Manuscript details Ben Jonson’s ‘lost’ trek

U. NOTTINGHAM (UK) — The chance discovery of a manuscript hidden among papers in an ancient family archive is shedding light on the life and career of Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare’s biggest rival.

As portrayed in the new Shakespeare movie Anonymous, Jonson was the leading wit of his time and lived a life full of notoriety and intrigue. Weighing in at just under 20 stone (around 280 pounds), he famously completed a walk from London to Scotland in 1618. But because his own account of the journey was destroyed in a fire at his house a few years later, no direct record of the trip was known to exist.

The newly discovered, 7,500-word handwritten manuscript is expected to reconstruct a large missing piece of the jigsaw of Jonson’s life story and disputes previous theories that he made his famous walking trip alone—the title, “My Gossip Jonson’s foot journey and mine into Scotland” indicates otherwise.

The identity of the traveling companion is still unknown, but the manuscript is considered hugely significant as the only surviving first-hand account of the legendary journey.

“It’s exciting to think of Jonson at the forefront of a tradition of literary walkers that comes right up to date with figures like Iain Sinclair and Will Self,” says Julie Sanders, professor of English Studies at the University of Nottingham.

“His encounters with the regional and cultural geographies of England and Scotland had a profound impact on what he went on to write afterwards and the manuscript allows us new insight into his work and the society of his time as a result.”

Sanders and James Loxley of the University of Edinburgh will transcribe the account for inclusion in a new Complete Works of Ben Jonson by Cambridge University Press, due out next spring. Loxley discovered the manuscript among papers in the archives of the Aldersey family of Aldersey Hall in Cheshire in 2009.

“Jonson’s foot voyage has long been thought of as one of the more striking episodes in a sumptuously colorful life,” says Loxley. “This newly discovered account is a treasure trove of detail on Jonson’s famous walk for anyone with an interest in British cultural history.”

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