Renaissance Dictionary Technologies

After a hiatus filled with reading and research, today I’m publishing an account of the early modern lexicographer John Minsheu and the extraordinary services he rendered to language-learners in print. The value of his work was intricately related to his collaboration with his printers, his knowledge of typography and the London book trade, and his sheer persistence in the face of financial adversity. In short, much of his success was contingent upon his manipulation of the communication technologies at his disposal – the technology of the Renaissance dictionary. (I’ll actually have more to say about this in July at the 2013 SHARP convention in Philadelphia, but for now, let’s take a look in the archive.


Here, you get an idea of the typographical intricacies of Minsheu’s Spanish-English bilingual dictionary and grammar. Bracket-pieces and a variety of typefaces assist readers through the “lesson.”  The use of black-letter type was diminishing at this time in English print, but Minsheu and others in the language-learning book business found a purpose for it. Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections L 463 P428, Northwestern University.

I became acquainted with Minsheu accidentally through my research on printed dictionaries and grammars for early modern English students of foreign languages (both Italian and Spanish, and soon French). In 1599, he was responsible for A Dictionarie in Spanish and English, pictured above, which can often be found in the archive bound and cataloged with A Spanish Grammar (I list them separately because they have distinct title pages). However, Minsheu’s most monumental effort was without question his 1617 eleven-language polyglot dictionary, Ductor in Linguas, which also goes by its English title Guide into tongues. It is a truly massive – and impressive – book. If you search Minsheu’s records in the ESTC, they seem fairly messy, with a number of imprint variants and a strange “Catalogue.”

It’s important for me to say that Minsheu’s “scholarly credibility” has faced some serious criticism. In 1973, Jurgen Schäfer published an article that admits Minsheu’s contribution to language learning as a compiler, but casts him otherwise as a “scholarly poseur.” Originality is the key issue in this debate. True enough, a vast number of entries in Minsheu’s Spanish dictionary were “lifted” from Richard Percivale’s quarto dictionary Biblioteca Hispanica (1591). And interestingly, modern library catalogs often still list Minsheu’s Dictionarie under Percivale’s name (this is the case at Northwestern and the Newberry, and it bothers me). Schäfer doesn’t go as far as the playwright Ben Jonson, who declared Minsheu a “rogue,” but he ends up showing how the lexicographer’s academic rigor was at best questionable.

Jonathan Warren has studied Minsheu’s work more recently. As he investigated Minsheu’s dictionaries for the Early Modern Dictionary Project at the University of Toronto (now the exceedingly useful Lexicons of Early Modern English, or LEME), Warren uncovered some of the strange methods that this compiler used to capture and document languages in print. Some of these methods are rather unusual from a twenty-first century perspective:

Indeed, many of these entries were in Percivale’s original. What Minsheu adds is all manner of variation to these entries: big goat, little goat, place of big goats, place  of little goats, a he goat, a she goat,  a place of he goats, a place of she goats, and so on. The practice  is the same for plant names and all other words.

It seems fairly clear just how committed Minsheu was in approaching the task of collecting a language in all its forms, locking it down in print, and setting it forth on the market. These compilation methods were certainly not “original” in the Romantic or modern sense of the word, but we can be sure that intellectual property functioned differently in 1599 or 1617 than it does today. Instead, if we focus on Minsheu’s work as a compiler with great interest and faith in the potential of print, we see an individual committed to providing an useful (if absurdly complete) tool to language students with the most intricate and thorough printed apparatuses imaginable.


Minsheu’s polyglot dictionary (regular-size iPod for size contrast). Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, L 423 M666, Northwestern University.

A massive folio volume, the Ductor in Linguas was no small project for Minsheu or his printers. It consists of nearly four hundred leaves (close to two hundred sheets) printed in the normal roman, italic, and black-letter faces but also including Greek, Anglo-Saxon and Hebrew type. A two-column dictionary features the eleven-language apparatus, and the final hundred or so leaves are Minsheu’s concurrent project, Vocabvlarivm Hispanico Latinum et Anglicum copiossissimum (Most copious Spanish, Latin, and English dictionary). The copy of this volume at Northwestern measures about 24 by 38 cm, so you have an idea of how massive this book is. The printers involved on the job included Melchisidec Bradwood at the Eliot’s Court Press, who had assisted the earlier and famous lexicographical efforts of John Florio. (Bradwood’s ECP colleague Edmund Bollifant had handled the 1599 printing of Minsheu’s Spanish dictionary.) For both the Ductor in Linguas and the second edition of Florio’s Italian-English dictionary, Bradwood shared printing labor with William Stansby, who undertook the important task of printing of Jonson’s Workes in 1616.


