Fantastic Thoresby – Part II: methinks I hear his very voice

Laura SanghaRalph Thoresby

A few posts ago I briefly introduced Ralph Thoresby, the Leeds antiquarian and diarist whose intellectual and religious pursuits have caught my attention. My intention is to make this a regular series where I offer up some little gems from the Thoresby diary, but in these initial posts I want to provide a bit of background for the entries and the reasons why they exist in the first place.

Previously I pondered in general terms why people keep diaries, and what sorts of information you might include in them, here I want to explore Thoresby’s inspiration in more depth. Thoresby began his diary in 1677, and pasted into the first volume is an intriguing note from his father John Thoresby, written on 15 August 1677.[1]

John Thoresby's note to his son Ralph.Ralph had been placed with a relative in London to learn the cloth trade, and his father was writing to him with advice about how to conduct himself in the City. He began by requesting that his son walk to Ludgate Hill to buy him two peruke wig combs which should be sent back to Leeds by the carrier. He continued by reminding Ralph to buy stockings, shoes and a hat, the latter ‘not over broad because the fashion will probably be narrower still’. After these everyday beginnings, Thoresby Snr offered some thoughts on conduct:

Remember that I advised you to be always employed in lawfull some imployment or other, sometimes in hearing good sermons wherein you will have many opportunities, sometimes in attending my cosen at the Hall and helping to lift or remove cloth [or any] such thing wherein you can be usefull or serviceable, sometimes in writing or drawing prospects which will be a pleasant or innocent recreations, as that of the monument, or of Bedlam, which [might be] taken very well in the middle of morefields…

Bethlem [Bedlam] Hospital. John Thoresby suggested his son could draw it.

Bethlem [Bedlam] Hospital. John Thoresby suggested his son could draw it.

Next, John Thoresby made a suggestion that apparently left a very long lasting impression on his son. He wrote:

I would have you in a little booke which you may either buy [or] make of 2 or 3 shreads of paper, take a little journall of any thing remarkable every day principally [as] to your self, as suppose Aug: 20 I was at such a place (or) such a one preached from such a text and my heart was touched, (or) I was a negligent hearer, (or) otherwise, etc I have thought this a good method for one to keep a good tolerable decorum in actions because he is to be accountable to himself as well as to god which we are too apt to forgett.

Given the fact that Ralph Thoresby’s diary begins shortly afterwards, on 3 September 1677, this seems to be a remarkable insight into why he began keeping a such a record, and to the motivation behind it. Ralph clearly took his father’s advice to heart, and this fits with a strong sense of filial loyalty that is amply demonstrated in the diary, particularly after Thoresby Snr’s sudden death in 1679. From this point in the diary Ralph’s grief is painfully apparent in many diary entries, one raw passage describing how he is unable to participate in psalm singing because:

methinks I hear his very voice, and with renewed pangs I am constrained to crouch to the bottom of the pew, and there vent my sorrow in plenty of tears.

His diary therefore fits into the ‘spiritual diary’ genre as an introspective work, inspired by a desire to give a good account of oneself before God. The Thoresbys were a dissenting family, so the paternal encouragement of rigorous self-examination comes as no surprise.

Much of Thoresby's diary is taken up with spiritual reflection.

Much of Thoresby’s diary is taken up with spiritual reflection.

My understanding of Ralph Thoresby’s motives was greatly enhanced by actually seeing the volumes of the diary at the Yorkshire Archaeological Society archives last November. The diary was first published by Reverend Hunter in 1830 in two volumes, but the published material represents only a tiny fraction of the eight volumes of the diary which survive.[2] In selecting material that Hunter thought would be of interest to his readers, the editor has obscured the extent to which the diary is a spiritual document – the vast majority of the original diary is actually taken up with Thoresby’s description of and exploration of questions of theology that he encountered during attendance at both Church of England services and dissenting meetings, not with the more secular concerns that Hunter focused on. In this instance, the process of editing the diary has made it seem much more like Bridget Jones’ diary with a bit of added religion, and much less like the extended spiritual meditation that the manuscript represents.

A wig and a prayer?

A wig and a prayer?

Reverend Hunter did include John Thoresby’s note to his son in the preface to the published diary, although in this instance he excluded any talk of combs, foul linen and the merits of ‘secondhand beavers’ that John opens with. Even this seems like a significant omission – the fact that Thoresby Snr bookends his promotion of diary writing with everyday advice indicates how integrated spiritual concerns were with daily activities for those of the Thoresby’s ilk. Self-examination was just as important as a properly maintained wig, spiritual discipline sat naturally alongside innocent recreations and decorum in dress. I will wrap up with John Thoresby’s parting shot on producing good ‘prospects’, which, during my more frivolous moments seems pregnant with a deeper meaning: ‘when you draw any thing… make your lines straight’.

