Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Category: art

The pelican’s beak holds more than its belly can

There is a children’s song that is on permanent loop in my house at the moment, which goes:

The pelican’s beak holds more than its belly can,
Nothing has a beak that’s the size of the pelican’s.
(repeat lots of times)

I am guessing it’s a shortened and sanitised version of the limerick by the humorist Dixon Lanier Merritt:

Oh, a wondrous bird is the pelican!
His bill holds more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week.
But I’m darned if I know how the helican.

I am reliably informed by the collective knowledge of the internet that this is actually true: the pelican’s stomach can hold up to a gallon, whereas its bill can hold up to three gallons.

Earlier generations had their own story about the pelican: that it was so attentive to its young that, if short of food, it would open wounds in its chest to feed its blood to its young. Some early Christian and medieval writers took this further, reporting (to be fair, some dubiously) that the pelican would kill its young and then revive them with its blood:

The little pelicans strike their parents, and the parents, striking back, kill them. But on the third day the mother pelican strikes and opens her side and pours blood over her dead young. In this way they are revivified and made well. So Our Lord Jesus Christ says also through the prophet Isaiah: ‘I have brought up children and exalted them, but they have despised me’ (Is 1:2). We struck God by serving the creature rather than the Creator. Therefore He deigned to ascend the cross, and when His side was pierced, blood and water gushed forth unto our salvation and eternal life. (Epiphanius Physiologus).

The pelican is an Egyptian bird that lives in the solitude of the river Nile. It is said that she kills her offspring and grieves for them for three days, then wounds herself and sheds her blood to revive her sons. (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies).

Here is a wonderful thing about the pelican, for never did mother-sheep love her lamb as the pelican loves its young. When the young are born, the parent bird devotes all his care and thought to nourishing them. But the young birds are ungrateful, and when they have grown strong and self-reliant they peck at their fathers face, and he, enraged at their wickedness, kills them all. On the third day the father comes to them, deeply moved with pity and sorrow. With his beak he pierces his own side, until the blood flows forth. With the blood he brings back life into the body of his young. (Guillaume le Clerc, Bestiaire).

(Translations from The Medieval Bestiary)

The pelican was an obvious symbol for Christ: it appears, for example, in the coat of arms for Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and Corpus Christi College, Oxford:

Medieval bestiaries featured some amazing illuminated pelicans, like this one from the Aberdeen Bestiary (c. 1200):

As new technologies like woodcuts and etchings came along, the pelican went with them, such as in this engraving by Pieter van der Borcht (1577):

Or this woodcut, from the front of Henry Walker’s A gad of steele, wrought and tempered for the heart to defend it from being battred by Sathans temptation, and to give it a sharpe and lasting edge in heavenly consolation (1641) [EEBO]:

This particular copy belonged to Walker’s contemporary, the book seller and collector George Thomason. You can see Thomason’s marginalia at the top:

this Walker was admitted into orders by Laud Arch. Bish. of Canterbury

Elsewhere on the title page Thomason wrote “Ironmonger” – Walker’s previous profession before turning his hand to printing, selling and writing pamphlets. Walker was clearly not one of Thomason’s favorite writers – as a Presbyterian Thomason probably would have loathed Walker’s predilection in the early 1640s for preaching to independent congregations. His contempt shows through from the fact that nine or ten years later, Thomason was still crossing out any pretensions Walker had to be a “cleric” or “Minister of God’s word” and replacing them with “Ironmonger”:

A sermon, preached in the Kings Chappell at White-Hall (1649) [EEBO]

A sermon preached in the chappell at Sommerset-House in the Strand (1650) [EEBO]

Recycled woodcuts

A recent post at Mistris Parliament, with its woodcut of the leatherseller Praisegod Barebone preaching from a tub, reminded me about the provenance of that particular image. Below is the woodcut of Barebone, which is taken from the frontispiece of John Taylor’s New Preachers, New (London, 19 December 1641). The poor quality of the paper has meant text from the other side of the page has bled through:

But this woodcut actually appeared on the front of at least four pamphlets. The first appearance was in June 1641 on the front cover of another of John Taylor’s works, A Swarme of Sectaries (London, June 1641). It seems to have been designed specifically to match the content, which was a description of London’s various “mechanic preachers” – in other words, Independent preachers without a benefice.

The sign to the right shows that the preaching is taking place in the Nag’s Head in Coleman Street, supposedly a notorious gathering place for independent congregations. “Sam How” is Samuel Howe, a cobbler who had actually been dead for almost a year by the summer of 1641, but whose notoriety was clearly still news-worthy.

