The Arte of Faire Writing

Guest blog by Dr Sebastiaan Verweij, Senior Lecturer in Late-Medieval and Early Modern English Literature at the University of Bristol and University of Glasgow Library Research Fellow.

In 2020 I was awarded a University of Glasgow Library Visiting Fellowship at Archives and Special Collections. The pandemic delayed my opportunity to visit by two years, but in 2022 I managed at last to spend two happy weeks in the Level 12 reading room during April and August. My project revolved around Scottish manuscripts, and more particularly, seventeenth century commonplace books, miscellanies, and verse anthologies containing literary texts (mostly poetry).

Before I will report on these, I might draw your attention to why we should care about handwritten documents like these. One reason was suggested by the first Scottish writing master to publish a printed manual about penmanship (and penwomanship), David Browne. In The New Invention, Intituled, Calligraphia, or, The Arte of Faire Writing he argued that ‘without the use of Printing, the Estates of the Worlde might stand, like as they did more than 5400. yeares, for it is not aboue 200. yeares yet since it began to flowrish: and so there is not so great necessitie in the use of Printing, as of Writing; for Writing must needes be, or else there could be litle Civile order; but each one circumvene and spoyle his Neighbour without remedie of Iustice’ (sig. 2❡2v). Browne was also aware he was a trail-blazer: ‘never anie SCOTTISH Man hath left anie preceptes behinde him, how to write anie forme, eyther usuall in his own Countrey, or elsewhere’ (sig. 2❡3v).

Browne clearly had a high opinion about the calligraphical arts, and many of the manuscripts I have seen during my fellowship would have disappointed the writing master. Yet the notion that handwriting engendered ‘order’, and through that, could further knowledge and understanding, is true in many ways for the manuscript cultures of this period. Incidentally, Archives and Special Collections holds a special copy of the Calligraphia. Not all copies were so treated, but ASC Sp Coll Mu31-h.3 contains handwritten samples to demonstrate Browne’s craft.


Two of the Glasgow commonplace books I have seen suggest a low-key and occasional interest in verse, transcribed into collections that also served other goals. The first example is MS Gen 70, a religious commonplace book c. 1676-1721. The compiler entered excerpts from the Bible under thematic headings (e.g., ‘concerning faith’, ‘labour’, ‘law’, ‘love’, patience’, ‘tempt’). This was a common way to practice personal piety and served to continually reinforce the everyday impact of God’s word. Where this scribe eventually turned to poetry, this was in fact copied from a printed book, perhaps one s/he had borrowed for a while (Andrew Welwood’s Meditations Representing A Glimpse of Glory, or A Gospel Discovery of Emmanuel’s Land, 1721).

The other example of a manuscript with some occasional poetry is MS Murray 188, a commonplace book from c. 1695-1730 kept in Glasgow by Walter Peter and Margaret Alexander. It contains exercises in Latin and Greek, accounts, scraps of verse, medical remedies for childbirth, and countless pen trials. The latter part of the manuscript consists of receipts made out to Alexander, perhaps by Glasgow merchants and shopkeepers. Elsewhere in the volume, some poems tell a wholly different story than MS Gen 70 above. Once more transcribed from a printed book (perhaps the London collection of bawdy verse, Wit and Drollery (1661)), the first stanza reveals enough of the type of poem that was surrepticiously enjoyed here:

Shew lai naked in her bed
And I my selfe lay by
No vail no curtens about her spred
No covering but I.

MS Gen 1117

The collection I spent most time with, and the greatest surprise, was MS Gen 1117: a large compilation of Presbyterian and Covenanting reportage that was laboriously written out (all 504 folio pages) between 1637 and 1640. Before saying anything else about it, let’s just take a moment to appreciate the penmanship. David Browne would have been so proud!

This hand belonged to one ‘John Robertson, writer’, who at any opportunity lavishly inscribed his name, occupation, and the dates of transcription for the c. 125 texts he copied. I have yet to locate this ‘John Robertson’ more fully in the historical record, but I suspect he made a living by his pen, though the designation ‘writer’ described a variety of jobs: scrivener, law clerk, secretary, governmental or Kirk servant, or even a writing master. If anyone reading this blog has come across Robertson’s distinctive penmanship elsewhere, I would love to hear from you.

