The IHR Blog |

New reviews: Medieval romance, Brits and apartheid, Puritans and Democrats


random34We start this week with Michael Johnston’s Romance and the Gentry in Late Medieval England, as Katie Bridger and the author discuss an insightful, fascinating contribution to our understanding of the world of the gentry (no. 1859, with response here).

Then we have a great interview by Jordan Landes with Elizabeth Williams, talking about her most recent book, The Politics of Race in Britain and South Africa, which examines British support for the anti-apartheid movement among its own black communities (no. 1858).

Next is The Crisis of British Protestantism: Church Power in the Puritan Revolution, 1638–44 by Hunter Powell. James Mawdesley praises a fine work of scholarship, which will surely become essential reading for those investigating the religious politics of the British Isles at a critical moment in their histories (no. 1857).

Finally we have Lily Geismer’s Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party, and Patrick Andelic believes this timely, original and richly detailed book should be required reading for all those seeking to understand the modern Democratic Party (no. 1856).

Students and the digital edition. A polemic.


academicbookweekThis post has kindly been provided for us by Dr Stephen Gregg of Bath Spa University, and is the text of a talk given to the panel session ‘Opening the book: reading and the evolving technology(ies) of the book’ as part of Academic Book Week.

I want to talk about the undergraduate perspective on a particular kind of academic book – the edition. In fact my starting point is that, from the student perspective (and according to some scholars), there is no longer a clear idea of what that is.

The place and perceived value of the printed critical edition seems to be still firmly established. I once asked my students to identify and compare value markers of their printed text in front of them and of an online version of the same text, and they made a pretty good case for the printed text, citing everything from the name of the publisher, to modes of reading, navigation, and interaction, and even pointing to the durability of its medium. And this in a digital humanities module. However, asking them to tell me how and why either of these versions look the way they do was a far more tricky question. So my polemic will be a plea for teaching in a way that puts students themselves in the position of editors and curators of literary texts: and that the best way of doing this is an engagement with digital editing and curating.

But first, I’m going to begin by outlining how a dramatic rise in the online availability of our literary heritage drives certain changes in reading and studying practices.[1] When a lot of academics are running to catch up with the accelerating process in disseminating the world’s literary heritage online – even in their own field, and I include myself – is it any wonder that our students, stepping off the path of the printed set text, also find themselves slightly taken aback and click on the top hit in Google? Because there is indeed a chaotic mass of types of texts they can find. In addition to catalogue entries and Amazon hits, there are texts from web sites and web ventures that essentially depend upon some form of commercial revenue or profit (e.g. Google, Luminarium, editions via Kindle, and even apps), non-profit web organisations (e.g. Project Gutenberg, Poemhunter, Internet Archive, Hathi Trust), nationally-supported or privately-endowed institutions (e.g. Folger digital texts, British Library Shakespeare Folios), University libraries (e.g. SCETI, Virginia, Adelaide, Bodleian), a whole host of academic projects (e.g. Rosetti Archive, EEBO-TCP, the Correspondence of William Godwin, the Walt Whitman Archive) and, of course, via institutionally-accessed and pay-walled commercial publishers (like Cengage or ProQuest). My essential point is that there is a blurring of the definition of the ‘edition’. What we see – for sometimes good reasons – are projects that describe themselves as digital archives, databases, digital library collections, social editions (like Transcribe Bentham), and apps (e.g. Touchpress’s The Wasteland). And texts that come via these platforms look, feel and function very differently.

Between the printed and digital text, there’s a two-way process happening. The easy and quick availability of texts online drives a certain kind of reading of printed editions which makes invisible ‘the history of their own making’ (D. F. McKenzie).[2] At the same time, undergraduates don’t often spot the distinction between the kinds of texts they find online and the one in their printed critical editions. This partly because they see only the text in their editions, and not the ‘edition’ (introduction, textual note, annotations, etc.): the actual edition becomes invisible. I don’t want to denigrate undergraduates’ skills and this isn’t entirely the students’ fault: it’s partly how English literary studies – at least in many seminar rooms – is still running with the idea of the literary text as an immaterial abstraction (despite the influence of various kinds of historicization). It’s this that renders invisible the processes that shape the form of the book in their hands. So I guess my rant is partly a plea for a serious consideration for the materiality of the book and a bigger role for the history of the book in English Studies.

