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.
This project aims to make available the records of membership of different Livery Companies. The Stationers’ Company records make available, in remarkable detail, the sustained and significant membership activity of the Company.
A development site will be available from the end of June for the Company to view and approve before being general release. Watch out for an announcement showing that the Stationers' Company records have gone live and meanwhile enjoy the information available so far on www.londonroll.org.
Gordon Johnson has stepped up to organise the 2017 Archive Evening and his title will be ‘The Enlightenment’ – a very challenging one.
Gordon is an historian who has written on India and Cambridge and amongst many other posts has Chaired the Cambridge University Press from 1993- 2009. He is currently the President of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain.