THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

55 posts categorized "Rare books"

02 May 2019

Sloane’s annotations

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We’ve all had the experience: you request a library book and open it up excitedly…  only to find the signs of someone else’s reading, note-taking or even eating. They got there first, and they’ve left their mark all over it. Looking at the section on notetakers in the Writing: Making Your Mark exhibition led me to think more closely about some of the different ways annotations and notetaking worked in an earlier library collection, that of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753).

The first type of annotation is that which uses the book as paper, without interacting with the text – although it is interesting to think about the way this changes the reading experience. Sloane’s title-page of Sir Robert Dallington’s The View of Fraunce, for example, shows two boys vying for ownership and testing out pens:

Sloane 1596.f.28 Sir Robert Dallington, The View of Fraunce Noc

Most books which contain this sort of annotation probably ended up in Sloane’s collection as the result of the secondhand book market: these copies may have been the only ones available… or the cheapest! Either way, although other people’s scrawlings clearly didn’t bother him, we assume things like this probably didn’t hold much interest for him either.

However, there is evidence that Sloane was sometimes interested in annotations as much as the printed text which they commented upon. For example, he owned at least eight copies of John Ray’s Catalogus plantarum, all of which are annotated by different people. This often gives local information: people wrote down where they came across the plants, so when the book came into Sloane’s possession, he had that knowledge too.

Sloane 2968.f.3 Manuscript note reading ‘at the Haven side at Boston Lincolnshore by St Anton Irby’s House in Dolwich-Common not far from the Windmil on the left hand of it a little short of the Tyle-kill as you goe from the Town to the Wood that leads unto the Wells. plentifully.’ Noc

However, when it comes to Sloane’s own writing in books, we see something very different. This is the third type of annotation: administrative. And it challenges many of the assumptions we might make about what it means to write in books.

This sort of writing is usually about organization and ownership. Sloane had a particularly complicated system: his earliest purchases contain spy-like codes which, decoded, reveal the year of purchase and the price. He was probably recording how much he paid in case he ever had to sell these books, as the practice seems to falter as he gains financial security. Some books also have a Latin inscription, Bibliothecae Sloanianae, meaning “from Sloane’s library” – these books are usually particularly attractive or otherwise important, which makes sense as the ones you’d most like to claim!

 
Sloane 3443.a.5. Icones stirpium, seu Plantarum tam exoticarum quam indigenarum Noc

The main identification for us, however, is the Sloane numbers – a letter followed by a number usually written on the flyleaf of the book. The one here is ‘Pr DXLV’. These were a form of shelfmark, just like the ones used by the British Library today.

These codes were recorded in the catalogues compiled by Sloane and his librarians and help nuance the idea of writing as an administrative tool. It is tempting to think of marking books as something personal. When you write your name in a book it is usually to tell people you own it. It would defeat the purpose if someone else was to do that job – unless, of course, they were giving it to you! (This is sometimes the case for Sloane’s books, too.)

Here, though, it doesn’t matter who is writing the codes: they are not a mark of personal expression. Instead, this is writing with a purpose, very different to the scribbled reactions of individual readers. It shows how broad the idea of annotating can be.

Alice Wickenden
Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student, Printed Heritage Collections

 

25 April 2019

Crusoe embossed

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Robinson Crusoe was published 300 years ago on 25 April 1719.  Daniel Defoe’s account of a shipwrecked English sailor cast away on an uninhabited tropical island for 28 years has universal appeal because it is so believable.  Defoe effectively put into print the archetypal shipwreck yarn spun by many an old mariner.  It capitalised on the popularity of travel books and many readers did not realise it was fiction. 

Part of the enduring success of Robinson Crusoe is the impact it makes on a reader’s imagination - the mind is stirred by adventure in exotic far-off places.  Illustrations have played an important role in the presentation and reception of Crusoe, whether cheap quickly executed woodcuts in chapbooks and penny novels, or coloured plates in fine bindings.  The primary topic has been the portraiture of Crusoe – John Pine’s frontispiece for the first edition sets a consistent tone.  Crusoe, the resourceful, stands with his guns looking determinedly at the prospect of surviving alone on the island, the lost ship in the background.  Supporting illustrations frequently emphasise pivotal points in the story such as the shipwreck, the discovery of the footprint and Friday’s rescue.

