The fragility of sources
While on sabbatical, I’m working on my second book, this time on the Duke of Marlborough and the English cult of battle. So when I come across a minor point that I find interesting, I’ll post it here in the hopes it might engender some thought, or even discussion and comment.
First up: I’m working on a chapter on English strategic culture by examining the military manuals/treatises and histories published in the 17C, especially from 1660 on. So I’m reading Thomas Venn’s Military and maritine discipline from 1672, and in one of its many dedications I come across the following justification of the work:
“It is true there have been many Books printed of this Art in our past ages, and some in our present…. I shall set out… what I intended for my private use, but being (as I have declared) requested hereunto, and now fearing that most of our books are consumed by fire, I am further perswaded to put these introductives into publick view.” Printed in margin: “When London was burnt, 1666. Set. 3d. &c.”
Now we all know about the loss of archives and libraries from WWI and WWII, and in historical methods courses we always talk about how documents disappear over time [see chart at end], but I never really thought about connecting the general principle to documents in my period, and particularly to the Great Fire of 1666.
I haven’t read a lot on the history of the book, nor have I focused much on England in the 1670s. So has anybody written specifically on this topic in our period, particularly before the mid-18C? It seems to raise all sorts of questions: Were country estates safer libraries – is that where a lot of our extant sources come from? Does this help explain the publication timing of reprints/new editions? In short, how important is this kind of catastrophic event in understanding what contemporaries had to read? We’re now spoiled with EEBO, EECO and Google Books, but if we look closely, we discover how hodgepodge a collection they really are – a scan of a 1691 second edition of a 1662 original from library X here, a scan of a first edition reprint from library Y there… I get the sense that we know far more about what contemporaries were saying (in print at least) than many contemporaries did. This of course makes it a bit more difficult to figure out what the “average” John Bull read.