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Manuscript Studies
Medieval and Early Modern

I.iii. Topics in the Social History of Texts:

The "Rescue" of Medieval Manuscripts from Grocers and Fishmongers

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By the time of Harley, the "heroic" rescue of a manuscript was a relatively rare phenomenon; Wanley and others were mostly obtaining manuscripts by purchasing the existing collections of other collectors. The age of "heroic rescue" was the age of Leland and Bale, those first decades subsequent to the Dissolution. There were a number of forces that led to the disregarding and discarding of manuscripts when the monasteries were dissolved: a) those who received the monastic properties were focused upon the land and movable property of obvious value (and it seems that the type of people who were granted the monasteries were not the kind of people who were interested in libraries), b) there was a certain carelessness about manuscripts given the new printing press (passive and careless destruction) (see, for instance, Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, p. 19 and 19n47, on the road to the printing press as "one way" for manuscripts--that is, books were taken off library shelves and sent to printers for printing, and no provision was made for the manuscript to be preserved and returned, the assumption being that the printed book would render the manuscript "waste"; Ker has similar comments on how monastery and college libraries discarded manuscript copies when printed versions came to be available), and c) anticatholic sentiments led to widespread culling of "superstitious" books (active and deliberate destruction), not least as a consequence of the "Act for the Uniformity of Service" (1549) and "Act against Superstitious Books and Images" (1550) under Edward VI.

That the scale of the destruction was vast is not disputed. Ker's Medieval Libraries of Great Britain lists some 6,000 volumes that survive from medieval institutional libraries (monasteries, friaries, cathedrals, colleges); as his introduction to the volume indicates (pp. x-xv), this number is equivalent to about three good-sized medieval libraries, as against the hundreds of libraries that we know to have existed in these medieval institutions. The scale of the losses is also coming clearer with the more recent publications in the "Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues" series, providing lists of the books that were in these medieval libraries to compare with the lists of known survivors. We can say without fear of contradiction that the number of medieval manuscripts in England in 1500 was many, many times greater than the number that were still there in 1560.

Irwin, Raymond. "The Dispersal." Chap. 7 of his The Origins of the English Library. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1958. Pp. 97-113. P. 97: Irwin considers the Dissolution with its destruction and dispersal of the manuscripts, 1536-1540. But, Irwin continues, the losses arising from the 1550 Act against superstitious books were far greater. Two general forces were at work, then: indifference and policy (99). "At Oxford, Duke Humfrey's library closed its doors [and sold its furniture in 1555-1556 (p. 100)], and at Cambridge the losses were equally disastrous" (97). The library of the Guildhall in London, established by Dick Whittington, was stripped of its collection: "These books, as it is said, were in the reign of Edeard VI sent for by Edward, Duke of Somerset, lord protector, with promise to be restored: men laded from thence three carries [barrows] with them [ca. 900 volumes], but they were never returned" (Stow, Survey, qtd. by Irwin, p. 97). P. 98: "At Eton the losses were less severe, and are ascribed to disuse rather than destruction, but only 60 or 70 out of perhaps 500 MSS in the library in 1535 have survived" (cites Birley, "History of Eton College Library").

Again, such a 1 of 10 survival rate is relatively high compared to other libraries from which nothing survives (again, see the Introduction to Ker, Medieval Libraries of Great Britain).


These are the best and most complete accounts of the dispersal of monastic libraries, and the consequent dangers to manuscripts:

Wright, C. E. "The Dispersal of the Monastic Libraries and the Beginnings of Anglo-Saxon Studies: Matthew Parker and his Circle: A Preliminary Study." Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society 1 (1949-1953): 208-232.

Wright, C. E. "The Dispersal of the Libraries in the Sixteenth Century." In The English Library Before 1700: Studies in its History. Ed. Francis Wormald and C. E. Wright. London: Athlone Press, University of London, 1958. Pp. 148-175.

Irwin, Raymond. "The Dispersal." Chap. 7 of his The Origins of the English Library. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1958. Pp. 97-113.

Fritze, Ronald Harold. "'Truth hath lacked witnesse, tyme wanted light': The Dispersal of the English Monastic Libraries and Protestant Efforts at Preservation, ca. 1535-1625." Journal of Library History 18.3 (Summer 1983): 274-291.

Carley, James P. "Monastic Collections and Their Dispersal." In The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Vol. 4: 1557-1695. Ed. John Barnard and D. F. McKenzie. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. 339-348.


