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  • With Slips and ScrapsHow Early Modern Naturalists Invented the Archive
  • Elizabeth Yale (bio)

Seventeenth-century English natural historians and antiquaries lived in a world that did not much care for manuscripts. Writing a thought down and expecting it to be preserved was something of a desperate act: the possibility of loss or destruction was always present, and anything other than accidental preservation (the child of neglect) required vast resources of social, financial, and institutional capital. Sometimes the destruction of a manuscript was a deliberate response to its content, as was the case with religiously motivated book-burning. More commonly, however, manuscripts were destroyed through reuse or recycling, as naturalist and antiquary John Aubrey recalled in some detail:

Anno 1633. I entred into my Grammar at the Latin-Schoole at Yatton-Keynel, in the Church: where the Curate Mr Hart taught the eldest Boyes, Virgil, Ovid, Cicero &c. The fashion then was to save the Forules of their Bookes with a false cover of Parchment sc{ilicet} old Manuscript. Which I was too young to understand; But I was pleased with the Elegancy of the Writing, and the coloured initiall Letters. I remember the Rector here [Mr: Wm. Stump], great gr{and} Son of St{ump} the Cloathier of Malmesbury had severall Manuscripts of the Abbey: He was a proper Man, and a good Fellow, and when He brewed a barrel of speciall Ale, his use was to stop the bung-hole (under the Clay) with a sheet of Manuscript: He sayd nothing did it so well which me thought did grieve me then to see. Afterwards I went to Schoole to a Mr. Latimer at Leigh-Delamer (the next Parish) where was the like use of covering of Bookes. In [End Page 1] my grandfathers dayes, the Manuscripts flew about like Butterflies: All Musick bookes, Account bookes, Copie bookes &c. were covered with old Manuscripts, as wee cover them now with blew Paper, or Marbled Paper. And the Glovers at Malmesbury made great Havock of them, and Gloves were wrapt up no doubt in many good pieces of Antiquity. Before the late warres a World of rare Manuscripts perished here about: for within half a dozen Miles of this place, were the Abbey of Malmesbury, where it may be presumed the Library was as well furnished with choice Copies, as most Libraries of England: and perhaps in this Library we might have found a correct Plinys Naturall History, which Canutus a Monk here did abridge for King Henry the second . . . Anno 1638. I was transplanted to Blandford-Schoole in Dorset to Mr William Sutton. Here also was the use of covering of Bookes with old Parchments, sc{ilicet} Leases &c. but I never saw any thing of a Manuscript there. Here about were no Abbeys or Convents for Men. One may also perceive by the binding of old Bookes, how the old Manuscripts went to wrack in those dayes. About 1647. I went to Parson Stump out of curiosity to see his Manuscripts, whereof I had seen some in my Childhood, but by that time they were lost, and disperst: His sonns were Gunners, & Soldiers, and scoured their Gunnes with them.1

Aubrey mentioned four of the many uses of old manuscript, none of which involved reading: covering books, wrapping gloves, cleaning guns, and stopping up the bungholes of kegs of beer. Aubrey linked this destruction to the dissolution of the monasteries and the consequent emptying of their libraries under Henry VIII. Manuscripts were everywhere, yet they were being cut up, torn to pieces, and worn out by use until soon they could be found nowhere. The matter of manuscript—parchment and paper—was much more useful to most people than any text that might be written on it.2 And who could tell what had been lost in the process? Aubrey mourned the loss of a correct copy of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, but one of the untold thousands of texts dispersed and destroyed in the dissolution of the monasteries.

In this essay I argue that early modern English naturalists and antiquaries searched out and attempted to preserve not only manuscripts, but also the increasingly large...


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