The 17th-Century Paper Social Network

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It's snarky, constrained and incomprehensibly social! So, like, basically, Twitter for the 1670s.

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This month, 323 years ago, an English biographer scribbled notes to another scholar -- or rather, he scribbled and kept on scribbling. By the time he wrote on the fragment you see here, he'd already folded up his letter and stuck it inside. That tangled mass of words up there was written on a "wrapper," a folded piece of paper that was the literal precursor to the envelope. The sender was John Aubrey, the recipient Anthony Wood. If you can read it, the writing is fast, steeped in social connections, limited by space and length. Or...

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John Aubrey, thoroughly bewigged.

It's like 17th-century Twitter, said Chris Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections at Oxford's Bodleian Library, which bought the scrap earlier this year. 

To scholars and the British public, both Wood and Aubrey are well-known. Both were antiquaries, a kind of Enlightenment-era historian-biographer who preferred working with physical, material things. "We speak from facts not theory," said an antiquary in the 18th century. 

Their impulse sprang from the passion of the amateur, especially Aubrey's. He gossiped, pursued information with zeal and befriended many. The two men kept up this exchange for the 30 years between 1667 and 1695. This little fragment of an envelope is part of that back-and-forth, and it overwhelms the reader with requests for information.

This little scrap is part, then, of a paper social network. Aubrey started out hunting for autobiographical information as one of Wood's men in the field. What he sent back to Wood were often second-hand journalistic accounts -- this envelope contains four different chunks of them -- so steeped in gossip and reference to the time that it almost doesn't make sense to explicate them. But we can draw out and examine two.

1. The writing in red ink is a note about Aubrey's friend Edmund Wylde. It is a sentence long. It contains so much information. Wylde:

 was a Benefactor to ye great North window of Xtchurch where the Palmetrees are.

Which sounds simple: my friend, Wylde; was a patron of this big window at Christ Church Cathedral. And this relies on a ton of contextual information: that there is a great window in Christ Church Cathedral, that it was the largest of the windows there, that all those windows were added by Abraham van Linge in the 1630s. And it smuggles one last piece of information in: that Wylde was an undergrad at Oxford at the time. All that's missing are hashtags.

2. Comments on a pamphlet of poems by Francis Beaumont. Aubrey calls BS:

I have a strong Conceit, that the most Ingeniose Mr Francis Beaumont, [...] was not the Author of those Poemes' 'but the Bookesellers are cheating knaves' who tamper 'with good Names

Cheating knaves! And Aubrey continues, saying that, Laurence Blaikelocke, the printer of the pamphlet "was a Raskal and a Cuckold." "He dyed a Beggar;" Aubrey writes, "and (I thinke) in the Kings-Bench-prison."

The gossip here, the snark, the hedging: eventually Aubrey got so into the biography game that he started writing them himself. What he wrote is today called Brief Lives, and in 1969 was turned into a one-man show.

Kate Bennett wrote about this scrap of a wrapper in a soon-to-come article in the Bodleian Library Record:

In this fragment, Aubrey has made use of blank space on part of a letter from Wood, of which only the address panel bears Wood's hand, 'For Mr John Aubrey At Mr Kents house at the three black posts in Suffolk Street neare Charing Cross' (Aubrey has later crossed out 'Charing Cross'to avoid confusion, because he has written over it); and then sent the reply back to Wood again by some means.

Check that address! That's like 1770s HTTP, right down to the multiple redirects.

But maybe the best part here isn't even on the letter itself. Throughout their relationship, Wood infringed on Aubrey's courtesy repeatedly and charmingly. The historical record since the time they wrote to each other -- person after person in the long relay -- basically scoffs at Wood's manners. Wood called Aubrey "magotie-headed" and "crased" after their letters to each other ended. Aubrey, around the same time, wrote to Wood that "I have been ever ready to serve you: but have gott neither thankes nor credit for it." Wood never, in writing, recognized his intellectual debt to Aubrey.

But their friends knew what was going on. Thomas Hearne, a contemporary of both and a fellow antiquary, wrote that Aubrey was Wood's:

very great Friend, & help'd him exceedingly. Indeed, [Wood] could not have done without him. Yet he us'd Mr Aubrey scurvily.

And now even Kate Bennett, the Oxford curator who glossed the fragment, comments that Wood treated Aubrey "with appalling ingratitude." Three centuries of tsk-tsks, preserved by the historical record. Yet it's also almost reassuring: England in the 17th century had its jerks too, and it survived them; we'll survive ours. (We may never recover the adverbial form of "scurvy," though.)

Is this a 17th-century Twitter? Maybe. (Even before this scrap came to light, the promotional material for the play Brief Lives called Aubrey "the world's oldest blogger.") The scrap both does and doesn't mirror a tweet -- or a status update, or a Tumblr post, or anything on any social network. It has structural limits. It's odd, jotted, and hasty. It brimming with scribbled social information, meaningful only to those steeped in its world.

But most importantly: The medium isn't treated carefully, and it doesn't necessarily lend itself to kindness. It's fast, thinking-out-loud writing.

And it has its analogues. I think of it as the end of a Gchat, where one person just keeps clarifying what they meant to say in the last text, keeps thinking of things to add. "did you hear what o said / i mean obama / barack / who is president / and lives in the white house." Or, on the telephone: "You hang up first;" "No, you hang up first," "No, you do!"

But here it's transposed to two intellectual jousting partners. Maybe it's a defining feature of media that they're always just weird: weird to think about, weird to manipulate, weird to achieve both proficiency and sophistication in. Always waiting for the extra scribble and the extra hack.

Many thanks to Chris Fletcher, Kate Bennett, and the Bodleian Library for giving us access to this slip.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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