Cover image for Book History, vol. 12 Edited by Ezra Greenspan and Jonathan Rose

Book History, vol. 12

Edited by Ezra Greenspan, and Jonathan Rose


368 pages
6" × 9"
36 b&w illustrations

Book History, vol. 12

Edited by Ezra Greenspan, and Jonathan Rose


  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects


1. With Slips and Scraps: How Early Modern Naturalists Invented the Archive

Elizabeth Yale

2. “Furnished” for Action: Renaissance Books as Furniture

Jeffrey Todd Knight

3. Imperial Reading? The East India Company’s Lending Libraries for Soldiers, c. 1819–1834

Sharon Murphy

4. Establishing Routes for Fiction in the United States: Walter Scott’s Novels and the Early Nineteenth-Century American Publishing Industry

Emily B. Todd

5. The Antislavery Almanac and the Discourse of Numeracy

Teresa A. Goddu

6. Nineteenth-Century Timetables and the History of Reading

Mike Esbester

7. Collected Editions and the Consolidation of Cultural Authority: The Case of Henry James

Michael Anesko

8. Stalwart Giants: Medical Cosmopolitanism, Canadian Authorship, and American Publishers

Jennifer J. Connor

9. Toward a History of Children as Readers, 1890–1930

Kathleen McDowell

10. Rewriting History: The Publication of W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America (1935)

Claire Parfait

11. Marketing Virginia Woolf: Women, War, and Public Relations in Three Guineas

Alice Staveley

12. Paperwork: The State of the Discipline

Ben Kafka


With Slips and Scraps:

How Early Modern Naturalists Invented the Archive

Elizabeth Yale

Seventeenth-century English natural historians and antiquaries lived in a world that did not much care for manuscripts. Writing a thought down and expecting it to be preserved was something of a desperate act: the possibility of loss or destruction was always present, and anything other than accidental preservation (the child of neglect) required vast resources of social, financial, and institutional capital. Sometimes the destruction of a manuscript was a deliberate response to its content, as was the case with religiously motivated book-burning. More commonly, however, manuscripts were destroyed through reuse or recycling, as naturalist and antiquary John Aubrey recalled in some detail:

Anno 1633. I entred into my Grammar at the Latin-Schoole at Yatton-Keynel, in the Church: where the Curate Mr Hart taught the eldest Boyes, Virgil, Ovid, Cicero &c. The fashion then was to save the Forules of their Bookes with a false cover of Parchment sc{ilicet} old Manuscript. Which I was too young to understand; But I was pleased with the Elegancy of the Writing, and the coloured initiall Letters. I remember the Rector here [Mr: Wm. Stump], great gr{and} Son of St{ump} the Cloathier of Malmesbury had severall Manuscripts of the Abbey: He was a proper Man, and a good Fellow, and when He brewed a barrel of speciall Ale, his use was to stop the bung-hole (under the Clay) with a sheet of Manuscript: He sayd nothing did it so well which me thought did grieve me then to see. Afterwards I went to Schoole to a Mr. Latimer at Leigh-Delamer (the next Parish) where was the like use of covering of Bookes. In my grandfathers dayes, the Manuscripts flew about like Butterflies: All Musick bookes, Account bookes, Copie bookes &c. were covered with old Manuscripts, as wee cover them now with blew Paper, or Marbled Paper. And the Glovers at Malmesbury made great Havock of them, and Gloves were wrapt up no doubt in many good pieces of Antiquity. Before the late warres a World of rare Manuscripts perished here about: for within half a dozen Miles of this place, were the Abbey of Malmesbury, where it may be presumed the Library was as well furnished with choice Copies, as most Libraries of England: and perhaps in this Library we might have found a correct Plinys Naturall History, which Canutus a Monk here did abridge for King Henry the second . . . Anno 1638. I was transplanted to Blandford-Schoole in Dorset to Mr William Sutton. Here also was the use of covering of Bookes with old Parchments, sc{ilicet} Leases &c. but I never saw any thing of a Manuscript there. Here about were no Abbeys or Convents for Men. One may also perceive by the binding of old Bookes, how the old Manuscripts went to wrack in those dayes. About 1647. I went to Parson Stump out of curiosity to see his Manuscripts, whereof I had seen some in my Childhood, but by that time they were lost, and disperst: His sonns were Gunners, & Soldiers, and scoured their Gunnes with them.

