Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: samuel pepys

Falling between stools: or, Samuel Pepys goes to Epsom

On a good day it takes me an hour to get from Whitehall (where I work) to Epsom (where I live). On a good day 350 years ago, it could take Samuel Pepys up to three hours to make the same journey. Despite the distance,  it was a trip that Pepys made a number of times during the period in which he wrote his diaries. Childhood memories were a significant part of what drew him there, but the pleasures to be had at Epsom’s wells and in the pleasant surroundings of the Downs were also balanced by more bodily concerns.

On 25 July 1663, for example, Pepys and his manservant Will Hewer had made plans to see a horse race on Banstead Downs. However, the race was cancelled so they decided to divert a few miles west to Epsom instead. Once there, Pepys fell to thinking about his childhood visits to Epsom and the neighbouring village of Ashtead:

While supper was getting ready I took him to walk up and down behind my cozen Pepys’s house that was, which I find comes little short of what I took it to be when I was a little boy, as things use commonly to appear greater than then when one comes to be a man and knows more, and so up and down in the closes, which I know so well methinks, and account it good fortune that I lie here that I may have opportunity to renew my old walks.

This was the house of John Pepys, a distant cousin, in the neighbouring village of Ashtead. Which house it was is not quite clear. There is a sixteenth century house in Ashtead called Pepys Cottage, but it appears to have no proven connection with the family:

If it was this cottage, or one like it, you can see the extent to which Pepys’s childhood memory about its size may have played tricks on him. By 1663, John Pepys was dead and the house had been sold to Lewis Rouse, the queen’s tailor, so Sam was forced to stay in alternative, even smaller accommodation:

Coming toward Epsom, where, when we came, we could hear of no lodging, the town so full; but which was better, I went towards Ashtead, my old place of pleasure; and there by direction of one goodman Arthur, whom we met on the way, we went to Farmer Page’s, at which direction he and I made good sport, and there we got a lodging in a little hole we could not stand upright in, but rather than go further to look we staid there.

Farmer Page was William Page and the lodgings he offered Pepys were at Park Farm House. Rebuilt in the 1730s after a fire, it is now a rather beautiful building in red brick that gives little indication of the “little hole” Pepys and Hewer settled for:

Pepys and Hewer got up the next morning and headed across Epsom Common to the town’s wells, where:

We drank each of us two pots and so walked away, it being very pleasant to see how everybody turns up his tail, here one and there another, in a bush, and the women in their quarters the like.

They then walked up to Woodcote Park, which Pepys had previously known as the seat of George Mynne but which had passed in 1663, the year of Pepys’s visit, through Mynne’s grand-daughters to Richard Evelyn. Late in the 1670s Evelyn commenced the building of a new mansion there. This was extensively remodelled in the late eighteenth century, but a description from 1712 survives that gives some idea of what is might have been like:

Encompassed with a wall at the entrance, a breast wall with pallisadoes, large courts one within the other, and a back way to the stables where there is a pretty horse pond; the house is old but low, though large run over much ground; as I drove by the side saw broad chimneys on the end and at due distance on the side on both ends the sides of a court which terminated in a building on which there is a lead with railes and barristers.

From there, they went up to Durdans, a country house owned by Lord Berkeley. A painting by Jacob Knyff of 1673 shows how extensive the house was at that point:

From there, Pepys amd Hewer went up to the woods around the Mynne estate. As so often with Pepys, however, there was an ulterior motive to wanting to revisit the woods:

And so up and down by Minnes’s wood, with great pleasure viewing my old walks, and where Mrs Hely and I did use to walk and talk, with whom I had the first sentiments of love and pleasure in woman’s company, discourse, and taking her by the hand, she being a pretty woman.

The identity of the enigmatic Mrs Hely remains unknown, so sadly the question of whether she played a seventeenth-century Anne Bancroft to Pepys’s Dustin Hoffman must remain unanswered for now. The Companion to the diaries speculates that she may have been a servant, but whoever she was she clearly left an impression on Pepys.

