“My spelling is Wobbly. It’s good spelling but it Wobbles, and the letters get in the wrong places”. Thus spake Winnie the Pooh. The sentiment may resonate for students encountering sixteenth-century English manuscripts, in which not just spelling but the entire system of lettering seems designed to confound, in an endless tussle with pre-standardised orthography, erratic (or non-existent) punctuation, and inscrutable letter-forms.


A particularly challenging brand of sixteenth-century handwriting is “secretary hand”, the dominant script for most of the century. It was the default hand used by writers of most ranks for most purposes and genres: “the Secretaries common hand” is so called because it is “the onely usuall hand of England, for dispatching of all manner of businesses for the most part, whatsoever”, records Martin Billingsley in his 1618 writing manual, The Pens Excellencie.

Billingsley’s definition, so capacious as to encompass almost everything and define almost nothing, masks a paradox. For a hand used almost universally, secretary script is execrable –rebarbative, thorny, rough-hewn, and, worse still, often inconsistent: individual letter-forms appear in bewilderingly various ways. It is not, or is rarely, a thing of beauty. It resembles that handwriting likened by P. G. Wodehouse to the “movements of a fly that had fallen into an ink-pot, and subsequently taken a little brisk exercise on a sheet of foolscap”.


This assault on the eye (and patience) of modern readers, especially those new to palaeography, seems even more egregious given the availability to sixteenth-century scribes of a considerably more beauteous, more legible script – italic. Italic, imported (unsurprisingly) from Italy, combined crisp Roman capitals with elegant Carolingian minuscules. Originally reserved in England for Latin texts and diplomatic correspondence, it came into the ascendancy in the late-sixteenth century: whether the Palatinian italic taught to the young Edward VI and princess Elizabeth, or the faster, more permissive Crescian italic in vogue by the turn of the seventeenth century, italic is shot through with classicizing, humanistic credentials. It bespeaks clarity, refinement, social distinction.


Since most writers could switch between secretary and italic (Sir Walter Ralegh, for instance, was proficient in secretary, italic, and a transitional state between the two called a “mixed” hand), why did English scribes – and why should modern readers – persist with secretary hand? For scribes, one redeeming merit of secretary script is that, more workaday and businesslike than other cursive scripts, it could apparently be written more briskly. This rapidity, however, brought its own perils: secretary letter-shapes often appear sloppy and garbled. Crib sheets and Renaissance writing manuals are often of little help to modern palaeographers faced with idiosyncratic, irregular scrawls left by fallible, inconsistent writers subject to haste, fatigue, and age.


Secretary hand – the messy, Aristotelian instantiations of letter-shapes – rarely conforms to secretary script – the theoretical, Platonic ideal of what secretary letters should look like. Readers of these manuscripts hoping to find neat, regular copy-hands – what Katherine in Love’s Labour’s Lost calls letter-forms “Fair as a text B in a copy-book” – will be disappointed, and resent what seems like the insouciant disregard of sixteenth-century English scribes for the sanity of twenty-first-century palaeographers half a millennium later.


But there are reasons to persevere. Reading secretary hand activates unconscious cryptographic skills. The torturous machinery of superscript contractions, fossil thorns, r-loop abbreviations, and brevigraphs may give rise to the perverse satisfaction that comes from staring at something for hours until it resolves itself into clarity. Unriddling the mystery inside the enigma is partly an art of forgetting – of ditching assumptions about what letter forms should be: what looks like “r” is probably “c”, what seems to be “f” may just be “t” in disguise, and that unsightly pen-slip is probably “e”.


Decipherment brings attendant pleasures. Intense engagement with individual hands familiarizes readers with the expressive traits of individual authors – handwriting was likened by Erasmus to the personalizing timbre of the human voice: “every handwriting has something unique about it”, he ventured in De recta pronuntiatione (1528). Moreover, messier handwriting offers up clearer traces of a mind in the act of thinking, preserving a closer intimacy between the page and the writer’s deliberations. In the period itself, italic, especially in its most calligraphic neatness, was sometimes associated with mechanical copying by scribes, often in producing formal presentation texts, whereas hastily-penned secretary script might more readily connote original, unmediated composition in the author’s own hand – a chirographic embodiment of authenticity.


Given the mess and noise of secretary-script pages, the instinctive temptation is to assume that the writer is, consciously, irritatingly, trying to hide rather than convey meaning, arguably defeating the very purpose of writing. Yet the more frustrating the hand, the greater potential for a kind of jouissance. Secretary hand invokes a long tradition of consciously-difficult handwriting: the early seventeenth-century poet and pen-man John Davies of Hereford associated contemporary legal hands with the impenetrability of “Egyptian Hieroglyphicks” (The Writing Schoolemaster, 1631). Yet what seems to jeopardise clarity can generate pleasure – secretary hand, with its execrably-squashed letters and contorted flourishes, often compounded by blots, strikethroughs, and revisions, had its own cachet as a potentially unfathomable, mysterious script. For Billingsley, in The Pens Excellencie, it contained “many secret and subtill passages of the hand, which few, but those that have bin well grounded therein by a true Artist, are able to comprehend”; its virtue is that “some things in it […] are not easily to be found out”.


Aesthetic difficulty, as the sixteenth-century Italian poet Giovanni Batista Guarini theorised, could be its own source of pleasure. “Yeah”, quips Ross Geller, sarcastically, “obvious beauty’s the worst. You know, when it’s right there in your face”. Sometimes there are merits in labouring to find something attractive, to feel like we have (in Ross’s terms) “earned it”. Thomas Hoby’s 1561 translation of Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano articulates the idea in relation to writing: compelling writing sports “a litle (I will not saie diffycultie) but couered subtilty”, forcing readers “to pause at it”, to “ponder it better”, to take “delyte in the wittinesse and learning of him that writeth”. These readers “tast[e] the pleas[ure] that consisteth in harde thinges”. So, for secretary-hand documents, there is perhaps a double art of reading: semantic reading (uncovering the writer’s conceit and ideas), and affective reading (which prizes deferred, laboured gratification from the slow release of meaning). Winnie the Pooh’s wobbly illegibility becomes its own virtue.


Dr Chris Stamatakis, a lecturer in English at UCL, teaches on the London International Palaeography Summer School.