Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Category: blogging

A most auspicious star

While browsing through the Loseley Manuscripts – a collection in Surrey History Centre of the papers of the More-Molyneux family from Loseley Park near Guildford – I came across some scattered pages from a mid-seventeenth century almanac.* 

It appears to be a previously unknown set of predictions by the famous astrologer William Lilly. Only the title page (which has print only on the recto side) and one other page (with print on both the recto and the verso) seem to have survived. What has happened to the rest of the almanac is not clear. However, the surviving pages may come as a surprise: see for yourself.

Happy new year to everyone who has visited this blog during 2010: thank you for reading. The missing pages of Lilly’s almanac will no doubt have predicted you a wonderful 2011… 

* Not really.

Recycled woodcuts, part 3

I have blogged in a couple of previous posts (1, 2) about the reuse of woodcuts by mid-seventeenth century printers and booksellers. Various names appear in both posts: printers like Jane Coe, Bernard Alsop and Thomas Harper, and booksellers like John Greensmith and  Thomas Bates. Inspired by Gavin Robinson’s recent post reconstructing the life and allegiance of a London merchant of the same period, I thought it might be interesting to post about the lives of a couple of these figures in more detail. Doing so can tell us a surprising amount about why woodcuts were being recycled at this time.

Thomas Bates was a bookseller based in Bishop’s Court in the Old Bailey. A number of the pamphlets he sold reused woodcuts. His date of birth is unclear, but he was made free from his apprenticeship in 1619, which if he served the typical length of time would put his birth date around 1595. He was apprenticed to Michael Sparke, who would later go on to publish the books of the religious radical and martyr William Prynne. Before doing so, however, he seems to have spent some time in the 1610s as a journeyman, travelling the country selling his wares. Through this he was intimately linked to wider networks of chapmen and pedlars.

Sparke’s early career, and his later willingness to publish books no other bookseller would take on, may be significant to the choices that Bates made in his own career. By the 1640s, Bates was the member of a partnership of three booksellers: the other two members were Thomas Banks and Francis Coules, also based in the Old Bailey. Their typical product was the short, eight-page quarto pamphlet, often satirical or scandalous, and illustrated with a woodcut on the frontispiece. This kind of pamphlet was quick and cheap to print, and was clearly a popular product. As church and Parliamentary censorship waned during the 1630s then broke down in 1641, hundreds of pamphlets in this genre were produced.

The products the three partners sold may owe something to their links to the ballad trade. Ballads are exactly the kind of books that are likely to have been a staple of Michael Sparke’s sales as he travelled round the country. Bates’s links to his partners may well have come from the networks and knowledge that his master built up during this period. A more definite link can be determined with Francis Coules. He was the oldest of the three and, earlier in his career, he had along with Henry Gosson and Edward Wright been the junior member of a partnership of booksellers who had gradually bought up the copyright to popular broadside ballads. As the partners built up their stock of ballads, they also seem to have developed new methods of marketing them. During the sixteenth century, woodcut illustration was unusual: only one fifth of surviving ballads were illustrated. Slowly, the ballad partners began to change this. By 1640, five out of six surviving ballads were illustrated.

It seems likely that some link can be traced between the woodcuts used to illustrate such ballads and the pamphlets that Bates, Coules and Banks were selling. Selling satirical pamphlets in the early 1640s was not without its risks. All three were summoned to appear before Parliament at various points and Bates seems, according to various sources, to have served some time in prison on at least two occasions. However, Bates’s stock seems to have spanned a reasonably wide range of religious and political positions. Profit, not politics, was probably his primary motivation: and it is here that using illustrated title pages makes sense. In an increasingly saturated market, illustrated frontispieces stood out, and probably sold well. Indeed the amount of pamphlets with illustrations entirely unconnected to their content suggest that any illustration enhanced the selling-power of books. In that sense, the pamphlets on sale in Bates’s shop are the legacy of a trend that began with ballads.

