The Folger has fourteen of an odd, unloved sort of manuscript that I’ve taken to calling “Books of Offices,” which exist in over a hundred versions throughout archives in the US and UK. Typically entitled with variations of “A survaye or Booke of Offices aswell of his Majesty’s Courts of Recorde as of his Majesty’s most noble household,” or “A collection of all the offices of England with their fees and allowance in the King’s Gift,” they differ markedly from the well-known humanist descriptions of English governance written by Thomas Smith and William Harrison.
Rather, they uniformly adhere to a unique template of austere lists elaborating the offices, officeholders, and fees of the crown government. Scholars have paid virtually no attention to these documents, likely put off by their soporific titles and trivial promises. But “Books of Offices” offer a rare overview of the bones of early modern government while testifying to the impact of the increasing mediation of political knowledge by inscription.
These “Books of Offices” occupy a central place in the book project I am pursuing as a long-term Fellow. My project examines the effect of proliferating inscription and collection of texts on the political and intellectual culture of early modern Europe. It was generated in no small part by my effort to make sense of the surprising prevalence of these manuscripts in the Folger collections. At first glance they resemble the lists of officeholders that coursed through early modern England. However, careful study reveals idiosyncrasies that divulge unusually precise insights offering rich testimony of the obscure corners of crown governance.
“Books of Offices” are divided into public institutions like the exchequer, chancery and admiralty, but also the customs ports, castles, forests, parks, and other crown possessions, as well as household offices such as the kitchen and wardrobe—all of the particular offices subject directly to the monarch.
Rows for each of the specific positions were usually followed by spaces for names to be entered and their annual salaries. There was a place at the end of each section for the sums of the entire unit, with another at the end of the volume for the grand total. For example, under the Chancery was listed the Lord Chancellor, Keeper of the Privy Seal, Master of the Rolls, Masters of the Chancery, Clerks of the Privy Seal, Clerk of the Hanaper, Controller of the Hanaper, Six Clerks, Enroller of evidences and Letters Patents, Protonothary, Sealer, Chafer of Wax, Sergeant at Arms, and Crier. In addition to the personnel roles there were spaces for necessary expenses like wax, parchment, and couriers.
The descriptions of all offices are similarly granular, surveying posts like the Master of Harriers—who oversees the royal dogs—to the clerks working in the scalding house and ewery of Hampton Court.
As artifacts that would have been seen and used by many contemporaries, however, they tell us something rather distinct about politics in the period. There was little standardization of positions beyond the underlying lists, and while units on the central crown offices or household were never omitted, those on the forests, chases and parks, customs, or castles sometimes were. This core set of units was frequently supplemented by other lists offering similarly barebones descriptions of other forms of authority, including lists of the nobility arranged in order of their precedence or lists of England’s bishoprics.
The order of the components also varied. These manuscripts were less set texts than hybrid concatenations of discrete reference lists that could be joined or disaggregated by their creators.
Moreover, few of their creators capitalized thoroughly on the underlying template. Some copies populate around half the spaces for names, but more often these columns are entirely blank or only list a few names of heads of offices. Perhaps more surprisingly, the fees paid for the offices were occasionally omitted, and very frequently sum totals have not been entered.
When these sums were entered, they were often inaccurate, since the fees owed to specific offices would be updated without adjusting the total at the end of the relevant section; the numbers seem to have been conventionalized rather than calculated. “Books of Offices,” in fact, almost never supplied sufficient detail to be considered a precise snapshot of the civil list or of crown finance. But this expectation mistakes their unique significance. Their main value instead lies in elaborating an accurate, if imprecise, perspective on the regime as a coherent set of offices and institutions, as an instrument imposing precarious, illusory fixity on the moving object of the state.
No less striking are the people who owned them. To be sure, many belonged to the powerful few occupying elite offices, for whom they likely served as instrumental tools revealing the broader structure of which they were a part. But they were also owned by many aspirants to office, those eager to read their names among the enormous roster of clerks, messengers, and other unspectacular offices required in governance. The writing master Peter Beale, most strikingly, entered at the end of his copy a rueful poem: “When in your hande yow houlde/ All offices alone/ Twere marvell if yow should not get/ Mongst manye thowsande one,” followed by “if not for you, at least for your friends.” 1 These manuscripts supplied job listings by way of a synoptic view of government.
Beale’s poem appears in multiple copies of these “Books” outside the Folger too, which suggests that they would have served as ideal manuscript samples for the upwardly angling scribe, for their possession suggested a degree of access indicating trustworthiness and credibility. These “Books” likely originated as a functional document describing the scope of crown governance for figures already installed it. As they leached out beyond statesmen and administrators they served as instruments to demonstrate valuable scribal acumen that also hinted at a meaningful grasp of the contours of the state. Because possession of this manuscript thus might be taken as an index of a desirable constellation of skill, expertise, credit, and knowledge, figures looking to gain entry to the regime continued to inscribe and circulate new copies from ever more liminal positions. And through repeated iterations of this process, the social value of this manuscript and technological ease of reproduction combined to multiply a fundamental description of the regime throughout the realm. In this way, “Books of Offices” suggest how and why the proliferating of paper, pen and ink in early modern England generated political and epistemological transformation by furnishing new resources for individuals to operate within, know, and assess their political structures.
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So interesting, Nick! I wonder if the person behind the “P.B.” initials is actually the writing master Peter Bales (1547-c.1610) rather than Peter Beale. Bales was at his prime in the 1590s, and in addition to his writing manuals and schools, advertized his availability as a copyist and had various patrons at court.
Heather Wolfe — February 1, 2018