[1] Yorkshire Archaelogical Society, MS26.

[2] The Diary of Ralph Thoresby, Author of the Topography of Leeds (1677-1724), J. Hunter (ed.), two vols. (London, 1830).

7 thoughts on “Fantastic Thoresby – Part II: methinks I hear his very voice

  1. Very interesting post. I have come across some blogs that are clearly the result of some advice to self-examine. The advice doesn’t come from a father, hopwever, but from a psychiatrist.

    The wig engraving is fascinating as well.

    • Many thanks Jason – would you believe that I hadn’t really made the connection between diaries, self-examining and blogging until I read your comment! It’s a pertinent comparison.

      On wigs, John asks for two combs, ‘one strong, the other with with flexible slender teeth, for the strong ones are not alto[gether] so proper for perwigs’…

  2. Thanks for continuing the Thoresby series, Laura. I’m thoroughly hooked. I am especially struck by your discussion of the divergence between the 1830 edition (now freely available online and linked in your first post) and the original manuscript. It looks like the hoary issue of digital vs. archival, which we discussed on this blog (here, here & here), has reared its ugly head yet again. And, yet again, it seems like the question is still open … On one hand, obviously it’s great to have a free edition online and without it I’m sure many fewer people would ever encounter Thoresby. On the other, the amount that we lose by relying on the typed edition is substantial and might well skew perceptions of Thoresby even amongst knowledgeable scholars.

    • Thanks for the comments Brodie. As you know, I am very much in favour of digital resources, although of course we need to work on using them appropriately just as with all of our sources. It is probably worth pointing out that the issue here is actually with the nineteenth-century edition in the first instance, and then the digital resource – so lesson one is that the issues surrounding archive vs mass media don’t start with the digital age! Lesson two is that full bibliographic details are a necessity so it is clear where selection and editing has taken place – Reverend Hunter’s volumes in fact don’t even indicate that the work is abridged, and I didn’t find this out until I was actually at the archive.

      So I suppose I would say that yes, access to something is better than nothing, it is great that the diary is freely available as a resource, but it would be even better if more contextual detail was provided so that people have a better sense of what it is they are looking at.

      • Thanks for this wonderful post Laura – like Brodie, I think I’m hooked on Thoresby, although for purely selfish reasons I wish that he had been writing 50 years earlier! This is also a really interesting discussion (or continuation of a discussion) about the value of edited sources. I’ve experienced the same problem with selections from churchwardens’ accounts published in the nineteenth century: they include what seems important to the editor at the time, and silently excise ‘unimportant’ information, such as the references to music I was painstakingly searching for, and which you realise abound as soon as you consult the original manuscript. I’d like to think that academic editorial processes have improved somewhat, but it’s worth remembering how often early modernists, and (perhaps especially) historians of religion, rely on editorial work which is itself 150 years old (or more). Collections like the Parker Society volumes, the Camden Old Series, the Surtees Society publications, and many many local historical and archaeological society series. As always, I suppose the only workable solution is: ‘handle with care’…

    • Thanks Jonathan – I was very struck by the fact that Thoresby and his family are psalm singers, but in a time of deep emotional distress after his father’s death, Thoresby is unable to participate in music because the intensity of feeling it provokes is too great for him to stand. As I understand it, music is usually thought to have healing qualities, so I thought you would like this.

      And yes, the danger of all those rather old editorial works – this issue was really bought home to me at a theory reading group recently. The modernists all thought they were doing a ‘source analysis’ on nineteenth century primary material, whilst the early modernists and medievalists were treating it like any other ‘secondary’ scholarship. The approach probably didn’t actually differ that much in the end, but it really highlighted the completely different perspectives in the room!

      • Just on the psalm singing, I think that’s really interesting on two fronts. Firstly it shows the danger in trying to generalise about the affective properties of music, when the nature of the response it engenders is filtered through a matrix which is often shaped by personal meanings and associations very specific to the individual. Secondly (and I hope we’ll hear more about this later), you hinted that Thoresby was present at dissenting meetings as well as CofE services. It would be very interesting to know what sort of meetings those were, and whether they were using the psalms, or whether Thoresby was just so attached to them through his experience of parochial worship that it was one aspect of conformist religion he was reluctant to abandon… Fascinating stuff!

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