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Special Collections Spotlight

Some of the most interesting finds in our Special Collections are featured below!

23 November 2017

When solemn dictates fail

Title page and frontispiece.

There is nothing, in reality, where people are so very wrong as in the education of children, though there is nothing in which they ought to be more absolutely certain of being right: If we seriously reflect upon the customary method in which children are brought up, we must almost imagine, that the generality of parents inculcate principles of religion into their offspring, for the mere satisfaction of bringing both religion and virtue into contempt; and paint the precepts of morality in the most engaging colours, to show, by their practice, how much these precepts are to be despised.

Thus begins Christmas Tales for the Amusement & Instruction of Young Ladies and Gentlemen in Winter Evenings (circa 1785) by Solomon Sobersides, the first item in a multi-text volume once owned by John Couch Adams.

 Little Tommy scolds his father. Mr Bridgeman speaks ill of nobody.

The book contains thirteen tales, and begins with one concerning a man who, having been corrupted into ingratitude by money, is sufficiently chastised by his young son, 'little Tommy', to change his ways; in the second, a man who barely talks reveals, when being exhorted to speak ill of people, that his policy is one of only speaking when he has something positive to say. So far, so vaguely Dickensian; but this book is pre-Dickens, pre-Victorian, and therefore pre-Christmas as many in the West now know it. The stories’ shift towards themes of mystical goings-on in the Middle East might feel distinctly unseasonal, then, at least until one recalls that the Christmas story that gave the season its name is concerned with precisely that sort of activity. Festive traditions pertaining to snow, ghosts and not hacking one’s thieving servant into pieces in order to make a point are relatively recent inventions.

 A dervish presents a magical wine tap. Abdalla and the dervish discuss the enchanted candlestick.

The longer tales give the impression of having been made up in the telling, and in a confused rather than an inspired fashion that leaves one wanting instruction and indeed amusement: witness that of the boy who steals in various ways from a dervish, only to be beaten up by ghosts that emerge from an enchanted candlestick, when all he wanted was for them to turn into diamonds. In comparison to the pithier fables against ingratitude and impatience, the convolution of this particular narrative is such that its moral lesson can only be taken as: don’t in the first place steal from a dervish, and if you do insist upon trying to exploit his enchanted candlestick for financial gain, make sure you hold your staff in the correct hand when you hit the ghosts. Which is not of zero real-world application, but the situation comes up only rarely. On the other hand, there is interest to be found in the extent to which the 'principles of religion' do not always take Christianity as their foundation: most strikingly, one story features a Muslim man whose faith compels him to shelter, and provide safe passage to, the Christian who has murdered his son.

 The King of Norway kills King Hacho. Two knights fail to look at an issue from each other's perspective.

Yet the tidier moral teachings can comes across as variously misjudged and lacking in nuance. Another story is set in Lapland, and follows King Hacho, who, after consuming wild honey out of necessity, becomes accustomed to delicacies and comfort rather than to war. This initially seems rather more in keeping with the peaceful and merry-making aspects of post-A Christmas Carol Christmas. But then Hacho is killed by the King of Norway and wishes as he dies that he had remained bellicose, and blames the temptations of honey for his downfall: if the reader learns a lesson about responsibilities and resolve, it is not a heartwarming one. Still, while the moral of the final story, set in China – that it is better to show kindness to one person than to have thousands of people subjected to your will – might seem comically broad and obvious, 2017 has not been a year in which humankind demonstrated its commitment to that ideal. So the book might still be worth a read.


This article was contributed by Adam Crothers, Special Collections Assistant.

3 November 2017


Many people will be attending firework displays this weekend and will be wowed by exploding rockets, whirling catherine wheels, and showers of golden and silver rain. Similar entertainment was on offer back in the seventeenth century.

 The art of gunnery by Nathaniel Nye, 1647.

In his book The Art of Gunnery published in 1647, the mathematician and Master Gunner of the City of Worcester, Nathaniel Nye, described the manufacture of gunpowder, the operation of ordnance of various sizes, and how to determine distances and trajectories for a gun attack on a city or fortification without using advanced mathematics. However, he also provided instructions for the manufacture of recreational fireworks, and even how to make soothing ointments for any resulting burns.

Creating a firework display.

Nye’s recipe for golden rain involved taking the hollow part of goose quills, filling them with a particular mix of coal-dust and gunpowder, and priming them with pistol powder. Silver rain could be achieved too, with a mixture that he also used for silver stars. ‘Fisgigs, which some call by the name of serpents’ could be constructed by using a small rolling pin to make paper tubes, filled successively with four inches of powder dust, four inches of choke dust,  and 10 ounces of the rocket composition, with a little bit of the star mix to top off. Placing these tubes starry-end down upon the head of a rocket, with powder to blow them out, gave the effect of a shower of many stars. Please don’t try this at home!

Making fireworks.

In the event of burnt fingers or singed eyebrows, Nye had several recipes for unguents that would ease the pain. His mixture using hogs grease or lard took several days of preparation (and sounds utterly revolting), but a soothing ointment made from egg-white and butter was quick and easy to prepare. 

Ointments for burns.

This article was contributed by the Special Collections Librarian.

16 August 2017

The Psalter of Simon de Montacute (MS D.30)

Books of psalms were very common devotional texts during the middle ages, and the Library’s manuscript collection contains a number of notable examples. Manuscript D.30 is special in that the identity of the individual for whom it was made is probably known. The coat of arms of Simon de Montacute, who was Bishop of Ely from 1337 until his death in 1345, appears on folio 7r of the manuscript in a gloriously decorated border, incorporating hunting scenes, grotesques, and David fighting Goliath. Stylistically the manuscript is typical of the rather showy and emphatic style of the second quarter of the fourteenth century seen in East Anglian manuscripts. Its similarity to Cambridge University Charter Luard 33a*, dated 1343 and probably illuminated in Cambridge,  raises the possibility that this manuscript may too have been illuminated within the diocese, right here in Cambridge. The arms of Simon de Montacute, with David fighting Goliath.

A page from the calendar.

