On The Discovery of a Sonnet — and the Work that Followed
Readers in 16th-century England were an involved bunch, freely writing comments on the pages of their books, and as a doctoral student Stephanie Bahr would comb through works of the period for marginalia related to her research.
That work — she studied theological reading practices — took Bahr to the rare books room of the British Library in 2014, where she struck scholarly gold.
As she paged through a 1557 copy of English Workes of Thomas More, she expected to find small marginal notes and manicules, which are little reader-drawn hands that functioned as a Renaissance version of a yellow highlighter. “I did not expect to find an entire sonnet that nobody had found before,” said Bahr, who is now a Hamilton assistant professor of literature.
The poem about Thomas More was penned on the flyleaf in brown ink and written in “Elizabethan secretary” script, which takes knowledge to decipher.
The sonnet’s discovery would culminate in Bahr’s article that appeared recently in Moreana, a peer-reviewed journal published by Edinburgh University Press. And her find gave her Hamilton students an opportunity to try their hand at paleography to help Bahr fully transcribe the poem.
Paleography is not often studied by literature scholars. As a graduate student at the University of California Berkeley, Bahr had basic training from a top expert there but was still building her skills when she came upon the poem. It took her a week to transcribe “A Sonet in commendation of Sir Thomas More Knyght.”
I did not expect to find an entire sonnet that nobody had found before.
That accomplished, Bahr still couldn’t find a way to date the sonnet more precisely than the 16th century, nor could she discern whether the author was a Protestant or a Catholic, a critical bit of information in determining when the poem was written. “I also had a hard time finding anything interesting to say about it without that contextual information because it isn’t a particularly good sonnet,” she said.
So she set the work aside for several years, until she joined the Hamilton faculty in 2017. By then Bahr was a more seasoned academic and had strengthened her transcription skills. Using her research funds from the College, she returned to the British Library to photograph every marginal note in the book that contained the sonnet.
Bahr soon realized that several of the other marginal notes were written by Thomas Harman. He had borrowed the book from a Mistress Middleton and thanked her with a sonnet.
“Those marginal notes, unlike the sonnet, made it clear that he was Catholic and hostile to the current English bishops. I argue that he was writing under Queen Elizabeth, when his beliefs were not in compliance with state religion, but before her more repressive measures,” explained Bahr, whose research in literature intersects with history.
Back on College Hill, as Bahr conducted her painstaking analysis of the sonnet, she drew her students into the task. She teaches a course called The Medium is the Message: Reading Poetry in Print and Manuscript, 1300-1600, and in it she introduces students to basic paleography, an uncommon topic in an undergraduate literature course.
I think I’ve developed a lot of skills that a lot of people in my position don’t have, which has been really wonderful, both in terms of getting that skill set and just fun.
The Hamilton History Department offers paleography courses.
“Not that many people study paleography unless it’s going to be directly helpful. But that’s a really important skill for archivists. It’s an important skill for historians. I think it’s an important skill for people who study literature, which is one of the reasons I wanted to learn paleography and why I think it’s important for Hamilton students who are interested in this period to at least get a taste of what goes into it,” Bahr said.
The copy of English Workes had been trimmed in size over the years, cutting away some of the letters in the marginal notes, and Bahr’s students helped her puzzle them out.
“She’d put up a bit of the poem on the screen, and she would say, ‘Okay, so I’m having difficulties with this word on this line. And this is what I think this one says.’ And then we would go at it, and we would have debates over what it may say,” said Ali Zildian ’19. “And it was a really fun opportunity to break ground.”
Zildian has learned and used paleography ever since, for fun and for her studies. She’s earning her second master’s degree at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. Her first was in Shakespeare and Renaissance literary culture, and now she’s studying the history of the book as an object in the university’s history department.
“You have a lot of primary sources that either haven’t been transcribed already, or that you’ve discovered yourself, or no one really thought were super important. So you have to be able to read the handwriting that is in front of you, and that’s what paleography is all about,” she explained.
Majestic Terhune ’21, who’d been fascinated by Thomas More since she was in high school, jumped at the chance to work as Bahr’s research assistant. Terhune also was excited to be involved in literature research. She learned paleography and how to read “blackletter” and other early print fonts, and to navigate a website of scanned editions of early English books.
“I think I’ve developed a lot of skills that a lot of people in my position don’t have, which has been really wonderful, both in terms of getting that skill set and just fun,” said Terhune, who majors in literature and world politics.
Bahr said she’d someday like to take Hamilton students to work with her in archives such as the one at the British Library.
“Maybe I’ll never find something quite as exciting as a signed sonnet about Thomas Moore from the early Elizabethan period,” she said. “But there are new discoveries to be made. Recently, someone is pretty sure they found Milton's own copy of Shakespeare’s works — with Milton’s annotations.”