Paper Wraps Stone: Monumental, Manuscript, and Printed Epitaphs in eighteenth-century England

John Le Neve (1679-1741), an English antiquarian who flourished in the first two decades of the eighteenth century, is best known for Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae. This hefty collection of biographies of clergymen, first published in 1716, became the foundation of a vast, multi-generational biographical project that continues to the present day.[1] By contrast, Le Neve’s next publication, Monumenta Anglicana, has sunk like a stone into the deep waters of scholarly history. Five volumes of transcribed funeral monuments published between 1717 and 1719, Monumenta Anglicana addresses the title of this new journal, Inscription, directly. It also speaks to the theme of this first issue, ‘beginnings’, because it pioneers new ways of approaching the various media in which it is involved: inscribed stone, manuscript and print.

            The methods that Le Neve adopts in Monumenta Anglicana are innovative in at least three ways. First, this text takes a familiar antiquarian practice – the transcription and publication of epigraphy – but it focuses on modern, rather than ancient, inscriptions. The first volume contains transcriptions of monuments set up from 1700-1715; subsequent volumes cover the period 1600-1718. Second, it coins a new term to refer to a published text that seeks to gather information about the recently dead in one place: the obituary. Finally, it offers an early example of an unusual publishing practice: subscription publication where the person who organises the subscription list and distribution of copies is the author, rather than a bookseller.[2] These innovations are all inter-related aspects of Le Neve’s self-consciousness towards the materiality of text. 

Figure 1. John Le Neve, Monumenta Anglicana, vol. 1 (1717), title page.
Creative Commons license, Wellcome Trust.

Monumenta Anglicana asks its readers to consider what happens when one kind of inscribed text (a monument) is transformed into another (a manuscript), and then gathered together with other inscriptions in a printed volume. In doing so, it offers an extended meditation on what it means to commemorate the dead not just in stone, but also in print. Rather than emphasising the essential differences between the media with which his text engages, Le Neve asks his readers to consider them in relation to one another. He presents paper-based memorials not as a poor substitute for stone, but rather as a new kind of commemorative practice that exists alongside and in dialogue with inscribed monuments.  He looks towards the future as well as the past as he transforms epitaphs through the medium of print.

Inscriptions ancient and modern

Transcribed epitaphs feature in almost all antiquarian publications from the sixteenth and through to the early eighteenth centuries, alongside other inscribed objects such as coins and medals. During the early years of the seventeenth century, however, epitaphs became the principal topic of entire texts. Two slim volumes, William Camden’s Reges, Reginae, Nobiles & alii in ecclesia collegiata B. Petri Westmonasterij sepulti (1600) and Henry Holland’s Monumenta sepulchraria Sancti Pauli (1614), take readers on tours of the epitaphs and monuments of Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s cathedral, respectively. These little texts barely register in the balance, however, when weighed against John Weever’s colossal Ancient Funerall Monuments (1631): a 900-page folio of transcribed inscriptions from parish churches and cathedrals in the dioceses of Canterbury, Rochester, London and Norwich. Weever’s text became, according to Graham Parry, ‘one of the most frequently mentioned antiquarian works’ of the seventeenth century.[3] In the early years of the eighteenth, John Le Neve began the first volume of his Monumenta Anglicana with an extended summary of the discourse on epitaphs with which Weever begins his own work. Le Neve goes on to claim that he is ‘pursuing the same Studies’ as John Weever, ‘tho’ after a Method somewhat different from him’.[4]

            Weever portrays himself as a solitary epitaph hunter whose painstaking commitment to transcribing the verbal contents of monuments impressed itself, physically, both on himself and on his book. Not content to reproduce epitaphs from earlier publications (he doesn’t mention Camden or Holland’s short books, which include some of the epitaphs that he also appears to have transcribed at first hand), he suffered for his calling as he rode around south east England, recording the inscriptions that he found in each place. In the introduction to his work, he recalls that 

hauing found one or two ancient Funerall inscriptions, or obliterated Sepulchers, in this or that Parish Church, I haue ridden to ten Parish Churches distant from that, and not found one. Besides I haue beene taken vp, in diuers Churches by the Churchwardens of the Parish, and not suffered to write the Epitaphs, or to take view of the Monuments as I much desired.[5]

Just as time obliterated sepulchres, so antiquarian pursuits left their mark on Weever: the doleful tone of this passage registers the pressure of unfriendly churchwardens and miles of horse’s hoof-prints. More positively, what we see at work here is a strong sense of connection between the author and the ancient past, achieved through physical presence. Although Weever did call on learned friends for help in gathering material – he notes, in particular, the assistance offered to him by eminent antiquarians, Robert Cotton, Henry Spelman, and John Selden – the authority for this volume derives from the fact that Weever has stood before the monuments he transcribes, his feet physically occupying the place of readers down the centuries and the masons who first inscribed them.