The calendar is that of Sarum, though some Ely feasts have been added, which fits with the likely ownership of the manuscript. Feasts in gold include Etheldreda and Edmund, king and martyr. The church calendar also includes many ‘red letter days’.












Historiated initial B at the start of Psalm I, with King David playing his harp.Following the calendar, the initial B which opens Psalm I, shows David in kingly mode, playing the harp. Such historiated initials are found at the main psalm divisions. Although the manuscript as a whole dates from the same short period, it appears that some initials were left incomplete. Work on the manuscript may have halted in 1345 with the death of Simon de Montacute.  Remaining initials were then completed towardst the end of the fourteenth century.



Unusually, the illustration which accompanies the Office of the Dead shows nuns gathered around a bier, causing some to speculate that by the time the manuscript was completed, it may have been in female hands. 

Nuns perform the Office of the Dead. Initial from folio 154v.

Here be dragons.


While the history of the manuscript in the years following Montacute’s death remains a mystery, some later owners of the psalter are known. In the eighteenth century, it was owned by a Thomas Moyle of Wakefield, whose inscription appears on folio 1. It was bequeathed by him to the Reverend Henry Zouch, rector of Swillington, Yorkshire, thence to his nephew, William Lowther, first Earl of Lonsdale. It appears as lot 462 in the Lonsdale sale at Sotheby’s in 1937, when it was bought by Francis Edwards Ltd, from whom Hugh Wharton Gatty, Fellow and Librarian of St John’s bought it in 1945. It was left to the College in his will in 1948.


 This article was contributed by the Special Collections Librarian.

10 July 2017

I like a good distinction in my heart

Facsimile manuscriptTypescript

Among the books in the Upper Library is a volume of fragments (Aa.5.1) from the collection of Johnian classicist Churchill Babington (1821-1889); one of those fragments, part 38 of the volume, is a facsimile page of the manuscript of Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768), accompanied by a typeset version.

Sterne (1713-1768) was an Irish writer, an Anglican clergyman and a graduate of Jesus College, best known for his experimental 1759-1767 novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (the subject of an earlier Spotlight). A Sentimental Journey accounts for the travels in Europe of Sterne’s alter ego, the Reverend Mr Yorick (a character who dies in Tristram Shandy): it is based upon Sterne’s experiences, and as the title suggests it is an exercise in sentimentalism, describing experiences not with documentary detachment but from an emotional perspective.

Several editions of A Sentimental Journey, spanning 160 years, are held in the St John's special collections: while many of the differences between them are to be found in the expected areas of pagination, typefaces and the like (none of these necessarily unimportant), there are also edition-to-edition variations that have a more obvious impact upon the reader’s perception of the novel's behaviour, and this Spotlight considers some of those.


A/G.15.22 (1768)

1768 Vol 1 title page1768 Vol 2 title page1768 subscribers

Sterne wrote two of an intended four volumes of A Sentimental Journey. The separate title pages and pagination of the two volumes contained in this binding indicate that in this first edition they were printed separately, and bound thus at a later point. The first volume contains a list of subscribers, the beginning of which is pictured here; the asterisked names were subscribers to the larger ‘imperial paper’ version.

1768 starling armsThere are two key textual moments that appear with some variation across the editions discussed in this Spotlight. The first pertains to an episode wherein Yorick, in France, gains possession of a caged starling, having been won over by its cries of ‘I can’t get out – I can’t get out!’. While Yorick is unable to free the starling from its tightly shut cage, he purchases cage and bird and brings them back to England. They subsequently pass from owner to owner and Yorick does not see them again; as a tribute, he adds the uncaged starling as a crest to his coat of arms, and presents those arms in the text. The arms are actually those of the Sterne family, and were used on the episcopal seal of Sterne’s great-grandfather, who was the Archbishop of York; the starling crest is believed to have been a play on Sterne and ‘starn’, Yorkshire dialect for the bird. Details of the illustration change across editions, but as the heraldry remains constant the variations are only slight.





1768 endingThe second is the book’s infamous mid-sentence ending. Sharing a bedroom with a reluctant lady and her maid (her fille de chambre) on several conditions, including the pinning of her bedcurtains and his promising not to make a sound all night, Yorick exclaims ‘O my God!’ when he is unable to fall asleep. The lady grows angry at him breaking his promise of silence; Yorick tries to calm her down, and extends his arm just as the fille de chambre has made her way between the two beds. ‘So that when I stretch’d out my hand, I caught hold of the fille de chambre’s’ – and there the book ends, in some editions appending a long dash (presumably to make it clear that there has been no printing error). Sterne might have intended this as a cliffhanger to set up the third volume he would not manage to write; it has also been suggested that the sentence is simply missing a full stop, but this would be rather less entertaining, especially given the possibility for bawdiness in such a falling away, or indeed in the addition, as here, of ‘End of Vol. II’, such that a reader on the lookout for such amusements might entertain the possibility of ‘the Fille de Chambre’s End’. As will be seen, other editions of the novel have taken different approaches to permitting or limiting this aspect of the narrative’s premature conclusion.


15.55.130 (1769)

1769 Vol 1 title page1769 Vol 2 title page1769 Vol 3 title page1769 Vol 4 title page

Here the book does consist of four volumes, the latter two written by John Hall-Stevenson, Sterne’s friend, under the name ‘Eugenius’ (to whom Sterne’s original is addressed). Unlike in the previous item, the four volumes are continuously paginated, with the foreword to the third switching to Roman numerals for its page numbers. Hall-Stevenson picks up a moment before Sterne’s second volume ends, insisting, unpersuasively and unpersuaded, that Yorick has caught hold merely of the fille de chambre’s hand; by concluding Sterne’s portion of the book with ‘The End of the Second Volume’, one ruder interpretation is muted, although Hall-Stevenson’s portion does delight in protesting too much.

