Mankind’s most useful Art

   Posted by: rring   in Uncategorized

The gold spine title “Astle on Writing” drew me to this volume, and I was not disappointed.  The full title is almost an abstract, as titles often were–best way to advertise what’s in the book, if a customer is browsing your stall in St. Paul’s Churchyard or Fleet Street: 

The Origin and Progress of Writing, as well Hieroglyphic as Elementary, Illustrated by Engravings Taken from Marbles, Manuscripts and Charters, Ancient and Modern; also some account of the Origin and Progress of Printing.  (London, 1803).

Thomas Astle (1735-1803) was a paleographer and antiquary, “son of Daniel Astle, keeper of the forest, a descendant of an old family of the country.”  This country-boy studied law initially, but (as is often the case when one studies the foundations of civil institutions and practices) developed a taste for history and its antiquities.  He cut his teeth on such matters by creating an index to the catalogue of the famous Harley Manuscripts (now in the British Library, see http://www.bl.uk/reshelp/findhelprestype/manuscripts/harleymss/harleymss.html).  This sort of detailed, often tedious work either gives you the hot taste of antiquarianism, or turns you off books forever.

After the death (1775) of Henry Rooke, chief clerk of the Record Office (essentially the National Archives) in the Tower, Astle was appointed to his place; upon the death of a superior eight years later, he took the higher office of Keeper of the Records–in both positions he proved zealous indeed.  The first edition of this, his greatest work, was published in 1784.  A full biographical sketch is in the Dictionary of National Biography.


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