The descrypcyon of Englonde, ‘Enprynted in flete strete in ye sygne of the sone By me Wynkyn de Worde’ in 1502, is a history of Britain. It’s a mix of materials, some originally derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century, layered in with geographical descriptions from the Polychronicon of the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden (d. 1364). It’s a big, folio-volume way in which a nation can tell a story of its own past, a sustained attempt to invent a tradition and, through repetition, to make that tradition stick. The chronicle runs from Adam and Eve down to its moment of compilation under Edward IV (d. 1483), but its central ideological claim is that Brutus of Troy, great-grandson of Aeneas, landed on an island called Albion around 1115 BCE, became its first king, and renamed the place ‘Britain’, after his own name. (I like the fact that having sailed from Troy, Brutus landed first at Totnes.)
The copy now in the library of the Society of Antiquaries in London is a particular register of the 16th-century life of this book. Page after page is covered with blocks of black ink, added by a reader with care and consistency. It looks like a redacted legal document.
What is happening here? The blocks of black ink delete, or nearly delete, every appearance of the word ‘Pope’, from Peter the First on. These deletions – again, they’re not quite that – are meticulous and they read like controlled rage: a careful and unswerving attempt to erase a memory. They are a response to the early years of the Protestant Reformation, when Henry VIII, on 9 June 1535, issued a statue requiring his subjects to strike out all references to the pope in their prayer books. This was book damage not as transgression but as legal requirement. ‘All manner [of] …books used in the churches,’ the statute prescribes, mixing legalism and violence in a very Henrician way, ‘wherein the said Bishop of Rome is named of his presumptions and proud pomp and authority preferred, utterly to be abolished, eradicated, and erased out, and his name and memory to be nevermore (except contumely and in reproach) remembered, but perpetually suppressed and obscured.’ The effects of this official policy of erasure are everywhere to be seen in archives and rare book rooms: surviving copies of printed Books of Hours show, in the words of historian Eamon Duffy, ‘that most Tudor devotees dutifully blotted, scraped or sliced the Pope … out of their devotions.’ What’s fascinating is how imperfect these efforts at deletion usually are: we can easily still read ‘pope’ through the ink in our Society of Antiquaries copy, and the effect of these blots is – with lovely irony – to draw attention to, rather than erase, the sustained presence of the pope in British history. As Juliet Fleming writes, ‘to systematically blot the name of the Pope from the pages of a book is to produce a blot as that name’: the redactions become their opposite, a form of marking out, and the book a site not of forgetting but of remembering.
On prayer books, I’d recommend Eamon Duffy, Marking the Hours: English People and their Prayers, 1240-1570 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006). On the paradoxes of blotting out text, there is the brilliant Juliet Fleming, Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England (London: Reaktion Books, 2001). On this subject in general, there is Dunstan Roberts, ‘The Expurgation of Traditional Prayer Books (c. 1535-1600)’, in Reformation 15 (2010), 23-49.