The Stationers’ Company allowed me to spend a short but insightful week, in and around the Company’s building; and on Thursday, 13 July I spent the majority of my day in the Library and Archive. Whilst having a strong literary interest, I have never particularly had the opportunity to be at such close quarters to books that in their age, and in some cases rarity, between them and through the omissions and gaps in the documentation, begin to expose the interweaving social and cultural influences on the world from the times at which they were written. This opportunity gave me much to think about in terms of the place of these books in modern society and what that might mean to us.
The depth of material within the archive is astounding and Ruth Frendo, the Archivist, pointed out to me that each book's value as a resource significantly plummets when it is separated from the collection as a whole.
She cited ‘On the Exactitude of Science’ by Louis Borges, to emphasise the need for a sense of conciseness in a book, even amongst the breadth of detail that can be retained, by scaling down the information in books to successfully manage and extract the core information, which can provide an abstract of the past without overwhelming the researcher with copious excess material.
The pride of the collection comes in the form of the many beautiful editions of Almanacs, which range in age and content drastically over the time span they cover. I was particularly drawn to the attitude towards medicine and knowledge of the physiology of the body as understood by the 16th century man. These are illustrated by incredible diagrams of the human body painstakingly labelled with star signs relating to each body part, which in some way would relate to some disorder or weakness in that body part that would be affected by the waning of the moon in a certain month. There is a certain beauty to the way in which medicine and astrology were so unquestionably, intrinsically linked in the Almanacs, and these historical records show a time when, although they may not have been entirely accurate, people saw the interdependent relationship between the earth and its shifts and changes, and the health of its inhabitants.
The bulk of the material stored in the Library and Archive, are records relating to the history of the Company itself. I felt that these really represented the values and priorities of the Stationers’ Company, for example, Ruth informed me that the widows and orphans of deceased Freemen and Liverymen would always be looked after by the Company in the past, and that image struck a deep cord with me. I was struck by the way in which the Company encompasses the history of a member, seeing it as integral and important to the Company; as much so as the members themselves. This was represented by the extent of the history of the Company which was stored in a small but clearly well-loved room even though the minutes from a meeting held in the 1700s perhaps do not have quite the significance to the daily running of the Company as they did at the time they were written. In the same way that the family of members were cared for when necessary so the roots and history of the Company are also looked after and tended to.
Whilst the beauty and incredible atmosphere caused by being surrounded by these documents was interesting enough in itself, what brought this very much to life was the breadth of knowledge and insight of Ruth. Whilst being shown the different materials and poring over handwriting that to me was illegible, I was assured that with the right training they could be understood. We discussed the meaning that could be taken from the seemingly dry entries in documents and what the socio-historic context of these implied. We also discussed the changing role of archives in a digital age, which seems a poignant topic with the digitisation of the archive nearing its completion. This linked neatly back to the previous comment about Borges’ short story, which described a map so detailed that it covered the size and stretch of the entire Kingdom, thus failing in its purpose. Whilst this point was mused over in a very uncritical way, but simply in light of anticipating change, it struck me that that was exactly why the archives were so important in the first place. They hold together the basis for the mythos of our history in the minute detailing of what has been selected as important from day to day life, rather than allowing the overwhelming content of the amount of information available to become meaningless grazing grounds for ‘an occasional beast or beggar’.
In conclusion of the day and of my thoughts on the archive, I felt that the documents it holds, are works which ought to be kept and protected, but also which ought to be shared. The Stationers’ Company represents and keeps alive, a culture and way of life, that seems to be fading away, in so very many ways. I found the seeming step into another world in the beautiful walled garden and the Library in the middle of the industrialisation of London, but without falling out of step in any way with modern life which was a wonderful experience. I would firmly hold to the idea of the preservation of history, shaving away the excess material but keeping a grip on those important meanings and traditions that can exist beside the ever-transforming cultural backdrop of human existence.
Members might remember that in 2011 Freeman Richard Gilpin produced an article for Stationers' News about the Company’s garden and its history.
A lot of important things are going on at Stationers' Hall, many of which entail people passing through, and using, the garden; so we thought that it would be worth making that article available again (here) along with these extra ‘thoughts’.
