Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: books

For Ada Lovelace Day: Jane Coe

Ada Lovelace Day exists to raise the profile of women working in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This post is about a woman who played a significant role in the printing trade in seventeenth-century London: Jane Coe.

As Sarah Werner has made clear – in another post for Ada Lovelace Day – women played a significant role in trades related to books and printing in early modern London. However, their role can often be obscured by the slender evidence that survives about early modern printers and booksellers. Even where evidence does survive, it has to be read carefully: like all trades of the period, printing was dominated by men, and the terms in which female printers are described by contemporaries can underplay their importance.

Jane Coe is no exception. We know a lot about what she printed. The English Short Title Catalogue lists over seventy titles printed with either “Jane Coe”, “I. Coe” or “J. Coe” on the imprint. Some of these were serials that ran over a number of years, so the actual number of books she printed must run into the tens of thousands.  In the main, these were short quartos: printed versions of letters, satirical pieces accompanied by woodcuts, news pamphlets giving accounts of battles and negotiations, and above all newsbooks. Their emphasis is overwhelmingly Parliamentarian. However, we know very little about Jane herself.

Jane’s original name may have been Jane Bowyer. On 27 December 1634, a Joane Bowyer married Andrew Coe in the church of St George the Martyr in Southwark.

Andrew was an trainee printer who was served an apprenticeship with the Stationers’ Company. He was not made free until 1638, having been bound to his master George Miller in 1630. This makes a 1634 marriage seem, on the face of it, unlikely. Under the terms of their indentures apprentices were not allowed to marry. To do would technically prevent them from qualifying for their freedom. However, there were good reasons why apprentices might break the rules. One is financial gain. It is not uncommon to find apprentices marrying well-heeled widows (sometimes the wives of their masters), presumably calculating that it would be financially worth their while or that the widow’s resources would enable them to purchase their freedom by redemption. The other is love.

If this is Jane  – and I can find no other marriage records for an Andrew Coe – then we have no way of knowing what prompted their marriage, or whether they lived together afterwards. The next time they appear in the records is in the parish registers of St Giles Cripplegate, where Andrew had set up business. We can hazard a guess about the family’s financial status by looking at the type he used, which was old and worn. He presumably did not have enough capital to buy a new set, and either inherited an old set or purchased it from another printer.

Cripplegate was a parish just outside the City walls, and with a high concentration of printers and booksellers. Grub Street, soon to become synonymous with a certain kind of printed book, is within the parish boundaries. Many of its parishioners also seem to have had puritan leanings. In 1641 there were conflicts between the parish and its high Anglican vicar and churchwarden, William Fuller and Thomas Bogh. Bogh went as far as to assault a Parliamentary messenger sent to enforce an order to remove the parish’s altar rails. So it is possible, especially given the subsequent output of their press, that Andrew and Jane’s religious leanings ran this way, although again there is no way of proving it.

In February 1640, the couple had a son, named after his father:

Jane, again, is entirely absent from this record. All that is recorded is the name of her husband and his profession. However, it’s clear that she must have had some involvement in the business. At some point around the end of June 1644, her husband died, and Jane took over the running of the press. An illustration of how difficult some historians have found it to accept that this was possible can be found in H. R. Plomer’s Dictionary of Printers for the period, which says this about Andrew’s death:

The younger Andrew was six years old at this point, and presumably in no position to run anything in relation to the business. And yet Plomer’s assumption – despite the fact that it was Jane’s name that appeared on the imprints of the press’s books after this date – seems to have been that the couple’s son must have been the real head of the operation.

After the older Andrew’s death, Jane continued to print the same kind of books that the press had already become known for. Between 1644 and 1647 she was involved in the production of several newsbooks, including Perfect Occurrences, The Moderate Messenger, and The Kingdomes Scout. In 1645 she took on an apprentice, Samuel Houghton, who came from Mowsley near Market Harborough. It was Jane whose name appeared in the Stationers’ Register for many of her titles, and Jane who presumably took the copy there for the licenser to approve.