Aubrey mentioned four of the many uses of old manuscript, none of which involved reading: covering books, wrapping gloves, cleaning guns, and stopping up the bungholes of kegs of beer. Aubrey linked this destruction to the dissolution of the monasteries and the consequent emptying of their libraries under Henry VIII. Manuscripts were everywhere, yet they were being cut up, torn to pieces, and worn out by use until soon they could be found nowhere. The matter of manuscript—parchment and paper—was much more useful to most people than any text that might be written on it. And who could tell what had been lost in the process? Aubrey mourned the loss of a correct copy of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, but one of the untold thousands of texts dispersed and destroyed in the dissolution of the monasteries.

In this essay I argue that early modern English naturalists and antiquaries searched out and attempted to preserve not only manuscripts, but also the increasingly large volume of handwritten papers they produced in the course of their work. They established archives as institutions where papers could be deposited and made publicly accessible down through history. Antiquaries concerned themselves with the survival of manuscripts because their research depended on these materials, many of which dated back centuries, deep into the “middle age,” as early moderns had begun to refer to the time between the Fall of Rome and the Reformation. Their preservationist instincts were sharpened by the historical memory of the dissolution of the monasteries, and the dispersal of their libraries, under Henry VIII. As Aubrey’s “Digression” shows, the dispersal of the monastic libraries haunted antiquaries well into the seventeenth century, encouraging them to redouble their efforts to save what time and chance had left them. Because naturalists were also often antiquaries, and followed similar methods, they shared their interest in preserving manuscripts.

But the concern with papers and manuscripts came not only from the antiquarian branch of the family. Naturalists were concerned with preserving papers because they generated a wealth of them in the course of their work. Inspired by the philosopher Francis Bacon, naturalists viewed their papers not as the byproduct of producing printed knowledge, but as the fundamental stuff of knowledge, repositories of facts and observations for future generations of naturalists. The Baconian sensibility shared by these naturalists foregrounded “incremental fact gathering,” generally by groups of interested people, as a method of constructing accounts of nature and antiquities. A special affinity grew up between Baconian “facts” and manuscript as the material means of collecting, recording, organizing, and sharing them within these fields.

For a growing number of naturalists, preserving papers was thus an imperative. One way to do this was to transfer the papers to print—witness seventeenth- and eighteenth-century projects to print the correspondence and unprinted works of such luminaries as Galileo, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Jeremiah Horrox, René Descartes, and Robert Hooke. The other way was to get the papers into a “public repository.” Seventeenth-century naturalists and antiquaries created new institutions—most prominently, the libraries of the Ashmolean Museum and the Royal Society—to protect and preserve their books and papers. In inspecting their efforts to invent the archive, this essay reveals not only the connection between the development of a historical consciousness in Stuart England and the material culture of scientific communication. It also suggests ways in which modern archives might be transformed by the massive, ongoing shift of paper records to digital and online media.

What Is a Manuscript?

Most historians assume they know the answer to this question: a handwritten piece of paper or parchment in an archive. We would surely include papers in the archives of seventeenth-century naturalists within the compass of our understanding of “manuscript.” But what would seventeenth-century naturalists and antiquaries have made of our definition? Their answer is revealing of both the place of manuscripts within their own lives and work and the shifting relationship between science and history over the course of the century.

Handwritten texts only became manuscripts in contrast to printed books and papers. “Manuscript” was thus a late coinage in the history of the book, arising in the second half of the sixteenth century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, although any handwritten text could be a manuscript, many of the early uses of the word suggest that it frequently (though not exclusively) referred to a subset of handwritten texts: those written on parchment or vellum before the advent of printing. Seventeenth-century naturalists and antiquaries concurred: they usually referred to the products of their own pens as “papers” rather than “manuscripts.” Papers typically included loose sheets, notes from experiments and observations, commonplace books, correspondence, and drafts of treatises. Papers belonged in the gentlemanly or scholarly library, but were housed separately from bound printed books. They could be classed or stored with pamphlets, unbound books, and other loose printed material. “Papers” could also refer to bound (though not printed) books. In his instructions to his grandson and heir concerning the disposition of his library, diarist John Evelyn listed together his “Writings & papers, as Copys of Letters Common-place-Books, and several unpolished draughts, collected at severall times, & confusdly packd up or bound without any order, altogether Imperfect & most of them Impertinent.” These various kinds of handwritten material were united primarily by their disorder and by the fact that they were written by Evelyn (or Richard Hoare, his scribe and secretary) in the course of his work. Similarly, in his diary, Robert Hooke often used “books” and “papers” to refer to Royal Society account books, letter books, and loose letters and treatises, rarely if ever using “manuscript” in this context.

