This article was originally published in Antiquarian Book Monthly Review, June 1987, pp.208-214.

On 28 June 1687, at his premises in St Paul’s Churchyard, Robert Clavell packed more than 150 volumes into four boxes and despatched them to the authorities of Sherborne School in Dorset.  At that time merely a local grammar school, re-established from its monastic predecessor by royal charter in 1550, Sherborne had not more than about 60 pupils, taught by a Master and an Usher.  But, despite its small size, a substantial effort was made to develop the library during the last years of the century, following the arrival of a new Master in 1683 [Thomas Curvengen].  Considerable purchases were made on several occasions, and local benefactors presented a variety of works.  Chief among these was Hugh Hodges, at that time Recorder and M.P. for Bridport, and a Governor of the school, holding the important office of Steward.  It may be surmised that it was he who selected Clavell as the London stationer to supply the school’s largest order; his local connections may well have brought him into contact with the Clavell family, who owned lands in south Dorset.  Certainly, the note appended to the bookseller’s account implies a degree of acquaintance with the Governor to whom it is evidently addressed.

One cannot know what prompted the young Robert Clavell to leave Dorset for London to embark on a career which was to make him a prominent figure in the book trade. He began his apprenticeship in 1649 and eventually rose to become Master of the Company of Stationers in 1698-9.  He died in 1711, having always been highly regarded by his contemporaries, with a reputation for scrupulous honesty.  His various Term Catalogues, appearing over a long period (1668-1700), are an important source of information on the book trade of the time [See D.N.B.; H.R. Plomer and others: Dictionaries of the Printers & Booksellers…at work… 1557-1775. Bibliographical Society reprint, 1977].

The books which he supplied on this occasion were destined to remain accessible to youthful (and not always careful) students for the next 300 years.  To this day [1987], 85% of them remain on the shelves – a remarkable proportion, especially for an institutional library.  As a result, with one hand holding Clavell’s account, the other can pick out almost every one of the items to which it refers.  To do so encourages some examination of the situation when these books were purchased, and provides a number of interesting insights about the educational concerns of the time and about the state of the late 17th-century book trade.

There are many signs that the school attached considerable importance to its library, and that great care was taken to protect the contents.  For example, school statutes of 1679 laid it down that each boy, on enrolment to the school, should pay 6d. towards the library.  The same statutes order that the Master “shall take the care and charge of the Library, he shall not permit any to go in that shall do any prejudice to the Books or that place, he shall not suffer any that comes to read there to take Notes or write upon any Books for fear of blotting the same, neither to cut out anything or in any way deface any Book”, and that the books be “fastened with convenient Chains”.

This last reminder of 17th-century methods of library control is reinforced by entries in school accounts for 1695: “For clensing of the Rods that ye chains are fastened to and the key that locket fast the Rods.”  “For rings and swivels and bras pleats and riveting.”  “Five dozen and 9 yards of Portmantua chaine. 27 yards of Wyer chaine… Locks and keys to the presses.”[See A.B. Gourlay: A History of Sherborne School, 2nd ed., 1971].  The marks of the chains can still be seen on the many books from Clavell which retain their original boards, and on other volumes listed in a library catalogue of 1695.  The chains were not finally removed until 1780; but, although a revised catalogue of 1807 reveals that only a few books found in earlier catalogues had been lost, there is no doubt that the library passed through a sad period of neglect.  In the second edition (1815) of Hutchins’ History of Dorset, we find that “the library has been at some period very badly kept; and the books have sustained much injury from the boys tearing the leaves, and defacing the engravings; and by the books being injudiciously crowded together” [John Hutchins, The History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset, 2nd ed., 1813, vol. IV, p.139]. Yet, despite these vicissitudes, the great majority of the books on Clavell’s account, and of the other in the 1695 catalogue, have survived, most in very tolerable, sometimes excellent condition.

