Monday 18 January 2021

The Department of Rare Books (and Twitter): Another Source for Early Modern Manuscript Sermons

Six years ago, William Sherman, pioneer of early modern marginalia studies, and Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts and Archivist at the Folger Shakespeare Library, lamented in a joint article published in the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies that not only are manuscripts and printed books treated as distinct categories, but it is also necessary to examine them in separate rooms in the Cambridge University Library.[1] Sherman and Wolfe argued that for scholars such as themselves, looking at manuscript notes in printed books, or studying authors whose written legacy is divided between published and unpublished texts, such an arrangement is impractical. They find themselves ‘dreaming of a special reading room […] devoted to books that sit somewhere between script and print […] for scholars working at the interface between the oral and the written’.[2]

Scholars of early modern sermons certainly fall into this category of researchers examining the relationship between oral and written culture, and this blogpost centres on the discovery of manuscript sermons within printed books which are not listed in manuscript catalogues. While previous GEMMS blogposts have concentrated principally upon the content of intriguing sermons catalogued in our database and the prominent figures who created these texts and owned these manuscripts, this contribution joins a growing literature which scrutinises the book-historical and material aspects of early modern sermons.[3] Indeed, in the current scholarship focusing on early modern English manuscript sermons, printed books have seldom been cited as a potential place in which they can be found.[4] It will also be argued that, in an unprecedented time which has necessitated an increasing reliance on virtual collaboration, Twitter is a medium via which more of these rare printed books containing manuscript sermons can be shared and subsequently studied.

Investigation of these particular sermons prompts important questions regarding the cataloguing of rare books and manuscripts. Should manuscripts bound with printed books be provided with a shelfmark reflecting its scribal status, as is the case with an exquisite manuscript witness of the First Book of Official Homilies, bound with a partial copy of Sternhold and Hopkins’ Psalms, or a compilation of late seventeenth-century sermon notes by a minister based in Buckinghamshire, similarly attached to a 1638 edition of the same work?[5] Alternatively, if found within a substantial collection of printed material, should the manuscript work be given a ‘printed books’ shelfmark?

Figure 1: ‘A Sermon Preached att ye Funerall of Ms Lee, att Threekingham, Aprill ye 4. Anno Dom. i682’. British Library, General Reference Collection C.175.i.16.(4).

Moreover, how do we find manuscripts if they are hidden away within rare printed books? Such discoveries may be entirely serendipitous. In July 2018, when ordering up a printed sermon for my own research, I found two handwritten funeral sermons dating from the 1680s, in addition to other manuscript material within this unassuming octavo Sammelband, which were uncatalogued on the British Library Main Catalogue.[6] These items were also not discoverable on the Manuscripts Catalogue. The two sermons represent significant contributions to our source bank of sermons preached in the parishes and for women. The first sermon, delivered at the funeral of a Ms Lee (d. 1682) in Threekingham, Lincolnshire, can be linked to a monumental slab in the middle aisle of Threekingham Church, and may therefore be of value to genealogists and local historians studying this particular village (see Figure 1).[7] The second text is a rare example of a surviving manuscript sermon by theologian and nonjuring clergyman Richard Brocklesby (1634/5–1714), also based in Lincolnshire, remembered today for a monumental theological treatise of over 1,000 pages concerning the Trinity (see Figure 2).[8]

Figure 2: ‘A Sermon Preached att ye Funerall of our Deceased Friend, and Neighbour, Mr Longlands, att Walcott; By Mr. Brocklesby, January the 30. 1684/5’. British Library, General Reference Collection C.175.i.16.(5).

These two sermons, along with the other manuscripts within this volume, were recently added to the British Library Main Catalogue, but not the Manuscripts Catalogue. Under ‘Physical Description’, the cataloguers have added a note stating that the sermons are ‘manuscript’ and ‘manuscript (transcript, handwritten)’, respectively. By using these specific search terms in the British Library Main Catalogue, I was able to find several manuscripts which would otherwise have been overlooked, and which are all available for consultation in the ‘Rare Books and Music’ reading room only. One full transcript of a printed sermon by John Tillotson (1630–1694) appears within a volume of theological tracts and treatises all published in the years 1687–1689.[9] Most interestingly, the scribe of the sermon has identified ‘C: Alston’ as the licenser of this sermon, whereas only the initials are specified on the title page of the printed copy (see Figure 3).[10] Therefore, this manuscript witness is not only suggestive of Tillotson’s wide-ranging influence in print, but also connects the text with Charles Alston (d. 1714), a prebendary of St Paul’s who licensed texts on behalf of his ecclesiastical patron, Henry Compton, Bishop of London (1631/2–1713), and is of potential interest to researchers studying ecclesiastical press censorship after the Restoration.

Figure 3: Manuscript witness of a printed sermon by John Tillotson. British Library, General Reference Collection 222.e.5.(9).

