Adam Nicolson (whose God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible I wrote about here) is working on a series for BBC Four about “Britain’s original information revolution” of the seventeenth century, and that is the title of a piece in The Telegraph in which he discusses an amazing survival from that era:
Townend is a smallish limewashed 17th-century yeoman’s house at the southern end of the Westmorland village of Troutbeck… Not only is it miraculously full of carved 17th-century beds and chests, with rushlight holders and all kinds of carved stools and chairs (some real, some 19th-century bodge-ups). It also still contains the books that the Brownes kept and treasured. That is its glory. Nowhere else in England does a yeoman’s library survive, but in Townend, now carefully housed in a room at the back, on bookshelves made and carved by a 19th-century antiquarian Browne, is an extraordinary cache of the sort of books that his 17th-century ancestors spent their lives collecting.
There are a couple of 16th-century books here, including, amazingly, a 1548 copy of Erasmus’s paraphrase of the New Testament – Erasmus in a Lake District farmhouse! – and several legal books. But then comes the 17th-century explosion: more than 170 17th-century books, here since they were bought, either in London and sent up with the carrier, or in local auctions, and bound locally. (The minister in late 17th-century Troutbeck, when not preparing his sermons, liked to bind books.)
There are all the preoccupations of the yeoman here: some farming manuals, books on case law, how to write wills, great sermons and commentaries on the Bible. But the Brownes’ horizons were not as close as you might have thought. William Camden’s True and Royall History of the Famous Empresse Elizabeth Queene of England France and Ireland (c. 1625) is here. A foot away is George Herbert’s The Temple (1667), the most beautiful book of poetry written in the 17th century. Alongside a 1623 printing of the King James Bible are works by the great theorist of the Anglican church Richard Hooker, by Francis Bacon, Michael Drayton and Sir Thomas Browne. There are books in Latin and even two in Greek. Fresh streams of metropolitan culture were flowing through this dark farmhouse in a part of the world which in the 1720s Daniel Defoe would call “all barren and wild, of no use to either man or beast”.
I like Nicolson’s emphasis on the revolutionary implications of the collection (“How would the Brownes of Townend tolerate being looked down on by anyone when they were reading by their rushlights on a winter evening the universal truths of The Temple or even the language of the King James Bible?”) and on the “remnants of a far older, magical attitude to the written word”; here’s his conclusion: “Francis Bacon and Abracadabra, Greek texts and stallions breathing into children’s mouths: isn’t that confusion, the lack of clarity and coherence at any one moment, the pulse of history, the quality that allows you to recognise that you are in touch with the real thing?” And you can see some beautiful photos of the house here.