Apart from the autographs of sovereigns, those of famous men of the early middle ages can hardly be said to exist, or, if they do exist, they are difficult to identify. For example, there is a charter at Canterbury bearing the statement that it was written by Dunstan; but, as there is a duplicate in the British Museum with the same statement, it is probable that both the one and the other are copies. The autograph MSS. of the chronicles of Ordericus Vitalis, of Robert de Monte, and of Sigebert of Gembloux are in existence; and among the Cottonian MSS. there are undoubtedly autograph writings of Matthew of Paris, the English chronicler of Henry III.'s reign. There are certain documents in the British Museum in the hand of William of Wykeham; and among French archives there are autograph writings of the historian Joinville. These are a few instances. When we come to such a collection as the famous Paston Letters, the correspondence of the Norfolk family of Paston of the 15th century, we find therein numerous autographs of historical personages of the time.
From the 16th century onward, we enter the period of modern history, and autograph documents of all kinds become plentiful. And yet in the midst of this plenty, by a perverse fate, there is in certain instances a remarkable dearth. The instance of Shakespeare is the most famous. But for three signatures to the three sheets of his will, and two signatures to the conveyances of property in Blackfriars, we should be without a vestige of his handwriting. For certain other signatures, professing to be his, inscribed in books, may be dismissed as imitations. Such forgeries come up from time to time, as might be expected, and are placed upon the market. The Shakespearean forgeries, however, of W. H. Ireland were perpetrated rather with a literary intent than as an autographic venture.
Had autograph collecting been the fashion in Shakespeare's days, we should not have had to deplore the loss of his and of other great writers' autographs. But the taste had not then come into vogue, at least not in England. The series of autograph documents which were gathered in such a library as that of Sir Robert Cotton, now in the British Museum, found their way thither on account of their literary or historic interest, and not merely as specimens of the handwriting of distinguished men. Such a series also as that formed by Philippe de Béthune, Comte de Selles et Charost, and his son, in the reign of Louis XIV., consisting for the most part of original letters and papers, now in the Bibliothèque Nationale, might have been regarded as the result of autograph collecting did we not know that it was brought together for historical purposes. It was in Germany and the Low Countries that the practice appears to have originated, chiefly among students and other members of the universities, of collecting autograph inscriptions and signatures of one's friends in albums, alba amicorum, little oblong pocket volumes of which a considerable number have survived, a very fair collection being in the British Museum. The earliest album in the latter series is the Egerton MS. 1178, beginning with an entry of the year 1554. Once the taste was established, the collecting of autographs of living persons was naturally extended to those of former times; and many collections, famous in their day, have been formed, but in most instances only to be dispersed again as the owners tired of their fancy or as their heirs failed to inherit their tastes along with their possessions.
The most celebrated collection formed in England in recent years is that of the late Mr Alfred Morrison, which still remains intact, and which is well known by means of the sumptuous catalogue, with its many facsimiles, compiled by the owner.
The rivalry of collectors and the high prices which rare or favourite autographs realize have naturally given encouragement to the forger. False letters of popular heroes and of popular authors, of Nelson, of Burns, of Thackeray, and of others, appear from time to time in the market: in some instances clever imitations, but more generally too palpably spurious to deceive any one with experience. Like the Shakespearean forgeries of Ireland, referred to above, the forgeries of Chatterton were literary inventions; and both were poor performances. One of the cleverest frauds of this nature in modern times was the fabrication, in the middle of the 19th century, of a series of letters of Byron and Shelley, with postmarks and seals complete, which were even published as bona fide documents (Brit. Mus., Add. MS. 19,377).
There are many published collections of facsimiles of autographs of different nations. Among those published in England the following may be named: - British Autography, by J. Thane (1788-1793, with supplement by Daniell, 1854); Autographs of Royal, Noble, Learned and Remarkable Personages in English History, by J. G. Nichols (1829); Facsimiles of Original Documents of Eminent Literary Characters, by C. J. Smith (1852); Autographs of the Kings and Queens and Eminent Men of Great Britain, by J. Netherclift (1835); One Hundred Characteristic Autograph Letters, by J. Netherclift and Son (1849); The Autograph Miscellany, by F. Netherclift (1855); The Autograph Souvenir, by F. G. Netherclift and R. Sims (1865); The Autographic Mirror (1864-1866); The Handbook of Autographs, by F. G. Netherclift (1862); The Autograph Album, by L. B. Phillips (1866); Facsimiles of Autographs (British Museum publication), five series (1896-1900). Facsimiles of autographs also appear in the official publications, Facsimiles of National MSS., from William the Conqueror to Queen Anne (Master of the Rolls), 1865-1868; Facsimiles of National MSS. of Scotland (Lord Clerk Register), 1867-1871; and Facsimiles of National MSS. of Ireland (Public Record Office, Ireland), 1874-1884.
(E. M. T.)