But I’m also thinking about the lack of attention (at undergraduate level) paid to how editions and texts end up on the web in the ways they do. Formats vary hugely, from poorly catalogued page facsimiles, to unattributed HTML editing of dodgy nineteenth-century editions, to scholarly high-standard editing with XML/TEI encoding. But there are still plenty of these digital versions and collections that make it very difficult to see who these resources are for and how they got to look and function the way they do. And, as I’ve hinted at earlier, issues of format and accessibility are linked to how the various sites and projects are funded. In significant ways a lot of texts available digitally do much worse than the print edition at signalling ‘The history of their own making.’

So, the second half of my polemic is about how we should be making our students more aware of how the edition is remediated based on an understanding of the limits and affordances of digital technology and of how the internet works.[3] Because this is where digital technology can open their books in a vital way. I’ve found it intensely interesting that the digital humanities community has been using a variety of material and haptic metaphors to describe what it is they are doing – ‘making’ or ‘building.’[4] For me, this is wonderfully suggestive. In asking my students to understand the processes involved in transforming a material book into an printed edition and then a digital edition is a necessarily haptic experience. This experience – a process that involves decisions about audience, purpose, authority, and technological affordances and restraints – enables a student to understand their literary object of study in a vital and transformative way. It might seem odd that I’m emphasising materiality in a debate thinking through the effects of what is, ostensibly, an immaterial medium, but technology is material and digital editing should involve the material aspects of the book and material work. My undergraduate dissertation student is producing a digital edition of a work by Henry Fielding: she will be going to the British Library to see the source text as an essential part of her learning. In a few weeks time, my students will be building a digital scanner partly out of cardboard; after that even our training in digital markup will start with pencil and a printed sheet of paper.

So I’m arguing that we give students the opportunity to be academic editors of books, and not just in theory but in practice; to enable them to be creators and not merely consumers of texts, because the electronic editions of the future should be powered by an early and vital experience of digital making.

[1] Leaving aside why there is an increasing use by undergraduates of online texts instead of printed ones in class – though I suspect it’s partly down to the increasing centrality of the mobile device as well as an expectation that everything is, or should be, freely accessible.

[2] D. F. McKenzie, quoted in Jerome McGann, ‘Coda. Why digital textual scholarship matters; or, philology in a new key,’ in The Cambridge Companion to Textual Scholarship, eds, Neil Fraistat and Julia Flanders (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 274-88 (p.274).

[3] I’m always reminded of internet hacktivist Aaron Swartz’s maxim: ‘It’s not OK not to understand the internet anymore.’

[4] Most notably Stephen Ramsay, On Building.

The IHR’s British Poll Book Collection


The IHR Library holds a large collection of printed British parliamentary poll books, both originals and photocopies. Poll books can be traced back to an Act of Parliament in 1696 designed to curb electoral fraud and disputed elections. They record the names of voters, who they voted for, and on occasion the voters’ place of residence, occupation and the place of the voters’ qualification if different from their residence. Therefore, poll books can provide a wealth of information across a swathe of historical disciplines. It should be noted, however, that poll books do not survive for every constituency, nor for every election. In addition, some poll books were printed, while others remain in manuscript.


The first known poll book to be printed was for a by-election in the county of Essex in 1694. It is thought that the prurient interest generated by the suicide of the M.P. whose death triggered the election (he hanged himself at the fourth attempt from his four-poster bed with his garter after unsuccessfully trying to choke himself with ‘the rump of a turkey’) caused the printer of the poll book to ‘cash-in’ on the widespread public interest generated. The printed copy of the poll was an unofficial document and for some elections, several copies of the same poll were published, for example: the election held at Boston in 1865.

