remind us of another overlooked aspect of Renaissance filing systems—overlooked because they are too commonplace and simple to see. Namely, nails in walls.

Boxes, Chests, and Trunks

Filing papers on string and/or putting them in bags or pouches hanging on the wall were excellent ways of storing them for active use. But, given limitations of space and the influx of new papers, older documents and letters needed to be moved. Bags and pouches were, in fact, useful both for immediate reference and for long-term storage: they could simply be taken down off the nails on which they were often hung and preserved for the future in boxes and chests. We noted above that Nicholas Faunt recommended ‘bundling’ letters by tying them together. But he stressed that this was only an early stage in the archiving process, when the letters might still be in active use. When the bundles started to get too large and confusing and above all when they were no longer in active use but still might be necessary for reference or for legal purposes at some later date, the papers ‘that haue been most dealt in’ should be removed to a chest, cabinet, or coffer. He also recommended creating a number of paper books—a Memorial book, a Journal, and various register books—since ‘there hath beene found of late greate Confusion in the keepinge of loose papers though they bee digested in to bundells or otherwise kept in Coffers’, often because they were lent out and not returned.54

‘Loose paper’ is also depicted in detail in the Gossaert portrait. The sitter writes with pen and ink in what appears at first to be a paper notebook. But it is not. He is writing on a single sheet of paper, folded to make a bifolium. Throughout early modern Europe, a single sheet (often but not always of folio size) folded once to make two leaves (or four pages), was the most ubiquitous support for writing. It is precisely such single sheets, however folded, that are least likely to survive unless they are themselves strung, bundled, or bound up with each other. Gossaert’s painting reveals a series of different ways in which such sheets were bought, used, and preserved. Snoeck writes on a single folded sheet (a bifolium) that rests on top of a loose gathering of nested bifolia. The bifolium and loose gathering rest on top of a gathering that appears to have been sewn into a limp vellum binding, to make the kind of notebook that stationers throughout Europe supplied. Another loose gathering of paper is underneath the notebook. The notebook is itself, of course, one way of filing paper so that it can be easily and safely stored. But the actual paper on which Snoek writes will need to be gathered together with other (p.200) bifolia, either by being sewn together into a bound volume or by being ‘put on a file’ or bundled.

Whether one ‘filed up’ or ‘bundled’ papers, they would subsequently need to be incorporated into larger archival systems. Wall files containing roughly thirty or forty letters, like those depicted by Gossaert, had to be taken down regularly to make space for new files. This is John Vernon’s point when he writes:

but whether [letters] are folded or filed, they must be both ways taken down at the Years end, and put up in a large Box for that purpose; and then you may have recourse unto them when you please, to view any thing as you have occasion; with the Date of the Year upon the Box. The like may be done by your Bills of Exchange, or Recepts for Money; or any other odd Papers, too tedious here to set down.55

In other words, ‘filing on a point’, however useful, is only one possible stage in the archival process. For someone like Jan Snoeck, whose very profession as a tax-collector depended upon the organisation, retrieval, and employment of information, it was important to keep a constant track of his official correspondence from day to day. But it was common in the preservation of family papers to skip this stage altogether, leaving letters folded as they came or refolding them into bundles. Whether filed or folded, longer-term storage depended upon other technologies: specific rooms (official archives, libraries, muniment rooms, closets, attics, basements); specific kinds of furnishings (shelves, desks, cupboards, drawers, trunks, boxes, cabinets, bags); and specific kinds of refolding of papers, among other things to make them a suitable size and shape for their new containers. Vernon suggests an annual process in which folded or filed letters are ‘taken down’ and ‘put up in a large Box … with the Date of the Year upon the Box’.56

Many such boxes do, indeed, remain from early modern Europe. At one extreme, such boxes or trunks could preserve unfiled documents without any kind of ordering or system, like the 2,600 letters (600 of them unopened), dated between 1680 and 1706, that were dumped into a trunk by Simon de Brienne and Maria Germain, the postmaster and mistress in The Hague, when they were never paid for and collected.57 Similarly, the 18th-century letters of the actress Dorothy Jordan were preserved in a metal-reinforced trunk covered in animal fur, and the dozens of pink ribbons with which the letters were formerly tied up remain even though the letters themselves have now been individually filed, each in its own folder, by the Huntington Library.58

Boxes and chests were of use equally in institutional and private archives. Fortunately, the National Archives has preserved some of the now-empty boxes and trunks that the new filing systems have made dispensable: a 15th-century oak (p.201) coffer reinforced with iron straps with the remains of its original canvas lining; a 15th-century iron-bound chest, decorated with fleur de lis and stylised flowers; a 16th-century leather-covered deed box with a white leather tie, lined with block-printed wallpaper with the Garter, fruit, and grotesques; and a 17th-century leather deed box with gold tooling, lined with wallpaper with a repeating design of double roses and vases of daffodils and tulips.59 The size of such boxes and chests was widely variable, ranging from vast coffers containing hundreds or even thousands of papers, to a long black box containing thirty-three documents and a small round box containing four obligations that John Owles, a servant of Lady Jane Townshend, acknowledged in a receipt that he made out to William Banyard on 5 November 1590, to small square boxes containing individual deeds with Great Seals.60