Perhaps the first thing to strike a present-day, cost-conscious observer is the sheer size of this single order.  Clavell’s bill totalled £95.16s.7d.  Including the charge of 18s.0d. made for the four boxes (with 1s.0d. for “cords”), and of £3.0s.6d. for “lettering” 129 of the volumes, this means that, at a stroke, the Governors of what was then only a small local grammar school with limited resources were prepared to spend a really substantial sum on improving the library stock.

At that time, the Master himself only received around £50 p.a. in salary, his assistant “Usher” barely half that amount.  (One wonders whether present-day schoolmasters would regard with enthusiasm a library bill representing about three years of their salary!)

Few books could be regarded as “cheap” by today’s standards, especially if one bears in mind the calculation that £1 in 1687 represents an approximate general purchasing power of £48 in 1987.  Prices reflect the inevitably heavy cost of production of 17th-century books.  Thus, even modestly-produced contemporary octavo editions tended to cost from 3s. to 5s.  More substantial volumes, especially those with illustrations, could involve the purchaser in substantial outlay – even though Clavell, in his covering note, insists that “As to ye prices of these books I have priced them…at their lowest” (no resale price maintenance then!).  Thus, he had to charge £1.3s.0d. for the third (1672) edition of Selden’s Titles of Honour, with a portrait frontispiece and a few woodcut illustrations in the text; and £1.2s.6d. for Dugdale’s recently-published (1685) Perfect Copy of all Summons of the Nobility to the Great Councils and Parliaments – one of the few works supplied which bears Clavell’s own imprint.  Yet Ashmole’s Order of the Garter (1682), with more than 20 engravings by Hollar cost £1.18s.0d., and the copy of the first edition (1675) of Ogilby’s Britannia (still in excellent condition) may now seem a decidedly good bargain at the same price!

Worth closer study than mere prices, however, are the range and the source of the books supplied.  Not surprisingly, many of them were editions of classical authors or other works written in Latin.  Latin was still a lingua franca and the kernel of the school curriculum.  (Indeed, the School had an awesome regulation for boys in the upper forms that “nothing shall be spoken but Latin in the school (i.e. the classroom) and out of the school wherever they shall meet… under the pain of the severest Correction”.)  The 1695 catalogue shows that classical studies accounted for nearly half of all the books held by the library; those listed by Clavell reflect this proportion, totalling some 55 volumes.    By this time, English booksellers had had twenty years to remedy the situation caused by the disastrous destruction of stocks when the London warehouses were in the path of the Great Fire, which had prompted Evelyn to write to Clarendon: “Since the late deplorable Conflagration, in wch the stationers have been exceedingly ruined, there is like to be an extraordinary penury and scarcity of classical authors, etc. us’d in our Grammar scholes; so as of necessity they most suddainely be reprinted.” [Quoted by Leona Rostenberg: Literary, Political, Scientific, Religious & Legal Publishing, Printing & Bookselling in England, 1551-1700. New York, 1965, vol.II, p.259.v].  None the less, of the classical editions supplied by Clavell, all but two of the surviving titles have European, not English, imprints.  Whether this indicates problems of supply, or a greater regard for the work of continental scholars, can only be guessed at.

Whatever the explanation, the list testifies to the truly European nature of the 17th-century book trade.  Besides a considerable number of the “Delphin” editions of classical authors published in Paris over the preceding twelve years, there were others with imprints from Leyden, Amsterdam (Elzevir and Jansson) and elsewhere; while a minor curiosity appears in the entry “Fabri Epistolae 10s.0d.”, referring to a work by the French classical scholar Tanneguy Lefebvre published at Saumur in 1674.

Formal teaching, as laid down in the statutes, was thus primarily concerned with the classics, and predominantly with Latin; the only other required subjects were Arithmetic (but only sufficient for practical purposes, not requiring library support) and, for the top forms, Hebrew. However, improbable this may seem today, Hebrew was then regarded as an essential key to a proper understanding of Biblical texts; to aid these somewhat esoteric studies, Clavell supplied three works by Buxtorf, which (even more improbably) included Grammaticae Chaldaicae (i.e. Aramaic) et Syriacae Libri III (Basle, 1650) – a work which, one feels, cannot have been frequently consulted by schoolboys!

