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How to Read Very Old Books

By Harriet Staff

Venus

In a recent post at The Appendix, a new journal of narrative and experimental history, Benjamin Breen walks us through the extraordinary practice of reading antique texts. Breen, a PhD candidate in history at the University of Texas at Austin and a co-founder and editor of The Appendix, includes the minutes of a 1704 record book from the Royal Society, Thomas Elyot’s The Castell of Helth (1536), and an early draft of John Donne’s poem, “The Triple Fool” in his travels.

Last month, I came across a recently digitized book from 1680 with the innocuous-sounding title The School of Venus. After browsing it for a few moments, however, I realized I’d stumbled onto something truly interesting. It was a sex manual, and a rather free-spirited one at that, as the frontispiece engraving suggests…

It occurred to me that this was the sort of thing that would appeal to people outside of my specialist field of early modern history, and I began writing a blog post about it for the The Appendix. Reading over my draft, my co-editor Chris brought up something that I’d taken for granted: like any 17th century book, the text employed what’s called the ‘long’ or ‘descending’ S.

“If this has the reach I think it might,” he said, “you need to explain that.” I initially thought the suggestion was slightly condescending to my readers: doesn’t everyone know about the old-timey S? Its right there in the first line of the Bill of Rights, after all.

Then I snapped out of it and realized that I was falling into the myopia typical of anyone who spends a long time in a specialist field. Like a biologist assuming that laypeople would know what hemoglobin is, I was forgetting that not everyone spends their days reading early modern texts…

So I write today to give an accessible overview of how to read books and manuscripts from the early modern era – what scholars call the period spanning the early Renaissance to the French, American and Industrial Revolutions. To tackle the S first: the long S dates back to the old Roman cursive handwriting, and survived as an artifact in the earliest printed book fonts, which were modeled on various medieval handwriting forms. The key thing to understand about the long S is that it occurs only in the middle of words, never at the beginning or end. Thus the title of School of Venus would not feature a long S in either its first or final letters, but words like ‘Castle’ or ‘Lost’ would appear as ‘Caſtle’ and ‘Loſt.’

More adventures and exploration at The Appendix.

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, August 1st, 2013 by Harriet Staff.