Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: woodcut

From bullets to stones: the history of a woodcut

This woodcut is from the title page of A dog’s elegy, or, Rupert’s tears (London, 1644), and is probably familiar to anyone who knows about the life of Prince Rupert:

The woodcut shows Prince Rupert’s dog, Boye, being shot in a hail of bullets at Marston Moor as a witch stands by his side. Boye was reputed in various earlier pamphlets to have magical powers and to be impervious to shot, and his death did not escape the notice of London’s writers.

This particular account of Boye’s death was printed on 27 July 1644 by an unknown printer for the bookseller G. B. This may have been George Badger, based in St Dunstan’s near Fleet Street.

The woodcut must have been commissioned specifically for the pamplet, since it reproduces various details in the text such as beanfields, the city of York, and the witch who is alleged to have given birth to the dog.

Despite this, the image of the soldier may not be as new as it seems. A chance conversation on Twitter with Sir James Pennyman (@HistoryNeedsYou), a reenactor from Sir William Pennyman’s regiment, revealed a couple of details that I would never have spotted.

First, the musketeer’s helmet is a morion: a type of crested helmet common amongst foot soldiers in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. By the 1640s this was starting to become slightly old-fashioned, although it was still used by many soldiers in the civil wars and examples of surviving morions from the period do seem to exist. Nevertheless, it is a clue that all may not be as it seems with the image.

However, the big giveaway according to Sir James is that the musketeer is left handed and has his bandolier on back to front. If he fired in that position it would probably blind him or at the very least leave him burned. What seems most likely is that the artist has traced the image from another, earlier print onto the block, and it has been flipped into a mirror image when printed. Either he didn’t know enough about military equipment to spot the error, or he needed to produce an image of a soldier at short notice and speed, rather than accuracy, was his paramount consideration.

I haven’t yet been able to trace an original from which the artist may have copied this image. What I have traced, however, is a subsequent reworking of the image. This collage of woodcuts appeared thirty-seven years later in Strange and wonderful news from Yowel in Surry (London, 1681):

Printed for a bookseller called John Clarke, the pamphlet told the story of Joan Butts, who was alleged to be a witch and to have harrassed Elizabeth Burgess and her master Mr Tuers in Ewell in Surrey. The story starts in 1680 with a young girl called Mary Farborough who sickened and died. Meanwhile Joan called at the home of Mr Tuers begging for a pair of gloves but was turned away. Shortly afterwards lumps of clay flew from Elizabeth’s back and stones, dishes and candlesticks threw themselves at her. In 1682 Joan was put on trial but found not guilty: her fate thereafter is unknown.

What is interesting is how this pamphlet was able to be reworked. The witch on the left is Butts, and the bullets have become stones. None of the other details really match, but the parts that do have been deemed sufficient. The other woodcuts it’s been teamed with look like standard stock illustrations for ballads, although I haven’t yet been able to trace any of them. Intriguingly, the illustration are all on the inside front cover, not the title page. Instead, the title page is taken up with a lengthy précis of the contents. So they are not designed to draw the reader’s eye when on the bookstand. Perhaps they were there to clinch a sale for the browsing reader, or were being used to fill an otherwise empty page.

Where I draw a blank is how the woodcut came to be knocking around thirty-seven years later. Were the two pamphlets produced by the same printer? Was the block passed around printers or inherited by a junior partner in the business? At this point there is nothing I can find that gives any clues.

Initially yours

I’ve been reading Kevin Sharpe’s excellent Reading Revolutions, and came across a footnote drawing attention to a woodcut initial on an early proclamation by Charles II. Sharpe contrasts the imagery it uses with what had come before it during the Commonwealth:

Proclamation 1660

It reminded me of another footnote about another royal proclamation, this one by Charles I, in John Adamson’s Noble Revolt. Most royal proclamations from 1640 to 1642 have plain, ornamental woodcuts, such as this ‘W’ typically used for ‘Whereas’.

W proclamation

However, A proclamation for the attendance of the members in both houses in Parliament used this woodcut initial:

Proclamation H

It shows Hercules battling the many-headed hydra, something that becomes significant when you consider that the proclamation was issued on 12 December 1641 – just after the printing of the Grand Remonstrance (Parliament’s appeal to the people against Charles I), at a time when crowds were massed outside Westminster and a flurry of popular petitions were arriving at Parliament. To many political grandees, the danger of the many-headed monster would have foremost in their minds. Sir Edward Dering famously objected that ‘I did not dream that we should remonstrate downeward, tell stories to the people, and talke of the King as of a third person. Sir John Culpeper wrote in his diary that ‘this is a Remonstrance to the people. Remonstrances ought to be to the king for redress…. Wee [are] not sent to please the people’.

