A Palm Pilot for the Bard

The eraser may seem like a small invention today but scholars have often wondered how folks like Shakespeare, who lived during a time of ink wells and quills, wiped away unwanted words.

That mystery was finally solved in a recent trip Professor of English Peter Stallybrass and Visiting Professor of History Roger Chartier took to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. There they discovered notebooks with wax-coated leaves that were used during the Renaissance to jot down and organize notes in much the same way as Palm Pilots are used today.

The books have escaped notice until now because they were mistakenly catalogued as books with stiffened pages.

Palm-sized, the books contain pages with erasable surfaces, a considerable plus given that lead pencils were only just being introduced and paper was expensive.

Stallybrass, who runs a seminar on the history of material texts, said he came to the Folger on a hunt for pages that could be gently wiped away. He was particularly intrigued by a line from “Hamlet,” which mentions an erasable tablet.

So far Stallybrass has located 22 such books, all from England. He estimates that about half a million such books existed during a span of 50 years.

Primarily sold without a cover, the books contain leaves prepared with a plaster-like material that could then be written upon with ink or a silverpoint stylus and subsequently erased.

Jotted on the pages are things such as diary entries and remedies for animal diseases. Stallybrass even found a short poem in one of the books.

The wax-coated pages, which were sold blank, were often bound with pages of pre-printed texts holding practical information such as the dates of fairs, pictures of coins in circulation and the multiplication table.

Stallybrass said the notebooks tell much about writing as a process during the Renaissance.

“Most people when they start taking notes take too many notes,” said Stallybrass. “You need to extract what you particularly need and organize them. [The tablets] enable you to actually wipe out stuff.”

Originally published on March 28, 2002