Poll books remained popular right up until the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872, yet even after the act’s introduction, poll books survive for the three university constituencies of Cambridge, Oxford and London. The last known poll book is for Cambridge, taken in 1882 and the IHR holds a copy. Below is an image from this final poll book and an image from an early election in the constituency of the University of Oxford.

_DSC5808  _DSC5812

The library has been undertaking a project to catalogue and reclassify the IHR’s collection of poll books since late 2011. This project is now complete and as a result, we felt it would be an appropriate time to share some of the highlights that we uncovered while reclassifying these valuable records of British electoral history.

  • At the poll taken in Boston, Lincolnshire in 1865 the printers felt it necessary to include an addendum stating that, “we have been obliged to omit some Squibs issued during the Election, on account of their gross indecency and libellous character.”

– Political songs, speeches and declarations are also recorded in some poll books. One fine example portrays an electoral candidate.
The rhyme declares:

‘There’s Taylor with eloquence blazing,

The Tories he’ll make a clear rout of ‘em,

With Trousers so tight it’s amazing,

How he ever gets into or out of ‘em!’


Another electioneering song from an election in 1813 notes:

‘He sends us Gowland as his substitute

And do they think that he can gain a vote?

From freeborn men by means like these, I swear

I’d almost rather be condemned to bear

The thoughts of drinking water all my days

Than thus I’d swerve from independent ways.’


In addition, the song Cock-A-Doodle-Doo, recorded during an election campaign in Lincolnshire in 1868, highlights the nature of electioneering and canvassing at this time.


The poll book records the Liberal candidate commenting:

“The Conservative Cock is moulting,

Which makes him look so low;

The taps are stopp’d, his throat’s so dry,

He cannot even crow.”

In reply, the Conservative candidate remarks:

‘The Liberal Cock has lost his spurs,

He has nothing to defend him;

And if he ventures in the wars,

The Conservative Cock will end him.”

  • Several poll books were produced hurriedly to cope with public demand. Thus, many polls contain errata asking readers to overlook any mistakes. A poll for the election in Durham in 1813 states: ‘In the course of the work, the reader will in places observe a few typographical errors; they are, however, so obvious, we have thought a particular statement unnecessary, since the error takes not from the grammatical sense, and is generally confined to the misplacing a single letter. In a work of this heterogeneous kind, we hope such mistakes will be candidly overlooked, or generously forgiven.’

The IHR Library staff adopt a similar approach and hope that any mistakes during cataloguing are also candidly overlooked or generously forgiven.

The Library’s collection of poll books are located in the IHR’s onsite store but they can be consulted via request through email or in person. Full details can be found here:

A guide to the Library’s collection of poll books can be consulted here:

image 1  image 2

Different approaches to black history


I usually get my ideas for posts about BBIH and its contents from external sources and recently received two such prompts. The Guardian ran an article on the teaching of black history where the questions, Did black immigrants come through Ellis Island? Were there black cowboys? Where did the free black men in New Amsterdam live? were asked and the author felt that black history (in an American context) was confined to slavery, the American Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. This article was followed by another, from a British perspective which argued for a different approach to black history.

Quite by chance a number of articles and books came to my attention, hopefully offering examples of these different approaches.

While not covering black cowboys, and certainly straying into slavery territory, the biography, The Road to Black Ned’s Forge: A Story of Race, Sex, and Trade on the Colonial American Frontier, introduces Ned Tarr, a blacksmith and landowner in Virginia. Tarr purchased his freedom and moved to Virginia setting up a blacksmith business and became the first black landowner west of the Blue Ridge. He married a Scottish woman, an interracial relationship that seems to have been accepted by his neighbours, and went on to found a Presbyterian congregation. However his late master’s son attempted to re-enslave him and Tarr had to defend his freedom in court.McClesky sk16distress.indd

Tracking back to Roman Britain a recent book, Objects and Identities. Roman Britain and the North-western Provinces includes the chapter “Seeing Black: Africans in Roman Britain” which looks at epigraphic and isotopic evidence of Africans in Britain as well as their depiction in objects.