            The importance that Weever ascribes to place and physical presence are registered in the structure of his text. Ancient Funerall Monuments moves slowly from parish to parish, situating epitaphs in the context of the places, buildings, families, and local customs that help to make sense of them. Indeed, Weever worries that 

I may, perhaps, be found fault withall becuse I doe not chorographically and according as Churches stand, nearer or further remote in one and the same Lath hundred or wapentack, emprint and place the Funerall Monuments in this my booke; but slip sometimes from one side of a County to another before I emprint an Epitaph.[6]

Weever’s vocabulary here conveys the importance of locality to his writing: chorography, for instance, refers to the practice of charting particular regions and districts,[7] while a ‘wapentack’ or wapentake is a subdivision of a shire equivalent to a hundred – its Norse derivation speaking to the ancient past of the midlands and northern counties where it is used.[8] The verb that Weever uses for his own activities, ‘emprint’, calls to mind an equally localised form of activity, albeit one that takes place in the confined space of the book. In this context, it is more metaphorical than literal: the title page tells us that this text was printed by Thomas Harper for the bookseller, Laurence Sadler, but Weever’s choice of verb elides the role of the printer and that of the author. He performs a similar rhetorical manoeuvre when he writes that he ‘slip[s] sometimes from one side of a County to another’, evoking both geographical and textual terrain. Both metaphors (author as printer, text as landscape) wish away the mediating function of print. Weever’s ideal text is one that allows readers to feel as though they are standing – just as he did – before real monuments that exist in a particular geographical landscape. As objects that were made both in the ancient past and in more recent times, monumental inscriptions allow antiquarians to adopt a diachronic approach towards particular places. The epitaphs included in the second edition of Henry Holland’s volume on St. Paul’s cathedral (1633) span nearly a millennium – from the tomb of Sebba, King of the East Saxons, who died in 677, to the ‘newly erected’ monument to John Donne, who died in 1631.[9] John Weever also saw antiquarian potential not only in the ancient funeral monuments that give his book its title, but in inscriptions that were being produced during his own lifetime. In his introduction, he writes: 

I would earnestly desire the Tombe-makers of this Citie of London, and elsewhere, that they would be so carefull of posteritie, as to preserue in writing the Inscriptions or Epitaphs which they daily engraue vpon Funerall Monuments, from whom I shall expect the like kindnesse, and to whom I will euer remain alike thankfull. For, I intend, God willing, hereafter to publish to the view of the world, as well the moderne, as the ancient memorialls of the dead throughout all his Maiesties foresaid Dominions, if God spare me life.[10]

God didn’t spare Weever, who died just a few months after the publication of his magnum opus. But the idea that modern monuments might speak to posterity and the belief that tomb-makers might be key to such a project lived on after his death through Weever’s self-appointed successor, John Le Neve.

            Le Neve’s Monumenta Anglicana is an antiquarian text with a difference. It looks very much like earlier texts by Weever, Holland and Camden, offering readers a collection of transcriptions of monuments found in English churches. Like those earlier texts, Le Neve focuses primarily on monuments erected on the interior of churches; given the expense of such a venture, these tend to commemorate individuals of relatively high social status. Again like those of his predecessors, Le Neve’s monuments commemorate men and women, in Latin and in English, celebrating the public and private virtues of their deceased, as well as their family connections. Unlike earlier texts in this tradition, however, Le Neve’s focus is exclusively on modern memorials. The earliest texts in Monumenta Anglicana date from the time of Camden, Holland and Weever. The penultimate inscription in the fifth and final volume of Le Neve’s work is a well-known epitaph on two lovers killed by lightening in 1718, written by Alexander Pope (though not attributed to him by Le Neve). It was erected in Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire, the year after the first volume Monumenta Anglicana had left the press, and just a few months before the publication of its final volume.[11] Le Neve’s text is, then, something of an oxymoron: an antiquarian volume of modern memorial inscriptions. 

            Le Neve picked up not only Weever’s project to create a repository of modern memorial inscriptions, but also his proposed method – that is, direct collaboration with the craftsmen who produce these objects. In the preface to Monumenta Anglicana, Le Neve notes:

I think my self obliged in a particular manner, to own my Obligations to Mr. Stanton[,] Mason, near St. Andrew’s Church in Holbourn. Were every Person of that Profession as careful in preserving Copies of the Inscriptions on all the Tombs they set up, and as communicative, (which indeed I think they should be for their own Honour) the World might be easily obliged once a Year with a Volume of that sort perfectly new, without stigmatizing the Editor with the Name of a Plagiary … I have likewise been much oblig’d to Mr. Bird the Carver, and to Mr. Hardy and Mr. Palmer Masons; and I wish I could say the same of the whole Fraternity. (i, a4v-b1r)

Le Neve’s tone suggests that he inherited Weever’s self-pitying tendencies as well as his proposed methods. He did, however, establish very productive working relationships with stonemasons including Francis Bird and Edward Stanton. In the half-decade before the publication of Monumenta Anglicana, Bird had produced funerary monuments for high-profile subjects including John Holles, duke of Newcastle, Sidney, earl of Godolphin, and Thomas Sprat, dean of Westminster, all of which were erected in Westminster Abbey, as well as a statue of Queen Anne in the same place.[12] Stanton was a scion of one of the most significant families of London stonemasons who also undertook extensive work producing funerary monuments at Westminster Abbey and in parish churches and cathedrals across England and Wales.[13] Le Neve’s collaborators, then, were among the most prominent craftsmen working on funerary monuments at the time when he was writing.

