Sunday, July 5, 2009

Ruardean, Gloucestershire

The nick of time

Some of the greatest pleasures are the unexpected ones. I went to Ruardean in search of a Norman carving above the church doorway. But before I got near the church itself I was struck by this inscription, which is on the inside of the small lychgate that forms the entrance to the churchyard. The sun lit up the lychgate’s stone wall as I looked at it and, since the resulting photograph is very contrasty, here’s the text for the sake of clarity and ease of reading:
Redeeme thy precious Time which steals So fast away
and in gods Hous forgiveness Ask, and for Salvation Pray.
May ye 10th 1743
James Mutlow & Hendrey Heane, Churchwardens

I don’t know where these words come from, but they are similar to those of Bishop Ken’s morning hymn, which he wrote in the late-17th century but redrafted later, so that there are several different wordings, one of which includes the lines
Thy precious time misspent, redeem,
Each present day thy last esteem.

Ken’s hymn was widely circulated in A Manual of Prayers (1709) and so would no doubt have been a familiar part of the religious landscape when this variation on the theme of redeeming time was carved. The words also look as if they would do for a sundial, and I felt it was appropriate somehow for the setting evening sun to bathe them in warmth in my photograph.

The other thing that caught my eye, of course, is the style in which the letters are cut, with the plain forms now and then garnished with something capricious and different – the capital T of ‘Time’ and P of ‘Pray’. And the final s of ‘churchwardens’ looks like a determined effort not to be broken by the last straw – the word might have been made to fit if the corner had not chipped off the stone. In the nick of time, as it were, the carver decided to stick the ‘s’ on top of the ‘n’. And call it a day.


Peter Ashley said...

With this wonderfully atmospheric photograph you have reminded me of a current debate in the environs of Ashley Towers. And that is the seemingly random substitution of the letter 's' with an 'f'. There appears to be no logic for its application. Can you help?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Right. It's not an 'f', it's something known as 'the long s'. If you look carefully at it in most iterations, it's subtly different from, but very similar to, an 'f'. The similarity is increased in examples of the long s that have a small protrusion sticking out of the ascender, but this doesn't go all the way across, like the cross-piece of a proper 'f'.

The long s, which began I think with the Roman cursive style of writing, was originally used in the middles of words, but when the printers of the Renaissance took it up, they used it more loosely, so it also appeared at the end of words as well as in the middle, but not in certain combinations in the middle of words – when an 's' and an 'f' appeared together, for example (as in the word 'satisfy'), the short s would generally be used. In Britain, we often see it in 16th-, 17th-, and 18th-century printed books, and in inscriptions of the same period, and, you're right, its application is inconsistent. As far as I remember it died out some time in the 18th century.

This is all from distant memories of handling old books in the Bodleian Library years ago. Others who read this might be able to correct it or add more.

The use of the long s doesn't affect pronunciation, by the way. Although I do have a book of Shakespeare songs in which the long s is used in 'Where the bee sucks, there suck I', making a change in pronunciation somewhat tempting.

CarolineLD said...

Nothing to add to Philip's excellent summary, except that ancient Greek used two different characters for 's' in a very similar way - the usual sigma (a circle with a sunvisor) everywhere except at the end of words, where it stretched out into an elongated 's'. Presumably that helped make the long s seem logical to the classically-educated?

Ron Combo said...

What faith those wonderfully named churchwardens must have had!

Neil said...

Is blogging the last bastion of old-fashioned scholarship? Universities are really not interested in this stuff anymore... Anyway, besides all this business about the long and the short s, we should not forget the stone-cutter's wage. These people were paid by the letter - so if there wasn't room to put it on the end, it got squeezed in above.

Philip Wilkinson said...

I learned a lot of this kind of stuff (the rudiments of traditional printing, how books were bound, which compositor set which bits of Shakespeare's First Folio, etc, etc) in Oxford's course that was designed to prepare graduate students for the rigours (hah!) of literary studies at postgraduate level. I seem to remember that this course was called something like Prolegomenon to literary scholarship. How odd that I should be trying to recall it now, and in this new(ish) medium. (Prolegomenon. Now there's a word you don't often get to use...)