Lofty definitions from 1606

Much of my spare time currently, along with that of my wife, Lynn, is taken up with sorting through the possessions left behind by my late and beloved father-in-law, who passed away recently at the ripe old age of 94. Climbing into his loft for the first time wasn’t exactly a Tutankhamen‘s tomb moment – but it did make me realise that what I was about to explore was a mass of items handed down over a number of generations.

Quite a few things, hidden amongst the outdated household appliances, boxed games, bits of old carpet and suitcases galore, have stopped us in our tracks as we struggle to make progress in deciding what to sell, what to keep and what to throw out. Inside its stained and damaged case, for example, we found a brand new, never used Olympus typewriter; in a sturdy cardboard box and protected by polystyrene was another ‘as new’ item – a home movie film projector (we need to take a good look at this, in the fullness of time); and then in their own quite battered but original pack, sealed in an airtight polythene cover, a pair of hi-fi Sony stereo headphones.

There were quite a lot of old books – some very old. These are likely to be mostly family heirlooms, though my father-in-law bought a lot of books and he may well have picked up some of the more antique publications in his peregrinations around local charity shops.

One book in particular has caught my attention …

I’d never heard of Thomas Thomas, but now that we have a copy of his Latin-English dictionary I’ve found out quite a bit about him. He was a printer and lexicographer and went to Cambridge University. The first edition of his work appeared in the year before his death (1587). What we have here is (or appears to be) a copy of the seventh edition. I’ve spent some time studying bibliography academically, by the way, so I know that there are almost infinitely complex rules for describing books of this vintage; but suffice it to say that this book appears to have been published in 1606. (Bibliographers would attach all kinds of caveats to that assertion). Although the main A-Z section is complete, regrettably there is a small section missing at the end of the book, though the colophon is on the title page.

The timing of the book’s publication is of particular interest. In the world of publishing, Latin had been giving way during this time to publications written in ordinary, vernacular English, as Jeremy Norman points out on the website:

Throughout the XVIth century the percentage of books in the vernacular increased, caused in part by the mounting concern of authors, printers and publishers with the ‘rude’ (men, women and children who were able or willing to read books in their own tongue, but not in Latin). It is also true that the importance of Latin as the language of communication among the learned declined, in spite of the revival of learning and increased concern with the classics and their style.

Nonetheless, there was clearly demand for such a publication – this is a seventh edition, after all – and indeed there were many rivals in the sector, one of whom, John Rider, was sued by Thomas Thomas’s executors for plagiarism and forced to make a number of amendments to the dictionary which he published in 1589.

Here’s a small sample from a randomly-selected page in Thomas’s dictionary, in this case including the Latin term “cantatrix”, meaning “woman singer”.

I wondered how early this book was in the timeline of the publishing of dictionaries. Perhaps like many people, I’ve assumed that dictionaries only really got started in 1755 with Johnson. In fact Johnson’s dictionary launched into a market which was serving a much bigger reading public than that aimed at by Thomas Thomas. By 1755, most people wanted books – and more and more were prepared to pay money to expand their vocabularies. Although dictionaries in the broadest sense were first published in Sumerian times, around 2000 BC, dictionaries as we know them seem to have begun as glossaries, the most famous early example being Johannes Balbus‘s Catholicon, one of the first books to be published by Gutenburg. According to Wikipedia, “The first purely English alphabetical dictionary was A Table Alphabeticall, written by English schoolteacher Robert Cawdrey in 1604″.

But there are even more interesting things associated with the date this book was published, as 1606 was a remarkable year in British history.

Plague, ever-present as a potential epidemic during the time leading up to the Great Plague some sixty years later, flared up again in 1606, having been in retreat for a few years. Although history tends to focus on the London epidemic that occurred in the middle of the century, plague was by no means confined to London, with historians (example: A History of Bubonic Plague in the British Isles, J.F.D. Shrewsbury, CUP, 2005) recording that in 1606 the disease was affecting places as far apart as Ayr in Scotland, Dublin in Ireland, Carmarthen in Wales, Cambridge, Manchester and Peterborough. Central London was not as badly hit as its outskirts, although the centre of the capital saw fifty deaths in the last week of July and seventy in the first week of August.

