The Morgan Library has a really excellent digital archive exhibition on its web site: a digital facsimile of the sole surviving manuscript of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a fair copy of the first book.
One of the curious accidental consequences of the ubiquity of typing and copying technology today is that many people assume that “manuscript” refers to an early draft written in the author’s own hand. There are actually special terms for this: an autograph manuscript (a text an author writes him/herself), or sometimes holograph manuscript, which refers to a text written by the person who signed it. Autograph is more relevant in literary and holograph in non-literary contexts.
Manuscript by itself refers to any text that is written by a human hand. The most famous examples of manuscripts not handwritten by their authors would be in the pre-print era, when every text had to be copied out by hand. Print put an end to that most laborious (and glorious) instance of manuscript mechanical reproduction.
But even in the early modern period, most manuscript copies of a text would not have been written by an author, but recopied by a scribe or clerk. This actually persisted until the late nineteenth century, when the high-volume demands of modern businesses, and the technological emergence of shorthand, the typewriter, and carbon copying put an end to the traditional secretary/copyist, usually gentleman with a liberal education at home in legal and diplomatic contexts who wrote in a fine hand.
In Milton’s case, there was never an autograph copy of Paradise Lost:
Milton composed the ten books of Paradise Lost between 1658 and 1663. He had first planned the work as early as 1640, intending to write a tragedy titled Adam Unparadised. By 1652 he had become completely blind, probably due to glaucoma. Blindness forced him to compose orally, rendering him entirely reliant upon amanuenses (casual copyists among his friends and family circle) to whom he gave dictation. He composed the poem mostly at night or in the early morning, committing his composition to memory until someone was available to write down his words. He revised as his text was read back to him, so that a day’s work amounted to twenty lines of verse. According to contemporary accounts, when dictating, the poet “sat leaning backward obliquely in an easy chair, with his leg flung over the elbow of it” or “composed lying in bed in the morning.”
The only surviving manuscript of Paradise Lost is this 33-page fair copy, written in secretary script by a professional scribe, who probably transcribed patchwork pages of text Milton had dictated to several different amanuenses. This fair copy was corrected by at least five different hands under Milton’s personal direction and became the printer’s copy, used to set the type for the first edition of the book.
That’s one of the other fascinating things about early modern manuscript culture: there were multiple scripts that trained copyists used, almost like manual font sets, which dictated the shape and overall look of individual letters. These scripts varied from region to region and sometimes from one profession to another. The Secretary Script of the Paradise Lost manuscript, for example, was a form of Blackletter that flourished in England between the 14th and 18th centuries, until it was gradually displaced by the humanist scripts that had originated in Italy.
(This always delights me; not only did Renaissance humanists edit ancient texts, set up printing presses, transform education, and create great literature — they actually CHANGED THE WAY PEOPLE WROTE.)
But back to Milton! The survival of this partial manuscript also inadvertently reveals some of the difficulties writers faced in getting their books published in 17th-century England:
The Licensing Act, which was suspended during Cromwell’s term as lord protector, was renewed in 1662. Printers and publishers therefore required a license in order to legally print and distribute any book. Printing was authorized only when an imprimatur (Latin for “let it be printed”) was granted by the Stationers’ Company. The imprimatur for Paradise Lost appears on the inside cover (the first page of the manuscript in the digital facsimile). Soiled with ink smudges and compositor’s marks, printer’s copy manuscripts were customarily discarded or recycled after printing. In this case the presence of the imprimatur may account for the survival of Book 1—no manuscripts of the nine other books of Paradise Lost survive.
Milton sold Paradise Lost to the printer Samuel Simmons for £5. The contract is dated 27 April 1667; the book was published in late October or early November 1667. Although Milton had completed Paradise Lost by 1665, publication was delayed by a paper shortage caused by the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Great Plague (during which over eighty London printers died), and the Great Fire of London, 1666, which destroyed many of the city’s presses. The absence of Simmons’s name on the earliest title pages indicates that he may have been unable to print the book himself. The title pages that do bear Simmons’s name do not give an address, suggesting that the printing of the first edition was assigned to Peter Parker.
Approximately thirteen hundred copies of the first edition were printed, with no fewer than six different title pages. Marketed at three shillings a copy, the first printing was sold out within eighteen months.
War, fire, plague, paper shortages, and Milton blind; this could make anyone wish “to justify the ways of God to men,” and imagine
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv’d onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace [ 65 ]
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all…
Most digital manuscript projects for the web get at least one thing wrong, but they’ve been getting better. In this case, I highly recommend using the full-screen viewer to examine individual pages… which is all you can do, because you can’t switch pages without jumping out of full-screen. D’oh!