Recent government lockdown measures have seen many people embrace new hobbies and pastimes to fill their days, including reading books. In today’s blog Dr Charles Moreton, senior research fellow in our Commons 1461-1504 project, discusses the reading habits of MPs in the late Middle Ages.
‘Public turn to books to escape lockdown boredom’ reads a recent headline. There is no doubt that books are a considerable source of solace for many of us during these extraordinary times, and they also featured in the lives of MPs of the late Middle Ages. The period witnessed a growth in the popularity of books, especially commonplace books and other miscellaneous compilations of texts, a trend boosted by the introduction of printing – traditionally credited to William Caxton – to England.
One of the more illuminating inventories of a layman’s books relates to those owned by Sir John Paston of the well-known Norfolk family, a Member of at least three of Edward IV’s Parliaments. His collection included one of the earliest books printed by Caxton, The Game and Playe of the Chesse, as well as copies of John Lydgate’s Temple of Glas, and Christine Pisan’s Epistle of Othea to Hector. Another of Paston’s volumes was his ‘Grete Boke’. Still extant, it is in essence a commonplace book and contains material on a variety of subjects, among them descriptions of ceremonial occasions and jousts, ordinances for the conduct of war, an English translation of Vegetius’s Epitoma Rei Militaris and Lydgate and Benedict Burgh’s Book of Governance of Kings and Princes.
By contrast, evidence for book ownership among the Plumptons and Stonors, who between them provided at least five fifteenth-century knights of the shire and were families of far more distinguished pedigree than the parvenu Pastons, is far sparser. The Stonors were nevertheless close to the literary world, since both Thomas Stonor I, who sat for Oxfordshire in half a dozen Parliaments of the reigns of Henry V and Henry VI, and his son and successor, Thomas II, a knight of the shire for the county in 1447 and 1449-50, were brought up in the household of Thomas Chaucer. Chaucer, who also represented Oxfordshire, in his case in no fewer than 14 Parliaments in the years 1401-31, was both a patron of learning and the son and heir of the celebrated Geoffrey, author of the Canterbury Tales and a knight of the shire for Kent in the so called ‘Wonderful Parliament’ of 1386.
Other book owners among late medieval knights of the shire of this period also warrant notice. For example, William Carent, who sat for either Somerset or Dorset in at least six Parliaments of the first half of the fifteenth century was a collector of note who owned a volume containing no fewer than 69 miniatures by a gifted artist with an expertise in painting landscapes. Two other knights of the shire, Edmund Rede (Oxfordshire, 1450) and Sir Andrew Ogard (Norfolk, 1453), owned over 20 volumes each. Rede’s ‘library’ included a couple of copies of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis and was a typical collection of chronicles and didactic works. It suggests a man of more than average education, probably a consumer as well as an owner of books given his association with Thomas Chaucer’s circle early in his career. Far more unusual is John Somerset, who represented Middlesex in the Parliament of 1442 and the only Doctor of Medicine known to have sat in the Commons before the sixteenth century. Closely associated with the Lancastrian Court as Henry VI’s personal physician, he acquired (in dubious circumstances) a large consignment of books from the library of an early English patron of humanism, Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, after the duke’s downfall in 1447.
There are also some interesting examples of book possession among parliamentary burgesses of this period. One of the most striking is that of John Carpenter, who sat for London in the Parliaments of 1437 and 1439. His collection included works by Seneca and Aristotle, various devotional, theological and moral treatises, a copy of Roger Dymmok’s Twelve Conclusions against Lollardy and a collection of ‘little books’ containing acts and records relating to both the common law and the custom of London. He had a longstanding connexion with books: as an executor of another MP for the City, Richard Whittington (the legendary ‘Dick Whittington’), he was the prime mover in the foundation of a ‘fayre and large liberarye’ close to the London Guildhall, to which he bequeathed some of his own volumes. Also worth noting are two East Anglians, John Drolle, who sat for Norwich in 1455, and Robert Cupper, a burgess for Great Yarmouth in two Parliaments of the 1420s. Drolle owned a book called ‘Bonauentur’, perhaps Speculum vitae Christi, attributed to St. Bonaventura and translated into English by Nicholas Love, while Cupper bequeathed to his son a copy of The Prick of Conscience, a popular Middle English poem of the fourteenth century.
For more blogs from our Commons 1461-1504 researchers, head to the ‘Commons in the Wars of the Roses‘ section of our site.