Thursday, July 27, 2023

Cox's Fragmenta edited by Simon Murphy

I'm here today not so much to review this book as to explain it. It is resolutely un-reviewable.

So there was this guy, Francis Cox, who lived from 1752 to 1834, first in Birmingham (the one in England) and then in London (ditto). He was something like a linen draper, married with two daughters, reasonably successful in his life and career.

He read newspapers. He clipped and kept interesting articles from newspapers, apparently from his youth, since his "magnum opus" includes cuttings from as early as the 1750s.

He gathered those clippings into "ninety-four folio volumes, each volume containing well over 200 pages," which he bequeathed to the British Library upon his death and which still take up twenty linear feet of shelf space there. Each page, it appears, has a lot of random cuttings, and there are obviously a lot of pages (somewhere around nineteen thousand, if my math is correct).

This, then, is Cox's Fragmenta, in its full form: the ninety-four volumes sitting on some back shelves, deep in the stacks in London. Obviously a great primary source for newspaper history and just random history, though, if the full archives of the newspapers themselves survive - and I have no idea if they do - Cox's edited and random selection is most interesting because of that selection.

The book I just read is vastly smaller - smaller than you would expect, given the parent's heft, a small-format paperback barely longer than 150 pages - and is a selection of, presumably, the most interesting, amusing, and/or explicable cuttings, assembled by historian Simon Murphy for publication by The History Press in 2010. (He's since done a second selection, as Cox's Fragmenta II.)

And this is a lot like a modern "random newspaper stories on given topic" book, with the caveat that the late 18th and early 19th centuries were a very different place than our modern world, with vastly varying assumptions and ideas and norms and journalistic circumlocutions. (Which is my way of saying: at least once, I couldn't quite figure out what a particular cutting was saying, probably because it was about sex in some nebulous fashion.)

On the other hand, people are people, and that comes through here as well, such as this bit, which could easily have appeared in some outdoors-y magazine this past year, with the language lightly modernized:

Recipe to keep a person warm the whole winter with a single Billet of Wood. - Take a billet of wood the ordinary size, run up into the garret with it as quick as you can, throw it out the garret window; run down after it (not out the garret window mind) as fast as possible; repeat this till you are warm, and as often as occasion may require. It will never fail to have the desired effect whilst you are able to use it. - Probatum est.

 - Oracle and Public Advertiser, Thursday 24 November 1796 (v.12, p.253)

So this is quirky, and random, and full of oddities of all kinds. Some were odd at the time, some seem odd two hundred years later. I found the parallax the most interesting: the things that were absolutely normal then (dueling, baiting animals, the perfidy of domestic servants) but are completely gone now, and how people lived with those different signposts of life in a lot of the same ways they live these days.

It's a small book, full of oddities, and a fun one. It's best for dipping into, like any miscellaneous book.

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