In contrast, the term “manuscript” was usually applied to older bound handwritten books. For example, naturalist Edward Lhwyd’s “Parochial Queries in Order to a Geographical Dictionary, A Natural History, &c. of Wales” included the question “Manuscripts: Of what Subject and Language; In whose Hands; Whether Ancient or Late Copies?” In the course of his research into Celtic natural history, antiquities, and languages, Lhwyd consulted, transcribed, and (whenever possible) obtained the originals of Welsh, Cornish, Irish and Scottish Gaelic, and Breton manuscripts in private and public libraries scattered across Britain and France. Evelyn wrote an entire treatise on the history of manuscripts, largely for the education of those interested in collecting them. In this work, he used “manuscript” exclusively to refer to ancient and medieval texts, whether of papyrus, parchment, or paper. Evelyn instructed his readers not only in the material history of the manufacture, ornamentation, and storage of manuscripts, but also where to search for them and how to read the unfamiliar scripts and languages in which they were written. Throughout, Evelyn abbreviated manuscripts “MSS.” The very ubiquity of this abbreviation among naturalists and antiquaries is a mark of the frequency with which they dealt in and discussed manuscripts.

In his evocative description of the various ways of recycling parchment, quoted above, John Aubrey clearly marked the differences between “papers” and “paper books” and the manuscripts of the middle age. “Musick bookes, Account bookes, Copie bookes,” all seventeenth-century scribal books, were not manuscripts. First and foremost, then, manuscripts were old. But not just old: in this passage, “manuscript” refers specifically to sheets with elegant writing and “coloured initiall Letters,” those exquisite products of an earlier monastic manuscript culture. Manuscripts were different from “old parchments, sc{ilicet} Leases,” which were much plainer utilitarian legal and economic documents. In Dorset, lacking a richly stocked monastic library, schoolboys covered their books with drab uncolored parchment sheets. In Wiltshire, where the Abbey of Malmesbury was but one of many local sources of manuscript, they covered them in pages bright with “coloured initiall Letters.”

Manuscripts were produced by monks before the English Reformation and were objects worthy of preservation and study. “Musick bookes, Account bookes, Copie bookes,” though handwritten, were not manuscripts, but paper books. Their pages were filled with church music for singing the daily services (church music was often copied by hand in Aubrey’s day), household and business accounts, and school children’s copy texts. These sorts of books were ordinary objects, tools for daily work and worship. Manuscripts, on the other hand, were products of the past, meant to be admired, studied, and used in the construction of historical accounts. Only by some kind of horrid mistake were manuscripts part of everyday life, ripped apart to make the coverings and bindings of scribal and printed “paper books.”

Although the rough distinction between papers and manuscripts held through much of the seventeenth century, in the end “manuscript” was too useful a term to reserve for medieval writings. Aubrey began calling his papers manuscripts as he reached the end of his life, when he became occupied with efforts to secure their preservation, primarily through donating them to the Ashmolean Museum. As part of this process, he cleaned up and reordered his papers, retranscribed sections that were difficult to read, and bound into books loose papers that related to one another, such as his correspondence. Edward Lhwyd, who as Keeper of the Ashmolean received Aubrey’s donation, asked him for a list of “tracts . . . as well the printed as M.SS.” to assist him in cataloging the collection. The two naturalists agreed: copied, bound, and transferred to the archive, Aubrey’s papers were no longer the loosely filed, disorganized products of daily work, but useful collections out of which future generations of naturalists might draw new knowledge. Conscious of their historical status as a body of documents in an archive, Aubrey called his papers “manuscripts” in somewhat the same way that a modern historian might.