            Le Neve’s decision to focus on modern memorials, and to do so in collaboration with living masons and sculptors as well as other correspondents, gives his work a different complexion from that of his antiquarian predecessors. Those earlier texts emphasise the strong connections of monuments with the places they occupy – connections that endure through and are reinforced by the passage of time. They also privilege the author’s physical presence in that same geographical and cultural landscape as a precursor to and guarantor of the text. Print is a useful way of preserving stone inscriptions, but the primacy of the monumental original is never in doubt. In Monumenta Anglicana, on the other hand, Le Neve seeks to explore the relationship between the various media that a text might occupy: stone monument, paper manuscript (which both precedes and follows inscription on stone), and printed text. Rather than presenting monuments as ancient, stable and original, he depicts them as just one stage in the evolution of an epitaphic text.

Stone, script and print

Monumenta Anglicana adopts an approach towards place that is radically different from that of earlier collections of monumental inscriptions. While Holland and Camden focus on particular churches (albeit very large and significant ones), and Weever progresses through the parishes and counties of southern England, Le Neve’s work gathers together, promiscuously, epitaphs from all over England and Wales. A single leaf in the first volume takes us from Cumberland to Kent; another whizzes around between Staffordshire and Essex, Lancashire, Middlesex, Buckinghamshire and Denbighshire (I, 6-7, 59). There is no sense of organisation by place here and, in fact, Le Neve is profoundly indifferent to matters chorographical. He ends the preface to the first volume with a wonderfully casual reference to the fact that it is impossible to tell where many of the epitaphs in his book come from: 

One thing I forgot, let not the Reader be very angry, when in some Places he sees at the Front of an Inscription In —— and no more; the Omission is occasioned by the forgetfulness of the Persons who communicated the same, which cannot at present be recollected. (I, b1v

The location of many of epitaphs is indeed missing, the omission noted by a dash or blank space (Figure 2). Poor John Weever, so careful to situate monumental inscriptions in the cultural and historical contexts of their particular geographical and chorographical locations, must have been turning in his grave.

Figure 2. Blanks space in Le Neve, Monumenta Anglicana, i, 44.
Creative Commons license, Wellcome Trust.

John Le Neve occupies a different position in relation to the epitaphs he transcribes from that of his predecessors. He appears to have seen very few of the monuments in his volume in person. Only occasionally does he mark an epitaph ‘MS. autog.’, signifying that he has transcribed the inscription himself. Instead, he begins the first volume with a two-column table that sets out the correspondents ‘to whom I have been oblig’d for each MS. INSCRIPTION’ (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Le Neve, Monumenta Anglicana, i, b2r.
Creative Commons license, Wellcome Trust.

Le Neve’s list of correspondents includes not only stonemasons and sculptors like Edward Stanton and Francis Bird, but also clergymen and vergers, fellows of colleges in Oxford and Cambridge, members of Le Neve’s family (among them his uncle, the herald Peter Le Neve) and persons unknown to him including ‘A Gent. of Hexham in Northumberland, a Stranger to me’, and one Mr. Mansel, ‘A Stranger who Subscribes that Name’ (I, b2r-v). Entries in the table are keyed to individual epitaphs, each of which bears the name of the person who sent it: MS. BirdMS. Stanton, and so on. What we see here is not just Le Neve emphasising the collaborative nature of his project (which was characteristic of antiquarians before him, including Camden and Weever) but also the self-consciously mediated nature of its end product. Monumenta Anglicana consistently points up the fact that stone inscription, manuscript transcription, and printed codex exist in relation to one another. Its author invites its readers to reflect on the processes that turn one state of a text into another, and to make comparisons between those states. 

            As he highlights the process of mediation, so Le Neve also acknowledges the potential for textual instability throughout Monumenta Anglicana. He observes in the preface to volume two of this series: 

I am very sensible that, in some few Places of this Book, I have printed false or unintelligible Latin; but, not being satisfyed whether the Fault be laid to the Mason who set it up, or to the Transcriber who copied it, I rather chose to let it go as it came to me and shall be much obliged, if any Gentleman who has the Opportunity of coming to the original of any Inscription, will take the Trouble to compare them, and let me know how to set them to right. (ii, [A]2v

Le Neve’s insistence here that he prefers mistakes in Latin to intervening in the text he receives is reminiscent of John Weever, who notes, in Ancient Funerall Monuments that ‘I write the Latine in the same manner as I find it either written or imprinted.’ Weever goes on to observe: 