From the volumes listed in the 1695 catalogue, it is clear that in addition to subjects explicitly required by the statutes, considerable attention was paid not only to the Bible but also to general theological questions, often those of contemporary significance.  It might be expected that, in such turbulent times, the school authorities would have played safe and eschewed controversial issues.  After all, only two years before these books were purchased, seven of those convicted by Judge Jeffreys at the Bloody Assize had been hung from an arch not fifty yards from the school library, and their skulls and quarters left there on display.  Yet the young students were confronted in the library by surprisingly divergent attitudes on current theological (and often quasi-political) disputes.  Books ordered from Clavell were no exception.  From the often abbreviated entries in his list, one can identify on the shelves the first English translation (1679) of Pacal’s Lettres Provinciales (published anonymously as The Mystery of Jesuitism); the second (1683) edition of George Hickes’ plea for passive obedience in Jovian, or an Answer to Julian the Apostate (under the pseudonym of “A Minister of London”); and An Historical Account of Church Government (2nd edition, 1684) by Bishop Lloyd, who, shortly after this purchase was made, was to be arraigned as one of the Seven Bishops.  Even more interesting, perhaps, is what is listed simply as “Phoenix 3s.0d.”  This is A Phenix or The Solemn League and Covenant, whose (fictitious) imprint reads: “Edinburgh. Printed in the year of Covenant-breaking.”  This work was in fact compiled and published in 1661 by the delightfully-named Livewell Chapman, a Fifth Monarchist.  He had earlier fallen foul of Cromwell’s government; but, as publisher of the “Phoenix”, he was regarded by the restored monarchy with even greater revulsion.  Sir Roger L’Estrange, later to become Surveyor of the Press, and a rabid anti-Presbyterian, declared that the work “Maliciously Prosecuted the Destruction of the Royal Family” [In A Modest Plea for the Caveat (i.e. his Caveat to the Cavaliers, 1661) and for the Author of it, 1661 – in which there appears the first of L’Estrange’s several bitter attacks on the liberty of the press.  Quoted in Rostenberg, op. cit.,  which see (Vol.1, pp.203-236) for a full account of Chapman’s eventful career], and as many copies as possible were seized by the authorities.  Even 25 years after its publication, this may seem a strange work to be acquired by a school which prided itself on being a royal foundation.

One of the great differences between institutional libraries of the late seventeenth and the late twentieth centuries is clearly brought out by the books listed by Clavell. Nowadays, with the rapid development of ideas witnessed in all fields of knowledge, no librarian is likely to want to acquire other than recently-published books. In 1687, things were manifestly different.  In this instance, a number of books were supplied which, judging by the time elapsed since their publication, would by today’s standards have no more than curiosity value.  But, at that time, the content of works published several generations earlier was still considered eminently relevant to contemporary needs.  This goes some way towards an explanation of the flourishing nature of the second-hand book trade of the time.  Clavell’s list provides practical evidence of that aspect of 17th-century bookselling.  It is well known that booksellers of the period published “wants lists”, as well as extensive catalogues of second-hand books; and there were plenty of auction sales, sometimes of substantial libraries, throughout the period.  Indeed, we find in the bill a tantalising entry: “parcel of books bought at ye auction £1.10s.0d.”  One is left wondering what they were, and where they came from.  So it is no surprise to find that he also supplied a number of works dating from the earlier years of the century.  These included A Summarie Answere to… Master Darel his bookes, by John Deacon, 1601; Of the Nature and Use of Lots, by Thomas Gataker, 1619; Animadversions upon M. Selden’s History of Tithes, by Richard Tillesley, 1619; and the first edition of Fynes Moryson’s Itinerary (1617).