The door into the church of St Martin-within-Ludgate is now in daily use and a modus operandi between the church and the Company is in place. There is already a lot going on in the church including more and more Company meetings, meetings held by Corporate Members, external events, choral recitals and rehearsals, counselling and of course services such as the Elim Full Gospel Chinese Church every Sunday and the weekly Eucharist at lunchtime every Thursday. All this means that more people are seeing the garden as they walk through it from the Hall to the church and, although there have been occasional crossed wires, ‘Hall’ and ‘Church’ now function more harmoniously than it seems they did in the times covered by Richard's article!
Summer usually sees many commercial events in the garden and this summer has been no exception; with clients holding their summer parties, barbecues and receptions under our plane tree and generally enjoying the outdoor space. Weddings fill the weekends and brides string fairy lights and bunting around the trees, while younger guests enjoy garden games such as Giant Jenga and Connect4. We have just seen the first wedding party cross from their marriage service in the church to their wedding breakfast in the Hall. Interestingly Richard's article mentions that a door had been used in this way in 1680 but within two years the Company had built a privy in the garden which probably lessened the romance of the atmosphere somewhat. Rest assured,at the time of writing, there are currently no plans for extra loos in the garden!
We do have still have a problem with pigeons. In 1700, the Court decreed that pigeons should not be kept in the garden. Today we have two tethered models of birds of prey flying from the Hall and church roofs, in an attempt to reduce the number of ‘unwanted messages’ dropped from the skies. More charming are the songbirds which live in the garden; we have spotted blackbirds, robins and blue-tits.
Looking a few months ahead, the Company's Archive is moving from above the Court Room to its new home in the Old Admin Block, where the Committee Room was. The building work is in full swing and will be complete by the end of November. Then the precious historic records, including those which Richard mentions in his article, such as Leyburn’s 1674 Survey and the various volumes of Court Orders, will make their own journey across the garden. In their new location, including a new reading room, an office for the now full-time archivist and a smaller committee room, the Archive will be significantly more accessible for academic research, family historians and members. So yet another cohort of people will enjoy the few square yards of peace and beauty, as they cross this small garden space in the heart of the City.
All should be aware of the hard work that goes into keeping the garden looking at its best throughout the seasons; few will fail to be impressed; and some, perhaps, may reflect that Stationers have treasured this ancient garden for hundreds of years.
Almanacs have existed for as long as people have attempted to interpret the seas and the skies. The Babylonians compiled star catalogues, and the early Greeks and Egyptians knew the importance of correctly predicting the weather. Medieval almanacs introduced elements of divination to their texts. And, as early medicine associated human physiology with astrology, almanacs soon carried health advice too, with an edict of the University of Paris decreeing, in 1437, that all physicians must own a copy of the latest almanac. To read a bit more about the history of early English almanacs and their role in the practice of medicine, check out this fascinating blogpost from the Wellcome library.
Diagram showing the associations between the body and the stars, from ‘Pond: An Almanack for the Year of Our Lord God 1695’, Stationers’ Company Library
With such a wide application, it’s hardly surprising that almanacs were hugely popular books. In fact Gutenberg published the first printed almanac some years before printing a Bible. The advent of printing turned almanacs into best-sellers, and until the 1770s the Stationers’ Company made substantial profits from its monopoly on publishing them. Over time, different almanacs emerged to cater for different readerships, and their contents developed into compendia of useful political and geographical facts, household tips, and adverts. We have a wonderful collection of almanacs in our library, ranging in date from 1620 to the early twentieth history. Taken together, they provide a unique insight into the social history of Britain.
For this exhibition, we decided to focus on one aspect of our almanacs: the ‘enigma’ sections, which were as popular with their readers as newspaper puzzle pages are today. Verbal puzzles enjoyed a revival of interest across Renaissance Europe; the many riddles that occur in Shakespeare’s plays (e.g. Maria’s trap for Malvolio in ‘Twelfth Night’, or the gravediggers’ exchange in ‘Hamlet’) suggest the extent to which word games permeated English popular culture in the sixteenth-century. A few hundred years later, riddles were still amusing – and embarrassing – characters in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’. Presenting some of those puzzles to today’s exhibition visitors seemed like an excellent way of encouraging them to engage with the past.
That, at least, was the theory. It proved more of a challenge than expected to find enigmas that seem as entertaining and witty today as they no doubt did first time round. For a start, word puzzles were just more wordy back then: people had more time, or at least less to fill it with, and their attention spans could hold more than 140 characters a go. I had no chance of persuading anyone to wade through a page and a half of rhyming couplets published in very fine print. Particularly when the answers are so obscure to a modern audience that the pay-off seems a little disappointing. Inkwells or woolsacks are simply not answers that would pop into our heads when trying to solve a riddle. Moreover, having a year to work out the solutions, many readers replied to the puzzles with long-winded verses of their own. There are several enigmas to which I’m still not entirely sure of the answer. Early eighteenth-century riddles had the additional complication of being surprisingly bawdy: this exhibition is, after all, a family-oriented entertainment.
