Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Ralph Thoresby the Diarist: The Late Seventeenth-Century Pious Diary and Its Demise

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Ralph Thoresby the Diarist: The Late Seventeenth-Century Pious Diary and Its Demise

Article excerpt

In the 1690s there lived in Hull a clergyman called Abraham de la Pryme. De la Pryme was a learned and inquiring man. He was a model virtuoso, author of Hull's first history and a regular contributor to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. In addition, he kept a diary. As a diarist, his main interest was in public affairs. This is a typical entry, from 10 October 1696:

OCTOB. 10 Things are very quiet yet, but the Jacobites are of undaunted spirits, and continue their high, impudent, treasonable talkings and discourses, almost as much as ever.

New money beginns to grow plentyfull, there is no one almost but has some little quantity. All the mints are now in motion, and they give satisfaction to the country. (de la Pryme, ed. Jackson, 1870, p. 111)

On the same day, an acquaintance of de la Pryme in Leeds was writing in his own diary. His name was Ralph Thoresby. At first glance Mr Thoresby seems an unlikely companion for a clergyman or a virtuoso. Thoresby at that time was a leader of Leeds's Presbyterian community. This meant that he was barred from civic posts and university education (although not long after this date he conformed to the Church of England). De la Pryme was a servant of the national church; Thoresby defied it. De la Pryme was a professional man; Thoresby came from a family of merchants. Nonetheless Thoresby and de la Pryme moved in the same antiquarian and Royal Society circles; and as antiquarians they had much in common. Thoresby, like de la Pryme, wrote the first history of his town, and he also made a number of contributions to the Philosophical Transactions.

This is Thoresby's diary entry for that October day in 1696:

10 morn read Annots. yn at both mills, afte within writing, but spent ye late part of day abroad wth. ye Dr. & Salters about business, so part of Even, rest wth dear Mr. Ib. read Anns. (RLC MS NKS 2935, p. 176)

The two men clearly had different ideas about what to put in a diary, and how to put it. De la Pryme records confident opinions on matters of public interest and expresses them in bold generalisations. Thoresby on the other hand records details about his own life which have no impact on anyone else, and yet does not venture to express an opinion on them. Of course different people write different diaries; but it is argued in this article that the difference between these diaries goes beyond that. In fact, there are good reasons for saying they are different in kind, that they belong to different genres.

The Pious Diary

It is argued here that Thoresby's diary is different from de la Pryme's because it belongs to a wider genre which can be called the pious diary. The word 'genre' is used advisedly. Diarists were likely to have been influenced in the same way as other writers - by what they read. Tom Webster has presented evidence that earlier in the seventeenth century pious diaries were confidential, and often burned on the diarist's death. Although he observes considerable similarity between diaries, he argues that this cannot be because they were circulated (Webster, 1996, pp. 39, 49). Webster's conclusions on the confidentiality of diaries however, cannot be applied to Thoresby's diary at the end of the century, nor to many of the diaries of his peers and associates.

In Thoresby's circle, many, if not all, diaries were written in the knowledge and expectation that they would be circulated after death, and perhaps before. In this respect, diaries seem in some cases to have been treated rather like the MS collections of poetry and other writings circulated among families and friends, described by Margaret Ezell (Ezell, 1999; Ezell's book includes a section on Thoresby's struggle to have his first book printed). Thoresby knew of and read other people's diaries throughout his life (1658-1725). In the Leeds of his childhood, for example, there was Castilion Morris's diary. Morris was a member of the Leeds Corporation during the Civil War, who kept 'a Journall of Letters & Memorandums of matters of moment, Publick & private begun 14 Dece 1687' (these are printed in the Yorkshire Archaeological and Topographical Journal, 10 (1889), 159-64). …

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