Books Beyond their Texts – Material Culture Workshop

On Monday, 23 September eighteen early career researchers and doctoral students from several colleges of the University of London and from six other Universities came together at Senate House Library for a day’s workshop on material culture. The morning focused on book production in the hand-press period: how books differed from each other even when they left the printer’s shop, owing to such matters as printing variants and differences in the hand-made paper, and how further differences accrued through manuscript additions to texts, ownership, and bindings. All demonstrate the value of the artefact to teach us the book’s history in a way that full-text databases cannot do.

Such a workshop can take place only with the help of books. The morning’s session ended with a display of books to show various features: a cheap sixteenth-century volume copiously marked and annotated by an early reader; fifteenth-century tomes with spaces left on the printed pages for initials to be added in manuscript (neglected in one instance and inserted sumptuously in the other); an early, substantial book from 1508 with hand-coloured illustrations; a rare ephemeral early-seventeenth-century school textbook as an example of the low survival rate of such items; books whose producers had attempted to hide their origins; and the 1611 King James Bible, to show how the antiquated black letter typeface made a statement about the work’s authority.

After lunch, students paired off to examine more books. Senate House Library is fortunate to hold eleven copies of Francis Bacon’s Historie of the Raigne of King Henry the Seuenth (1622). This publication is notoriously complicated, with printed sheets of two identified issues (STC 1159-60) mixed together. Participants checked the noted variants in their copies to establish that hardly any of the nine were quite the same, owing to differences of spelling (for example, “raigne”/”reigne”; “souldiers”/”souldiours”) and the number of errata in each copy. Differences multiplied as we saw how some copies were bound with other works; how bindings varied from contemporary to twentieth-century and from cheap to decorative; and how owners had added to the individuality of their copies with inscriptions and bookplates. Most distinctively, one twentieth-century Baconian, Henry Seymour, had written a code in his copy to try to show how it indicated Bacon’s authorship of Shakespeare. We finished by looking at the meaning books gain by being part of specific collections: several of the copies had belonged to Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence (1837-1914), who believed Francis Bacon to be one of England’s greatest men, who collected his works comprehensively, and for whom comprehensiveness extended beyond possessing different translations and editions to owning variants within editions.

Examining Bacon

Examining Bacon

In the final workshop students again paired off to ascertain what they could from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century books from different countries, in different languages and in different formats. They looked at cheapness and expense; at convenience of transportation; at probable use; and at possible laziness – were all the full-page illustrations in a book about machines meant to be grouped together at the front, or had a binder merely not bothered to intersperse them intelligently within the text, or received no instructions for doing so?

Workshop study session

Workshop study session

The day was the second of four workshops devoted to material culture. The workshops are facilitated by the Institute of Historical Research and enabled by AHRC funding. It was a pleasure for Senate House Library to take part.


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