Most of these coffers and boxes were not themselves ‘institutional’. The very notion of ‘public records’ was only beginning to emerge when Elizabeth I chartered the State Paper Office in 1578, and in the late 1670s, the historian and cleric Gilbert Burnet was still complaining that most public records from before the 17th century were scattered in the collections of private families.61 Indeed, the Wars of the Roses and the Dissolution of the Monasteries led to the scattering of a vast array of documents, which were either lost altogether or preserved by local landowners and antiquarians. In other words, the ‘National Archives’ today is partly composed of the documents that were previously preserved in a mass of local family, judicial, clerical, and monastic archives, in a mass of chests, coffers, and trunks.62 These longer-term forms of storage transformed ready-to-hand letters and documents into what one Thomas Rogers, in a wonderfully evocative phrase, called ‘old sleeping papers’—sleeping papers that he nonetheless retrieved and brought back again into active circulation when he sent them on to a friend in case they might be relevant.63

(p.202) Writing Desks, Drawers, and Cabinets

While chests, trunks, and boxes continue to be used for archiving up to the present, there was an archival revolution in early modern Europe that saw an extraordinary proliferation of new filing systems—above all, systems that mediated between the need for active use and the equally pressing concerns about long-term storage. This revolution can be tracked in England through a wide range of new words to describe innovative containers for everything from miniature museums, to bed-linen, to jewels.64 Particularly relevant to the storage and retrieval of papers were new forms of desk technology, registered linguistically in the emergence of words like ‘escritoir’, ‘scrutoir’, and ‘scriptor’ (meaning a writing desk or writing cabinet from the mid- to late 17th century in England). But the OED does not serve these emergent technologies well, having no main heading for ‘scrutor’, which by the 1680s was the commonest English variant of the Portuguese and Spanish word escritório. Early English Books Online, for instance, records only three 17th-century books with the word ‘scrutoir’, for which the OED has a main entry, compared with twenty-seven books with ‘scrutor’ in the relevant sense. But the crucial point is that during the 16th and 17th centuries there was a massive increase in both the range and quantity of furniture that allowed both for storage and for ready-access.

This can be seen clearly from the probate inventories from Oxford University from 1568 to 1699. In the late 16th century, even a wealthy ‘Doctor of Physicke’ like John Case only had chests and court cupboards in which to store his things. Desks, when recorded at all, were not used as storage devices. But this rapidly changed. In 1632, one man had a ‘Deske with gloves, knives and other such things in it’, while in 1643 Nathaniel Simpson, a Fellow of Trinity, and Robert Hovenden, a Fellow of All Souls, each had ‘a desque with boxes’. And in 1658, Warden Marshall of New Hall owned ‘one New deske with drawers’.65

The mention of ‘drawers’ is more striking than we might assume at first. The first recorded use of the word in the OED is from 1580, and then only as a translation from the French: ‘Vn escrin, coffret ou cabinet, a casket, a little chest, a (p.203) drawer.’66 Additionally, the earliest furniture to contain drawers dates from the early 16th century, and was in the possession of only a tiny elite. Boxes, trunks, and coffers might store one’s records safely, but they were not a good means of organising them, as anyone who has had to spend time searching through even a suitcase can testify. With the invention of drawers, it became possible to store and file simultaneously.

Strikingly, two of the earliest known pieces of furniture with drawers, both produced for monarchs, were specifically designed for the storage of writing equipment and papers. This type of drawered furniture was meant for the active stage in a document’s life-cycle. Sometime between 1520 and 1527, when he began divorce proceedings, Henry VIII had an elaborate box made for him from oak, walnut, and gilded leather, painted with the heraldic devices of himself and Katherine of Aragon as well as with the royal coat of arms. The lid of the box serves as a writing surface, while the box itself contains three drawers and three compartments, two with lids. The other piece of drawered furniture is a writing cabinet, probably made for the Emperor Charles V when he visited Mantua in 1532. The so-called ‘Plus Oultra Cabinet’ is named after the device on the inside of the cabinet of Charles’s device, the pillars of Hercules, accompanied by the motto ‘PLVS ULTRA’ (‘more elsewhere’), repurposed from an earlier Burgundian tradition to point to the expansion of the Holy Roman Empire across the Atlantic to the Americas and thus to a world unknown to Classical Antiquity. At the same time, the motto on this specific writing desk may serve to remind us of the extraordinary increase in imperial correspondence during the 16th century, not only between Spain and its outlying European possessions in Sicily, Naples, Milan, Burgundy, Germany, and the Low Countries, but also between it and the other side of the Atlantic in ‘New Spain’.67

Spain played a central role in the purchase of expensive and elaborate writing cabinets, imported at first from Germany. Isabella of Castile herself imported German ‘escritorios’,68 which were later copied by Spanish cabinet-makers. So popular did the imports remain, however, that in 1603 Philip III drew up sumptuary legislation forbidding the import of Nuremberg cabinets so as to foster domestic production.69 In England, luxury cabinets were also imported, including from Japan. When the Clovis, the East India Company vessel sent on the company’s first voyage to Japan, returned to London on 21 September 1614, its cargo included ‘ritch Scritores’, thus beginning the craze for Eastern lacquer-work cabinets that became a major vogue at the end of the century. At the sale of the Clovis’s (p.204) cargo on 20 December 1614, ‘a small cabanet with drawers, inlaid and sett with mother of pearl’ was sold for the grand sum of £6 15s.70 Luxury writing cabinets were traded throughout Europe as well. In 1681, Cosimo de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Florence, gave a writing cabinet to Anne Cavendish and her husband John Cecil, fifth Earl of Exeter, probably made by Leonardo van der Vinne and his court workshop in Florence. The cabinet itself was free-standing, but in 1681–5 it was fitted up with an elegant standing frame in London. In fact, English writing cabinets were themselves so admired by then that Cosimo commissioned a writing desk from London in 1685, with which he was delighted. His secretary, Bassetti, also judged that the cabinet’s intarsia images could not have been more beautiful, but

the cabinet’s tabletop displeased him as it would be too small for someone with such extensive correspondence. Furthermore, he deemed it necessary to have a completely new base made, which would be enclosed to the floor and would contain drawers. Only then could the Grand Duke store ledgers and written documents in the cabinet.71

However beautiful a writing cabinet might be, its modern function required not only an adequate writing surface, but also drawers for ‘ledgers and written documents’.

As far as we know, there are no records of furniture with drawers at Oxford University before the 17th century. But thereafter, Warden Marshall’s ‘New deske with drawers’ became a standard feature in studies, libraries, and offices, whether for business or scholarship. Such desks were nearly always portable—and needed to be placed upon a table if they were to be used for writing. But unlike Erasmus’s portable lectern, made famous by Dürer’s engraving, these new desks were as useful for filing small quantities of papers as well as for storing writing equipment. When Randle Cotgrave translated ‘Porte-escritoire’ in 1611, he rendered the word as ‘A Notaries boy; one that serues but to carrie his pen and inkhorne after him.’72 But this suggests that Cotgrave was not up on the latest French fashions, since any notary can carry pen and ink; the boy is actually there to carry the ‘escritoir’, the portable container-desk that was already becoming common in Paris. Portable writing desks became so common in 17th-century England that several Oxford dons owned two or three.

At the same time, larger cabinets with storage drawers begin to appear in letters and inventories in the 1630s. In 1634/5, Thomas Temple asks his wife to remove a lease from one of the ‘upper drawers’ in the ‘lower study’ of their house.73 In 1666, Richard King owned a ‘chest of small drawers’; in 1674, Canon (p.205) Smyth had ‘1 chist of drawers’; in 1677, Sharington Sheldon, a Fellow of Oriel, owned ‘a chest with six drawers’, worth 8s. 6d.; and in 1679, Canon Lockey owned ‘a French Chest of Drawers upon a Stand’. In 1694, even the butler of Wadham had a ‘Walnutt tree Chest of Drawers’, while the same year, at the other end of the social scale, Lord Teviot had ‘one walnut Cabinet lock’t’ in a passage.74

‘Cabinets’ were often specifically associated with the storage of private papers. John Evelyn’s diaries have only become such a major source for our understanding of the 17th century because they were discovered in 1813 by William Upcott, the sub-librarian of the London Institution, in ‘the ebony cabinet in the Billiard Room’.75 This specific cabinet is probably the one now preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum, which Evelyn commissioned when he was travelling abroad during the 1643–5 Civil War. In October 1644, Evelyn specifically noted the virtuosity of the Florentine Domenico Benotti, who supplied nineteen plaques in pietra dura, which were added to the ebony cabinet that may have been fitted up by Francesco Fanelli in London or Paris. That Evelyn must have expended extraordinary amounts of time and energy on the construction and decoration of this cabinet reveals the importance of the transformation of pieces of furniture into reliquaries that elevate the status and the consequent chances of ‘immortallity’ of their contents. If in the early 16th century beautiful and expensive archival reliquaries were largely the preserve of monarchs, by the late 17th century they had become the memory-houses of a much wider cross-section of the population—and they have been crucial for the survival of some of the most famous 17th-century works, including Dorothy Osborne’s. Robbie Glen notes that the only reason that Osborne’s letters survive today is because they were preserved in a cabinet by her husband, Sir William Temple: ‘Temple’s large Chinese marquetry cabinet, built in the 17th-century “collector’s” style, has double doors that open to reveal ten variously sized drawers, and is elevated on an elaborate swagged and gilded stand.’76

Ironically, some of the most striking archival containers from the 17th century survive only as containers, their contents irretrievably scattered and lost. This is true of the great majority of embroidered caskets that young English girls worked on in their early teens. No doubt they were often used for storing jewellery and needlework equipment. But a cabinet from circa the 1660s, now at the Metropolitan Museum, embroidered with depictions of the five senses, is fitted for writing implements and its drop-down front makes a surface for writing on.77 (p.206) The secret compartments in many such cabinets also suggest that they were ideal places for concealing private correspondence from prying eyes. One embroidered casket made by eleven-year-old Hannah Smith is remarkable in that only a single piece of paper has survived in it—not a secret letter, but a public note from the maker, both to herself and to posterity:

The yere of our Lord being 1657:

If euer I haue any thoughts about the time; when I went to Oxford; as it may be I may; when I haue forgotten the time, to sartisfi my self; I may Loock in this paper & find it; I went to Oxford in the yere of 1654, & my being thare; near 2 yeres; for I went in 1654; & I stayed there; 1655; I cam away; in 1656; & I was almost 12 yers of age; when I went; & I mad an end of my cabbinete; at Oxford, & my quenestch [sic]; & my cabbinet; was mad up; in the yere of 1656 at London; I haue ritten this; to sartisfi my self; & thos that shall inquire; about it…

Hannah Smith78

Like Gossaert in his painting of Jan Snoeck, Hannah Smith archives the archive. But the two kinds of archive could not be more different: on the one hand, Snoeck’s supremely functional (and cheap) use of string; on the other, a wooden box, made by a professional craftsman in London, covered with embroidery on a satin ground that might typically include silk and metal thread, purl, chenille, seed pearls, coral beads, and mica, made with tent, rococo, satin, couching, and detached button-hole stitches.79 Equally crucial, however, is that these different kinds of archiving, from the filing up of a mass of documents for future use to the creation of reliquaries for small collections of cherished items (including letters), were by the late 17th century as familiar to many country families as they were to monarchs. Samuel Pepys, state servant and private citizen, used both means of conservation for his public and private papers, as did country families like Sir Thomas Temple’s and Dorothy Selby’s. We can trace a lineage from the luxury writing boxes of Henry VIII and Charles V to the perhaps more-treasured casket of Hannah Smith.

It is equally important, however, to emphasise that filing and archiving practices are exclusionary. Indeed, one might argue that the value of an embroidered casket like Smith’s lies as much in the mass of things that, by sheer virtue of its small size, it cannot contain. Size matters. The information overload that confronted Robert Cecil, 2nd Earl of Salisbury, in organising the State Paper Office is at the opposite extreme from either a monarch or a young girl deciding what to preserve in a writing cabinet or a casket. However exclusionary the State Paper Office in fact was, it encouraged the fantasy (as well as the accompanying material practices) of an all-encompassing archive—even to the extent, as we have seen, of preserving at least some of its earlier archiving technologies that are no longer in use. Such archiving requires large storage rooms, and even separate (p.207) buildings. On the other hand, in a small archive like a casket or a bag, the addition of new items will often necessitate the removal of old ones, simply for reasons of space.

The material forms of filing and archiving determine just what can be archived. Boxes and trunks remain a practical way to store non-textual objects. An exclusive concern with textual archiving erases the long history of other kinds of archiving—whether of saints’ bodies or lovers’ hair or the material culture of Stonewall and Christopher Street. For these latter purposes, trunks work in ways that string or laces do not. The very emptiness of most 17th-century embroidered caskets today is a reminder of the continuous history of archiving, in which the same storage container can be used, either at the same or at different times, for jewels, dress trimmings, sewing equipment, or small dolls—as well as for pen, ink, paper, letters, and other documents. By contrast, Jan Gossaert’s portrait of the young man as archivist strikingly stages the emergence of the age of paper and of the archiving of paper documents—an age that, for all prophecies to the contrary, the computer has as yet done little to transform.80

The paper and parchment explosion that began in the early 16th century throughout Europe sparked a proliferation of new and improved methods for managing the unbridled production of documents. Newer methods included the collecting of documents into tacketed bindings, the invention of writing desks and cabinets with ready-made storage capacity, and the manufacture of specially designed chests of drawers and large desks that could be used to organise diverse papers for rapid retrieval and to preserve a family’s material memories for the future. Above all, however, we need to reconstitute the commonest early stages in the process that transformed what would otherwise have become loose, and therefore, lost, papers into material memory systems: folding and bundling papers together and filing upon a string.

We would argue that, in early modern archives, there was no such thing as ‘loose papers’.81 Or rather, loose papers were liable to become waste papers, intended to be recycled or discarded. Their survival is purely accidental, as in the case of an undated letter from Elizabeth, Countess of Lumley, to Jane, Lady Townshend, found crumpled in an archival box at Raynham Hall full of neat bundles of letters.82 On the verso of the letter, perpendicular to the superscription, (p.208) is a telling endorsement: ‘Waste papers’. This letter’s survival is accidental: it was destined to be waste, but somehow got separated from the other waste papers (the endorsement is noticeably plural), was stashed in a box with bundled documents, and survived through benign neglect.

When a document was intended to be preserved, whether in a state archive or in the muniment room of a country house, this is usually revealed by material signs of its attachment to other similar documents (e.g. filing holes, filing folds, and endorsements), whether those records are tax forms and court records, merchants’ receipts and shipping bills, pedigrees and grants of arms (to be produced at visitations by the kings of arms), conveyances, exemplifications, final concords, cartularies, and inventories (proving what you own and where it is), personal bills and receipts (in order to balance the books), or family and personal correspondence. Yet given 19th- and 20th-century methods of preservation and archiving, in which the family papers of elite and gentry households have subsequently been unfolded, rearranged, and rehoused and then either bound together in large folio volumes or stored individually in folders, it is imperative to acknowledge and interpret the remaining traces of the filing systems of their earliest keepers: filing holes, folds, and endorsements.


(1) Simon Werrett is currently working on waste paper and scrap writing in early modern mathematics and science. Waste paper refers to paper destined to be recycled in some way. By loose papers, we mean unbound paper that is not otherwise attached to other bifolia or leaves that are similar in content or date.