 1769 ending1769 Vol 3 beginning

Now I think, that if we consider the occasion – notwithstanding the fille de chambre was as lively a French girl as ever moved, and scarce twenty – if we consider that she would naturally have turned her front towards her mistress by way of covering the break occasioned by the removal of the corking pins [from the bedcurtains] – it would puzzle all the geometricians that ever existed, to point out the section my arm must have formed to have caught hold of the fille de chambre’s

But we will allow them the position – Was it criminal in me? was I apprised of her being so situated? could I imagine she would come without covering? for what, alas! is a shift only upon such an occasion?


1769 starling armsThe relative sizes of page and text have notably made the insertion of the coat of arms less tidy than it might have been, leaving an awkward space on p. 90 and indeed, if one is inclined to read catchwords, causing the image to interrupt the transition from the promise of ‘And’ at the end of the verso page and its arrival on the following recto.


20.10.40 (1780)

1780 title page and frontispiece

This edition is the fifth part of a multi-volume set of Sterne’s complete works (Tristram Shandy having taken up the first four); as well as including the coat of arms, it is the earliest of the Library’s editions to include further illustration, in this case a frontispiece image depicting Yorick, in the company of a lady as he often is, exchanging snuffboxes with a monk he previously treated uncharitably.

1780 starling arms1780 ending

The conclusion restores ‘End’ sans article.


H.14.27 (1782)

1782 title page and frontispiece

‘The End’ returns in this edition, which again features a frontispiece illustration, this time referring to an episode wherein Yorick, touched by the kindness of a shopkeeper’s wife who has given him directions, contrives to feel, at length, her pulse (speculating that as she has such a good heart she ‘must have one of the best pulses of any woman in the world’). He manages not to offend her husband by doing so.

1782 starling arms1782 ending


Ga.19a.21 (1792)

1792 Vol 1 title page

While there is no frontispiece, several illustrations feature in this printing: they include the aforementioned snuffbox exchange, a man mourning his dead ass (as described in the facsimile manuscript above), the feeling of the pulse (before the husband arrives), the encouter with the caged starling, a conversation with Maria (who also appears in Tristram Shandy) and Yorick attending a dance.

1792 monk1792 dead ass1792 pulse

1792 caged starling1792 Maria1792 dance

Another ‘The End’ edition, this has left a space for the coat of arms without including the image. Those familiar with Tristram Shandy but reading A Sentimental Journey for the first time in this edition could be forgiven for taking this omission as an authorial jest.

 1792 absence of starling arms1792 ending


4.40.54 (1894)

1894 binding1894 title page and frontispiece1894 beginning

A leap of just over a century introduces this prettily bound, late Victorian edition of the novel, whose illustrations include: the Calais hotel master Monsieur Dessein; Yorick's servant La Fleur; the pulse-feeling incident; Yorick trying on gloves; Yorick walking with a girl he meets at a bookshop; a pâté-seller; and Yorick inspecting a (not the) fille de chambre's purse.

1894 Monsieur Dessein1894 La Fleur1894 pulse1894 gloves

1894 bookshop girl1894 pâté-seller1894 purse1894 ending

The numbers to the bottom right of some of the illustrations refer not to the image, or their captions, but to the fact that these pages mark the beginning of a new quire, or gathering, of eight pages.

The coat of arms is deliberately absent in this printing, and so that it is not missed by first-time or forgetful readers the word ‘thus’ following the description has been removed. And no text follows the ending's cut-off sentence: instead a picture, presumably of the fille de chambre, speaks a thousand words, or perhaps only one (and mirrors the picture of Yorick and another lady that appears just before the book's opening line: '"They order," said I, "this matter better in France."')

1894 absence of starling arms

1894 edition note

At the end of the book is a list of the prices of the various bindings of this edition, some more luxurious than others, along with an indication of other texts included in the series. The Library's copy is one of the 'cloth gilt tops' bindings; unlike the other books discussed in this Spotlight, it is not a special collections item, and is borrowable from the open-access Garden Basement in the Working Library.


Maxwell R.46 (1905)

1905 title page

This volume, number 78 of a 335-copy edition, is without additional illustrations, and has no text following its terminal dash.

1905 starling arms1905 ending

1905 edition note 


BS G3.12.2 (1928)

1928 dustjacket

1928 edition note

The Brice-Smith Collection in the Lower Library is the home of the Spotlight’s final item, number 299 of a delightfully illustrated 500-copy edition of the novel. The orange-red dustjacket replicates the title page, and notes that the six new illustrations are engravings by J.E. (Jean Émile) Laboureur.

1928 Calais1928 lady and carriage1928 pulse

1928 caged starling1928 lady on stairs1928 lady and fille de chambre

They depict Yorick’s arrival in Calais; his meeting with the lady who will shortly witness the snuffbox exchange; the pulse-checking incident; the caged starling; a meeting with a society lady, perhaps the Madame de V*** whom Yorick persuades away from deism; and the discussion with the final sequence’s lady and her fille de chambre about sleeping arrangements, which again come to an embarrassing end with a dash and a blank space.

1928 starling arms1928 ending

Also of note regarding this edition is that it gathers Sterne’s footnotes into a set of endnotes that are not pointed to in the main text: this has the effect of making the notes seem more editorial than authorial, arguably detracting from their contribution to the comedy.

 1928 endnotes



Whether further editions of A Sentimental Journey make their way into the Old Library remains to be seen; with Sterne not being a Johnian, actively acquiring them is unlikely ever to be a priority. Still, the nine items featured here give an indication of how one text can find itself in various incarnations in a single library even without there being any sentimental link (as it were) between the library and the author; it is not impossible that another version of Yorick's travels could one day join them.



This article was contributed by Adam Crothers, Special Collections Assistant, who despite having now written three of his Spotlights on bawdy subjects has never even caught hold of a fille de chambre's

12 June 2017

Alexander John Scott - Nelson's secret agent

Bust of Alexander John ScottVisitors to the Upper Library might be forgiven for not noticing that on the windowsill in the bay furthest from the river on the south side sits a bust. Those who do see it may wonder ‘Who was A.J. Scott?’.