Crusoe 1Portraits of Robinson Crusoe. John Pine’s first edition frontispiece (C.30.f.6) is top left.  Later woodcuts from a variety of chapbooks can be seen to retain the composition. Noc

Crusoe 2There have also been some quite ‘unique’ portraits like this fantastic effort by Jules Fesquet and Legenisel from 1877. Noc

The proliferation of editions in the 19th century saw illustrations dominated by traditional images that are typical of colonialist assumptions and the flawed belief in white Europeans’ superiority over people and places of the wider world.  Traditional style editions routinely show Friday prostrate before his saviour, Crusoe.  In a show of submission and gratitude, Defoe tells us that Friday put Crusoe’s foot upon his head.
 

Crusoe 3Ward & Lock’s publishers’ binding (circa 1879) consciously or unconsciously amplifies the depressing fact that the first word Crusoe taught Friday was, “Master”. Noc

Crusoe 4A perfect exemplar of the colonial-style depiction of Friday’s rescue can be seen in a Maori Language edition from 1852 (freely available via Explore the British Library) – the Preface by the ‘Native Secretary’s Office’ is very revealing. Noc

Artistic capabilities are often stultified by prevalent tastes and looking at the same type of images in edition after edition of Crusoe can be tiring.  Change came with the work of artists like JB Yeats and further possibilities were pursued in the early 20th century with Expressionist art like the work of Walther Klemm.

Crusoe 5J B Yeats’ depiction of Crusoe discovering the footprint (and looking all Kirk Douglas!) Noc


Crusoe 6Lithograph by Walther Klemm in Das Leben und die ganz ungemeinen Begebenheiten des weltberühmten Engelländers Robinson Crusoe Leipzig, Verleg tbei Friedrich Dehne, 1919. (recent acquisition – awaiting shelfmark). Noc

Of course, it is all too easy for most readers to take for granted the added value and meaning to be gained from illustrations.  J R Biggs, whose wonderful wood-engravings decorate the Penguin Illustrated Classics edition of 1937, remarked that 'books without illustrations make the greatest force in the world: books with illustrations the greatest delight'.

But even though Crusoe is a particularly visual work, how might the visually impaired and blind experience such a novel?  Amongst the 600 or so printed editions of Crusoe held in the British Library, one of the most impressive items is a truly sensual edition: ‘visual’ and striking by both sight and by touch.

In the 1860s, the American Printing House for the Blind produced editions of books printed, or rather, embossed, with raised Roman Type letters.

Crusoe 7

Crusoe 8Robinson Crusoe. Presented to the American Printing House for the Blind (1873) Revolutionary for the blind.  But also aesthetically pleasing for people fortunate to be able to see the embossed type. Noc

The expansion of cheap print for mass readerships made great use of illustrations and it assisted rising levels of literacy.  The embossed type really adds a further dimension to the visual impression made by ‘printed’ words.  The invention of printing for the blind marked a new era in the history of literature.  It made the novel personally discoverable to readers unable to see traditional ink printed texts.  It is testament to the success and universal appeal of Crusoe that it was one of the very first texts selected to be printed by the APHB enabling the shipwrecked sailor’s adventure to become embossed on even more readers’ minds.

Christian Algar
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
David Blewett, The illustration of Robinson Crusoe, 1719-1920 (1995)
Lists of books published by the American Printing House for the Blind and by other American firms [1896]
Edmund C, Johnson, Tangible Typography, or how the Blind read (1853)

Visit our free display about Robinson Crusoe in the British Library Treasures Gallery - available until June 2019.

 

12 March 2019

Felix Slade and his bindings bequest

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Felix Slade (1788-1868) was a lawyer, philanthropist and collector.  Born in Lambeth, he was the youngest of four sons and yet inherited his father’s estate.  He never married, instead devoting himself to the law and to collecting antiquities, fine bindings, glass and prints.  He supported many societies and funds, such as the Nightly Shelter for the Houseless, and lent items from his collection to public exhibitions including the 1857 Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition.  He belonged to the Society of Antiquaries and is widely remembered today for endowing three Slade Professorships of Fine Art at Oxford University, Cambridge University and University College London.  At the British Library, we remember Slade for his bequest of fine bindings to the British Museum (subsequently transferred to the British Library in 1973).