What happened to Coe after the 1640s is not clear. At some point, the business was finally handed over to her son: his name appears on a few imprints in the 1660s, by which stage he would have been in his twenties. His name also appears at various points before that, with the formulation “Printed by J. Coe and A. Coe”. So it does seem clear that Jane’s eventual aim was to set her son up in her and her husband’s trade. By October 1664, Andrew was firmly ensconced in Cripplegate, had a wife named Hannah, and had a son (a third-generation Andrew):

Again, however, the surviving evidence about Jane is very slim. I can find no record of Jane’s death anywhere in the registers of St Giles Cripplegate or other London parishes. No wills survive for either her or her husband.

So Jane remains something of an enigma. She was clearly something of a publishing force in the world of cheap print in the 1640s, but tantalisingly little remains about who she was. I hope this post brings her achievements to a slightly wider audience.

For more on the Coes’ business, the best work is the recent article by Sarah Barber, ‘Curiosity and Reality: the context and interpretation of a seventeenth-century image’, History Workshop Journal vol.70 (2010), pp.21-46. Some of the details above I owe to this article, although others are based on my own trawls of Jane’s books and of London parish registers.

Free access to EEBO

From 22 February, readers of Early Modern Online Bibliography will have access to Early English Books Online. If you have never had a chance to use this resource than you have the next three weeks or so to try it out.

Dirty book

In 1647, the bookseller George Thomason was asked to lend a book to Charles I. Thomason wasn’t sure at first, but eventually decided to loan it to his king. Charles – not unlike a few of the people I lend my books to – didn’t look after it as well as he might have, and ended up dropping it in some mud.

Years later, in the early 1660s, Thomason took stock of his collection of almost 23,000 tracts from the civil war period and began binding them into nearly 2,000 volumes. The 100th volume – shelfmark E.95 under the British Library ordering – starts with a handwritten note by Thomason, recalling the incident:

Memorandum that Col Will Legg and Mr Arthur Treavor were imployed by his matie K. Charles to gett for his present use, a pamphlet which his matie had then occasion to make use of, and not meetinge with it they both came to me, havinge heard that I did imploy my selfe to take up all such things, from the beginning of the Parlement, and findinge it with me told me it was for the kinges owne use. I tould them all I had were at his matis command & service, and withal tould them if I should part with it, & loose it, presuming that when his matie had done with it, that little accompt would be made of it, and yet if I should loose it, by that losse a limbe of my collection, which I should be very loth to see, well knowinge it would be impossible to supplie it if it should happen to be lost, with which answer they returned to his matie at Hampton Court, (as I take it) and and tould him they had found that peece he much desired and withall how loath he that had it was to part with it he much fearing its losse; wheruppon they were both sent to me againe by his Mâtie to tell me that upon the worde of a kinge (to use their own expressions) he would safely returne it, thereuppon immediately by them I sent it to his matie who having done with it and having it with him when he was going towards the Isle of Wight (11-13 Nov. 1647) let it fall in the durt, and then callinge for the two persons before mentioned (who attended him) delivered it to them with a charge, as they should answer it another day, that they should both speedily and safely return it to him, from whom they had received it, and withall to desire the partie to goe on and continue what had begun, which booke together with his Matie signification to me by these worthy and faithfull gentln I received both speedily and safely. Which volume hath the marke of honor upon it, which noe other volume in my collection hath, and very diligently and carefully I continued the same, until the most hapie restoration & coronation of his most gratious Matie Kinge Charles the Second whom God long preserve.

Geo. Thomason.

The “marke of honor” was the mud stains which the pamphlet was left with.

There seems to be some doubt about which pamphlet Charles actually wanted to borrow. The tract which follows Thomason’s annotation is The Reasons of the Lords and Commons why they cannot agree to the Alteration and Addition in the Articles of Cessation offered by his Majesty. With His Majestie’s gratious Answer thereunto, printed onApril 4, 1643. The version on Early English Books Online doesn’t appear to have any mud stains, though – but apparently there is a different version in the British Library which does. I have come across another account which thinks it was the pamphlet at the end of the volume, A remonstrance of the right honourable Iames Earle of Castlehaven and Lord Audley, which was the one dropped. The entry on EEBO for this says that it has been “reviewed, corrected, and augmented” – perhaps implying that mud stains have been digitally removed – but doesn’t give any further information. [NB – it has subsequently been pointed out to me that this is a quote from the title page rather than a bibliographic description, and that The Reasons of the Lords and Commons was the pamphlet Thomason dropped. See this post at EEBO Interactions for more details].

