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.


Food in History

Senate House Library has just marked a first by supporting the 82nd Anglo-American conference of the Institute of Historical Research, which in 2013 takes as its theme “Food in History”. Books, pamphlets and the manuscript selected for display ranged from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries and showed different aspects of food. Manufacturing it comes from a Jamaican book advising on how to improve the manufacture of the related luxuries of muscovado sugar and rum, both derived from surgarcane. For trade there is a manuscript of English excise revenue from 1785, listing duties levied on hops, malt, coffee, tea and chocolate alongside non-comestibles throughout most of the eighteenth century. For the convivial aspect of food we selected John Timbs’s Clubs and Club Life in London, a standard nineteenth-century monograph with anecdotes of places where food was consumed communally.

            A monograph by an American journalist about German food shortages during the First World War and pamphlets about rationing in Great Britain during the Second World War deal with food in times of major upheaval. The picture is not entirely gloomy, as the pamphlet printed in French, Le Rationnement en Angleterre, points out: “rationing of foodstuffs has had at least one excellent result: the English have finally decided to follow the continental example and have become lovers of green vegetables.” But the English obviously had a lot of ground to cover in order to catch up with continentals in making food appetising, as shown by the two cookery books displayed. Gervase Markham’s English House-wife demonstrates that seventeenth-century cookery could be delicious, as for this recipe for apple pie (with typical pre-industrial lack of specificity about times and quantities):

“Take the fairest and best pippins, and pare them, and make a hole in the top of them; then prick in each hole a cloves or two, and put them into the coffin, then break in whole sticks of cinnamon, add slices of orange-pills, and dates, and on the top of every pippin, a little piece of sweetbutter; then fill the coffin, and cover the pippins over with sugar: then close up the pye, and bake it, as you bake pyes of the like nature, … and then strew sugar upon it a good thickness, and set into the oven again for a little space, as while the meat is in dishing up, and then serve it.”

In Marguerite Fedden’s How to Cook a Simple Meal (3rd edn, 1912), emphasis was very much on the simple: for example, boiled fish (sole ingredients haddock, warm water to cover, salt and vinegar); roast beef; fried potatoes; stewed mushrooms; rice pudding; macaroni cheese; boiled and scrambled egg; porridge. The booklet ends with instructions on how to make coffee and tea.

From the Reading Room.

John Tosh (Why History Matters and The Pursuit of History amongst much else besides) has been in this week looking at the A. F. Pollard Papers (MS860). I asked him why the material was of particular interest and how it related to his wider research.

‘I am consulting the papers of A.F. Pollard because, in addition to founding the Institute of Historical Research, he was an early protagonist of Public History, especially during World War I.

The IHR was the first occupier of the site upon which Senate House now stands. It was founded in 1921 and was the first of the Senate Institutes. Its notorious temporary accommodation was named by historians as the ‘Tudor Cottage’.


Public History is a broad set of ideas – loosely it is history that is not singularly owned by professional historians and it also draws on a multiplicity of sources: oral, material, film, web, video, as well as the more traditional primary sources.  Justin Champion sketches the idea at The Historical Association.’

John Tosh is one of the convenors of the recent and ongoing series of seminars at the IHR concerning Public History and at the time of writing there are three seminars to go.