But Bates and his partners were faced with a tension to resolve. They needed their books to stand out, and for that they needed illustrations: the fresher and more eye-catching, the better. But they also needed to preserve their bottom line. It is very difficult to reconstruct costs and profits for printers and booksellers without any sources, but here is a very rough and indicative attempt to do so, which at least may give an idea of the sort of margins Bates would have been working under. Booksellers in this period were typically the “undertaker” for pamphlets: which is to say they put up the capital, paid the printer, and took the risk if books didn’t sell.

  • The cheapest paper – ‘pot paper’ – sold in the 1620s for between 3s. 4d. and 4s.6d. a ream. A ream contained 500 sheets, and an eight-page quarto pamphlet was made from one sheet. Thus one ream would have supplied 500 copies of the books Bates was typically selling.
  • Print runs at this time are also hard to estimate, but the limitations of presses and working practices at this time suggest runs somewhere between 250 – 1,500 copies for a short quarto book. If we assume a very high print run of 1,000 copies, two reams would be needed to provide the paper. That suggests a cost of about 10s.
  • Paper was between half and three quarters of the cost of a book, so the cost to Bates’s printers for an unillustrated book might have been about 20s.
  • The printer would then have sold his work to Bates. In 1655, John Sturgeon paid the radical printer Richard Moone 40s. for 1,000 copies of A Short Discovery of his Highness the Lord Protector’s Intentions. Whether this is a good comparison is hard to say. In both cases the printer would have been producing works that put him at some risk, but the risks during the Protectorate were probably rather higher. If we assume a lower price of, say, 30s., that still allows for some profit to the printer.
  • Bates also needed to make a profit. Again, estimating book prices accurately at this period is very hard, but assuming his eight-page quartos sold for 1d., that would mean potential revenue of £4, and a potential gross profit of £2 10s. This is of course a best-case scenario, assuming that every copy of a relatively high print-run sold.
  • Net profit, after deducting operational costs of running a bookshop, is even harder to estimate so I won’t attempt it here.

Adding a freshly-cut woodcut to this process would inevitably have eaten into the margins of printers and booksellers. Assuming the printer absorbed the cost, he would have passed it on to the bookseller. So you can imagine discussions between the bookseller (who would generally have owned the copyright), the printer and the author about whether to use a woodcut, and if so whether to reuse an old one. If Bates had money to spare, he might have decided to get the printer to commission a bespoke woodcut. If cash was tight, he might have asked for an old to be reused. It’s possible that some woodcuts, like those with “speech bubbles” left blank, were designed to fulfil both purposes.

Amongst the printers that Bates used was Bernard Alsop. He had been apprenticed to Humphrey Lympenny in 1601, then transferred in 1603 to the mastership of William White. By 1616 he had gone into partnership with Thomas Creed, who seems to have either retired or died the next year. Alsop inherited his press, type and ornaments, and was still using them in the 1640s: Creed had already got good use out of them, so by the outbreak of the civil wars they were getting pretty tired. Indeed Alsop’s work is often identifiable by reuse of a small number of ornaments (perhaps the only ones still in good condition), or by particularly worn type.

In 1626 Alsop went into partnership with Thomas Fawcett, and together they published a number of literary works by the playwrights Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, the poet and playwright Thomas Dekker, and the writer Robert Greene; as well as numerous religious books. In 1641, though, their surviving output starts to change. They still published big, literary works by authors such as Ben Jonson. But they also started picking up a number of short satirical quarto pamphlets of exactly the kind sold by Thomas Bates. Like Bates, they also started to get into trouble with the authorities and were hauled before Parliament a number of time for printing scandalous texts. Their poor quality type and sloppy workmanship may have made it somewhat easier for the authorities to identify their works. They also moved into publishing newsbooks – typically one or two sheet quartos – as they were invented in 1641 and then became popular in the subsequent years.