The woodcut was then reused in October on the front of The sermon and prophecie of Mr. James Hunt (London, 9 October 1641). This time the sign was cropped, and the top of the block was chiselled away to allow type to spell out the name of yet another preacher, a farmer from Kent:

The woodcut then made a third appearance in December on the back page of John Taylor’s Lucifers Lacky (London, 4 December 1641), almost as an afterthought. By this point, the quality of the woodblock was getting significantly worse. Nor was the illustration as well matched to the pamphlet’s content.

After being used for New Preachers, New on 19 December, it then appeared a fifth time on the front of A tale in a tub, or, A tub lecture as it was delivered by Mi-Heele Mendsoale (London, 21 December 1641), a mock sermon also by John Taylor:

We know very little about who made woodcuts like these, or exactly how they fitted into the communication circuit in which cheap pamphlets existed. Were woodcut makers independent craftsmen who offered their services to printers? Or were they based in print houses directly? Was it even a specialised trade, or was it carried out as part of a wider range of woodworking or printing skills? How many people were involved in cutting woodcuts? Who chose and designed the illustration – the author, the printer, or the bookseller? So little evidence about the skill survives for the seventeenth century that it is hard to tell.

However, there are things that can be deduced about the trade from woodcuts like the one above. The first half of the seventeenth century appears to have seen an increasing use of illustrations for cheap print, increasingly matched to the content. From the mid-1610s, pamphlets about murder, natural disasters and other strange news often had one-off illustrations cut to match. This implies that readers were starting to demand illustrations: pamphlets with woodcuts may have sold better, or been hung up outside the shop to tempt in passing trade. It also implies that authors, printers and booksellers could afford to commission new woodcuts for one-off works. The biggest cost of any book was normally the paper it was printed on, so compared to that the cost of a woodcut for a short quarto pamphlet with a print-run of perhaps 200-1,000 copies must have been outweighed by the benefits.

So why does this woodcut crop up so many times in 1641? Well, partly because anti-separatist literature sold well. But why not commission new woodcuts for each pamphlet? A clue might lie in the authors, printers and booksellers of all four pamphlets:

  • New Preachers, New. Written by John Taylor, for an anonymous bookseller and printer.
  • Swarme of Sectaries. Written by John Taylor, again for an anonymous bookseller and printer. However the imprint declares it was “printed luckily, and may be read unhappily, betwixt hawke and buzzard”. This is very similar to the fictitious imprint of The Downefall of Temporizing Poets (London, 1641), which declared that it was “printed merrily, and may be read unhappily, betwixt hawke and buzzard”.
  • The sermon and prophecie of Mr. James Hunt. Purports to be by Hunt, but is probably a satire – perhaps even by Taylor, who had something of a specialisation in anti-separatist works. Printed for the bookseller Thomas Bates, a shady operator specialising in cheap and often scandalous pamphlets. He was based at the Old Bailey outside the City limits, and was often in trouble with Parliament for seditious printing.
  • A tale in a tub. Written by John Taylor. Printed, according to the imprint, “in the yeare when Brownist did domineare”. What is interesting about this use of the woodcut is that it was not the first edition of the pamphlet. The first version was printed in 1641, without any illustration. This suggests it was a good seller that was repackaged along with the woodcut to drum up additional sales.
  • Lucifers lacky. Written by John Taylor, printed for John Greensmith. Like Bates, in 1641 he got into trouble with the Commons for printing scandalous pamphlets.

Both Bates and Greensmith often sold pamphlets printed by Bernard Alsop and Thomas Fawcett, two printers who also operated on the fringes of the law. They too were hauled before Parliament on a number of occasions in 1641 for illicit printing. Works with their imprint are distinguished by their worn type and hasty typesetting. A detailed analysis of the ornaments and typefaces, comparing them to works known to be printed by Alsop and Fawcett, might reveal more about whether these five works were printed by them. For example, Lucifers Lacky uses an ornament identical to that used in a work called The Vertue of Sack, printed by Alsop:

If they were printed by Alsop and Fawcett, it may indicate that they were trading in tough circumstances. Despite the explosion of print in 1641, operating in illegal or semi-legal ways may have meant more financial risks. Short 8-page quarto pamphlets could be printed relatively quickly to make a quick sale. If they didn’t sell, the losses were relatively minimal. So the recycling of woodcuts may indicate that Alsop and Fawcett were trying to preserve their bottom line: either by speeding up the process of printing (saving the time that would have been spent commissioning special illustrations), or minimising the cost of production by reusing a woodblock hanging round the print house. Or perhaps it indicates that books needed in 1641 needed illustrations to stand out from the huge numbers of competitors: perhaps any old woodcut would do, so long as it caught the eye.