Felix Slade BM 1874 0314.1A drawing of Slade by Margaret Carpenter now in the British Museum 1874,0314.1

The bequest consists of twenty-five fine bindings from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.  It contains examples of work by notable binders and includes various styles with English, French and Italian bindings well represented.  It also contains books bound for royalty, including King Charles I, Emperor Maximilian II and Henry III of France.  Here is a small selection of bindings from the bequest:
 

La Cyropedie

This binding covers a copy of La Cyropedie (Paris, 1547).  It belonged to the royal library of King Edward VI of England (1547-1553), son of Henry VIII.  The leather is 16th-century English calf, tooled in gold and painted, with Edward’s arms on each cover. A similar binding is described here, and attributed to the King Edward and Queen Mary Royal Binder.

Le Monnier

An 18th-century mosaic binding by Jean Charles Henri Le Monnier, from a well-known dynasty of Parisian bookbinders.  He signed his bindings by gold tooling his name in tiny lettering on each cover.
 

Filareto

This is a rare survival from the library of Apollonio Filareto (fl. 1537-1547) Private Secretary to the Farnese family in Renaissance Italy.  The bindings on his books bear an impresa, or personal device, of an eagle soaring above a sea containing shoals of fish.  This also has “APLLONII PHILARETI” tooled in gold on the lower cover.  Filareto’s books all have fine 16th-century Italian medallion bindings.  The only comparable bindings from this period are those bearing an Apollo and Pegasus device made for Giovanni Battista Grimaldi (c.1524-1612), a Genoese banker and book collector who operated in the same social circles as Filareto.

Padeloup le Jeune
An 18th-century gold tooled goatskin binding by Antoine Michel Padeloup le Jeune for Marie Louise Adelaide de Bourbon Penthievre (1753-1821), whose arms are stamped in gold on the inside of the covers.  Padeloup was appointed royal bookbinder to King Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour in 1733.

Maddy Smith
Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
British Museum Library’s Donations Register 1866-1871 pp. 178-9.
To see more bindings bequeathed by Slade go to the Library’s online database of bookbindings and type “Felix Slade” into the Quick Search box.

 

28 February 2019

‘Smutty stuff’ for ‘debauched readers’: The Merryland books in the Private Case

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The Private Case is an historic collection of erotica that was segregated from the main British (Museum) Library collection on grounds of obscenity from the 1850s onwards in a moral climate of suppression and censorship.  Newly acquired erotica was restricted and ‘obscene’ books already in the Library’s collections were transferred into the Private Case.  These included a small but distinct sub-genre of Georgian erotica known as the Merryland books, in which the female body is described as a country to be explored, tilled and ploughed by men.  One particular tract volume (P.C.20.b.7) has copies of the key works in this sub-genre: A New Description of Merryland (1741), The Potent Ally or Succours from Merryland (1741) and Merryland Displayed: or, Plagiarism, Ignorance and Impudence, Detected (1741).

Merryland 1A New Description of Merryland P.C.20.b.7.(1), title page

These works are full of sexual double-entendres and terrible puns intended to be as humorous that make you want to put your head in your hands.  A New Description of Merryland originally belonged to Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753); it was part of the Library’s main collection for a century before the Victorians deemed it obscene enough for transfer into the Private Case. 

 
Merryland- 2A New Description of Merryland P.C.20.b.7.(1), frontispiece


The inspiration behind Merryland was an earlier work entitled Erotopolis: The Present State of Betty-land (1684) by Charles Cotton, an English poet and writer. It satirised the New World promotional tracts flying around in the 17th century, transforming their messages about land ownership into sexualised puns.  The female body became fallow land subject to ‘manuring’ and ‘tilling’ with a phallic ‘plow’.  There are two copies of Betty-Land in the Private Case (P.C.30.b.41 and P.C.27.b.37).  In both, particularly suggestive passages have been underlined, including ‘the more will the soyl cleave and gape for moisture’, ‘rank and very hot’ and ‘the whole country of Betty-land shews you a very fair prospect, which is yet the more delightful the more naked it lies’.  Saucy, indeed.

