Sunday, 24 July 2016

Tally Sticks, Parliamentary Scrolls, and Vellum: A Visit to the Parliamentary Archives

I was very fortunate to have had the chance to visit the Parliamentary Archives, which holds the official records of the UK Parliament including acts, acts, journals, appeals, peerage claims, architectural plans, sessional papers, hansard (debates), various personal papers, etc.

The earliest document they hold is from 1497 for the House of Lords, and as for House of Commons the earliest they have is from 1547, but it would have been much earlier if not for the 'tally sticks' fire of 1834 and the small, unassuming "Jewel tower" standing across the road...

Apparently in 1834 the Exchequer/National Treasury had to dispose of a bunch of tally sticks, which were a physical form of accounting system that was becoming obsolete at the time. A primitive form of accounting which could be used even if you were totally illiterate, they were basically sticks marked with notches that were split lengthwise. These sticks were used to keep track of taxes that had been paid and an example of them can be seen here at the National Archives. Unfortunately the obsoleted sticks had their revenge just as they were being disposed of by being burnt in the basement of the House of Lords, resulting in a fire that consumed many records, except the ones in the Jewel Tower and ones that were furiously pushed to safety out of the window by a clerk...

We entered the grounds via Black Rod's Garden Entrance, and having never come explicitly to see Big Ben and the other the "touristic" sights of London before, I was shocked at the extreme numbers of people walking all around in all directions. People of every size, colour, and age, milling about on the greens and all over the roads, in every direction! "Is there a protest? Is something special going on today?" "Are these people coming to a festival? Is this place like this because Theresa May was just appointed as PM? Or is it because of Brexit??" No. Just another day at Westminster, inundated with an endless stream of flashing cameras and transient sightseers who have come to see the spectacle of parliament...

The persistence of the monarchy in the UK is a curious anachronism. From the perspective of a visitor coming from a foreign republic, the notion of it doesn't really bother me, but up close it is truly a very strange vestigial limb, wrapped up in a bizarre spectacle and ritual that I half-expect to be parody or a satire of itself.

We went up on an old lift and found ourselves in a maze of tiny passageways. The funny thing about very old and important buildings is that sometimes they seem to have been built for people who were much smaller, perhaps harking back to a time when the world's population was also smaller. You couldn't really expect to bring a big group through these tiny corridors, there just wouldn't be any space!

For those uninitiated with televised broadcasts of the State opening of the UK Parliament at the start of each new parliamentary session, Black Rod (whose Garden Entrance we used) has a very visible role in the ceremony of the opening of Parliament and the Queen's speech, where Black Rod (as representative of the Queen) summons the Commons to come to the Queen's speech. As he approaches the door of the House of Commons the door is slammed in his face, symbolising the independence that the Commons have from the queen. He then uses his black rod to knock on the door 3 times and then is admitted in to summon the Commons to attend the Queen's speech. (The short explanation of why this ritual exists is that in 1642 Charles I attempted to arrest 5 MPs which constituted a breach of the constitution, so the monarch's representative has to ask to be let into the Chamber of the house of commons, symbolising the right of the commons to question the right of the monarch's representative to enter the Chamber...)

We were shown the spot from which some strategic camera angles of the Queen are had... as the opening of this former ventilation chimney lies directly above the Sovereign’s Entrance.

"Hmm... did you say this entrance is only for the Queen? But the inside of this chamber is covered in pencils and small bits of stationery carelessly dropped in by other butterfingered visitors and researchers passing through! What will happen during the next opening?..."

Here is the famous room where all of the UK's parliamentary acts are stored - a controlled climate room to keep over 60 thousand vellum scrolls in the best condition possible.

These are actually the first scrolls I've ever seen in my life in person (I'm definitely no medievalist!). All written in iron gall ink apparently. I've never had occasion to request for a document in scroll form from any archive or library in the past. In fact I've never had to think about real scrolls in this way before, or to have to use the word Codex to distinguish it from the Scroll. [Codex being individual sheets of vellum which are then bound along one side.

