Letter-writers are not always consistent about dating their correspondence, especially quick casual notes. In order to determine when something was written, we often have to consult postmarks or notes made by the recipient. But, much to the chagrin of researchers and librarians everywhere, sometimes the only clues lie in the actual contents of the letter.
Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Robert Sidney. From a painting by Mark Garrard at the Sidney's ancestral home Penshurst Palace, Kent.
Sir Philip Sidney, the sixteenth-century English courtier and poet, wrote this letter to the famous printer Christophe Plantin asking him to send three books. What you see below is the full text. It is possible that this is the close of a longer letter, but if that is the case any preceding pages have long been lost. The letter is not dated and the paper's watermark -- the simple initials "CR" surmounted by a fleur-de-lis -- doesn't give any clues. By closely examining the book order, however, we can narrow down the possible date of writing to just two and a half years.
Sidney does not provide full citations for the books that he wants -- he just lists them as: Les mapps dlortelius en la plus nouvelle edition; Le livre en flaman descripvant les havres de leurope; and La description des villes et fortresses. The casual references indicate that Plantin may have been the printer of these works.
Working from this assumption, we can identify the first request as Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World) by Flemish geographer Abraham Ortelius. This is considered to be the first true atlas, and Sidney's request for the "newest edition" may refer to Plantin's German edition of 1580, or a later Latin edition of 1584.
Sidney's second request, for a Flemish work on the harbors of Europe, is the famous Speculum Nauticum, by the Dutch seaman and cartographer Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer, which was first published by Plantin in 1584. In the map below, notice the three fanciful sea monsters off of the coast of England.
A hand-colored map of the English coastline from Waghenaer's Der Spieghel der Zeevaerdt
Sidney's third request, for a work simply on "cities and fortresses," is the most difficult to identify. English scholar (and a former Keeper of Printed Books at the Morgan) Curt F. Bühler suggested that this might refer to Guicciardini's Description de touts les Païs-Bas... (Anvers: Plantin, 1582) or Discours sur plusieurs poincts de l'architecture de guerre... (Anvers: Plantin, 1579).
So although Sidney has not dated his quick note, a little detective work shows us that it could not have been written before the publication of Waghenaer's Speculum Nauticum in 1584. Bühler further suggests that it was written in the summer of 1585, and Sidney died in October of the following year from complications of a bullet wound in his leg.
Once owned by the famous collector Sir Thomas Phillipps, this letter entered the Library when Pierpont Morgan purchased it in 1905. For more information about the letter, click here.