Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: book

Starting again

Four years ago I started writing a book: a biography of the seventeenth-century ironmonger, preacher, bookseller, pamphleteer and newsbook editor Henry Walker. I had done most of the research, and finished writing up the early chapters (the first three are now on my page, if you want to read them). And then real life intervened, and I ground to a halt, and the book has sat unfinished on my hard drive for two years. My resolution this year is to start writing it again.

To help me stick to that resolution, I am going to try blogging about my progress. Every week from now on, I will aim to post an update about how I am getting on. It might be a summary of what I’ve done that week, it might focus on a particular source I’m working on, a particular text or protagonist I’m researching, or it might just be an excuse for why I haven’t done anything. But I will try to post something every week or so, even if it’s just a paragraph or two. This first post is about beginnings and ends.

How does one start – or in my case, re-start – the process of writing a book? Four years ago I did it according to the textbook: planning and plotting out each chapter based on my research, and then starting at the beginning of Walker’s life with his baptism in All Saints, Derby on 1 March 1612. I got as far as 1641 before I stopped.

Returning to the draft, though, I have had to confront an enormous mental block about picking up where I left off. Nobody really knew much about Walker’s life before the 1640s before I started researching him: the most that had been found was records of his time as an apprentice ironmonger in the late 1620s and early 1630s. I have found a lot more, but inevitably there are gaps that I have had to fill in through educated guesses and speculation. Writing up Walker’s early life, I didn’t have existing accounts to consider or react against. From 1641 onwards, however, Walker starts selling and publishing pamphlets, and becomes much more visible in the historical record. Many historians, from the the early twentieth century onwards, have written about Walker’s career from the outbreak of the civil war and onwards.

So picking up the draft chronologically where I’ve left off feels quite daunting – stepping into well-trodden ground where there is huge amounts of primary source material that has been picked over in secondary sources. Not having written anything for two years, I’ve found it hard to dive straight back in just at the point where it is hardest to say something new or original.

Instead I’ve chosen to begin at the end. According to his ODNB entry, in the early 1660s Walker more or less disappears from the historical record. After lots of digging, I have been able to reconstruct a skeleton framework for the last twenty years of his life:

  • 1667 – appointed curate of Petersham chapel.
  • 1671 – Henry’s wife, Mary, dies and is taken back to St Giles Cripplegate (where they had first lived when married) to be buried.
  • 1674/75 – is warden of the yeomanry of the Ironmongers’ Company.
  • 1681 – gives a copy of Andrew Willet’s Synopsis Papismi (1634) to the Ironmongers’ Company.
  • 1687 – dies of the stone and is buried in St Giles Cripplegate.

If I was updating Walker’s entry in the ODNB I would simply list these events, and that would be that. But that is hardly enough for a chapter in a full biography that is meant to be an epilogue to Walker’s life. So I am having to resort to other means to fill in the blanks – by reading the parish registers to get a sense of the rhythm of Walker’s job, by reading the court book for the Ironmongers’ Company to see what dinners he attended and when he was fined for non-attendance, and by reconstructing what his grown-up daughters were doing by this point from mentions in his will.

None of it quite adds up to a substantive chapter, at least not compared to what I will end up writing about Walker’s career in the 1640s and 1650s. At best it is a process of writing someone’s life by reconstructing the milieu in which they lived and hoping it leaves a subject-shaped gap; at worst it is simple speculation. But it does give me a gentler way in to re-starting the process of writing, with some small, manageable chunks of drafting that aren’t too scary. So I am beginning at the end, hoping that the act of going backwards is what will ultimately send me in the right direction.

Review of “A Dodo at Oxford”

Philip Atkins and Michael Johnson (eds.), A Dodo at Oxford. The unreliable account of a student and his pet dodo (Oxgarth Press, 2010). 160 pp. ISBN 978 0 9534438 2 6.

In the spring of 2008, a remarkable book turned up in the Oxfam bookshop in St Giles, Oxford. The small printed octavo volume was at first sight unassuming: its covers and some of its pages were missing, and a number of the remaining pages had been defaced or damaged. Beneath the non-existent covers, however, was the first volume of A Bird Considered, printed in 1695: a previously unknown work that is an account by an Oxford student of his experiences keeping a dodo as a pet.

