The Materiality of Manuscripts and Early Printed Books

The author’s copy of Oliver Lawson' Dick’s Penguin edition of  Aubrey’s Brief Lives.  Image by Rachel Hammersley.

The author’s copy of Oliver Lawson' Dick’s Penguin edition of Aubrey’s Brief Lives. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Justinian Pagitt, whose 'Memorandum Book' I discussed last month, was not the only one of James Harrington's friends to refer to him in an extant manuscript. John Aubrey's Brief Lives, the original manuscript of which is held in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, has long been acknowledged as one of the most important and reliable seventeenth-century sources of information on Harrington's life. It gained popular notoriety in the second half of the twentieth century thanks to the Penguin edition by Oliver Lawson Dick, and has recently come to prominence again due to Ruth Scurr's wonderful reworking of the material into a quasi-autobiography: John Aubrey: My Own Life. I have discussed Aubrey's Brief Lives as a form of intellectual biography in a previous post.  Yet despite my familiarity with the work, I was not prepared for the impact that seeing the original manuscript for the first time would exert upon me.

The work is a manuscript in the true sense, with erasures, additions, and corrections scattered across its pages. Like Pagitt's 'Memorandum Book' it is prefaced by a list of contents to make locating specific entries easier, and most pages are structured with a wide left-hand margin where additional material could be added. Despite this, in the Harrington entry Aubrey clearly found he had allowed himself insufficient room for what he wanted to say. He ends up adjusting the size of his writing to fit the available space, squeezing tiny vertical notes into the margin, and even pasting in a small additional page of information topped by a pointing finger symbol. The text is also interspersed with illustrations. Most of these are small and crude, such as the sketches of the heraldic shields of his subjects and the drawing in the entry on Harrington of the unusually shaped table that was used during Rota Club meetings to allow the proprietor of Miles's Coffee House to deliver coffee to the participants without disturbing their discussions. Occasionally, however, more detailed images are included, such as the watercolour sketch of Verulum House in the entry on Sir Francis Bacon, which comes complete with a fancy title scroll. All of this may sound chaotic and haphazard, but it results in a manuscript that is simultaneously a provisional 'working' copy and yet a thing of beauty in its unfinished state. Unfortunately I do not have permission to include any images from the manuscript here, but some sense of it can be gained by viewing the entry on William Shakespeare which is displayed on the Folger Library's Shakespeare Documented site.

Portrait of John Aubrey by Michael Vandergucht, after William Faithorne, 1719. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D30214. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

Portrait of John Aubrey by Michael Vandergucht, after William Faithorne, 1719. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D30214. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

As with Pagitt's 'Memorandum Book', the Aubrey manuscript presents to us not just the official, public 'Aubrey' but also the private man. Of course, part of Aubrey's point in the work is to save for posterity ephemeral details about the appearance, habits, and thoughts of his subjects. Yet the work as a whole also does this for Aubrey himself. The frequent inclusion of birth diagrams, for example, remind us that this is a man who believed in astrology. And the entries reveal an author with a voracious appetite for gossip.

Some of this is, of course, evident from the published versions of the work, but there can be no doubt that much is lost in the transformation of a working manuscript into printed form. My friend Professor Phyllis Weliver of Saint Louis University demonstrates this very effectively in a YouTube video she has made in conjunction with Cambridge University Library in which she reveals the additional information that can be gleaned from the manuscript version of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem 'In Memorium', which is held in the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge.

It is not only in the transformation from manuscript to print that crucial information about a work can be lost, but also in the shift from earlier to modern print editions or - more commonly now - that from print to digital form. In my work on Harrington I have come across several examples of this phenomenon.

One of the arguments of my forthcoming book is that Harrington took very seriously not just the substantive content of his major work The Commonwealth of Oceana, but also its form, style and presentation. Yet key details of his careful presentation are not always reflected either in print editions or even digital renditions of his works. Harrington very deliberately used at least three distinct typefaces to distinguish different elements of this multilayered work. He used gothic type for the thirty constitutional articles or orders that form the core of the 'Model of the Commonwealth of Oceana' section. In doing so he set those orders apart (almost as a text within a text) thereby drawing attention to their similarity to other constitutional models of the time such as the Leveller Agreements of the People or the 'The Instrument of Government' - the constitution by which the nation was then ruled. The use specifically of gothic type can also be seen as giving them a stamp of authority, since it was most commonly used at the time for the Bible and other religious texts. By contrast, the commentary on the orders is in normal roman type, making the authorial voice that it represents the 'norm' of the work as a whole. Finally, the speeches by members of Harrington's 'Council of Legislators' generally appear either in larger or more broadly spaced roman type so that they too can be distinguished from both the orders and the authorial commentary. While these distinct typefaces would seem integral to both the structure and argument of Harrington's text, they were not accurately reproduced by John Pocock in his 1977 Cambridge edition of The Political Works of James Harrington. While the digital versions of Harrington's Oceana available via Early English Books Online fare better in this regard, the use of red type for particular elements of the title page is lost because the digitised editions are in black and white.