However, my understanding is that Thomason only bound his volumes when he came to catalogue them in the 1660s. His note talks about lending a pamphlet, not a volume of them. So it must have been an individual tract which was dropped in the mud, not a collection of them. Logically, then, only one pamphlet in this volume should have mud stains.

My suspicion is that The Reasons of the Lords and Commons was Charles’s choice of reading. The reference to Hampton Court dates this incident to between August and November 1647, when Charles was under house arrest by the New Model at that palace. He had moved there after his failure to engage with the army’s Heads of Proposals. In September he turned down a further set of negotiations, closely based on the Newcastle Propositions of 1646. It seems plausible that Charles might have wanted to consult previous records of negotiations with Parliament, to remind himself of previous statements they had made.

(The image above is a composite made up of the two sides of paper on which Thomason wrote his annotation – the left hand side is from the verso of one page, the right hand side from the recto of another page).

Milton and licensing


I’m currently reading Randy Robertson’s extremely interesting Censorship and Conflict in Seventeenth-Century England: The Subtle Art of Division, which was published earlier this year. In one of his chapters Robertson focuses on John Milton and his attitudes to censorship. This is one of the great paradoxes of Milton’s life: particularly his decision, in 1649, to take on responsibility for pre-publication licensing for the Commonwealth of newsbooks and other publications. How could Milton, champion of freedom of the press, take up a position that was directly contradictory to the critique of pre-publication licensing that he had set out five years earlier in Areopagitica?

For some scholars, like Milton’s early biographer David Masson, and more recently others like Christopher Hill, William Riley Parker and Sabrina Baron, Milton never gave up his radical commitment, and either carried out his duties rather perfunctorily or was able to work for reform from the inside. For others, like Stephen Dobranski and Abbe Blum, Milton acted inconsistently.  This is one of those questions that scholars will probably argue about forever, because of the lack of surviving evidence. We have the Stationers’ Company records for the issues of Mercurius Politicus which Milton approved – although these don’t tell us whether content was ever altered or deleted before editions were licensed. The minutes of the Council of State record various licensing or censoring tasks which they asked Milton to carry out. And that’s about it, save for second-hand remarks by contemporaries and a later reference Milton made to the Licensing Act of 1649. Unless other evidence turns up, we will probably never know for certain what made Milton take on the role.

Robertson’s argument is that there is less conflict than many have thought between the Licensing Act which the Commonwealth introduced in September 1649, and the critique of pre-publication licensing set out in Areopagitica. There are two central planks to his argument.

First, he suggests that Milton helped soften the drafting of the 1649 Licensing Act, and was hence happy or at least grudgingly content with the end product. However, there is no direct evidence for this. The only person we can be confident was involved in actually drafting the act was John Bradshaw, because the Council of State minutes record an agreement that he should lead the work on the Bill. The Commons journal also records a committee being appointed to steer the Bill through, but we should be wary of assuming that nomination to a committee necessarily meant an MP actually sat on it or contributed to it. Behind the scenes, there’s a good chance that Bradshaw probably did talk to Milton about the Bill. They were colleagues and perhaps also relatives, who shared an interest in the book trade.  Bradshaw had acted as legal counsel to Milton earlier in the 1640s. But there is no way of telling from this circumstantial link what impact Milton may actually have had on the legislation.

Secondly, Robertson argues that the 1649 Act only introduced pre-publication censorship for newsbooks. Other books and pamphlets, he suggests, were to be pursued after publication if they had objectionable content. I think this is a misreading of the Act. It’s true that, on the face of it, the only licensing arrangements set out by the Act were to introduce three new licensers to approve newsbooks before they could be published: the clerk to Parliament, the secretary to the army, and an appointee of the Council of State. But the Act is also clear that previous licensing arrangements from the licensing ordinances of 1643 and 1647 were to remain in place, save for where the 1649 Act repealed or strengthened them:

“Be it by the authority aforesaid Enacted and Ordained, That the Laws made formerly, and at this present Parliament, now in force for punishment of devisers and spreaders of false and seditious news, lyes and rumors, by writing, printing, speaking or otherwise, shall be put in due and diligent execution, according to the tenor of the same Acts”.