I think of the Page/Codex as the "older" format from which tyrannous Infinite Scroll has emerged out of. But historically, the scroll came first. To see the scrolls as retired format for the archive is vindication that the infinite scroll is indeed a regression in terms of design - an abomination of both readability and function. I hate the infinite scroll with no end in sight, which overwhelms with too much information and takes control away from the reader who may have wished to index, bookmark or access the text with more precision. Often it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the location of the data that one wishes to find back later, especially if you have pressed the back button on an Ajax loaded infinite scroll. As for a page/codex format, even though one can only read one page at any one time, it is also easier to make a decision on whether any material of interest will be present in a document by reading one highly specific page, as opposed to skimming through a potentially infinite chunk.

Strangely when I look at these very old scrolls, I think of them almost as a painted landscape, of them painting an infinite, continuous history. (Also: I suppose that if the scrolls consisted of only visual material and formed a continuous narrative, perhaps I'd be less prejudiced against the infinite scroll itself...)

Another significant change has recently happened, or rather, NOT HAPPENED. Although legislation has been printed and paginated for quite some time, this year there was a big decision on the material to be used. Vellum which is made out of calfskin (actually sheep and goat too) has been the traditional material used to inscribe or print upon because of its longevity - it survives thousands of years and has enabled the persistence of documents in the parliamentary archives for a thousand years! (except for humidity and fire! it can't do fire!) But earlier this year, the House of Lords debated that legislation should be printed on archival paper in order to save tens of thousands of pounds a year. The use of vellum was argued as being "vanity printing" and "frivolous flummery" in an age where efficient digital alternatives seem exist)... But of course this begs the question, how much trust can we put in digital alternatives? Can there really be any digital media storage solution which isn't inherently unreliable or under the physical threat of becoming obsolete as a format further down the line, when we are talking about 500, 1000, 5000 year time scales?

Paper lasts around 200-500 years (probably more in the range of 200), but vellum purportedly can last 5000 years. The Domesday Book was written on vellum in 1086. The Magna Carta was put on vellum in 1215. Unbelievably we can still see those very documents today. Vellum from 600 can be found in excellent condition today. There is no telling how paper will survive beyond 200 years. So, although the material change would result in some savings for parliament, it might mean jeopardise the accessibility of historical documents in the long term future - assuming that we also believe that time will go on and switching to paper might even result in costly preservation issues in 200 years time!

At the time, Paul Wright, William Cowley's general manager and Britain's remaining maker of vellum was quoted in The Telegraph as saying: "What they have decided is that future generations will be denied the privilege of touching history and no man has the right to make that decision."

Fortunately, after protests from MPs and many other supporters, it was decided that they would continue using vellum. The ability of people in over 500 years time to touch legislation made today may seem rather inconsequential in the short term, and obviously a vellum maker also has vested interests in the matter, but it touches on something quite important: indeed one may argue that we can let go of things, and sometimes we may even be forced to let go of things, but I think the desire to touch and hold these historic things in our own hands will continue to persist. A primal desire to prove its existence by squeezing it in our own hands, to have that personal tactile connection with something that we believe is real and authentic...

Here is the original FOI act printed on Vellum.

Thank you to archivist Mari Takayanagi for showing our group around the archives.

Update: On more recent attempts to gather galls to make Iron Gall Ink!

So all the acts were written in Iron Gall ink on Vellum. We know where the Vellum came from, but where does the iron gall ink come from? Where did it come from in the past? Was this ink imported, and where from?

At first, I began by doing the obvious - trying to find oak marble galls myself. Whenever I read online that galls are "widespread" around the world, I weep because for some reason, I must be living in an area of London that is somehow devoid of the specific wasps which are responsible for causing those characteristic oak marble galls.

After hours in my nearest park, Finsbury Park, I determined that there are probably only just 3 large English oak trees of note. You'd have thought there'd be more Kings of the Forest in there, but noooo, it is mainly populated with London Plane trees and a smattering of other trees including cedar, horse chestnut, holly, willow, lombardy poplar, beech, and a fair number of hornbeam trees. (NOTE: not an exhaustive list!)

English Oak

Baby Acorn (English Oak aka pedunculate oak has acorns with stalks, sessile oaks which are also known sometimes as irish oaks have stalkless acorns. These have got stalks)

Spangle Galls

Knopper Galls

Every acorn, a knopper gall!

