The existence of autographs must necessarily have been coeval with the invention of letters. Documents in the handwriting of their composers may possibly exist among the early papyri of Egypt and the clay tablets of Babylonia and Assyria, and among the early examples of writing in the East. But the oriental practice of employing professional scribes in writing the body of documents and of using seals for the purpose of "signing" (the "signum" originally meaning the impression of the seal) almost precludes the idea. When we are told (1 Kings xxi. 8) that Jezebel wrote letters in Ahab's name and sealed them with his seal, we are, of course, to understand that the letters were written by the professional scribes and that the impression of the king's seal was the authentication, equivalent to the signature of western nations; and again, when King Darius "signed" the writing and the decree (Dan. vi. 9), he did so with his seal. To find documents which we can recognize with certainty to be autographs, we must descend to the Ptolemaic and Roman periods of Egyptian history, which are represented by an abundance of papyrus documents of all kinds, chiefly in Greek. Among them are not a few original letters and personal documents, in which we may see the handwriting of many lettered and unlettered individuals who lived during the 3rd century B.C. and in succeeding times, and which prove how very widespread was the practice of writing in those days. We owe it to the dry and even atmosphere of Egypt that these written documents have been preserved in such numbers. On the other hand, in Italy and Greece ancient writings have perished, save the few charred papyrus rolls and waxen tablets which have been recovered from the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii. These tablets, however, have a special value, for many of them contain autograph signatures of principals and witnesses to legal deeds to which they were attached, together with impressions of seals, in compliance with the Roman law which required the actual subscriptions, or attested marks, of the persons concerned.
But, when we now speak of autographs and autograph collections, we use such terms in a restricted sense and imply documents or signatures written by persons of some degree of eminence or notoriety in the various ranks and professions of life; and naturally the only early autographs in this sense which could be expected to survive are the subscriptions and signatures of royal personages and great officials attached to important public deeds, which from their nature have been more jealously cared for than mere private documents.
Following the Roman practice, subscriptions and signatures were required in legal documents in the early centuries of our era. Hence we find them in the few Latin deeds on papyrus which have come to light in Egypt; we find them on the well-known Dacian waxen tablets of the 2nd century; and we find them in the series of papyrus deeds from Ravenna and other places in Italy between the 5th and 10th centuries. The same practice obtained in the Frankish empire. The Merovingian kings, or at least those of them who knew how to write, subscribed their diplomas and great charters with their own hands; and their great officers of state, chancellors and others, countersigned in autograph. The unlettered Merovingian kings made use of monograms composed of the letters of their names; and, curiously, the illiterate monogram was destined to supersede the literate subscriptions. For the monogram was adopted by Charlemagne and his successors as a recognized symbol of their subscription. It was their signum manuale, their sign manual. In courtly imitation of the royal practice, monograms and other marks were adopted by official personages, even though they could write. The notarial marks of modern times are a survival of the practice. By the illiterate other signs, besides the monogram, came to be employed, such as the cross, &c., as signs manual. The monogram was used by French monarchs from the reign of Charlemagne to that of Philip the Fair, who died in 1314. It is very doubtful, however, whether in any instance this sign manual was actually traced by the monarch's own hand. At the most, the earlier sovereigns appear to have drawn one or two strokes in their monograms, which, so far, may be called their autographs. But in the later period not even this was done; the monogram was entirely the work of the scribe. (See Diplomatic.)
The employment of marks or signs manual went out of general use after the 12th century, in the course of which the affixing or appending of seals became the common method of executing deeds. But, as education became more general and the practice of writing more widely diffused, the usage grew up in the course of the 14th century of signing the name-signature as well as of affixing the seal; and by the 15th century it had become established, and it remains to the present time. Thus the signum manuale had disappeared, except among notaries; but the term survived, and by a natural process it was transferred to the signature. In the present day it is used to designate the "sign manual" or autograph signature of the sovereign.
The Anglo-Saxon kings of England did not sign their charters, their names being invariably written by the official scribes. After the Norman conquest, the sign manual, usually a cross, which sometimes accompanied the name of the sovereign, may in some instances be autograph; but no royal signature is to be found earlier than the reign of Richard II. Of the signatures of this king there are two examples, of the years 1386 and 1389, in the Public Record Office; and there is one, of 1397, in the British Museum. Of his father, the Black Prince, there is in the Record Office a motto-signature, De par Homont (high courage), Ich dene, subscribed to a writ of privy seal of 1370. The kings of the Lancastrian line were apparently ready writers. Of the handwriting of both Henry IV. and Henry V. there are specimens both in the Record Office and in the British Museum. But by their time writing had become an ordinary accomplishment.
