I’ve been reading a lot of interesting documents lately, including some very cool and very old Clark House related manuscripts. (More details on these exciting documents coming later this spring or early summer.) We’ve looked at many old manuscripts here at Clark House Historian, and I think I’m pretty good at deciphering most older English handwriting from about 1700 until the present and, with help, I can even figure out many German scripts from the late 18th- through the 19th-century.
But then there’s this, a real Clark House Historian History Mystery:
That’s the handwriting of a literate English-speaking man or woman of a certain era. I’ve seen handwriting like this before in old Cornwall parish records of my Perkins family. In my (limited) experience I’ve seen this style of writing on documents dating from the later-1600s through the early 1700s, perhaps as late as 1750 or so. But I’m not an expert on Early Modern English or English orthography, and it’s possible that this hand was in use as early as the 1500s. It may (or may not) be a variation on the English writing style known as Secretary hand.
For some reason, this writing style remains very difficult for me to read. I’ve spent enough time with examples of this hand—and the many spelling conventions of the era—that I’m not completely lost, but there is a lot here that I don’t understand. So I’m asking you readers to take a crack at it, and Help the Historian! with this mysterious passage.
Along the way, I recommend you click on each image to open it in a new, larger window. You’ll get the best, enlargeable, view of each mystery text and my annotations. Here are your clues:
How many paragraphs?
Today’s manuscript (MS) excerpt is an undated marginal note written in ink at the bottom of an old religious book. I think it’s some sort of biblical quotation, perhaps a proverb, or something similar.
As you can see, the author has written the lines at a bit of a slant, compared to the book’s page margins and the printed horizontal lines that separate the three columns of text and that mark the bottom edge of the text block. I have tilted the images a bit so that the MS lines are more horizontal and easier to read.
And because I’m not sure about the content of the MS text, I’m not sure how many MS paragraphs we are looking at here. Is it one big paragraph, occupying the entire left-to-right available space (i.e., the red rectangle, here)?
Or did the MS author use the pre-printed vertical lines as paragraph breaks, to write three shorter paragraphs (i.e., the red, blue and dark green rectangles, here)?
My impression is that the MS author wrote one big paragraph, spanning the width of the page from left to right. So we’ll try and decipher the text via that arrangement, first.
Reading as one wide paragraph
Altogether, I think we have nine lines of text in this wide MS paragraph. The beginnings of lines 8 and 9 seem to be missing; perhaps they were trimmed when the book was (re-)bound?
For your convenience, I’ve added line numbers in red. I’ve also underlined each line as I understand it. The ends of lines 2, 3, 4 and 5 don’t quite line up with the first two-thirds of those lines, so I’ve indicated the continuations of those lines with red arrowheads at the end of the underlining. Keep in mind that I may not have organized the continuation of the lines correctly. We may need to come back and re-think the lines and sentences once we decipher the words.
First transcription attempt
Here’s my best try at an exact transcription of lines 1 – 9. I am pretty confident about the original words and/or letters in bold. You’ll note that the MS has no punctuation marks. The quotation marks [?] in my transcription represent letters that I do not understand. If I don’t understand a whole word, I represent that by the number of question marks that (should) equal the number of original letters. Sometimes I follow these fragmentary words with an educated guess enclosed in square brackets followed by a question mark, like this: [Lord?].
1. the mane is
2. blest that hath ?ut [but? put?] in the La?? [Lord? Law?] he shall be ???ke
3. not ?ent ?o ?i? of god the Lord the God shal
4. ?od [God? Sed?] xed [=crossed=crucified?] his ear [?] doth gat ???hol groweth ?a?s
5. mo?? [most? = must?] God his life delight and m? by the ?ibe?sid
6. as sin as[blurred] doe that law doth
7. no ? [star symbol?] Fet [ff= F?] in his ever safe.him whish bringeth
8. ?eth both day ????h [forth?]
9. ?xe?an? ??? [star symbol?] ???
What’s it say?
Well, that’s where you come in. I’m stuck. Adjusted for modern spelling, I think the first few lines may read:
The man is blest that hath [???] in the [Lord?], he shall be like not bent to [???] of god the Lord
How correct is that? I’m not sure. Do any of you recognize the text? It sounds like something out of the Old or New Testaments, or Proverbs. Or perhaps it was memorable remark from a Sunday sermon in the MS author’s church?