The bookseller and publisher behind Merryland was Edmund Curll (c.1675-1747).  He was notorious for selling pirated editions, inaccurate celebrity biographies, pornography and patent medicine (he sold mercury as a cure for syphilis).  Curll made his living from selling this cheaply printed material that was affordable for the masses.  He was evidently successful;  the Merryland books, all with a false ‘Paris’ or ‘Bath’ imprint, went through several editions.  The introduction to Merryland Displayed gives us further insight into their popularity.  They were apparently ‘a master-piece of wit and humour’ and in such high demand that ‘in about three months [they] went thro’ seven editions, besides some thousands of pirated copies that were sold in town and country’.  It even encouraged other booksellers to dredge up similar ‘smutty stuff’ from their stocks to ‘scratch the callous appetites of their debauched readers’. 

The Merryland books demonstrate how attitudes towards sexuality, censorship and obscenity have changed over time, and how books have moved in and out of the Private Case as a result.  All of this, and more, can be explored by researchers in our Rare Books & Music Reading Room or online.  We have digitised the 2,500 volumes that comprise the Private Case, and they are being made available online by publisher Gale as part of their Archives of Sexuality and Gender academic research resource.  The resource is available by subscription to libraries and higher education institutions, and is available for free via the British Library’s reading rooms in London and Yorkshire.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

 

19 February 2019

The Dawes Bequest of erotica: so sensitive, it had to be smuggled in at dawn

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The Private Case is the British Library’s historic collection of erotica.  Comprising ‘obscene’ books that were historically set aside from the main collection, its contents tell us much about past attitudes towards sex and sexuality.  This is the main reason why the British Library has just completed a project to digitise the entire collection.  Within the Private Case we can see the hands of several private collectors at work, among them Charles Reginald Dawes.  But who was Mr Dawes?

Dawes bookplate&Label PC13a24C. R. Dawes’s own bookplate and the Dawes Bequest label added by the British Museum (shelfmark: P.C.13.a.24)

Bibliographers of erotica have struggled to establish the facts about Mr Dawes.  The son of an iron broker born in Worcestershire in 1879, Dawes spent most of his adult life living initially in central London and later in the Gloucestershire village of Gotherington.  The Dawes family were independently wealthy, but in the 1911 census Charles lists himself as ‘author’.  This is curious as his name is associated with just two publications.  Patrick J. Kearney raises the possibility that he may in fact have made a living from writing erotic stories under a nom de plume.

Dawes had a reputation as a discerning book collector.  At his death in 1964, his library of erotica was left to the British Museum library (now the British Library).  Peter Fryer tells us that the bequest was collected overnight and ‘carried reverently’ into the museum at six o’clock one summer morning’.  246 of these works can today be found in the Private Case.  This was not the entirety of his erotica: Dawes also left 100 ‘books of his choice’ to his personal secretary, Antony John Gordon-Hill, who sold some privately and others at Sotheby’s on 12 April 1965.  Further manuscript volumes are now lost.

The Dawes volumes in the Private Case are all in either English or French.  Many are illustrated with erotic plates, some of which have been added post-publication (as with the Livre d’Amour des Anciens, 1912). Highlights include:
• four editions of John Cleland’s mid-18th century work Fanny Hill, considered the first pornographic novel in English;
• the first edition of the Memoirs of Dolly Morton (1899), recounting the erotic adventures of a fictional Quaker woman in the American South;
• five editions of works by the Marquis de Sade (unsurprising given that the Marquis was the subject of Dawes’s own publication of 1927);
• and a 1906 edition of Teleny, one of the earliest published works of gay erotic fiction, often attributed to Oscar Wilde.

PC.13.g.32 Teleny 1906 titlepageTitlepage of Dawes’s 1906 edition of Teleny, one of the earliest published works of gay erotic fiction (shelfmark: P.C.13.g.32)

For many bibliographers, the most significant item is Dawes’s copy of My Secret Life.  This purports to record the sexual exploits of a Victorian gentleman called ‘Walter’, and is widely thought to be by another erotic bibliographer, Henry Spencer Ashbee (1834–1900). This eleven-volume first edition, probably issued 1889–95, is thought to be just one of 25 copies produced.

Private Case items are listed in the library’s online catalogue Explore the British Library.  The Dawes Bequest is shelfmarked P.C.13.a.1 to P.C.13.h.19, and volumes can be consulted in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room.  The collaboration with Gale Cengage means that they can also be viewed online via the newly-released Archives of Sexuality and Gender: Part III.  This subscription resource is available at many larger research libraries and can be accessed for free in the reading rooms of the British Library.