Out of these three English Oak trees in Finsbury Park, two have a lot of galls on them, but only spangle galls and knopper galls. Funny enough, as I was searching for galls under the oak trees, I found myself being bizarrely hit on the head by a constant rain of knopper galls (the very things I came for!) as it turns out that there was a small squirrel very very high up in the tree trying to eat the baby acorns but it was discarding all the excrescences and throwing the gnarly bits down on to the ground!

Half eaten acorn, only excrescence is left!

The miscreant who is pelting me with galls

Anyway with my handful of knopper galls, I went home to read up more about galls, and on closer reading I realised that the Andricus kollari wasp itself responsible for galls was not introduced to the UK until the 1800s!!! In any case it is reported that galls on English Oak trees are ascertained to contain little tannic acid, and are of little value. I haven't verified this properly but it seems Aleppo galls from Syria and Asia Minor are said to have been shipped over in boatloads to Europe for the production of iron gall ink???


Saturday, 23 July 2016

A Chinese Gatecrasher at the Great Exhibition: A Visit to the National Art Library (Victoria & Albert Museum)

During my student days I felt too intimidated to try to access the National Art Library, despite my countless visits to the V&A on the way home via South Kensington. How foolish of me! There were no barrier to entry, but then again, there were also no clear signs on how I should have come to access and browse this library, and even with renewed purpose and confidence after the IHR course, I still felt some trepidation on going to register for a reader's ticket.

Firstly, a logistical note for the first time visitor: leave your bag at the cloakroom by the entrance. There are plastic bags available. If you haven't already registered for the NAL card, its £1 for an average sized bag. If you have the NAL card, its free to use the cloakroom, but it's that Catch-22 where if you're a first time visitor who hasn't got the card up but are going to the library to obtain one, then you'll simply have to shell out the £1. If you go to the Library doors carrying your bag, they will tell you to go back to the cloakroom. There aren't any lockers nearby, so you'll just have to go down the stairs and back through the gift shop to the cloakroom at the front entrance again.

After registering with my ID and explaining the research I wanted to do in brief, I was granted a very generous 5 year reader's ticket, and that was it. Dated 2021, an implicit assumption and reminder that the library would be here in 2021 granting me access to all of its volumes for the next 5 years when I didn't even know what I'd be doing in the next 5 years! The librarian asked me to sign my new card, and then, there it was, my ticket. I looked at him. He looked at me. I looked at him, expecting some explanation, some formal introduction, or reminders to not take in my pens and clipboards. With many other libraries and archives often giving a perfunctory explanation to first time users of their resources, I was surprised that they assumed that I knew what I was doing, or perhaps my performance of the foreign artist-designer-researcher had been too convincing. The librarian gestured to me go along, so I awkwardly slunk off to a corner of the room like a small terrified spider trying to hide itself in the corner, clinging to the open shelves at the edge of the room and going around in a few circles, keenly aware of the creaky floor amplified by the volume of the space in the library - the librarians wheeling their comically squeaky trolley across the room, the raspy breathing of researchers and their intense and very serious flipping of huge dusty books on cushioned pads. Finally, having crawled all around the edge of the library back to the front entrance in one great circle, I seized upon a map affixed to the front of the library which showed there was an open shelf for the "GREAT EXHIBITION".

No doubt much has been written on the subject of "The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations" in 1851, and I have since found that many extremely pertinent volumes (such as Tallis' inimitable account of the Great Exhibition) can actually be found online in digital form. But here, gathered together into a collection, the considerable size and unexpected heft of the volumes emphatically declare the existence of these records; it is so much easier to browse through it manually, to sift through and determine what material within it is truly of note.

Robert Ellis' preface to the catalogue acknowledges the 'extreme challenge' involved in contending with the vastness of the collection and the element of disorder - in trying to put together a catalogue with over 15000 contributors, manuscripts, drawings, etc, all of which required to be put into some order of composition in time for the catalogue's publication. The introduction to the section on the colonies also expresses the importance of the visit to the exhibition to handle objects in person:

There appear only two available methods by which a manufacturer can be made acquainted with the existence of foreign products likely to be useful in his business; one is, by the collection of such information as is obtainable respecting them, and arranging it according to the most prominent properties of such substances. When these are so arranged, it is comparatively easy for any one to ascertain whether India, or any other foreign country, contains any useful or ornamental product which might be employed instead of, and be cheaper than, that already in use.