There are a few other examples of initials being paired appropriately with their content. Here is the woodcut from A proclamation prohibiting the payment and receipt of customes, and other maritime duties upon the late pretended ordinance of both Houses of Parliament:

Proclamation maritime

There is also one which I lack sufficient knowledge of emblems to interpret – it appears to show a woman with two doves in her lap, and a man reclining in a tree – or a cloud? – above her. It was the initial for A proclamation for a generall fast thorowout this realme of England.

Proclamation H two

I think Sharpe and Adamson are undoubtedly right to point out how contemporaries would have created meaning from these woodcuts. They were part of the message itself as well as the medium through which it was delivered. Where it gets more fuzzy is in the intentions behind the creation of meaning. Not much seems to be known about the process of drawing up and printing proclamations. Who wrote them? Who agreed them? Who took them to the printers? How much scope did the printers have to choose the iconography – was it discussed between printer and author, or did the printer happen to alight on what they thought would be an appropriate woodcut? Was it just the nearest woodcut initial that happened to be at hand?

What is both fascinating and frustrating is the question of the extent to which the state might have deliberately used the typography and iconography – not just the text – of proclamations and other official printed documents to influence the reading public. Fascinating because it could tell us a lot about the use of print by the state during this period: and frustrating because we will probably never know the complete answer.

Van Dyck’s portrait of Archbishop Laud: the hijack of an image

The Van Dyck exhibition has now started at Tate Britain. I haven’t had a chance to go yet, but in the meantime I thought it might be interesting to post about how a particular portrait by Van Dyck was put to very different uses by different political and religious factions.

NPG 171, William Laud

In 1636, the Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud sat for this portrait by Van Dyck. Laud stands in his convocational robes, gazing powerfully out at the viewer. This was Laud as the architect of a restored and revivified Church of England, projecting authority without the need for props like Bibles in the background.

The impact of the image wasn’t limited to Lambeth Palace. By 1640, Wenceslaus Hollar had produced this reversed etching of the Van Dyck portrait:

laud-hollar

AN344014001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Although such etchings would have been expensive at about 6d. each, the etching survives in a number of versions, which suggests it sold well. Nor is the only version of the portrait that was available:

prima-effigies1

AN406358001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

There was clearly an audience for popular reproductions of Laud’s portrait. In the 1640s, however, a different type of popular audience emerged in the wake of the controversy over the Laudian canons. Van Dyck’s portrait was very quickly put to a rather different use. For example, here is an engraving from 1641 of Laud with his nemesis Henry Burton:

burton-laud1

AN48816001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Laud is shown vomiting books as Burton holds him still, gripping his head in a manner which is meant to remind the viewer of execution. The captions confirm this. Burton proclaims that Laud will be ill “till Head from body part”, and the punning verse above their heads reads as follows:

Great was surnamed GREGORIE of Rome

Our LITTLE by GREGORIE comes short Home.

The pun here is that Gregory was not just the name of Pope Gregory the Great – a critique of Laud’s perceived return to Rome – but was also the name of London’s executioner, Gregory Brandon.

Woodcuts, the cheapest form of printed image, also had a field day with satirical images of Laud. Here is a woodcut that was commonly used to illustrate anti-Laudian pamphlets, in this case taken from Mercuries Message of 1641:

laud-woodcut

AN406357001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

In this case the satirical content was provided by the text that accompanied the woodcut. But depictions of Laud could be extremely sophisticated satires in their own right. Here is an image of Laud with fellow prelates, which draws on Van Dyck’s image (Laud is on the far left) but also plays with the associations of the word ‘canon':

laud-canons1

AN501635001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

These kinds of images would have been in wide circulation in bookshops, taverns and private homes in London in the early 1640s. They may have played an important role in shaping a popular political consciousness amongst Londoners, for instance amongst the hundreds who gathered to protest outside Lambeth Palace in May 1640. Laud himself was in no doubt of their impact, seeing a key cause of the reaction against him as:

base pictures of me; putting me into a Cage, and fastning me to a Post by a Chain at my Shoulder, and the like.

For more on anti-Laudian satire:

The 1683-4 frost fair

I was supposed to be searching for early modern satirical prints on the British Museum “flat art” database, but looking at the freezing Cornish landscape outside my window I got distracted and ended up searching for winter scenes. I found some wonderful images of the frost fair that took place from December 1683 to February 1684 when the Thames froze solid near London Bridge.

For more on images of the fair see Joseph Monteyne, The Printed Image in Early Modern London (Ashgate, 2007).

wonders-on-the-deep

Wonders on the Deep; Or, The most Exact Description of the Frozen River of Thames (1683-4), AN288334001, © The Trustees of the British Museum.

gods-works

God’s Works is the Worlds Wonder (1684), AN250639001, © The Trustees of the British Museum.

great-britains-wonder

Great Britains Wonder: or, Londons Admiration (1684), AN501914001, © The Trustees of the British Museum.

an-exact-and-lively-mapp

An Exact and Lively Mapp or Representation of Booths and all the varieties of showes and humours upon the Ice on the River of Thames by London … Anno Dm. MDCLXXXIII (1684), AN163816001, © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Reading pamphlets

I’ve spent the past few weeks immersed in seventeenth-century pamphlets and as a result, have been reading a lot of background literature on printing, print culture, bibliography and the history of the book. Below are some scattered thoughts, based on what I’ve read, about different ways of approaching an early modern pamphlet. They will probably be old hat to most of you, but some of them have been new discoveries to me and hopefully some visitors to this blog might also find them useful.