Astrologer, antiquary, and museum-founder Elias Ashmole blurred the distinctions between books, papers, and manuscripts in other ways. In the course of collecting and transcribing the writings of the Elizabethan mathematician and natural philosopher John Dee, Ashmole used a variety of terms to refer to the materials he handled. In August 1672 he received “a parcell of Doctor Dee’s Manuscripts, all written with his owne hand.” This parcel, discovered in the secret compartment of a secondhand chest purchased from a London furniture maker, consisted of two bound volumes of mixed handwritten and printed material. Elsewhere, Ashmole referred to this same collection as “Doctor Dees originall Bookes & Papers,” “divers Bookes in Manuscript, & Papers,” and “severall things in MS.” Other collections of Dee’s writings were labeled simply “Manuscripts” and “papers.”

It may be that Ashmole’s separation of this trove of Dee’s writings into “Manuscripts” or “Bookes in Manuscript” and loose “Papers” developed out of the ways in which they were physically separated in his library. In the well-ordered gentleman’s library, the rough working division between manuscripts (medieval, monkish, illuminated) and papers (contemporary handwritten materials, bound or loose) did not quite hold. The division instead fell between bound books and loose sheets, as these required different kinds of storage. In his Instructions Concerning Erecting a Library, Gabriel Naudé advised shelving bound manuscript books as one would printed books and gathering loose papers up into “bundles and parcels according to their subjects.” Some manuscripts required special treatment, but only because of their financial value: manuscripts “of great consequence” were to be placed away from prying eyes, on the highest shelves and “without any exteriour Title.” Similarly, in his will, Ashmole divided the written material that he wished to bequeath to his museum—which included medieval records as well as the more recent papers of John Dee and Ashmole’s friend and contemporary, the astrologer William Lilly—into “Manuscript bookes” and “other Manuscript papers not yet sorted nor bound up.” In Ashmole’s library, books and papers were organized by format rather than time period.

In his extensive correspondence with both naturalists and religious reformers, “intelligencer” Samuel Hartlib referred to the papers of both the living and the dead as “manuscripts.” Hartlib’s more general use of the word might be explained by the fact that, as a Prussian immigrant with little interest in antiquarian studies, he was not immersed in the cultural memory of the Dissolution, nor involved in the latter-day search for monastic manuscripts. Compared to Aubrey, he had much less reason to distinguish between illuminated parchments and inky papers. Yet Hartlib’s usage, like Aubrey’s, indicated a connection between the end of a naturalist’s life and the understanding of his papers as a finished (though not complete) body of work. Only after a naturalist’s death did Hartlib become interested in locating and collecting the entire corpus of his unprinted work, including notes toward future treatises, commonplace books, letters, and other fragments. While a naturalist was alive, his papers were his working materials, his to share as he wished—though Hartlib, always a persistent correspondent, would pressure him to share as much as possible. After a naturalist passed away, his papers were a finished (by the fiat of death, if nothing else) body of manuscripts from which other, living naturalists might glean insights that they could develop in their own work. The naturalist’s death transformed scattered papers into a manuscript collection, the pieces of which had to be identified, tracked down, and gathered into one place. Hartlib and his successors did not approach the papers with the sensibility of a professional twenty-first-century historian (a point to which I will return below). Nonetheless, the death of the author did, as it does now, constitute the manuscript collection as a historical object.

Lost History: The Dispersal of the Monastic Libraries

Naturalists’ and antiquaries’ interest in manuscripts, as well as the distinctions they drew between papers and manuscripts, grew out of their experience with the dispersal of medieval libraries that accompanied the dissolution of the English monasteries. The greatest damage was done between 1536, when Parliament passed the first act for the suppression of the monasteries, and 1558, when Elizabeth I came to the throne. The monastic libraries were emptied. The destruction visited the college and university libraries of Cambridge and Oxford as well, though not as consistently. The books were destroyed, recycled, sent abroad, and taken into private libraries. Meanwhile a few antiquaries, like John Leland and John Bale, attempted to salvage monastic manuscripts as they traveled around the country. However, their efforts met with limited success, in part because the country now lacked secure long-term repositories for books. By the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, churchmen, scholars, and the queen’s leading ministers began to realize the value of what had been lost. In response, they went on collecting sprees. Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker built a library that included more than five hundred manuscripts, collected in part because they could be mined for evidence that established the historical foundation of the Anglican Church’s independence from Rome. Elizabeth’s minister William Cecil, Baron Burghley, sought manuscript records to provide historical evidence to support English nationalism and bolster Elizabeth’s claims to the throne. John Dee proposed during the reign of Queen Mary that dispersed manuscripts be sought out and collected for the Royal Library, evidence that Tudor naturalists were as interested in medieval manuscripts as their seventeenth-century counterparts.

