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Matthew Shardlake’s Black Journal

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'the werid mynde streght from the hert': Matthew Shardlake’s 'Black Journal'

Charlotte Anne Dodd, University of Streweminster

The discovery, decryption and interpretation of the seven densely-written volumes known as the Shardlake Papers have generated interest and controversy far beyond the community of early modern historians. I hope those of you substantially familiar with the current state of Shardlake scholarship will bear with a brief sketch of the substance and importance of these extraordinary documents, before I present some extracts from the so-called 'Black Journal'.

The content of the papers has understandably led many historians to dismiss them out of hand as forgeries. They contradict so much of what we know about the manners of 1530s and 1540s England, the conduct of criminal investigation during those decades, and the nature and purpose of memoir in 16th-century culture that they are indeed almost impossible to credit. However, the forensic evidence points to a forgery—if it is such—of equally incredible sophistication. The documents are mostly written on good-quality paper of 16th-century German manufacture. The ink, though difficult to date, contains no substance which would definitively exclude 16th century origins. The dominant hand is, if not genuine, a flawless imitation of English secretary of the Tudor period. Their bindings date from the 1830s, consistent with their entry into the documentary record of the library of Mariot Chase and first attempts at decryption by Eulalia Merrick. Though she has been subject to unfairly patronising commentary by posterity, ignoring her indispensible contributions to local history in Dorsetshire, it is nonetheless hard to credit Eulalia Merrick with authorship of the Shardlake documents. Her efforts at decrypting them attest to her tenacity and scholarship, but the mixture of early modern English, Latin, Greek and Law French (the last always deployed facetiously) which is the papers’ peculiar idiolect (and which makes their transcription and translation a matter of such contention), as she notes in her frequent marginalia, is quite outside the purview of the education of nineteenth-century Catholic gentlewomen. The appearance of the documents in the library of a recusant family, and Eulalia Merrick’s fascination with the memoir of a disillusioned enthusiast for religious reform, is the subject of a diverting few pages in But I Remember This, the autobiography of the late Karen Marlow-Laidlaw.

'Matthew Shardlake' is, of course, a pseudonym. No independent record exists of any person so named alive and practising law in the fourth and fifth decades of the sixteenth century. Similarly, the names of those who were not public figures seem to be pseudonymous or fictional, the choice of nomenclature often indicative of a proto-Dickensian cratylism on the part of the author. The crude rhyme 'Jack Barak' is no doubt a pleasantry, perhaps alluding to some term in the thieves’ cant in which that figure’s dialogue is customarily rendered. (The Sansom transcription, naturally enough in an edition composed with a general readership in mind, does a disservice to the macaronic nature of the original.) Nor is it likely that the adventures which the papers document occurred in the form that they are recounted: at several points, dates have been altered, often by several months, in order to facilitate the narrative. These falsifications and elisions are detailed in a major new study aimed at the informed general reader, Miranda Cromwell’s Blood for Breakfast: Matthew Shardlake and the Tudor Mise-en-Scêne. (It is to be regretted that Prof. Cromwell’s work was in press before the discovery of the remains of Richard III, which has implications for Giles Wrenne’s ‘eyewitness’ account of that monarch’s progress through York, but I believe her keynote address tomorrow morning will discuss in some detail the various problems involved.) Her chapter ‘Shardlake Aboard the Mary Rose’ makes it difficult to argue that the documents are anything other than authentic (in the sense of dating from the mid-16th century, rather than the truth of the content) or a forgery of recent date and baffling complexity.

For a literary-historical approach, taking the view that the papers are authentic but fictional, readers may profitably begin with the Shardlake chapter in Philip Scott’s Novels Before the Novel (1993). Scott will be known to many as a founding member of the 1970s avant-rock group Hey!Re:::Monster, but his background in law inflects his lucid and forceful argument for the papers as a collaboratively-authored work by a group of gentlemen students at the Inns of Court, transcribed by one amaneunsis and circulated in manuscript. Though this is convincing as an explanation of the papers’ fluctuations in language and idiom, Scott cannot, as he acknowledges, account for the imprudence of a mere jeu-d’esprit which if discovered would render the author(s) liable to prosecution for sedition at the very least, (and under the Henrician expansion of the offence) very probably for high treason, except to say that ‘young men sometimes do very silly things.’(1) No doubt true, but also, perhaps, a way for the canny Scott to avoid engagement with the welter of amateur interpretations which begin in allegorical interpretation of Shardlake and end in outright conspiracy theory. Since Scott wrote, two decades ago, these have multiplied: the internet is no very happy realm for those of us inclined to serious interest in the subject, though the Wikipedia article is rather good.

