A day in the life: visiting a local archive

The majority of our manuscripts are now contained in very large collections – at the British Library, the Bodleian Library in Oxford,  the Cambridge University Library, the Portland Collection at Nottingham, the Brotherton Collection in Leeds and the manuscripts held in the John Rylands library in Manchester. These are all large collections which have over the centuries acquired sets of manuscripts from many different sources.

But today I thought it would be interesting to say a bit about what it’s like from a research point of view to visit a smaller collection. In the past year  we have visited local archives and record offices in, among others, Chester, Brighton, Woking, Stafford, Northampton, Hertford, Chelmsford, Aylesbury, Derby, Manchester, Leeds, Winchester, Taunton and Warwick as well as the National Archives (at Kew) and collections in Durham, the Society of Antiquaries in London and the Royal Society (also in London). One of the fascinating things about this project is how we are finding some examples of neo-Latin verse in almost every collection with significant material from the sixteenth or seventeenth century.

In February, for instance, I went to the Surrey History Centre in Woking. https://www.surreycc.gov.uk/heritage-culture-and-recreation/archives-and-history/surrey-history-centre

I had contacted the archivists in advance with a list of 18 items which, from our search of the Surrey Archives (http://www.surreyarchives.org.uk) looked like they either definitely did, or realistically might, contain Latin verse dating from between c. 1550 and 1700. Most catalogues don’t itemise Latin verse so there’s a lot of informed guess-work behind this kind of preparation, though experience helps: for instance, commonplace books and verse miscellanies described as being collections of English verse more often than not, in this period, have at least one Latin poem. Of the items I had requested on this occasion, four turned out to have no Latin poems at all. One, which the catalogue had suggested was Latin verse in praise of Oriel College, probably from the 18th century (so worth checking for our purposes), was in fact a college drinking song composed in the early 19th century. (By John Hughes: LINK.)

The others all had Latin verse which was ‘in scope’ for the project, dating from between around 1566 and the 1640s, though with a few complications: one volume included some Latin verse (from the 1640s) which wasn’t mentioned in the catalogue; and two other manuscripts turned out to be different portions of – originally – the same pamphlet. The cataloguer had noticed that they were in the same hand, but not that they were actually parts of the same thing. One had at some point been folded the wrong way, which made it hard to spot what had happened. Here I was able to contribute a correction to the catalogue, which now lists these two items as one: corrected catalogue entry. Many thanks to Isabel Sullivan, the archivist, for her interest in the project. Meeting professional archivists is one of the best bits about these local trips: at these smaller collections it is often possible to discuss individual items in a way that isn’t feasible in very large research libraries.

The most intriguing item I found in Woking was a strongly Catholic poem amongst the papers of one of the enforcers of the Elizabethan  settlement, William More of Loseley, who died in 1600: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_More_(died_1600)

Surrey History Centre LM/1329/374 f1r. Reproduced by permission of the More-Molyneux family and Surrey History Centre.

Surrey History Centre LM/1329/374 f2r. Reproduced by permission of the More-Molyneux family and Surrey History Centre.

The poem was catalogued as ‘anti-Calvinist’, when it is in fact much more generally anti-Protestant, urging England to cast off the darkness of the Reformation and confidently predicting the resurrection of the Catholic cause. The hand-writing looks like it belongs to the latter part of the 16th century, which fits with More’s dates. It is a striking piece – but what is it doing amongst William More’s papers? Why would an ardent Protestant have such a poem?

I took it to the archivist on duty, Michael Page, who was equally intrigued. He too thought the hand looked 16th century. With an experienced historian’s eye, he looked straight for the proper names (usually the quickest way to date or place something unfamiliar). I was able to translate two Latin adjectives meaning [of or relating to] Douai and Louvain, two centres for the education of English Catholics in the latter 17th century – the college at Douai was founded in 1561. Mike then asked me what a word repeated twice towards the end of the poem, ‘Bristone’, might mean: this is not a Latin word, and it’s not the standard Latinization for any particular place. It is therefore likely to be the Latinization of a vernacular name. A bit of internet research duly led us to Richard Bristow (1538-1581), educated at Oxford, who, increasingly convinced of the Catholic cause, abandoned a promising university career in England and left for the continent in around 1568. He went to Louvain, helped William Allen run the English college at Douai and played a major role in the Douai-Rheims translation of the Bible, before returning to England in 1581. Although records are sparse, it seems that he was arrested with Edmund Campion later that year but (probably luckily for him) died in prison before he could meet the same fate as Campion. The poem is addressed to Bristow, and concludes with strong personal praise of him; it was perhaps given to him by a fellow English Catholic when he left for England.

At this point Mike’s local knowledge was invaluable – he knew that William More was involved in the enforcement of the Elizabethan settlement, and was involved in the trial of Catholics. Indeed, the Loseley archive includes an account of the last speech and execution (on 2 Mar 1585) of William Parry, a Roman Catholic accused of plotting to murder the Queen; according to the record of proceedings in the House of Commons, More seconded a motion ‘urging that a more hideous means of executing him be devised than the usual traitor’s death’ (House of Commons, 1558-1603, ed P W Hasler; thanks to Michael Page for this reference). We have no other evidence (so far) that More was involved in Bristow’s case, but it seems probable that this – rather incriminating – poem was confiscated from Bristow on his arrest.

This is quite a satisfactory piece of detective work into what we call ‘provenance’ – where a manuscript came from and how it ended up where it is now. Though as so often such an explanation leaves some tantalising questions: such a story plausibly explains how More might have come by the poem, but not why he would have kept it. If this is how More came to acquire the poem, why did he keep this item alone? Could he have known Bristow earlier in his life? (Nothing is known about William More’s own education.) Did he feel sorry for him? Perhaps he just thought it was a strikingly effective poem. Or the opposite – a vivid example of the wrong-headedness of the Roman Catholics of whom he was an enthusiastic persecutor. The poem is anonymous, but perhaps he thought it might come in useful in a future trial.

We’ll probably never know why this particular man kept this particular poem; but we are finding many items of this sort – individual Latin poems amongst miscellaneous papers, even in collections which are not literary in general. Pieces of this kind are particularly likely to be uncatalogued, or only very minimally described, but they can be a treasure-trove of insights into what mattered to the individuals who wrote, copied, received or choose to keep them; and although we can find it hard to understand today, they testify vividly to the cultural, political and personal importance of Latin poetry in the 16th and 17th centuries.





Author: Victoria

I am an early modernist who works primarily upon the relationship between Latin and vernacular (especially but not only English) poetry between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. I am Senior Lecturer in Latin Language and Literature at King's College London.

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