Alexander John Scott was born in 1768 and came up to St John’s as a sizar (one of the less well-off students who undertook some duties in return for their board and tuition) in 1786. His career  at the College was somewhat chequered. Whilst a proficient classicist, he applied himself far more to his social life than mathematics, and ran up debts. Fortunately his talent for languages was recognised by the Dean, and he escaped rustication. He left St John’s with a BA in 1790, and went on to ordination, taking up a position as Chaplain on a seventy-four gun ship of the line the Berwick, a post which gave him opportunity to develop his linguistic skills, learning Italian, Spanish, and German. These abilities were soon put to good use. Appointed chaplain to Admiral Sir Hyde Parker’s flagship the St George in 1795, he became the Admiral’s secretary, translating intercepted mail and newspapers. Voyages to the Baltic in 1801 allowed him to add Russian and Danish to his portfolio.


After a spell in the West Indies, in 1803 Scott became Nelson’s  chaplain and spent the next two years on the Victory in the Mediterranean. During his time in Nelson’s service, Scott was paid £100 a year in a private capacity, apparently serving as a spy. When enemy vessels were captured, officers interrogated, and mail intercepted, Scott would be called upon as an interpreter and translator. A collection of some 450 or so letters taken by the Victory, mostly written in Spanish and dating from 1804, remained in Scott’s possession, and were later deposited in the College Library by Scott’s grandson. They had been stored in the deep pockets of the armchairs which Scott had had in his cabin aboard ship. Some of the intercepted letters

The intercepted mail is mostly private correspondence concerned with family matters, though there are some official communications with Spanish government departments. The letters are described at collection level on the Janus catalogue, but have not yet been fully catalogued to item level.  If anyone with Spanish language skills would be interested in volunteering to help catalogue these letters more fully, please get in touch with the Special Collections Librarian.


Scott was present at the Battle of Trafalgar, spending most of the battle in the cockpit amongst the wounded, a scene he later described as ‘like a butcher’s shambles’. When Nelson was brought in, suffering from the musket shot that was to prove fatal, Scott remained with him, administering what comfort he could. He accompanied the Admiral’s body back to England and sat with it while it lay in state at Greenwich.

Nelson's funeral carriage 

After Nelson’s funeral, Scott did not return to naval life. He served the remainder of his career as a clergyman on dry land, first at Southminster and then at Catterick.

The bust was given to the College in 1935 by Scott’s grandson, R.A.A. Gatty.

This article was contributed by the Special Collections Librarian. 

24 April 2017

Going to the polls

Those casting votes in the general election on 8 June this year will have a reasonable expectation that their vote is confidential, but this has not always been the case. It was not until the Ballot Act of 1872 that parliamentary and local government elections were conducted by secret ballot. Until that date, votes were cast openly, with potential for intimidation and bribery of voters. Public polls made it possible for poll books to be published, listing the electors within a constituency by name and indicating which way they cast their vote. Several such poll books survive in the Library’s collections, and they provide a fascinating insight into the politics of the day.

Poll book for Cambridge University 1807

From 1603 until 1950 Cambridge University had its own parliamentary constituency, whose electorate consisted of the graduates of the University. Before 1918, only male graduates with a PhD or MA could vote. The University was entitled to return two Members of Parliament.

The poll book featured here is from the collections of James Wood, who was Master of the College 1815-1839. Wood had a particular interest in this election, not just because it was a constituency in which he had a vote himself, but his recent former pupil, Viscount Palmerston (later to become Prime Minister), was a candidate. Having already studied at Edinburgh for three years, Palmerston entered St John’s as an undergraduate in October 1803. He spent eighteen months at Cambridge, receiving his MA three years later without examination as was the privilege of noblemen. He first stood for the University seat unsuccessfully in the by-election of 1806 following Pitt’s death.  

Palmerston as a young man







In the general election of 8 May 1807 Palmerston and Sir Vicary Gibbs were the Tory candidates, while the Earl of Euston and Lord Henry Petty stood for the Whigs. The poll book for the University constituency is organized by College, and gives a clear picture of the political preferences of each. It is no surprise to see Palmerston as the most popular candidate amongst members of his own College, particularly as St John’s tended to lean more towards a Tory position. Euston and Petty were both Trinity men, while Gibbs had been a Fellow of King’s until his marriage. 

Votes cast by St John's and Trinity

It was to be a very close contest. The electorate appears small by modern standards, though was by no means unusual for the time, members of the University Senate comprising 983 individuals, 631 of whom participated in the election, casting a total of 1211 votes in all. Euston received 324 votes, Gibbs 312, Palmerston 310 and Petty 265.

 Results of the election

The results of the election: the University returned one Whig and one Tory MP in 1807. 

Postscript:  Having so narrowly failed to secure one of the University seats, Palmerston was returned the following day for Newport on the Isle of Wight, a pocket borough whose electorate of 11 aldermen and 12 burgesses could readily be persuaded to support a recommended candidate as one of their two Members of Parliament. 

This article was contributed by the Special Collections Librarian.

10 February 2017

By the Windward Passage

Poly-Olbion title page.

Michael Drayton’s poem Poly-Olbion offers a descriptive journey through England and Wales; its first part was published in 1612, its second in 1622. The poem’s twenty-first ‘song’, one of that second edition's new pieces, makes reference to Cambridge, first in the summarising argument:

The Argument of the one and twentieth Song.'Now from New-market comes the Muse,

Whose spacious Heath, shee wistly views,

Those Ancient Ditches and surveyes,

Which our first Saxons here did raise:

To Gogmagog then turns her tale,

And shewes you Ring-tailes pleasant vale.

And to doe Cambridge all her Rites,

The Muses to her Towne invites.

And lastly, Elies praise shee sings,

An end which to this Canto brings.'


It might be missed through the large amount of syntactic inversion that the female figure throughout this argument is ‘the Muse’: Cambridge is ‘her Towne’, and she invites ‘the [other] Muses’ to join her there. While Oxford is described in the fifteenth song as also welcoming ‘all the Muses’, it is not taken as being home to any of them; and it is notable that in William Hole’s illustrations to the poem, the two are depicted rather differently.