Or is it? The authors admit that no library catalogues have previously recorded the existence of A Bird Considered. Although they date its events with some confidence to 1683, various details in the narrative are inconsistent. The book’s imprint clams it is a product of Oxford University Press, but the Press’s archives have no trace of it. Even the author’s identity is anonymous, and the editors have not been able to identify a suitable candidate.

Once you’ve read a few pages, though, the question of whether or not the narrative is true quickly loses importance. Instead you will be falling for the charm and warmth with which the unknown student tells his story. Unspecified circumstances – unclear due to the loss of some of the book’s pages – result in him being bequeathed a captive dodo by a dying Dutchman. Inspired by the burgeoning scientific movement going on around him in Oxford, and assisted by his friends Mr Flay and Mr Sawyer, the student resolves to study the dodo’s habits.Each month he carefully records its weight, height, and diet: ‘a frog, cobnuts, apples (many), crab apple, bread (any)’. He reproduces sketches of the dodo’s features, and tries to record the dodo’s call in musical notation. He conducts controlled experiments to test the dodo’s memory and its cognitive powers.

Quickly, however, the author’s affection for the dodo grows, and so does the reader’s. Although it ‘makes a prodigeous mess about my Room’, and has a ‘payneful crye’, the student is won over by the dodo’s attachment to him: ‘he runs always to me as I am the one to feed him (and he is ever hungry)’. After the dodo is briefly stolen then retrieved after the student gives chase, it ‘was a sorry sight indeed, all a-quiver when we got him out of the sack’. Thankfully it recovers after the administration of French brandy. Sawyer then starts to keep a diary ‘supposedly written by the Bird himself; for example: Ate an Apple. Counted to one hundred. Courted a pigeon &c’. By the end of the book, the dodo’s intelligence and the bond he has developed with his master – and his master with him – are in no doubt.

Meanwhile the book also reveals incidental details about the social history of Oxford in the 1680s. The author struggles to pay his rent and clashes with his landlord (placated by the offer of the dodo’s dung for his vegetable garden). He nurses an artist friend, Mr Tompkyns, and goes to see the apothecary and a wisewoman. He goes on an unsuccessful trip to visit Elias Ashmole, and attends the visit to Oxford by the Duke of York (the future James II). He also records impressions of other Oxford figures. Particularly intriguing are a series of dreams related by Flay, which bear comparisons with the wilder prophecies and revelations that were commonplace thirty years beforehand. A close study will reveal certain parallels with other periods, too.

Interleaved with the text, which is reproduced in facsimile at 100% scale, are a series of editorial annotations. Some of these deal with the provenance and reliability of the text, but most provide glosses and context on the book’s events. Collectively these form a wonderful kind of late-seventeenth century miscellany, covering not just contemporary Oxford but a wide range of other subjects. If you didn’t know about Charles II’s ostriches, early shorthand, or Dwarf Gibson then you will after reading this book. Like all the best footnotes, many of the annotations are improved through their quiet but dry wit, particularly the comments on the book’s proofs that have unaccountably crept into the finished version.

And beyond the text and its footnotes, A Dodo at Oxford is also a modest yet sophisticated meditation about the nature of the seventeenth-century book. This is not a straightforward facsimile of a uniform text. Printed annotations mingle with scribbled notes and graffiti in the margins. Authorial voices are inconsistent: the editors’ commentary has to compete with ephemera left in the book by previous owners, a child’s crayon drawings, and a marginal game of noughts and crosses. Newspaper cuttings, fragments from other texts, pictures, printed ephemera, and even a squashed spider are pressed into the pages in the manner of a commonplace book. All this combines to create a confusing and disorientating experience, which gestures at the fact that our own concept of “the book” was not necessarily the same as that held by early modern readers.

There are also a series of detailed appendices for readers who want an explanation of the differences between twenty-first century and seventeenth century books. These explain bibliographical issues such as ligatures, page signatures, kerning, and the long S. They also tell the story of the typefaces and printer’s ornaments used in the book: a wonderful reproduction of the Fell Types commissioned by John Fell for the Oxford University Press. Reproductions of contemporary maps of Oxford are also provided to further orientate the reader.