“So much of the said Ordinance as specifies the imposition of Penalties upon such Offenders as are beforementioned, in respect that higher Penalties are in stead thereof herein limited and designed, shall stand from henceforth repealed, and be of no further effect”.

An Act against Unlicensed and Scandalous Books and Pamphlets, and for better regulating of Printing (1649).

For me, at least, the 1649 Act is fairly clear in reinforcing the pre-publication licensing regime that the 1643 licensing ordinance had started.

Other scholars have suggested Milton was able to radically reinterpret the 1649 Act, so as to work for reform of the system from within. Sabrina Baron draws attention to Milton’s possible involvement in licensing the Rachovian Cathecism, a work that denied the existence of the trinity. The work’s printer, William Dugard – an old acquaintance of Milton’s – shopped him to the Council of State as having licensing its publication. Milton’s role as licenser ended after this, although it is not clear whether this was due to losing his sight or because of actual links to the controversial publication. Milton did later comment in a letter to Samuel Hartlib that:

‘There are no licensers appointed by this last Act, so that everybody may enter in his book without license, providing the printer’s or author’s name be entered, that they may be forthcoming if required’.

But this is surely wishful thinking on Milton’s part: his role in licensing a range of publications for the Commonwealth must have made him aware that in practice, even if he interpreted the legislation differently, his role was to ensure controversial publications did not make it as far as the reading public. In June 1649, for example, Milton was ordered to ‘examine the papers of [the royalist newsbook] Pragmaticus”, an ad-hoc investigatory role that he played with a number of other writers or pamphlets considered scandalous by the Commonwealth.

As for me, I have a lot of sympathy with the arguments of Stephen Dobranski on this issue:

‘We can use his inconsistency to see beyond the theoretical construction of “the author” and glimpse the real person, John Milton, operating wihin his specific historical environment’.

Stephen Dobranski, Milton, Authorship and the Book Trade (Cambridge, 1999), p. 133.

Or to put it another way, Milton was a human being like the rest of us. Nobody’s political or religious ideologies are internally consistent, let alone consistent over time, so why do we expect Milton’s political ideals to have remained constant? Dobranski suggests it is because of the assumption that Milton, one of the foundation stones of the Western canon, must have possessed authorial autonomy. He quotes Foucault’s observation that the author “constitutes a principle of unity in writing” and “serves to neutralise the contradictions that are found in a series of texts”. There may be something in this: compare the adjectives Sabrina Baron uses to describe Milton and those she uses to describe his predecessor as Secretary for Foreign Tongues, George Weckherlin:

‘Milton’s was a radical interpretation of the law and a radical involvement of personal authority that a professional bureaucrat like George Weckherlin could never have made’.

Sabrina Baron,  ‘Licensing readers, licensing authorities in seventeenth-century England’, in Jennifer Andersen & Elizabeth Sauer (eds.), Books and readers in early modern England: material studies (Philadelphia, PA, 2002), p. 235.

But Weckherlin was a poet, just like Milton, in the same way that Milton was a bureaucrat, just like Weckherlin. Dobranski’s efforts to historicise Milton’s actions and ideas within their wider social and political context seems to me a more successful way of trying to unpick his motives during the heady days of the late 1640s. Dobranski suggests that Milton’s commitment to classical republicanism was what convinced him that supporting the Commonwealth supported a greater good. Possibly, too – although we cannot know it – there was an element of personal gain or even fear that lay behind Milton’s decision to accept a role as one of the Council of State’s spin doctors. There need not necessarily have been one sole reason that convinced him to take on the role. 1649 was a year, if ever there was one, when the world was turned upside down. Friendships, allegiances and entire political systems were being broken, changed and reshaped at astonishing speeds. It was left to Milton, like his contemporaries, to make sense of these changes and feel his way into a new era of government.