While these examples illustrate the possibility for unearthing manuscripts within Sammelbände which comprise miscellaneous material, it is important to note that manuscript sermons can also appear as companion pieces to the printed works with which they are bound. A manuscript witness of a printed sermon by John King (d. 1621), bound with other published sermons by the bishop, adopts the specific mise-en-page as the printed texts, indicating the aesthetic sensibilities of the anonymous scribe.[11] An anonymous manuscript sermon commemorating Charles I, entitled ‘In nomine Crucifixi’ and dated 1648, is bound in a copy of the Eikon Basilike. It is conjectured by Helen W. Randall that this presentation volume, stamped with a royal crest and a death’s head, was intended as a gift for Charles II.[12] However, it was not necessarily the case that such companion pieces were always written with a view for presentation. In a folio volume of sermons by Jeremy Taylor (bap. 1613, d. 1667), the last, uncatalogued item is a plain transcription of Taylor’s sermon preached at the funeral of the Royalist, Sir George Dalston (c. 1581–1657).[13] All of these items exhibit the varied contexts in which manuscript sermons could complement, and co-exist with, printed material.

Moreover, it is not only full sermons which are discoverable alongside printed texts, but also sermon notes and reports, which can be found either interleaved or as marginalia within printed books. Three Bibles, held at the Bodleian Library and categorised as part of the Rawlinson Manuscripts collection, are interspersed with manuscript sermon notes dating from the second half of the seventeenth century. All three contain valuable documentations of sermons preached at funerals and occasions such as the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot.[14] Looking ahead to an even later period, Katherine Acheson gives a detailed analysis of the so-called Newby Bible held at the Folger Shakespeare Library, in which it is possible to uncover a woman’s experience of the world of Methodism in the late eighteenth century.[15] Within the Bible, there are over 600 annotations made by one Elizabeth Boggis (fl. 1780s), recording the dates of each sermon, the speakers, the biblical texts and occasionally the locations in which the sermons were delivered.

In addition to Bibles, copies of printed sermons could also carry substantial marginal annotations providing details of preached texts. Opposite the title page in a folio volume of sermons by John Frost (1625/6–1656), pastor of St Olave, Hart Street, London, John Rippon records a sermon on Exodus 17:7 delivered by ‘Mr Evins’ at ‘the Association at Prescott’ in 1746 (see Figure 4).[16] The most likely candidate for ‘Mr Evins’ is Hugh Evans (c. 1713–1781), a Particular Baptist minister connected with Bristol Baptist Academy. The genealogical notes within the volume indicate that ‘John Rippon’ was the grandfather of John Rippon (1751–1836), who published the first Baptist hymnbook to gain widespread acceptance in England.[17] As the scrawled notes on the title page indicate, this copy of Frost’s sermons was kept within this Baptist dynasty. Further research may expose the extent to which Baptists consumed the teachings of Church of England clergymen which had been published almost a century beforehand. Although the reports within the Newby Bible and the Frost sermons fall outside the remit of the GEMMS database as they date from the mid-1700s and beyond, all of these specimens pave the way for yet more discoveries of earlier sermon reports which can subsequently be catalogued.[18]

Figure 4: Eighteenth-century sermon report in Henry E. Huntington Library, Call # 432609.

And it is towards Twitter that we might turn for help. Sjoerd Levelt has shown us the ways in which Twitter creates and solidifies a community of scholarly sharing, in the manner of ‘a virtual chat at the coffee machine’.[19] After a Tweet about my aforementioned discovery at the British Library was published, Anna-Lujz Gilbert informed the GEMMS team about an incunable which originally formed part of the parish library at Marlborough, Wiltshire. According to the Bodleian Library SOLO Catalogue, this rare incunable, which appears to be represented in only three libraries in Britain and Ireland, is bound in Oxford blind-tooled calf dating from c. 1570 and features thirty-nine leaves of manuscript sermons in Latin and English, written in a single sixteenth-century secretary hand.[20]

To revisit Sherman and Wolfe’s article in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, scholars of early modern literature and history find themselves dreaming, in fact, of any reading room whatsoever, grateful for any opportunity to handle rare books and manuscripts, however they are catalogued. For much of the past year, the GEMMS team has had to work remotely, cataloguing sermons from digitised manuscripts; for example, making use of the Cambridge Digital Library Scriptorium, in addition to lesser-known sources for digitised manuscripts such as the Wellcome Library in London. One of the primary objectives of GEMMS is to foster an online community of sermon scholars with our open access, group-sourced bibliographic database, supplemented with our presence on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. With the rise of remote working, the GEMMS database has the potential to serve a greater range and number of researchers than previously imagined, as scholars are required to become more and more efficient when choosing which items to order up to reading rooms within extremely restricted timeframes. Virtually, we remain open to suggestions, discoveries and discussions regarding early modern manuscript sermons and sermon reports, whether found in printed books as full texts or as marginal annotations, and would welcome further opinions on their categorisation within the libraries and archives which are, at present, inaccessible to us.


