Friday, August 13, 2010

Schoolboys comment on a 17th-century Sea-Prayer

As books have moved and migrated throughout the world across time, passing through different periods of personal and institutional ownership, they frequently accrue the material signs of those owners in the form of inscriptions, stamps, bookplates, and manuscript notes. I find it fascinating when a book displays multiple layers of such material signs, each one being received at a different historical moment and reflecting the unique idiosyncratic tastes or interests of a particular owner. While we are all familiar with the book owner's habit of erasing or obliterating the marks left by the previous readers in order to assert authority over a book as physical property, it is maybe more interesting to find marks in books that interact with or build upon one another, like the layers of commentary on display in many medieval manuscripts, or the multi-generational family record-keeping in bibles. The book I am writing about today contains a similarly multi-layered fabric of inscribed ownership marks.

Limp vellum binding with MS title

title page
Sternhold, Thomas, d. 1549
The vvhole booke of psalmes : / collected into English meeter by Thomas Sternhold, John Hopkins, and others ; conferred with the Hebrew, with apt notes to sing them withall ; set forth and allowed to be sung in all churches, of all the people together before and after morning and euening praier ; as also before and after sermons, and moreouer in priuate houses, for their godly solace and comfort, laying apart all vngodly songs, and balads, which tend only to the nourishment of vice, and corrupting of youth.
London : Imprinted for the Company of Stationers, 1605
[10], 91, [14] p. ; 21 cm. (4to)
Renaissance Center copy is in contemporary (?) limp vellum; in phase box; long ms. note on blank final page, signed Saml. West 1637

The Book of Psalms, often bound with the Bible and Book of Common Prayer, was one of the most popular books in Renaissance England. The sale of this type of book was so lucrative, in fact, that the Stationers Company held a monopoly on its publication for much of the early modern period. The last few leaves of this book (one of the Center's eleven psalters printed before 1700) contains “certaine godly prayers to be vsed for sundry purposes,” including “a prayer to be said at night before going to bed” and “a prayer to be said at the hour of death.” 

more of these prayers, including one "necessary for all persons

Perhaps taking a cue from the text, a man named Samuel West added a specialized prayer of his own to the book's endpapers in 1637. The prayer focuses on merchants and other seafaring people, asking God to protect them from the manifold dangers of the open ocean. 

MS Sea-Prayer

The prayer reads as follows (according to my transcript, in which I have supplied many of the words missing due to material losses on the left-hand margin):

                                                                               on the Seas:/
[Alm]ightie god thy power is wonderfull both vpon the Sea and Land &
[how]soeuer thou pleasest that workest thou in them both, sometimes thou
[mak]est the earth fruitfull, sometimes barren, also sometimes the Seas calme
[&] pleasant, sometimes rough and boisterous, for that whether they bring
[valu]able or prosperous thinges vnto vs all come from thee o Lord god, that
[thy?] power maie be serived [served] in thy creatures to the praise and glorie of thy
[blesse]d name seeing thou art ruler both of earth and sea wee most humblie
[des]ire thee to blesse all those that travell both by sea and land in the waie
[of] truth especiallie for the marriners and shipping of this our towne,
[w]hoe are for the getting and maintenance of their liuing compelled
[to] trauell on the seas and to committ themselues to vnto the dangers
[th]ereof o Lord though the surges of the Seas are maruelous yet art
[....] which sittest on high more maruelous though the windes are strong
[and] vehement, yet doest thou excell them in power for thou hast
[giv]en a commaundment to thy creatures and none can goe beyond
[...] fire, haile, Ice, Snowe and vapours, stormie windes and tempestes
[acc]omplish thy will thou alsoe when the shipp whereon thou and thy
[disc]iples weare grieuouslie tossed with the waues and at the point
[of] drowning causedest at the desire of thy disciples the Sea to be
[....]et the stormes to cease and a great calme to follow in soe much
[a]s they which weare in the shipp marueiled and saide what
[ma]nner of man is this that both the windes and Seas obeye him;
[Gra]nt o most gentle Sauiour, that whensoeuer any troublesome tempest,
arise vpon the Seas soe that such as are in danger by calling
[on] thy holie name with true faith maie find fauour at thy
[me]rcifull handes to be deliuered out of all perills and dangers and
[bein]g preserued by thy heauenlie power maie make happie and
[pros]perous voiages, soe shall it come to passe that they being saflie
[l]ed out of all perills and dangers maie praise and glorifie
[thy] holie name all the daies of their life graunt this o most mercifull
[Sa]uior and Redeemer./
                                                                                    Sam. West  1637

The title "on the seas" is only a partial one, since it is clear that additional writing once existed at the top margin of the page. I suspect this part of the leaf was brittle or otherwise damaged, forcing an owner to cut down the margins when fitting the book to its current limp vellum binding. Based on context clues within the prayer, it is probable the title is something along the lines of “A Prayer for those who travel on the seas.” The prayer's allusion to "the marriners and shipping of this our towne"suggests Samuel West lived in a port settlement, probably in the South of England. So far I have been unable to identify Samuel West and in any case it is likely the common nature of his name will preclude a confident identification. Nonetheless, the prayer affords an interesting devotional perspective on the dangerous and risky oceanic voyages conducted by merchants and mariners in early modern England. 

Yet a second set of annotations effectively undermines the gravity of the prayer. At some point well after the early seventeenth century, two boys had access to the psalter, perhaps in an educational context of some kind. Their crudely written and ink-smeared annotations suggest the boys’ comparative ability to read the prayer provided a source of some good-natured ribbing: “Jim cannot read cannot say that George for I can read it better than you can.” On a basic level, these comments are funny and evocative, conjuring the image of a stuffy schoolroom and two bored pupils trying to amuse themselves (is that a drawing of a boat too?). Since it is likely these sentiments would have been exchanged orally rather than in writing (the comments definitely have a conversational or bantering tone to them), I think it likely the two boys wrote them at a time of imposed silence, maybe during a school lesson. Why these boys were entrusted with a rare seventeenth-century Psalter--exposing it to use as a scribbling-pad--is another story altogether. All in all, this amusing and unlikely set of manuscript annotations demonstrates the potentially surprising combination of written marks a book accumulates as it passes through generations or owners and readers. 

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