If they are by different printers, it has a rather different impliation. It would mean that printers were sharing woodblocks, which would point to a degree of cooperation amidst financial competition. And equally if John Taylor wrote all five, it is possible perhaps that it was he who commissioned the woodblock, and requested that his booksellers use it for particular pamphlets. But I have a suspicion the answer may well lie with Alsop and Fawcett.

Coin flipping

Adventures in the British Museum archive, part 96. Here are some interesting blueprints for coinage during the Protectorate and the Restoration. They are both by Thomas Simon, who had been appointed chief engraver at the Royal Mint in 1649 under the mastership of Aaron Guerdon. First is a proposed design for coins in 1656:

Protectorate coinage

AN327426001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Protectorate Council’s papers record the decision thus:

Approval of the stamp and superscriptions prepared by Thos. Simons for the gold and silver pieces, according to his new invention, as also the motto of Oliva. D. G. R. Pub. Ang. Sco. et Hib. Protec. on one side, and Pax quæritur bello, on the other side—and the 2 inscriptions for the edge, viz., Has nisi periturus mihi adimat nemo, and Protector literis, literœ nummis Corona et salus.

Here is an example of how the coins actually turned out:

Oliver coin

After the restoration of Charles II, Simon squared regime change with his conscience. Although h seems to have lost his position as chief engraver, he carried on working at the mint, producing designs for the monarchy. Here is a warrant from Charles II for the production of an angel, with a strikingly different choice of iconography:

Restoration coinage

AN327431001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

In 1662, Simon lost a contest with Dutch engravers, the Roettier brothers, to design the first milled coinage. To try to restore his reputation, he submitted a design known as the Petition Crown to Charles II, with the following legend around the edge:


Here is Simon’s design for the piece:

Charles II crown

AN327430001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

And here is how it turned out:

Pattern crown

The Restoration’s most-wanted

Found via the British Museum database: a set of playing cards from 1679 satirising the Rump Parliament. These are so wonderful that I have reproduced the descriptions on each of them as well as the images themselves.


(AN473109001, © The Trustees of the British Museum)

I: ‘A Committe of Godwin Nye Peters and Owen discouering the marks of Grace in Ministers.’
II: ‘Onsley Father and Sonne’
III: ‘S.r Gilbert Gerard and his two sonns.’
IIII: ‘The Rump roasted salt it well it stinks exceedingly.’
V: ‘The E. of Pem: in ye H: of Com[m]: thanks ye Speaker for his Admission.’
VI: ‘Worsley an Inckle Weaver a man of Personal Valor.’
VII: ‘Nathaniel Fines whereby hangs a tale.’
VIII: ‘Lambert Kt of ye Golden Tulip.’
IX: ‘Huson the Cobler entring London.’
X: ‘The Rump and dreggs of the house of Com: remaining after the good members were purged out.’
Knave: ‘Hugh Peters shews the bodkins and thimbles giuen by the wives of Wappin for the good old cause.’
Queen: ‘The Damnable engagement to be true and Faithfull.’
King: ‘The Saints think it meet that the Rump make a League Oneale’


(AN473083001, © The Trustees of the British Museum)

I: ‘The High Court of Iustice or Olivers slaughter house.’
II: ‘Vane Father and Sonne.’
III: ‘Simonias slandring ye High Preist to get his Place.’
IIII: ‘Laird of Warreston an arrant Knaue Au my Saul man.’
V: ‘S.r W. Waller looses two Armys yet getts by ye bargaine.’
VI: ‘Kelsey a sneaking Bodice maker a Gifted Brother’
VII: ‘Marshall curseing Mevoz.’
VIII: ‘Don Haselrigg Kt of ye Codled braine.’
IX: ‘Lenthall runns away With his Mace to the Army.’
X: ‘A Comittee for Plunder’ed Ministers Miles Corbet in the Chaire’
Knave: ‘H Martin moues ye House that ye King may take the Couenant.’
Queen: ‘The takeing of the Holy League and Covenant.’
King: ‘S.r H Milmay solicits a Cityzens wife for wch his owne Corrects him’


(AN473105001, © The Trustees of the British Museum)

I: ‘Bradshaw the Iaylor, and ye Hangman keepers of the Liberty of England.’
II: ‘Parry Father and Sonne.’
III: ‘H: Martin defend Ralph who design’d to kill the King.’
IIII: ‘Argyle a muckle Scotch Knaue in gude faith Sir.’
V: ‘Nye and Godwin Olivers Confessors.’
VI: ‘Skippon a Waggoner to S.r F. Vere one of Oliuers Hectors.’
VII: ‘Feek the Seer.’
VIII: ‘Scot Olivers Clerk or Tally man.’
IX: ‘A Comittee at Derby house to continue the Warr.’
X: ‘A Comitte at Haberdashers Hall to spoyle the Caualeers as the Iews did the Egyptians.’
Knave: ‘S.r H Vane finds a distinction betwixt a Legal & and Evangelical Conscience’
Queen: ‘The Lady Lambert and Oliver under a strong Conflict.’
King: ‘Bradshaw in ye High Court of Iustice insulting of the King.’