What prompted this switch in their output is not clear. Perhaps it is symptomatic of wider changes in the tastes of the reading public, perhaps it was where the money was. But you can easily imagine Alsop being concerned to protect his profits, and fighting his own corner with booksellers: trying to recycle a woodcut commissioned by one bookseller for the book of another, while still charging as much as he could get away with. Equally, booksellers may have demanded that he use specific woodcuts. The famous picture of a preacher in a tub that inspired this series of posts may have generated good sales, and prompted rival booksellers to request it for their pamphlets as well.

So little trace of this kind of commercial back-and-forth survives that we can only guess at what negotations took place between printers like Alsop and booksellers like Bates. What does seem clear, though, is that a complicated set of personal, commercial, political, or religious transactions lay behind the use of every woodcut. Looking at the lives of Alsop and Bates gives at least a sliver of insight into what those transactions may have been.

The illustrations to this post are woodcuts by the Swiss artist Jost Amman, depicting a woodcut artist, a printer and a bookbinder respectively, and taken from his Das Ständebuch (1568).

Carnivalesque 68

CARNIVALESQUE 68.

A New Almanack and Prognostication

For the Yeare of our

Lord God

2010.

Setting forth the great changes, mutations,

and revolutions in Early Modern Blogges

in October and November

Religion

Law

People

Places

Fashion

Science

Books

Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll

Death

And finally…

The next Carnivalesque, an ancient/medieval edition, will be hosted by Kaye Jones in December. In the meantime, you have just nine days to get your nominations for the best history blogging of 2010 submitted to the Cliopatria awards:

Nominations for next Carnivalesque

I will be hosting an early modern edition of Carnivalesque on 21 November.

Send in your nominations for the best early modern blogging of the last couple of months to mercuriuspoliticus[at]gmail[dot]com or use the nomination form.

Ghost in the machine

A slightly belated Halloween post.

I was 14 when the first season of The X-Files was broadcast on UK television. This was the perfect age to become obsessed with the programme’s mix of aliens, ghosts and conspiracy theories. Like Fox Mulder, I wanted to believe. The series sparked an obsession that made me an eager viewer of the other – mostly awful – programmes which tried to cash in on the 1990s vogue for the paranormal. Amongst the most awful was a BBC series – it may have been the one presented by Carol Vorderman, although I can’t recall for certain – which was a ragbag of “strange but true” stories presented through dramatic reconstructions. I can remember very little about it, save for one episode that has always stayed with me.

It told the story of a man in the early 1980s, who found that his BBC Micro computer had become a conduit through which he could communicate with a man from the sixteenth century. The latter was mystified by the “box of lights” which had appeared in his house, and accused the computer owner of witchcraft. Gradually, however, as the two carried on their electronic conversations a more trusting relationship developed. The programme concluded by stating that archival research supposedly revealed that the sixteenth-century man had actually existed, and that expert linguists had concluded that the dialect and vocabulary he used was authentic to the period.

A few weeks ago – fifteen years on – a memory of this story popped back into my head for some reason. Some quick Googling revealed that other people remembered it too; and that the man in question, Ken Webster, had written a book about his experience called The Vertical Plane. Intrigued, I ordered a second-hand copy and spent a happy afternoon reacquainting myself with the story. The book badges itself as “a unique supernatural detective story”, and one look at the cover gives an early warning that it was published by Harper Collins’s “occult” division.

You may or may not be relieved to know that this isn’t going to be a post about whether Webster’s account is true. Instead, I thought it might be interesting to consider Webster’s book as a cultural artifact in its own right. Webster’s book has quite a lot going on beneath the surface, which will perhaps be of interest to early modernists who study texts and the different forms they can take. So this post does two things. First, it summarises the story Webster sets out in his book. Secondly, it looks at how Webster tells his story, and how his own text and narrative link to early modern ideas about texts and narratives.