In August 1667, on another trip to Epsom, Pepys discovered a further benefit of country walks with female companions:

I, by leaping down the little bank, coming out of the wood, did sprain my right foot, which brought me great present pain, but presently, with walking, it went away for the present… Anon it grew dark, and as it grew dark we had the pleasure to see several glow-wormes, which was mighty pretty, but my foot begins more and more to pain me, which Mrs. Turner, by keeping her warm hand upon it, did much ease.

Walks were not just about snatched opportunities for romance, though. Earlier on his walk, Pepys had a much more picturesque encounter:

Hewer and I walked upon the Downes, where a flock of sheep was; and the most pleasant and innocent sight that ever I saw in my life — we find a shepherd and his little boy reading, far from any houses or sight of people, the Bible to him; so I made the boy read to me, which he did, with the forced tone that children do usually read, that was mighty pretty.

He also learned about how the inhabitants of Epsom protected their feet against stones:

We took notice of his woolen knit stockings of two colours mixed, and of his shoes shod with iron shoes, both at the toe and heels, and with great nails in the soles of his feet, which was mighty pretty: and, taking notice of them, “Why,” says the poor man, “the downes, you see, are full of stones, and we are faine to shoe ourselves thus; and these,” says he, “will make the stones fly till they sing before me.”

The walk ended up turning into something like a cross between One Man and His Dog and Gardener’s World:

He values his dog mightily, that would turn a sheep any way which he would have him, when he goes to fold them: told me there was about eighteen scoare sheep in his flock, and that he hath four shillings a week the year round for keeping of them: so we posted thence with mighty pleasure in the discourse we had with this poor man, and Mrs. Turner, in the common fields here, did gather one of the prettiest nosegays that ever I saw in my life.

As with his last visit, Pepys still found problems with his accommodation:

We took coach again and to the towne, to the King’s Head, where our coachman carried us, and there had an ill room for us to go into, but the best in the house that was not taken up.

There is still a pub called Ye Olde King’s Head in Epsom today, whose timber-clad building must date back to around the seventeenth century:

If this is the same place, then the house next door also has a claim to fame, as Pepys soon discovered:

Here we called for drink, and bespoke dinner; and hear that my Lord Brockhurst and Nell Gwynn are lodged at the next house, and Sir Charles Sidly with them and keep a merry house. Poor girl! I pity her; but more the loss of her at the King’s house.

Besides glow-worm lit walks, Epsom’s other attraction was its medicinal waters. Pepys derived a very particular benefit from drinking them:

We got to Epsom by eight o’clock, to the well; where much company, and there we ‘light, and I drank the water: they did not, but do go about and walk a little among the women, but I did drink four pints, and had some very good stools by it.

Pepys’s lavatorial footnote here is pretty characteristic. His obsession with the movements of his and others’ bowels is something that doesn’t really come through if you just read the condensed edition of the diaries, or particularly if you read the censored Victorian edition. Given Pepys’s eye for the ladies, it is perhaps not surprising that stories about women shitting themselves were a particular favorite:

22 June 1660. Among other things, [Mrs. Turner] told me for certain how my old Lady Middlesex beshit herself the other day in the presence of the King, and people took notice of it.

22 April 1662. [Dr Clerke], among [other] good Storys, telling us a story of the monkey that got hold of the young lady’s cunt as she went to stool to shit, and run from under her coats and got upon the table, which was ready laid for supper and dancing was done. Another about a Hectors crying “God damn you, rascal!”.

Pepys’s dreams about piss and shit are particularly surreal:

28 May 1660. This night I had a strange dream of bepissing myself, which I really did; and having kicked the clothes off, I got cold and found myself all muck-wet in the morning and had a great deal of pain in making water, which made me very melancholy.

29 June 1667. Then I dreamed that I had great pain of the stone in making water, and that once I looked upon my yard [ ie penis ] in making water at the steps before my door, and there took hold of the end of a thing and pulled it out, and it was a turd; and it came into my mind that I was in the same condition with my aunt Pepys, my uncle Roberts wife. And by and by, on the like occasion, I pulled out something and flung it on the ground — it looked like slime or snot, and presently it swelled and turned into a gray kind of Bird, and I would have taken it into my hand and it run from me to the corner of the door, going into the garden in the entry by Sir J. Mennes’s; and so I waked.