On a completely different level, and surprisingly appearing in the journal Shakespeare, is the article The Resonables of Boroughside, Southwark: an Elizabethan black family near the Rose Theatre. The life of this family is traced in the archival records between 1579 and 1582 in Boroughside, Southwark and St. Olave, Tooley Street and the possible connections to Elizabethan theatre investigated.

The Resonables of Boroughside is complemented by two other articles on similar themes; Gusatve Ungere explores The presence of Africans in Elizabethan England and the performance of Titus Andronicus at Burley-on-the-Hill, 1595/96; while Emily Bartel’s Too Many Blackamoors: Deportation, Discrimination, and Elizabeth I argues that the targeted subjects were West Africans captured from Spanish New World settlements and seen primarily as “Spanish” subjects.

Moving to the middle of the eighteenth century, a shift in the artistic representation of black people became perceptible in England: a theme explored in Bridging the Gap between Self and Other? Pictorial Representation of Blacks in England. The examples used are, Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of Ignatius Sancho (1768), Joseph Wright of Derby’s Two Girls with a Black Servant or A Conversation of Girls (1769), Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Omai (1776), and John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778). Gainsborough’s portrait of Ignatius Sancho shows a gentleman as well as a man of feeling, while Wright of Derby’s Two Girls with a Black Servant hints at a possible equality between the children.

While demonstrating Connected Histories to some students I happened upon the Old Bailey online entry for JOHN MARTIN “(a negro) was indicted for stealing two cloth coats…” and other clothes from “…the property of John Turnbull, in his dwelling-house, May the 18th .” [1782]


What intrigued me was his punishment – “Transported for 7 Years to the Coast of Africa, 1. John Martin”, while others, presumably white criminals, were “-Transported for 7 years to America, 6. John Burgess, Joseph Barnsley, Ann Thomas, Thomas Winton , John White , and William Bradbury”. The intrigue is that Martin was sent to Africa and the others to America, itself in the throes of the War of Independence. How I wonder did Martin fare in Africa, a continent he may never have seen, and what would his life have been if he had been sent to the American Colonies, soon to be the USA – would he have escaped and been free or enslaved?

For a detailed discussion in the Old Bailey Proceedings of  black people as victims, witnesses and as the accused see “Black people and the criminal justice system: prejudice and practice in later eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century London”. The article concludes that there was no significant discrimination against black people as prosecutors and witnesses, although punishment patterns for black convicts included rather greater emphasis on transportation (as in John Martin’s case).

Taking us up to the present are a number of books and an article.  “Black Migrants, White Queers and the Archive of Inclusion in Postwar London” examines the historical concurrence of West Indian migration to Britain and the increase in discourses around British homosexuality in the 1950s and 60s, using, amongst other sources, an oral history by a gay Jamaican dancer who migrated to London in 1948.

Continuing the theatrical theme is the book Black British Theatre Pioneers : Yvonne Brewster and the First Generation of Actors, Playwrights and other Practitioners, which explores the many ways in which Brewster has used black experience and culture to enrich British theatre as co-founder of Talawa, one of Britain’s  black-led theatre company, as well as The Barn, Jamaica’s first professional theatre company.


Finally, Black London: The Imperial Metropolis and Decolonization in the Twentieth Century reveals the city as a key site in the development of black internationalism and anti-colonialism and shows the significant contributions of people of African descent to London’s rich social and cultural history.

As usual, all relevant material can be found in the Bibliography of British and Irish History.

Brepolis- BBIH 2015-11-17 14-06-35

Revealing local history


DD-SAS c212-10-1 map for web

There is still time to sign up for one of our Being Human edit-a-thons in London and Leicester on 21 November.