I’ve based this post around a borrowed version of the diagram of the “communications circuit” of the book in Robert Darnton’s classic article, What is the History of Books? – but adding in the crucial extra of the physical book itself. (You might need to click on the image to actually read the text!)

communications-circuit.jpg

  • The author. This is the most obvious starting point. Who wrote your pamphlet? What else did they write? What can you construct of their life – were they a professional writer, did they write under someone else’s patronage, what political and economic connections did they have? Don’t be scared of anonymity, either. Even if their names aren’t on the front page, authors often leave clues in the text to alert you to their identity. Do the vocabulary or concepts used in the pamphlet match those used in other pamphlets? Has the author used an anagram of their name, or initials? With a bit of work it’s often not too difficult to figure out the author – a (very humble) example from my own reading is linking a pamphlet by “I.S.” to the soldier John Streater.
  • The “middle-men”: printers, publishers, shippers and booksellers. These could be one and the same, but not always. But the point remains that books aren’t just created by authors. Publisher, printers, booksellers and often shippers all have to do their job in order to get a pamphlet to the reading public. Who printed your pamphlet? What else and who else did they publish? Where was it sold? Was it imported from elsewhere? Finding out can tell you a lot about the economic, social and intellectual conditions in which a work was published. And not finding out can also be illuminating – was the pamphlet issued without a licence or printed elsewhere then smuggled in to its eventual destination? The non-textual elements of a pamphlet can be helpful in tracking down anonymous printers. Look at the colophon, any woodcut initials, and any decorative woodcuts. Are they the same as those used by pamphlets for which you know the identity of the printer? Think about the font, too – are any of the letters cracked or otherwise distinctive, and if so can you match them to another pamphlet? Consider any illustrations, too. Is the woodcut brand new, or has it been recycled or pirated from previous works? For a great example, see this post from Blogging the Renaissance.
  • Readers. Sometimes – if rarely – this will be obvious. Perhaps it’s a popular work that attracted lots of comment from other writers, or was mentioned in contemporary diaries: from this you can reconstruct at least some of the book’s intended reading public. Or perhaps it was a limited edition that was intended for a named audience. Sometimes, you are able to get a detailed insight into an individual reader. One of the most famous examples is Carlo Ginzburg’s microhistory of the miller Menocchio in The Cheese and the Worms. But mostly, it is more difficult to track down your pamphlet’s readers – some may not have been able to read at all, but still may have accessed the book. For example, they might have had it read to them; if it’s a ballad or uses verse, they might have heard it sung; or if it was pasted up on a wall, they might have looked at the pictures. So form can be one way in to establishing who the readers were. Also consider the size of the pamphlet. Was it published in a small and hence cheap size, like octavo? Or was it a bulky and expensive folio? Analysing a pamphlet’s size can tell you a lot about its intended audience. This is where looking at pamphlets via the web is not always helpful, despite its convenience – you do not always get a sense of the physical dimensions of a tract. And consider other ways in which a book was consumed – what were surviving copies bound with, and where were they kept?
  • Intellectual influences and publicity. To borrow Joad Raymond’s phrase, “pamphlets multiplied”, feeding each other and sparking new publications. Does the title indicate that it’s an animadversion against another pamphlet? Are there references in the text to other authors or works? Many pamphlets cannot begin to be understood without this contextualisation. For an example, see Christian Jouhaud’s article on lampoons in seventeenth-century France.
  • Political and legal sanctions. What censorship regime was in place when the book was published? Was the book licensed, or pirated, or smuggled to its eventual destination? And does this tell us anything about how the content might have been put together? For some contemporary views on censorship, Milton’s Areopagitica is a traditional starting point – and there is an excellent online exhibition to celebrate his quartercentenary at the Bodleian.
    • The book itself. I’ve already touched on points like size, or illustrations, or cracked type, above, but there are other aspects of books themselves that can be illuminating. Look carefully at the typeface in which the text is laid out. Are certain words capitalised, or italicised, and if so does this mean you have to read something else into them? An excellent example is Don McKenzie’s close reading of the prologue to Congreve’s The War of the World, in which he shows that modern printed editions have inadvertently mis-quoted Congreve by changing his punctation and use of capital letters, thus completely altering the intended meaning. Or find out whether there were different versions of the pamphlet. Were there later editions, and do they differ from the original? Sometimes, different versions could even be issued within the same print run. For a brilliant example, see Jason Peacey’s analysis of Henry Parker’s The Generall Junto.
    Follow

    Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

    Join 129 other followers