Discussion Division: Manuscript Mania



We’ve got the answer to the question we all know you’ve been waiting to find out:

How can books that were published hundreds of years ago still be on the bookshelves today?


We’ve got the answer to the question we all know you’ve been waiting to find out:

How can books that were published hundreds of years ago still be on the bookshelves today?


Hundreds of years ago, paper wasn’t the same as it is today. They used ‘parchment paper’, which was made of plants, wood and animal skin. This is the type of paper people like Shakespeare had to use to write down all their work. Unfortunately, not all these papers survive so there may be some novels or poems written by authors from hundreds of years ago we will never ever know about. Sad! Luckily, people used to make copies of certain works so even if the original work didn’t survive we have a copy of it that we can make into a book today (for example, we don’t have any of Shakespeare’s original manuscripts but we do have lots of copies written by other people around the time).


Now as you can imagine, people living all that time ago didn’t speak the same English we do now. This means that if we read one of these original manuscripts we wouldn’t be able to understand it (it’s also really difficult because the writing is so squiggly as it was handwritten and is sometimes faded). This is where the job of the editor appears. Now you may notice when you start to read a book there’s a big introduction that you skip over and get straight to the actual story. However, if you take the time to read this bit, it’s written by the editor themselves telling you the who, what, when, where, and how they did their editing. The editor (though there is usually more than one) has to take this original manuscript and translate it into ‘modernised English’, which is the English we speak today. This job can be made even more difficult when there are multiple manuscripts. Multiple manuscripts occur because sometimes an author will change their mind after publishing their book and change parts of it, other times the original author’s copy has not survived so we are left with copies of the original copy and sometimes the words change from copy to copy in certain bits which makes the whole thing rather confusing. The editor has to decide what the final copy that ends up on our bookshelves in shops and at home looks like so it’s a really important job, as without this person (or persons) we would never be able to read books written a long time ago.


Now that you know a little about the process of how original manuscripts from hundreds of years ago become the words we see today, we have a little challenge for you. Below is an excerpt from the Twelfth Night, or What You Will folio (a folio is a picture of the manuscript), by William Shakespeare. Our challenge to you is to interpret the old English into what you think it means.

An Excerpt of a folio from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will


“If muficke be the food of Loue, play on, I


Giue me exceffe of it: That furfetting,

The appetite may ficken, and fo dye.

That ftraine agen, it had a dying fall:

O, it came ore my eare, like the fweet found

That breathes vpon a banke of Violets;

Stealing, and giving Odour. Enough, no mor’e,

‘Tis not fo fweet now, as it was before.

O fpirit of Loue, how quicke and frefh art thou,

That notwithftanding thy capacitie,

Receiueth as the Sea, Nought enters there,

Of what validity, and pitch fo ere,

But falles into abatement, and low price

Euen in a minute; fo full of fhapes is fancie,

That it alone, is high fantafticall.”


That may be a little confusing, but some things do repeat quite often so if you can figure out the right matches, it can simplify the process a whole lot. Go ahead and try your best to translate this play into modern English, and we would love to see you have a go and anything you notice about it in the comments below!

-Discussion Division


Hello there!


  1. Copycat!

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