Minsheu’s “catalogue.” Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, L 423 M666, Northwestern University.

Such bulk came at a considerable cost, and scholars have indicated the unusual publication of this polyglot dictionary as an early instance of something like modern subscription. Although the Stationers’ Company refrained from supporting Minsheu in any way, individual booksellers and benefactors provided some support. In the archives, one can find a several issues of a “catalogue” that lists Minsheu’s financial backers (431 in total throughout all variant issues) as he sought to “sell” the dictionary in advance. The catalogue could be inserted into a volume, or it could hang somewhere to advertise the dictionary. This did not totally lighten the load for the compiler, however, who entered heavy debt to afford the services of his printers, even after petitioning Inns, societies, and wealthy individuals for gifts and loans. Despite the financial chaos of the dictionary that “hath cost me the hazard of my life,” in Minsheu’s words, the Ductor in Linguas eventually saw print after a period of two years. It was a labor of love. Because Minsheu mentions no price exactly, Franklin B. Williams believes that he simply asked the greatest sum he could in any given case; surviving copies appear with the prices of 30s. and 22s., which is rather high for the time but appropriate for such a massive and remarkable effort of lexicography and a noteworthy moment in early modern printing history.


For further reading on Minsheu’s work:

Schäfer, Jurgen. “John Minsheu: Scholar or Charlatan?” Renaissance Quarterly 26.1 (1973): 23-35.

Warren, Jonathan. “Reflections of an Electronic Scribe.” Early Modern Literary Studies [Special Issue] 1 (1997).

Williams, Franklin B. “Scholarly Publication in Shakespeare’s Day: A Leading Case.” Joseph Quincy Adams Memorial Studies, ed. J. G. MacManaway et. al. Washington D.C.: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1948. 755-73.

John Milton and “Pamphlet Pandemonium”

This post will digest some of my recent archival research into a story about one of the foremost canonical authors in the English tradition and his entanglements with an untrustworthy category of Renaissance printed matter – the pamphlet.

Pamphlets, now and then. As the Oxford English Dictionary begins to tell us, “pamphlet” encompasses a variety of meanings. I think we most commonly encounter pamphlets today at information desks or doctors’ offices – they are small, brief, and often ephemeral textual materials that relate information on a specific topic (Arthritis, for instance). “Book” is usually another matter. Few would categorize an intentionally literary publication like a novel, hard-bound and for sale in a Barnes and Noble, as a pamphlet (except, perhaps, for the sake of ridicule). In short, we have in our minds a very comfortable distinction today between “book” and “pamphlet.”

However, for John Milton and his seventeenth-century contemporaries, this distinction was less stable. Beginning in the 1640s, England saw an unprecedented increase in the number of titles published, which means that printers were not necessarily working more diligently, but that they had uncovered and had begun to exploit a market for short publications. These square-shaped, quarto “pamphlets” were usually less than 96 pages long, but often much shorter, and they were very affordable, costing no more than a few pennies. In addition, pamphlets were also often associated with sensational subject matter including monstrous births, terrifying weather, or gruesome murders. (Think of the tabloids at your local supermarket – cheap and often trashy.) For Renaissance readers, the term “pamphlet” could thus refer to the physical characteristics of a publication, its number of pages, the nature of its contents, its genre, its price, or a combination of these things. As a term, it was quite flexible.

