Happy 2017! For your reading pleasure in the first RECIRC blog post of the year, I’ve rounded up several examples of New Year-themed writings and related practices from the early modern period: epistolary exchanges, gift giving, and printed works that purport to be gifts to readers.
First, a note on dates: despite the coexistence in Britain of two potential dates for New Year until 1752, all the cases I’ve found and discuss below pertain to 1 January.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the start of a new year was a time to connect with people, reflect on the past year and current affairs, and urge social improvements rather than to make individual resolutions. Several genres or modes of writing fulfil these goals: personal letters with New Year’s best wishes and news, often accompanied by gifts; political and religious pamphlets; conduct books; and even royal entertainments.
An example of the latter is Nahum Tate’s An Ode Upon the New-Year (1693), a song which was both performed at court and printed. Upholding the tradition of Stuart spectacle as propaganda, but with a twist, it uses the start of the year as an occasion to celebrate William and Mary’s reign as ushering in an era of peace and prosperity following the Williamite War.
A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Tate is best known as an adaptor of Shakespeare’s plays, who notoriously gave King Lear a happy ending. But as a poet laureate with a keen interest in church music, Tate also wrote many songs to mark particular occasions. These include the still popular Christmas carol ‘While shepherds watched their flocks by night’ as well as the now obscure New Year’s Ode.
A number of seventeenth-century pamphlets and conduct books include the phrase A New-Year’s Gift in their titles, presumably to make their political, religious, and social agendas attractive to potential readers. Such titles suggest a fresh start for society, for which these works offer specific guidance as a gift. My personal favourite is The Lady’s New-year’s Gift: or, Advice to a Daughter (attributed to George Savile, marquis of Halifax), which had run to five editions by 1696.
I wonder if any of our female authors got their hands on a copy – and, if so, what they thought of it!
By far the most plentiful New Year’s writings were manuscript letters. Many examples of New Year’s letters survive in English archives and from across the European republic of letters. New Year’s letters functioned primarily to consolidate familial, friendly, and/or patronage relationships through the exchange of good wishes (often accompanying gifts), but they had various additional purposes. They often conveyed personal updates and reflections on the past year alongside news of current affairs, as in Gerardus Joannes Vossius’s letter to Meric Casaubon, 31 January 1638. Vossius’s New Year’s greetings are overshadowed by the reflection that the last year has brought the death of three of his children and serious illness to three others and by his first-hand reports of the effects of the Thirty Years’ War on the city of Amsterdam.
More cheerfully, Pierre François Sweerts’s letter to Sir Robert Cotton, [31 December 1604], recounts the origins of the custom of giving gifts at New Year’s. He recalls that this tradition can be traced back through Classical mythology to when Tatius, King of the Sabines and rival of Romulus, received foliage from a tree in the grove of Strinia as auspices of a happy new year. (Naturally!) With the letter, Sweerts sent Cotton a gift he was certain would be well received: rare books. (For details, see the EMLO record or the letter itself, cited below.)
Bess of Hardwick’s Letters: The Complete Correspondence c. 1550-1608 includes several New Year’s letters that circulated within familial and courtly contexts in Elizabethan and early Jacobean England. For example, Bess’s eldest son, Henry Cavendish, followed up a Christmas letter to his mother, written 6 December 1605, with a New Year’s letter to her on 31 December 1605. Both are elaborately humble in style, perhaps to compensate formally for being rarely on good terms with her throughout the years. Cavendish’s second letter refers to ‘a symple newyears gyfte’ enclosed. By contrast, Bess’s favourite daughter, Mary Talbot, specified in her letter of 30 December [1607?] that she has sent her aging mother an embroidered cushion to support her knees when kneeling in prayer. While remaining highly deferential, Talbot’s letter suggests mutual affection by promising to pray for her mother and enclosing a thoughtful gift that will assist her mother’s prayers in return.
As well as praying for her family on a daily basis, Bess’s mind was clearly occupied with the annual conundrum of what to give the queen at New Year’s – an aristocratic problem if ever there was one! Bess regularly recruited (mainly female) friends and relatives at court to help choose and deliver appropriate gifts for her majesty and to report on how they were received. On 2 January [1576?], Bess’s half-sister, Elizabeth Wingfield, wrote that after ‘carefull toyll by reason of the shurt tyme we haue reped such recompence as could not dissire better’. Queen Elizabeth has been enthusing about the colour, trimming, and cost of the garments that Bess and her husband gave her, which, she said, show ‘what loue the[y] bere me’. Importantly, the queen had promised, ‘I wyll not be found unthankefull’. Royal favour was the longed-for reward of such lavish gifts.
