Thursday, 21 April 2016

Shakespeare and the Essex Wills

This post is part of a series on the vocabulary of the sixteenth-century Essex Wills. For an introductory overview, see The Words of Sixteenth Century Essex Woman and Man.

You are quite right. There is no special connection. Except as regards furnishing the OED with early examples of words and meanings. And the fact that this weekend marks the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death.

It’s pretty well known that the OED gives the mistaken impression that Shakespeare coined a great many more words and meanings than he did in reality, simply because his works were extremely well-known and had been concordanced—so you could look up any word for which you needed a sixteenth or early seventeenth century example, and, with luck, there’d be one in his works somewhere.

The Shakespeare scholar Jürgen Schäfer (Documentation in the O.E.D, 1980) showed that you only had to mine other leading writers of the period, such as Thomas Nashe (1567–c1601), in the same way and you could come up with earlier examples that removed Shakespeare’s spurious primacy. This sounds rather brutal, but of course no one ever imagined that, for example, Shakespeare invented the name of a piece of furniture, the court cupboard, and then made Juliet’s father get his servants to move one. Every comfortably off household had a court cupboard in the sixteenth century as countless wills and inventories testify.

Schäfer’s work is all the more commendable because it came before the era of online databases. We now have Early English Books Online and can replicate—and vastly extend—his searches with relative ease. We can find plentiful examples from the printed literature of the early modern period of words and senses hitherto not even known to have existed then, as well as examples earlier than Shakespeare first uses.

In the 1990s the OED made another step forward. We realized that non-literary documents, such as wills, inventories, and accounts, dating from this period, which have been and continue to be printed in large quantities, are full of yet more documentation, much of it earlier than the literary documentation that antedates Shakespeare.

Not the least among such sources are the Essex Wills, which you can read about in my introductory blog, The Words of Sixteenth Century Essex Woman and Man. So here are seven words for which there is an example in a will from Essex earlier than in Shakespeare. In all but one, there is also an example on EEBO, usually also from a literary text. In two cases the EEBO example is the earliest.

OED barred adj. 1: 1597 Shakespeare Richard II i. i. 180   A ten times bard vp chest.
Essex Wills: (II. 199) 1567 my barred chest in my study
EEBO : 1580 J. Lyly Euphues & his Eng. [STC 17070] The key of yonder great  barred chest.

OED beer barrel at beer n.1 Compounds 1d: 1603 Shakespeare Hamlet v. i. 207   Why might not time bring to passe, that he might stopp the bounghole of a beere barrell
Essex Wills:  (IV. 32) 1578beer barrel

EEBO (earlier than both): 1551 The second volume conteinyng those statutes vvhiche haue ben made in the tyme of the most victoriouse reigne of Kyng Henrie the Eight [STC 9303.7] Table sig. A.ii/2 Beere barrell and kilderkin.

OED fail v. 3d ‘To die’: 1623 Shakespeare & J. Fletcher Henry VIII i. ii. 185 Had the King in his last Sicknesse faild

Essex Wills: (II. 92) 1569 If all my children fail before 20 

EEBO: nothing earlier found. This is a use which you might expect to have been a literary creation; but no, OED also has an 1878 example from Cumberland.

OED fellow n. 4b: 1600 Shakespeare Henry V iv. viii. 41 Let me see thy gloue. Looke you, This is the fellow of it.

Essex Wills: (III. 388) 1571 a framed hutch (the fellow to Agnes’ hutch) 
EEBO: apparently nothing older than the Shakespeare example. 

OED gleaned adj.: a1616 Shakespeare Henry V (1623) i. ii. 151 The Scot..Came pouring like the Tyde..Galling the gleaned Land with hot Assayes.

Essex Wills: (VII. 28) 1599 gleaned [corn]

EEBO (earlier than both): 1581 J. Keltridge Two godlie and learned sermons [STC 14921] his gleaned and piked vp corne. 

OED half-kirtle at half- comb. form 2m (not defined): 1600 Shakespeare Henry IV, Pt. 2 v. iv. 21 If you be not swingde, Ile forsweare halfe kirtles.

Essex Wills: (VIII. 36) 1565 half-kirtle

EEBO: the Shakespeare example seems to be the only one. It is the only example in the OED, so you might have thought it was his invention.

OED sanded adj. 1 ‘of a sandy colour’: 1600 Shakespeare Midsummer Night’s Dream iv. i. 119 My hounds are bred out of the Spartane kinde: So flew’d, so sanded.

Essex Wills: (I. 210) 1558 a red sanded barrow hog with black spots, a red sanded weaning pig; (I. 252) 1558 sanded barrow hog; (I. 71) 1559 sanded pig

EEBO: 1575 G. Gascoigne Noble Arte of Venerie [STC 24328] Whereas oures are whyte, sanded, and of all coloures. 

In two of the above cases the alternative literary example (from EEBO) is earlier than Shakespeare’s but later than the Essex Wills. In three, Essex Wills are again earlier but EEBO seems to have nothing earlier than Shakespeare. In two cases, EEBO’s examples are earlier than both. There is nothing very special about the Essex Wills here; many other sets of wills or inventories could offer similar material. But it reminds us just how much more extensive, and how hidden, the actual ordinary spoken language is, in contrast to the highly visibility but minority status of the literary language.

Finally, how about 
dobbin n.? OED (sense 1) defines this as ‘an ordinary draught or farm horse; sometimes contemptuously, an old horse, a jade’; the earliest example is from Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice (dated by OED3 1600

‘thou hast got more haire on thy chin, then Dobbin my philhorse has on his taile’.  

There is evidence for Dobyn as a personal name from Middle English literature. But did people call their horses Dobbin before Shakespeare? The Essex Wills tell us that they did (and EEBO has nothing earlier):

Essex Wills (1560, I. 76) have ‘a horse called Dobyne’ (as well as ‘a gelding called Dobb’ (1588, V. 103)).

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