THE THORESBY SOCIETY
Notes from the Library (No.9, December 2017)
RALPH THORESBY’S COMMONPLACE BOOK?
At the beginning of a small leather-bound, rather sad-looking manuscript book in the Thoresby Society Library (MS Box SC 19, 150 x 95mm), is the following inscription:
A second inscription, in a similar nineteenth-century hand, occurs at the other end of the book – again the beginning, if you turn the book upside down:
The spine of the book has two headings; one is simply ‘MS’:
the other (if you turn the book upside down) is: ‘[.]2’.
The first is embossed, gold on red; the second is a diamond-shaped paper label stuck on upside down – half of it is now missing so we can’t tell whether it was ‘12’ or ‘22’ or what. The book therefore has two openings; one indicated by the embossed ‘MS’ on the spine, the other by the stuck-on label. Each opening leads to a slightly hesitant attribution of the book to Thoresby. The reason for the attributions is clear: on the same page as the second of the above notes, in what is clearly Thoresby’s hand, is written:
In 1674, Ralph would have been 16 or 17 years of age, and a commonplace book written by him then, could give us some valuable hints about the young Ralph’s interests at the time. But why the doubt implied in ‘appears to have been’?
The most likely explanation is that a short section of the book is written in a hand that does not look like Thoresby’s, though what is being written could very well have been of interest to him. The material in question is of a somewhat quirky kind; for example: ‘To make a candle burn under water’:
‘To counterfeite a seale’, ‘To make Beans grow in the space of an hour’, ‘To dye bones green’. That Ralph was interested in the material is demonstrated by an inscription, ‘Approved by me Ralph Thoresby’, at the foot of the page giving instructions on ‘How to write love letters secretly that they cannot be discovered’ – in other words he had tried it out and it worked:
So was he experimenting with a new hand? Or did he take over the book after it had been started by someone else? Or did someone else copy in material of interest to him? It seems likely that the original owner would have used the book the way up that the ‘MS’ on the spine indicates and that therefore the entries which begin there are the original ones. As it turns out both opening entries, whichever way up the book is held, are in the same hand, Ralph Thoresby’s, so it seems certain that the book was his and that either someone else had provided the additional material or that Thoresby was deliberately experimenting with a different hand to enter it. There is no source noted for the entries in the unusual hand but both the other ones (that is, those at both ‘beginnings’,) written by Thoresby, are taken from a technical work, William Salmon’s Polygraphice or the Art of Drawing, Engraving, Etching, Limning, Painting, Varnishing, Colouring and Dying - perhaps the 1672 edition and so an up-to-date account of these activities, which would fit with Ralph’s inscribed date of 1674:
The material is of a practical kind; the first section relates to the casting of metals: ‘He that would learn to cast must be provided of al the cheife Tools thereto belonging; which are 1. A Trough. 2. Sand. 3 a Flask, 4 a Skrew. 5. Tripoli, 6. The medal or form 7 a furnace, 8 Crucibles, 9 a pipe 10 Tongs. 11 two Oak plates, 12 Plegets of wood, 13 oyl and Turpentine, 14 a Hares foot, 15 brushs.’ He then goes on to describe each item in detail. ‘Tripoli’ is a fine powder for polishing, ‘Plegets’ are wooden supports for polishing materials (not in the printed Oxford English Dictionary).
The main entries in the book, such as the Polygraphice one, being lengthy transcriptions from printed books, raise the question of whether ‘Commonplace book’ is the right term to use. A commonplace book in the seventeenth-eighteenth century is primarily a collection of brief observations gathered out of other writers and worthy of record. It is not a notebook in which you copied out large sections of other books. The long sections copied from Salmon’s Polygraphice are notebook entries, typical of Thoresby’s work elsewhere. But there are some entries that fit with a commonplace book:
If doublenes was dainty, and you could scarce it find,
Where might you gett plenty, but in a womans mind.
Depend on others promises with hope
When you of sand can make a cable roape.
- both entered on the first flyleaf, and typical commonplace-book material.
I haven’t yet tracked down the first – a common enough misogynistic thought – but the second is quoted in a book called Cocker’s Morals or the Muses Spring Garden, 1694, though it may well have been a commonplace already by then. Upside-down on the same flyleaf is a longer poem taken from an almanac publication of 1667, The Country-man’s Counsellor, a kind of memento mori poem, very much in tune with Thoresby’s temperament, and, it could be said, full of commonplaces:
when every yeare thy almanac thou buyest,
th’art one year nearer to the year thou dyest,
and from that meditation so prepare
thy life, that death ne’re seize the unaware.. . .
When I said that both beginnings are text in Thoresby’s hand, that it not quite accurate. Starting from the back of the book there are first two other, quite different entries. The first, in Thoresby’s hand, is just what one might expect from him: Alphabetum Hebraicum & Chaldaicum / Litere Rabbinice (see p.6)and Alphabetum Samaritanum. The letters of these alphabets are listed with their rough pronunciations (‘Potestas’, equivalents of English letters and sounds), and, in the case of the first alphabet, other forms in which the letters appear. There was enormous interest in other languages (particularly ancient ones) in the seventeenth century, both from the linguistic point of view of word origins and from the investigations of the true text of the Bible. Surprisingly, Hebrew was taught in quite a number of grammar schools. If there is a direct source for Thoresby’s alphabetical tables, I have not yet discovered it.
Nor do I know the source of the other alphabet, which is of a rather more unexpected kind. An inserted slip of paper in the book calls it ‘A Curious Alphabet drawn in figures’. It does not mention, however, that the figures are naked human ones drawn in a curious curlicued form, some comically vulgar - A to O are pictured here (in the original they are on the same page):
Did he draw them himself? Is it possible that their presence was another reason for the nineteenth-century writer to doubt that this was Thoresby’s book?
Finally there is a riddle, written on the inside of the cover:
The ‘r.t.’ that appears below it is an indication that it was written by Thoresby and that it therefore relates to him. The answer to the riddle is: 18 (18+9+4½+1½=33), a year or so later than Thoresby’s age in 1674 and therefore a further indication that this is a youthful possession of his.
It should finally be said that the book was abandoned. It has 122 pages in all, but 85 of these are blank; and a number of other leaves may have been removed. There’s no doubt that it was the young Ralph Thoresby’s book, but it was one which, it seems, he later rejected. Whether he wrote it all or whether others contributed to it is difficult to say. It does contain commonplace book material but it isn’t really a commonplace book. Importantly, it shows a side of Ralph Thoresby that we do not often see, the playful young man, but it also foreshadows the antiquarian scholar of boundless interests.
© Peter Meredith and The Thoresby Society