Category Archives: Literature

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Quite a few things, hidden amongst the outdated household appliances, boxed games, bits of old carpet and suitcases galore, have stopped us in our tracks as we struggle to make progress in deciding what to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

Keeping alive the idea of extending lifespans

I’m just re-reading John Wyndham‘s classic Trouble with Lichen, so I was attracted to the idea of watching a local TV (That’s Cambridge) re-run of the 1962 film of his 1951 masterpiece The Day of the Triffids.

I must say that, watching such amateur incarnations of the deadly plant creatures so vividly and frighteningly portrayed in the book, any concerns I had about the current over-use of CGI in modern movies were quickly put to bed. I think a secondary school art class could have done a much better job!

But as is so often the case with great sci-fi novels, the film did bring to mind a number of very current issues: there, in key scenes, was Moorfields Eye Hospital, where NHS finances were no doubt in much better shape back in the early ‘sixties; the flashing lights from the falling meteorites gave an echo of the recent asteroid near miss; and seeing the great triffids advancing towards the seemingly helpless humans reminded me of the debate around GM crops.

In the film, our heroes managed to stay alive through the use of fire, turning the triffids and their lethal whiplash tongues into a glorified stir-fry as they tried unsuccessfully to break through the wire fence around the compound. (Personally I would probably have gone in with a glyphosate-based weedkiller – the gardening equivalent of an AK-47 – although to be fair to Wyndham, glyphosate wasn’t discovered until 1970 and Roundup didn’t hit the market until ’74).

Trouble with Lichen is equally, almost spookily, far-sighted. It too points to a number of themes of modern living that remained on the socio-cultural agenda throughout the latter half of the 20th century and continue to do so in the twenty-first.

(Lichen, small mosses and the like don’t get a very good press. In fact they don’t get much of a press at all, even though they can be quite decorative and add colour to an otherwise bland part of a garden or building).

The heroine of the novel, Diana Brackley, surreptitiously markets a newly-discovered (by her) anti-aging drug, Antigerone, developed from a rare form of lichen, only to influential women. Her objective is female empowerment. But Wyndham’s 1960 novel again opens up a number of associated topics that ring all too true even today; for instance, the media have a lot to say about who should get the new drug (the Evening Flag is right behind the idea of the Queen being the first to benefit. The Times and the FT underline the effects on the chemical and insurance industries). The sometimes controversial field of clinical trials is also hinted at.

Diana herself muses on the subject of relationships in a society where marriage becomes an almost interminably long institution:

“‘I’ve been wondering, as a matter of fact, how marriage is going to mesh with the new order. One feels that people who can go on loving one another for two or three hundred years are probably pretty scarce’.

“‘It doesn’t mesh, as you put it, any too well with the present order’, Francis remarked, ‘but it gets adapted. I don’t see why it should not be adapted further. Fixed term marriages, with options, as in leases, perhaps?’

“Diana shook her head”.

Wikipedia draws attention to “a notable parallel between Antigerone and rapamycin, a polyketide drug produced by soil bacteria discovered on Easter Island. Although originally developed as an antifungal medication and used clinically primarily as an immunosuppressive to prevent immune rejection of transplanted organs, rapamycin has recently been the subject of intense interest as a potential anti-aging drug”.

Earlier this year, an international team from Harvard and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) – announced a discovery that may well lead to a revolutionary drug capable of reversing aspects of the aging process. By offering a treatment for DNA damage from aging and radiation, the drug could be especially helpful for astronauts who set out on extended missions to Mars and beyond. My son Will Fox has an excellent article on this topic on his highly popular website, Future Timeline.

But when will we see this or other anti-aging research come to fruition? And will anyone living now be around to benefit from it?

Only time will tell!



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