(2) The distinction between ‘records’ (documents that serve as active evidence of legal and financial contracts) and ‘archives’ (documents stored for posterity) is problematic in this period. See the section on ‘Defining Records and Archives’ in Alexandra Walsham’s introduction to The Social History of the Archive: Record-Keeping in Early Modern Europe, Past & Present Supplement 11 (2016), pp. 13–18. For ‘layered purposes’ see E. Yale, ‘Introduction: Consider the Archive’, in Focus: The History of Archives and the History of Science, Isis, 107 (March 2016), 74–6, at 75. See also E. Ketelaar, ‘The Genealogical Gaze: Family Identities and Family Archives in the Fourteenth to Seventeenth Centuries’, Libraries & the Cultural Record, 44 (2009), 9–28.

(3) On the ‘private’ collecting of ‘state’ papers, see J. Daybell, The Material Letter in Early Modern England: Manuscript Letters and the Culture and Practices of Letter-Writing, 1512–1635 (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 223–5. For the complicated history of the English state archives, see N. Popper, ‘From Abbey to Archive: Managing Texts and Records in Early Modern England’, Archival Science, 10 (2010), 249–66; P. Cain, ‘Robert Smith and the Reform of the Archives of the City of London, 1580–1623’, London Journal, 13 (1987), 3–16; M. Yax, ‘Arthur Agarde, Elizabethan Archivist: His Contributions to the Evolution of Archival Practice’, American Archivist, 61 (1998), 56–69. For the situation in Italy, see F. de Vivo, Information and Communication in Venice: Rethinking Early Modern Politics (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007), and P. Dover, ‘Deciphering the Diplomatic Archives of Fifteenth-Century Italy’, Archival Science, 7 (2007), 297–316.

(4) For examples of this fluidity, see the essays in the special issue of Libraries and the Cultural Record, 44 (2009), 1–152: Personal Papers in History: Papers from the Third International Conference on the History of Records and Archives.

(5) Two early lexicons describe filum and thread synonymously: Anon, Catholicon Anglicum (c.1475), under ‘a Threde’, and T. Elyot, The Dictionary of Syr Thomas Eliot Knyght (London, Thomas Berthelet, 1538), under ‘Filum’. See Lexicon of Early Modern English (leme.library.utoronto.ca) for additional examples.

(6) J. Minsheu, Ductor in Linguas, the Guide into Tongues (London, John Brown [for the author], 1617): ‘File, filacium, is a threed or weier whereon Writs or other exhibits in Courts are fastned for the more safe keeping of them’, p. 194. This definition appears in earlier and later dictionaries as well.

(7) W. Sewel, A Large Dictionary English and Dutch (Amsterdam, Steven Swart, 1708). One could file other things upon string too, such as pearls (see Joseph Hall, Quo vadis? [London, H. Fetherstone, 1617], p. 20).

(8) H. Th. Colenbrander, ‘The Sitter in Jan Gossaert’s Portrait of a Merchant in the National Gallery of Art, Washington: Jan Snoeck (c.1510–85)’, The Burlington Magazine, 152 (2010), 82–5.

(9) M. Ainsworth, ‘Portrait of a Merchant (Jan Snoeck?)’, in M. W. Ainsworth (ed.), Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance: The Complete Works (New York and New Haven, CT, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2010), pp. 290–2. Our one small quibble is that she misidentifies the multiple knotted laces as ‘a knotted cord’.

(11) P. Stallybrass, R. Chartier, F. Mowery, and H. Wolfe, ‘Hamlet’s Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 55 (2004), 379–419.

(12) Calengier: Item men mach hier in scriuen met priemen ghemaect van gout, of van siluer, of van ten, of van koeper, of van laettoen, ende met eene[n] natten vingher machment wt doen. Ende wanneert soe veroudt is, dattet niet meer scriuen en wil, soe salt den seluen Jan Seuers soon parkementmaker om een cleyn ghelt vermaeken, dattet so wel scriuen sal oft nieuwe waer. Met vinste te koop in die vermaerde coopstadt van Antwerpen, op di Lombaerde veste: By Jan Seuers soon int gros, in die huyse van Jan Gasten boecke bijnder. Item of den wtwisschers vingher vet waer, soe salmen neme[n] een cleyspongie met wat weyten bloems, en daer salt veter mede wt gaen. Int iaer ons Heeren. 1527. [Calendar: Item you may write here with a stylus of gold, silver, tin, copper, or brass, and you may erase [what you have written] with a wet finger. And when you have worn out [the erasable surface], so that you cannot write on it any more, you can get it repaired by Jan Seuerszoon, parchment maker, for a little money, and you can then write on it as if it was new. Sold for your benefit in the famous mercantile city of Antwerp, on the Lombaerde veste: wholesale by Jan Seuerszoon, at the house of Jan Gasten, bookbinder. Item if you get grease on it by erasing with your finger, you should use a clay sponge [cleyspongie] with a little flour, and the grease will come off. In the year of our Lord, 1527], New York Public Library, Spencer Collection, Netherlands 1527, 94–143.

(13) A. Blair, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 2011).

(14) According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘minute’, n. 1, III.8a, can mean in English ‘a rough draft of a document or letter; a note or memorandum giving instructions to an agent, servant’. We interpret the file in the upper-left as being composed of drafts-turned-copies of his outgoing correspondence.

