Robinson Crusoe Quote

"He preferred, however, "gourmandization," was an idolater of a certain decent, commodious fish, called a turtle, and worshipped the culinary image wherever he nozed it put up."
---The Contradiction (1796)

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Mysteries in the Minute Books

I have been wondering lately how words –– not simply the ideas conveyed by them –– but the physical way words are put onto a page, can tell a story.
Fans gobbled up Samuel Richardson's novels,
most likely because the epistolary format
made his stories seem more "real" 

In our increasingly paperless age, it's easy to forget how important the ability to write once was.  During the 18th century, with more and more people gaining access to pens, paper and learning to read, letter writing became all the rage.  It's no coincidence that the epistolary novel –– entire 800 pagers written as a series of letters from different characters –– became so popular.  Just flip through one of Samuel Richardson's novels (I wouldn't attempt reading them, however, unless you have a lot of extra time on your hands) and it quickly becomes apparent that not only the content of letters, but also their execution –– the handwriting, the pens, the paper –– said a whole lot about your social status.

What does this have to do with the subject of my most recent musings: 18th century London eating clubs?  Well, what I love about handling these minute books is that, in doing so, I can appreciate how precious they were to these respective clubs.  Notes are often scribbled in margins to save space.  Buying a new book was always dutifully recorded in expense reports.  For example, the Wednesday's Club included this note in its minute book:

"Mr Treasurer Bate was requested to have a new minute book prepared to be ready for this society against the commencement of the new century 1800, the present book having been in use upwards of One Hundred Years."  

"Preparing" a minute book involved more than we might think, however, and often required binding together a series of loose pages at a not insignificant cost.  It is telling that Samuel Pepys, the great Restoration diarist, bound his cookery books; he didn't bind his porn.  Indeed, the Centenary Club made quite a big fuss about having their books bound, proclaiming:

"The Ancient Register of the Club at the Half Moon Tavern, London, was new bound in the year 1780, when Henry Cranke, Esq, auditor of Bridewell and Bethlam Hospitals, was High Steward."  

Given that the ability to transcribe events was so important, we must take particular notice, then, when written records don't look so pretty.  I was looking at the Wednesday's Club minute book the other day –– a heavy leather-bound volume of records from 1687 to 1815 –– and one page in particular caught my eye as unusual.

What is going on here?  Given that the Wednesday's Club was so meticulous about keeping its attendance records, I was surprised to find that this one from 1694 was so ... well ... unfinished.  Why do the records just stop in April?  Did the club simply cease to meet?  Did these guys have a fight?  A falling out?  And what's up with the squiggles and crossed out names?

It might not look like much, dear readers, but I suspect that this unfinished record bespeaks some kind of larger conflict among the club's members, the origins of which I am determined to investigate.  I'll report my findings in the next post.