All of which makes A Dodo at Oxford a real treat. Newcomers to seventeenth-century England will be sucked in by the picaresque charm of the student and dodo’s adventures. Those familiar with the period will enjoy reading a new, hitherto unknown voice’s account of the scientific revolution. Those who know their book history will enjoy the book’s meta-commentary on early modern books and printing. As for whether A Bird Considered is genuine, you will have to make up your own mind. But the sceptics may want to look at video footage of the actual volume:

Going Dutch

There was a devastating review by Peter Conrad of Lisa Jardine’s new book on the influence of Holland on early modern English culture in the Observer this weekend . Noel Malcolm in the Telegraph had a slightly softer critique.

However, others seem to have liked Going Dutch better. Peter Ackroyd in the Times and Keith Thomas in the Guardian are both worth a read.

Update – John Adamson has also given Jardine a glowing review in the Literary Review .

God’s Fury, England’s Fire

God’s Fury, England’s Fire. A New History of the English Civil Wars.
by Michael Braddick.
London: Penguin Books, 2008.

In the summer of 1642, the bookseller Nathaniel Butter [DNB] put on sale a quarto pamphlet about a strange fish caught at Woolwich. A relation of a terrible monster [EEBO] told the story of a fish shaped like a toad, but with the hands and chest of a man. It was five feet long, with the tail alone a foot long, with two huge fins on each side. The wife of a butcher was so terrified by it that she swooned and exclaimed: “Oh the devil in the shape of a great fish”.

What has this got to do with a history of the English civil wars? An obscure tale to us, the significance of the fish to contemporaries was easier to see. Toad-fish and other monstrous births were omens: Pliny the Elder, for example, had said that toad-fish only came ashore in exceptional circumstances. The only time known to Pliny was during the year Nero was born. The Jewish historian Josephus likewise told a story about a heifer giving birth to a lamb in Jerusalem, six months before the city was sacked by Vespasian. There were also more recent examples, such as a whale being beached at Dieppe just before Francis I was taken prisoner at the battle of Pavia. The author of the pamphlet did not mince his words about the possible significance of the toad-fish:

These unnaturall accidents though dumbe, do not withstanding speake the supernatural intentions and purposes of the Divine Powers, chiefely when they meete just at that time when distractions, jars and distempers are a foote in a Common-weale or Kingdome.1

The fish was landed at Woolwich on 15 July 1642. Three days earlier, Parliament had resolved to raise an army for the defence of the king and for the preservation of true religion. The pamphlet underlines the fact that England stood on the brink of military conflict by bundling the toad-fish story with an account of a skirmish at Hull, which was being besieged by the king’s forces. The immediate question of any reader would have been whether Pliny and Josephus were right: was the ominous creature a sign of destruction to come?

The story of the toad-fish helps to give us some of the social context as England went to war. It’s the kind of story that would never feature in a straightforwardly political or military history of the civil wars. But it’s just one of a huge range and number of sources that Michael Braddick uses to write his history of the wars, a history which shows the renewed influence of social history on the study of early modern politics. In recent decades, English seventeenth century historiography has been split between the two: revisionist historians of the politics of the civil wars moved away from Marxian analysis in a rejection of interpretations like that of Christopher Hill and Brian Manning, but in doing so arguably lost some of the wider social context to the period. By contrast, although the “new” social history of early modern England also moved away from Marxian historiography, it did so by finding inspiration in other disciplines, like anthropology and sociology. As a result, the two became for a time rather separate. God’s Fury marks a growing trend to reconnect the two strands. It firmly answers Patrick Collinson’s call in 1990 for “social history with the politics put back in, or an account of political processes which is also social”.2

Braddick’s structure is both chronological and thematic. The narrative starts with a summary of Reformation politics in the three kingdoms, and a character sketch of the Personal Rule, before proceeding through the Bishops’ Wars, the politics of the Long Parliament, the Irish rebellion, and then into the war and its key landmarks – Edgehill, Marston Moor, Naseby, the Putney debates, the trial of Charles I. So far, so traditional. But Braddick breathes new life into this structure by using each chapter as a jumping-off point for wider social or political themes.