(15) ‘A Bill of money expended by me Henry Linch for necessaries &c for the Comittee at Cambden howse Dec 21th 1643’, The National Archives, Kew, SP 28/212. We are grateful to Jason Peacey for drawing our attention to the parliamentary papers as a useful resource.

(16) Orders of ‘Tape’ recur regularly thereafter, such as ‘6 pieces of Tape’ ordered on 2, 9, 16, and 23 December and 6 January.

(17) For twisted parchment, see several files of receipts for parliamentary subsidies in 1645–6 (SP 28/157 [b]) and an estate file for Geddings Manor, Hertfordshire, that combines documents from 1622 to 1674 on a tie that passes through a single hole. (Geddings Manor, Hertfordshire, 1622–74, Ernest Cushing Richardson Collection of Documents, Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. We are grateful to Don Skemer for bringing this file to our attention.) For the use of pins, see, for instance, a substantial docket of the ‘Asseasse’ documents for Erith, Kent, on 21 March 1644 (SP 28/157 [d]), where the pin has bent under the pressure. By contrast, the Assize documents for the same Kent parish for 1 April 1646 are sewn together with thread along the top of the file (SP 28/157 [c]). For the use of wire, see the record of expenses by Isaac Newton in 1667, when he paid 2s. 6d. for ‘Letters, wyer, files’, presumably referring to postage for incoming letters and to the wire and filing tools necessary to string them together (Isaac Newton, ‘Fitzwilliam Notebook’, f. 6v, The Newton Project, http://www.newtonproject.ox.ac.uk/view/texts/normalized/ALCH00069, accessed 1 October 2017).

(18) J. Goldsmith, Goldsmith. An Almanack for the Year of Our Lord God 1671 (London, T. Ratcliff for the Company of Stationers, [1670]), Beinecke Library 2009 S50 1671, ff. 3v–4.

(19) M. E. Bohannon, ‘A London Bookseller’s Bill, 1635–1639’, The Library, 4th ser., 18 (1938), 417–46.

(20) Adrian van Ostade, Lawyer in His Study, 1637, Private collection.

(21) Yax, ‘Arthur Agarde’; van der Helst, Daniel Bernard, 1669, Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, inv. No. 1297.

(22) Lorenzo Attavante, manuscript illumination in a ms of Berlighieri’s Italian translation of Ptolemy, Biblioteca Braidense, MS AC.XIV.44, reproduced in Dora Thornton, The Scholar in His Study: Ownership and Experience in Renaissance Italy (New Haven, CT, and London, Yale University Press, 1997), ill. 36, p. 56.

(23) Thornton, Scholar in His Study, p. 130. See also ill. 77, p. 130, which shows a woodcut from the Malermi Bible (Venice, 1490), depicting bills filed up on string.

(24) Maarten van Heemskerk, Portrait of a Man, 1529, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, SK-A-3518.

(25) J. Vernon, The Compleat Comptinghouse (London, Benjamin Billingsley, 1678), p. 36.

(26) Draft letters are sometimes more widely spaced than sent letters, to allow for the insertion of additions and emendations. They do not have a superscription and are unsigned, and survive among the papers of the senders rather than the recipients. Nathaniel Bacon’s secretary, Martin Man, endorsed and bundled Bacon’s incoming and outgoing correspondence. In V. Morgan, E. Rutledge, and B. Taylor (eds), The Papers of Nathaniel Bacon of Stiffkey (Norwich, Norfolk Record Society, 2010), vol. 5, pp. xix–xx, the editors note that ‘Draft letters, which can be identified easily from the handwriting or endorsement, would have remained in the Stiffkey evidence room.’

(27) Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. R. Latham and W. Matthews, 12 vols (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1970–83), 19 May 1663, vol. 4, p. 144.

(28) Diary of Samuel Pepys, 3 September 1661, vol. 2, p. 171.

(29) Diary of Samuel Pepys, 9 December 1666, vol. 7, p. 402.

(30) Miscarry, OED, 1. Obs.

(32) Huntington Library, ST vol. 38, fol. 23v. We are grateful to Rosemary O’Day for this reference.

(33) Letter from Sir Thomas Temple to Harry Rose, 11 February 1630/1, Huntington Library, STT Corresp. 2147.

(34) Letter from Sir Thomas Temple to Harry Rose, 31 December 1631, Huntington Library, STT Corresp. 2284.

(35) He also makes a note to himself in 1621 ‘to file vp the acquittances for part of rentes out of landes chearely &c’ (Huntington Library, ST vol. 43, fol. 36r).

(36) William Dugdale, The Antiquities of Warwickshire (London, Printed by Thomas Warren, 1656), sigs. b3v–4r.

