Dating the First English Plague Orders: 1578?

Anne McKeithen, M.S.L.I.S.

The Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia, owns some rare and interesting volumes housed in its Historical Collections. When a decision was made to scan the library’s copy of its English plague orders, dating from the late sixteenth century, the Curator of Historical Collections asked me to learn more about the volume and to write about the context of the book. Happily this occurred while I was spending a term at Oxford University, where I had available the resources of the Bodleian Library. While comparing our copy with those owned by Bodleian, I developed questions about why our plague book was dated 1590. I was first puzzled not only because the Bodleian catalogued their plague orders which seemed to be from the same printing as 1578; but also because 1590, unlike 1578, was not a year known for a large outbreak of plague in London or other major English cities. At first I thought our book, which had begun its life as a broadside — an early paperback — before getting bound, might belong with copies I found dated 1593. But there were physical differences in the volumes, which made this unlikely. As I began delving into this mystery, I found that the other copies listed by libraries around the world — which amounted to fewer than ten — were dated by libraries in three different ways: 1578, 1588, and 1590. So I dug a little deeper, looking not only into how libraries catalog items, but at clues I might pick up from the history surrounding this book: what could I learn about the history of plague, the laws regarding plague, and book printing in late sixteenth-century England that might help date this book? In addition I’d need to understand how early printed books acquire their dates and who assigns them.

England attempts to control the plague with new regulations

I began with an overview of plague and laws pertaining to controlling it. Still dreaded in the sixteenth century, plague was the first contagious disease to be regulated in England. Unlike many other European countries, including Italy and France, England had no publicly prescribed precautions against plague until 1518. A royal proclamation of Henry VIII in January 1518 set out ways to control those “contagious [plague] infections,” which were “likely to continue if remedy by sufferance of Almighty God” was not provided.i During the next 60 years, some English towns drew up regulations to control plague and to finance the care of infected persons and the burial of the dead. But until 1578 there was no central policy for the country. In that year the Privy Council under Elizabeth I took up an attempt to regulate plague across England. The new orders, which borrowed from the regulations of European countries, particularly Italy, stressed the need to keep contagion from spreading and played down the older theories of miasma (bad air). Appended to these orders was Also an Advice set down … by the best learned in Physic within this Realm, containing sundry good rules and easy medicines …,ii written by the College of Physicians. The order to print both Orders and An Advice and to distribute them widely to local officials throughout England was issued in late 1577 or early 1578, according to Paul Slack, the best historian of English reactions to plague.iii Whether the copies were printed by the end of 1578 is still in question; what we do know is that, at the latest, by March 1579 the first book of plague Orders had been printed by Christopher Barker, who owned the royal patent for printing, and it had been bought by several churchwardens.iv Slack bases his claims about the date on, among others, the Privy Council Acts, 1578-80. No existing copies from the first printing of the Orders lists a publication date. These Orders, which were reprinted several times, remained nearly unchanged until 1660, which adds to the difficulty of dating the Claude Moore Library copy.

How early books are catalogued: who makes the decisions?

For many books worldwide the Library of Congress is the source most likely to be cited as the first authority. This authority covers all the elements of a citation: author, title, publisher, date, number of pages, and whatever else might be included in a catalog entry. For manuscripts, maps, early printed books, and some special categories, other sources are likely to be consulted and considered of equal or higher importance. For early printed books in English there are two such sources, the old General Catalogue of the British Library and English Short-Title Catalogue of Books, called STC. Its listings are given a number, such as 9195, as an identifier. The first STC appeared in 1926 and a second edition in 1986. Now the service is available in an electronic version, which is continually updated. When librarians or historians are trying to pin down some part of an early English book’s citation, they are likely to go to STC first.

More sleuthing at the Bodleian Library

I had access to the printed volumes of STC as well as the electronic version as I tried to learn when copies of the Orders were reprinted. Only once during the lifetime of Elizabeth 1 can we document a reprinting, beginning in late 1592 and continuing into 1593.v This reprinting, listed in STC’s second edition as STC 9199 and STC 9200.3, has these distinguishing features: 1) the printers are listed as “Deputies of C. Barker;” 2) the type was reset smaller, which changes the pagination significantly (from 26 pages to 16 pages); and 3) both contain the date at the bottom of the title page, STC 9199 is dated 1592; STC 9200.3 is dated 1593.

Although we can be sure of printings in 1578-1579 and in 1592-1593, major libraries possess copies which have been given the dates of 1588 and 1590 as well. Following the Library of Congress, the University of Virginia (as well as the Wellcome Library) uses 1590 for the first book of Orders. For the year 1590 the STC (2nd ed.) does not list the Orders either under titles or under the various London printers. In addition there is no STC title listing for 1588, the date used by the British Library for its two copies and a date used by some reproductions of Early English Books Online (EEBO). However, the STC’s Index of Printers, Publishers and Booksellers (1961) does list the Orders in 1588: under the name Barkar or Barker, Christopher. And yet the listing, number 9195,vi is strange. It is accompanied by a question mark as well as the notation dep., short for “deputies of” Christopher Barker, so that the entry looks like this: (?) 9195, deps.

