My First Book at Boydell: The Medieval Leper

Coming from a vast, trader-packed office in Tower Hill to Boydell’s compact space in distant Alderton (not Alderaan as I first misheard) was something of a culture shock. Sure, I no longer had to worry about trains but now there were tractors on my commute. Tractors! But Suffolk certainly was green, clean and peaceful. And what a world I delved into. Those first few months alone introduced me to Welsh castles, Antioch, medieval war (cruel and sharp), Gower, Malory, and Robert Boyle. And we had intriguing books on Margaret Atwood, Vikings and even the great Fritz Lang. But the very first that I remember dealing with was on…leprosy.

The Medieval Leper and his Northern Heirs by the late Peter Richards had just been reprinted in paperback again. In attempting to accurately assess the lives, living conditions and treatments of those afflicted with leprosy in the Middle Ages it took a novel approach: Professor Richards looked at the detailed records of a small but long-established leper colony in the Åland islands, where during one 25-year period in the early seventeenth century a dean had kept particularly detailed records. These, along with English medieval sources, gave insight into the tragic lives of these poor individuals. The Scandinavian link was of great interest to me; details of the illness itself not so much. I remember the great Helen Barber sweeping into the office, copy in hand, marvelling at some of the book’s many illustrations, “Look at that. You can see the sores!” Oh boy. It’s OK, I’ll have that KitKat later, not so hungry now.

How to market a book like this? A challenge for a beginner. I remember trying to interest CAFOD as they had once scared the daylights out of me at school with a vivid, desperately sad lecture on the scourge of leprosy in modern Africa. In addition to all our medieval contacts, other avenues to pursue were Scandinavian history, the history of medicine, and social history.

The book ended up selling pretty well but as old timers will tell you, those were very different days. Looking down the list of sales now it’s striking how many client names have been amended with CLOSED, CEASED TRADING, SHUT.

And how different Boydell is now. Back in those days the offices were small, cramped, cold (it got better when I discovered, beneath my desk, a hole in the wall leading through to the garage). Almost all the staff were very local, I don’t think anyone travelled further than Woodbridge and they probably thought me mad driving the best part of 80 miles every day. But how friendly and supportive they were. Many had come to their roles somewhat later in life but they knew the work inside-out and it took me a very long time to get anywhere close to their level of expertise. Boydell could, sometimes, work in mysterious ways – and how I moaned at having to do my own post! “We used to have someone to do that for us,” I whined – but the book was always the priority, always the book above everything. And that, I assume, is how an impeccable reputation is built. It’s a pleasure to have been part of it and a responsibility that all us current staff must continue to shoulder.

There’s only one Boydell and after 50 great years its future is down to us.

Do you have your very own “first book at Boydell”? Do you remember the first Boydell & Brewer book that you read, bought, borrowed, referenced or even wrote? We’d love to hear your thoughts and your stories on the Boydell & Brewer books that have impacted you or stir up strong memories. You can email them to Sean at [email protected]

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