If a value judgement is implicit in this difference, it is difficult to know which location is being favoured; it is notable that the nakedness of the lactating Cambridge figure positions her as emphatically female, as prompted by the text: ‘In womans perfect shape, still be thy Embleme right, | Whose one hand holds a Cup, the other beares a Light.’ Positive as this superficially is, one would be justified in finding something reductive here: as in the representation of Great Britain (sadly not ‘Polly Olbion’) on the title page, the ‘perfect shape’ of the woman-city or the woman-country is objectified through being mapped.

That said, Drayton and Hole’s conflation of the female body and the geographical location is inoffensive in comparison to a rather seedier item in the Library’s collections: a 1741 printing of Thomas Stretzer’s pamphlet A New Description of Merryland.

A bound collection of pamphlets.Merryland title page.

Bound with eight other items (including a verse description of Bristol and a guide to women’s ailments) in a volume bequeathed to St John's by Fellow and physician Thomas Gisborne, A New Description of Merryland is something of a sleazy cousin to Poly-Olbion or to More’s Utopia: part of an eighteenth-century pornographic niche, it is a description of the female human body as if it were a geographical and cultural landscape, with particular reference to a specific region.

A basic summary of the pamphlet might be: human beings have genitalia, and that’s hilarious. There are some decorative flourishes, as Strezter considers Merryland’s name, geology, climate, population and so forth, but the joke is what it is. If the basic premise sounds amusing, the entire text is worth a read if only as an endurance test; in all seriousness, any reader who finds the idea fundamentally distasteful might wish to stop reading this Spotlight now, before the liberal quotation begins.

This is from the introductory stages:

'Know then, courteous Reader, soon after my first Entrance into this wonderful and delightful Country (having as prying a Curiosity as most Men) I endeavoured to get the best Insight that was possible into every Thing relating to the State of Merryland […] Among other things I made very accurate Observations both of the Latitude and Longitude, and may venture to say, there could be no considerable Mistake in my Observations, as they were made with a proper Instrument, of a large Radius, and in perfect good Order; nay, I have been assured, when I was in Merryland, that my Instrument was inferior to none: but some Years later, happening to be there again, and repeating the Experiment I found both Latitude and Longitude increased many Degrees, tho’ I tried in the same Spot, and with the same Instrument as before.'

That Stretzer, about whom not much is known, published the book initially under the name Roger Pheuquewell should confirm suspicions that he was familiar with the notion and value of subtlety but unwilling to let it govern his life. Once a reader has noticed the pamphlet's conceit, the entendre barely qualifies as double:

'The Climate is generally warm, and sometimes so very hot, that Strangers inconsiderately coming into it, have suffered exceedingly; many have lost their Lives by it, some break out into Sores and Ulcers difficult to be cured; and others, if they escape with their Lives, have lost a Member. [...] There is a spacious Canal runs through the midst of this Country, from one End almost to the other; ’tis so deep that Authors affirm it has no Bottom. I have often founded it in many Parts, and tho’ I don’t doubt but it has a Bottom, I must own I never could reach it; perhaps, had my Sounding-line been a few Fathoms longer, it might have reached the Bottom.'

Tedious as this is on one level, on another one might bring oneself to admire Stretzer’s tenacity or temerity as he plays variations on his obvious theme. In discussing different facets of Merryland (whose associated place names include 'Lba', 'Cltrs' and other such scrutable inventions), he manages to acknowledge various biological and social roles performed by women's bodies by and men's relationship with same, altering his approach as his chapter headings permit or demand.

Merryland contents.

Here he is, for example, on pregnancy:

'Among the Rarities, may likewise justly be reckoned that wonderful Mountain on the Confines of Merryland, which at some Seasons begins to extend its Dimensions both in Height and Bigness, and increases its Bulk so considerably, that it is esteemed one of the most admirable Works of Nature […] There are two other pleasant little mountains, called Bby […] on the Top of each is a fine Fountain, that yields a very wholesome Liquor much esteemed […] they seldom fail to run plentifully after the Swelling of the other Mountain aforementioned, and they have in some Degree the same Faculty of rising and falling[.]’ (28-29)

On contraception and abortion:

''Tis a lamentable Thing for a Man to have a large Crop, when his Circumstances can't afford Houses to keep it in, or Thatch to cover it; to let it perish would be infamous, and what can a poor Man do? for he can't dispose of it immediately, it must be kept several Years at great Expence to him, before 'tis fit for the Market, or capable of making the least Return for his Labour and Expence. [...] This Peculiarity has put some People on inventing Means to prevent the Seed taking Root, or to destroy it before it comes to Maturity; but such Practices are only used by Stealth, and not openly approved of; it is looked on as a bad Practice, and we are told it was formerly punished with Death.'

On prostitution:

‘And for Merchandizing, the great Wealth arising from Trade in some Provinces is a plain Proof and Demonstration that Traffick is carried on in Merryland with great Success.'

On incest:

‘One remarkable Custom of the Natives is, that the moment they come into the World, they leave the particular Spot they were born in, and never after return to it, but wander about till they are 14 or 15 Years old, at which Age they generally look out for some other Spot of Merryland, and take possession of it the first Opportunity; but to enter again in that Part they were born in, is looked on as an infamous Crime, and severely punishable by Law; yet some have been hardy enough to do it.'

There is satire of sorts, just about audible over the sound of Strezter slapping himself on, one trusts, the back:

'We have had Ministers, who preferred its welfare to that of their own Country, and Bishops who would not be displeased to have a small Bishoprick in Merryland.'

Indeed, for all the supposed focus on the female anatomy, matters pertaining to the Instrument remain of predictable importance to the author, who, in this extract discussing a particular creature fond of the Merryland canal, also implies some autobiographical detail:

'They are of different sizes, from six to seven or eight Inches in Height, when full grown, and from four to six in Circumference; there are some indeed of much larger Dimensions, but very rarely to be met with; and there are others much less, but they are of little or no Value; those of a middling Size are observed to be more lively and vigorous than the larger Sort, who like the Grenadiers in a Regiment, are not able to make so long and frequent Marches as the Battallion Men, the latter being for the most part better set and nimbler, as being furnished with a greater Plenty of Spirits.'