In the first of these, Wright lists the primary sixteenth--century sources for the crucial period of the Dissolution and immediately after (1530-1560):

Pp. 209-210:
Briefly, the chief documents are:
(a) a letter from John Leland to Cromwell, 16 July 1536 (preserved only in part in Wood's Athenae Oxonienses, ed. 1721, vol. 1, pp. 82, 83: ed. 1813, vol. 1, pp. 198-203; said to be taken from 'The Papers of State,' but not now in the letters and papers of Henry VIII);
(b) John Leland's New Year's Gift, 37 Henry VIII, i.e. 1546 (printed by John Bale in 1549 at the beginning of his edition of Leland's works, entitled The laboryouse Journey 7 serche of Johan Leylande, for Englandes Antiquitees. . . with declaracyons enlarged: by J. Bale);
(c) John Bale's own preface to Leland's New Year's Gift inserted in the above 1549 edition of The laboryouse Journey;
(d) John Bale's letter to Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury (in answer to a questionnaire from the latter), 30 July 1560 (the original preserved in Cambridge University Registry Misc. MS. 8 and first printed in Cambridge Antiquarian Communications, vol. III (1864-76), pp. 157-73);
(e) Matthew Parker's letter to Sir William Cecil, 24 Jan. 1565/6, ad finem (printed Parker Correspondence (1853), p. 254, from the original preserved in B.M. Lansdowne MS. 8, f. 190);
(f) Privy Council letter of 7 July 1568 (printed Parker Correspondence (1853), pp. 327-8, from the original draft and printed copy in C.C.C.C. MS. 114, pp. 49-51).


The dangers

D. Diringer, in his conclusion to The Hand-Produced Book, talks of "natural" dangers--all four elements (especially water and fire--and the fire at Ashburnham House is merely one of the most famous, but there were many others), the "flora and fauna" of the bookshelf (mould, bookworm, ...); but man is the greatest danger to a book. He quotes H. Jackson (source not further identified): "The trials and tribulations of books . . . are equalled only by the trials and tribulations of mankind; their sufferings are identical with those of their creators, and if they live longer they are not immune from decay and death. They have been beaten and burnt, drowned, tortured, imprisoned, suppressed, executed, censored, exiled, reviled, condemned, buried; they are overworked and underworked, misused and maltreated in every manner known to fate and chance and the most ingenious of miscreants and misguided zealots" (qtd. in Diringer 539; I haven't yet had a chance to check, but I would guess that this is from Holbrook Jackson, The Printing of Books [London, 1938].).

There is a similar list of the many ways books can be lost at the beginning of the Introduction to A. Petti, English Literary Hands from Chaucer to Dryden (Cambridge, MA, 1977).

Ker, Intro. to Medieval Libraries of Great Britain, pp. xii-xiii: From the Dissolution (1530s) to around 1560, there is very little information available about how libraries were being treated or about who was preserving / collecting books. Thus for a quarter of a century we have no information. It seems, though, that some books were still in situ in monastic buildings, "waiting to be picked up." Cotton Cleo B.xiii (fols. 59-90), for instance was found in St. Augustine's, Canterbury, in 1565. P. xv: "The Exeter College copy of the life and miracles of St Thomas, now Douai MS. 860, was rescued from 'amonge a caos of caste bookes and waste papers' in the same [sixteenth] century."

Leland in a letter to Cromwell (printed in part by Anthony Wood) complains of how many books are being removed from England by German students.
Leland "wrote a letter to Cromwell the prime secretary, dat. 16 July, wherein he intreats him to give him aid and assistance in bringing to light many ancient authors, and in sending them to the king's library; who, he knew well, had no little esteem for them, and adds that, 'it would be a great profit to students, and honour to this realm; whereas now the Germans perceiving our desidiousness and negligence, do send daily young scholars hither, that spoileth them, and cutteth them out of libraries, returning home and putting them abroad as monuments of their own country,' &c." (Athenae Oxonienses, entry for "Leland, John").

Bale's Preface to The Laboryous Journey (Leland's New Year's Gift and Itinerary, with much commentary by Bale) complains of destruction without consideration; of books from the monasteries being used to scour candlesticks and rub boots, as well as being used "to serve their jakes"; of being sold to grocers, soap-sellers, and bookbinders; of whole ship-loads being moved overseas. Further, "I knowe a merchaunt man, whych shall at thys tyme be namelesse, that boughte the cuntentes of two noble lybraryes for .xl. shyllynges pryce, a shame it is to be spoken. Thys stuffe hath he occupyed in the stede of graye paper by the space of more than these .x. yeares, [and] yet he hath store ynough for as many yeares to come. A prodygyuose example is this, [and] to be abhorred of all men which loue their nacyon as they shoulde do." [See the OED on "Grey paper" (in the entry for "grey"): "an unbleached paper, used chiefly for wrapping"; equivalent to modern "brown paper."]