From some of the titles already cited, it can be seen that the school wished to buy not only books which would reinforce the standard teaching of the schoolroom but also works which were presumably designed for more general reading.  Thus, there are a considerable number of historical studies in the list.  Most of these were by English authors (Burnet, Camden, Rushworth, Rycaut and Sanderson among them), and had been published comparatively recently.  Clavell was also required to respond to the developing concern for scientific and philosophical questions.  For example, he supplied two works, recently issued under the authority of the burgeoning Royal Society, adding to those already acquired from other sources.  These were The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, 1677, by John Webster, and the two volumes of translations by Havers and Davies of Eusebius Renaudot’s General Collection of Discourses of the Virtuosi of France, upon Questions of all Sorts of Philosophy and other Natural Knowledge, made in the Assembly of the Beaux Espirits at Paris, published in 1664 and 1665.  These latter volumes, where old problems are considered in the new light of scientific reason, are a reminder of the powerful interest in French culture brought back by exiles returning from France at the Restoration of 1660.

The taste for travel books was also satisfied.  Thus, the school (no doubt hoping to stimulate its pupils’ imagination while supplying them with information) bought (for 9s.0d.) Sir Thomas Herbert’s Some Years Travels into diverse parts of Africa and Asia the Great (the author’s final revision, published in 1677), and (for 8s.0d.) the first English translation of The World Surveyed, or, The Famous Voyages and Travailes of Vincent le Blanc (1660), as well as Moryson’s Itinerary already mentioned.  Yet further variety can be found in a recent re-issue of Sir Henry Spelman’s work of legal research, the Glossarium Archaiologicum (1687), as well as useful, compendious and often erudite works of reference such as James Howell’s Lexicon Tetraglotton (1660) and Stephen Skinner’s Etymologicon Linguae Anglicanae (1671).

From the examples mentioned, it can be seen that, destined for this small school of modest pretensions, there was a quite unexpectedly wide range of subject-matter contained in Clavell’s four boxfuls of books.  But it is when we come to the final item on his account that we find the most striking, indeed astonishing, purchase of them all. It reads, simply: “K: of Spain’s bible 8 voll ffolio. £14.0s.0d.”  This was, in fact, the Biblia Regia, or “Polyglot Bible”, that superb example of 17th-century printing produced by Christopher Plantin at Antwerp between 1569 and 1572, a work of monumental scholarship as well as of outstanding technical achievement.

In the intellectual climate of the Counter-Reformation, others had had the idea of producing a Bible which, by offering an approved text in all the original languages, and by excelling all previous versions in quality and erudition, would command the approval of the highest Catholic authorities; but Plantin was the one who carried through this immensely demanding task [I am indebted to Colin Clair: Christopher Plantin, London 1960, for much valuable information on the Biblia Regia].   He had to secure an editor, the cooperation of scholars and, above all, finance.  In due course, news of the project was conveyed to Philip II of Spain.  Plantin had already received offers of assistance from other quarters, but these all involved conditions (such as moving away from Antwerp) which he was reluctant to accept.  The matter was referred to the Council for the Inquisition, who appointed Benito Arias Montano to assess Plantin’s scheme; their deliberations eventually led Philip to support the venture, but not before some 18 months’ delay.  During that time, determined to fulfil his ambition, Plantin accumulated stocks of high-quality paper, acquired the appropriate type-founts for the Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac and Greek versions of the texts, and took on additional expert staff.  All this was at a time when trade was severely affected by the combination of war and famine raging in the Netherlands; and there had, as yet, been no advance of funds.

In May 1568, Montano – by now charged with supervising the entire project – arrived in Antwerp.  Together, he and Plantin (who became firm friends) confronted the many demands.  In consultation with eminent theologians, final agreement was reached on the exact texts to be used, and on the format for their presentation.  This added to the already daunting challenges to the printer; for example, it was considered essential to incorporate an interlinear translation of the Hebrew text.  Although the Old and New Testament were to be set out slightly differently, owing to the fact that their texts had differing origins, both had a double-page spread; these show parallel columns of four matching texts, with further versions across the foot of the page.  Thus, each open page reveals at least four totally different linguistic modes of type, and bear witness to the remarkable skill of Plantin’s team of punch-cutters, type-casters and correctors.  The basic texts occupy five volumes.  The other three consist of a further Hebrew text with the interlinear translation already mentioned, and the Greek New Testament with interlinear word for word translation in Latin.  In addition, there is a mass of “Apparatus”, including the Hebrew, Syro-Aramaic, Syriac and Greek dictionaries and grammars which Philip had requested should be added to the work; there were also articles on Jewish antiquities and history, illustrated by some twenty engraved plates and maps, some of delightful quality.