As part of the Being Human Festival, British History Online (BHO), Senate House Library (SHL) and Victoria County History (VCH) will be leading two simultaneous Wikipedia edit-a-thons in London and Leicester on 21 November. An edit-a-thon is an event where editors get together to write or improve articles centred on a specific topic. We will provide training in editing Wikipedia and no prior experience is necessary. The theme of our edit-a-thons will be local history, which will involve both editing articles about particular places, but also editing articles about the practice of local history in the UK.

The idea to have a local history Wikipedia edit-a-thon first occurred to us when we had a Wikipedia training session at the IHR way back in March. Our trainer was Edwardx (who conveniently will also be the London trainer for this coming edit-a-thon) and during our session we were amazed at how easy the process of editing and improving Wikipedia articles was after a little bit of training. Jessica Davies and Rebecca Read from VCH were thinking of ways they could improve articles about various aspects of local history, and I was thinking about how to encourage more editors to consult BHO since Wikipedia encourages citing online, accessible materials where possible. Following the session, the three of us agreed that the theme of local history would an interesting one for an edit-a-thon. We envisioned local historians, Wikipedia editors, students and academics all coming together and learning from each other. The Being Human Festival, with its focus on the humanities’ ability to inspire and enrich our everyday lives, seemed like a natural fit for the event we were dreaming up.  Jordan Landes, the history librarian at SHL, had organised the initial training for us and kindly offered to help facilitate the edit-a-thon. Soon we were partnering with a team in Leicester, and taking the edit-a-thon beyond our immediate vicinity and bringing it to a national scale.

We’ll admit we were slightly stumped about whether our events would relate to this year’s Being Human Festival theme, “Hidden and Revealed.” But we quickly realised that the goal of revealing is already behind the work that we do.

2006_0731Image0006_1We believe local history should be cared for and preserved in archives, but it should not remain there. It is our communal responsibility to study history, to learn from it and to share it. With the VCH volumes, authors comb local archives and untangle the history of places in order to present those histories to the public in the form of the VCH red books. What is that if not a process of revelation? They take something that might not be hidden per se but rather, difficult to access, and reveal the history of a parish, a hundred, or a county in a clear, encyclopaedic format.

Similarly, by digitising the red books, BHO further reveals these histories by allowing VCH texts to be freely accessible from anywhere in the world. One of my responsibilities at BHO is to manage our email account, and I love receiving emails like the one from the Australian woman who found the history of the small village where her great-grandmother was born, or from the mayor who learned new things about his own town, or from the homeowners who discovered the rich history of the place where they live, or from the elderly man who is brought back to his schooldays. To all those people and many more, uncovering the history of where they come from is nothing short of a revelation.

And finally, Wikipedia—one of the most visited websites in the world—is driven by a desire to make human knowledge accessible to everyone. Wikipedia relies on source material like VCH, and BHO content is already heavily cited across the site. Wikipedia democratises the construction of knowledge by allowing articles to be edited by anyone from anywhere in the world.

So to us, the revelation of the hidden is about understanding the history of where we come from and sharing that with each other. Our goal in these events is for everyone to feel like they can participate in the creation of their own history. One thing I have learned since being at BHO is that British history is never only British; and local history is never only local. We are connected on a global level and we share a global history, which might begin with the local but it never stays there.

Follow the edit-a-thons on Twitter with the hashtag #revealinglocal.

This post has been edited since a third event in Gloucester has been cancelled.

New reviews: Henrykow Book, C18 satirical prints, Nixon and Europe, origins of Europe


henrykowWe start with The Text and the World: The Henryków Book, Its Authors, and their Region, 1160-1310 by Piotr S. Gorecki. Shami Ghosh and the author discuss a work which succeeds magnificently in providing a history of a European monastic institution that serves as an example of European history within a larger, overarching framework (no. 1855, with response here).

Next up is John Richard Moores’ Representations of France in English Satirical Prints 1740-1832, and James Baker finds much to recommend in this lively volume (no. 1854).

We then turn to Richard Nixon and Europe: The Reshaping of the Postwar Atlantic World by Luke A. Nichter. Robert Ledger believes this to be an excellent study of the transatlantic relationship during this period and a fine addition to the historiography of the Nixon Presidency (no. 1853, with response here).

Finally we have a review article on the origins of the landscape of Paris by Anthony Nardini, covering Planning the Greenspaces of Nineteenth-Century Paris by Richard S. Hopkins and How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City by Joan DeJean (no. 1852).

Bespoke advice at a History day research clinic


One feature of History day on 27 November is the one-on-one guidance provided by the scheduled research clinics. These clinics will allow researchers to spend time with a librarian or historian to discuss resources, training and research, addressing specific needs. For example, if a researcher would like to find historical research training, the IHR’s Dr Simon Trafford will be available to discuss finding sessions from 10:00 to 12:00. For any researchers who want to locate resources for Canadian Studies in London, Senate House Library’s Christine Anderson will have a table at History day from 10:00 to 12:00. Other sessions include:

  • Building your bibliography and keeping it up to date with Senate House Library’s Mura Ghosh from  10:00 until 12:00
  • Locating Caribbean Area Studies Resources with Dr Luis Perez-Simon of the Institute of Latin American Studies  from 11:30 until 15:00
  • Improving your online search skills with Birkbeck’s Aubrey Greenwood from  13:00 until 16:00
  • Help with American Resources at the British Library  with Dr Matthew Shaw of the British Library from 14:00 until 15:00
  • Using IHR’s digital resources with the IHR Digital team from  15:00 until 16:00

Lastly, Michael Little and the team from the National Archives will be available throughout the whole event to discuss using the collections at the National Archives.

The clinics will be in Beveridge Hall as part of the open history fair. If you have any questions, please just ask!

A Visit to the IHR Library Offsite Store


A few members of the IHR library staff recently travelled to the IHR’s offsite depository store at Egham in Surrey for the day in order to record the collections’ periodicals that remain stored offsite following the IHR’s move to its new location in the North Block of Senate House in 2014. The items that remain stored offsite mainly comprise pre-1950 journals and periodicals.

photo 4

The visit was designed to enable us to update our catalogue with an accurate record of the library’s Latin American holdings. The Latin American collection will begin to be re-catalogued in the coming months and this will enable this fascinating and exceptionally diverse collection to be explored in greater depth.

The collections comprise materials from across Latin America, with significant areas of strength in Mexican, Brazilian and Colombian history. Journals and periodicals are collected however, from all countries in Latin America.

In addition, the depository itself is also of historical interest! The store contains many historical gems, with a personal favourite being the old style of library trolleys from Senate House Library that deck the halls of the depository.

photo 2photo 5photo 1

For researchers wishing to make use of the offsite collections, please note that items can be requested from the offsite store and accessed usually within 1-2 working days. A guide to the full collection locations of the IHR can be found here:

Blog posts on the treasures unearthed during our re-cataloguing of the Latin American collections will follow – so watch this space!

See also: A full list of the IHR’s seminar series on Latin America, as well as links to several podcasts that are available for download from the seminar series, can be found here:

Interning at the Victoria County History


blog photo

Clara Clarson, VCH intern

My name is Clara Carson and I am an undergraduate student, studying history at Richmond the American International University in London. I have been fortunate enough to be interning at the Victoria County History (VCH) as part of my degree for the past six weeks, but even more fortunately, I still have three weeks to go. This internship has been an incredible opportunity for me, not only being able to work at the VCH, which in itself is a piece of history, but also through being associated with the Institute of Historical Research (IHR); I have been able to experience and learn so much from both incredible organizations.