Luckily for Pepys his visits to Epsom did not coincide with any bad dreams. However, he didn’t have the most comfortable night after spraining his ankle:

I was not able to walk from the lane’s end to my house without being helped, which did trouble me, and therefore to bed presently, but, thanks be to God, found that I had not been missed, nor any business happened in my absence. So to bed, and there had a cerecloth laid to my foot and leg alone, but in great pain all night long.

As with most setbacks in Pepys’s life, though, tomorrow was a new day and by daybreak he was hobbling around getting on with things. Within a few days everything was back to normal:

So after supper we all to bed, my foot very well again, I thank God.

“The new orthodox title makes it now very handsome”

On 17 April 1663, Samuel Pepys walked over to St. Paul’s churchyard on an errand:

Friday 17 April 1663. After dinner my father and I walked into the city a little, and parted and to Paul’s Church Yard, to cause the title of my English “Mare Clausum” to be changed, and the new title, dedicated to the King, to be put to it, because I am ashamed to have the other seen dedicated to the Commonwealth.

Mare Clausum, by John Selden, was an innocent enough book, which asserted sovereign nations’ right to claim dominion over the sea as well as the land. The original edition had been dedicated to Charles I. However, the particular edition Pepys owned was more suspect. It was the 1652 translation by Marchamont Nedham, a salaried pamphleteer and newsbook editor employed by the Commonwealth during the 1650s. The title page contained the Commonwealth arms, and the second page dedicated the work ‘To the Supreme Autoritie of the Nation: The Parliament of the Commonwealth of England’.

In 1663 a new edition – keeping Nedham’s translation, but changing the title page – had been published by two booksellers called Andrew Kembe and Edward Thomas:

For readers who already owned the 1652 edition, and who didn’t want the shame of the old title page but were reluctant to shell out for a new one, there was another option. The bookseller Robert Walton was offering a new title page that could be bound or pasted into the old edition, restoring the dedication to Charles I. It was Walton who Pepys visited that Friday evening to make the appropriate arrangements.

A week later the new title page had been inserted and Pepys was well pleased with it:

Tuesday 21 April 1663. Up betimes and to my office, where first I ruled with red ink my English “Mare Clausum,” which, with the new orthodox title, makes it now very handsome.

Pepys’s focus on the title is significant. His text remained exactly the same as that which he had spent the winter of 1661/1662 enjoying reading. Only on the surface had things changed.  What mattered was the appearance of the frontispiece, not what lay beneath.

This episode sums up an important tendency in Pepys: that he liked to make a good impression on others. “Others” includes us reading his diaries in the twenty-first century. Because of the detail of the diaries – particularly their recording of the fights, farts and flings of his private life – it is easy to assume that he was uncompromisingly honest and self-critical in his account of his life. This version of Pepys as master of the examined life has remained popular since the diaries were first published. Over a hundred years ago, Robert Louis Stephenson declared in a celebrated essay about the diaries that:

He has outstripped all competitors in the art or virtue of a conscious honesty about oneself.

Robert Latham made much the same point in his introduction to the condensed edition of the diaries:

He almost persuades us that we are sharing his life. We are the more willing to be persuaded because Pepys was so frank about himself.

A few years ago Claire Tomalin came to a similar conclusion in her biography of Pepys:

He was more interested in observing and recording his own actions than in presenting an immaculate or even favourable image of himself.

But then there is the academic version of Pepys, who is rather different. Francis Barker was amongst the first to argue, in the mid-1980s, that the account Pepys gives of himself contains rather more self-fashioning than at first apparent. It’s true that his diary does present to us very uncompromising details about his life. The famous account of his wife Elizabeth catching him in flagrante with their maid, Deb, hardly spares his blushes. And yet if Pepys had been unstinting in his accuracy, the point remains that we have no way of knowing that he was. We assume that this was the case, given Pepys’s skills as a narrator in drawing us into his life. Wealso assume that he wrote for posterity – why, as many argued, would he have gone to such trouble to preserve his diaries? Perhaps so. But nobody close to him left an equivalent diary in which they recorded their own observations about Pepys’s life, with the result that it is impossible to know what he did and didn’t record – or what he softened or altered.