Frontispiece from  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington,  ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Frontispiece from The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Along with typefaces, illustrations are often lost in the transition to modern print or digital editions. Most modern editions of Harrington's works make reference to, and use of, John Toland's 1700 edition. Yet none of those editions reproduce the amazing frontispiece produced by Toland that prefaces and effectively embodies the argument of Harrington's text. While not original to Harrington's works, this image is so illuminating of them that there is a strong case for it to be viewed alongside them, yet to do so one must either find an original copy of Toland's edition or view the digital reproduction of it available via Eighteenth Century Collections Online. It is no doubt for this reason that it is only with the pioneering work of Justin Champion in the early twenty-first century that the symbolism and meaning of that image has been subjected to proper analysis.

Finally, it is important to remember that distinct copies of an original manuscript or printed text might reveal information not conveyed by them all. This might include marginal comments added by the author or a later owner of the book or manuscript; additional material added or 'tipped' into the work; or information that can be gleaned about the way it was classified, read, or used as a result of how, or with which other works, it was bound. Harrington, in his 'Epistle to the Reader' lamented that the first printed edition of Oceana was not as polished as he would have liked. The fact that the work had been dispersed between three presses for printing, among other difficulties, had resulted in multiple typographical errors, and he urged the reader to use the three pages of errata that he supplied to correct their own copy. I see this instruction to the reader as reflective of Harrington's desire to encourage active engagement with his work and the ideas it contained. It is, therefore, of significance that at least one reader appears to have taken heed of Harrington's call. In a version of the text held at the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, New Zealand, the errata have been incorporated into the text itself. In some places the error has been scratched out:

Extract from a copy of the John Streater version of James Harrington,  The Commonwealth of Oceana  (London, 1656). Reproduced courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, with particular thanks to Anthony Tedeschi.

Extract from a copy of the John Streater version of James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana (London, 1656). Reproduced courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, with particular thanks to Anthony Tedeschi.

Elsewhere a handwritten correction has been made in the margin, and in other places places a small strip of paper with the correct word printed on it has been pasted over the error: 

Extract from a copy of the John Streater version of James Harrington,  The Commonwealth of Oceana  (London, 1656), Reproduced courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, with particular thanks to Anthony Tedeschi.

Extract from a copy of the John Streater version of James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana (London, 1656), Reproduced courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, with particular thanks to Anthony Tedeschi.

This serves to remind us that books were physical objects that were engaged with in a variety of ways by their owners and readers. 

As I have discovered in my research on Harrington, engaging with original copies of both manuscripts and printed books, and paying attention not just to their content but also to their physical form and materiality, can greatly enrich our understanding of the intentions of their authors as well as of whether or not they achieved their aims.

Intellectual Biography as Memorialisation


My last two posts have focused on methods of memorialisation,  specifically funeral monuments and commemorative events. In this post I want to explore what is in some ways a more lasting method of memorialisation - the biography. A relevant example is John Aubrey’s Brief Lives which comprised accounts of almost three hundred lives, and marked an important moment in the shift towards the modern biographical model. Aubrey writes particularly eloquently on the role of the biographer. He described his main aim in Brief Lives as being to avoid 'worthy men's Names and Notions' from being 'swallowed-up in oblivion'. As his recent biographer Ruth Scurr writes: 'He had an acute sense of how quickly living memory dies, and wanted to preserve what he could on paper'. (Ruth Scurr, 'Faithful innovator', Times Literary Supplement, 18 March 2016.) Ultimately, Aubrey likened the biographer's task to that of a magician:

'So that the retriving of these forgotten Things from Oblivion in some sort resembles the Art of a Conjuror, who makes those walke and appeare that have layen in their grave many hundreds of yeares: and to represent as it were to the eie, the places, Cuystomes and Fashions, that were of old Times'. (Aubrey's Brief Lives, ed. O. Lawson Dick, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1949, p. 162)


Bringing the dead back to life might seem like a tall order for a potential biographer, but it can hardly be doubted that Aubrey succeeds in this aim. Excellent examples can be found in the life which sparked Brief Lives, that of Thomas Hobbes. In the first place, Aubrey had a wonderfully precise and idiosyncratic way of describing his subject's visual features:

'In his old age he was very bald (which claymed a veneration) yet within dore, he used to study, and sitt bare-headed, and sayd he never tooke cold in his head, but that the greatest trouble was to keepe-off the Flies from pitching on the baldnes... Face not very great; ample forehead; whiskers yellowish-redish, which naturally turned up - which is a signe of a brisque witt. Belowe he was shaved close, except a little tip under his lip...

