Monday, April 27, 2020


In early modern England, print houses called themselves "chapels," and they had some interesting norms around what they called "solaces," as described in  Joseph Moxon's 1683 Mechanick exercises, or, The doctrine of handy-works : applied to the art of printing.
In its simplest form, the solaces system is a set of prohibited activities, each of which results in a fine paid into some kind of central pot (it is for "the good of the chapel").

Someone who doesn't pay their solace gets spanked, in at least one instance to death. But solaces also seem to be a bit more complicated. Different printing houses invent their own solaces; solaces can sometimes be demanded from those who don't work there (e.g. it's a prank to send someone to the King's Print House to ask for a ballad); the solaces system can serve a bit like a swear-jar for trivial annoyances; the solaces system can be used to settle slightly more serious disputes.

Some of this feels a bit patchy and open to interpretation. What do you think: am I reading it right? It seems like a worker can pay to create a new rule, with the agreement of everyone else (or more likely of a majority)?

It also feels like rule-breaking in these cases doesn't come with much moral disapprobation: it's not that they're saying, "Ooh, it's wrong to sing while you work, wrong to the tune of tuppence." It's more like they're saying, "Well, we all know gets right up Jack Pickle's nose when Thomas Longlegs does his Lady Gaga impression, and to be honest a few of us feel the same; so here's what we'll do which seems fair: anyone who wants to sing needs to pay tuppence to the central pot, for the good of the printing house."

It doesn't feel deeply robust and democratic, but there is an interesting transparency about it. The origins of law in conflicting and compromising interests are not so invisibilized. Imagine it writ large in a contemporary democracy. Imagine if various lobbies, big pharma etc., instead of funnelling cash to politicians' election campaigns, had to make offers directly to the electorate: We'll pay a one off lump sum of such-and-such for there to be such-and-such a law, and the revenues raised from breaking the law will be hypothecated in such-and-such a way. This aspect of solaces is a bit like that, I think.

There's another aspect too. It also seems like the solaces system can be used to bring a suit or call an investigation: putting down half a shilling on the Correcting Stone is a way of claiming that somebody here owes a shilling solace for pranking your ball-racks with a wisp of hay, etc. The half a shilling is presumably paid to the good of the chapel only if the shilling solace is succesfully brought against whoever done it, right? So there is an 1s. 6d. incentive for the collective to find somebody to blame. Which as a justice system looks fairly rife with perverse incentive, although on the other hand, there's an interesting tendency toward redistribution.

The simultaneously highly deliberative and highly financialised quality of all this is kind of fascinating. I'd be interested both in knowing more about the specific historical details, and thinking about the affinities with other practices used by co-operatives and commons collectives ...

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