I likewise write the Orthographie of the old English as it comes to my hands, and if by the copying out of the same it be any manner of wayes mollified, it is much against my will, for I hold originalls the best; whereby some may obiect the simplicitie of my vnlaboured stile, and the rough hewen forme of my writing.[14]

Weever’s final metaphor here takes us back through non-standard spelling to the solid, dependable stone inscription that he valorises. Le Neve, on the other hand, makes an easy allowance for the malleability of an inscription as it moves between media. Errors might be the fault of stone carvers and manuscript transcribers; corrections might be passed into print through the care of future correspondents. (I have not come across versions of Monumenta Anglicana bearing manuscript corrections or filled-in missing place names but, like Le Neve, I invite contributions from future researchers who may discover these textual interventions for themselves!) There is no strong sense here of a perfect stone original and imperfect paper copies, but rather an impression that all texts are mediated through the work, and perhaps errors, of fallible creators.

            Sometimes Le Neve communicates the textual instability engendered by the act of transcription through intriguing marginal notes. The phrase ‘Sic in MS.,’ for instance, is printed in the margin of an inscription erected to the memory of Spencer Broughton in Broughton, Staffordshire, which was sent to Le Neve by the mason, Edward Stanton (I, 43) (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Le Neve, Monumenta Anglicana, i, 133.
Creative Commons license, Wellcome Trust.

The monument itself seems to correct the manuscript version to which the marginal note refers. Le Neve’s text includes the phrase ‘By ardent Zeal of his Majesties Service’, but the stone inscription replaces the awkward preposition ‘of’ with the more fluent ‘for’, to read, ‘By ardent zeal for his Matys Service’.[15] Who made this change? Perhaps Stanton, if he was the mason as well as Le Neve’s correspondent. What is the ‘MS.’ to which the marginal note refers? Perhaps the (now lost) original specification sent by the person who commissioned this monument. The note reminds us that, for masons like Stanton, manuscript instructions precede the act of carving in stone, and that inscription is, in this sense, an act of transcription. 

Even more extraordinary than the marginal note in Spencer Broughton’s memorial is one in a Latin epitaph on one Peter Lee, again sent to Le Neve by Edward Stanton. This time the monument’s location is conspicuously missing, its absence denoted by the word ‘In’ followed by blank space (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Le Neve, Monumenta Anglicana, i, 80.
Creative Commons license, Wellcome Trust.

‘Sic in MS. / Quaere.’ (‘so in the manuscript: query’) is printed in the margin next to the words concerning Lee’s death, ‘Antiquâ moriens’ – as well it might be, since this phrase is at odds with the preceding lines of the epitaph, all of which give a place name followed by a verb: 

Hiberniâ natus

Eblanâ eductus,

Angliâ vivens,

Flandriâ militans

[Born in Ireland
Educated in Dublin
Lived in England
A soldier in Flanders] (i, 80) 

In fact, as the surviving monument shows, the word ‘Antiquâ’ in Le Neve’s text should read ‘Antigua’: this inscription is – rather astonishingly – in the churchyard of St. John’s Cathedral, Antigua and Barbuda, where Peter Lee is buried (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Gravestone of Peter Lee, St John’s Cathedral, Antigua and Barbuda. The first five lines show the text printed in Figure 5.
Image copyright Arvin Thornton.

Again, the marginal note raises a number of questions. Whose query is this: Stanton’s, Le Neve’s, or someone else’s altogether? Is it there because Stanton, who sent this epitaph to Le Neve, hasn’t seen the stone inscription himself, but only a manuscript version of it? If so, this suggests that Stanton was not just sending inscriptions that he had made himself, but that he was also passing on manuscript versions of monuments by other masons. We cannot resolve these questions definitively, but we can think about their impact on Le Neve’s approach towards materiality. By leaving these marginal notes in the printed text rather than editing them out, Le Neve reminds readers that stone monuments are not ‘originals’, as Weever would have them. Rather, monuments are one stage through which a text might pass as it is inscribed (by hand and in stone), transcribed, and registered in print. Monumenta Anglicana allows its readers to experience this dynamic process of transmission and re-transmission, rather than conferring a sense of authority or stability on the texts it records.

            Le Neve’s transcribed inscriptions occupy an ambivalent relationship to the monuments that give his text its title. These monuments were often visually arresting, with heraldic devices and sculpted figures and objects, but none of this iconography and decoration is registered in Monumenta Anglicana. Beyond a very few passing references to the fabric out of which the tombs are made (one entry, for instance, records an epitaph ‘On a black polish’d Marble on the Floor’ of St. Mary’s, Warwick (I, 7)), Le Neve gives very little sense of these inscriptions as material items – perhaps because he had not seen many of them himself. Sometimes his text contains only a partial transcription of a particular monument. For instance, the inscription on Thomas Wagstaffe in Monumenta Anglicana is just one half of the original monument in St. Chad’s, Bishop’s Tachbrook, Warwickshire, which is a double memorial to Thomas and his wife, Dorothy Wagstaffe (Figures 7 and 8). In spite of the involvement of stonemasons and sculptors in its production, Le Neve’s text often feels a long way removed from the monuments that inspire his project.

