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Rare Notes on a Bestseller

By Hanna de Lange |

Today, visitors from all over the globe know their way to Cambridge and all the sites to see there. These landmarks include Magdalene College’s Old Library and Pepys Library, both of which are PWRB partners. But how did early modern Europeans learn about Britain’s unique treasures and rich history?

The collection of the Old Library of Magdalene College holds a 1637 copy of William Camden’s Remaines concerning Britaine: their languages. Names. Surnames. Allusions. Armories. Monies. Empreses. Apparell. Artillarie. Wise speeches. Proverbs. Poesies. Epitaphes. And, according to the title page, this was not the first edition of the book: The fifth impression, with many rare antiquities never before imprinted. By the industry and care of Iohn Philipot, Somerset Herald.

Classmark C.5.25
Engraving frontispiece and title page of USTC 3019178. Image courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College, Cambridge. (Classmark: C.5.25.)

William Camden (1551-1623) was an antiquarian, historian, topographer and herald, who was installed as ‘Clarenceux King of Arms’ in 1597. His book is a chorography, a field that John Dee defined as ‘the practice of describing a territory or parcell of ground wherein it leaveth out… no notable, or odde thing, above the ground visible’. In his book, Camden conscientiously describes all things that (in his view) shaped British identity: peculiarities and traditions, inhabitants from British, Scottish or Welsh origin and their languages, names, epitaphs, proverbs, anagrams, vocabulary and antiquities. Whereas his previous topographical work, Britannia, was in Latin, Camden’s Remaines concerning Britaine was written in English. It is no wonder that the book was so popular at the time. It was favoured by the British at home and Anglo-Saxonists beyond the British borders, but it was also of interest to foreigners wanting to learn more about the country.

The popularity of Camden’s book is well reflected in its publishing history. It was first printed in 1605 under the title Remaines of a greater worke, concerning Britaine. Subsequent editions were published as Remaines concerning Britaine, in 1614 and 1623, the year of Camden’s death. But this powerhouse print run did not stop after Camden passed away. A fourth version appeared in 1629 and in 1636 and 1637 two variants of the same edition were produced. This time the work was re-printed and expanded by John Philipot, Camden’s marshal and deputy. Copies of all these editions found their way to eager collectors. There are dozens of surviving copies in libraries today. Given this impressive print run, we could definitely call Camden’s book a bestseller.

Old Library –Classmark C.5.25
Marginalia on page 292 of Magdalene College, Old Library’s copy of USTC 3019178. Image courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College, Cambridge. (Classmark C.5.25.)

But if it was a bestseller, how does it end up here, in a blog that usually explores rare books? The uniqueness of the 1637 edition in the Magdalene College, Old Library was created by one of its readers. The chapter on proverbs clearly provoked a reaction, because a former owner identified a missing adage and added it by hand: ‘An ounce of discretion is worth a pound of learning’. It seems this chapter aroused intervention by many of its readers. In another 1637 copy, held in the Special Collections of the Main University Library of Cambridge, something similar happened. A slight irritation emerges when this reader finds the proverb ‘All is well that ends well’ printed twice on consecutive pages. When the reader encounters the proverb for the second time they add ‘doubled from p. 290’. On the next page, the annotator finds even more repetitions and notes ‘doubled’ and ‘tripled’ in their, somewhat impatient, handwritten remarks.

shelfmark SYN.7.63.103
Marginalia on Camden chapter about British proverbs. Image courtesy of Cambridge University Library, Special Collections. (Classmark SYN.7.63.103)

Scholars on Camden agree that his chorographic works were vehicles for fashioning a unified national identity and defining Britain abroad. While the numerous editions give us a clear impression of the work’s popularity, they tell us little about their contemporary reception. Previous generations of bibliophiles may not have favoured these so-called ‘dirty’ editions, but their marginalia proves that Camden’s books were not just collected, but read.


Hanna de Lange is a Universal Short Title Catalogue PhD student at the University of St Andrews. She graduated from the University of Amsterdam with a degree in Early Modern History. Her doctoral research is a study of the dissemination of English, Scottish and Irish books on the early modern European book market. Follow her on Twitter, @HannadeLange1.


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Further reading:

Engel, W., R. Loughnane and G. Williams (eds.), ‘William Camden, Remains Concerning Britain (1605)’, in: The Memory Arts in Renaissance England: A Critical Anthology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), pp. 194-197.