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Monday, 4 January 2010

The British Library: The Unexpurgated Edition

Aside from the glorious architecture and the close proximity of the wonders of the British Museum, one of the greatest delights for me of working for the British Library was the various literary treasures I unearthed. It was a serendipitous process, governed in the main by what external customers wanted to have photographed.


One shelf behind my desk was devoted to incunabulum, in other words books published before 1501. Thus, one day I found myself one day handling a leather-bound copy of the Golden Legend published by a certain William Caxton in 1483. A mere 8 years earlier, William Caxton had published the first book ever to be printed in English. I remember the Golden Legend as being an especially large, very heavy book, requiring both hands to carry it. When I set it carefully down and opened it up I was impressed by the superb quality of the paper inside. Heavily illustrated with woodcuts, it tells the story of the saints in sequence with their saint’s day in the liturgical calendar. After he died in 1492 Caxton’s press was run by his assistant, the magnificently named Wynkyn de Worde.

On another occasion I requested two 17th century Bibles be brought to me from the library stacks. When I lifted one from its protective cardboard box I discovered that someone, centuries earlier, had fashioned an exquisite cover for it, embroidered in raised gold and silver thread. The cover had doubtless been sewn by some 17th century gentlewoman, the materials being far too costly to entrust to a serving maid. Unfortunately I cannot recall in any great detail the cover itself as I summoned the conservation team and they immediately whisked it away. At the time no-one else in the British Library had been aware of its existence.


I also read a 17th century book on midwifery, in which the author stated that whereas some men complained that a woman’s sheath" had grown too large to accommodate their "sword" following childbirth, she opined that perhaps it was the sword itself that had shrunk. She also mentioned the Queen of Hungary who, apparently, had given birth to a child every single day for a whole year. Whether the author believed this tale is hard to fathom. If she did, she was not alone in being gullible. A century later Nathaniel St. André, surgeon to King George I no less, stated his firm belief that a woman from Godalming had given birth to numerous rabbits. It may not be too great a surprise to learn that the alleged mother in question, Mary Toft, was later imprisoned for fraud. Perhaps hoping to draw a veil over the whole embarrassing affair, the authorities later quietly released Mary without charge and allowed her to return home. The author Emma Donohue wrote an account of this strange tale in her collection of short stories: The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits. The collection also contains a fictional account of Dido Belle encountering a runaway slave at Kenwood House.


During my time at the British Library, I came across a number of old cookery books from the 17th and 18th centuries and tried to see if there were any recipes I could adapt for myself. One recipe left me flummoxed, calling as it did for 50 gallons of boiling water. But then it was a recipe for small beer, no doubt destined for an extended family and a household full of servants.

The most intriguing of my finds concerns two separate editions of “The Noble Art of Venerie”. The edition of 1575 had a woodcut depicting a stag being held, whilst Elizabeth I was offered a knife to administer the coup de grace. The later edition showed King James I being offered the knife. To turn the woodcut of the Queen into the King, they had simply added a doublet and hose instead of the hooped skirt and added a beard. If anyone had seen this at the time it could have got the publishers into serious trouble as a clear case of lèse majesté. But then, during this era a popular saying was that England had lost a King upon the death of Elizabeth, and gained a Queen in the form of the effeminate James. Since he had a keen interest in falconry, I told one of the men I subsequently dated about the book. He rather presumptuously and wholly erroneously told me that I must have confused it with a 17th century edition of the “ De Arte Vernandi Cum Avibus” written by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II around 1250. He was not only wrong he had also shot down any hope of a further romance.





There was one collection of books I was never allowed to view lest my maidenly sensibilities cause me to swoon clean away. The British Library had a Private Collection (PC) which contained material of a distinctly adult nature. Any orders for the private Collection had to go through a certain middle-aged man and he alone was allowed to view the material before it was passed on for processing. It must have been assumed that the photographic staff and the people who fetched the books from the stacks were made of sterner stuff, as no such constraints were placed upon them. This all changed when the man in question retired and we all had access to the collection and a very rum collection it was too. Nowadays, similar material can be purchased openly from high street newspaper chains with nary a blush from vendor or buyer. I recall one novel depicting a gentleman’s rather foolish experiments with a glass bottle. There would be tears before bedtime as well as a trip to the hospital I calculated correctly. The title of “Flossie a Venus of 15” raised a smile at the thought of a Grecian or Ancient Roman deity having such a prosaic name as Flossie.

In addition to the books themselves, there was also a collection of salacious negatives. Again, nothing that cannot be seen on television today after the watershed, although shocking enough for the time. If someone wanted to view the material in person they were taken to the North Library and seated at a special desk set in front of a librarian, whose own desk was on a raised platform above that of the reader’s, so that the librarian could keep a beady eye on them as the reader perused the unexpurgated material. The Private Collection was not quite what William Caxton had in mind when he was inspired to set up the first printing press in England in 1476.

2 comments:

  1. Wonderful post, full of information, love for your subject and written interestingly. Well done!

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  2. I remember the PC collection from the North Library very well when I was working in the same department as you at the British Library. I had to process orders from around the world. It was very exciting when I was privileded enough to open one of these books and paginate the relevent pages (under the auspices of the book conservationist) - often saucy and vaguely erotic, but not as you say, a patch on what you see on the tops shelves of newsagents these days!

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