The manuscript contains many texts relating to the struggles of the Scottish Covenanters between 1637-1640, some exceptionally turbulent years that saw the signing of the National Covenant, the Bishop’s Wars, Glasgow Assembly, and ever more entrenched struggles between the king and Covenanters. Robertson’s digest documented these affairs in detail, as if he kept his own personal history book while affairs unfolded around him. The manuscript was also designed for more effective information retrieval, through the addition of ‘Ane Tabill [table of contents] of the haill Particulars Conteind in this buik fra the 23 day of Jullij 1637 Through that serwice buik book of cannonis & Wther Innovatiounis Quhilk vas than Violentlie Wrgit Wpone the Church of Edinburgh’ (image 9).

He also copied c. 25 poems, mostly supporting the Presbyterian resistance to the Episcolian reforms that were pushed through by king and government. Much of the poetry, then, espoused a deep distrust of anything remotely reeking of popery. The following short poem (cf. Image 11) illustrates this position well:

I loue no popische perimeanteris
Nor retrospicious Acusanteris
Nor Romane Catholick Recanteris
Nor nane of thar degrie
Thair all whoorische Babell hanteris
And all Idolatrous Inchanteris
Bot I love christeane Cowenanteris
And so sall quhill I die. (MS Gen 1117, f. 188v)

Several poems in the manuscript are known from other sources, notably National Library of Scotland, Adv. MS 19.3.6, the collection of so-called ‘pasquils’ made by David Balfour, the antiquary and Lyon King of Arms. But MS Gen 1117 contains at least a few poems that (so far) have not been found anywhere, and as such, this is a crucial collection to understand better the role of poetry and manuscript making in the proliferation of news and propaganda of the Coventanting movement.

 MS Gen 1117 finally presents a puzzle. It turned out that another manuscript at the National Library of Scotland contained most (not all) of the same texts, in virtually the same order, but lacking any of Robertson’s exuberant scribal habits (as well as the ‘tabill’). This manuscript (NLS Wodrow Quarto CVI) was a copy made around the turn of the eighteenth century, perhaps some six decades after Robertson had completed his job. Yet there are enough differences (especially small but distinctive textual variants) between the two manuscripts to make me doubt that MS Gen 1117 acted as an exemplar directly. What this means is that in fact another intermediary manuscript has been lost, or even that the Wodrow Quarto and Glasgow MS Gen 1117 were both copied from an earlier source. The latter seems least likely, certainly because the sheer presence and personality on the page of this scribe Robertson. I would like to believe, for now, that Robertson was not merely the scribe, but was himself engaged in the gathering and collecting of the many sources in print and manuscript from which he copied, a laborious process which also demanded good connections and access to materials that circulated around the country. This hypothesizing about the transmission history is important because it allowes us to estimate whether MS Gen 1117 was a one-off production by an eccentric scribe, or whether in fact this sort of culture of manuscript making was more widely practised. I think that the latter was the case, and paying attention to this manuscript and the networks of circulation that underpinned its creation can help us understand how contemporaries made sense of the turbulent seventeenth-century history of Scotland.


This research fellowship has been instrumental in two ways: first, without access to the manuscripts, this research could simply not have happened. Second, and this is no less important, being able to set aside other obligations and dedicate two weeks of attention to a research project is a great luxury. So I will end by thanking Glasgow University of Glasgow Library and the Archives & Special Collections staff for this opportunity, for their expertise, and their unfailing support.

Sebastiaan Verweij’s ‘”Civic Order”: Scottish Seventeenth-Century Miscellanies, Commonplace Books, and Literary Anthologies’ will be published in The Oxford Handbook of Medieval and Early Modern Miscellanies, ed. by Joshua Eckhardt (Oxford University Press)

Categories: Archive Services, Archives and Special Collections, Special Collections

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1 reply

  1. how interesting and beautiful

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