Micrography in Samuel Pepys’ Calligraphy Collection

by Frances Hughes


Fig 1: Micrographic text reproduced to form a diagrammatic projection of the Globe, c.1702. Pasted into Samuel Pepys’ Calligraphy Collection, Volume III, p.326. Size of vellum: 55x45mm. Image Credit: By permission of the Pepys Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Towards the end of his life, Samuel Pepys began collecting samples of medieval manuscripts, calligraphy copy-books, and other miscellaneous textual fragments, which were then pasted into three albums to form his calligraphy collection [Pepys Library, Magdalene College Cambridge, 2981-3]. Within Pepys’ social and intellectual context there was a deep and multifaceted interest in the visual and material history of script. This blog post will briefly explore one manifestation of Pepys and his contemporaries’ interest in letter-forms: micrography. 

Volume III of Pepys’ collection features two pages dedicated to the art of ‘micrography’ or miniature writing. The content of some of these tiny sentences are invisible to the naked eye and instead appear as faint lines, made legible only when viewed through a microscope. Each of the samples are accompanied by labels, which explain their textual content in normal handwriting. The art of writing in miniature held a mythologised status as the ultimate demonstration of a writing master’s dexterity and was associated with extreme powers of vision. This tradition was rooted in the classical account of a parchment copy of The Iliad in miniature, which was so small that it could fit inside a nutshell. Part of the appeal of this legend was the fact that The Iliad was known for its epic length. Rather than The Iliad, sixteenth and seventeenth-century micrographic performances usually consisted of authoritative biblical and liturgical passages (The Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments) rendered within the circumference of a particular coin. By using such familiar texts and the standardised diameters of coins, writing masters could more tangibly convey the magnitude – or, more appropriately, minuteness – of their achievement. Early users of the microscope devised various means for measuring the magnified features of natural specimens accurately, such as using grains of sand or the diameter of human hairs to understand the relative scale of magnification. Authoritative blocks of text and individual letters arguably provided similarly familiar notational markers through which comparative looking could be conducted down a microscope.

Micrographic texts provided legible artefacts through which the growing gentlemanly fashion for microscopic observation could be practiced. Pepys’ collection indicates that writing masters responded to new technologies of magnification by producing witty calligrams that were only visible using a microscope. The micrographic sample pictured above appears to the naked eye as a diagrammatic drawing of the globe upon the meridian, featuring navigational lines and markers such as the equator and the poles. The miniature text forming these lines is an English translation of Herman Hugo’s description of God’s creation of the world. The poem describes God copying his creation “o’er again in Miniature” to create Adam, “with all the Art of Heav’n design’d,/ The mortal Image of th’Immortal Mind.” Adam’s mind is described as a miniature microcosmic version of the entire world, a bridge between the creator and creation. The human artifice required to create this feat of micrography can therefore be seen, in turn, to mimic God’s creative act. Moreover, the relationship between mankind’s capacity for deciphering God’s creation and the process of reading miniature lettering recalls the famous reference to Adam in Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, where he describes the patterns of nature under the microscope as a form of divine language: “[W]ho knows, but the Creator may, in those characters, have written and engraven many of his most mysterious designs and counsels, and given man a capacity, which, assisted with diligence and industry, may be able to read and understand them.”

We know that Pepys read Robert Hooke’s Micrographia avidly and purchased his own microscope. Intellectually inclined gentlemen like Pepys could utilise their new optical aids by training them on the products of human artifice, practising their observational skills on texts that were more immediately ‘legible’ than biological specimens. These tiny samples evidence the diffusion of broader intellectual concerns on topics such as microscopy, natural philosophy and theology within the scribal arts, centred on interactions between intellectually-engaged clients such as Pepys and the writing masters that they patronised.