Webster’s story starts in the autumn of 1984, in the village of Dodleston near to the English border with Wales. He is living in Meadow Cottage, an eighteenth-century house in the middle of the village, with his girlfriend Debbie and friend Nicola. Webster borrows a BBC Micro computer from the school at which teaches, so that Nicola can use the word processor (EDWORD, for others who grew up with the Beeb) to write comedy sketches. All three are alarmed when files start appearing on the computer with messages in an archaic form of English, signed “L.W.” The messages are accompanied by various poltergeist phenomena, such as objects being moved or piled in particular formations.

L.W. gradually reveals himself as Lukas Wainman, living in a house on the site of Meadow Cottage during Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine Parr (ie at some point between 1543 and 1547). He kept various livestock on the land around his house. He had been married with a son, but both wife and child died of the plague in 1517. He had studied at Brasenose College, Oxford and knew Erasmus, having met him three times in all.

A friend of Lukas’s then starts communicating: it turns out that Lukas has been arrested and is being held by the local sheriff, Sir Thomas Fowleshurst, due to his communications with the ‘light box’ or ‘leems boyste” as Lukas calls it, in his house. The friend also reveals that ‘Lukas’ is a pseudonym. Lukas is then released and held under house arrest, resuming communication and confessing how scared he is of the fate that could await him. He also reveals that the ‘leems boyste’ was brought to his house by someone called ‘one’, from the year 2109. ‘Lukas’ had been under the impression that Webster was also from 2109 until the latter says that he is living in 1985.

An unnamed contact from 2109 then starts leaving impenetrable messages on the BBC, saying that the events they are experiencing have a wider purpose. In the meantime Webster and his friends try to think of a way to save Lukas’s life. They remember a chance reference by Lukas to Henry Mann, Dean of Chester and find information in the present that Mann had in 1533 communicated with Elizabeth Barton, the so-called “Maid of Kent”. Barton was a Catholic nun who had made prophecies critical of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, and who was executed as a result in 1534. Webster gives this information to Lukas to use as a bargaining chip with the sheriff. However, it doesn’t work, and Lukas goes on trial regardless: but is kept alive to keep the light box working. During this period Thomas Fowleshurst begins to use the box to communicate with Webster and it emerges that events are happening in 1546.

Communication is re-established with Lukas, but with further intervention and inscrutable comments from 2109. Webster and Lukas begin to suspect that 2109 is changing their messages, and develop a system where Lukas starts communicating with paper and charcoal left out for him in the present (Lukas meanwhile is able somehow to see and hear Webster in the past). Though this means Lukas reveals that his real name is Tomas (sic) Harden/Hawarden, a graduate of Brasenose who had been dean of the chapel there but was expelled in 1538 for refusing to expunge the name of the Pope from a book in the chapel, as was required by law after the break with Rome. 2109 become extremely irritated that Webster has learnt Wainman’s real name, and demand that he stops disrupting their experiments.

Eventually, the Grosvenor family – Harden’s landlords – demand that he leaves his house. Harden leaves a final message wishing Webster and his friends well, and stating that he will go to Bristol to buy a horse then see if he is welcome again at Brasenose. He says that he will write a book about the events, and hopes that some day they might meet so he can read Webster’s book and Webster his. Harden is then never heard from again, although Webster finds a reference to him – or at least someone with his name – becoming vicar at Little Barrington in Gloucestershire from 1551 to 1554. The tale is rounded off with some final, ever-cryptic communications from 2109.