As the pamphlet continues, the author - or 'the author', if this is Stretzer writing as Pheuquewell and building up a comic persona - becomes more opinionated:

‘Merryland may be said to be entirely under Female Government, there being an absolute Queen over each particular Province, whose Power is unlimited; no Tyrants ever having required a more servile and blind Submission than the Queens of Merryland. [...] There are numberless Instances of the vast Power of these Queens, the Conquests they have made, and the many cunning and crafty Methods they have used to obtain their Ends […] Few of these Queens but have some Favourite or prime Minister, and when they are well satisfied with his Abilities and Behaviour, they will suffer themselves to be governed in a great measure by his Advice; but alas! there are some, who, tho’ they have abundance of able Ministers, will never be ruled by any of them, are always varying and changing, turning out their greatest Favourites, for no other Reason in the World, but to shew their Power, and gratify their inconstant Tempers, admitting a new Favourite every Day, as if Variety was their greatest Delight.’

Strezter/Pheuquewell is unimpressed with how unimpressed women have been with him. This means, happily, that he can speak from experience when giving relationship advice. He has found it important, when travelling to Merryland, to bide one's time and pick one's moment:

'But if you find rough and tempestuous Weather, as sometimes happens at touching at Bby, and the Tide strong against you, it is best to lie-by, till the Storm is appeased, and a fairer Prospect offers of a prosperous Voyage; nor should you be discouraged by every little Squall which you may meet with at this Place, for generally these Squalls, tho’ they seem violent at first, soon blow over without much Damage.’

 In his view, alternative travel arrangements have little to recommend them:

‘There are people who […] incline sometimes to go about by the Windward Passage, but this I do not so well approve; in some Circumstances indeed it may be convenient but I believe it is commonly done more for sake of Variety than Conveniency.’

 And he believes that, while one should aspire to anchor well upon arrival, one must also be realistic:

‘The chief thing is, to beware of anchoring in foul Ground; for here is some much gruffer than others, and a great deal so very bad, that it will soon spoil the best of Cables; the sandy or grey Ground are not good to anchor in, the brown is best, in my Opinion: But as People cannot always have their Choice, they must be contented with such as they can get.’

Perhaps they must.

In the Cambridge portion of Poly-Olbion, Drayton has the (female) River Cam speak up for poets, and against their detractors:

'My Invective, thus quoth she, I onely ayme at you,

(Of what degree soe’r) ye wretched worldly crue,

In all your brainlesse talke, that still direct your drifts

Against the Muses sonnes, and their most sacred gifts,

That hate a Poets name, your vilenesse to advance,

For ever be you damn’d in your dull ignorance.

Slave, he whom thou dost thinke, so meane and poore to be,

Is more then halfe divine, when he is set by thee.

Nay more, I will avow, and justifie him then,

He is a god, compar’d with ordinary men.'

Drayton and the Cam hardly have in mind Strezter's brand of prose, or even such versified bawdiness as (Johnian) Thomas Nashe's The Choise of Valentines. And yet Drayton's feminising of geography arguably has the disadvantage of being less self-aware than Stretzer's version of same. Cognizance of one's failings does not excuse them. Knowing that one is writing degrading material does not eliminate the degradation. But does it lessen it? If a writer is knowingly reductive, objectifying, pornographic, is the resulting work defensible insofar as it is direct about the realities of its enterprise and of its audience's demands?

'Give me those Lines (whose touch the skilfull eare to please)

That gliding flow in state, like swelling Euphrates,

In which things naturall be, and not in falsely wrong:

The Sounds are fine and smooth, the Sense is full and strong,

Not bumbasted with words, vaine ticklish eares to feed;

But such as may content the perfect man to read.'

One might feel far from perfect when reading Stretzer's pamphlet. That the sense is 'full and strong', however, is hard to deny.

An excerpt from Merryland.

This article was contributed by Adam Crothers, Library Assistant, who would like to point out that this is only the second of his Spotlights to talk about pornography in any detail.

3 January 2017

Drinking on the job (an exercise in palaeography)

January: for many, a time to look back on the indulgences of the festive period with fondness and regret, and commit (verbally at least) to a punishing regime of exercise and abstinence. Thankfully (or unfortunately?) these days we answer only to ourselves; though our closest acquaintances might encourage us in our health-seeking endeavours, they are unlikely to stand over us and crack the whip, and we can revert to bad habits without fear of admonishment or physical interference. For Dorothy Alington’s employees life was not so easy. Consider this letter from the College Archive (D94/40), penned by Dorothy to the College physician, Pierce Brackenbury, sometime in the latter half of the seventeenth century:

As with any document, before we can appreciate its (in this case somewhat surprising) content, we first have to decipher the text. For documents produced by hand, this is an exercise in palaeography – the study of old handwriting. The following transcription of the text follows the standard convention of transcribing exactly what is written – retaining the original’s spellings and punctuation, indicating where text has been inserted or positioned above the line, placing square brackets around any text that has been added at the transcription stage (for the sake of readability, as in ‘d[r]inke’), and italicising letters that were omitted through the author’s use of standard abbreviations.


For Dr. Brackenberry

at St Johns Colledge

in Cambridge. this present


Good Dr. I would beg the favour

of you to order me a Dyat-d[r]inke,

for me to make for all my servants

to drink a draft of in the

morning. in Ale. wch may purge them

3 or 4 times in the day & not

hinder them from there imploy-

ments. I suppose you will putt

Seney & Rubard in it. but I leave

it to you to order as you thinke

fitt. but let it not be a charga-ble

one. if you pleas to order Mr Raper

to send ye Ingrediance & likewise

how it must be orderd you will

oblidge her that is most really

                Sir Your humble servant

                                Do. Alington

If it be not to[o] great a trouble to you I

should be glad to know what you have don[e]

with father Frances.


