2012 Seminar on the History of the Book ; Will Poole, ‘John Fell’s New Year Books’

from Martha Repp

The first in the seventeenth annual series of Oxford Seminars on the History of the Book, convened by Professor I.W.F. Maclean, was given at All Souls College, Oxford, on 20 January, 2012, by Dr. William Poole of New College, Oxford, on the subject of “John Fell’s New Year Books”.

Dr. John Fell, 1625-1686, was one of the dominant figures in the intellectual life of Oxford in the mid to late 17th century. He was elected Dean of Christ Church in 1660 at the age of 35, served as Vice-Chancellor of the University from 1666 to 1669, and, in 1676, became Bishop of Oxford, while still serving as Dean of Christ Church, continuing to hold both offices, as well as a number of other official and ecclesiastical positions, until his death in 1686. He was also an important figure in the development of printing in Oxford. He was one of the partners leasing the University press, and arranged for the use of the Sheldonian Theatre for printing purposes, as well as setting up a type foundry in Oxford and encouraging the Wolvercote paper mill.

Fell’s scholarly output includes sermons, biographical works, and numerous editions of classical and patristic texts, but Dr Poole’s paper focused on one particular aspect of this; the series of small format editions published in Oxford at Fell’s expense between 1666 and 1686, and known as the New Year Books because they were intended to be given by Fell as New Year gifts to his students.

The tradition of exchanging gifts at New Year was an old one, and it is not surprising that within academic communities these gifts should have come to take the form of texts. There is evidence of works having been printed in England as New Year gifts as early as the 16th century, most of which are attempts on the part of the author to attract the attention of wealthy and influential patrons rather than serious intellectual undertakings. In University settings, this exchange of gifts generally seems to have taken the form of students presenting their latest work to their tutors. Fell acknowledges this tradition in the 1669 edition of Clement of Rome, in which he states that part of his motivation for producing the series of New Year Books is that he frequently received New Year gifts of texts from his students, and that he felt it was, as he puts it, “turpissimum” for him to have nothing to give them in exchange. In addition to this practical motivation, Fell also seems to have had a general interest in producing a series of cheap editions of teaching texts for students long before he actually started the New Years Books. But he had to be careful not to upset the London Stationers, who monopolised the textbook market.

Fell’s New Year Books are generally small format (octavo or duodecimo) editions of texts by classical and patristic authors. They are distinguished by austerity and plainness, both in production and in editorial style, which demonstrates Fell’s preference for text over commentary and collation over exegesis. In most cases, the texts and versions presented were not new, and Fell seems to have done comparatively little work on them. It has been stated that the New Year Books are primarily patristic in nature, and this is certainly true after 1679 (possibly because at this point Fell was also working on his edition of Cyprian). Before 1679, however, there is generally a fairly equal balance between Christian and pagan authors. In general, the choice of authors and texts shows a preference for early Christian authors who warn of the dangers of schism, and who propound an episcopal, but definitely not papal, form of church government. Despite this inherent conservatism, it should not be assumed that the authors and texts chosen were always neutral, or that the texts were always read and received in a friendly manner; the choice of Nemesius as the New Year Book for 1671 appears, from the tone of the annotations in some surviving copies, notably Thomas Barlow’s, to have been particularly controversial.

Fell’s editorial practice appears to have depended heavily on collation; in most cases, the texts provided are collated from around four manuscripts. Although the manuscripts used are sometimes clearly identified, Fell tends to be less clear about which specific readings have been taken from which manuscript, making it hard to trace the collation process in any detail. It has been suggested that Fell used the New Year Books as an annual exercise for his students in preparing and editing a text, but the evidence for this is patchy. Fell does seem to have had some help in preparing these editions, certainly from Thomas Spark, who edited the 1679 edition of Zosimus and the 1678 edition of Herodian which may have been the New Year Book for that year and is certainly affiliated to the series, and probably from Edward Bernard, who Madan associates with the preparation of the 1666 edition of Pachymeres. Bernard also presented a copy of the 1686 edition of Origen to Friedrich Spanheim, and appears to have borrowed manuscripts from New College library on Fell’s behalf. However, Fell rarely if ever appears to have conceded overall editorial control to anyone else.

The final question considered was how these works were circulated, and to whom. Fortunately, as many of the books were acquired by Oxford college libraries, a large number of them have survived, in many cases in series which can be traced to particular academic owners. The majority of copies do appear to have been given as gifts, with several surviving copies having ex dono inscriptions recording the gift. These gifts were widely circulated within Christ Church, and less widely circulated outside, although this is more difficult to trace. Fell appears to have given copies to his academic peers and contemporaries, as well as to his students. Fell certainly had some copies bound for him by the Oxford binder Henry Ingram, but since these constitute relatively few copies, it is probable that he gave away unbound copies as well. Copies were passed on from one academic to another, and were certainly still being used as live academic texts in the eighteenth century. There is little evidence of the works having been circulated outside England. Although the nature of the works as gifts is always insisted on, and they are only rarely referred to in the Term Catalogues, there is also evidence of a commercial element to their production; they were produced in print runs of up to a thousand, more than could have realistically been given away, and there is also evidence of Fell having used copies of the books as capital within Oxford.

A stimulating final discussion considered many of the issues raised in the paper in more detail, such as whether there is evidence of the works having been given to a particular type of student, and whether the production of this kind of “teaching text” allowed for the publication of texts without the level of scholarly editorial work that would be required for a full-scale critical edition.