A 200 Year-Old Bibliography
Over the weekend I acquired a book that is exactly 200 years old this year. I’m always shocked at how cheaply it’s possible to buy literary antiques if you keep an eye peeled – I mean I have been known to send my credit card into a spin in an antiquarian book shop, but some of my favourite purchases have been less than a tenner – I mean – what other 200 year-old objects would fetch such low prices?
It baffles me why these beautiful artifacts are so little prized – so little so that if you go to ebay, there are pages and pages of ‘original prints’ – which are where people have wantonly vandalised books to strip them of the illustrations – the only parts that seem to command any kind of cash these days. In the process, huge amounts of knowledge are lost.
I never buy loose prints.
My particular find was cheap because it was a single volume from a long-lost set – the London part from the Middlesex Survey, 1810. Presumably it’s survived intact because it has no line drawings. It’s beautifully bound, in immaculate condition and every page is filled with charming facts – did you know, for instance, that “the richest grassland in the whole county is that of the Isle of Dogs, which has been lately reduced to 500 acres by the West India Docks”? The book spends three pages on haymaking in London, describing the embankments that were built up around the Isle to prevent the tide overflowing the grass – “it is kept sufficiently dry by sluices, which empty themselves into the Thames at low water.”
But the bit that has fascinated my most so far (I’m not very far into the book-proper yet) is the bibliography at the end. I have no idea if these volumes still exist – but some of the titles alone are precious.
Some are still widely used today – Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, for example. But whatever happened to Certaine Rules, Directions or Advertisements for this time of Pesitlential Contagion (which, apparently, contained a very useful caveat warning “those that weare about their neckes impoisoned Amulets”)? Or, indeed, Certain necessary Directions as well for the Cure of the Plague, as for preventing the Infection, with many easie Medicines of small charge, very profitable to His Majesty’s Subjects?
The Fire of London is a large subject. The History of the Damnable Popish Plot, in its various Branches and Progress, published for the Satisfaction of the present and future ages,” by the author of the Weekly Pacquet of Advice from Rome, for example, is, I am sure, a very balanced account. Or how about Jesuites Fire-Works; The Burning of London? And don’t you just love the irony of a book titled A narrative and Impartial Discovery of the Horrid Popish Plot? You could have also read Trap ad Crucem; or The Papists’ Watch-Word.
Natural disasters are well-covered. An Account of a Strange and Prodigious Storm of Thunder, Lightning and Hail, which happened in and about London on Friday, May 18, 1680, perhaps? Or A Short and pithie Discours concerning the engendering, tokens and effects of Earthquakes in general, (by Stukely, for all you Druids out there…) or another, rather more eclectically titled book about the London earthquake of 6th April, 1580, A Warning for the Wise, A Feare to the Fond, a Bridle to the Lewde, and a Glasse to the Good.
I find it hard to work out what else might be left to include in a book with a title as all-encompassing as A Full and True revelation of a dreadful Hurricane that happened on Saturday last, giving a true Revelation of several Houses that were blown down in and about the City of London, and Persons killed, besides several Trees blown up by the roots, and off in the middle; like wise of several Ships that were cast away at Seas&c. and of much Riches found near Deptford, with an Account of the Arches of London Bridge being Dry. (1701)
Ahem. Moving on, another book I would have loved to read is A Catalogue of most of the memorable Tombs and Gravestones, Plates, Escucheons or Achievements in the Demolished or yet extant Churches in London.
All London life is represented. Another candidate for the bestseller lists is Wonderful and strange Sights in the Element over the Citie of London and other places on Monday, being the seconde day of September, beginning betweene eight and nine of the clocke at night: increasing and continuing till after midnight, most straunge and fearfull to the beholders, and though I’m less sure about A Protestant Monument Erected to the immortal Glory of the Whiggs and the Dutch, if nothing else, I bet it’s a curious read.
Good Lord, I could go on for ages about those pages at the back of the Middlesex Survey. Perhaps a little investigative journalism – A Short and True Relation concerning the Soap Business? Or a whodunnit – Murder will out; or a clear and full Discovery that the Earl of Essex did not feloniously murder himself; but was barbarously Murthered by others, both by undeiable Circumstances and positive Proofs. Some reportage, maybe – An Account of the great Mischiefs done by the Mob on Tuesday 28th and Wednesday the 29th of May 1717, with a list of the killed and wounded.
Of course the chances of me actually tracking down many of these volumes is slim – not least because the bibliography doesn’t often mention who wrote them, or, indeed, when – but happily the titles are enough to make me thrill to the visceral nature of life 400-200 years ago.
Things weren’t so different then either. Another, undated, but at least 200 year-old book in the list bemoans the way everything’s changed for the worse round these parts – London, what it is, not what it was, or the Citizens’ Complaint against Public Measures, including A Remonstrance against the great Numbers of Shops &c. that sell Geneva and other drams to the Poor and the evil Consequences thereof.
Plus ca change.