The outpouring or “explosion” of printed pamphlets in the 1640s resulted from a number of factors, including the official disbandment of the Star Chamber, the governmental office responsible for licensing and registering printed matter. Joad Raymond has written extensively about these pamphlets, and has spent much time in the archive studying their material characteristics. According to Raymond,

Oral dialogues echoed with the innovative accents of novel pamphlets, with imperative and ever-fresher news and criticism, and the presses creaked and the bookstalls groaned under the weight of pamphlets and short, pointed books. (204)

This might be an exaggeration, but it describes what was truly a substantial change in the culture of communication technology. Large, studied, and ambitious books in folio became less of a priority as an unprecedented volume of news and criticism in quarto flew off the press and towards an increasingly literate English audience. It seemed to promise a “public sphere” of communication characterized by disagreement and discussion, rather than the established and hierarchical structures of the University or the Church.

Pamphlets and problems. If these pamphlets promised a communicative democracy in print to some, they represented the threat of uninformed and hacked-together noise to others. John Minsheu, a scholar who exhausted nearly all his money and savings in publishing a massive, eleven-language dictionary, defined the pamphlet as “a fool’s diminutive performance.” John Taylor, known today as one of the most frivolous hack-poets in Renaissance England, comically drew a connection between a pamphlet and . . .

Taylor, 'Whore and Pamphlet'

Clearly, Taylor wanted no one to miss his joke. He is hardly being serious, satirically capitalizing on the prevalent anxiety among authors about the circulation of once-held-private writings among an anonymous or “impersonal” public. Pamphlets often were deemed just as foolish as they were promiscuous. This “pamphlet pandemonium” was discussed recently in a talk by Newberry Library President David Spadafora.

So . . . all very interesting. But where does John Milton, the famous poet known and studied mainly because of Paradise Lost, fit into this story?

Milton, divorce, and pamphlets. Decades before the Christian epic saw print, Milton became deeply entangled in the controversial pamphlet culture of the 1640s. First writing against the authority of the English bishops in five quarto publications, Milton turned in 1643 to the subjects of marriage and divorce, a project that would occupy him for two years. Scholars once speculated that Milton’s unhappy marriage to the royalist Mary Powell sparked some of his interest in this issue, a supposition that has been contested and since reconsidered. In any case, within this short period of time, Milton collaborated with his printers Thomas Paine and Matthew Simmons to issue a succession of publications on the topic. By 1645, there were seven circulating in London:

1) The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. 1st ed. London: T. P. & M. S., 1643.
2) The Doctrine and Discpline of Divorce. 2nd ed. London: [Thomas Paine & Matthew Simmons], 1644. (A transcribed edition is available in Thomas Luxon’s Milton Reading Room.)
3) The Judgement of Martin Bucer. London: Matthew Simmons, 1644.
4) Tetrachordon. London: [Thomas Paine & Matthew Simmons], 1645.
5) Colasterion. London: [Matthew Simmons], 1645.
6) The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. 3rd ed. London: [Thomas Paine & Matthew Simmons, 1645.
7) The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. 4th ed. London: counterfeit copy, 1645.

The Newberry Library holds all but one of these publications (#6), and so I was able to get an adequate feel for the material artifacts as they most likely appeared to their first readers in London (of course, taking into account some important changes made to them since by collectors and curators). The first edition and the second edition appear side-by-side below, and one can immediately notice some distinct differences in the typographic delivery, including but not limited to the extended title, the presence or absence of author’s and printers’ initials, Scriptural verses, etc. You can click on the image to study some of the differences on your own, as I have; interestingly, the substantial differences between the two editions remained mostly invisible to scholars before the 1950s (that’s more than 400 years!).

Milton, 2 eds. of D&D

As these title pages begin to indicate, The Doctrine and Discipline attempts to establish continuity between Mosaic Law (which allows divorce) and the doctrine of Christian Charity as articulated by St. Paul. It’s a tricky bit of Scriptural interpretation; Milton’s ultimate goal is to overturn the English prohibition of divorce according to the outdated “bondage of Canon Law.” He claims that the suffering one endures in an unhappy marriage need not be borne with, especially if it drives Man and God apart (more than a few scholars have recognized the pamphlet’s masculinist leanings).