My image is an etching of a bust of Milton made by Jonathan Richardson Jr. in around 1730-1750; AN339250001, © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Reading early modern pamphlets

There is an interesting discussion going on over at the SHARP e-mail list about the differences between reading on paper and reading on a screen.The conclusion of most posters is that while we may not need a new word to describe reading on a screen – viewing? screening? diging? – there is nevertheless a difference between the two. Defining that difference, on the other hand, is a bit harder and is something many scholars are still thinking about.

I blogged about this a while ago, in the context of Early English Books Online (EEBO) and whether reading seventeenth-century pamphlets on screen can change how you read them. Prompted by the SHARP discussion, I’ve been doing some more thinking about this. It occurred to me that this has been an interpretative issue since before the creation of EEBO and other digital reproductions of sources. Microfilm versions of pamphlets also carry with them some of the same issues.

In the case of the Thomason Tracts, for example, a microfilm edition by University Microfilms International (UMI) has existed since 1977. This is the way that most scholars have probably read them between that time until a few years ago. Although you can print out pamphlets from both EEBO and from microfilm, both methods of access are primarily through a screen. So what are the similarities and differences between reading a pamphlet in its original format, via a microfilm reader, or through your computer monitor? And do the differences make any practical impact on how you absorb and understand the text?

My own answer is that I’m not completely sure, but I feel instinctively that there must be differences, which in turn must impact on the experience of reading. But I was worried that this instinct is more to do with the book historians I’ve been reading – for whom the importance of the reader is a pre-requisite – than anything that could be demonstrated empirically. So here are a few thoughts about how those differences might actually have a practical impact on reception.

One is colour. A bit obvious, perhaps, but microfilm often only reproduces texts in black and white. This is certainly the case with the Thomason Tracts, and in turn EEBO reproduces the microfilm edition of them so retains this monochrome reproduction. This can potentially blur the subtleties of early modern printing. Here for example are two images of the title page of John Milton’s Eikonoklastes (unfortunately I couldn’t find two versions of the same copy, although they are the same edition):

Eikonoklastes monoEikonoklastes colour

The notes page on EEBO does say that the title page is in red and black, and if you look closely you can distinguish in places where it must have been red. But it’s still very unclear. Why does this matter? One reason is in helping to distinguish between the impact of author and printer on the finished text. Was it the printer Matthew Simmons, or the author Milton, who decided to use red ink – which would have complicated the printing process significantly? Another reason is in thinking about the impact the text had on its readers. How would they have read the title page? Does it matter that the Greek letters are printed in a different colour, given that many readers would not have understood them? Does it matter that “Published by Authority” is in red, given the severe Licensing Act that the Rump Parliament had passed the month before publication had re-introduced pre-publication censorship. To answer these questions properly, you really need to look at the original edition.

Another is environment. The original Thomason Tracts have to be read in the British Library. Typically the microfilm version would also have to be read in a university library, unless you could persuade the librarian to run off copies. This imposes certain physical conditions, such as near-silence, the presence of other scholars, and the absence of other distractions. You can read EEBO at home in your dressing gown. I certainly work differently in libraries when I know I’m probably going to be there for most of the day, compared to at home where I might be snatching half an hour to have a look at something. Looking at EEBO, you also have the rest of the internet to distract you. You can imagine spotting things in one state that you might not in the other. One silly example of mine is searching late at night for something and forgetting that EEBO’s search engine doesn’t automatically include AND for strings of words. Two weeks later when I tried again at a more sensible hour I found what I was looking for. On the other hand, being able to read EEBO outside library hours does increase the time you have available to work on it. For time-limited projects like dissertations, this can make a big difference to the amount of texts you are able to read or the amount of analysis you are able to devote to a text.