However, Bess’s 1601 gift was not so well received. Dorothy Stafford reported in a letter of 13 January that she has presented to the queen the New Year’s gifts from both Bess and her granddaughter, Arbella Stuart. Making no comment on Bess’s gift, Elizabeth appeared pleased with Arbella’s and promised to take care of her, but gave Arbella an inferior token which, in Stafford’s private opinion, undercut her promise.
Sometimes expressions of goodwill alone functioned as New Year’s gifts. William Kniveton, a nephew and former servant of Bess’s, paid elaborate respects to her in a letter of 31 December 1607 but at that time was unable to prove himself ‘more bounde to your Ladyship then any other’ by more than his ready words and willingness to be of service in future.
To conclude, let me return to the republic of letters and quote Comenius’s impressively comprehensive New Year’s salutation to Hartlib on 18/28 December 1657: ‘Felix decurrat vetus, felicior inchoet novus annus Tibi, Tuis, Ecclesiae, Orbe Terrarum, per misericordiam Dei nostri! Amen’.
May a happy old year come to an end and a yet happier new year begin for you, yours, the church, and the whole world, through the mercy of our God! Amen.
More simply, in keeping with the times, we wish you all the very best in 2017!
Bess of Hardwick’s Letters: The Complete Correspondence c. 1550-1608, ed. by Alison Wiggins, Alan Bryson, Daniel Starza Smith, Anke Timmermann and Graham Williams, University of Glasgow; web development by Katherine Rogers, University of Sheffield Humanities Research Institute (April 2013), http://www.bessofhardwick.org, [accessed 16 January 2017]
Henry Cavendish to Elizabeth Talbot, dowager countess of Shrewsbury (known as Bess of Hardwick), 6 December 1605. ID 207, Bess of Hardwick’s Letters, https://www.bessofhardwick.org/letter.jsp?letter=207
Henry Cavendish to Elizabeth Talbot, dowager countess of Shrewsbury (known as Bess of Hardwick), 31 December 1605. ID 011, Bess of Hardwick’s Letters, https://www.bessofhardwick.org/letter.jsp?letter=11
Jan Amos Comenius to Samuel Hartlib, 18/28 December 1657 (Sheffield University Library, HP 7/111/6A-7B; available online via The Hartlib Papers, ed. by M. Greengrass, M. Leslie, and M. Hannon; published by University of Sheffield Humanities Research Institute (2013), https://www.hrionline.ac.uk/hartlib/view?docset=main&docname=7E_111_06)
Early Modern Letters Online [EMLO], Cultures of Knowledge, http://emlo.bodleian.ox.ac.uk, [accessed 16 January 2017]
David Hopkins, ‘Tate, Nahum (c.1652–1715)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, January 2008, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/26986, [accessed 17 January 2017]
William Kniveton to Elizabeth Talbot, dowager countess of Shrewsbury (known as Bess of Hardwick), 31 December 1607. ID 035, Bess of Hardwick’s Letters, https://www.bessofhardwick.org/letter.jsp?letter=35
[George Savile], The Lady’s New-year’s Gift: or, Advice to a Daughter, 5th edn (London, 1696). Early English Books Online, Wing / H307, http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&res_id=xri:eebo&rft_id=xri:eebo:citation:18664963, [accessed 16 January 2017]
Dorothy Stafford to Elizabeth Talbot, dowager countess of Shrewsbury (known as Bess of Hardwick), 13 January 1600/1. ID 091, Bess of Hardwick’s Letters, https://www.bessofhardwick.org/letter.jsp?letter=91
Pierre François Sweerts to Sir Robert Cotton, [31 December 1604] (Bodleian Library, MS Smith 74, fols. 93, 94). EMLO Record ID 46274, tinyurl.com/774xm93
Mary Talbot, countess of Shrewsbury to Elizabeth Talbot, dowager countess of Shrewsbury, 30 December [1607?]. ID 090, Bess of Hardwick’s Letters, https://www.bessofhardwick.org/letter.jsp?letter=90
Nahum Tate, An Ode Upon the New-Year (London, 1693). Early English Books Online, Wing (2nd edn) / T198, http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&res_id=xri:eebo&rft_id=xri:eebo:citation:43077668, [accessed 16 January 2017]
Gerardus Joannes Vossius to Meric Casaubon, 31 January 1638 (Bodleian Library, MS Rawl. letters 83, fol. 119). EMLO Record ID 49316, tinyurl.com/75yxrtn
Elizabeth Wingfield to Elizabeth Talbot, countess of Shrewsbury (known as Bess of Hardwick), 2 January [1576?]. ID 097, Bess of Hardwick’s Letters, https://www.bessofhardwick.org/letter.jsp?letter=97