Thinking back to my first week, I remember feeling intimidated as I walked through the large doors at the entrance to the Institute, and how quickly ny fears subsided as I was introduced to everyone at VCH, and as I began to form acquaintances within the IHR; including a personal introduction to the Director. I am so grateful to Adam Chapman and Rebecca Read and to all the team at VCH, for the extent in which they have taken me under their wing, always ready to help and introduce me to new ways of thinking and allowing me to learn from them; but especially for showing me where the endless supply of tea can be found.

I have learnt so much in my short time here and what I shall remember most is the level of interest everyone has taken in me and my career aspirations, and the extent to which everyone has gone out of their way to instruct me further in ways to achieve these aims. From working day-to-day with these professionals, I’ve gained an education both in my historical training but also my general knowledge of England’s past, researching periods of history that I had not previously focused upon. The individuals I have met, especially at VCH, have been a continuous source of aid and inspiration, they have given me the benefit of their time and proven to me that this is the type of career I aim to pursue. Furthermore, I have been inspired by the interests that they continue to specialise in alongside their work for the VCH, demonstrating that careers can have additional or multiple streams, which I had not appreciated before.

Both the VCH and the IHR have provided countless opportunities to learn and develop new skills, and I hope that I have utilized these chances to the best of my ability. The two organizations together offer such a wealth of knowledge that it would be almost criminal not to learn as much as possible about them and the work that they do. I feel privileged to have observed the work conducted by the VCH, to have been able to support and participate in this, and also to witness the continuation of a much respected and long tradition of historical research carried out by this unique organization. To have also been able to combine and further this education by using the facilities of the IHR, such as the amazing seminars and the knowledgeable staff, has meant that I have gained so much more than I thought possible in six weeks; I’ve had an amazing experience and I could not have asked for more; I would like to thank everyone who has been a part of this incredible experience.

Private libraries of the rich and poor


Lindisfarne Gospels (image from British Library)

Lindisfarne Gospels (image from British Library)

Much of our cultural heritage owes a large debt of thanks to private collectors of manuscripts, incunabula and printed material; to those individuals who were interested in the accumulation of knowledge and the preservation of our literary history, and who saw fit to pass on their acquisitions for the foundation of libraries. One of the most well-known book collectors is Robert Cotton (1571-1631), whose vast collection of manuscripts include the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Beowulf and Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, which now form a vital core of the British Library collection and are listed in the Catalogue of the manuscripts in the Cottonian Library. Although his habit of disbanding precious manuscripts and rebinding them as he saw fit may seem an act of vandalism to us today, there is no doubt that without his legacy our book history would be far less impressive (even if the odd fire did somewhat deplete stock!).

Another famous private collector of the early modern period was Thomas Bodley (1545-1613). In the collected volume Books and and Collectors 1200-1700 we can learn more about the process of acquiring precious books in the chapter Sir Thomas Bodley‘s library and its acquisitions : an edition of the Nottingham benefaction of 1604, with letters from Bodley to his librarian providing clear evidence of his desperation to gain possession of new stock. Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury (1559-75) was also a voracious collector of manuscripts, and Matthew Parker‘s manuscripts : an Elizabethan library and its use gives a fascinating account of how he developed and interacted with his private collection.

However, while it is undeniable that the libraries of Cotton, Bodley and Archbishop Parker are invaluable, they all derive from the elite classes, born into privileged positions with disposable incomes that allowed them to amass vast collections in huge private houses. But what of those from more humbler origins? In Common Libraries in Fifteenth-Century England: An Episcopal Benediction, we learn of the earliest book collections being made freely available to the wider public. The very first civic library was Guildhall Library in London and was founded between 1423-1425, largely due to capital from the estate of Richard Whittington, (who, as we remember from childhood stories was four-times Lord Mayor of London), and was founded partly from the private collection of John Carpenter. There were also accessible libraries founded at Worcester, Bristol and possibly Norwich during the fifteenth-century. However, these libraries were all developed with a strong ecclesiastical bent, designed to inform and reform, and often run by members of the clergy. While these book collections were freely available for everyone, it is likely that it would only be the more educated citizens that made use of them, and even then the texts were carefully selected by religious authorities.

