Essay Prize Series Part 2: The Manuscript Circulation of Sir Henry Mainwaring’s ‘A Brief Abstract’

In this second part of our mini-series on the Hakluyt Society Essay Prize, runner-up in last year’s competition Amy Bowles (Girton College, Cambridge) shares with us her innovative research on the manuscript circulation of Sir Henry Mainwaring’s A Brief Abstract, Exposition and Demonstration of all Parts and Things belonging to a Ship and Practique of Navigation. The earlier blog by fellow runner-up Katherine Parker can be found here and the CFP for the 2015-2016 competition (deadline: 1 Novemberhere.


– Join the Hakluyt Society on www.hakluyt.com


In the early 1620s, the naval officer and reformed pirate Sir Henry Mainwaring composed what is now thought to be the earliest extant dictionary of nautical terms. The Brief Abstract, Exposition and Demonstration of all Parts and Things belonging to a Ship and Practique of Navigation contains around 600 entries, alphabetically ordered with a preface, table of contents, and often a decorative title-page. Mainwaring explained the necessity of this work, writing that ‘very few Gentlemen (though they be called Sea-men) doe fully and wholy understand what belongs to their Profession: having onely some Scrambling Termes & Names belonging to some parts of a Ship’.[1]

Though the dictionary was composed between 1620 and 1623, it was printed for the first time in 1644, and enjoyed around twenty years of circulation in manuscript amongst seafaring noblemen. In one case, a manuscript’s weathered state attests to its regular use; BL Additional MS 21571 – the only copy produced in a pocket-friendly octavo format – retains significant water damage, perhaps acquired during its direct consultation at sea. However, the dictionary was also regarded as more than a reference work, and was catalogued and read alongside fashionable travel narratives like Richard Hakluyts Principal Navigations (1598-1600) and Samuel Purchas‘ Purchas his Pilgrims (1625).

My submission to the Hakluyt Society Essay Prize competition examined the twenty-one surviving copies of the Brief Abstract, eight of which were written by a single scribe, Ralph Crane.The dictionary’s manuscript circulation began with Crane’s early production of copies: his manuscripts include the five presentation copies dedicated – and in one case subscribed – by Mainwaring. It is my argument that Crane not only participated in the circulation of this text during its early stages, but that he was the sole scribe hired by Mainwaring to complete this project, taking on the role of a commissioned copyist. Crane’s early “official” copies of the dictionary were soon outnumbered by a proliferation of less authorised versions, which contained new entries, circulated under new titles, and no longer bore Mainwaring’s name.

I reconstructed the text’s original transmission through the different scribal styles and habits of the dictionary’s early copyists, and considered the manuscript transmission of the Brief Abstract in light of that of other naval works such as William Monson‘s tracts on seamanship, Nathaniel Boteler‘s Dialogues, and John Montgomery‘s sixteenth-century A treatice concerninge the navie, all of which also involved repeated copying by single scribes. By reconstructing the Brief Abstract‘s early circulation, my essay demonstrated the lasting effects which scribal transmitters have had upon the content of this important seventeenth-century naval text.

[1]     Henry Mainwaring, A Breife Abstract, Exposition, & Demonstration of parts & things belonging to a SHIP, & ye practique of NAVIGATION, National Maritime Museum Caird Library MS LEC/9, f. 11v.


Amy Bowles is a PhD student at Girton College, University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on the scribal circulation of early modern texts, with particular focus on the copyist Ralph Crane. She is also interested in scribal imitation of print, and the construction of early modern manuscripts more generally, especially bindings, bookmarks, and marbled paper. She can be found on Twitter as @amy_ab2126 

Henry Mainwaring, 'A Breife Abstract, Exposition, & Demonstration of parts & things belonging to a SHIP, & ye practique of NAVIGATION'. Lambeth Palace Library Sion College MS L.40.2/E48, fol. 1r.
Henry Mainwaring, ‘A Breife Abstract, Exposition, & Demonstration of parts & things belonging to a SHIP, & ye practique of NAVIGATION’. Lambeth Palace Library Sion College MS L.40.2/E48, fol. 1r.

@HakluytSociety – Become a member at www.hakluyt.com