A third is searchability. Apart from wider short-title catalogues, the Thomason Tracts have been catalogued at least three times: once by Thomason himself, secondly by G.K. Fortescue in a two volume edition published in 1908, and thirdly by the UMI microfilm edition. Before EEBO, you were reliant on these indexes, compiled by someone else with limited search variables, to find what you were looking for. Now you can search not just for author and title but also for subjects and keywords. Fortescue also altered Thomason’s cataloguing order and sometimes gives his own dates. In turn Thomason’s dates are more idiosyncratic than used to be thought, and don’t necessarily mean the day the pamphlet was actually published. The UMI catalogue then restored Thomason’s cataloguing. Using EEBO lets you search by Thomason’s ordering, but also by your own. Inevitably this gives you much more freedom to navigate the collection and find new things. Particularly powerful is the gradual conversion to free text that EEBO are making of early modern pamphlets. This in particular is still a greatly untapped feature when it comes to identifying links between texts, making authorial attributions, and so on. But while such freedom has its benefits – making connections that would perhaps not have been possible otherwise – it can also have its drawbacks in terms of making mistaken connections, as the story about William Lilly in the latest edition of Early Modern Literary Studies makes clear.

There is also the fact that pamphlets are three-dimensional objects made of particular materials. Again it is almost banal to point it out, but microfilm and EEBO reproduce these objects in two dimensions. Here is a title page from the royalist newsbook Mercurius Elencticus, singled out by Jason McElligott in his study of the later royalist newsbooks as an example of one printed on particularly thin paper:


You can partly deduce this from the digital version by the fact that print from the other side of the page has leached through, but you can’t get any real sense of comparison with other issues or other titles. Again, why does this matter? Partly because paper quality can tell us something about the cost of the title – how much the printer was prepared to invest in it, how much it sold for – and something about the audience – who could afford it. But in the royalist newsbooks’ case it also relates to the fact that they were produced underground in opposition to a strident Parliamentarian censorship regime, with limited access to raw materials, and printers had to make do with what they could.

Then there is the issue of resolution. All three types of media are ultimately viewed with the naked eye, but there are various ways they are mediated before we see them. Original pamphlets can be zoomed in on with a magnifying glass. Microfilm and EEBO versions can be zoomed in on mechanically or digitally. The resolution at which EEBO reproduces pamphlets could be an issue here – they can get slightly pixellated if you are looking at them at a particularly high level of zoom. On the other hand, it’s much easier to zoom on a computer than it is by hand. A ractical example of this is a pamphlet called The Perfect Politician about Oliver Cromwell, by a pseudonymous author. In his 1990 essay on Cromwell’s contemporaries, John Morrill identifies this as being by L.S.


It certainly does look like L.S. When you zoom in, though, it seems clear that it is probably by I.S and that L.S. is a misreading because of the full stop merging into the I.


The pamphlet is probably by John [Iohn] Streater, a radical and veteran of the New Model Army. Knowing this puts the pamphlet in a very different context. So the ease with which type can be examined through EEBO – despite issues with resolution – may well have an important role in bibliographic analysis of texts that have otherwise been well-examined.

These are some initial thoughts about the differences between original sources, microfilm and digital reproductions. I’m sure you’ll have more – what do you think? But in closing it occurs to me that all three have an important similarity. One thing that original pamphlet, microfilm and EEBO all have in common is a relatively static bibliographical apparatus. They all still draw on Wing’s Short-Title Catalogue  of Books Printed  in England, Scotland,  Ireland, Wales  and  British  America  and  of  English Books  Printed  in  Other  Countries  1641-1700. Some of the attributions in Wing can be dubious. The Perfect Politician is a good example of this. Here is what the information page in EEBO says:

Attributed to Henry Fletcher by Wing.
Sometimes attributed to William Raybould.

A quick look at the title page makes it obvious that Fletcher and Raybould are the booksellers, not the authors.

Perfect Politician

This misattribution is fairly easily sorted out. However there are others where it’s not so clear, or where recent scholarship has moved beyond Wing but EEBO doesn’t reference this. For me a great improvement to EEBO would be to give users the ability to set up an account with a real-life identity and let them annotate texts. You would know which scholars were working on something of interest to you; you would be able to flag where you disagreed with an attribution, giving reasons; and you could contact the person who’d made an annotation to ask them about any attributions you were unsure of. Until bibliographical catalogues go properly digital, there will remain this odd juxtaposition between digital texts and analogue descriptions.