But with the most simple arrangement and clearly-conveyed information, the manufacturer generally would feel little interest about unknown natural products and their strange names, unless he had an opportunity of seeing and of personally examining them. Then, a glance of his practised eye, or the slightest handling of a new substance, informs him whether it is likely to be of use for his purposes.

This wasn't some special trade fair just for the rich, or traders and manufacturers and people working in industry. This was a spectacular extravaganza for the masses. The exhibition ran for 141 days (1 May 1851 to 11 October 1851, closed on Sundays) and had been attended by very large numbers of people from all over - imagine, that 6,039,195 people visited it, of which over 4,439,419 had come in the last 80 days when the ticket prices had been very sensibly lowered over the duration of the exhibition (just a shilling). It was also abetted by railway developments - in the pre-railway age stagecoach fares were about 6d (6 pence / half a shilling) for each mile, an average labourer in London might earn 20-30 shillings a week and outside of London it was likely to be less than that, but with the railways there were "shilling days" where one could get a return ticket for a train down to London for around 4-6 shillings (3rd class). (Thomas Cook had started his company ten years prior in 1841 with similar shilling day rail excursions for all and sundry and there were many such packages to ferry anyone and everyone to London for an excursion to the Great Exhibition. King's Cross had opened in 1850, connecting London to much of the north and midlands...)

A fantastic satirical etching by George Cruikshank: originally from Henry Mayhew's 1851: or, The adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys and family who came up to London to "enjoy themselves", and to see the Great Exhibition. On the way to the library I had been complaining to George about the painfully slow traffic in Knightsbridge and difficulty in getting in and out of buses and trains due to the sheer number of students on excursion and tour groups becoming stuck inside stations... I guess some things haven't changed since then...

Other absolutely useless but depressing figures found in the tally books: During the exhibition, a rather frightful 1,092,337 bottles of soft drinks (supplied by a Messir Schweppe!) were consumed, 943,691 Bath buns were eaten (which forever altered people's understanding of Bath buns and ended up being known as "London Bath Buns" as these buns were more irregularly shaped, very fruited, highly sugary and generally heavier than their counterparts from Bath), and also another 870,027 plain buns were consumed.

I could go on and on about the criteria for the selection of exhibits as well as the dubious selection and Prizes given out, which resulted in some many absurdities and 'innovations' and 'offenses against good taste' (in some opinions) being put on display, but perhaps that should be for another post.

Today what I'm excited about is the story of a mysterious chinese man who basically gatecrashed the opening in grand style, captured here in Selous's official portrait for the opening.

The Opening of the Great Exhibition by Queen Victoria on 1 May 1851
Henry Courtney Selous. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

From the V&A Website: "The identity of the man in Chinese dress who stands in the group on the right of the painting with foreign commissioners and chairmen of juries has been subject to debate, as no official Chinese delegation attended the opening of the Great Exhibition. In a printed key to Selous's painting, published in a newspaper in 1852 (V&A museum number 329:1-1889), his name is given as Hee Sing, and a note records that he 'happened to be present on the occasion', implying that he had no official position in the opening ceremony. However, it has recently been suggested that this man can be identified as Mr Xisheng (alternative spelling Hesing), who arrived in England in 1848 onboard the first Chinese ship to have entered British waters, the Keying. A medal in the collection of the Shanghai History Museum, bearing a portrait of Xisheng, records this event with the following inscription:


Googling for the name HEE SING brings me to a book which notes that it was recounted by Lyon Playfair in his memoirs that "a Chinaman dressed in magnifient robes, suddenly emerged from the crowd and prostrated himself before the throne. Who he was nobody knew. He might possibly be the Emperor of China himself who had come secretly to the ceremony."

Organisers were completely fooled and taken in by his immaculate dressing and 'dignified' behaviour (executing an elaborate kowtow to the Queen) and thus they regarded him as someone significant and placed him between the archbishop of Canterbury and the Duke of Wellington where he was immortalised in many portraits of the opening ceremony. He is mentioned as the "bogus Chinese mandarin" in some sources...