Apart from the autographs of sovereigns, those of famous men of the early middle ages can hardly be said to exist, or, if they do exist, they are difficult to identify. For example, there is a charter at Canterbury bearing the statement that it was written by Dunstan; but, as there is a duplicate in the British Museum with the same statement, it is probable that both the one and the other are copies. The autograph MSS. of the chronicles of Ordericus Vitalis, of Robert de Monte, and of Sigebert of Gembloux are in existence; and among the Cottonian MSS. there are undoubtedly autograph writings of Matthew of Paris, the English chronicler of Henry III.'s reign. There are certain documents in the British Museum in the hand of William of Wykeham; and among French archives there are autograph writings of the historian Joinville. These are a few instances. When we come to such a collection as the famous Paston Letters, the correspondence of the Norfolk family of Paston of the 15th century, we find therein numerous autographs of historical personages of the time.
From the 16th century onward, we enter the period of modern history, and autograph documents of all kinds become plentiful. And yet in the midst of this plenty, by a perverse fate, there is in certain instances a remarkable dearth. The instance of Shakespeare is the most famous. But for three signatures to the three sheets of his will, and two signatures to the conveyances of property in Blackfriars, we should be without a vestige of his handwriting. For certain other signatures, professing to be his, inscribed in books, may be dismissed as imitations. Such forgeries come up from time to time, as might be expected, and are placed upon the market. The Shakespearean forgeries, however, of W. H. Ireland were perpetrated rather with a literary intent than as an autographic venture.
Had autograph collecting been the fashion in Shakespeare's days, we should not have had to deplore the loss of his and of other great writers' autographs. But the taste had not then come into vogue, at least not in England. The series of autograph documents which were gathered in such a library as that of Sir Robert Cotton, now in the British Museum, found their way thither on account of their literary or historic interest, and not merely as specimens of the handwriting of distinguished men. Such a series also as that formed by Philippe de Béthune, Comte de Selles et Charost, and his son, in the reign of Louis XIV., consisting for the most part of original letters and papers, now in the Bibliothèque Nationale, might have been regarded as the result of autograph collecting did we not know that it was brought together for historical purposes. It was in Germany and the Low Countries that the practice appears to have originated, chiefly among students and other members of the universities, of collecting autograph inscriptions and signatures of one's friends in albums, alba amicorum, little oblong pocket volumes of which a considerable number have survived, a very fair collection being in the British Museum. The earliest album in the latter series is the Egerton MS. 1178, beginning with an entry of the year 1554. Once the taste was established, the collecting of autographs of living persons was naturally extended to those of former times; and many collections, famous in their day, have been formed, but in most instances only to be dispersed again as the owners tired of their fancy or as their heirs failed to inherit their tastes along with their possessions. The most celebrated collection formed in England in recent years is that of the late Mr. Alfred Morrison, which still remains intact, and which is well known by means of the sumptuous catalogue, with its many facsimiles, compiled by the owner.
The rivalry of collectors and the high prices which rare or favorite autographs realize have naturally given encouragement to the forger. False letters of popular heroes and of popular authors, of Nelson, of Burns, of Thackeray, and of others, appear from time to time in the market: in some instances clever imitations, but more generally too palpably spurious to deceive any one with experience. Like the Shakespearean forgeries of Ireland, referred to above, the forgeries of Chatterton were literary inventions; and both were poor performances. One of the cleverest frauds of this nature in modern times was the fabrication, in the middle of the 19th century, of a series of letters of Byron and Shelley, with postmarks and seals complete, which were even published as bona fide documents (Brit. Mus., Add. MS. 19,377).
There are many published collections of facsimiles of autographs of different nations. Among those published in England the following may be named:—British Autography, by J. Thane (1788-1793, with supplement by Daniell, 1854); Autographs of Royal, Noble, Learned and Remarkable Personages in English History, by J. G. Nichols (1829); Facsimiles of Original Documents of Eminent Literary Characters, by C. J. Smith (1852); Autographs of the Kings and Queens and Eminent Men of Great Britain, by J. Netherclift (1835); One Hundred Characteristic Autograph Letters, by J. Netherclift and Son (1849); The Autograph Miscellany, by F. Netherclift (1855); The Autograph Souvenir, by F. G. Netherclift and R. Sims (1865); The Autographic Mirror (1864-1866); The Handbook of Autographs, by F. G. Netherclift (1862); The Autograph Album, by L. B. Phillips (1866); Facsimiles of Autographs (British Museum publication), five series (1896-1900). Facsimiles of autographs also appear in the official publications, Facsimiles of National MSS., from William the Conqueror to Queen Anne (Master of the Rolls), 1865-1868; Facsimiles of National MSS. of Scotland (Lord Clerk Register), 1867-1871; and Facsimiles of National MSS. of Ireland (Public Record Office, Ireland), 1874-1884.
Source: 1911 Encyclopedia.
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