Early Printers in London

An understanding of the history of the printers involved helps explain why the dates 1588 and 1590 are in question here. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,vii Christopher Barker purchased the office of Queen’s printer in 1577, which caused an uproar among the stationers since Barker was not a member of their society. With the help of the councilor Francis Walsingham, Barker successfully appealed to the Queen’s Privy Council for admission to the Stationers’ Company; soon after he made his name and fortune printing Bibles in English. Christopher Barker retired in 1587, turning over his duties as queen’s printer to his two deputies, George Bishop and Ralph Newberry,viii who are referred to in STC’s Index of Printers, Publishers and Booksellers listings as deps, beginning in 1587 and continuing through the year 1600. These are the men referred to on the title pages of the 1592 and 1593 issues of the Orders, which state they were printed by the “deputies of C. Barker.”

According to STC (1st ed.) the Orders first appeared in 1578, which concurs with the historical sources I consulted. On the title pages of what was STC 9195 (1st ed.) and became 9197.9 and 9197.10 (in STC 2nd edition) this line appears at the bottom: “Imprinted at London: by Christopher Barker, printer to the Queene’s Most Excellent Maiestie.” Since we know Barker himself was not printing in 1588, and we have evidence of his deputies being listed on later reprintings, it seems more likely that the Orders were indeed printed in 1578-79 and not again until 1592, when they were given a different format and specifically mentioned the printers as the deputies of Barker.

To back up my growing suspicion that our copy of the plague orders was misdated, my next step was to ask the opinion of plague scholar Paul Slack, who is now Principal of Linacre College, Oxford. Professor Slack said that he was not expert enough to give an opinion but, from what I had told him, he thought it likely that 1578 was the right date.

How do other libraries date the Orders?

Next I attempted to find all known library-owned copies of the earliest issue of the Orders and to see how they were catalogued. By using several electronic sources: WORLD CAT, RLIN, COPAC, Karlsruhe Virtual Catalog and others, I located nine copies of the original Orders, which have been variously dated 1578, 1588 and 1590. These include one copy (1578) at the Bodleian Library, Oxford; two copies (1588) at the British Library, London; one copy (the printed catalog claims 1588, but the electronic catalog states 1590) at the Wellcome Library, London; two copies (1578) at the Bavarian State Library, Munich; one copy (1578) at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California; one copy (1578) University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; and one copy (1590) at Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Several of these dates include a question mark, which shows there is uncertainty about the date. To add further complications, some reproductions of the copies owned by the British Library that are now catalogued as 1588 are listed by University Microfilms and EEBO as 1578.

Why do libraries date the Orders differently?

I decided to contact several libraries to find out why they dated the Orders as they did. I questioned why the Huntington listed its original copy as 1578, but listed a photostatic copy as 1588. In my correspondence with Stephen Tabor, Curator of Early Printed Books at the Huntington, Tabor declared that he now believes the date 1588 listed for their photocopy was a typographical error, which he thought should be corrected to read 1578. The Library of Congress lists its photocopy of the Huntington’s original as 1590. Clark Evans of the Library of Congress stated that perhaps the LC catalogers in 1942 were influenced by how the Huntington had it cataloged at that time and he noted the 2nd edition STC indicated there was uncertainty about the date. Julianne Simpson of the Wellcome Library posits that their 1588 date came from the British Library’s General Catalogue, but admits she does not know why their copy is now listed as 1590 in the electronic catalog.

Next I contacted Simon May of the British Library, telling him about the different dates and what led me to believe 1578 was the right date. Simon May had this to say: “What you have said and what very little I have found leads me to agree with you that the date is more likely to be 1578 than 1588.”

Following up on a referral from Julianne Simpson, I contacted Juliet McLaren, Associate Director, STC North America with my questions and the information I had unearthed, particularly regarding the comments of Simon May. She reported 7 April 2006 that she would send the correspondence between Simon May and me to their cataloger, David Stumpp, so that “he and Simon are on the same page with the dating question.” It is my hope that STC will change the entry for the earliest Orders to read 1578.

Based on the documentation Paul Slack has found in the Privy Council Acts which shows the Orders had their origin after a summer outbreak of plague in the summer or 1577, as well as the evidence regarding the printers of the plague Orders, I can only conclude that 1578, or possibly 1579, is the most likely date for the copy that belongs to the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia.


  1. Paul Slack, The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England, London, Boston: Routledge & K. Paul, 1985, 201.
  2. Orders thought Meete by her Maiestie and her Priuie Councell ..., [London]: Imprinted at London by Christopher Barker, Printer to the Queenes most excellent Maiestie, [1578?].
  3. Slack, The Impact of Plague, 209.
  4. Slack, The Impact of Plague, 209.
  5. Slack, The Impact of Plague, 209.
  6. (9195 became 9187.9 in STC 2nd ed.)
  7. David Kathman, ‘Barker, Christopher (1528/9–1599)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, May 2005 [, accessed 4 April 2006].
  8. David Kathman, ‘Barker, Christopher.’
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