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First Published: 7 September 2014
Revised (substantive): 26 March 2017
Re. “reading lots of close-set black letter”
“Black letter” refers to the heavy, ornate style of typeface (also known as “Old English”) used for printing 16th- and 17th-century books in Britain.
During the 17th century, English printers increasingly favored the lighter Roman type, and moved away from use of black letter in all but the weightiest and most magisterial of legal documents, state proclamations, and religious texts.
(In contrast, German printers continued to use a form of black letter — Fraktur — for all types of printed text until 1941, when Antiqua became the standard German type.)
In 17th-century Britain, black letter remained in use for decorative printing (appearing, for example, in headings), and was employed like an italic to add emphasis to text (e.g., to mark “black-letter days” in the church calendar, and to highlight the names of ships in a register). In such manner, Henry Stubbe’s polemical tract, The Plus Ultra Reduced to a Non Plus (1670), strategically uses black letter — interspersed with Roman and italic types — for rhetorical effect.
And at the end of the century, an advertisement for the highly skilled glass-grinder and optical-instrument maker, John Yarwell (1648–1712), also relied on black letter, again interspersed with Roman and italic type, in a bid to grab the reader’s attention.
One of the more ambitious layouts to combine black letter, Roman, and italic types is found in one of the first illustrated readers for children, Orbis Sensualium Pictus [The Visible World Pictured], by the eminent theologian and educational reformer, Johannes Amos Comenius (aka Jan Amos Komenský; 1592–1670). Comenius’s celebrated bilingual primer, first published in Latin and High Dutch (Noribergae: M. Endter, 1658), and translated into English within a year of its publication by the English schoolmaster Charles Hoole (London: Printed for J. Kirton, 1659), combined the “Universal Language” of pictures with Latin and vernacular text set in parallel columns, resulting in what John Evelyn described as a “Hieroglyphical Grammar” (J. Evelyn, Sculptura, or, the History, and Art of Chalcography and Engraving in Copper, 1662, 139) intended by its author to teach not just Latin vocabulary, but also the arts and sciences, moral and natural philosophy, to boys and girls alike. The wisdom of this approach was still being hailed by educational reformers at the end of the 19th century:
The more we reflect on the method of Comenius, the more we shall see it is replete with suggestiveness, and we shall feel surprised that so much wisdom can have lain in the path of schoolmasters for two hundred and fifty years, and that they have never stooped to avail themselves of its treasures.
(Browning’s Introduction to The History of Educational Theories, 1882, 67; qtd. in The Orbis Pictus of John Amos Comenius, ed. by C. W. Bardeen, 1887, viii)
Crafted by Comenius as a children’s “Encyclopaedia of all intelligible, and memorable things that either are, or have ever been in rerum Natura” (J. Evelyn, Sculptura, or, the History, and Art of Chalcography and Engraving in Copper, 1662, 141), the pansophical Orbis Sensualium Pictus gave “a picture and nomenclature of all the chief things that are in the world; and of mens employments therein” (from the title-page to the 1st Eng. edn., 1659), and provides a unique record of life and manners during the 17th century.
Once black letter stopped being the everyday work-horse type for British printers, it soon became illegible to the reading public. In his Restoration-era proposal for educational reform, John Aubrey criticized black-letter capitals as “so disguised and embellished with knots and towsures” that Ovid’s warning about design as masquerade (Dress deceives us: jewels and gold hide everything: the girl herself is the least part of herself.) applied:
I do not approve of the method used in the teaching children their letters by the horn-book, or primer, in the black, purple and gothic character which they may never perhaps have any use of in their reading hereafter, except they be common lawyers. The Latin [Roman] character is not only the most useful but the most simple and consequently the most used and therefore the fittest for the first impression in the young child’s memory. The old black letters are derived from these with some alteration, but the capital letters are so disguised and embellished with knots and towsures [towsers] as they may happen to puzzle a critic in the learned language: ’tis like Ovid’s expression, — et pars minima est ipsa puella sui [the girl herself is the least part of herself]. Wherefore it ought to be the Latin character which they should first learn, ....
(J. Aubrey, Idea of Education, ms. begun in 1669 and completed c.1684, transcribed and ed. by J. E. Stephens, 51)
Nowadays, 21st-century readers — who are not Gothic Revivalists, and are most removed in time from the golden age of black letter in the Anglo-American print trade — find it a real challenge to decipher a page of black letter. Texts that were poured over by flickering candlelight in days of yore — by millions of readers who lacked modern optical accoutrements, such as trifocal reading glasses and auto-magnification buttons on computerized reading devices — produce audible groans today from even the most fluent of specialist readers.