Adrian Edwards
Head of Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
Paul J. Cross, ‘The Private Case: a History’, in P.R. Harris (ed.), The Library of the British Museum: Retrospective Essays (London: British Library, 1991), pp.201-40.
Peter Fryer, Private Case – Public Scandal (London: Secker & Warburg, 1966).
Patrick J. Kearney, The Erotic Library of Charles Reginald  Dawes (Santa Rosa, Calif.: Scissors & Paste Bibliographies, 2016).
Patrick J. Kearney, The Private Case: an Annotated Bibliography of the Private Case Erotica Collection in the British (Museum) Library (London: Jay Landesman, 1981).

 

15 January 2019

Cats and games of forfeit

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Did you play any board or parlour games with friends or family over the festive period?  In our Cats on the Page exhibition we feature a small pamphlet entitled The Pretty, playful, tortoise-shell cat: a new game of questions and commands.

Pretty  playful  tortoise-shell catThe Pretty, playful, tortoise-shell cat: a new game of questions and commands (London, 1817) © British Library Board

Facing this title-page there is an image of a group of children sitting round the (slightly over-performing) fire with their cat - apparently about to begin playing the game.  The publisher, John Marshall, seized this opportunity to promote two more of his games, namely The Hopping, prating, chatt’ring magpie and The Frisking, barking, lady’s lap-dog which he also published in 1816-17.

 
Pretty playful catThe Pretty, playful, tortoise-shell cat (London, 1817) © British Library Board

Other titles produced around the same time include The Noble, prancing, cantering horse, also printed by Marshall, and The Pretty, young, playful, innocent lamb, printed for J. and E. Wallis.  (There were also similar games based on the rhyme The House that Jack built and derivatives such as The Barn that Tom built and The Mill that Charles built!).

Several are subtitled ‘a new [entertaining] game of questions and commands’ and essentially they are cumulative memory games with forfeits.  Generally someone is appointed Treasurer and passes a small item such as a thimble to the first player with the command “Take this”.  The first player asks “What’s this?” and the Treasurer replies with the first section of the rhyme (e.g. “The Pretty, playful, tortoise-shell cat…” ).  The first, and subsequent players, then repeat these actions until the thimble returns to the Treasurer.  It is then passed round again with the addition of the second section of the rhyme and so on until the entire, lengthy, rhyme has to be memorised and repeated by each player.  Should a player make a mistake or forget the rhyme a forfeit has to be paid to the Treasurer.  At the end of the game, another player is appointed to devise appropriate tasks for the retrieval of the forfeits – tasks might include solving a riddle, spelling a long, nonsensical word or being tickled.      

There seems to have been a brief flurry of these titles from about 1815 to around 1830.  Though Marshall was not the only publisher of such works he does seem to have made these games a speciality.  Presumably they were profitable since his widow subsequently assigned some of the titles to David Carvalho who continued to print them until around 1830. 

However their origin appears to have been earlier.  As you can see, there was a formula to the titles, which seems to have drawn on The Gaping, wide-mouthed, waddling frog.  This is believed to have been first recorded in print around 1760 in The Top book of all, for little masters and misses as ‘The play of the wide-mouth waddling frog, to amuse the mind, and exercise the memory’.  It is found again, with instructions, in Mirth without mischief around 1800 and we have a copy of the game based on the rhyme published by A.K. Newman & Co. around 1825.  A version of the verses was also illustrated by Walter Crane in the late 19th century.

Gaping wide-mouthed waddling frogThe Gaping, wide-mouthed, waddling frog (London, ca. 1825) © British Library Board

Many of the catalogue records relating to the booklets published in the early 19th century by Marshall suggest that the illustrations were by Isaac Robert Cruikshank.  We shall be looking into stories about his early life in our next post.

