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The Ultimate Work-Life Balance? Receiving, Reading, Writing and Delivering the Word of God

The Ultimate Work-Life Balance? Receiving, Reading, Writing and Delivering the Word of God

John Boys, Works (1629) Canterbury Cathedral Library W/K-4-5

When John Boys, Dean of Canterbury (1619-25) gathered and selected his collection of sermons for publication, he most certainly also designed the frontispiece of his book, commissioning the execution of it to an engraver. However his design would have fitted within accepted framework and principles. What we are presented with here is consistent with contemporary frontispieces, which were a choice or a combination of geometrical shapes, cartouches, images (as a main design or framed single ones) and architectural models. The frontispiece was designed to be the façade of the book, so was required to announce its contents and the aims of the author.

In this instance, the geometrical aspect is fulfilled in the structure of three columns and three rows, with three cartouches fitting within the central space. The middle and larger cartouche, infilled with details such as the book title, the names of the author and of the printer, as well as the date of publication, is surrounded by four images representing the author at various occupations. The top image shows John Boys at home in prayer: he is kneeling on a tasselled cushion and his gaze is lifted up to the sky indicated by a diamond leaded window. On the floor, a scroll contains the words, ‘In Eo sumus et scimus’ (In Him we are and we know). The bottom picture shows him standing in church facing the reader and in the task of preaching to the congregation. A different Latin verse ‘Opportune Importune’ (a strange quote of opposites literally meaning opportunely inconveniently) fills a scroll pinned to the pulpit. The whole design of the middle column is reminiscent of a sand timer, where the prayer performed above and its divinely inspired answer is sifted down to the preaching below.

W-K-4-5 frontispiece

The architectural aspect is achieved in the aspect of two outside columns shaped like the side wings of a house. Indeed, the left hand side shows a study room with the preacher seated at his writing table. The room is furnished with a chair, a small shelf with books, and a pendulum clock on the wall. The bottom of this image is lined with a scroll, ‘Scriba doctus in regno coelorum’ (The scribe instructed unto the Kingdom of Heaven, Matthew 13:52). In the right hand side picture, the dean is found in his library, with an opened book on his lap, but gazing away, with his head propped on his elbow on the edge of the table. The scroll announcing, ‘Consiliaris mei’ (my counsellor), hangs between the bookshelves and the beamed ceiling. Interestingly this is the same pose chosen by his widow Angela (sister of his successor Isaac Bargrave) for his funeral monument in the Chapel of Our Lady Martyrdom (also suitably called the Dean’s Chapel) in Canterbury Cathedral. At the very top of the frontispiece, emerging out of billowy clouds, three elements witness the divine presence, inspiration and will for the dean as a writer and interpreter of God’s word: in the middle, Hebraic characters indicating the four letters of the name of God; on the left, a hand holding a scroll, and on the right, one holding a quill pen.

Other details furnish the frontispiece. Stuck to the porticoes at the top are the shields emblematic of the Crown, and the ostrich feathers of the Prince of Wales with his motto ‘Ich Dien’, I Serve, (certainly referring to Charles, Prince of Wales after the death of his brother Henry, and crowned Charles I in 1625). The other two shields, resting against the plinths, represent Canterbury Christ Church and the archbishopric. Also just above and within frames can be seen two moustachioed and furry faces with animal ears and scowling grins, remnants from earlier models of frontispieces which were heavily decorated with mythical beings such as fauns and wild men. Chubby putti, foliage, swags and drapes are missing from the scheme, probably to ascertain that this is a serious piece of work.

Indeed, the Workes are John Boys’ Opus dei, the result of years of praying, reading, writing and preaching the word of God, while serving in various church livings and preferments in his native county. Born into an ancient East Kent family in 1571, he was educated at King’s School, Canterbury, and Cambridge (Corpus Christi and Clare College), where he soon developed his passion for the exposition and preaching of Scripture. Why did he feel the need to publish this selection? After all, his sermons had been printed and published individually between 1609 and 1617, thereby fulfilling the Christian mission of spreading the Gospel and of teaching. Perhaps he felt the need to gather the fruits of his labour as an offering to God and the people, serving as a memorial to a good life, not so much a vanity object as a suitable contribution towards furnishing the empty library shelves of the new religious order. The medieval arsenal of preaching had been swept away and had to be replaced by new expositions of the Word of God, a case of new wine into new wineskins (Matthew 9:17). Another simple reason was that there was a great popular call for his writings, and a demand for his collected works. The result is a certainly a hefty tome of almost a thousand pages, measuring 30 by 20cm, with a depth of 7.5cm, covering Bible passages and prayers throughout the liturgical year. At the end of the book, a useful table lists topics in alphabetical order.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning the signatures of the printer, William Ashley and the engraver, John Payne. Of the former, little is known but the latter was one of the finest English printmakers between 1620 and 1648. King Charles I had considered appointing him as the Royal Engraver, however, Payne’s love of alcohol, and innate procrastination meant that he neglected to take up the offer!

Christine Oakland, Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Kent

Editor: Jayne Wackett

Further Reading:

John Boys, The workes of Iohn Boys … ([London], Imprinted for William Aspley [indiv. tps:] by George Miller, 1629 [-1630]) W/K-4-5

Margery Corbett and Ronald Lightbown, The Comely Frontispiece, the Emblematic Title-Page in England 1550-1660. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979).

Patrick Collinson, Nigel Ramsay and Margaret Sparks (eds) A History of Canterbury Cathedral (Oxford University Press, 1995).

William Richardson, ‘Boys, John (bap. 1571, d. 1625)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Antony Griffiths, ‘Payne, John’ (d. in or before 1648), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2004).

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