A chapter on the Irish rebellion, for example, allows him to dwell on the construction of factional politics in print, as pamphlet and newsbook writers sought to counter each other with increasingly lurid stories. Braddick analyses some of the atrocity stories that started to circulate once news of the rising broke in London. He also carries out a close reading on a pamphlet that relates how John Pym was sent a plague-sore plaster in the post, and how he unwrapped it theatrically on the floor of the Commons. The pamphlet carried a large woodcut of Pym on the front and generally does much to impress on its readers Pym’s importance to the defence of the kingdom. The pamphlet was printed for W.B., who Braddick deduces to be the bookseller William Bowden. Bowden had published a number of tracts about Catholic plots, and was quick to stock pamphlets about the alleged atrocities carried out during the rising. Braddick hypothesises, convincingly, that Bowden was part of a network of printers and booksellers publishing rumours about the rising but also bolstering Pym’s position within the Junto. But he goes further than this, too, linking the incident in to a wider treatment of the development of the newsbook, something which would transform the political and public sphere in the 1640s and onwards. Braddick is particularly strong on the importance of print culture more generally. Joad Raymond and Jason Peacey are both thanked in the acknowledgements and the influence of their work is clear – Braddick is very good at analysing print culture as a thing in itself rather than just as a source for other themes, in other words as something that was one of the drivers of events.

Another very effective example is a section looking at astrology and prophecy. Braddick uses a foray into the works of William Lilly as a wider exploration of the importance of astrology: how astrologers took sides, how the popular market for astrology developed, and the importance of prophecy too. He explores the influence of Mother Shipton, as well as looking at the royalist George Wharton’s famously inaccurate prediction about the battle of Naseby. Braddick uses thematic passages like this extremely effectively to place the political, military and religious conflicts in a wider social context. They are interesting in themselves as self-contained summaries of the latest academic thinking on particular points – some of the footnotes are discursive essays in themselves. But they are never digressions. They serve to explain not just the course of events, but why things happened as they did: what it was about 1640s England that meant the wars turned out in a particular way.

It’s significant that Braddick starts his book with a summary of Reformation politics. Even the title immediately makes it clear that religion is going to play a central role in his narrative. The narrative that Braddick is outlines is of a religious crisis with political implications – Charles I’s mishandling of the Personal Rule may have been a trigger in the shorter term, but for Braddick the conflicts of the 1640s hark back to the crisis of the 1620s, and even before that to the unfinished business of the Elizabethan settlement. 25 years on from John Morrill’s seminal lecture to the Royal Historical Society about Britain’s wars of religion, Braddick’s account picks up and expands these themes.3 He combines this with a strong sense of popular agency and ideology in explaining why it was that those outside Westminster went to war. He is sensitive in dealing with the fact that views held in one year could mean one type of allegiance, whereas the same views held 12 months later might mean choosing an entirely different allegiance. And (drawing on John Walter and Andy Wood) he unpicks the complexities of popular allegiance exceptionally well, sketching out how local political and religious ecologies could drive allegiance in particular directions while not making it inevitable – a good example being the Derbyshire tin miners, who on paper ticked all the boxes to side with Parliament, but who supported the king in return for remission on the tithe of tin. The political turn in social history makes its influence felt here, with Braddick being careful to suggest that what might on the face of it look like economic motives to choose sides should not be dismissed as non-political.4

If I have any criticisms, one is that the book, for me, slightly fails to capture fully the military aspect to the wars. Descriptions of battles fall slightly flat, although they are certainly detailed and comprehensive. Another slight letdown is that the book does not fully engage with the arguments of John Adamson’s The Noble Revolt, although this is not Braddick’s fault: The Noble Revolt emerged as God’s Fury was going to press. But Adamson’s book is likely to change the high political narrative of the early 1640s, as well as make historians think further about the connections between the Junto and London crowds. It will be interesting to see what future works of synthesis make of Adamson’s arguments.