(AN473087001, © The Trustees of the British Museum)

I: ‘A Free state or a tolleration for all sort of Villany.’
II: ‘Lenthall Father and Sonn.’
III: ‘Bulstrod and Whitlock present to Oliver the Instruments of Governm.t’
IIII: ‘A Covenanting Scot & an English Independent differ about ye things of this world’
V: ‘Sr H. Mildmay beaten by a footboy a great breach of Priviledge’
VI: ‘Desbrow Olivers Champion haueing a Cannon in each Pocket.’
VII: ‘Harrison the Carpenter cutting down ye horne of ye Beast in Daniel’
VIII: ‘Pride Oliver.s Drayman’
IX: ‘The Army entring the City persuing the Apprentices.’
X: ‘Oliver seeking God while the K. is murthered by his order.’
Knave: ‘Ireton holds that Saints may pass through all formes to obtaine his ends.’
Queen: ‘Ioane hold my Staff Lady Protectoresse.’
King: ‘Oliver declars himself and the Rebells to be the Gadly Party’

Many of the targets of the playing cards were dead by 1679, so their message would have been ideological, rather than for the purposes of recognition like some modern-day equivalents. That said, some of the satire is incredibly specific. The king of spades, for example, shows John Bradshaw presiding over the trial of Charles I and paraphrases some of the last words exchanged between the two as Charles attempted to question by whose authority he was being tried.

Equally, some of the cards would have required a very detailed memory or understanding of civil war politics by the card’s consumers. Here are a few of the more obscure references:

  • The six of hearts shows Charles Worsley, commander of the troops who expelled the Rump in 1653 and subsequently one of Cromwell’s major-generals. The loom is a reference to the fact that his family owed their money originally to the cloth trade.
  • The seven of hearts shows Nathaniel Fiennes running away – presumably from the siege of Bristol, which he surrendered in 1643. The pun – ‘whereby hangs a tale’ – is presumably a reference to the fact that Fiennes was sentenced to death for doing so and only rescued by lobbying from the earl of Essex and others.
  • The six of diamonds shows Colonel Thomas Kelsey, one of Cromwell’s major-generals. The reference to being a ‘Bodice maker’ probably refers to his apprenticeship as a draper.
  • The seven of diamonds shows Stephen Marshall, a puritan divine. The reference to ‘cursing Mevoz’ (sic) is a jibe at one of the most famous sermons he preached to the Long Parliament, published as Meroz Cursed. He was part of a wider group of divines linked to the earl of Warwick and would later go on to be chaplain to the earl of Essex.
  • The three of spades shows Henry Marten defending Edmund Rolph, a leading agitator within the New Model Army who in 1648 was accused of a plot to kill Charles I while part of the garrison at Carisbrooke Castle in the Isle of Wight.
  • The queen of spades shows John Lambert’s wife Frances, a perennial target of accusations of being Cromwell’s mistress, up to no good with Oliver.
  • The three of clubs shows ‘Bulstrod’ and ‘Whitlock’ – obviously a reference to Bulstrode Whitelocke. Splitting him into two could be a simple error, but equally I wonder if it is perhaps a dig at Whitelocke’s Janus-like ability to trim his sails to the direction of the prevailing ideological wind.
  • The five of clubs shows Sir Henry Mildmay and seems to be a reference to him being abused in the street in 1648 by a servant of the Duke of Richmond.
  • The eight of clubs shows Colonel Thomas Pride as a drayman – a dig at Cromwell’s family being involved in brewing which was a longstanding part of royalist satire.

You can buy a modern reproduction of this deck here.

And God made great whales

Currently luxuriating in Philip Hoare’s wonderful Leviathan: or, the Whale, and ended up searching the British Museum’s database for whale prints:


Etching of Jonah spat out by the whale, c. 1645-1700: print made by Jonas Umbach, AN193179001, © The Trustees of the British Museum.


Engraving of a beached sperm whale on the shore near Beverwijk, 1601: made by Jacob Matham, AN57681001, © The Trustees of the British Museum.


Broadside of a female whale caught in the Elbe near Hamburg, 1653: AN253324001,© The Trustees of the British Museum.


Etching of a beached sperm whale at Noordwjik, c. 1614: after Esaias van de Velde, AN489147001, © The Trustees of the British Museum.


Engraving of a whale washed up on the bank of the Thames, c. 1690: AN49548001, © The Trustees of the British Museum.