Alison Bailey
Lead Curator, Printed Heritage Collections 1901-2000

Further reading:
The Pretty, playful, tortoise-shell cat: a new game of questions and commands. Embellished with fourteen coloured engravings. London: Printed and sold by John Marshall, 1817. C.194.a.968.
The Top book of all, for little masters and misses. London: sold only at R. Baldwin's, and S. Crowder's, and at Benj. Collins's, Salisbury, [1760?]. Ch.760/5.(1.). Pages 15-31.
Mirth without mischief. London: printed by J. Davenport, for C. Sheppard, [1800?]. Ch.780/110. Pages [17]-33.
The Gaping, wide-mouthed, waddling frog: a new and entertaining game of questions and commands. With proper directions for playing the game and crying the forfeits. Embellished with fifteen coloured engravings. London: A.K. Newman & Co., [ca. 1825] C.194.a.842.
The Oxford dictionary of nursery rhymes. Edited by Iona and Peter Opie. New ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.  YK.1997.a.6456.
Brian Alderson and Felix de Marez Oyens, Be merry and wise: origins of children's book publishing in England, 1650-1850. London: British Library, 2006. LC.31.b.2656.

Cats on the Page exhibition supported by

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07 January 2019

Blanchard! Where are your trousers? The first crossing of the English Channel in a balloon

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On 7 January 1785 Jean-Pierre Blanchard and Dr John Jeffries took their lives in their hands and set off across the Channel in a balloon.  It’s no exaggeration to say this was a life and death moment.  French inventor Jean Francois Pilâtre de Rozier and his co-pilot proved this clearly when they crashed and were killed trying to cross the Channel in the opposite direction in June the same year.

Blanchard balloonColumn erected to mark landing place of Blanchard and Jeffries' balloon from A Narrative of the Two Aerial Voyages of Dr. J. with Mons. Blanchard

After a week of detailed preparations, and with the experience of a flight from London into Kent in the previous November, Blanchard and Jeffries prepared to set off from Dover.  With a keen eye on the winds, they first flew a kite, ‘a paper Montgolfier, and a small gaz balloon’, and then they felt sufficiently confident to launch.

During the crossing, they threw their ballast over the side to keep the balloon airborne.  By the time they were half way across, all of this was gone.  At about half past two, about three quarters of the way across, and as the French coast became clearer before them, the balloon started descending again.  This time they were obliged to throw food, fittings, and some of their equipment into the sea.  This included silk oars, constructed in the expectation that they might be able to ‘row’ through the air.  Still they did not rise.  They stripped off their jackets, and Blanchard even threw away his trousers.  Finally the balloon rose again, and onward they flew until they were over land.

The danger continued as they flew fast over dense woodland, dropping closer and closer to the trees.  Fearful that they would yet crash, they looked around for anything else they could do to lighten the load.  They threw off their life jackets made of cork, since they were no longer over the sea, but still they descended.  Finally, continuing to look for weight, Blanchard reflected: 'it almost instantly occurred to me that we could supply it from within ourselves … from the recollection that we had drunk much at breakfast, and not having had any evacuation, and from the severe cold, little or no perspiration had taken place, that probably an extra quantity had been secreted by the kidneys, that we might now avail ourselves of by discharging … we were able to obtain, I verily believe, between five and six pounds of urine; which circumstance, however trivial or ludicrous it may seem, I have reason to believe, was of real utility to us'.

Thus saved from crashing into the trees, as they slowed they were able to grab branches alongside and gradually lower themselves to the ground, at around 4.30 in the afternoon, when they were well met.  'In a short time, many persons made their way to us in the Forest, from whom we received every form of civility and assistance, particularly, in sparing from themselves clothing for us'.

Huw Rowlands
Project Manager, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further reading:
John Jeffries and Jean-Pierre Blanchard,, A Narrative of the Two Aerial Voyages of Dr. J. with Mons. Blanchard: With Meteorological Observations and Remarks. The First Voyage on the Thirtieth of November, 1784, from London into Kent: The Second, on the Seventh of January, 1785, from England into France (London, 1786) Online version

21 December 2018

Hey for Lubberland!

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Before the end of the 19th century, catching a sight of cheap ballad-sheets, broadsides, chapbooks, and almanacks is how most people in England came into contact with the printed word.

Lubberland 8A 17th-century ballad ‘An Invitation to Lubberland’. BL Shelfmark C.20.f.8.(226)

Ballads often blended strands of traditional fable, myth and lore into topical themed entertainment.  In the 17th-century ballad ‘An Invitation to Lubberland,’ a ship’s captain and crew spread news of a far-off land, an English version of the medieval legend of a Land of Plenty, known throughout Europe as ‘Cockaigne’.  This utopia of gluttony and idleness has also been known in northern Europe as Luilekkerland (‘Lazy Luscious Land’) or Schlaraffenland (‘Sluggard’s Land’).

