Lost books and Archbishop Parker



“Keeping printers busy and rich was a far more effective assurance of loyalty than any regime of censorship. [. . .] To understand the economy of print is not to turn one’s back on the world of ideas. It is a necessary prerequisite to understanding that world.” 1

As the past tense of that first sentence suggests, in this post I’m moving away from contemporary politics and back into the world of book history. Yet reading these words from the close of Pettegree’s “Legion of the Lost”, I found myself translating his remarks to the present. Can we not say something similar of the (too) close relationship between people of power and the printing presses? The cosy friendships between media moguls and politicians, such as Murdoch and Gove. The assurance of riches colours the economy of modern print, just as it did in an earlier era.

As with many a good piece of writing, the introduction to Lost Books: Reconstructing the Print World of Early Modern Europe (ed. Flavia Bruni & Andrew Pettegree) sends the imagination scurrying off enthusiastically at tangents–or at least it does for me. The eventual review (for LinguisticDNA.org) will need to be concise as the book itself stretches to twenty-four chapters. Perhaps the tangents will prove self-indulgent, but I am persuaded to share a few of the stimuli here.

A first judgment: This chapter alone deserves a place on any course about the history of the book. Indeed, I’m strongly inclined to incorporate it as a key reading for the new interdisciplinary early modern studies module at Sheffield, providing the course comes together. Beautifully structured and replete with examples, Pettegree provides insight into the range of sources and methods that make it possible to infer the disappearance of many printed works, and to identify with precision some of what is missing. While the chapter (one should assume) performs the function of uniting what follows, and does at times point to specific contents in the coming chapters, there is nothing of the clunkiness that one sometimes observes in the introduction of an edited collection.

As a Research Associate on Linguistic DNA, a project that aims to reconstruct a history of ideas from the array of literature that has survived and been transcribed as part of EEBO-TCP, I have frequently been drawn into discussion about what that particular universe of English printed discourse might represent. At Seth’s prompting, we should eventually have a set of blog posts on that topic, approaching the question from the different angles of our research expertise. What reading Pettegree’s chapter points out somewhat painfully is that there’s an awful lot missing. On the other hand, knowing that Pettegree’s team at St Andrews are now moving to integrate information from the Stationers’ Company register into the marvellous USTC (an open access catalogue of European books, surviving and lost, with links to digitised versions wherever possible) means we can plan to draw on their data to reflect on the unrepresentativeness of EEBO-TCP in a more informed way. 2

One of the more vivid insights I’ve had into the accidental survival of the slipstream of well used books came from a recent visit to the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Named after its original collector, Matthew Parker, a former master of the college and Archbishop of Canterbury under Elizabeth I, this is an unusually complete collection. As Archbishop, Parker was in a unique position to commandeer a collection that stretches from a copy of the Gospels thought to have arrived from Rome in the hands of St Augustine,3 to the drafts of the 39 articles and the original signed copy.  The keen scholar of reformation studies can consult first-hand the correspondence between prominent reformers: Bucer, Melanchthon, and Parker himself.

There were three things I learned during my tour of the library that came to mind as I was reading Pettegree:

  1. The collection survived in its entirety, and it did so because Parker was a canny man: He left his library to the college because he did not trust that future Archbishops would preserve it. (This was a man who’d lived through Henry, Edward, and Mary as well as serving Elizabeth.) Nor did he truly trust the college, but he knew how to exert his influence: He required an annual audit of the collection. Should six items disappear in the course of a year, the library would be given to the neighbouring college. And in the event that this library failed in its duty, yet another college would receive it. The fierce local rivalry ensured no items were lost.
  2. One of the surviving items is a recipe book. Cook books do not normally survive. They are used, and used again, until their eventual disposal. This cook book, our guide hypothesised, had been used by Parker’s wife during their spell of internal exile (to more distant East Anglia, during the reign of Mary I). It survived because this was the only time in their lives that she needed to cook. Lesser used books, whether cook books or Latin reference works, have a better chance of survival.
  3. The collection might very nearly have been destroyed, as Pettegree observes others have been,4 by fire or other disaster. As recently as 2011 (or perhaps a little later) the Parker collection was improperly protected. The majority is now in a fire-proof vault. There but for the grace of God . . . , as Parker might have said.

Reconstructing the world of lost books is, it strikes me, both art and science.  I look forward to the remaining 23 chapters.


[1] Andrew Pettegree, “The Legion of the Lost: Recovering the Lost Books of Early Modern Europe”, in Lost Books: Reconstructing the Print World of Pre-Industrial Europe, ed. Flavia Bruni and Andrew Pettegree, Leiden: Brill, 2016. 1- 27 (27).

[2] See page 16. It is not quite clear whether this phase will focus on ballads, or seek out lost items in the Stationers’ catalogues more broadly.

[3] Of Canterbury, not Hippo–obviously!

[4]  Among examples of the lost, Pettegree lists Strasbourg (German bombardment, 1870), Louvain (1917, 1940), Douai (allied invasion, 1944), Stockholm (“in the eighteenth century, [fire] consuming many of the books plundered . . . during the Thirty Years’ War”) and the Glasgow School of Art (fire, 2014; p.24). I wondered at first if it was an odd character trait to be brought almost to tears by the thought of books’ mass destruction, whether by accident or design; then Heine’s words came to mind and I thought perhaps not so odd: ‘That was but the prologue; where one burns books, one will in the end burn people too’.

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