Bale in a letter to Archbishop Matthew Parker repeats and expands this account: the books are being sold off to stationers and bookbinders, store houses, grocers, soap-sellers, tailors and other shops, and being moved by the ship-load to Flanders (Bale's Letter to Matthew Parker (15 July 1560), as qtd. in Wright, "Dispersal of the Libraries in the Sixteenth Century," pp. 153-154; and see Item (d), above).

John Dee, "Supplications" addressed to Queen Mary (15 Jan. 1556); books from the monasteries have been enclosed in walls, buried in the ground, burned, allowed to rot; he claims that a copy of Cicero's De republica was in Canterbury before the Dissolution but is no more (if it was a complete copy of the text, that may be the last one ever seen).

Matthew Parker, in a letter to Cecil, 24 Jan. 1565/6, complains likewise of covertous stationers, and how old books are being spoiled in apothecaries' shops (see Item (e), above).

[So we have, so far, apothecaries, tailors, soap-sellers, grocers, but no fishmongers, and a merchant who had 20 years worth of "grey paper" made of old manuscripts.]

Ker's book on Pastedowns is a contribution towards documenting how the stationers and bookbinders made use of old books in the creation of new bookbindings (though Ker, followed by Carley, also notes that this is a practice that was also used in monastic scriptoria, discarded manuscripts being used in new bookbindings as far back as the twelfth century; still, there was nothing like the wholesale destruction that one finds in the 16th century).

Thomas Fuller, The Church History of Britain (1655; qtd. here from the 1842 edn.), 2: 246-249: books were stripped of their bosses and clasps and then discarded; leaves of the Fathers were used "to make clean" the foulest parts of human bodies; pages of Bibles were cut up to make covers for pamphlets of little value (the "Wisdom of Solomon" used to wrap "The Wise Men of Gotham"). Pp. 248-249: "What monuments of mathematics all massacred together! seeing every book with a cross was condemned for popish; with circles, for conjuring. Yea, I may say, that then holy divinity was profaned, physic itself hurt, and a trespass, yea, a riot, committed on the law itself. And, more particularly, the history of former times then and there received a dangerous wound, whereof it halts at this day, and, without hope of a perfect cure, must go a cripple to the grave."

Richard Layton was appointed by Cromwell as one of a commission of visitors to Oxford, to reform practices there; Layton reports to Cromwell, boasting that Duns Scotus has been banished from Oxford for ever, and "is nowe made a comon servant to evere man, faste nailede up upon postes in all comon howses of easment"; on a second visit to New College, pages of Scotus were found blown by the wind into every corner of the quad. One enterprising fellow was seen collecting the sheets, intending to use them while deer hunting ("therwith to make hym sewelles or blawnsherres to kepe the dere within the woode, therby to have the better cry with his howndes"). (Wright, Three Chapters of Suppression Letters, Camden Society, p. 71).

John Aubrey, writing in the seventeenth century, tells that his grandfather remembered the times when manuscript leaves flew through the streets like butterfiles, being used by glovers to wrap gloves, stopping up the bung holes of barrels of beer, and being used by gunners to polish their guns. And in Edward VI's time, according to a cousin, "they burned Mathematical bookes for Conjuring bookes, and, if the Greeke Professor had not accidentally come along, the Greeke Testament had been thrown into the fire for a Conjuring booke too" (Aubrey's Brief Lives, ed. O. Dick [London, 1949], pp. xxxvi-xxxvii; also Aubrey, Brief Lives, ed. R. Barber [Cambridge, 1982], pp. 15, 322). He also recalls that, when he was a schoolboy, they used to use old manuscript leaves to wrap their schoolbooks.

The destruction did not end with the Dissolution but even in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries books continued to be used for "ignoble purposes."

During the civil war of the seventeenth century, there was, again, great destruction of books during attacks upon the great houses of the cavaliers; Thomas Urquhart (The Jewel) opens his book with an account of how the Parliamentary forces ransacked his house, and carried off his papers (including the manuscript of this book, which had been ready for the publisher); they used the paper "for packeting up of Raisins, Figs, Dates, Almonds, Caraway, and other such-like dry Confections and other ware, as was requisite: who doing the same themselves, did, together with others, kindle pipes of Tobacco with a great part thereof, and threw out all the remainder upon the streets, save so much as they deemed necessary for inferiour employments, and posteriour uses. Of those dispersedly-rejected bundles of paper, some were gathered up by Grocers, Druggists, Chandlers, Pie-makers, or such as stood in need of any cartapaciatory utensil, and put in present service, to the utter undoing of all the writing thereof, both in its matter and order."