Despite these efforts at preservation, much had already been lost in the 1530s and 1540s. Writing to Matthew Parker in 1560, Bale vividly described the places to which manuscripts had been dispersed. While traveling in Ireland, he found manuscript books in places where one might expect to find them, such as “stacyoners and bokebyndeers store howses.” But they also lay hidden in “grosers, sope sellers, taylers, and other occupiers shoppes, some in shyppes ready to be carried over the sea into Flaunders to be solde—for in those uncircumspecte and carelesse dayes, there was no quiyckar merchaundyce than library bookes.” Tradesmen hoarded and sold vellum and parchment because it could be put to many uses: not only plugging up the bung holes in barrels of beer (as we have seen) but also stopping guns, lining pie shells, cleaning boots, and polishing candlesticks. Ironically, parchment was also a key ingredient in the manufacture of paper. After forming and drying the sheets, the papermakers dipped them in “size,” water boiled with shavings of parchment or vellum, and dried them again. This sealed the paper, making it usable for writing and printing. Flushed out of the monastic libraries, manuscript books were ubiquitous. Available everywhere in seemingly endless supply, their very ubiquity doomed them to destruction through casual use.

Over the next hundred years, through the English Civil War, the rubbishing of manuscripts continued, and the dispersal of the monastic libraries still haunted antiquaries and naturalists. In the “Digression” quoted above, Aubrey mixed his centuries, referring in one breath to the destruction wrought by the violence of both the Civil War during the 1640s and the Reformation of his grandfather’s day, when “the Manuscripts flew about like Butterflies.” These were wars and tumults of religion, but because the destruction was motivated by economic necessity and ignorance as well as ideology, natural philosophical, mathematical, and natural historical manuscripts were destroyed along with theological ones. Aubrey suspected that, at the very least, a more perfect copy of Pliny’s Natural History had been lost in the destruction of Malmesbury Abbey. In this light, John Dee’s early interest in collecting old manuscripts makes perfect sense.

Although most manuscripts were trashed through re-use as glove wrappers, bung-hole stoppers, and the like, the learned still blamed ignorance and animosity rooted in confessional conflicts. One of the respondents to Edward Lhwyd’s “Parochial Queries” noted that during the Civil War, Cromwellian agitators destroyed “a large British Manuscript History” once held in his parish. The Roundheads of Pembrokeshire, in great ignorance, judged “All Books and papers” they did not understand “to be Popery,” and cast them into a great bonfire. Although this story—repeated to Lhwyd some fifty years after the fact—may have been more of a local legend than an accurate historical account, its telling indicates a popular linkage between religious violence and the destruction of historical records. Catholics as well as Protestants were accused of destroying manuscripts. In the early eighteenth century Lhwyd corresponded with William Baxter about the ancient (possibly Celtic, or British, as Lhwyd called them) inhabitants of Spain. Some manuscripts that might have provided useful evidence, Lhwyd believed, had been destroyed by zealous religious reformers. He wrote to Baxter that “it is not to be questioned but several of the Primitive Christians had mistaken zeal as well as our reformers; and twas but 50 years ago that the Jesuit, Julian Manoir, being a missionair in Basbretaign, obtained an order from his superiors to burn what British manuscripts & other books he should meet with, excepting such as tended to devotion and were approv’d of.” Although Manoir’s book burning was inspired by theological zeal, it indiscriminately destroyed religious and secular books alike. Lhwyd realized that the fight against heresy was not solely to blame for the destruction of manuscripts: often enough, he wrote to Baxter, the simple “mismanagement of posterity” did the trick, though rarely with Manoir’s fervor and thoroughness. But the result was the same: a world impoverished of its own historical and scientific records.

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