SIL Book of the Week – The ‘stuff’ of early modern history

The latest addition to the Routledge Guides to using Historical Sources, Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources has been received into the Shakespeare Institute Library this week. Edited by Laura Sangha and Jonathan Willis, this book is an invaluable resource for the student of early modern history. Every student knows that primary sources are the lifeblood of the historian and without them, as the Introduction clearly states, history would be impossible to write. But where to start?!

understandingFor the student, the array of material ranging from state papers, printed books, literary sources, manuscript letters, diaries, wills and inventories, visual sources such as paintings, buildings, clothing etc. etc. can be daunting, if not overwhelming. The first part of this book offers a practical guide to approaching such sources, providing information on how the material was produced in the first place, how it has been preserved and how it can be accessed. There are pointers as to where to look at original material as well of course as how to access the vast and ever-increasing  digital resources now available. There are hints on the kind of questions to ask when approaching such sources together with case studies and examples.

The second part of the book approaches its subject thematically, examining what kind of sources can be used to explore a range of major themes such as popular culture, political culture, gender, science, warfare, religion and so on.

A must for the student of early modern history as well as the student of Shakespeare who is interested in setting the work of the bard within the wider context of the world in which he lived.

Dr Jill Francis, Library Support Assistant


SIL’s Early Modern Gardens Exhibition

Why should we in the compass of a paleLayout of Elizabethan garden

Keep law and form and due proportion,

Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,

When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,

Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,

Her fruit-trees all upturned, her hedges ruin’d,

Her knots disorder’d and her wholesome herbs

Swarming with caterpillars?

Richard II, 3.IV

This month’s exhibition at the Shakespeare Institute Library is on Early Modern Gardens and features some wonderful early books on the subject and literary allusions to gardening, including a first edition of Andrew Marvell’s poem The Garden. Dr Jill Francis, one of the country’s experts on the subject (and part-time assistant at the library) explores this rich area of study.


The first practical gardening manual to be printed in English was Thomas Hyll’s A Most Brief and Pleasaunte treatise, teaching how to dresse, sowe, and set a garden, first published in 1558. It was reprinted many times, under a variety of different names, ultimately appearing as The Gardeners’ Labyrinth in 1577, a year after the author’s death.

However, Thomas Hyll was no gardener and the information in his books was taken from classical sources. During the late sixteenth century and the early seventeenth century a few more books were published by gardeners, for gardeners, with practical advice appertaining to English gardens. William Lawson’s A New Orchard and Garden was one such book, which proved extremely popular.

Paradisus Terrestris

Parkinson, Paradisus Terrestris

In 1629, John Parkinson produced probably one of the greatest gardening books of the period, Paradisus Terrestris, Paradisi in Sole; or, A Garden of Pleasant Flowers. Despite the somewhat pretentious title and the book’s expensive folio format, it was nevertheless a highly practical guide to gardening and the plants of the period, packed with advice and illustrated throughout.

As well as gardening books, herbals were another popular genre, the best and most well-known example being John Gerard’s Herball, first published in 1597, revised and reprinted in 1636 and still in print today. John Parkinson also produced a magnificent herbal, Theatrum Botanicum in 1640. The fabulously intricate and detailed title pages of these folio volumes are displayed in our exhibition.

Early modern gardens, as now, were an opportunity to demonstrate wealth and status. The primary function of any garden was a utilitarian one – to produce food and medicines for the family. However, anyone with the time and money could also use their gardens to create spaces filled with ornament and flowers in which to walk or sit, to admire the layout, enjoy the fragrances and, increasingly, to marvel at the new ‘outlandish’ plants, such as tulips, being brought into England from across the seas. To be able to fill your gardens with such exotic delights was a luxury only to be indulged in by the privileged few.

Kind thanks to the Cadbury Research Library for lending us their gardening treasures for this exhibition.

Dr Jill Francis, Library Support Assistant, Shakespeare Institute Library