Figure 7. Le Neve, Monumenta Anglicana, i, 149. Creative Commons license, Wellcome Trust.
Figure 8. Part of monument to Thomas Wagstaffe and Dorothy Wagstaffe, St. Chad’s Church, Bishop’s Tachbrook. Image copyright Jacqui Waldron.

It is perhaps surprising, then, that Le Neve claims to ‘have endeavoured to keep the Form of each Inscription as much as possibly I could, imagining that might render the Work somewhat more beautiful’ (i,a4v). Le Neve’s text does look visually striking due to the variations in letterforms (roman, italic and black-letter) used on individual inscriptions. There is, however, no correspondence at all between the typography in Le Neve’s text and the letterforms of the memorials on which, at first, they seem to be based – as we can see, for example, if we compare the monument to Robert Killigrew in Westminster Abbey with the version that we find in Le Neve’s text (Figures 9 and 10).

Figure 9. Monument to Robert Killigrew, Westminster Abbey. Copyright The Dean and Chapter of Westminster.
Figure 10. Le Neve, Monumenta Anglicana, i, 133. Creative Commons license, Wellcome Trust.

Instead, Le Neve develops his own typographical system for his printed inscriptions: most of the text is in roman type, with personal names in italics and place names in black-letter. Le Neve consistently preserves the lineation, but not the letterforms, of the original. It seems likely that this is because Le Neve is working from manuscripts, rather than monuments. The effect, however, is to reinforce a sense that the printed version of the text both stands apart from, and is also in constant dialogue with, the manuscript and inscribed stone versions. Instead of valorising stone as the original medium, and presenting manuscript and print as an imitation or attempted facsimile of it, Le Neve takes some pride in beautifying his printed pages without reference to the monuments towards which, through the medium of both print and manuscript, they nonetheless gesture.

Print in time

John Le Neve repeatedly reminds his readers that what they are reading is a printed text, and he reflects at length on the implications of the medium of print for his project. Towards the end of the preface to the first volume, he uses a conspicuous first-person pronoun to draw attention to the fact that he is not only the author but the publisher of this work, when he expresses an intention to publish two further volumes, 

if the Gentlemen who relish this will please to subscribe for them (on the same Terms, viz. five Shillings the small Paper and Eight Shillings the large, each Volume) either with myself at the Crown and Fan in the Old Bailey, or Mr. Henry Clements, at the Half Moon in St Paul’s Church-yard, London. (i, b1r)

Publication by subscription, a kind of eighteenth-century crowd-funding, was not unusual in this period.[16] It was, however, quite unusual for an author to take on the responsibility for organising the subscription him- or herself, rather than working through a bookseller or publisher. Keith Maslen notes that Monumenta Anglicana, which was produced by the eminent printer, William Bowyer, is ‘the first example at the Bowyer Press of a retail-subscription edition printed for the author’.[17] Although he had the help of the well-known bookseller Henry Clements in collecting subscriptions and distributing the printed volumes, Le Neve’s own name appears in Bowyer’s account books against this title.[18] When he gives out his address to prospective subscribers, Le Neve’s highlights his position as a London-based editor-publisher who transforms manuscript transcriptions of stone monuments into print, rather than an antiquarian collector who tours the country looking for scattered stone monuments.

            In the hands of Le Neve the author-publisher, a collection of printed memorials becomes a thing that, in its capacity for growth, seems almost alive. This is registered particularly clearly in the pricing structure that Le Neve adopts for his project. Having charged a fixed price for the first two volumes of Monumenta Anglicana, Le Neve begins to charge by the printed sheet from the third volume onwards. He writes:

In a Collection of this kind, it is next to impossible to say when we have enough for a Volume; and consequently, as difficult to cast any large Number of Inscriptions exactly to a Sheet; for which Reason, if I ever publish any more Volumes of this sort, let the Number of Sheets be either more or less, they shall be sold at the Price of 2d. per Sheet the Small Paper, and 3d. per Sheet the Large; which Rate (I hope) will not be reckon’d extravagant; and those Gentlemen, who have diverted themselves, with making such Collections, (I hope) will own, in my Justification, that (in so doing) an Editor must be (unavoidably) at a much greater Charge than bare Paper and Print. (ii, a1r)

Presumably his subscribers didn’t find the rate extravagant, because for the fourth and fifth volumes he increased it to 5d. for small paper, 7d. for large (iii, [A]3r). More significant than the exact figures for current purposes, however, is the sense that Le Neve creates here of the relationship between manuscript and print, and his own role as both editor and publisher in mediating that relationship. When he discusses the difficulty of casting off copy – that is, working out how many printed sheets will be needed to accommodate the available quantity of manuscript inscriptions – he highlights the inter-relatedness of the various media involved in a project like Monumenta Anglicana. He also calls attention to the flexibility and extensibility of the printed book. This is a format that can grow ad infinitum, courtesy of generous contributors around the country and the hard work of the editor. The rich repository of the country’s churchyards combined with the endless supply of potential subjects (death never going out of fashion) means that, even if its subjects are dead, the books that contain their memorials go on living and growing. 