A good example of the challenges posed to 21st-century-readers by a 16th-century black-letter text — where the difficulties of the type are exacerbated by archaic syntax and orthography — is provided below.
A Thousand Notable Things of Sundry Sorts (1579), by the political and religious controversialist Thomas Lupton (fl. 1572–1584), was a best-selling medical compendium with “a delightful mish-mash of information on a wide variety of topics. It contains excellent directions for setting and splinting broken bones, among other things.” (D. E. Nagy, Popular Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England, 100n45) Retailing for about two pence a copy, such medical compendia (along with almanacs) were affordable: “one conservative estimate has placed 3 or 4 million copies in the hands of 17th-century men and women from all walks of life” (Nagy, 51).
Lupton’s A Thousand Notable Things of Sundry Sorts — described by Lupton’s ODNB biographer, G. K. Hunter, as “a heterogeneous collection of folk remedies and witty sayings largely drawn from Renaissance encyclopaedias” — enjoyed an especially long run, and was kept continuously in print by the booksellers until the 19th century. The last editions I’ve seen were printed (in modern Roman type) in 1800, 1815, and 1822. During the 16th–18th centuries, Lupton’s text was reissued at least 19 times, in: 1590, 1595, 1601, 1612, 1627, 1631, 1650, 1660 (published by a woman: Mary Wright), 1670, 1675, 1686, 1701 (selections bound with Thomas Tryon’s The Way to Get Wealth for a new guide to health & well-being marketed at 1s. 6d.), 1706, 1776, 1785, 1791, 1793, 1795, and 1799.
Of the many interesting medical receipts given in Lupton’s book, I want to single out Lady Owen’s treatment for breast cancer — a dilution made from sowbugs. This “rare secrete,” passed to Lupton “by an old woman” of his acquaintance, was set in black letter and printed as recipe No. 50 in Book 9 (“The Nynth Booke of Notable Thinges”) of the 1st edn. of Lupton’s miscellany, pp. 235–6:
My modern HTML transcription of Lady Owen’s prescription follows:
A Perfect and most sure and proved remedy, and a rare secrete, for the helping of womens sore brests that be swolne & ful of paine: which was revealed unto me by an old woman: who sayd yt the Lady Owen, Doctor Owens wife, used it to women in this case very much, who kept it as a great secrete. The medicine foloweth. Stampe or bruse nine litle woorms, of som called Swyne lyce, (which commonly wyll be founde betweene the barke and wood of olde or drye trees, which have many feete, and being touched, they become round as a button,) in eight or nyne spoonefuls of drinke, let them remayne therin all night, and the next morning streyne the same drinke, and let the diseased woman drinke ye same a lytle warmed, at one draught, and then let her laye to her breast, a two or three foulde lynnen cloath warmed: the next morning, let her take eyght of the same lytle woormes in drynke, in such order as before, & the thyrde morning seven, & the fowrth morning syxe, & so every morning following one lesse: discreasing one every morning, untyl nyne mornings be ended, on which nynth morning she must take but one of them, as it wyll fall out by the discreasyng one every day. And if she be not then throughly hole of her breast, let her encrease every morning one immediatly following: untyll she hath receyved nyne at one tyme, according to the order before appoynted. A rare and notable thing, if it be true: for I never proved it.
(Thomas Lupton, A Thousand Notable Things of Sundry Sortes, 1st edn., 1579, 235–6)
I believe the Lady Owen identified here by Lupton to have been Lettice, first wife of the renowned Dr. George Owen (c.1499–1558), appointed physician to Henry VIII in the late 1520s, and admitted to the College of Physicians in 1545, serving as the college’s president from 1553. Dr. Owen was also a prominent physician at the Tudor court of Queen Mary (r. 1553–58), presenting the queen with “two pottles of preserves” in 1556 (Sidney Lee and Patrick Wallis, ODNB entry for George Owen, n. pag.). Mary I was not long on the throne, dying of uterine cancer on 17 November 1558, after reigning for 5 years and 4 months.
