Serendipity and Milton’s First Folio
The First Folio of Shakespeare’s work ranks among the rarest of books. Only about 230 copies survive. One copy of the Folios donated to the Free Library of Philadelphia included long ignored marginalia. It turns out that serendipity had a role to play in rediscovering Milton’s First Folio copy hundreds of years after the author’s death. By multiple strokes serendipity, what could have been obscure reflections on anonymous marginalia instead resulted in the discovery that the Free Library of Philadephia likely owned John Milton’s copy of book. And the notes in the margins? They were probably written by the Paradise Lost author.
Pennsylvania State University professor Claire M.L. Bourne wrote an article for a book titled Early Modern English Marginalia. Her article in the book was the result of the editor seeing Bourne’s image-laden tweets about her research. Technology expanded the reach of what would once would have been thoughts published to a tight community with little hope of other’s see the work. Kathy Acheson, the book’s editor, discovered Bourne on Twitter and invited her contribution.
Eventually, Cambridge University’s Jason Scott-Warren came across the article. When he saw the notes, the images rang out as striking parallels to John Milton’s handwriting and style. Serendipity further increased as Scott-Warren published his theory in a blog post. The result: academics from the paleographical world and Milton scholars rallied to Scott-Warren’s supposition.
The third wave of serendipity swept forward as various writers and analysts (including me) discovered the discovery and starting amplifying it across social and traditional media.
In a recent interview by Barbara Bogaev on the Folder Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast, the two scholars expounded on the role technology played in connecting the two of them, and later the reinforcement of Scott-Warren’s discovery.
An excerpt from the Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 129 interview:
BOGAEV: How, did you two text, or talk on the phone?
SCOTT-WARREN: I sent Claire—I was aware that Claire was a big Twitter presence. I hadn’t met Claire, and we hadn’t run into each other at conferences, but I knew she was a Twitter star, which is a situation that I have a certain envy for, because I tend to get two likes for everything I tweet. So I thought the first thing to do is to direct message Claire. And I was looking for some signs of reassurance that I hadn’t just kind of flipped at that point. I was really looking for, you know, “Is this actually possible?” So that was my initial reaching out.
BOURNE: He sent me his blog post and he’d sort of mocked that up. I opened it and I took a look at it, and I think my heart just skipped a beat when I saw the similarities between the images of the annotations in the Free Library First Folio and the images of Milton’s handwriting and other textual objects that we know Milton owned and wrote in. I also did appreciate a lot the sort of tentative nature with which Jason presented this hypothesis, this proposition. I think Twitter was the perfect venue to float this idea.
BOGAEV: What did you write back? And, Jason, I’ll let Claire answer this first, but what were you looking for from Claire that you, you know, got in touch with her before you went public? So Claire, what did you write back?
BOURNE: I think I wrote, “OMG.” You know, Twitter speak. Just “OMG,” like, “I’m kind of speechless,” just like I am right now reenacting this particular moment. But then I said, “I think I find the way you presented the case very persuasive. I find the visual evidence very persuasive,” and Jason can take it from there.
BOGAEV: Well, you both have alluded to this, but I think it’s really interesting. It looks as if this discovery might not have been possible earlier, before social media and digitization and these other modern developments in scholarship. And Claire, why don’t you spell that out for us a little more clearly. Do you feel that way?
BOURNE: Yeah, I absolutely do. The reason that this essay of mine was published in the first place was actually because of Twitter. So the story about Twitter goes back a little bit further than Jason reaching out to me a couple of weeks ago.
I had a fellowship at the Folger a few years ago and I started tweeting out images of the books I was looking at. I was surveying one copy of every edition of every play up to 1700 in their collection. And so there was a lot to tweet about. And Kathy Acheson, who’s the editor of the Early Modern English Marginalia Volume, reached out to me. She said, “I’ve seen all these images on Twitter that you’ve been sharing and I’m putting together this volume. Do you have anything to contribute?” And my mind immediately went to this First Folio piece, which I’d been trying to find a home for for several years.
I think that now that rare book libraries like the Folger are allowing researchers to take photographs, to share photographs, it ups the chance of that kind of serendipitous moment, where you see something that you didn’t know you were looking for. And they’re not just these massive discoveries like this one.
Serendipty and Milton’s First Folio on Twitter
An image of a First Folio page with Milton’s annotations from Claire’s twitter feed. She is referencing the publication of an article about the discovery in the New York Times.
The image of the First Folio was taken by the author on November 16, 2016, during a private tour at the Folger Shakespeare Library (more on the tour here).