(37) See R. Head, ‘Knowing Like a State: The Transformation of Political Knowledge in Swiss Archives, 1450–1770’, Journal of Modern History, 75 (2003), 745–82, and Head, ‘Mirroring Governance: Archives, Inventories and Political Knowledge in Early Modern Switzerland and Europe’, Archival Science, 7 (2007), 317–29. Copying letters and documents into bound blank volumes, to be stored on shelves in archives and libraries, became an increasingly important form of archiving in this period. The 1699–1700 House of Commons accounts that we looked at above are full not only of filing equipment but also of blank books into which documents were copied. On 16 November 1699, for instance, the Commons ordered ‘1 New Journal and Binding the Old’, ‘6 Committee Books’, ‘2 Minute Books’, ‘6. small pockett Books’, and ‘1 Book for Accompts’. On letterbooks, into which letters were copied, see H. Wolfe and A. Stewart, Letterwriting in Renaissance England (Washington, DC, Folger Shakespeare Library, 2005); Daybell, Material Letters, pp. 175–85; and E. R. Williamson, ‘Before “Diplomacy”: Travel, Embassy, and the Production of Political Knowledge in the Later Sixteenth Century’, PhD thesis (Queen Mary, University of London, 2012).

(38) For an illustrated overview of many of the filing systems discussed in this chapter, see H. Wolfe, ‘Filing, Seventeenth-Century Style’, The Collation: Research and Exploration at the Folger, 28 March 2013, http://collation.folger.edu/2013/03/filing-seventeenth-century-style (accessed 1 October 2017).

(39) Houghton Library, MS Eng 1319.

(40) On the significance of ephemera for the history of printing, see P. Stallybrass, ‘“Little Jobs”: Broadsides and the Printing Revolution’, in S. Alcorn Baron, E. N. Lindquist, and E. F. Shevlin (eds), Agent of Change: Print Culture Studies after Elizabeth L. Eisenstein (Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), pp. 315–41.

(41) Benedetto Cotrugli—The Book of the Art of Trade: With Scholarly Essays, ed. C. Carraro and G. Favero, trans. J. F. Phillimore (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), p. 73. In this case, filing refers to bundling.

(42) This section builds on current scholarly work on the materiality of early modern letter-writing. See, for example, the work of the ‘Signed, Sealed, and Undelivered’ project at brienne.org; Daybell, Material Letter, especially pp. 217–28; H. Wolfe, ‘“Neatly Sealed, with Silk, and Spanish Wax or Otherwise”: the Practice of Letter-Locking with Silk Floss in Early Modern England’, in S. P. Cerasano and S. W. May (eds), ‘In the Prayse of Writing’: Early Modern Manuscript Studies Essays in Honour of Peter Beal (London, British Library, 2012), pp. 169–89, and Wolfe and Stewart, Letterwriting.

(43) Pre-formed envelopes were not common until the 1830s.

(44) Letter from Anne Broughton to Dorothy Okeover, 16 January 1606/7, Folger Shakespeare Library, MS L.a.233. See also ‘Copies of letters to my vncle Kynnersley’, the endorsement on MS L.a.120. For more on Bagot’s endorsements and marginalia see H. Wolfe, ‘Aphorism Therapy, or, How to Cope with Dishonest Relatives’, The Collation: Research and Exploration at the Folger, 21 March 2014, http://collation.folger.edu/2014/03/aphorism-therapy-or-how-to-cope-with-dishonest-relatives/ (accessed 1 October 2017).

(45) Letter from Lewis Bagot to Walter Bagot, circa 1611, Folger Shakespeare Library, MS L.a.67.

(46) Letter from Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, to Queen Elizabeth, 29 August 1588, TNA SP 12/215, fol. 114.

(48) Society of American Archivists, definition of ‘records management’, in A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology, http://archivists.org/glossary/terms/r/records-management (accessed 1 October 2017).

(49) We have, however, encountered one example of filing as a form of long-term preservation. In a letter from Arthur Charlett, master of University College, Oxford, to Thomas Tanner, 27 August 1694 (Bodleian, MS Tanner 25, fol. 204), he explains that he has found ‘our Muniments’ to be ‘in so strange & unaccountable a Disorder’, that he has filed them ‘under proper heades in order to make them Usefull to Ourselves, & such Others as shall hereafter desire to consult them’. He explains he has arranged the charters in chronological order and numbered them, with the numbers indexed in a vellum book, and the documents themselves to be transcribed there. The book is for everyday use, so that ‘the Originals may not bee tumbled about too much’. As to the files, ‘they shall be seald up, I mean a Seal fixd to each End of every File, that they may not bee taken off without Leave & good Assureance to restore them to their proper place again … for I reckon, that there will never bee any Need to take them off but for Tryalls at Law, in which case the Seal must be broken’.

(50) Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde, A Notary in his Office Handing Deeds to a Man with a Youth Looking On, Haarlem, 1672, Oil on canvas, in Old Master Paintings, 7 July 2005, Sotheby’s London Auction Sale Catalogue, Lot No. 17, https://shar.es/19qweq (accessed 1 October 2017). We are grateful to Nicholas Penny for drawing this painting to our attention.

(51) For Italian bags for storing papers, known as tasche or sachetti, see Thornton, Scholar in His Study, p. 130.

(52) Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, Ellesmere Papers 35/B/60, f. 12, quoted in Popper, ‘From Abbey to Archive’, 260. See also Kate Peters’s chapter in this volume.

(53) Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, Ellesmere Papers 925, f. 1.

(54) Nicholas Faunt, Mr. Fants discourse touchinge the Office of principall Secretarie of Estate etc. Aprill 1592 (Bodleian Tanner MS 80, fol. 91), in C. Hughes (ed.), ‘‘Nicholas Faunt’s Discourse Touching the Office of Principal Secretary of Estate, &c. 1592’, English Historical Review, 20 (1905), 499–508, at 502 and 505.