Lubberland 1Verses from the ballad tell of ‘streets are pavd with pudding-pies,’ and ‘hot roasted pigs’ that ‘run up and down, still crying out, Come eat me’. ‘The rivers run with claret fine, the brooks with rich canary’. ‘Hot custards grows on eery tree, each ditch affords rich jellies’. BL Shelfmark C.20.f.8.(226)

The word Lubberland in part comes from the Swedish word for lazy.  ‘Lubber’ is popularly associated with the salty, derogatory language of nautical folk.  It is maritime characteristics that are found in this ballad from the English tradition.  An island status necessarily means that such an earthly paradise can only be reached by voyaging the sea.

Lubberland 2 ‘Cocagna, as we say Lubberland’ perhaps the first printed mention of the English variant of the earthly paradise in Florio’s A Worlde of Wordes, or most copious and exact Dictionarie in Italian and English. 1598. BL Shelfmark 1560/4535

Elizabethan poets frequently repeated the spirit of the classics, nostalgically longing for perfect conditions that might be found on the ‘Fortunate Islands’ or the ‘Isles of the Blessed’.  Cheap ballads, chapbooks and broadsides represent a less sophisticated and more popular literature. Lubberland appealed to many an ‘ordinary’ person faced with the all-too-often grim reality of life.

Lubberland 3 ‘The Mapp of Lubberland or the Ile of Lasye’. An English print (ca. 1670) which is a take on Pieter Breugel the Elder’s ‘Interpretation of Land of Cockaigne’ (1567) ©Trustees of the British Museum.

It’s not always possible to be precise when tracing the use, reception and meaning of particular ballads.  Many are thematically ambiguous, dubious or have multiple meaning and intent.  Of course the land where ‘rocks are all of sugar candy’ and a person is ‘paid fourteene pence a day for snorting’ and lazing around is the stuff of nonsense and make-believe but it does reflect peoples’ dreams.  The necessities of food, shelter, clothes and a pleasant environment are all satisfied in the Land of Plenty, but there are also subversive traces in Lubberland:

‘There is no law nor lawyers fees. all men are free from fury, For eery one dos what he please, without a judge or jury’.

A hankering for justice, freedom and better conditions is projected to far-off lands.

Lubberland 4William Hawkins’ play Apollo Shrouing where' fourteene pence a day' can be earned in Lubberland.  BL Shelfmark C.34.d.59

The ballad must surely be mocking such wishful thinking; a life of ease where, ‘They have no landlords rent to pay, each man is a free-holder’ must be just a tall tale – the colourful yarn of sailors!

Lubberland 5Just a bit of Lubberland fun in Poor Robin Almanack , 1720. BL Shelfmark  P.P.2465.

Lubberland is commonly depicted as a land of fools and n’er-do-wells, an unreal place, a place of ‘child’s geography’.  The term becomes employed to denigrate, ridicule or satirise political outlooks that seek to change society.  Walter Scott described Napoleon as, ‘A Grand Elector, who was to be the very model of a King of Lubberland’, and in 1784 Benjamin Franklin insisted, ‘America is a land of labour, not what the English call Lubberland’.

The Topsy-Turvydom of Lubberland seems not simply to be just a bit of fun.  Subversive emotion and impulses which carry the tradition of Cocagna can be seen in other cheap printed literature from the period, like in the tale of  Lawrence Lazy.

Lubberland 6The History of Lawrence Lazy ca. 17550.  Lawrence Lazy, put on trial in Lubberland for casting spells on tradesmen which force them into instant slumber. Lawrence is acquitted by the Jury after supplicant apprentices testify that Lawrence gained them respite from being worked to death by their masters. BL Shelfmark 1079.i.14.(16)

The British Library was pleased to host recently The London Sea Shanty Collective singing sea songs from our collections, including a reinterpretation of ‘An Invitation to Lubberland’ with the assistance of the historian and author, Oskar Cox Jensen. 

Lubberland 7The London Sea Shanty Collective singing at the British Library, Summer 2018.

There are thousands of ballads to be found in the British Library’s printed heritage collections.  A new guide is available.

Christian Algar
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
Theresa Bane, Encyclopedia of Imaginary and Mythical places (2014)
Leslie Sheppard, The History of Street Literature (1972)
The London Sea Shanty Collective @LondonShanty