No brief account can do justice to the complexity of the work, or the herculean tasks involved.  Four years of ceaseless labour saw it completed.  During this time, Montano was himself responsible for almost all the textual content, while also having to conduct extensive correspondence with his master and others in Spain.  Plantin, endlessly occupied with seeing the work successfully through the press, somehow also found time to maintain his routine business which provided a crucial contribution to his overstretched “cash flow”.  If we remember that every line of frequently complex type has to be set by hand, and every sheet hand-pressed, it is astonishing that, even with forty men working exclusively at the task, the eight immense volumes were produced in so short a time.  And, despite all the difficulties, Plantin never compromised on his original scheme.  For example, even with the problems which he had in securing (and paying for) adequate stocks of fine-quality paper, an examination of this copy of the work reveals that – presumably because, whatever the cost, he was determined not to lower his standards – the final volume of “Apparatus” incorporates no fewer than 117 blank leaves.  These are used (generally, eight in each case) to separate the many different elements of which the volume is composed.  Yet it is known that, by the time he came to produce this final volume, Plantin was desperately short of money, and that initially he could only print 600 copies out of the 1,200 needed to match the earlier volumes.  In the end, however, he contrived to complete the run.  In all, four types of paper were used (apart from the additional 13 copies specially printed on vellum, demanded (but never paid for) by Philip for himself); the copy supplied by Clavell is one of the 960 printed on papier grand royal de Troyes.

The scale of the undertaking almost bankrupted Plantin.  The eventual costs vastly exceeded his original estimates; Philip’s subsidy, never increased, fell far short of what was required; and the exhausted printer had to draw on all his funds to pay wages, paper-merchants and the like.  Nor did sales rapidly reimburse him.  Despite the grant of the necessary “privileges” from several influential quarters, all of them printed in the first volume, elsewhere there were difficulties.  The Pope (Pius V) had raised a number of theological objections; only when he was succeeded by Gregory XIII in 1572 were these overcome, so that, by the end of that year, a privilege of 20 years was granted.  Ironically, the greatest problems arose in Spain; here, theological in-fighting and personal jealousies delayed formal authority until 1580.  But, while it could never be accounted a commercial success, unquestionably the work gives Plantin a very special place in the history of 17th-century book production.

There is no way of knowing how Clavell came to be in a position to supply this set more than 100 years after its publication.  And, sitting in front of this remarkably fine copy of a supreme product of technical skill and dedication and of unremitting, painstaking scholarship, gratitude for its acquisition is balanced by another unanswerable question: what prompted a small country school to purchase a work which was avowedly Catholic in inspiration, and whose content involved a level of learning far beyond what could be expected of schoolboys if it were to be adequately appreciated?  And what arguments lay behind the decision to pay out such a substantial sum of money for this one work, when the same amount could have secured a large number of more “useful” volumes?  Were the school Governors, influenced perhaps by James II’s attempts in recent months to secure the appointment of Roman Catholics to important educational positions (as at Oxford), anxious to possess evidence, should the need for it arise, that they were above reproach?  Or does the answer simply lie in “the pursuit of excellence”?  It would be agreeable to think so.  Whatever the answer to these questions, Clavell himself would no doubt be pleased to know that this work, along with the many others he was able to supply in what surely seemed at the time to be an ordinary business transaction, can continue to offer so much delight and interest after three hundred years.

The author:
Peter Thomas Currie (1922-2014), MA, Exhibitioner, Trinity College, Oxford.  Captain of Oxford University Hockey Club and played for Scotland Hockey XI.  Modern Languages Master (French) at Sherborne School, 1947-1982; Master in charge of Hockey, 1951-1962; Housemaster of The Digby, 1962-1972; Deputy Headmaster, 1974.

See also:
Robert Clavell’s bill, 28 June 1687
Sherborne School’s Rare Book Collection

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