Until the latter half of the sixteenth century most documents were created by scribes, who were trained in the use of standard ‘scripts’ (styles of writing). ‘Set’ scripts, in which the individual letters are formed from separate strokes or elements and therefore appear not joined up, are generally easier to read than ‘cursive’ scripts, in which letters are formed with continuous strokes and attached in natural (improvised) ways to their neighbours. Compare, for example, the set hand known as ‘Textura quadrata’ in this late-twelfth-century psalter from the Library (MS K.30) with the ‘Secretary’ hand in this fifteenth-century receipt from the Archive (D56/179):


By the seventeenth century the use of standard scripts for fixed purposes had dropped off, and more people were writing for themselves than relying on scribes. Although handwriting starts to look more ‘modern’ or familiar in this period, it can be more difficult to decipher than older hands because there is no standard or archetype to use as a guide.

Dorothy Alington’s freestyle hand isn’t the easiest to decipher; some of her letter shapes are poorly or inconsistently formed, and she deploys a variety of abbreviations and contractions. For example, in the address panel we find this curious formulation:

When deciphering unfamiliar hands, from any period, it helps to make comparisons within the document. So, though we might not be able to tell immediately from the context what these words are, we can deduce that the first letter is a ‘t’ because it has the same form as other initial ‘t’s in the document, such as ‘them’ and ‘there’ in line 7:

and ‘to’ and ‘thinke’ in line 10:

and ‘that’ in line 15:

So the first word is ‘this’. What about the second word? An undated, typed transcript filed alongside the original document transcribes the word as ‘please’ – but, following the strokes made by the pen, it is clear that the letter forms on the page do not correspond with the letter shapes required to make ‘please’. You can see what looks like a looped ‘l’ in the second position, but if this was an ‘l’ then the letter before it could not also be a ‘p’. Here, a bit of palaeographic knowledge can help. In medieval documents, a range of special symbols were used for the letter ‘p’ to create shorthand for the frequently occurring Latin prefixes pre, par, per and pro. A loop back through the descending part of the letter indicated the omission of ‘ar’ or ‘er’, so that a word such as persons could be written ‘psons’. Likewise, a loop extending backwards from the lobe (the round part) of the letter denoted the omission of ‘ro’, and a loop extending upwards from the lobe indicated the omission of ‘re’ or ‘ri’. These examples are taken from the Bodleian Library’s online palaeography guide:


       particulers                                        persons                                  proportion                                presume

In the word we need to decipher, Dorothy seems to have created a cursive (joined up) version of example four, looping back through the lobe of the ‘p’ to indicate an abbreviation, then continuing straight on to the next letter. So the ‘p’ in our second mystery word stands for ‘pre’.

The next letter is presumably an ‘s’, similarly formed to those in ‘suppose’ (line 8), ‘Seney’ (line 9) and ‘most’ (line 15):


‘Most’ also helpfully demonstrates that the final letter of the mystery word above is another ‘t’ – similar to the one at the end of ‘servant’, which appears in the polite formula before the signature:

This example points nicely to the penultimate letter of our mystery word: ‘n’. It is more cramped than it is in ‘servant’, but the movement of the pen is essentially the same, making the second mystery word ‘present’. Either she is referring to the letter as a present (noun) ‘For Dr Brackenberry’, or she is instructing the courier to present (verb) the letter to the addressee. There’s no way of knowing!

Another common abbreviation Dorothy uses is ‘Yo’ for ‘Your’ in the line before the signature:

This dates back to medieval times, when a supralineal (i.e. written above the line) squiggle was used to indicate a missing ‘ur’ – as in these examples from the Bodleian:


       our                          discourse,

A further hangover from the medieval period is Dorothy’s use of ‘ye’ for ‘the’ in line 13:

Contrary to popular belief (and an array of charming shop signs around the country), archaic forms of English did not use ‘ye’ for ‘the'. This confusion originates with ‘thorn’ (Þ, þ), a character in the Old English, Gothic, Old Norse and modern Icelandic alphabets that indicates ‘th’ and that when handwritten loosely resembles the letter ‘y’. When printed type was introduced to England from the continent in the late-15th century, typesetters did not have access to the thorn character, as it wasn’t used in Europe, so they deployed the closest character – the ‘y’ – in its place.

Dorothy’s spelling and capitalisation are idiosyncratic (‘Brackenberry’, ‘Colledge’, ‘Dyat’, ‘imployments’, ‘Ingrediance’), though this is no indication of her intellect or ability; standardised spelling didn’t take hold in English until the nineteenth century, when dictionaries became widely available, and prior to that words were spelled phonetically and spellings varied in line with regional accents. She also deploys some specialised, or perhaps local, vocabulary to anticipate the ingredients of the wondrous diet drink. ‘Seney’ could derive from the French senevé, denoting ‘mustard seed, or Senvy seed, whereof mustard is made; also, the herb that bears it’, as defined in Johnian Randle Cotgrave’s A French and English Dictionary (London, 1673; first published 1611). Alternatively it could indicate senna, now widely known as a herbal laxative. ‘Rubard’ is presumably rhubarb. [Shakespeare fans may here recall Macbeth (V.iii.55-56): 'What Rubarb, Cyme, or what Purgative drugge/ Would scowre these English hence?' - where 'cyme' is assumed to be an error for 'cynne', denoting senna.]

We might take a moment to appreciate the evidence that this 17th-century doctor provided a personalised service to the community, answering individuals’ wacky requests at least occasionally on a pro bono basis. Brackenbury was licensed to practise medicine in 1662 and received the degree of M.D. in 1665; he was a Fellow of St John’s from 1656 until his death in 1692. The College Archive holds no further information on Dorothy Alington, nor on the fate of her unsuspecting servants. Perhaps they were revivified by their employer’s thoughtful intervention and went on to live long, industrious lives. As for Father Frances – we can only wonder at what the ‘Good Dr.’ did with him.

This article was contributed by Rebecca Watts, Library Projects Assistant.