Woodcut of printing press (image from Wikipedia)

Woodcut of printing press (image from Wikipedia)

So what did ordinary people read? Was book ownership something strictly reserved for the wealthy classes and the ecclesiastical community in early modern times, or were the common people encouraged to foster reading habits? In the medieval period, manuscripts were laboriously made from parchment and painstakingly handwritten, which could take months to complete, and therefore were unlikely to be found in ordinary homes. Yet even after the birth of the printing press in the mid-15th century, books continued to be a valuable commodity, although as we can see in the article “Ovid with a Littleton” : the cost of English books in the early seventeenth century, the real cost of printed material is a complicated business, and even by the 1630s, only a handful of people owned more than a hundred books. (Although, despite literacy levels being an area difficult to judge, it is clear from history of British publishing that reading standards improved dramatically in this period, largely due to the growth of the book trade.)

Own image

Own image

However, we get a tantalising glimpse into how ordinary people assimilated books into their everyday lives in a fascinating article called Libraries of the “common sort”. Despite a woeful inadequacy in evidence, largely due to the ephemeral nature of cheaply printed items, through probate records we learn of certain individuals who clearly spent part of their limited income on the collection of books. Most pleasing is the forest labourer William Bane, who died in 1614, leaving in his single room his tools, a few items of furniture, writing implements and a small library of books worth 10s. Unfortunately we do not know the titles of the books, but we also learn of John Tayer, a shoemaker, whose account book from 1627 list a wide variety of titles in his ownership, including travel books, almanacs and tomes on spirituality. Accounts such as these provide a vital window into the reading habits of everyday people, who may be too often dismissed as illiterate labourers. Book ownership revealed in Norfolk probate inventories provides further evidence of book ownership across the classes, with more information on the types of books held and, interestingly, where they were kept in the house.

Another area less documented is that of women’s private collections. The Library of Mrs Elizabeth Vesey 1715-91the woman who part-founded the Bluestocking movement, provides a comprehensive list of the tracts that were integral to herself and her circle. ‘I can’t resist sending you the book’: Private Libraries, Elite Women, and Shared Reading Practices in Georgian Britain is about the library of Elizabeth Rose and her female friends, who actively sought out copies of books and formed an informal network of lending from their private libraries. Through the enthusiasm of these female readers, new ideas on female education and child rearing were able to disseminate to a wider audience. It also highlights how loaning from private libraries could strengthen relations between the privileged and less privileged.

Screen Shot 2015-09-08 at 12.33.32

Cragside, Northumberland (image from Wikipedia)

Which brings me neatly onto the next resource, Servants’ reading : an examination of the Servants’ Library at Cragside, a rare example of a nineteenth-century library provided in a country home for the use of the servants. The surviving collection is made up of an eclectic mix of novels, periodicals and non-fiction; some, such as Charles Loudon Bloxham’s ‘Laboratory teaching, or, progressive exercises in practical chemistry’, suggesting that the servants library may have been a receptacle for books not required anywhere else. Although the library indicates no particular learning towards self-improvement, the fact that it exists at all is heartening, and though rare, was not unique. Further research on book ownership in the nineteenth-century is presented in Beyond Bibliophilia: Contextualizing Private Libraries in the Nineteenth Century, a recently published article exploring the complex relationship that develops between owners and their books.

From the resources mentioned, it seems that whether rich or poor, private collections of books have been an important part of people’s lives since the late medieval times, and although the generous legacies of wealthy gentlemen are more relevant than ever to our libraries, it is the image of the humble labourer William Bain, sitting in his sparsely furnished room and reading by candlelight after a hard day’s work, that is all the more pleasing.

As usual, all relevant material can be found in the Bibliography of British and Irish History. To find our most up-to-date resources on the subject, use the index term ‘Private libraries’ to explore further:

Search screen

Search screen






Search results

Search results




Back to top

< Older Posts