My suspicion is that, wittingly or unwittingly, Pepys did exercise at least some self-censorship in his diary. Pepys came of age just as the Commonwealth died. He owed his career to the ideological volte-face performed by his employer, Montagu, who had previously been a loyal supporter of Cromwell. As a result, he moved from one phase of his life to another just as the political nation did the same. Like Nedham’s translation of Mare Clausum,  on the surface Pepys jettisoned the puritanism that he had imbibed during his youth from his time at Huntingdon grammar school then Magdalene, Cambridge. Beneath the surface, however, the odd current survived.

You can see this tension working itself out in the early days of the diary, as events move towards the restoration of Charles II. Pepys was quick to criticise his fellow clerk John Creed for changing his spots:

Sunday 12 May 1661. From thence homewards, but met with Mr. Creed, with whom I went and walked in Grayes-Inn-walks, and from thence to Islington, and there eat and drank at the house my father and we were wont of old to go to; and after that walked homeward, and parted in Smithfield: and so I home, much wondering to see how things are altered with Mr. Creed, who, twelve months ago, might have been got to hang himself almost as soon as go to a drinking-house on a Sunday.

But Pepys was also changing his beliefs during this period. Early in 1660 he joined the republican Rota Club:

Tuesday 10 January 1660. Thence to the Coffee-house, where were a great confluence of gentlemen; viz. Mr. Harrington, Poultny, chairman, Gold, Dr Petty; &c., where admirable discourse till at night.

Incidentally Pepys’s membership of this club also results in one of my favorite throwaway asides of the diary:

Sunday 14 January 1660. Nothing to do at our office… went myself to the Coffee-house, and heard exceeding good argument against Mr. Harrington’s assertion, that overbalance of propriety was the foundation of government.

Those skiving from the office on slow days today probably don’t go to philosophical discussions at Starbucks, but they still share a common impulse with Pepys.

Despite this flirtation with republicanism, later in the year Pepys bumps into an old schoolfriend and is afraid that his past beliefs may catch up with him:

Thursday 1 November 1660. Here dined with us two or three more country gentle men; among the rest Mr. Christmas, my old school-fellow, with whom I had much talk. He did remember that I was a great Roundhead when I was a boy, and I was much afraid that he would have remembered the words that I said the day the King was beheaded (that, were I to preach upon him, my text should be “The memory of the wicked shall rot”); but I found afterwards that he did go away from school before that time.

Often this tension between the two sides of his character emerges in his attitudes to the changing fashions of the 1660s. Here is his initial reaction to Montagu’s wife and daughter wearing fashionable black patches, then his subsequent actions:

Saturday 20 October 1660. To my Lord’s by land, calling at several places about business, where I dined with my Lord and Lady; when he was very merry, and did talk very high how he would have a French cook, and a master of his horse, and his lady and child to wear black patches; which methought was strange.

Sunday 4 November 1660. My wife seemed very pretty to-day, it being the first time I had given her leave to wear a black patch.

Similarly he wrestles with whether or not to wear a periwig, weighing up the bother of doing so with the fact that everyone who’s anyone is doing it:

Saturday 29 August 1663. Abroad with my wife by water to Westminster, and there left her at my Lord’s lodgings, and I to Jervas the barber’s, and there was trimmed, and did deliver back a periwigg, which he brought by my desire the other day to show me, having some thoughts, though no great desire or resolution yet to wear one, and so I put it off for a while.

Saturday 31 October 1663. But it hath chiefly arisen from my layings-out in clothes for myself and wife; viz., for her about 12l., and for myself 55l., or thereabouts; having made myself a velvet cloake, two new cloth suits, black, plain both; a new shagg gowne, trimmed with gold buttons and twist, with a new hat, and, silk tops for my legs, and many other things, being resolved henceforward to go like myself. And also two perriwiggs, one whereof costs me 3l., and the other 40s. — I have worn neither yet, but will begin next week, God willing.

Friday 5 May 1665. This day, after I had suffered my owne hayre to grow long, in order to wearing it, I find the convenience of periwiggs is so great, that I have cut off all short again, and will keep to periwiggs.