["posterior uses" in "jakes" and "howses of easement" is becoming something of a trope; and here, besides grocers and druggists/apothecaries, we have candlemakers and pie-makers--which brings us to Betsy the Baker]

W. W. Greg, "The Baking of Betsy." This has to do with British Library MS Lansdowne 807, a small collection of 3 1/2 plays of the Elizabethan period, with a memorandum at the beginning in which John Warburton, Somerset Herald (16821759), declares that these are all that remain of a collection of over 50 plays (the titles of which he lists), many of them now lost to history. Greg examines the list and argues that the losses are not as great as Warburton's list would suggest, but he does not dispute Warburton's explanation of the cause of the losses: Warburton had, he says in his memorandum which records the loss, entrusted the collection to his cook for safekeeping, and discovered only some time later that the vast bulk of the collection had been consumed in the kitchen: "After I had been many years Collecting these MSS Playes, through my own carelesness and the Ignorace [sic] of my S[er' in whose hands I had lodgd them they was unluckely burnd or put under Pye bottoms, excepting ye three which followes. J.W." (qtd. in Greg, 232). In later versions of the story, the offending servant comes to be called Betsy Barnes or Betsy Baker. There is also a story telling how Sir Walter Scott had found the spirit of a distressed female in his bedchamber, introducing herself as "the spirit of . . . that unhappy Elizabeth or Betty Barnes, long cook-maid to Mr. Warburton, the painful collector, but ah! the too careless custodian, of the largest collection of ancient plays every known" (the story is included in a letter by Cuthbert Clutterbuck, printed at the beginning of Scott's Fortunes of Nigel) (Greg 226).
-- Greg, W. W. "The Bakings of Betsy." The Library 3rd ser. 2.7 (1911): 225-259.
-- Reprinted (with a few additional notes by the editor) in his Collected Papers, ed. James C. Maxwell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), pp. 48-74.
-- There is also a notice (in response to Greg) of an earlier reference to manuscripts as pie liners, in Modern Philology 13.1 (1915): 52. [And Urquhart, later, mentioned Pie-makers as culprits as well.]

Thomas Tanner in 1722 rescued an important Glastonbury manuscript after a fellow student showed him a manuscript leaf that had been used by a tobacconist to wrap tobacco (the remnants of the manuscript are now BL Addit. 22934, and Tanner's account of rescuing the manuscript is in a letter bound with it) (Carley 347).

The Percy folio manuscript of ballads and romances (British Library, Addit. MS 27879) is another case in point. There is a letter bound into the beginning of the manuscript (dated 7 Nov. 1769) in which Percy explains the state of the manuscript (which is wanting leaves at the beginning and end, has a number of torn pages, and was then subsequently cut too close by a careless bookbinder):
"This very curious old manuscript, in its present mutilated state, but unbound and sadly torn, &c, I rescued from destruction, and begged at the hands of my worthy friend Humphrey Pitt, Esq., then living at Shiffnal, in Shropshire, afterwards of Priorslee, near that town; who died very lately at Bath (viz., in summer 1769). I saw it lying dirty on the floor, under a Bureau in ye Parlour: being used by the maids to light the fire. It was afterwards sent, most unfortunately, to an ignorant Bookbinder, who pared the margin, when I put it into Boards in order to lend it to Dr. Johnson. Mr. Pitt has since told me that he believes the transcripts into this volume, &c., were made by that Blount who was author of Jocular Tenures, &c, who he thought was of Lancashire or Cheshire, and had a remarkable fondness for these old things. He believed him to be the same person with that Mr. Thomas Blount who published the curious account of King Charles the 2s escape intitled Boscobel, &c, Lond. 1660, 12mo, which has been so often reprinted. As also the Law Dictionary, 1671, folio, and many other books which may be seen in Wood's Athenae, ii. 73, &c. A Descendant or Relation of that Mr. Blount was an apothecary at Shiffnal, whom I remember myself (named also Blount). He (if I mistake not) sold the Library of the said predecessor Thos. Blount to the abovementioned Mr. Humph' Pitt: who bought it for the use of his nephew, my ever-valued friend Rob' Binnel. Mr. Binnel accordingly had all the printed books, but , this MS. which was among them was neglected and left behind at Mr. Pitt's house, where it lay for many years. T. Percy."