            The method that Le Neve adopts to organise the inscriptions in his volume both reflects and enables the open-endedness of his project. Where earlier antiquarians like Weever had used place as a primary structural principle, Le Neve arranges his epitaphs in order of time. The title page of the first volume tells readers that it is ‘Deduced into a Series of Time by way of | ANNALS’. The volume is divided up by year of death, running heads indicating that each section contains ‘Inscriptions on Persons deceased | Anno. 1700’, and so on. Le Neve’s project joins other publications in this period that adopted an annalistic structure, including the journalist Abel Boyer’s History of the Reign of Queen Anne, Digested into Annals (1703-13), which was published each year throughout Anne’s reign. These annalistic publications take seriously the idea that the printed text – produced speedily and easy to gather, compendiously, with other printed material – has the capacity to record events in something close to real time, whether those events are political developments or the deaths of individuals. As Daniel Defoe put it in an early issue of his periodical, The Review, the kind of punctual and serial print publication that flourished in the early decades of the eighteenth century is, in effect, ‘Writing a History by Inches’.[19]

            Le Neve’s sense that the printed text might memorialise not only those people who already have a monument, but also those who are as yet un-memorialised, leads to one of his most striking textual and generic innovations. In the first volume of Monumenta Anglicana, each year’s inscriptions end with a section bearing what was, in 1717, an unusual title: ‘An OBITUARY or Register of the Names of several eminent Persons deceased […] whose Inscriptions (if any yet set up) are not come to hand’ (Figure 11).

Figure 11. Le Neve, Monumenta Anglicana, i, 104. Creative Commons license, Wellcome Trust.

The primary meaning of obituary in Le Neve’s time was not the one that we might most closely associate with it: that is, a brief biographical account of an individual, published shortly after his or her death. Death notices did appear in the periodical press in this period, but it wasn’t until 1780, when it was adopted by the popular Gentleman’s Magazine as the title of its death notice section, that the term ‘obituary’ became widely used.[20]Le Neve gestures towards an older meaning of this word when he uses it in Monumenta Anglicana: the obituary or obit book in a Roman Catholic church or religious house, which records dates of death in order that prayers for the soul of the departed might be offered on his or her anniversary.[21] Le Neve’s obituary falls somewhere between the two definitions that the Oxford English Dictionary offers for this word: the first, ‘a register in which deaths, or obit days are recorded’, and the second, ‘a record or announcement of a death, esp. in a newspaper or similar publication […] Also (formerly) † the section of a newspaper in which deaths are announced (obsolete)’.[22] It comes closest to this final definition, though it refers to a section of a printed publication rather than a newspaper, and it predates OED’s first usage in this sense by more than two decades. As Le Neve conceives of it, then, the obituary is a secularised, printed version of a religious, manuscript practice. It is a textual repository in which the deaths of a community are registered in something close to real time. Le Neve’s neologism signals that, in using the printed text in this way, he is doing something quite unprecedented.

The fact that the obituary archives the unmemorialised dead has clear commercial potential. If the eminent persons in Le Neve’s obituary don’t yet have monuments, who better than the masons who collaborate with him to erect them? Le Neve’s text includes the inscriptions on Edward Stanton monuments from Norfolk, Shropshire, Gloucestershire, Lancashire, Middlesex, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, Suffolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Hampshire – in addition to numerous monuments in unidentified places.[23] It amply demonstrates that Stanton was in demand the length and breadth of England. There is nothing as direct as an advertisement for Stanton’s work in Le Neve’s volume, but a commercially successful mason surely saw a potential market for future monuments among Le Neve’s readers. 

Le Neve was surely attracted to the obituary’s commercial potential too. As a section of a work that records recent deaths, the obituary is perpetually extensible, the inevitability of death guaranteeing a regular supply of fresh copy. Monumenta Anglicana was not the first publication to exploit the facts of death in this way. Le Neve’s earlier publication, Lives and Characters of the Most Illustrious Persons, British and Foreign, who died in the Year 1711 (1712), was likewise designed as an annual register of the dead, compiled from ‘Memoirs, Epitaphs, Monumental Inscriptions &c.’ communicated by friends of the deceased and ‘To be continued Yearly’.[24] Le Neve claims that Lives and Characters is a ‘New Essay, never before attempted,’ but in fact the bookseller John Dunton had, some years previously, promised his readers ‘The Lives and Deaths of the most eminent Persons that die every Month’ in his periodical, The Post-Angel.[25] Although neither of these publications lasted long, they indicate a growing interest in and awareness of the commercial and cultural possibilities created by serial printed memorials.[26] ‘Intended as a Specimen of a much larger WORK’, as the title page to the first volume declares, Monumenta Anglicana was also designed to cash in on death’s abundance. 