Pepys always has an eye on his social betters, and even when he disapproves of their actions it is normally not long before you find him following them. In this case his about-turns are recorded quite obviously. But there are the occasional moments of self-delusion, like when he chances upon a pornographic book at the stationer’s and protests rather too loudly:

Monday 13 January 1668. Thence homeward by coach and stopped at Martin’s, my bookseller, where I saw the French book which I did think to have had for my wife to translate, called L’escholle des filles, but when I come to look in it, it is the most bawdy, lewd book that ever I saw, rather worse than Putana errante, so that I was ashamed of reading in it, and so away home.

We know, and Pepys knows, that he will go back and buy it later, and end up doing what you do with pornographic books:

Friday 7 February 1668. We sang till almost night, and drank my good store of wine; and then they parted and I to my chamber, where I did read through L’Escholle des Filles; a lewd book, but what doth me no wrong to read for imagination’s sake (but it did hazer my prick para stand all the while, and una vez to decharger); and after I had done it, I burned it, that it might not be among my books to my shame.

This is the seventeenth-century equivalent of wiping your browser history. Burning the book was partly, I’m sure, to prevent his wife discovering it. But it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to me to wonder whether it was also to hide it from his conscience. The same might be said of his lapses into jumbled Spanish, French and Latin to describe sexual encounters. Given that the diary was already written in shorthand, you have to ask why Pepys added a second later of encoding to such sentences. If someone proficient with that particular form of shorthand had discovered the diary, then perhaps it would have puzzled them for a bit. Nevertheless, I do wonder whether it was also a convenient rhetorical device to separate the lecherous Pepys from the business-like Pepys.

This may seem harsh. But I like Pepys all the more for his occasional attempts to fool himself. Many critics see Pepys as a consummate humanist, dispassionately exposing and analysing his merits and flaws to readers of the diary. If this was actually what Pepys was like, I think I would find him less sympathetic. As it is, he was intelligent, lively, enthusiastic but at times colossally flawed. In other words, he was a human being like any of the rest of us.  This, ultimately, is what makes his Diaries so readable. If he was your friend, he would probably be the kind of friend you can tolerate only in small doses: but that doesn’t make the Diaries any the less compelling a portrait of his personality.

Information technology and early modern readers


Bookshelves are not the most obvious thing that comes to mind when you think about information technology. But the word technology is actually a very appropriate description: the word “τέχνη” from which it derives means craft or art, which is apt given the skills that go into producing shelves. For early modern readers, and even readers today, bookshelves were and are one of the most important methods for storing and accessing information. And bookshelves are not just passive, functional pieces of wood, metal or plastic that provide a neutral home for books to sit on. The other Greek word from which technology derives – “λογία” – means saying or utterance, and this expressive, constitutive aspect of technology is important to bear in mind. As with any other material aspect of a book, bookshelves mediate a reader’s experience of a text.

This was certainly the case for many early modern readers. Michel de Montaigne kept his book collection in the third storey of a tower, which allowed him unfettered views not just of his geographical domain but also his textual and intellectual domain:

My library is round in shape, squared off only for the needs of my table and chair; as it curves round it offers me at a glance every one of my books ranged on five shelves all the way along. It has three splendid and unhampered views and a circle of free space sixteen yards in diameter.

You can see a reconstruction of Montaigne’s library here. The arrangement of shelves allowed him a remarkable intellectual freedom to wander through his books:

Here I leaf through now one book, now another, without order and without plan, by disconnected fragments. One moment I muse, another moment I set down or dictate, walking back and forth, these fancies of mine that you see here.

Sir Robert Cotton’s library helped to order his reading in a different way. At some point between 1620 and his death in 1631, Cotton arranged his extensive collection of rare manuscripts into fourteen cabinets, each mounted by a bust of a famous classical figure such as Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Caligula or Nero. Kevin Sharpe’s reconstruction of how this might have looked can be seen here.

Unlike other collections, this meant his library was not organised by subject. Nero, for example, contains the Lindisfarne gospels alongside collections of royal diplomatic correspondence. Julius contains Ælfric’s Lives of Saints alongside a copy of the charges brought against Cardinal Wolsey.