More on the "Keying" from the Illustrated London News of 29 July 1848:

The ROYAL CHINESE JUNK "KEYING" manned by a Chinese Crew. Visitors received by a Mandarin of rank and Chinese Artist of celebrity. Grand Saloon, gorgeously furnished in the most approved style of the Celestial Empire. Collection of Chinese Curiosities, &c. The "Keying" is now open for Exhibition, from Ten to six, in the East India Docks, adjoining the Railway and Steam-boat Pier, Blackwall.—Admission, One Shilling.

ADMISSION, ONE SHILLING.—During the limited period which the ROYAL CHINESE JUNK will remain in London, the charge for admission will be reduced to One Shilling. This most interesting Exhibition, which has been justly called "the greatest novelty in Europe," has been visited by her Majesty the Queen, all the Royal Family, and an immense number of persons, including nearly all the nobility and foreigners of distinction in London. Junk Tickets, including fare and admission, are issued by the Blackwall and Eastern Counties Railways. Omnibuses direct, and conveyance also by Steam-boat from all the Piers between Westminster and Woolwich; fare 4d. Catalogues obtainable only on board, price 6d.

In short, Hesing (who acts as "Mandarin of rank" on the Keying, and is also captain of the ship) gatecrashes the opening of the Great Exhibition and convinces everyone there as well that he must be VERY IMPORTANT since he dresses like he must be important and behaves like he must be important, and strangely no one thought to ask him who he was (why???). It is not clear to me - and it seems it is also not clear to everyone else looking back on the event - on whether Hesing was an authentic mandarin official or simply performed as "Mandarin of rank". But it does sound like the Keying had been a popular and quite affordable NOVELTY (red flag) exhibition on an epic Chinese Junk brought over by some "enterprising english businessmen" (another red flag). I wonder what Hesing's account of the whole affair would have been like. Was he just acting as his 'character', as the "Mandarin of rank"? Or was he trying to assert his role as an "true Mandarin of rank" in the face of other people's doubts of his authenticity? And what happened to Hesing and the Keying after all this? So many questions and more to search for...

Sunday, 17 July 2016

"What do you mean we're in Middlesex?" and "Is it Harringay, Haringey, Haeringshege, Haurnsy, Hornsey or HRNNGGGHHH??": A Visit to the London Metropolitan Archives

The first time I've ever seen an 18th century feoffment document!
E/MW/C/0218 / A transaction in 1707 for Tower Place and the Warren in Woolwich

The London Metropolitan Archive is hidden away in a large nondescript building down in Clerkenwell. As an archive of local records for the London area, it combines the collections of the London County Council (LCC), Middlesex County Council (MCC), Greater London Council (GLC), pan-London charities, organisations, businesses, and records from the Diocese of London (all of the parishes that donated their records – most have, and these are quite useful for those researching family history within the area).

Useful and sometimes curiously specific research guides


Index files for Parish Records at LMA

Parish Registers: useful for historical records of births, names of parents, baptisms, marriages, and burials, etc.

Mind you, I've noticed that archivists and government administrators seem to love acronyms, so the terms do take getting used to, but the most exciting thing I've been induced to think about is the concept of the place called MIDDLESEX. Perhaps this is something all you people brought up in the UK already know in great detail or learnt in school, but my understanding of Middlesex has always been fuzzy. To be honest I simply thought that was where Enfield is (aka Quite Far Away Place), because I saw a Public Office noticeboard in Enfield in 2014 that wrote MIDDLESEX on it. Back when we were living in Stamford Hill, I could hop on the National Rail service directly to Enfield Town in about 20 minutes, so it’s clearly a very reasonable commutable distance to the city.

In Enfield (February 7, 2014)

It might sound like a useless distinction to talk of, but people, you don't understand: I'm still easily excited by the frisson of crossing invisible county lines! We haven’t got other historical counties or towns to travel to in Singapore, everything is just paddling about in the same pond there. Here I can go to a DIFFERENT county or city in under half an hour? OMG I'll do it, it's cheap thrills for me!

But non-londoners may not be aware of the boundaries of the historic county of Middlesex prior to the 18th and 19th urbanisation which rendered areas such as Tottenham and Enfield more as residential suburbs for the city of London.