But this is a rich and rewarding book. I learned a lot from it, and it has made me reconsider my approach to some of the key issues in this period (for instance my views on the politics of the Personal Rule). And I suspect I will be dipping in and out of it for some months to come. It manages to combine an incredibly comprehensive synthesis of current scholarship with a pacy narrative and strong arguments. If you’ve got any interest in the period at all, it’s a must-buy.

If you’re interested in getting some other opinions about the book, there have been a number of reviews elsewhere:

  • Guardian. Keith Thomas liked the book but felt let down by Braddick’s post-modern conclusions.
  • Spectator. Robert Stewart praised it for marrying an account of high politics with a dissection of why the English people went to war.
  • FT. Diane Purkiss gave it a mixed review, criticising the book for summarising topics she would rather have seen more on, but acknowledging the book’s usefulness for undergraduates.
  • THES. R.C. Richardson disagreed with Purkiss, arguing that it was unlikely to be used as a textbook but praising the narrative and its coverage.


1. A relation of a terrible monster taken by a fisherman neere Wollage, July the 15. 1642. and is now to be seen in Kings street, Westminster (London, 1642), p. 3.

2. Patrick Collinson, De Republica Anglorum: or, History with the Politics Put Back (Cambridge, 1990), p. 14.

3. John Morrill, The Religious Context of the English Civil War, in Morrill (ed.), The Nature of the English Revolution, (London, 1993), ch. 3.

4. Andy Wood, The Politics of Social Conflict: the Peak Country, 1520-1770 (Cambridge, 1999), and Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England (Basingstoke, 2002); John Walter, Understanding Popular Violence in the English Revolution: The Colchester Plunderers (Cambridge, 1999).

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!)


  • 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.

    Cheapside cross

    There’s an interesting post from Roy Booth over at Early Modern Whale, about the vandalism of Cheapside cross during the early 1640s before its eventual pulling down in 1643. Roy’s image of the cross prompted me to go to EEBO to have a look for other images, which threw up a couple of interesting things.

    First, the woodcut Roy reproduces from a 1643 pamphlet, The Downe-fall of Dagon, or, the taking downe of Cheap-side crosse this second of May, 1643, appears to have been recycled. An identical image appears in The Dolefull lamentation of Cheap-side crosse, or, Old England sick of the staggers, from 1641. Here are the two pamphlets alongside each other.


    So if nothing else, this is an interesting example of printers recycling woodcuts.

    But funnily enough, given that I have recently been posting about John Taylor, I think there may also be a Taylor connection.

    • In January 1642, The dolefull lamentation of cheap-side crosse: or old England sick of the staggers was published. This was printed for F.C. and T.B. – in other words, it is highly likely that the undertakers for this were the same as two of the three for Taylor’s pamphlet. The pamphlet has the same Puritan middling sort stereotypes, listing the weavers, box makers and button makers who support the vandalism of the cross. It then shifts into direct speech by the cross, lamenting its fate.
    • In 1642 there also appeared The resolution of the Round-heads to pull down Cheap-side Crosse, which is sometimes attributed to Taylor (the reference to tub-preachers in it makes this plausible). This too was printed for F.C. and T.B. and is a satirical address by a roundhead, mostly covering their various hypocrisies, but ending with the ambition to level the cross.
    • In 1643 there appeared the subject of Roy’s post, The Downe-fall of Dagon, or, the taking downe of Cheap-side crosse this second of May, 1643. This was printed for Thomas Wilson, so there is no link with Taylor’s earlier printers. But the pamphlet does recycle the woodcut from The dolefull lamentation, and there are also other similarities – the similarity of the cover layout, the cross addressing the reader directly, similar themes, and both say that the cross’s full name is Jasper Cross. It’s possible of course that this is another author riffing on Taylor’s original – Taylor had fled to Windsor then Oxford in March 1643, so the text would I suppose have had to be sent back to London for publication. But even if this is the case it shows the creation of another niche genre – laments by crosses! – in the wildly creative times of the early 1640s.

    UPDATE – in response to Roy’s comment, here’s another image of vandalism from A dialogue between the crosses in Cheap, and Charing Cross in 1641 (see my comment below). A close look shows it’s a drawing of the cross from the other side (the statues at the top are reversed).