Eventually I settled on a page from ‘The Lady’s and Gentleman’s Diary’ or 1854, featuring both a rebus and a charade. Being now well-versed in the distinction between the two, I feel obliged to conclude this piece by sharing it with you. In a charade, typically each syllable of a word is described by a separate enigmatic or punning reference. A bit like how you act them out in a party game of charades, except you use written puns instead of mime. A rebus is a literary puzzle that plays off writing and printing conventions, as well as phonetic and pictorial representations. They’re more common today as those puzzles you probably had as a child, with the word ‘I’ being replaced by a picture of an eye, etc. If you like those, do go to the exhibition and see the very lovely example Claire has provided, illustrated with beautifully drawn pictograms.
Enigma from ‘The Woman’s Almanac’, 1744, Stationers’ Company Library. The answer is: A horse-shoe
The Stationers’ Company exhibition at Guildhall Library is now open. Claire Scott, the organiser, has found some beautiful pieces to display, including a selection of paper lace – apparently British paper-makers were renowned for the quality of their output. The exhibition is designed to be quite interactive, and younger visitors are encouraged to try their hand at printing with ink stamps.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve enjoyed working on our archive and library exhibition pieces – the best prompt to learning about collections is having to explain them to someone else. In archives, where the things we put in display are always interesting, but often not beautiful, we need to work a bit harder to persuade people to stop and take a look.
For this exhibition, Claire and the Company were keen to emphasise the breadth of the Stationers’ activities, and the Company’s many contributions to the development of London society. One of the most significant was the Stationers’ role in regulating the registration and training of apprentices for professions in printing and publishing. Apprenticeships not only enabled young people to learn the skills essential to their trade; they were also a key route to acquiring the Freedom of the City of London, which was a prerequisite for conducting business within the Square Mile.
We’re lending an Apprentice Register dated 1763-1786, which includes an entry recording the apprenticeship of artist and poet William Blake to the print-maker James Basire. Blake showed an early enthusiasm for drawing as a child, and an education in print-making offered him a way of harnessing this talent to make a living. Moreover, Basire was engraver to the Royal Society and to the Society of Antiquaries, so working for him gave Blake access to the heart of London intellectual life.
Stationers’ Company Apprentice Register 1763-1786. Archive ref: TSC/1/C/05/01/04
As was typical for apprentices at that time, Blake was apprenticed for seven years, and his father had to pay Basire an initial fee to take him on. We have no records of Blake becoming a Freeman of the Company, but clearly his training was a success, for he supported himself through print-making for the rest of his life. And the ideas he came across when preparing copperplates for Basire’s learned clients must have influenced the progressive discourse which permeates Blake’s own work.
If you’re interested in researching our apprenticeship records, do take a look at the Records of London's Livery Companies Online (ROLLCO). This fully searchable online database was put together by the Centre for Metropolitan History working in partnership with eleven London livery companies. It offers free access to the information held in those companies’ apprenticeship records from 1400 to 1900. The database is extremely user-friendly, and the advanced search tool offers all sorts of options for focusing your research.
The Stationers’ Company records are now available on ROLLCO, a site providing records of Apprentices and Freemen in the City of London Livery Companies between 1400 and 1900. You can visit the site here: www.londonroll.org.
Robert Hooke - the man who measured London after the Great Fire of 1666 and claimed Newton stole his ideas about gravity - also observed the world through lenses and in his Micrographia of 1665 illustrated in the minutest detail the smallest things. Come and see his great book at the Archive Evening event 'Printing and the Mind: Seventeenth-Century Transformations' on Monday 24 April 2017.
Richard Bentley - the greatest classical scholar of his times and one of the most disputatious and vexatious of academics, constantly in litigation against his colleagues, but also the invigorator and re-organiser of printing in Cambridge who set the University on course to be a great academic publisher. Book now to see his work at the Archive Evening event 'Printing and the Mind: Seventeenth-Century Transformations' on Monday 24 April 2017.
Liber A is undergoing restoration and has been digitised. A previous restoration involving coating the pages has had to be removed as the coating had deteriorated through time.
The Bibliographical Society is intending to publish Liber A later this year.