(57) See the ongoing work of the ‘Signed, Sealed, and Undelivered’ research team at brienne.org.

(58) Dorothy Jordan, Hair Box, originally containing the letters, tied with pink ribbons, that are now individually housed as Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, MSS DJ 1–527 (527 pieces, 12 boxes).

(60) John Owles, Receipt made out to William Banyard, 5 November 1590, Folger Shakespeare Library, MS L.d.795.

(61) G. Burnet, The History of the Reformation of the Church of England: The First Part of the Progress Made in it during the Reign of K. Henry the VIII (London, 1679), sig. (b)3.

(62) Popper, ‘From Abbey to Archive’, 250–2. For more institutional forms of preservation, see E. M. Hallam, ‘The Tower of London as a Record Office’, Journal of the Society of Archivists, 14 (1979), 3–10, and Hallam, ‘Nine Centuries of Keeping the Public Records’, in G. H. Martin and P. Spufford (eds), The Records of the Nation: the Public Record Office, 1838–1988, the British Record Society, 1888–1988 (Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 1990), pp. 9–16; R. B. Wernham, ‘The Public Records in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries’, in L. Fox (ed.), English Historical Scholarship in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (London, Dugdale Society, 1956), pp. 11–48.

(63) Letter from Thomas Rogers to John Ferrers, Westminster, 22 July 1661, Folger Shakespeare Library, MS L.e.731.

(64) A good starting point for a survey of such terms is Lexicons of Early Modern English: LEME, available at http://leme.library.utoronto.ca (accessed 1 October 2017). Other significant words apart from those discussed include ‘casket’ (from the mid-15th century), ‘cabinet’ (from the mid-16th century), and ‘bureau’ (from the later 17th century). Note the radical ambiguity of both ‘cabinet’ and ‘bureau’, which can refer to a body of people (e.g. the ‘Cabinet Council’ or a government agency), a room, or a piece of furniture. ‘Bureau’ is particularly interesting because it originally meant the baize used for covering an accounting table (from the old French burel, beginning of the 14th century). By extension it was applied to the table at which audiences were granted and then to the accounting office itself, both as a room and as a body of people.

(65) P. Agius, ‘Late Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Furniture in Oxford: A Survey of that Listed in the Probate Inventories of Members of the University 1568–1699’, Furniture History, 7 (1971), 72–86, at 81.

(66) Claudius Hollyband, The Treasurie of the French Tong (London, Henry Bynneman, 1580).

(67) See F. Bouza, Communication, Knowledge, and Memory in Early Modern Spain, trans. S. López and M. Agnew (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), passim.

(68) J. F. Riano, Classified and Descriptive Catalogue of the Art Objects of Spanish Production in the South Kensington Museum (London, G. E. Eyre and W. Spottiswoode, 1871), pp. 21–2.

(69) J. Irwin, ‘A Jacobean Vogue for Oriental Lacquer-Ware’, Burlington Magazine, 95 (1953), 192–5, at 194.

(71) M. Bohr, N. Imrie, and J. Scanlan, ‘A London Writing Cabinet for Cosimo III: A Late Seventeenth-Century Furniture Type and the Anglo-Italian Art Trade’, Studies in the Decorative Arts, 17 (2009–10), 33–67, at 43.

(72) Randle Cotgrave, A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (London, A. Islip, 1611).

(73) Huntington Library, STT Corresp. 2314, 28 February to 5 March 1634/5.

(74) All the quotations are taken from Agius, ‘Furniture in Oxford’, pp. 72–86.

(75) Domenico Benotti, ‘The John Evelyn Cabinet’, Victoria and Albert Museum, W.24:1 to 24–1977. For a detailed description, from which the discussion below is drawn, see http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O9058/the-john-evelyn-cabinet-cabinet-on-stand-benotti-domenico/ (accessed 1 October 2017).

(76) R. Glen, ‘Lines of Love: Women’s Letters and Epistolary Forms in Seventeenth-Century England’, PhD thesis (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, 2007), pp. 43–7.

(77) M. Watt, ‘Cabinet with Personification of the Five Senses’, in A. Morrall and M. Watt (eds), English Embroidery from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1580–1700: ’Twixt Art and Nature (New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 2008), no. 52, pp. 208–12.

(78) Quoted in K. Staples, ‘Embroidered Furnishings: Questions of Production and Usage’, in English Embroidery, pp. 22–37, at 25–6.

(80) See A. J. Sellen and R. H. R. Harper, The Myth of the Paperless Office (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2001). Digitising may now be beginning to reduce the use of paper, at least in corporate archives.

(81) See A. Blair, ‘Note Taking as an Art of Transmission’, Critical Inquiry, 31 (2004), 85–107, at 86, and R. Yeo, Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science (Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 2014), especially pp. 151–73 on Robert Boyle’s ‘loose notes’ and ‘inadequate organization’, and, above all, on the relation between loss and preservation, E. Yale, ‘With Slips and Scraps: How Early Modern Naturalists Invented the Archive’, Book History, 12 (2009), 1–36, and Yale, Sociable Knowledge: Natural History and the Nation in Early Modern Britain (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

(82) We are grateful to the Marquess of Townshend for generously opening up his family archives for study by Heather Wolfe.