By the way, I’m pleased to say that I’ve felt no ill effects from handling the book (not yet, anyway …).

The contagion impacted many aspects of everyday life, not least theatre-going. William Shakespeare‘s players, The King’s Men, left London and went on tour to get away from the plague. In any case, theatres in London had been closed again, following the passing of a law by the Privy Council forcing theatres to close where more than thirty cases of plague had been reported in a week.

1606 was a time of great creativity for Shakespeare. He wrote three of his greatest plays in that year, including two of the ‘big four’ tragedies, Macbeth and King Lear. He also wrote Anthony and Cleopatra in that year; many critics have agonised over whether it, too, should be categorised as a tragedy, but it is generally agreed nowadays to be best referred to as one of the Roman plays. When thinking about the themes of Macbeth and King Lear in particular, we should bear in mind that in November of the previous year there had been an attempt to blow up the King and the entire parliament.

The Gunpowder Plot was undertaken in protest at the failure of the new King James VI (James I of Scotland) to support Catholics, who had been persecuted by the preceding monarch, Elizabeth I. Until the accession of James, they had been hounded and forced to say Mass in hiding. Catholics had hoped that James I, whose wife was Catholic and who gave early signs of supporting the Catholic cause, would look on them more favourably. But after it became clear that this wasn’t to be, a number of plots were hatched to bring down the monarchy. The most well-known of these, the so-called Gunpowder Plot, was halted with the last-minute arrest of the plotters, notably Guy (Guido) Fawkes, who, along with seven other plotters (might we call them “terrorists” nowadays?) was executed by being hanged, drawn and quartered on this day, January 31st, in 1606.

The text of this contemporary engraving depicting the plotters, is written in Latin. Who knows – maybe some readers used Thomas Thomas’s dictionary to translate it into English?

With the plague ravaging the land, religious persecution provoking treasonous acts and even strange astronomical events (there had been a partial lunar and a total solar eclipse late the previous year), it’s hardly surprising that many people felt insecure. Shakespeare reflected this unease in both Lear and Macbeth. In Act I, Scene 2 of King Lear, first performed at Whitehall on 26th December, 1606, Gloucester says:

“These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend
no good to us: though the wisdom of nature can
reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself
scourged by the sequent effects: love cools,
friendship falls off, brothers divide: in
cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in
palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son
and father. This villain of mine comes under the
prediction; there’s son against father: the king
falls from bias of nature; there’s father against
child. We have seen the best of our time:
machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all
ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our
graves. Find out this villain, Edmund; it shall
lose thee nothing; do it carefully. And the
noble and true-hearted Kent banished! his
offence, honesty! ‘Tis strange.”

I want to take good care of this book. Having spent many hours in the reading rooms of the British Library, sometimes, for instance, in a darkened room and wearing white gloves whilst carefully untying the ribbons holding together a treasured copy of a Daniel Defoe original, I know how delicate the pages and bindings are.

And therefore I also know that one should never judge a book by its cover; or, as Thomas Thomas himself might have written in a Latin translation of that old saying, “Fronti Nulla Fides”.





Filed under History, Literature

Religion: would I be half-hearted or a die-hard?

In some ways I envy those of my friends who are religious. It must be reassuring to be able to roll up all of life’s mysteries into a simple bundle and label it “God’s work”.

No real need to ponder the meaning of life; the infinite vastness of space is explained by a blind faith that everything is the work of the deity; and death no longer hangs around like a brooding menace accompanying every day, whether it be sad, unremarkable and totally ecstatic. The package takes care of everything, from reassurance to infinite reward, from morality to inspiration.