To see the obituary as just a commercial phenomenon, however, is to miss its cultural significance. Le Neve’s innovation expresses a kind of confidence in the capacity of print, as well as stone, to commemorate the dead. It demonstrates that the printed text can archive not just ancient history, but the unfolding present. It is collective, rather than individualistic, offering a snapshot of a culture at a particular moment in time. It points antiquarians towards the future, as well as the past.


Le Neve’s belief in the cultural value of printed memorials is at odds with other, rather more influential, contemporary commentators on commemorative practices. In a popular early essay from his hugely influential periodical, The Spectator, Joseph Addison sends Mr. Spectator – the periodical’s fictional front-man – on a tour of the tombs in Westminster Abbey. Mr. Spectator observes:

[W]hen I meet with the Grief of Parents upon a Tomb-stone, my Heart melts with Compassion; when I see the Tomb of the Parents themselves, I consider the Vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow: … When I read the several Dates of the Tombs, of some that dy’d Yesterday, and some six hundred Years ago, I consider that great Day when we shall all of us be Contemporaries, and make our Appearance together.[27]

Mr. Spectator’s reflections depend on the material characteristics of stone. Stone’s durability obliterates temporal distinctions between parents and children, youth and age, past, present and future. It figures forth eternity as it gives the impression, at least, of permanence. By contrast, and in another periodical essay, Addison condemns ‘Grub-street Biographers, who watch for the Death of a great Man, like so many Undertakers, on purpose to make a Penny of him’. [28] Here, Addison attacks the team of speed-writers working for the notorious bookseller Edmund Curll, who had published Le Neve’s Life and Characters in 1712. Curll specialised in producing ‘instant biographies’ of the recently dead, often based on limited or spurious information.[29] Monumenta Anglicana wasn’t published by Curll and it isn’t a collection of biographies in the same vein as Life and Characters, but, with its serialised obituary of the recently dead, it could nonetheless be seen as part of the print-based, irreverent publication culture to which Addison so strenuously objected.

            Le Neve, however, constructs the relationship between stone monuments and printed memorials differently from Addison. In the preface to volume two of Monumenta Anglicana, Le Neve notes that 

When a Church extremely decay’d, or out of Repair, by the mere Injury of Time, shall, by the Zeal of the Parishioners, or by any other Assistance, be pulled down and rebuilt; there has been no Care, or Thought of re-erecting any Monuments which must of Necessity then come down: But the Marble is thrown in Heaps in a Corner, as the Bones into a Charnel-House… [T]o prove the Matter of Fact, I have, now lying by me, six Sheets of Inscriptions, taken in the Year 1680, in the Church of St. Clements Danes, in which Year, we are told, this Church was taken down, and rebuilt at the Charge of the Parishioners, and some others; but, let any body find the Tombs, or any Footsteps of them, if they can; nay, farther, I very much question, whether there be so much as another Copy of them now in being? (ii,[A]1v-2r)

Contrary to Addison’s assertion that, because of its durability, stone figures forth eternity, Le Neve emphasises its vulnerability. Likening monuments that have been cast aside to skeletons in a charnel house, he collapses the apparent distinction between monuments that endure, and corpses that decay. Le Neve’s vivid movement into the first person (‘I have, now lying by me…’) also highlights the fragility of manuscript as a medium. A single copy of six sheets (perhaps there is a sense of potential fragmentation implicit in their separateness?) offers little security against loss. Like other antiquarians before him, then, Le Neve highlights the protective function of printing stone inscriptions. John Weever, sceptical of the growing power of puritans in his own time, presents his text, Ancient Funerall Monuments, as an antidote to earlier iconoclasts who left monuments ‘broken downe, and vtterly almost all ruinated’.[30] In Le Neve’s time, the building of fifty ‘Queen Anne’ churches presented a different kind of threat to ancient monuments. Nonetheless, there is a similar belief in both texts that print, for all its apparent ephemerality, has preservative qualities.

            What we see in Monumenta Anglicana, however, is the conviction that print is not only preservative, but also transformative. Le Neve makes a number of arresting allusions to Ovid’s Metamorphoses as he explores this idea. Noting that his obituary can never record all of the deaths that take place in any given year, he asserts that ‘yet with all its Faults, I believe I may be so bold as to say Aliquisq; Malo foret [sic.] Usus in illo’ (i, b1r). The words in italics in the final sentence here are a mangled quotation from Book II of Ovid’s work, ‘aliquisque malo fuit usus in illo’: ‘and so even in that disaster was there some service’.[31] In Ovid, this line follows the death of Phaëthon, son of the sun god, Phoebus, who crashed his father’s chariot and so put out the sun for a day (the ‘disaster’ to which Le Neve’s quotation refers), but gave another form of light by setting fire to the earth (the ‘service’). Perhaps Le Neve thought this quotation especially apposite because it comes just after Phaëthon’s epitaph: 





In a project that highlights the textual instability that arises when epitaphs move between media, it seems entirely fitting that Le Neve seeks to associate his ambitious obituary with Phaëthon’s doomed efforts. That he does so in an allusion that garbles the Latin original resonates – appropriately, if not deliberately – with his understanding that the act of textual transmission always also invites textual transformation.

