Nostalgia: Encountering some difficulties with only knowing the English language

One old street name in Scarborough, St Sepulchre, gave a big problem to generations of local clerks and still baffles todays residents.
One old street name in Scarborough, St Sepulchre, gave a big problem to generations of local clerks and still baffles todays residents.
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There was a time, not so long ago in historical terms, when university undergraduates in history were required to translate at least two foreign languages, preferably Latin and one other from French, German, Russian or Spanish. This requirement made sense when sources even in English history were in Latin and/or French until the 16th century.

As late as Shakespeare’s lifetime, royal courts still recorded their proceedings entirely in Latin and the same applied to many other formal documents such as letters patent and charters. Though apart from academics at Oxford and Cambridge and the London Inns of Court no one still spoke Latin, every educated man in the land would have known Latin from his time at grammar school. Well into the 17th century, Scarborough’s court clerks continued to use Latin phrases and abbreviations. Catholics, of course, still used Latin in their services.

French also was still employed by the English aristocracy and some of the upper gentry, especially those living in London and the south-east. When the Italian, Giordano Bruno, visited England in 1584, he thought it unnecessary to learn much English. “All the gentlemen of any rank,” he wrote, “could speak Latin, French, Spanish or Italian.” Since English 
was then spoken only in 
England, they would con-sider it barbarous if they knew no other tongue but their own. Who said the past was not a foreign country?

However, even if English was your only language, you would certainly encounter some difficulties with both the written and the spoken word in Shakespeare’s lexicon.

First, at least ten per cent of Shakespeare’s vocabulary of 20,000 words are foreign to our eyes and more have changed their meanings during the past 400 years. You could be excused for not knowing the meaning of “cupshotten” (drunk), “beldam” (old woman), “land-raker” (thief), “cautel” (deceit), “palabras” (few words), “limbo” (prison), to name but a few. Then there are the words that we still use, but with a changed meaning: nice meant exact, cute (sharp), mean (little, small), several (separate, different), romantic (heroic), cheap (market), jerks (blows), tomboys (harlots), wood (mad, frantic). It has long surprised me how people without such understanding and a familiarity with Biblical and Classical literature could claim to appreciate Shakespeare’s puns, allusions and aphorisms.

At least Shakespeare can be read in print: there is an extra problem if you are required to decipher the handwriting of his time. Most official documents and records written in manuscript were in “secretary hand”, in which about half the letters were drawn in a form different from our “italics”. All modern typefaces are descended from italics, so-called because of their Italian origin.

Secretary hand has to be learned by the modern reader: there was no standardised model; it varied from clerk to clerk, from time to time and, just like language, it evolved. Whereas in our italics almost every letter is written “above the line”, in secretary hand the line is a mid-point for vertical flourishes. To complicate matters further, in secretary upper case capitals often bear little resemblance to their lower case equivalents.

One peculiarity of secretary hand has led to common confusion and misunderstanding. The old letter, known as the “thorn”, was pronounced “th”, but written like a “y”. As a result, “the” appears as “ye” and pronounced by us mistakenly as such.

Then there were the common abbreviations. The letter “p” can be written in two different forms to indicate “pro” or “par”/”per”; a line above a letter meant that “m” has been omitted; and a final “s” to a word was shown as a long, curling flourish. There were many more.

There is also the hazard of spelling. In Tudor times you could spell all words as you wanted, including the names of people and places. Shakespeare himself wrote his name in at least six different ways. This disregard for consistent spelling therefore presents particular difficulties when trying to make sense of parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials.

In Scarborough’s case, names were often written down just as they were pronounced, so that Yorkshire’s broad vowels are sometimes evident. The lady who is credited with discovery of the Spa’s medicinal spring waters, Thomasin, was married to a man called John, whose surname appears in the records as Faro, Fayrey, Farrow, Farrer, Farrar, Farroe, Farrere, Farer, Farden and even Pharaoh!

One old street name in the town, St Sepulchre, gave a big problem to generations of local clerks and still baffles today’s residents. In Scarborough’s corporation documents of the 17th century, I have seen Spukas, Pulkas, Spookers, Sepulker, Spockas and St Pulkers, the last most closely representing local pronunciation. Some other examples illustrate the point: “Wapnes” and “Weapnes” (Weaponness); “Neigal closses” (Nightingale Closes, now known as The Garlands); “freredg” (Friarage); “Keas streight” (Key or Quay Street); “Bullaine” (Bull Lane, later Aberdeen Walk); “Le Vowte” (The Bolts). Some place-names are frankly unidentifiable.

Official documents, such as royal court rolls, charters and property deeds, were usually written on vellum or parchment made from sheepskin. Good quality vellum was expensive, but virtually indestructible, except by fire. Paper was much cheaper, but had a shorter life-span. Before they were removed from the Town Hall to Northallerton’s County Record Office, Scarborough’s corporation records on paper were in a deplorable state of decay from damp, dirt, insects and rodents.

Scarborough’s earliest corporation memorandum, the so-called White Vellum Book, is on parchment, whereas copies of its parish register from 1602 and the minute books of the Common Hall, letters and court accounts were originally written on loose leaves of paper. All these original sources are now available at Northallerton on microfilm.

Finally, if you were Shakespeare and needed to write on paper bought from an apothecary or scrivener’s shop, you would have a choice between a metal pen called a “pontayle” or a quill pen made from the feather of a swan (Queen Elizabeth’s preference) or a goose. Metal pens were costly and scratchy; quills needed to be trimmed with a penknife or frequently replaced. You would also need ink and an inkhorn from your local apothecary.