This is my latest post in my long running series on the pious Leeds antiquarian Ralph Thoresby. My thanks to the Yorkshire Archeological Society for their permission to reproduce material from the Thoresby papers.
I recently returned from an end of summer ‘smash and grab’ raid on the archive with a memory card stuffed full of hundreds of images of diary entries, correspondence and other bits and bobs from Ralph Thoresby’s papers. I consulted all of this material at the Yorkshire Archaeological Society (YAS) headquarters in Leeds, where the Thoresby Society is also currently located. Both are housed at Claremont, a splendid eighteenth-century merchants’ abode that is a delight for any student of history to work in, peaceful and accessible as it is. The staff and volunteers are very welcoming and knowledgeable, and the archivist Kirsty McHugh in particular went out of her way to accommodate me on my visit. Alas, Claremont will not provide such a salubrious environment to scholars for much longer, because lack of funds means that the Society’s Library and Historical Collections are to be moved, and Claremont is to be sold. Fortunately, the collection is to be loaned to the magnificent Brotherton Library of the University of Leeds, hopefully preserving the unique character and coherence of the whole, but nonetheless this is sad news for those who have sustained the YAS over the years, and particularly for those currently based there.
With the start of term only a week away, it is likely to be some time before I can digest the material that accompanied me back to the South West, but I did stumble across a couple of bits of found art that I wanted to share.
The first I found in YAS MS15, a collection of letters from the clergyman George Plaxton (1647/8-1720) to Ralph Thoresby. Plaxton was another Yorkshire antiquarian who became rector of the valuable living of Barwick in Elemet in July 1703. He immediately struck up a friendship with Thoresby and they exchanged letters, books, documents and information for many years. Plaxton stands out among Thoresby’s correspondents (even to the scholar just taking endless photographs of documents for days on end…) because of his rambunctious writing style and for the wide range of nicknames that Plaxton used to address his letters to Thoresby. These range from the more regular Good Friend, Ralpho, and Mercury, to the more unusual Sydrophil (sometimes shortened to Sydri). My favourites however are: the Great Antiquary, the Mystical Conjuror, and perhaps most memorably, the Wizzard. On occasions Plaxton would also address the ‘envelop’ using a nickname, which invited the carrier into the joke as well – I wonder how my subject felt about being addressed in this public manner as ‘The Portly Mr Thoresby at Leeds’?
The letter that particularly caught my eye was one that was addressed:
To the Ghost of Mr Ralph Thoresby late of Leeds, To be left at the sign of Methusalems head in the suburbs of Purgatory, [from] Frank John Mandeville.
What was this reference to the fourteenth-century Anglo-Norman writer doing there? Of course I stopped and read on, with growing amusement. Evidently Thoresby had not written to or visited his friend for some time, because Plaxton wrote:
I am now satisfy’d that Ralph Thoresby is dead, for had he been alive he would have seen mee this Frost, but he is certainly gone to the other world to converse with Selden, Cambden, Goltzius, St Simon d’ Ewes and other Antiquaries. I hope he will meet with [Jacobethan traveller and writer] Tom Coryat, and other Learned Foot-pads in his Travells, and compare notes and compare shoes with them. I am sure that [medieval monk and astronomer] John de Sacro Boko will be glad to see him, and so will [medieval Bishop] old Paulinus of Leeds, and the Merry Abbot of Kirkshall. I hope he will discourse with Robin Hood, and get his Pedigree, and send us word who was Litle John’s Godfather. Had I known of his journey I would have sent some Materiall Enquiries by him, and writ a letter to our friends Fryer Bacon, and honest Bungay [characters in an Elizabethan play], but Ralpho slipt away unknown to his Friends. I will write to him by the next Neighbour who goes that Road and send 1d to drink with him, and poor honest Owen, who I am sure will be glad to see an old Acquaintance. By this time I judge he is neare Purgatory, if he pass well that dark and Troublesome Lane, he will soon be at this Journeys end. I have no more to add but that I am
Old Sydrophills Living Friend and Servant
Barbicus. St Thomas’s day 1709
The letter is almost entirely humorous in function – though there is a request for Thoresby to send a tobacco box and inkhorn to the vicar, this afterthought seems far less important than the jest itself. It’s funny even to modern sensibilities (‘send us word who was Litle John’s Godfather’), and whilst parts exhibit the sender and recipients’ learning, there are plenty of references to more ‘popular’ culture, to local figures, and to the medieval past in the mix. It is quite a sophisticated piece of wit, an example of the presumably everyday humour that rarely survives in the types of sources that I usually work with when studying religious cultures, and which leaves few traces elsewhere. A reminder then, that early modern people made jokes too.
I will certainly be exploring the Plaxton-Thoresby relationship in more depth in future. I’m particularly interested in any drafts of letters to Plaxton that might survive in Thoresby’s copy book, because the light-hearted offerings from ‘Barwick’ suggest a less sombre and more cheery side to Thoresby’s character that his spiritual diaries in particular might obscure.
My second bit of found art fulfils the criteria in a more literal way. It is from YAS MS19, a miscellaneous collection of notes covering all of Thoresby’s life. There are very few illustrations in the Thoresby papers, so I feel I don’t really need to explain why this one caught my eye, except to say that he also looks like he would appreciate a jest too.