In the years of 1704/1705 there was a dispute in the scholarly world of England. Two educated people with the best connections to the highest circles were defaming each other. One of them was John Chamberlayne, the editor of our book. He continued the life’s work of his recently deceased father: “Angliae Notitia or, the Present State of England”. The man with whom he had a dispute came from Lausanne, was called Guy Miège and was famous for his French language textbooks. Then, in 1691, he published his “New State of England”, a rival product to the Chamberlaynes’ “Present State of England”. Chamberlayne accused the foreigner of plagiarizing the oeuvre of his late father, who according to him always devoted himself to the English people. Miège retaliated by calling Chamberlayne an enemy of the English liberty.
But let us not dwell on this dispute. Let us rather ask ourselves what these books were about – and why the market for them was so profitable that such conflicts could arise.
Anyone who sits down to read an issue of “the Present State of England” fundamentally misunderstood something. Because this is a reference book in which relevant data about England is compiled. A tradition-rich matter! For centuries there have been books in England in which facts about the country were collected.
It all began as early as 1086 with the famous Domesday Book, in which the ownership, population and laws of the kingdom were recorded by order of King William the Conqueror. It was to be valid for all times, that is, in medieval terms, until the Last Judgement – hence the name Doomsday Book.
The “Present State of England” did not have this ambition. Nevertheless, it is somewhat more extensive. It includes information about the country, such as geography, soil conditions and population figures, but also the English government system with its bodies and institutions, candidates for the throne, customs, laws, cities and universities. Remarkable are the extensive lists that the authors have created: Of court servants, members of parliament, judges, members of the Royal Society, doctors, positions in the Royal Mint and Post Office, Army officers and ships of the Royal Navy including crew and cannon figures.
Only very few readers would have been interested in more than a fraction of this. But if you needed reliable information on any of these matters, there was no getting around “The Present State of England” – or the competing work.
Of course members of parliament and officers died. Ships went down, ministers and courtiers were frequently replaced. So it goes without saying that such registers became outdated very quickly. Those who wanted to stay up to date had to regularly buy the updated new editions – under the father, Edward Chamberlayne, alone, twenty of them appeared from 1669 to 1702. And this clarifies the question of why the market for such directories was competitive: there was money to be made, and on a regular basis. The rapid obsolescence of the books seemed to upset some customers. John Chamberlayne replied that there was no need to throw away the old volumes, and that with all twenty of his father’s editions one would have a wonderful overview of England’s development in recent history. A joy for every statistician!
England Becomes Interesting
The book was not only relevant for the domestic market, but also for the rest of Europe, which at the time was beginning to take an increasing interest in England. Bit by bit, the kingdom was developing from an island on the periphery of Europe to a world power. Already in the publication year of our issue, England, which had long been governed in personal union with Scotland, became Great Britain in the Act of Union.
A book that explained the peculiarities of law and constitution, for example why this strange parliament was so powerful, was welcome reading material. This is also evident from the fact that both the Chamberlaynes and Miège published their work in French, the court language of the time. After all, who was speaking English back then?
The Who is Who of London Whores
The 18th century brought forth many more such “directoires”, and is considered the genres’ golden age. All sorts of things on the island were recorded in regularly updated directories, they were not just limited to mere regional studies. They described, for example, individual cities in detail and thus made the growing cities, where everyone could no longer know everyone, more comprehensible – similar to business or telephone directories before the breakthrough of the Internet.
This was taken to the extreme by “Harris List of Covent Garden Ladies” – nothing more than a directory of prostitutes in the London entertainment district of Covent Garden. It listed about 150 ladies, their prices, physical advantages and disadvantages and their “specialties”, even which illustrious persons of the London society – and the British royal family! – have supposedly been counted among their customers. Is it necessary to mention that this was a grubby bestseller? The semi-legal brothel guide was published annually between 1757 and 1795 in new editions and sold an average of 8,000 copies each year!
And our two squabblers? We don’t know much more about that. John Chamberlayne printed a royal privilege in the preface from 1708 onwards, prohibiting the reproduction and imitation of his work by order of the queen – the precursor of our copyright. It seems as though he won his case. However, both works continued to be published for over 40 years, even after the death of the editors. Thus the market seems to have sustained both works.
An early edition of the Present State of England can be found on the site of the Bavarian State Library.
You can access the Domesdaybook here.
You can find issues of the Harris List here.
That these products are still very popular with collectors today is shown by this news about the sale of an 1850 edition.
This wonderful project has taken on the task of making the entries about the prostitutes visible on a map.