No record of Le Neve’s death survives, although he seems to have lived several decades after 1719, when the fifth and final volume of Monumenta Anglicana was published.[33] No monument marks his final resting place, but the epigraph on the title page of the first volume of Monumenta Anglicana could stand for Le Neve’s epitaph as well. This, too, is a quotation from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, from the very last verse of that work: ‘— nec ignis, / Nec poterit ferrum, nec edax abolere vetustas,’ ‘[And now my work is done,] which neither the wrath of Jove, nor fire, nor sword, nor the gnawing tooth of time shall ever be able to undo.’[34] Le Neve’s text is an act of metamorphosis that turns stone and manuscript into printed text, that but also self-consciously registers the process of transformation. And, as in Ovid, the altered body / text, while often apparently frailer than the original, achieves longevity through its capacity to change.  

[1] Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae, <> [accessed 1 June 2020].

[2] K. I. D. Maslen, An Early London Printing House at Work: Studies in the Bowyer Ledgers (New York: Bibliographical Society of America, 1973), p. 102.

[3] Parry, p. 216.

[4] John Le Neve, Monumenta Anglicana, 5 vols (1717-19), i, A2v. Further references are given after quotations in the text.

[5] John Weever, Ancient Funerall Monuments within the United Monarchie of Great Britaine, Ireland, and the Ilands adiacent (1631), sig. A2r.

[6] Weever, sig. A2r.

[7] Marjorie Swann, Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), pp. 101-2.

[8] ‘wapentake, n.’ in OED Online <; [accessed 1 June 2020].

[9] Henry Holland, Ecclesia Sancti Pauli illustra (1633), sig. E2v-E3r.

[10] Weever, sig. A1r.

[11] Le Neve, v, 285. On Pope’s epitaph, see Joshua Scodel, The English Poetic Epitaph: Commemoration and Conflict from Jonson to Wordsworth (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 278-86.

[12] Matthew Craske, ‘Bird, Francis (1667-1731), sculptor,’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography <; [accessed 20 June 2020].

[13] Geoffrey Fisher, ‘Stanton, Edward (c. 1681-1734), sculptor and mason’ in ‘Stanton, William (1639-1705), tomb sculptor and mason,’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography <; [accessed 20 June 2020].

[14] Weever, sig. A2r-v.

[15] For the monument to Spencer Broughton, St. Peter’s Church, Broughton, Staffordshire, see

[16] Brian Findlay, ‘Subscription publishing’, in The Oxford Companion to the Book, ed. by Michael F. Suarez, S.J. and H. R. Woudhuysen, <> [accessed 20 June 2020]. 

[17] Maslen, Printing House at Work, p. 102.

[18] Ibid., p. 102.

[19] Daniel Defoe, A Review of the Affairs of FRANCE, 35 (4 July 1704).

[20] Elizabeth Barry, ‘From Epitaph to Obituary: Death and Celebrity in Eighteenth-Century British Culture,’ International Journal of Cultural Studies, 11 (2008), 259-275.

[21] Ralph Houlbrooke, Death, Religion, and the Family in England, 1480–1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 329.

[22] ‘obituary, n. and adj.’ in OED Online <; [accessed 1 June 2020].

[23] Le Neve, Monumenta Anglicana, i, 48, 60, 79, 99, 125, 137, 138, 167. 

[24] John Le Neve, Lives and Characters of the Most Illustrious Persons, British and Foreign, who died in the Year 1711 (1712), pp. iii, vii.

[25] John Dunton, The Post Angel: or, Universal Entertainment, 1 (January 1701), sig. B2r

[26] The Post-Angel ran from January 1701 until September 1702. Le Neve produced one further volume of Lives and Characters, for people who died in the year 1712, in 1714.

[27] Joseph Addison, The Spectator, 26 (30 March 1711).

[28] Joseph Addison, The Free-holder, 35 (20 April 1716). 

[29] Paul Baines and Pat Rogers, Edmund Curll: Bookseller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 72.

[30] Weever, π3r.

[31] Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. by Frank Justus Miller, rev. by G. P. Goold, Loeb Classical Library, xlii (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1916), pp. 82-3.

[32] Ovid, pp. 82-3.

[33] Nicholas Doggett, ‘Le Neve, John (b. 1679, d. in or before 1741), antiquary,’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography <; [accessed 20 June 2020]. 

[34] Ovid, pp. 426-7.