Minutes at the Royal Society as evidence of publication.

In addition to printed collections, Royal Society has large, manuscript collections that document its own dissemination of knowledge. Charles II granted them a special patent in 1662 that allowed them to disseminate knowledge. The minutes of the meetings authorize the use of this patent early on and become habitual over time.

The minutes provide detailed records of the early-modern world’s development of administrative law, or droit administratif, as it applies to copyright and publication.

The minutes outline John Lowthorp’s interaction with the society to navigate the obligations to produce his 1705 abridgment of their Philosophical Transactions to 1700. Above you can see the order in the Journal Book from 5 May 1703 (JBO/11/30, p. 21), in which Lowthorp presents his proposal and a specimen. You can see his approval as well.

What exactly happened at this meeting? As anyone who has ever taken or read minutes knows, the final record distills a great deal of activity.

How did they take notes?

The procedures of Parliament and the House of Commons would have been a obvious model for these meetings. Orlo Cyprian Williams explains that business was presented orally and that the clerk of the commons took notes. These notes allowed the clerk to remember what had occurred at previous meetings, but also to read past resolutions aloud when asked. The notes would state the question as it had been proposed and the resolution. In 1547 Clerk John Seymour began to keep these notes in consecutive order in a small, quarto book with his name on it.

The next clerk, Fulk Onslow, also kept notes in the same way. But in 1571 Onslow introduced

a new technique in compiling his Journal, writing a second or fair copy from the rough notes scribbled in the House, and at the same time changing its format from a small disheveled quarto, 6" × 8", to a neat and orderly folio, 8" × 13". (qtd. Williams, 17)

Successive clerks continued Onslow’s style of record. By the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the Journals of the House of Commons were a well known authority on what happened. Many members of the early Royal Society would have seen this style of record keeping personally.

Thus the Royal Society had a secretary who kept a journal, read past minutes aloud, presented business orally, and recorded new business. Like in the Commons, members would bring in petitions to read aloud and then hand their copy to the secretary or clerk for the record.

John Lowthorp’s proposal and its documentation

Excerpt from Lowthorp’s proposal

John Lowthorp brought in a four-page manuscript proposal that he read aloud. The spoken proposal smoothed out the roughness of the written document’s corrections. The spoken document itself was the business, so no fair copy was made. The written document remained as a record for the secretary’s reference, but ultimately ended up in the Classified Papers of the modern Royal Society’s collections (CLP/22i/59)

The secretary, however, recorded the day’s events in a small vellum-bound book in rough minutes (MS/578).

MS/578 spread including 5 May 1703

In the lower right, the paragraph beginning “Mr Lowthorp also presented a Proposal” describes the event as it occurred. Notice the pause before “Approv’d,” which suggests that the first part was written out, a discussion occurred, and a vote was taken to approve.

Across the spread, the two different styles of handwriting attest to the two possibilities: these were written in slightly different scenarios such as on a lap versus on a table, or these were written by two different people. Either would be unremarkable as there were various secretaries, these were rough notes to be copied later, and because the secretary employed various clerks and amanuenses who were paid to copy texts.

Note too that there are corrections throughout the minutes. From the records, it seems that sometimes the minutes were read aloud at the next meeting, revised, and approved. An example from 4 January 1698/9 mentions a revision. (JBO/10, p. 94)

JBO/10 4 January 1698/9

Another example mentions that the secretary had fallen behind in copying the minutes out of their notes and into the journals.

JBO/10 19 April 1699

So the final version of the notice of Lowthorp’s proposal reflects not minutes written to the moment, but minutes possibly revised, written sometime later, possibly by a different person. Thus when we read the minute at the top of this webpage, what we have is not a document of an event, but a document of a social consensus of what they would treat as having happened at an event.

The parliamentary versus banking model of minutes

The establishment of a social consensus at the Royal Society functions slightly differently than the journal for the House of Commons. On the one hand, the journals of the House of Commons represent the authorized activities of government. The social consensus around their content establishes the results of the King in Parliament. Thus only certain authorized people and methods can be used to establish the authentic record.

The Royal Society, on the other hand, means to document both their legal use of certain delegated privileges and to provide a record of knowledge and errors along the way. Their journals represent accumulated wisdom and I think a metaphor of banking is a better way to think of them. Like a shared commonplace book, or like the journals of a scrivener that copies manuscript separates, the purpose of their journals is to collect the raw details into one place. At a later date, they can distill them into indices so those details can be reused.

This explains the survival of the rough and draft minutes for the Royal Society. In a banking model, these would be the memorandum book, or waste book, that could be used to recreate the journal. Their journals represent a deliberately constructed, linear account, of what happened, but acknowledge their debt to the original notes.