One of the themes which emerges most strongly from The Vertical Plane‘s narrative is the instability of texts. Webster’s ghost is a textual ghost. Although Harden seems able to see and hear what is happening in the present, Webster himself never sees Harden (although his girlfriend, Debbie, sees him in her dreams on several occasions). Instead, he primarily interacts with Harden through various forms of textual communication, none of which the reader can rely on:

  • Through the letters on Webster’s computer monitor. Some of these – Webster never knows which – are altered in subtle ways by 2109. Others are deleted by mistake, meaning that Webster has to summarise what he can recollect of them.
  • Through printed copies of those same letters. A number of these are also subsequently lost, and again we rely on Webster’s memory of them for the content of his narrative.
  • Through manuscript notes which Harden scratches onto surfaces in the present-day Meadow Cottage, or writes on scraps of paper. The materiality of these notes inclines Webster to place the most faith in them, even though they are often the shortest and most cryptic of Harden’s statements.

Harden communicates through different identities: directly as Lukas Wainman then as Tomas Harden, and second-hand through an unnamed friend and through the sheriff Thomas Fowleshurst. He also sets traps for Webster, in attempt to assess whether he is really from the future. For example, he claims to have done his degree at Jesus College, Oxford, which at that time did not exist: anyone from the future, Harden reasons, would surely know there is no such thing as Jesus College and that it is nonsensical to claim to have studied there. Webster, meanwhile, sees this as a “mistake” which could point to the presence of a hoaxer.

And Webster and Harden themselves also take steps to further mediate how their texts are received. Both try to modify their grammar and vocabulary so as to make it easier for the other to understand. Harden also modifies his hand-writing to try to make it as clear as possible. Webster’s own narrative then further mediates Harden’s, by ‘translating’ his texts. Harden’s original is presented in upper case, with a rendering in modern English below in lower case as with this example:

MYNE GOODLY FOOL MYNE LINKMAN THINKETH THAT THOU ART BE AL IN MYNE PAN H’SAYETH THAT ME MAKETH LYK DIVINSTRE BUT I KNOW YOW LYVE NOWE HE ALS SAYETH THAT MYNE BLOOD BE POYSOND AN THAT IT BE MYNE WEEK HIGNED FANCY BUT LUNE ME NAT METHENKE AN TOLDE HEM SO I ALS SEID ‘TIS LYK FAIRYMGOLD AN THAT TO HOLD IT CLOSE TIL ME WRYTS BOOKE.

My pleasant fool, my servant, thinks that you are all in my head. He says I act like a seer but I know you live now. He also says that my blood is poisoned and that it is my weak-hinged imagination; but I am not mad, I think, and told him so. I also said it is like fairy gold [that he should] keep it secret until I write a book.

The result is a patchwork of overlapping, unstable narratives, which through their structure resist any attempt to derive a “true” version of the story. Harden makes this point explicitly at one stage:

METHYNK YOW ARN A HISTORIE BOKE THAT HATH ITS FRONTE AN BACK SKYN JOYNANT WE ARN EECHE A SYDE

I think we are a history book that has its front and back pages joined together. We are each a side of it.

Indeed, Harden states at various points that he is writing his own book about these events: a completely alternative meta-narrative to set against Webster’s, albeit one that the reader is not privy to. Others clearly are, though: 2109 say that Harden’s book will be found one day. We are left, as a result, with the impression that yet another side to the story remains to be told.

The way in which layers of different textual forms impose themselves upon each other, adding to or contradicting each other, is not unlike the way in which the real Harden might have experienced the textual culture of sixteenth-century England. The bound, printed and unannotated book was by no means the prevailing manifestation of textual culture in early modern England. Textual forms which to modern eyes appear much less ‘settled’ than print interacted both in partnership and in tension with the printed book. Commonplace books reproduced text from printed sources while at the same time subverting it to the owner’s own needs. Manuscript newsletters co-existed with printed newsbook. Printed almanacs provided space for owners to hand-write their own annotations. While we are used to looking for linear, narrative compositions put together by a clear author and generating a fixed meaning, early modern writers and readers were willing to cut and paste material from different types and forms of texts, to create texts embedded within texts or texts that co-existed alongside others. People creating and using early modern texts had a much more creative understanding of the possibilities of textual culture than we have, until recently,  given them credit for.