Cotton allowed liberal borrowing from his library by friends and colleagues, making it both a private and semi-public collection. But only Cotton and his libarian would have had the knowledge to find books quickly. As Kevin Sharpe has put it:

Cotton and his books went together and contemporaries had to know Cotton before they knew much about the contents of his manuscripts.

For Cotton, then, bookshelves were a way of organising other readers’ experience of his books, as well as his own.

Samuel Pepys was another seventeenth-century reader whose bookshelves helped to mediate his reading. In the 1660s Pepys drew on his contacts as a naval administrator to procure the services of Thomas Simpson, a joiner at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Woolwich. Simpson was first employed to build a closet for clothes, but in 1666 Pepys commissioned him to build a set of bookcases for his growing collection of books. Practical considerations seem to be what first motivated his decision to build the shelves:

23 July 1666. Up, and to my chamber doing several things there of moment, and then comes Sympson, the Joyner; and he and I with great pains contriving presses to put my books up in: they now growing numerous, and lying one upon another on my chairs, I lose the use to avoyde the trouble of removing them, when I would open a book.

The need to manage growing amounts of information, or otherwise risk overload, seems to have been a common impulse for readers with the money to afford book collections. Later, during his retirement, Pepys devoted considerable time to cataloguing his library, employing Paul Lorrain and his nephew Jackman as librarians to help him.

But there were also more sensual pleasures to be had from building shelves:

10 August 1666. Thence to Sympson, the joyner, and I am mightily pleased with what I see of my presses for my books, which he is making for me.

In Pepys’s case, pleasure could be had not just from organising his collection, but from making it beautiful too:

24 August 1666. Up, and dispatched several businesses at home in the morning, and then comes Sympson to set up my other new presses for my books, and so he and I fell in to the furnishing of my new closett, and taking out the things out of my old, and I kept him with me all day, and he dined with me, and so all the afternoon till it was quite darke hanging things, that is my maps and pictures and draughts, and setting up my books, and as much as we could do, to my most extraordinary satisfaction; so that I think it will be as noble a closett as any man hath, and light enough – though, indeed, it would be better to have had a little more light.

You can make out the portraits and a map in this engraving of Pepys’s later house at Buckingham Street in 1693.

A finely decorated library was undoubtedly an important status symbol for Pepys; but the aesthetics of his library were also crucial. He took great pleasure in commissioning shelves that were intricate and beautiful, as well as practical. His bookcases were made of oak and glass-fronted, with the main section holding folio size books. The lower sections use sliding glass panels for smaller books. The Pepys Library site hosted by Magdalene College has a good selection of images: 1, 2, 3.

Books also needed to look right on the shelf. Pepys was adamant that the books should be arranged by height, even specifying in a codicil to his will that after his death:

8 thly That the placing as to heighth be strictly reviewed and where found requiring it more nicely adjusted.

Even the books themselves were turned into objects of beauty. They were expensively bound, stamped with Pepys’s crest, had bookplates in the front and endplates at the back. You can see Pepys’s bookplate here.

So what difference did bookshelves make to these three early modern readers? We shouldn’t underestimate the functional aspect of shelves. As private book collections grew, they needed to be stored somewhere. But for Montaigne, Cotton and Pepys, bookshelves also provided different experiences of reading. They allowed Montaigne to wander through his collection, whereas for Cotton they helped to close it off to others. Pepys, meanwhile, derived both pleasure and status from his bookcases.

The growth in recent years of a new history of the book has resulted in a much greater focus on the material aspect of texts, such as the paper they are printed on, the typeface they use, or the ink they are printed with, and on the ways in which early modern readers approached and constructed their reading. In Don McKenzie’s words:

A book is never simply a remarkable object. Like every other technology it is the product of human agency in complex and highly volatile contexts which a responsible scholarship must seek to recover if we are to understand better the creation and communication of meaning as the defining characteristic of human societies.

As a product of human agency themselves, bookshelves too have their place in the history of books and reading.

My illustration is from Claude du Molinet’s “Le Cabinet de la Bibliothèque de Sainte Geneviève” (Paris, 1692). AN465647001, © The Trustees of the British Museum.