Map by the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies, 1997

In simple terms, historically Middlesex had its own thing going on (and it even appears in the Domesday Book) - Middlesex, Middleseaxon, Land of the Middle Saxons! But then as the city of London expanded, more and more of what would be considered Middlesex in the past was effectively changing into the “suburbs of London”...

Starting with the Local Government Act of 1888, administrative counties were formally established. So in 1888, a small part of what was considered part of Middlesex County was then transferred to the new County of London, and the rest then came under Middlesex County Council. Over the years, a series of local government acts established, merged, or dissolved various counties. The MCC (Middlesex county council) was dissolved in 1965 as the area had become urbanised together as the Greater London area, and then became under the GLC (Greater London council) from 1965 onwards [London Government Act 1963] – until the GLC itself was dissolved in 1986 and its powers distributed to the various London Boroughs [Local Government Act 1985].

So the question is, does Middlesex still exist or does it cease to exist if the administrative region of Middlesex no longer exists? (I suppose I'd say that Middlesex ceases to exist once people no longer actively refer to it as Middlesex).

This reminds me of the equally confusing question of “Is it Harringay or Haringey?” A victim of multiple spelling variations, when you walk around the neighbourhood around my house, you’ll see this:

A walk around on 17 July 2016

A h2g2 article notes that the spelling Haringey was recorded in 1387, whereas Harringay was recorded in 1569. A large Tudor house built in 1792 was named by its owner Edward Gray as “Harringay House” and it formerly stood at the top of the hill (on what is the present-day Ladder, at the top end closest to present-day Wightman Road between Allison Road and Hewitt Road and over the tunnel through which the New River runs underground) - thus the usage of Harringay took common precedence in the neighbourhood. OS Maps in 1894 record the area where our flat is as Harringay Park Estate (Note: this means that our house was originally built somewhere between 1880-1894).

The name “Harringay” was preferred by the people who lived there and attempts by the Municipal Borough of Hornsey to standardize the spelling as “Haringey” were stymied by locals who insisted on using “Harringay”. Today, the administrative name for the borough is Haringey, but the place is known as Harringay. In any case the names Harringay/Haringey and also Hornsey are both actually derived from the mangling of the name of Harenhg or Heringes or Haering’s Hege. Haringey Borough website says that a local historian established that there are a staggering “162 variants of the spelling of the name in surviving historical documents from the medieval period onwards”, so at that rate, people may as well have been muttering HRHRHRHGHRGGG to each other... "Oh righto, see you tonight in Herrggnhgghhhhh...."


General Colonial History, Explorations and Voyages, and Richard Hakluyt: A Visit to the Institute of Historical Research Library

This week I’ve been at a course at the Institute of Historical Research, and I wish I had done something like earlier – because prior to this, it was as if I had been hitting a nail into a plank with a smartphone and going about the historical portion of my research quite randomly and inefficiently. So I have decided that for documentation purposes (as a process blog!), I shall make short summaries of the trips to each of the the library/archive that I've visited this week (and separately on my own), including:

  • Institute of Historical Research Library
  • London Metropolitan Archives
  • Bishopsgate's Institute
  • The National Archive
  • Clothworkers' Company Archive
  • House of Lords Archive
  • Lambeth Palace Archive
  • London Archaeological Archive and Resource Centre
  • British Library
  • Wellcome Trust Library
  • …and more to come!

Beginning with... the IHR library itself!

Institute of Historical Research Library

Excuse me, for the massive gaps in my historical/geographical knowledge shall soon be showing! Is there a term for this kind of bias where you end up mainly reading first about the things which are seemingly more closely related to yourself, rather than reading EVERYTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD indiscriminately? I rather like the free-associating browsing of a physical library rather than a direct automatic search of a digital catalogue, but one does tend to gravitate to familiar territory for starters. And actually, I really shouldn't apologise for not knowing every single thing, but maybe this is some weird workaholic guilt at work here... but then, perhaps it would be great to exercise my right to have incomplete knowledge if I should want to, perhaps.. even as a political statement or as affirmation of one's position? Right! SORRY BUT NOT SORRY! (Sorry)

At junior college, which was the last time I actually studied history in school - what we were taught in schools in Singapore was local and regional history (Singapore History and Southeast Asian History) and as for that extra something to give us a bigger picture of historical context, the 'earliest' era we would have looked in the syllabus was Cold War, ie: 1945 onwards. ie: what I would call Modern History. I regret to say that I never took a History module in my undergrad years either. So... basically in all my life I've never attended a medieval history class.