Given all this, the ease with which Webster’s sixteenth-century counterpart adjusts to the different forms of communicating with him is perhaps not so far-fetched. Harden’s sense of confusion and wonder is reserved for the ‘leems boyste’: where has it come from, and how does it glow so? But he adjusts very quickly to communicating with Webster in different textual media, and becomes adept at flitting back and forth between them. As a student at Brasenose, he would no doubt have been just as adept at negotiating printed and manuscript versions of texts. He alludes to a relaxed attitude about “remixing” different forms when Webster leaves out a picture of Erasmus which subsequently disappears, taken by Harden back to his own time:

THANK YE FOR THY PORTREYING ME SHALT HATH IT PORTRAYD IN MYNE BOKE OF YOW TIME.

Thank you for the picture. I shall have it put in my book about your time.

Webster’s narrative is, on the surface, a supernatural detective story which strives after truth. Who is/was Tomas Harden? Did he really exist? Were his communications real, or faked by someone with a good knowledge of the sources? Webster’s character devotes considerable energy during the early days of the haunting – if that is what it was – to researching early modern Chester and its surroundings. He is jubilant when Thomas Fowleshurst, the first verifiable character they come across, makes an appearance. He is even more jubilant when Robin Peedell, an assistant librarian in 1980s Brasenose, identifies Harden in the college records and Harden confirms who he is. But it is significant that Webster’s character also quickly grows fed up with this quest for truth:

I became bored… I wanted to go home, to read about something else.

And so Webster’s book can also be read, exercising one’s freedom as a reader, as an exploration of the relativity of truth. There is not just ambiguity in Webster’s narrative; there is layer upon layer of ambiguity, driven by the way he sets out his different narratives. Whether they are intended to echo the writing and reading practices of Harden’s contemporaries is not clear. But it is also, perhaps, not the point. Texts in whatever form are unstable, shifting media that resist attempts by authors to impose a fixed meaning upon them. In reading Webster’s story I have found my own meaning in it. In retelling it, I have used a particular structure, a long-form blog post, in a particular medium, the electronic text, both of which will shape how it is received. And in reading it, you will no doubt impose your own meanings on my telling of Webster’s telling of Harden’s life. Whether you read it as fact, metaphor or a simple ghost story, I hope you enjoyed it.