Reading as 3 narrower paragraphs
As we mentioned earlier, it’s also possible that the MS author arranged the text into three, smaller, adjacent paragraphs, like so:
In this arrangement, our leftmost paragraph has seven lines, numbered in red. Our middle paragraph, in blue, has eight lines, though the eighth line is unreadable. And the rightmost paragraph has seven lines, numbered in dark green. My (incomplete) understanding of the words remains what it is, but the order of the sentence fragments is changed and our text reads very differently, perhaps something like this:
The red, left column, begins:
1. the mane is
2. blest that hath
3. not ?ent ?o ?i?
4. ?ed [God? Sed?] xed [=crossed=crucified?] his s?? [son?]
5. mo?? [most? = must?] God his life
6. as sin as[blurred] doe
7. no ? [star symbol?] Set [ss=S? or Ff=F] in his
The blue, middle column continues:
1. ?ut [but? put?] in the La?? [Lord? Law?]
2. of god the Lord
3. doth gat ???hol
4. delight and m?
5. that law doth
6. ever safe.him
7. ?eth both day
And so on for the right hand, green-numbered, column, containing all the “leftover” words and phrases.
This 3-paragraph/column organization for our MS text is promising at the beginning, but I think by the second—and especially the third—columns it seems to make even more of a tangle out of our text fragments.
Final thoughts and clues
So there you have it: my best guesses at our mystery MS. As we try and solve this textual riddle, we do have a few more clues:
• Our MS text may pre-date the King James version of the Bible, first published in 1611
• Our MS text may quote an earlier English translation of the Scriptures, such as the Geneva Bible (after 1560) or the Bishop’s Bible (1568)
• Our MS text was written on this page no earlier than 1579, and probably no later than circa 1700-1750
• In transcribing and translating older English, do not be concerned with spelling variations (i.e., “wrong spellings”). Spelling was phonetic and non-standardized at this time
• Ignore final “e” letters on words like mane (= man) and doe (= do)
• sometimes modern words spelled with 2 vowels to make a long vowel sound (e.g., “feet”) might be spelled with only one (“fet”—but note that I’m not sure if “fet” = “feet” is a correct example of this)
Along with assorted blurry or smudged or cramped letters on this page, there are a few particularly mysterious marks that I do not understand. Two are found at the beginning of red line 7:
Line 7 begins with “no,” followed by what looks like a star-shaped blob. What is that blob? Is it a star, and if so, what word or concept does that represent? (Heaven? Star?)
The “star” blog is followed by what looks like two lower-case letters “f” followed by letters “e” and, maybe, “l” or “t.” There was no capital letter F in the early English alphabet, so writers used the so-called “word-initial ff” in its place. So does this word mean “Feet” or “Feel”? Or are these “double” letters not even the same letters? Sigh.
One other symbols or abbreviation—I think—can be found near the start of red line 4:
The more I look at it, the more I think the first word is not “God,” but “Sed” (= “Said”). Our MS author seems to have had a bit of trouble writing his upper-case letters, and this one is a bit cramped and blurry. Truth be told, I’m not sure which letter it is. The third word looks like “his” and the fourth word is hard to read. Perhaps “saw” or “east” or “seat”? I’m not sure.
But what’s up with the second word? It appears to be written “xed.” Is this an abbreviation for “crossed” or “crucified”? Or is it a phonetically spelled archaic word? I’d love to know.
Do you know what our inscription says?
I’ve read most of the Scriptures at least once, but I’m no biblical scholar. Even so, our MS inscription does not match anything in my modest collection of remembered Bible verses and sayings. Do our mystery words and fragments ring any bells for you readers? I’d love to know. I don’t have any prizes to award, except eternal fame and glory throughout the Clark House Historian readership!
Send me your comments, questions and full or partial transcriptions and translations. You can scroll all the way to the bottom of this post and leave your thoughts in the Leave a Reply comment box. Those comments will be published, and I’ll reply to any questions. Or, if you’d like to contact me privately and get a private email reply, you can use our Contact form.
Thanks for reading. And don’t be shy—send in your thoughts. I need some help here!