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New Publication Shows Manual Writing was aided by Printing

30 June 2017 - Work in Hand: Print, Script and Writing 1690-1840 is the latest publication by Dr Aileen Douglas, Associate Professor at Trinity’s School of English, who through her research has highlighted the proliferation of manual writing from the late 17th century into the early 19th century due to the advancement of print.

Work in HandPeople talk about print putting an end to manual writing during this period but my thesis is the opposite – that print actually encourages more writing of different kinds. There was a tremendous energy around manual writing at this particular historical moment’, said Dr Douglas who recently launched the book at the Trinity Long Room Hub.

In the book she also addresses the importance of engraving and how important the printing press was to copying images. In the late 17th century, she says that we can start to see a lot of engravings with hand writing, which are seen first in copy books when people copy the hands and by doing so, learn to write.

‘One of the ideas in the book in that writing always begins with copying, so the process of beginning a new work begins with copying and one of the things that print allows is the transmission of script so people can teach themselves – they don’t need a school master – they can teach themselves from the copy books.’

The book focuses mainly on the British Isles as London was a central point for the production of these copy books, and a departure point for export abroad to destinations such as America. Indeed, as Dr Douglas explains, America doesn’t begin to produce its own copy books until the 19th century.

Dr Douglas carried out much of her research in the Clarke Library in Los Angeles, where there is a significant collection of these copy books. She also looked at resources in The British Library and from Trinity Library’s own manuscript archive for materials relating to the Irish charter schools, which along with colonial teaching of writing in India, is also a focus of one of the chapters in the book. The Irish Charter Schools formed part of the colonial strategy of the British Empire to promote English Protestantism among the Catholic population in Ireland.

According to Dr Douglas, during this time, people start to conceptualise the practice of writing itself.  ‘In the medieval and early modern times the shape of the letters on the page is dictated by the kind of document you’re writing; you use secretary hand for certain kinds of correspondence, for example; but it’s only really in the 18th century you begin to get this idea that people have distinctive hands and the idea that they reveal something about their personality.’  By the end of the 18th century, she says that we begin to get a lot of autographs reproduced and engraved in journals and other such materials. ‘There’s a real cult of autograph collecting. All of this is encouraged by print.’

In the book, one of the literary figures Dr Douglas looks at is Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth, who’s very interested in the act of writing and education. ‘She becomes very conscious as she gets older about the way in which people might be interested in her hand writing and how they might try to interpret it’. Towards the end of her life she writes a novel called Helen that has a significant amount of material to do with autographs and the sort of cult of autograph collecting.’

Having published an extensive work of this kind on the practice of writing and script, Dr Douglas reflects on the loss of the art of writing in today’s society. ‘By the early 19th century there is an idea that hand writing reveals character. Today, because people don’t write as much any more, it’s sometimes suggested we are losing a part of what it means to be human. One of the ironies I found when working on the book was that a lot of these copy books have been digitised, so they are now available in a way they weren’t when I started as a researcher, but often times the lines are so faint that you really need to look at a print copy to see it. Technology and ideas of the human are always circling around one another.’

Work in Hand: Script, Print, and Writing, 1690-1840 is published by Oxford University Press.

Contact: Aoife King, Communications Officer | Trinity Long Room Hub | | 01 896 3895

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