A slightly belated Halloween ghost story.
I was 14 when the first season of The X-Files was broadcast on UK television. This was the perfect age to become obsessed with the programme’s mix of aliens, ghosts and conspiracy theories. Like Fox Mulder, I wanted to believe. The series sparked an obsession that made me an eager viewer of the other – mostly awful – programmes which tried to cash in on the 1990s vogue for the paranormal. Amongst the most awful was a BBC series – it may have been the one presented by Carol Vorderman, although I can’t recall for certain – which was a ragbag of “strange but true” stories presented through dramatic reconstructions. I can remember very little about it, save for one episode that has always stayed with me.
It told the story of a man in the early 1980s, who found that his BBC Micro computer had become a conduit through which he could communicate with a man from the sixteenth century. The latter was mystified by the “box of lights” which had appeared in his house, and accused the computer owner of witchcraft. Gradually, however, as the two carried on their electronic conversations a more trusting relationship developed. The programme concluded by stating that archival research supposedly revealed that the sixteenth-century man had actually existed, and that expert linguists had concluded that the dialect and vocabulary he used was authentic to the period.
A few weeks ago – fifteen years on – a memory of this story popped back into my head for some reason. Some quick Googling revealed that other people remembered it too; and that the man in question, Ken Webster, had written a book about his experience called The Vertical Plane. Intrigued, I ordered a second-hand copy and spent a happy afternoon reacquainting myself with the story. The book badges itself as “a unique supernatural detective story”, and one look at the cover gives an early warning that it was published by Harper Collins’s “occult” division.
You may or may not be relieved to know that this isn’t going to be a post about whether Webster’s account is true. Instead, I thought it might be interesting to consider Webster’s book as a cultural artifact in its own right. Webster’s book has quite a lot going on beneath the surface, which will perhaps be of interest to early modernists who study texts and the different forms they can take. So this post does two things. First, it summarises the story Webster sets out in his book. Secondly, it looks at how Webster tells his story, and how his own text and narrative link to early modern ideas about texts and narratives.
Webster’s story starts in the autumn of 1984, in the village of Dodleston near to the English border with Wales. He is living in Meadow Cottage, an eighteenth-century house in the middle of the village, with his girlfriend Debbie and friend Nicola. Webster borrows a BBC Micro computer from the school at which teaches, so that Nicola can use the word processor (EDWORD, for others who grew up with the Beeb) to write comedy sketches. All three are alarmed when files start appearing on the computer with messages in an archaic form of English, signed “L.W.” The messages are accompanied by various poltergeist phenomena, such as objects being moved or piled in particular formations.
L.W. gradually reveals himself as Lukas Wainman, living in a house on the site of Meadow Cottage during Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine Parr (ie at some point between 1543 and 1547). He kept various livestock on the land around his house. He had been married with a son, but both wife and child died of the plague in 1517. He had studied at Brasenose College, Oxford and knew Erasmus, having met him three times in all.
A friend of Lukas’s then starts communicating: it turns out that Lukas has been arrested and is being held by the local sheriff, Sir Thomas Fowleshurst, due to his communications with the ‘light box’ or ‘leems boyste” as Lukas calls it, in his house. The friend also reveals that ‘Lukas’ is a pseudonym. Lukas is then released and held under house arrest, resuming communication and confessing how scared he is of the fate that could await him. He also reveals that the leems boyste was brought to his house by someone called ‘one’, from the year 2109. ‘Lukas’ had been under the impression that Webster was also from 2109 until the latter says that he is living in 1985.
An unnamed contact from 2109 then starts leaving impenetrable messages on the BBC, saying that the events they are experiencing have a wider purpose. In the meantime Webster and his friends try to think of a way to save Lukas’s life. They remember a chance reference by Lukas to Henry Mann, Dean of Chester and find information in the present that Mann had in 1533 communicated with Elizabeth Barton, the so-called “Maid of Kent”. Barton was a Catholic nun who had made prophecies critical of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, and who was executed as a result in 1534. Webster gives this information to Lukas to use as a bargaining chip with the sheriff. However, it doesn’t work, and Lukas goes on trial regardless: but is kept alive to keep the light box working. During this period Thomas Fowleshurst begins to use the box to communicate with Webster and it emerges that events are happening in 1546.