Among the grocers and soap-sellers, the careless cooks and careless maids, and merchants with 20 years supply of "grey paper"--not to mention the rubbed boots, rubbed candlesticks, and rubbed bottoms--I do, in fact, have one fishmonger in my rogues gallery, though I do not think this was the source of my original claim. Still, it does help to confirm that wrapping fish was one of the ways in which manuscripts were destroyed:
Humphries, Mark. Early Christianity. London: Routledge, 2005. P. 80.
On the survival of texts; many were suppressed when they came to be regarded as heretical; even perfectly orthodox texts suffered vicisitudes of fate:
"More conventionally orthodox works have also had a chequered history of preservation. The letter known as the Epistle to Diognetus, which provides interesting observations on what it was like to live as a Christian among Jews and pagans, would have disappeared forever had the sole surviving manuscript not been rescued from a pile of wrapping paper in a fishmonger's shop in Constantinople in the fifteenth century. (This charming story has a sad sequel: that unique manuscript was destroyed at Strasbourg in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian war.)"

There is also the tale of one Jay, a fishmonger in Yarmouth.
In the year 1840, says William Shepard [Walsh], in an interesting article upon 'Lost Treasures of Literature' in Lippincott's Magazine for May, an antiquary bought some soles from a fishmonger in Old Hungerford Market, Yarmouth. The soles were wrapped in a large, stiff sheet of paper torn from a folio volume which stood at the fishmonger's elbow. When the purchaser un wrapped his purchase, his eye caught the signatures of Lauderdale, Godol phin, Ashley and Sunderland on the paper. The wrapper was a sheet of the victualing-charges for prisoners in the Tower in the reign of James II. The signatures were those of his ministers. The antiquary went back at once to Jay's shop. 'That is good paper of yours,' he said, assuming an air of indifference. 'Yes, but too stiff. I've got a lot of it, too. I got it from Somerset House. They had ten tons of waste paper, and I offered seven pounds a ton, which they took, and I have got three tons of it in the stables. The other seven they keep till I want it.' 'All like this ?' asked the anti quary, his heart in his mouth. 'Pretty much,' replied Jay; 'all odds and ends.' Jay obligingly allowed the antiqutary to carry home an armful of the rubbishy papers. His head swam as he looked on accounts of the Exchequer Office signed by Henry VII and Henry VIII, wardrobe accounts of Queen Anne, dividend receipts signed by Pope and Newton, a treatise on the Eucharist in the boyish hand of Edward VI, and another on the Order of the Garter in the scholarly handwriting of Elizabeth. The government in selling the papers to Jay had disposed of public documents which contained much of the history of the country from Henry VII to George IV. The antiquary, little by little, was acquiring the whole pile, but he injudiciously whispered his secret about, and it became no longer a secret. The government were aroused to a sense of their loss, and the public clamored for a committee of inquiry. It was then found that the blame lay with Lord Mounteagle, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and that the papers which had been sold for seventy pounds were, at the least, worth some three thousand pounds; most of them had by this time been lost beyond redemption."
This is the summary of the story that appeared in the "Notes and Novelties" column of The Collector 3.2 (15 Nov. 1891): 31 (27-31). Walsh's "Lost Treasures," besides its appearance in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, also appears in his Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1892), pp. 658-663. A somewhat different version of the same story is included at the end of Samuel Davey's article on "Romantic Incidents in Literary Discovery," Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature of the United Kingdom 2nd ser. 19 (1898): 164-168 (151-168). [My thanks to Robert Karrow for bringing Jay the Fishmonger to my attention.]

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[ Course Notes: Introduction ] | [ I. Towards a definition of "manuscript studies" ] | [ I.ii. The four branches of bibliographical study ] | [ I.iii. Topics in the social history of texts ] | [ II. Diplomatics ] | [ III. Codicology ] | [ III.ii. Decoration and Illumination ] | [ IV. Paleography ] | [ IV.ii. Historical Notes ] | [ IV.iii. Writing Implements ] | [ IV.iv. Letter Formation ] | [ IV.v. Special Characters in English Manuscripts ] | [ IV.vi. Scribal Abbreviations ] | [ IV.vii. Punctuation ] | [ IV.viii. Paleographical sample: William Herebert, OFM (early fourteenth-century England) ] | [ Herebert sample, with transcription ] | [ Herebert sample: enlargement of full page reproduced at high resolution ] | [ V. Textual analysis (James E. Thorpe) ] | [ V.ii. Scribal error ] | [ V.iii. Kinds of edition ] | [ V.iv. Examples of over emendation on insufficient grounds ] | [ VI. Linguistic competence (an example): An Outline History of the English Language ] | [ VII. Libraries and archives: ] | [ VII.ii. British Library Manuscript Collections ] | [ VII.iii. Bodleian Library Manuscript Collections ]

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© 2013 Stephen R. Reimer
English and Film Studies; University of Alberta; Edmonton, Canada
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Created: 8 Sept. 2013; Last revised: 8 Sept. 2013

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