10 October 2016

Commonplace books

Commonplace books were used from early modern times as a useful way to record information. Essentially hand-written scrapbooks, they could be filled with items of every kind: quotations, poetry, letters, summaries of sermons heard or books read, prayers and proverbs, tables of weights and measures, legal formulas, mathematical calculations, anything, in fact, that the writer wished to have recorded for future reference. In 1706, the English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke wrote a manual on how to arrange material in a commonplace book, suggesting topics by which items could be categorised, such as love, politics, and religion.

The Library has quite a few examples of commonplace books dating from the early seventeenth century onwards. Descriptions of them can be found here on the listing of post-medieval manuscripts on the Library's website. Some volumes are thematic, dealing largely with theological questions, or legal matters, or university affairs. Others are more wide-ranging and give an extraordinarily personal insight into the preoccupations of their authors. We feature a selection in this spotlight.

Extract from Alexander Bolde's commonplace book (MS S.34)

Alexander Bolde, a Fellow of Pembroke College, kept a commonplace (MS S.34) in around 1620. He recorded a selection of themes in it, Latin and English verses, Latin letters, speeches, medicinal recipes, epigrams, and anecdotes, largely on religious topics. His commonplace book was given to the Library in the eighteenth century by the Johnian antiquarian and ejected Fellow, Thomas Baker.

John Allsop was born in 1668. He originally entered St John's as a sizar, continuing at the College as a Fellow. His commonplace book (MS S.17) dates from around 1688. Many of the headings in it have no entries, and around half the book is blank. However, in blithe disregard of the headings, he made a series of notes on Cicero's De Natura Deorum and kept a history of key events since the Creation. These are followed by highly abbreviated lists of books bought, drafts of letters, short themes, and fuller accounts of laboratory experiments, together with abstracts of Descartes' principles. There is also a composition 'The Maids Deniall'. The volume ends with an incomplete index.De natura deorum, the Tantony Pigg, and Cartesian principles from MS S.17.

An anonymous commonplace (MS K.38) of a similar date contains a typically wide variety of items in Latin and English. An incomplete account of the trial of the Earl of Strafford sits alongside some Latin exercises and a burlesque speech, evidentally copied from a source that was not wholly legible, as gaps have been left. An address delivered by Bishop Corbett to the clergy of Norwich in 1634 is followed by a list of suitable books for a young scholar's library and directions for theological students. Notes on civil law for clerics, a bibliography of socinian literature and some theological questions in Latin complete the volume. Guidelines for establishing a library, from MS K.38

Thomas Holdway began his commonplace book (MS O.71) in 1734. In it he kept a record of memorial inscriptions, largely from graveyards in Hampshire. Manuscript exercises in arithmetic with examples of mercantile calculations occupy about 50 pages. Other content includes music for psalms, poetry, and recipes for medicinal cures. 

 Calculations, monumental inscriptions, music and recipes, from MS O.71

George Whittington kept his commonplace book (MS O.73) from around 1796 through to 1805, covering his final years as a pupil at Eton, through his time at St John's, where he matriculated as a Fellow Commoner in 1799, until 1805, the year he gained his LLB. His commonplace gathers together epigrams and witticisms, poems and speeches, a list of books to get, and a record of books 'read for instruction & amusement at Leisure times accompanied with other Memoranda interesting only to the Owner' which gradually develops into a brief journal of sorts. The volume also includes the minutes of a College debating society, and a travelogue of a continental tour taken in 1802-3.

 A parody and a reading list, from Whittington's commonplace (MS O.73)


A commercially produced commonplace book (MS W.25)

In 1800, commercially produced commonplace books, complete with a printed six-page introduction on their utility and use, were available. William Whytehead used one of these (MS W.25) to record personal entries on many different subjects. Notes on architecture, law, politics, death, freedom, travelling and wit are all included. He records literary quotations in both Latin and English, a list of paintings and pictures, dog Latin phrases, a list of recommended English and European historians, Greek memoranda, epigrams, riddles, Yorkshire dialect words, etymology, and hymns. William Whytehead was admitted to St John's in 1788. He gained his bachelor's degree in law in 1794, and entered Gray's Inn the following year.

 Paintings, useful phrases, and hymns noted by Whytehead (MS W.25)

This article was contributed by the Special Collections Librarian. 

19 August 2016


It is three hundred and fifty years ago this September since fire broke out in a bakery in Pudding Lane and swept through the City of London. Contemporary publications in the Library’s collections reveal the extent and impact of the Great Fire. One which shows the sheer scale of the fire most graphically is a map of the city Platte grondt der stadt London produced by Marcus Willemsz Doornick in 1666.

Doornick's 'Platte grondt der stadt London'

Doornick was a Dutch mapmaker, based in Amsterdam, known for his well-illustrated surveys of the history and topography of his home city. The speed with which his map appeared, and the fact that the explanatory text accompanying the map was provided in Dutch, French, and English, suggests that there was a wide popular market for  Great-Fire-related documents. His map is detailed, listing the individual streets and public buildings affected. Buildings left standing around the outskirts of the city are drawn in the three-dimensional  bird’s-eye view typical of maps of the day. The area destroyed by fire stands out in stark contrast; a mere outline of the streets being all that remains following the devastation, presaging the two-dimensional overhead view familiar from the modern streetmap.

Part of Doornick's map, showing the area destroyed by fire.

Accounts of the fire rapidly appeared in print, including some in poetic form. John Dryden’s Annus mirabilis, The Year of Wonders 1666 was published in 1667. He describes each stage of the conflagration: the streets crowded with people running with buckets of water and using fire engines, Extract from Dryden's poem 'Now streets grow throng'd...'

the ease with which the fire leapt across the narrow streets, Extract from Dryden's poem 'The fire, mean time, walks in a broader gross...'

and the deliberate destruction of buildings to create a fire break: a strategy which finally brought the blaze under control.

 Extract from Dryden's poem 'He sees the dire contagion spread so fast...'

Doornick’s map is on display in the Archives Centre from 24 August to 28 September (open to visitors on Wednesdays and Thursdays), along with fascinating documents from the Archives revealing the impact of the Great Fire on the College’s seventeenth-century London properties. 

This article was contributed by the Special Collections Librarian.