Communication is re-established with Lukas, but with further intervention and inscrutable comments from 2109. Webster and Lukas begin to suspect that 2109 is changing their messages, and develop a system where Lukas starts communicating with paper and charcoal left out for him in the present (Lukas meanwhile is able somehow to see and hear Webster in the past). Throgh this means Lukas reveals that his real name is Tomas (sic) Harden/Hawarden, a graduate of Brasenose who had been dean of the chapel there but was expelled in 1538 for refusing to expunge the name of the Pope from a book in the chapel, as was required by law after the break with Rome. 2109 become extremely irritated that Webster has learnt Wainman’s real name, and demand that he stops disrupting their experiments.
Eventually, the Grosvenor family – Harden’s landlords – demand that he leaves his house. Harden leaves a final message wishing Webster and his friends well, and stating that he will go to Bristol to buy a horse then see if he is welcome again at Brasenose. He says that he will write a book about the events, and hopes that some day they might meet so he can read Webster’s book and Webster his. Harden is then never heard from again, although Webster finds a reference to him – or at least someone with his name – becoming vicar at Little Barrington in Gloucestershire from 1551 to 1554. The tale is rounded off with some final, ever-cryptic communications from 2109.
One of the themes which emerges most strongly from The Vertical Plane‘s narrative is the instability of texts. Webster’s ghost is a textual ghost. Although Harden seems able to see and hear what is happening in the present, Webster himself never sees Harden (although his girlfriend, Debbie, sees him in her dreams on several occasions). Instead, he primarily interacts with Harden through various forms of textual communication, none of which the reader can rely on:
  • Through the letters on Webster’s computer monitor. Some of these – Webster never knows which – are altered in subtle ways by 2109. Others are deleted by mistake, meaning that Webster has to summarise what he can recollect of them.
  • Through printed copies of those same letters. A number of these are also subsequently lost, and again we rely on Webster’s memory of them for the content of his narrative.
  • Through manuscript notes which Harden scratches onto surfaces in the present-day Meadow Cottage, or writes on scraps of paper. The materiality of these notes inclines Webster to place the most faith in them, even though they are often the shortest and most cryptic of Harden’s statements.
Harden communicates through different identities: directly as Lukas Wainman then as Tomas Harden, and second-hand through an unnamed friend and through the sheriff [name]. He also sets traps for Webster, in attempt to assess whether he is really from the future. For example, he claims to have done his degree at Jesus College, Oxford, which at that time did not exist: anyone from the future, Harden reasons, would surely know there is no such thing as Jesus College and that it is nonsensical to claim to have studied there. Webster, meanwhile, sees this as a “mistake” which could point to the presence of a hoaxer.
And Webster and Harden themselves also take steps to further mediate how their texts are received. Both try to modify their grammar and vocabulary so as to make it easier for the other to understand. Harden also modifies his hand-writing to try to make it as clear as possible. Webster’s own narrative then further mediates Harden’s, by ‘translating’ his texts. Harden’s original is presented in upper case, with a rendering in modern English below in lower case as with this example:
MYNE GOODLY FOOL MYNE LINKMAN THINKETH THAT THOU ART BE AL IN MYNE PAN H’SAYETH THAT ME MAKETH LYK DIVINSTRE BUT I KNOW YOW LYVE NOWE HE ALS SAYETH THAT MYNE BLOOD BE POYSOND AN THAT IT BE MYNE WEEK HIGNED FANCY BUT LUNE ME NAT METHENKE AN TOLDE HEM SO I ALS SEID ‘TIS LYK FAIRYMGOLD AN THAT TO HOLD IT CLOSE TIL ME WRYTS BOOKE
My pleasant fool, my servant, thinks that you are all in my head. He says I act like a seer but I know you live now. He also says that my blood is poisoned and that it is my weak-hinged imagination; but I am not mad, I think, and told him so. I also said it is like fairy gold [that he should] keep it secret until I write a book.
The result is a patchwork of overlapping, unstable narratives, which through their structure resist any attempt to derive a “true” version of the story. Harden makes this point explicitly at one stage:
METHYNK YOW ARN A HISTORIE BOKE THAT HATH ITS FRONTE AN BACK SKYN JOYNANT WE ARN EECHE A SYDE
I think we are a history book that has its front and back pages joined together. We are each a side of it.
Indeed, Harden states at various points that he is writing his own book about these events: a completely alternative meta-narrative to set against Webster’s, albeit one that the reader is not privy to. Others clearly are, though: 2109 say that Harden’s book will be found one day. We are left, as a result, with the impression that yet another side to the story remains to be told.
The way in which layers of different textual forms impose themselves upon each other, adding to or contradicting each other, is not unlike. The bound, printed and unannotated book was by no means the prevailing manifestation of textual culture in early modern England. Textual forms which to modern eyes appear much less ‘settled’
connection between reading and writing – neither the primary
willingness to cut and paste and rework material
non-linear, non-narrative compositions
creations of texts embedded within texts
Alludes to creative early modern methods of textual expression, such as commonplace books or circulated manuscripts.
Relativity of truth.