An ex from many many years ago had specialised in Middle English poetry and once painstakingly wrote out a poem for me in Middle English. The unappreciative early-20something-year-old me at the time looked at it as some oddity but never tried to read it. I didn't quite concern myself about historical variations of Englishes since the main remit of my studies seemed to have nothing to do with it. Simply thought of the translation process as an fruitless endeavour to which there would be no point, just wanted to read the version I could read. And so the poem just went out of mind, undeciphered. I never really knew what the poem meant because I didn't read it. In fact, I don't even have the foggiest idea what it was about now! I guess I failed to appreciate the amount of hard work and scholarship that goes into studying MIDDLE ENGLISH - and the value of being able to personally read it! To be able to access the original text before translation!

At the end of the first day of the course I had time to explore the IHR's Wohl Library. Having no prior experience of studying European History, one might even ask - what is an uneducated philistine like me doing at the Institute of Historical Research then? Greeted by tall shelves of "Low Countries" (apparently one of the central collection priorities of the IHR!) I belatedly realised that all I knew of the “Low Countries” was that it was some kind of archaic term for some bits of Western Europe which were lower-lying but my spatial knowledge of European geography and topography was too embarrassingly fuzzy to be able to pinpoint or recall the countries encompassed by this term! [I went home in shame to read up about it properly and now know that the Low Countries refers to the coastal reason of western Europe including Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Ironically I also found out that I had indeed written this down in my wiki/notebook several years ago but clean forgotten it since. Oh forgive me Benelux, I have entirely failed at historical geographing!]

Grasping at straws for something I would be a bit more familiar with, I blithely went to investigate the COLONIES: GENERAL area.

Oh no! Dialed too far back on the time machine!!

Apparently the IHR’s collection of sources on British North America is “one of the best in the UK”. (And I’ve definitely never encountered a physical collection of books on British North America until this point in my life... so having the chance to grab random books off the shelf to read was a delightful first)

And actually, I realise I've never really read up about East India Company’s earlier history; certainly my (generalised) knowledge of its ministrations is largely from the period after the expansion of the opium trade and establishment of Straits Settlements.

Here, I found a copy of Hakluyt’s well-known The Principall Navigations Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation. Famous early chronicler of maritime adventures! Early colonial ideologue, economic opportunist and promoter of proselytising... [Also the adopted namesake (no direct but only symbolic links) of the rather secretive business intelligence company “Hakluyt & Company” (which incidentally also has a base in Singapore)]

And there were entire shelves of the Hakluyt Society’s publications – who have been printing editions of first hand accounts of historic voyages and travels.

Anyway, so here this is the massive volume that constitutes The Principall Navigations Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation - such an historic piece of English travel-writing! - and I can’t believe I can walk up to it and just pick this massive copy off a shelf!


Yeah this is more like the level I'm at:
"What do you mean Lorem Ipsum is not Latin, but just Latin gibberish...??"

It must have been a translation into English I had seen in the past, or maybe was it secondary material through which I had first encountered Hakluyt? I don’t even know! Up to this point everything I’ve touched has arguably been secondary source material. Contemporary books, journals, newspapers mediated through the eyes of the reporter and the witnesses, government reports arguably evaluated through the viewpoint of the administrator… all of these facsimiles! Reproductions! Digital surrogates!

If there's one thing I’m comforted by is in this tale is that – actually, despite Hakluyt being known for his publications on voyages – actually he himself was not actually an explorer. Instead, he had begun as a university scholar who set out to read about all the voyages he could - and then specialised in writing, translating, contextualising them. And yet the writer wields such powers in the process of writing or record of the journey. How else would I know of these journeys today?

On an aside, here are two mad bookbinding covers for speeches/addresses of the Hakluyt Society, one of which is for the tercentenary or 300-year anniversary of Hakluyt's death in 1916. (This means that this year will be the 400-year anniversary, or quatercentenary... Yes I had to google for the right word for it... it is not a common term which is quite rolling off the tip of my tongue)