He had a good eie, and that of a hazell colour, which was full of Life and Spirit, even to the last. When he was earnest in discourse, there shone (as it were) a bright live-coale within it. He had two kinds of lookys: when he laugh't, was witty, and in a merry humour, one could scarce see his Eies; by and by, when he was serious and positive, he opene'd his eies round.' (Aubrey's Brief Lives, pp. 313-4.)

Yet, Aubrey was equally good at describing, the more private aspects of his subjects. As, for example, in this extract on Hobbes's manner of writing Leviathan

'He sayd that he sometimes would sett his thoughts upon researching and contemplating always with this Rule that he very much and deeply considered one thing at a time... He walked much and contemplated, and he had in the head of his Staffe a pen and inke-horne, carried always a Note-book in his pocket, and as soon as a notion darted, he presently entred it into his Booke, or els he should perhaps have lost it. He had drawne the Designe of the Booke into Chapters, etc, so he knew whereabouts it would come in. Thus that booke was made.' (Aubrey's Brief Lives, p. 311).


Aubrey is perhaps the most important contemporary source for Harrington's life, and the description of his appearance is equally vivid: 'He was of a middling stature well trussed man strong, and thick, well sett, sanguine. quick-hott-fiery hazell-Eie. thick curld moyst haire' (John Aubrey, Brief Lives, ed. Kate Bennett, I, p. 322.) Aubrey also offers enlightening information on Harrington's ideas and how he came to them:

'He made severall Essayes in Poetry; viz. love-verses etc. and translated ... booke of Virgills Aeneid but his Muse was rough: and Mr Henry Nevill, an ingeniose, and well-bred Gent, a member of the House of Commons, and an excellent (but concealed) Poet, was his great familiar and Confident friend: and disswaded him from tampering in Poetrie which he did in vitá Minervâ and to improve his proper Talent, viz Politicall Reflections. Whereupon he writ his Oceana, printed London...


Now this Modell upon Rotation, was that the third part of the Senate Howse, should rote out by Ballot every yeare, so that every ninth yeare the Howse would be wholly alterd. no Magistrate to continue above 3 yeares, and all to be chosen by Ballot. then which manner of Choice, nothing can be invented more faire, and impartiall.' (John Aubrey, Brief Lives, pp. 318 and 320.)

The nature of biography and its functions is currently on my mind since not only am I in the midst of writing a book entitled James Harrington: An Intellectual Biography for Oxford University Press, but I am also hosting a workshop on Early-Modern Intellectual Biographies at Newcastle University on Tuesday 4 July.


At this workshop five other scholars will join me in discussing their recent experience of writing about a leading seventeenth-century English figure or figures. Several Newcastle colleagues with experience of working on intellectual biographies about people of other places and times will also contribute. By listening to these papers and commentaries, and discussing the issues they raise, I hope we will be able to explore some of the opportunities and challenges that this genre offers. These might include exploring appropriate ways of integrating biographical detail with analysis of the subject's thought and writings; considering the ways in which an individual life might illuminate a period more generally; and addressing the issue of how to balance a concern with enhancing the memory of a person with documenting all of the relevant facts about their life and thought.

There is also a sense in which the life of the mind can potentially continue to play a role posthumously; whereas death, literally, places a final date on the life of action. This fact is in my thoughts at present since my husband John Gurney's final article 'Gerrard Winstanley and the Left', which he was working on when he died, has just been published in Past and Present. Despite two and a half years now having elapsed since his death, John's mind now has a fresh opportunity to influence others. 

All of this also makes me wonder about my own motives for turning to the genre of intellectual biography in the aftermath of John's death. I was conscious from the start of being driven into working on Harrington because of the research that John had already undertaken, and the notes he left to me. I have commented elsewhere on how this project operated as a bridge between my old life with him and my new one without. But now I wonder also whether there is not something especially appealing to me at this time about Aubrey's idea of biography as a conjuring trick.