Milton thus saw his divorce pamphlets as a serious effort to further the mission of the Reformation, and although he never referred to these or any of his other publications as “pamphlets,” the integrity of his argument was compromised in part because of the material conditions of their production and dissemination. Milton invited his readers to seek “a friendly conference with the author, who would be glad and thankfull to be shewn an error, either by privat dispute, or public answer” (Bucer, B2v). However, the public responded not with “friendly conference,” but rather with bitter judgement and scorn. No one referred to his divorce pamphlets as “whores” sincerely or in jest, but Milton was criticized from the pulpit and in print as a “libertine” who advocated “divorce at pleasure.” In fact, an anonymous pamphleteer penned An Answer to a Book, Intituled, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1644), a vituperative response to the first edition of Milton’s initial divorce argument. For many Englishmen, Milton’s arguments differed only marginally from the other quarto pamphlets on sensational topics or heretical controversies. And physically, as they appeared in the marketplace, they were almost identical.

The multiple market presence of Milton’s argument on divorce evinces his attempts to defend his project from the promiscuous reputation of the printed pamphlet, although it simultaneously increased its circulation and exchange within the same market. The argument in the second edition is greatly enlarged and subdivided into two books and multiple chapters; it thus loses much of the personal or anecdotal quality of the first pamphlet and grows into a more scholastic and exegetical project, distancing itself from the ephemeral pamphlet trade. In The Judgement of Martin Bucer, a translation and adaptation of a sixteenth-century book that confirms his claims, Milton associated his pamphlets with an authoritative Reformation scholar. In Tetrachordon, Milton composed his most substantial divorce publication of all; because of its bulk, it surpasses the physical category of the pamphlet altogether. On the other hand, Milton engaged his attacker’s Answer head-on in Colasterion with a brief and rather snobbish argument that co-opts the chaotic and impassioned language of the pamphlet trade to defeat his opponent on his own terms. Milton’s engagement with the pamphlet exchange of the 1640s left him forlorn and misunderstood, and scholars believe that his turn to more serious poetry in 1645 owed something to these problematic experiences in Renaissance print culture.

Back to the future. Although this dispute about the early modern pamphlet, its circulation, and the threats it posed to authority took place nearly four hundred years ago, we live today in an era characterized by reconfigurations of the same debate. Pamphleteering then, blogging now, and the historian Robert Darnton has commented on some of these connections already. According to pundits, journalists, and academics alike, the U.S. presidential election of 2012 witnessed an unprecedented volume of commentary in the seemingly ever-widening digital sphere. Newspapers, radio broadcasts, and televisions programs were hardly the only sites of political debate. The burgeoning infrastructure of independent blogs and websites, as well as the circulation of articles and videos through social media platforms including but not limited to Facebook and Twitter, enabled Americans from any geographical, socio-economic, or political background to register their opinions and respond to those of others. While these channels of opinion and commentary promised a more democratic exchange of ideas to some, they posed the problem of uninformed noise to others, not entirely unlike the printed pamphlets that John Milton and his contemporaries used for their polemical projects during the Renaissance.

So, in my publishing these words online and your reading them here, we take our places in yet another stage in the historical definition of the public sphere and its relationship to technologies of communication.


The images in this post come from John Taylor’s All the vvorkes of Iohn Taylor the water-poet (London, 1630), STC 23725 [Bodleian], and from John Milton’s The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (London, 1643), Wing M2108 [British Library] and The Doctrine & Discipline of Divorce (London, 1644), Wing M2109 [British Library]. The images are used here in accordance with the fair use policy included in the ProQuest/EEBO licensing agreement. For future posts I will seek permission to include archival materials from research libraries like the Newberry to provide a richer story.

To further satisfy your curiosity on Milton, pamphlets, and the print marketplace, see:

Darnton, Robert. “Blogging, Now and Then.” History Weekend Lecture. Raleigh, NC. 18 February 2012.

Dobranski, Stephen. Milton, Authorship, and the Book Trade. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Halasz, Alexandra. The Marketplace of Print: Pamphlets and the Public Sphere in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Raymond, Joad. Pamphlets and Pamphleteering in Early Modern Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Parker, William R. Milton’s Contemporary Reputation. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1940.

Zaret, David. Origins of Democratic Culture: Printing, Petitions, and the Public Sphere in Early-Modern England. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000.