Some people hide when they see a pair of smartly-dressed Jehovah’s Witnesses making their way to the front door. Not me. I always answer the knock. I relish the opportunity to converse with people who are so utterly convinced by their creed that they are prepared to take their beliefs out into the community and try to convince others that they are right. I suppose I harbour a kind of envy – it must be good to have all those doubts and fears taken care of. And there’s no doubt that religion has acted and continues to act as a contributory agent to a peaceful society, except of course where it drives some to fanaticism. Increasingly, religious festivals are being absorbed into our calendars as important milestones, but as having little more spiritual significance than Valentine’s Day or Bonfire Night. I mean, surely those who wait for hours outside department stores for the start of the Christmas sales aren’t spending too much time contemplating the miracle of the virgin birth?

But I quickly make it clear to the Bible-clutching pair that I am unconvinceable. Although the ‘Big Bang’ is the best explanation I’ve heard for the beginning of this universe, for many years I’ve been content to assume that both time and space had no beginning and will have no end point. Whilst we are accustomed to there being beginnings and endings for everything we encounter in our daily lives, I can’t imagine there ever being a dead end on the superhighway of Time itself.

Image: 9 year WMAP image of background cosmic radiation (2012)

No doubt there are many opaque regions of Newtonian physics, relativity or string theory that I’ll never get to understand, or some aspect of the Higg’s boson that will forever remain a black hole in my apperception of quarks and their like, but as far as I’m concerned there couldn’t possible have been a Grand Beginning. And certainly their idea that there is a Supreme Being who got the ball rolling seems at best misguided.

That said, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other people of strong faith, who devote a significant portion of their lives to actual activities in relation to their religion, seem to me to be acting in a fairly logical fashion. If I believed, I think I’d want, like them, to act on my convictions, in the way – to draw a slightly tongue-in-cheek analogy – supporters of football clubs do. Die-hard football fans go to both home and away matches; they follow the latest news about their club via the media; they discuss developments with their friends and acquaintances; their loyalties may extend to purchasing merchandise and festooning a room in their house with iconic images and memorabilia: in short, they will worship their team with passionate loyalty.

That’s how I would be with religion.

I’m pretty sure I’d go to a place of worship very regularly; I’d want to do whatever I could to spread the word; and I’d lead a life in which all of my thoughts and activities were steeped in the influence and requirements of my religious creed. Otherwise, I’d be like those Manchester United supporters who aren’t really supporters but just say they are to be accepted as part of their peer group …

Indeed, I might well go further. If I truly believed in the power of prayer, for instance, I’d want to see prayer being used pro-actively by government, education and industry as a means of achieving objectives. If I ruled such a religious world, there’d be a programme of experimentation with various approaches to prayer – qualitative and quantitative – to measure the success or otherwise of different strategies. The prayer industry would probably be a key component of the economy.

In the real world that doesn’t happen, of course. While British people get most aerated about Brexit, the honours system and Donald Trump, their attitude towards religion can be described as tepid, at best. And religious belief is in rapid decline in Britain. According to the latest British Attitudes Surveyclick here to view a chart accompanying the September 2017 press release – more than half the population (53%) say they have no religion. In 1983, 40% of the population described themselves as Anglican or Church of England; by 2016, that percentage had fallen to 15%. Only 3% of people aged 18-24 describe themselves as being Anglican or members of the Church of England.

The decline is beginning to look terminal; but, personally, I fear not – I’m sure there will be life after the death of religion.


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Image credit: door knocker – by AnemoneProjectors [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team

The detailed, all-sky picture of the infant universe created from nine years of WMAP data. The image reveals 13.77 billion year old temperature fluctuations (shown as color differences) that correspond to the seeds that grew to become the galaxies. The signal from our galaxy was subtracted using the multi-frequency data. This image shows a temperature range of ± 200 microKelvin.

Image credit: Manchester United fan – By Светлана Бекетова ( [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

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Filed under Religion