Publication Spotlight: Sixteenth-Century Readers, Fifteenth-Century Books

Blog written by Dr Margaret Connolly

Most of my research has been firmly based in the fifteenth century, and a lot of it has been concerned with Middle English texts and their manuscript contexts. The study of English medieval manuscripts has been dominated in recent years by issues related to book production and by the quest to identify individual scribes, and I have gradually come to realise that considerably less attention has been paid to the readers of manuscripts, and to what happened to books once they passed into general circulation. So, when I came across two fifteenth-century manuscripts that were owned in the sixteenth century by the same family, I was intrigued by the possibility of tracing the story of those readers and their books. The family was the Roberts family of Middlesex, and a total of eight surviving manuscripts can be connected with them. That might not sound like a large number, but to be able to link several medieval manuscripts to the same owners is quite rare, especially if those owners were not royal or noble. It’s the very ordinariness of this English gentry family that makes them interesting, and I’ve enjoyed living with them over the past decade, charting their careers in the public record; working out the details of their family history, marriages, and children; and uncovering their networks of professional and personal associations.

The two men who are at the heart of my study lived through exceptionally turbulent times: Thomas Roberts died in 1542, just a few years after the dissolution of the monasteries, and his son, Edmund, lived through several changes in official religion under Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary Tudor, dying in Elizabeth I’s reign in 1585. I was struck by the fact that these sixteenth-century men chose at least some of their reading not from material that was newly produced but from books that were much older than they were. The texts that those books offered were ones that had been written in an age that was wholly and unproblematically Catholic, which prompted the question: Why did my newly reformed readers favour these old medieval books?

A manuscript owned by Edmund Roberts.
Cambridge University Library MS Ii.6.2 f. 109r.
Photo by Dr Margaret Connolly.

One manuscript in particular stood out to me. It’s not the flashiest, because it isn’t one of the illuminated ones. Instead it’s a small and fairly shabby volume that contains a series of devotional prose texts written in English. Edmund Roberts annotated some of these texts by underlining points and phrases, and by repeating key words in the margins; at one point he adds the comment ‘A vere good praier’. The text that prompted that approving remark offers advice on how to pray and then a meditation on Christ’s death on the cross and is drawn from a longer fifteenth-century work, Contemplations of the Dread and Love of God. In his book of hours Edmund signed his name beneath another prayer, adding a comment in which he claimed to use it every day. That prayer is one that promises tangible rewards if the speaker repeats it a certain number of times whilst also performing a particular set of actions. Between them these two short texts cover a spectrum of devotional practice ranging from an unremarkable orthodox engagement with core aspects of the Christian faith to a more superstitious style of worship verging on magical ritual, and this in turn offers some insights into Edmund’s spirituality.

Edmund also wrote the date ‘1553’ in both these manuscripts showing that he was using them in the year that Mary Tudor came to the throne, a point at which the official religion again became Catholicism. Edmund’s splendidly illustrated book of hours was a volume that he had inherited from his father, Thomas, and both men added extra texts to it, including prayers to the Virgin and charms and incantations that offered protection against ill-fortune. Were these men Catholic or Protestant? I spent a good deal of time trying to find an answer to this question, considering not just the evidence of the manuscripts, but also the clues offered by the men’s lives – their occupations, professional networks, and social circles. The Roberts family were not prominent recusants, but they certainly had recusant friends. One of Thomas Roberts’s closest affiliates was John Newdigate, whose son Sebastian was one of the Carthusian martyrs. Edmund did not prosper as much in public life as his father had done and fades out of the public record in Elizabeth’s reign. Amongst the godparents that he chose for his children was Susan Clarence, one of Mary Tudor’s closest attendants, and this and other clues eventually led me to believe that he may have been reformed in name only, preferring the ways of the old religion. But I also realised that in uncertain times discretion was probably the order of the day, and that the reason I couldn’t pin down clear evidence of these Tudor men’s religious affiliations might be because they didn’t want to nail their colours to the mast. This resonated with behaviour that I observed during the modern political events that unfolded whilst I was writing this book (the referendums in 2014 and 2016 on Scottish independence and membership of the European Union), and the way that some people are happy to articulate their voting intentions whilst others prefer to keep their beliefs to themselves.

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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