News from Nelson: Grotesques!

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SoldierThe Head from Nelson’s Pillar is on display in the Reading Room of Dublin City Library & Archive.  As Admiral Nelson is a valued member of staff, we have invited him to write his own monthly blog.  This September, Nelson takes a look at our manuscript of the month, The Dublin Treasurer's Accounts 1540-1613.

Dear Friends and Fellow-Sailors!

I have rare times here in Dublin City Library & Archive.  When the rest of the staff go home at 8.00 p.m. I’m still here on my own, and to amuse myself I wander through the strongrooms, looking at documents which are unusual and quirky – and each month I’ll tell you what I found.  Last week I was browsing away and I came across the Dublin City Treasurer’s Accounts 1540-1613.  I know – I can hear you say ‘Bor-ring!’ and at first I thought so too. 

Anyway I opened the book (look, no hands! Just a Head!) and there was its original cover, in dark brown leather with a creamy texture – probably sheepskin – just think, it’s 476 years old – even older than me!

Cover of City Treasurer's Accounts

You know I said the accounts were boring – but the guy who was employed to write them into the book nearly five centuries ago thought the very same.  He was a scribe and wrote with a bird’s feather sharpened into a quill.  He decided to entertain himself by decorating the capital letters in the book with little drawings of men and women – just ordinary people – people he knew, or people he saw in the street. The drawings are all exaggerated in some way and are known as grotesques.

The very first one is really horrible – it shows a bearded man spitting out a rat. Super Ugh!!  No matter how hungry we might have been on board ship, it never came down to this!

Rat grotesque

What’s even more amazing are the hats.  Nowadays we hardly ever wear hats – maybe a beanie to keep us warm in winter or a cap to support our team.  But in 16th century Dublin everyone wore a hat – it was a way of showing your status – what you did for a living – or if you were a rich gentleman of leisure with nothing to do.  The basic hat was the Irish Monmouth – and in this drawing you can find four men together, three of them are merchants who bought and sold things for a living, and are wearing intricate and expensive hats, plus a guy in the front who is wearing the Monmouth.

Four men with hats grotesque

This man here was a soldier:


This man was a Catholic priest, saying the Ave Maria or the Hail Mary.  All the hats were stiffened with buckram, which is a stiff cloth made of cotton. 

Priest grotesque

Women had elaborate headgear too – this lady here was wealthy as shown by her complicated hat and the pearls decorating her collar.

Women in hat grotesque

This book holds another secret apart from the Grotesques.  It has a watermark which can only be seen in the dark and if you hold a torch behind the page.  This watermark is a large vase or urn and it shows that the paper was made in France – because this was their symbol.  You can make a watermark yourself – you take a sheet of paper, dampen it, put it on a waterproof surface and draw on it using a pen but no ink.  When the paper dries, your image should be visible if you hold your page up to the light.

That’s all for this month – will see you next month - avast me hearties!

Nelson’s Head from Nelson’s Pillar                September 2016

Nelson's HeadAbout Nelson's Head

The Head from Nelson’s Pillar is on display in the Reading Room of Dublin City Library & Archive.  As Admiral Nelson is a valued member of staff, we have invited him to write his own monthly blog.

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Very well written. Look to the Admiral's next blog.
Dublin Public Library must be the only library service in the world with an Admiral on the staff. Are you going to appoint a Rear Admiral soon? The Admiral might find out some interesting marine artifacts/documents/ photos in the city archive.

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