One of the major issues in Shardlake studies is of course the nature of the documents’ encryption. Nicola Reynolds’ sardonic comment is much-quoted: ‘Shardlake presents no particular difficulty to the paleographer with GCHQ training who has spent a long night wrestling Araucaria’.(2) In fact, six of the volumes are written in a relatively simple cipher, highly vulnerable to frequency analysis, though of course the analyst then faces the multilingual and allusive text. ‘Shardlake’ meant, it seems, to conceal the main memoir from uneducated eyes, but not to debar circulation altogether. The seventh, the subject of this talk, is a different matter. Called the Black Journal in allusion both to Thomas Cromwell’s account of monastic impropriety and Roger Casement’s diaries detailing homosexual activity (the binding is in fact the tooled mid-buff calf common to many of Mariot Chase’s early 19th-century holdings and rebindings) its polyalphabetic cipher requires Kasiski analysis, of which Eulalia Merrick, who died in 1843, was necessarily ignorant. It is cross-referenced to the other six volumes, and deals mostly with Shardlake’s painful religious doubts, which end in complete loss of faith. There are also a number of notes on his sexual life.

Though there are a few glancing references to the papers in the later 19th and early 20th century records of Mariot Chase, no member of the Merrick family seems to have become seriously interested in them until the second half of the 20th century. The main cryptographic work on the Black Journal was carried out by Nicola Reynolds and her brother-in-law Edwin Dodd in 1966. (Here I must declare a family association: Dr Dodd was my father’s first cousin, though I never met him and learnt of the connection through my interest in Shardlakiana.) Reynolds worked in naval intelligence before her marriage in 1964, Dodd was a county archivist. They complied the transcription at the instigation of their friend, then owner of Mariot Chase, Anthony Merrick MP, who seems to have regretted the revelation of the volume’s contents. He asked Dodd and Reynolds not to make their findings public, resulting in a number of angry exchanges between the two men, in which Reynolds was unable to broker compromise. She wrote subsequently to her brother:

'Merrick père was perfectly livid under that unsettling amused demeanour of his; I thought he was going to order me to read half of Dickens and Walter Scott (remember that?) before he’d let me back in the library. Edwin won’t let it drop and will keep mentioning this Abse chap and so on, and he just can’t see how he makes it all so unutterably ghastly for Patrick without having the slightest chance of changing the old fellow’s mind. It is too much, just for acres of embarrassing religious anguish and a bit, a tiny bit really, of “queer” stuff. I rather fell out with him (E.) when he brought the Service into it, I can live without that sort of civilian ignorance, as I’m sure you can too. I think it’ll have blown over but just in case it hasn’t when you’re here on leave. I can scarcely believe we shall have you for Christmas, blissful.' (3)

The row indeed seems to have been the source of an estrangement, never perhaps truly mended, between Anthony Merrick and his son Patrick. The latter worked intermittently on his own transcription, which remained unfinished at he time of his death in 2011. Patrick Merrick never approved an edition of the Black Journal, though he was generous, perhaps excessively so, to researchers working with the six narrative volumes. Copies, variably accurate, of the Dodd / Reynolds transcription circulated after the Trennels archive was opened to scholars in the 1990s, making the need for a reliable edition all the more urgent. I am grateful to Thomasine Merrick for allowing me full and generous access to the Merrick archive concerning Shardlake, as well as to the fragile original manuscripts, in order to compile the first annotated edition of the Black Journal. Thanks are also due to Mrs Reynolds for access to private correspondence and a number of illuminating conversations over coffee and Special Chocolate Cake.

(1) Philip Scott, Novels Before the Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) pp.143-78, p.176.
(2) Nicola Reynolds, ‘A Marlowe at the Court of Henry VIII’, Notes and Queries, 21:2, February 1974, pp. 56-59
(3) Nicola Reynolds to Giles Marlow, November 24th 1966, private correspondence.