Owen’s second wife was named Mary, and since I know very little about either woman, I’m not certain which wife (Lettice or Mary) developed treatments for women with breast cancer. Both women may have worked at refining the recipe, since it was not unusual at this time for physicians’ wives to support their husbands in their clinical practice. Indeed, by the end of the 17th century, it was so common for a wife to serve as her husband’s physician assistant that the satirist Thomas Brown used this role as a comic device in the send-up of contemporary medical practice with which he opened the 2nd part of his Letters from the Dead to the Living (pt. 1, 1702; pt. 2, 1703). Brown’s recently-deceased friend, the comedian, actor and writer Joseph Haines (d. 1701) — here corresponding from hell, where he has an active afterlife as the leading medical astrologer in Pluto’s realm — writes to Brown and other drinking companions at Will’s Coffee-House in Covent Garden that his thriving medical practice in Hades has so many modest female patients that he has been forced to get a yokefellow:
I forgot to tell you, that finding it absolutely necessary to take me a Wife (the Women in certain Cases that shall be nameless, being unwilling to consult any but those of their own Sex) I was advised by some Friends to make my Applications to the famous Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, who being a Person of great experience, and notably well skill’d in the Arcana’s of Nature, would in all probability make me an admirable Spouse. In short, after half a Dozen Meetings, rather for form sake than any thing else, the Bargain was struck, and a Match concluded between us Alexandrian Majesty and my self; Cardinal Wolsey, who is now Curate of a small Village, to the tune of Four Marks per Annum, and the magnificent perquisites of a Bear and Fiddle, perform’d the Holy Ceremony: Amphion of Thebes diverted us at Dinner with his Crowd, and all the while Molinos the Quietist Danced a Lancashire Jigg. Sir Thomas Pilkinton, who, as I told you in my last, is become a most furious Rhime-tagger or Versificator, composed the Epithalmium, and Sardanapalus, Caligula, Nero, Heliogabalus, and Pope Alexander the Seventh were pleased to throw the Stockin. Her Majesty, to do her a piece of common Justice, proves a most dutiful and laborious Wife, spreads all my Plasters, makes all my Unguents, Distills all my Waters, and pleases my Customers beyond expression.
(Thomas Brown, A Continuation or Second Part of the Letters from the Dead to the Living ..., 1st edn., 1703, 29–30)
Lady Owen’s sowbug prescription, which continued to be popular for centuries, soon lost its association with her as other compilers picked it up and reprinted it, oftentimes with alterations suggested by new clinical trials and practices (for example, the Royal Society’s Robert Boyle “have often both recommended to others, and taken my self” Lady Owen’s preparation, which he found efficacious in treating “the Stone” and cataracts, as well as “sore Breasts and Fistula’s”). By the end of the 17th century, Lady Owen’s recipe — no longer attributed to her, but instead known by the name of “those vile Insects commonly called in English, Wood-lice, or Sows, and in Latine Millepedes” — was well-known to women, passed among them by word-of-mouth (“she was advised to the use of Millepedes, by a Woman”) and in best-selling titles such as Hannah Wolley’s A Supplement to The Queen-Like Closet (1st edn., 1674), a domestic handbook recommended by Henry Oldenburg in a 1675 issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Hannah Wolley reworked Lady Owen’s original recipe as follows:
For a Cancer in the Breast, or to Cure sore Eyes.
There is no better thing in the World than to take inwardly Sows or Woodlice, in this manner following.
Take about six score of them alive, and wash them in a little White-wine, then bruise them well in a Porringer with the back of a Spoon, then pour in some clean White-wine into them, and strain the juice of them into a quart of Whitewine or Ale, but Whitewine is better, keep it in a Glass-bottle, and every Morning fasting, and at four of the Clock in the Afternoon drink one quarter of a pint of it, so long as you find you need it. Then take a quart of Spring-water that rises in the East, and boyl therein two handfulls of red-Sage till half your water be consumed, then strain it out and put in a little Roch-Allom, and then some Honey, heat them together over the fire, and then put it in a Glass for your use: lay nothing to your Breast but linnen Cloths dipped in some of this Sage-water warmed, Morning and Evening. It is the Wood-lice which doth the Cure, for any Drink which is made of them, especially if it be in White-wine, doth not only Cure a Cancer in the Breast, but also sore Eyes, Scurvy, drowsiness in the Brain, Convulsion-fits in Children or in Older people, or any manner of Obstructions, for they will carry out all evil and venemous Humours out of the Body.
(H. Wolley, A Supplement to The Queen-Like Closet, 1674, 21–2)
Wolley’s late-17th-century version of the recipe was printed in readable Roman type, with the book’s running title set in black letter for emphasis.