[1] William Sherman and Heather Wolfe, ‘The Department of Hybrid Books: Thomas Milles between Manuscript and Print’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 45.3 (2015), 457–85.

[2] Sherman and Wolfe, ‘The Department of Hybrid Books’, p. 457.

[3] Catherine Evans, ‘Early Modern Sermons and Annotations’, <> [accessed 27 December 2020].

[4] See, for example, Ian M. Green, Continuity and Change in Protestant Preaching in Early Modern England (London: Dr Williams’s Trust, 2009).

[5] See Christ Church Library, University of Oxford, MS 150 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-001340); William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, MS.1952.004 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-001308). See also Hannibal Hamlin, ‘“Very Mete to be Used of All Sortes of People”: The Remarkable Popularity of the “Sternhold and Hopkins” Psalter’, The Yale University Library Gazette, 75.1/2 (2000), 37–51.

[6] British Library, General Reference Collection C.175.i.16 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-000880, <[accessed 11 January 2021]).

[7] W. A. Cragg, A History of Threekingham with Stow, in Lincolnshire (Sleaford: W. K. Morton & Sons, 1913), p. 105.

[8] Richard Brocklesby, An Explication of the Gospel-Theism and the Divinity of the Christian Religion (London, 1706).

[9] British Library, General Reference Collection 222.e.5.(9) (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-001285, <[accessed 11 January 2021]).

[10] John Tillotson, The Indispensable Necessity of the Knowledge of the Holy Scripture, &c. (London, 1687).

[11] British Library, General Reference Collection (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-001284, <[accessed 11 January 2021]).

[12] Henry E. Huntington Library, Call # 102338 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-001198, <[accessed 11 January 2021]); Helen W. Randall, ‘The Rise and Fall of a Martyrology: Sermons on Charles I’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 10.2 (1947), 135–67 (p. 141 n. 5).

[13] British Library, General Reference Collection 479.e.6.(3.) (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-001286, <> [accessed 11 January 2021]). This manuscript is described in the Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts 1450–1700 (CELM), <> [accessed 28 December 2020]. The sermon was first published individually as J[eremy]. T[aylor]., A Sermon Preached at the Funerall of that worthy Knight Sr. George Dalston, &c. (London, 1658).

[14] Bodleian Library, MS. Rawl. C. 1 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-000468, <[accessed 11 January 2021]); MS. Rawl. C. 2 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-000333, <[accessed 11 January 2021]); MS. Rawl. C. 3 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-000334, <[accessed 11 January 2021]).

[15] Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 2129; Katherine Acheson, ‘The Occupation of the Margins: Writing, Space, and Early Modern Women’, in Early Modern English Marginalia, ed. by Katherine Acheson (Abingdon and New York, NY: Routledge, 2019), pp. 70–89 (pp. 80–82). See also Peter Stallybrass, ‘Books and Scrolls: Navigating the Bible’, in Books and Readers in Early Modern England: Material Studies, ed. by Jennifer Andersen and Elizabeth Sauer (Pennsylvania, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), pp. 42–79 (pp. 61–63).

[16] John Frost, Select Sermons Preached upon special occasions, &c. (Cambridge, 1658) (Henry E. Huntington Library, Call # 432609).

[17] Ken R. Manley, ‘Rippon, John (1751–1836)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn (2008), <> [accessed 27 December 2020].

[18] As a teenager, John Winthrop the Younger (1606–1676), future Governor of Massachusetts, made notes of sermons preached in Suffolk, England, in his copy of a 1620 almanac by Richard Allestree (d. 1643). See Karl Josef Höltgen, ‘Two Francis Quarleses: The Emblem Poet and the Suffolk Parson’, English Manuscript Studies 1100–1700, 7 (1998), 131–61 (p. 154); Richard Calis and others, ‘Passing the Book: Cultures of Reading in the Winthrop Family, 1580–1730’, Past & Present, 241.1 (2018), 69–141 (p. 86).

[19] Sjoerd Levelt, ‘Early Modern Marginalia and #earlymoderntwitter’, in Early Modern English Marginalia, ed. by Katherine Acheson (Abingdon and New York, NY: Routledge, 2019), pp. 234–56 (p. 239).

[20] Pope Gregory, Incipit prefatio Gregorii pape in omeliis super ezechielem prophetam (Paris: Georg Wolf, [c. 1489–91]). See also National Library of Scotland, Inc.252.3; Marsh’s Library, Dublin, <> [accessed 23 December 2020]. I have not investigated its representation in other parts of the world. We are grateful to Anna-Lujz Gilbert, PhD candidate at the University of Exeter, for drawing our attention to this incunable via Twitter.

~ Hannah Yip

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