Sunday, April 20, 2014

So What Is a Remembrancer, Anyway?

       When I started writing The Termite Queen, I knew I wanted the Shshi to have a bard, since they had no writing and operate from an oral tradition.  I needed to figure out the word for "bard" in their language, so I thought, what is the function of a bard?  In an illiterate society a bard has to be more than a storyteller -- it has to be a historian, to keep the records of the past and of the myths and beliefs of the people.  So I settled on thu'dal'zei| -- literally, one who thinks about the past.  Then I had to decide how Kaitrin Oliva should translate this word into Inj (English in the 30th century).  I decided on Remembrancer, without really doing much research into the word.  It was unusual enough that I thought it would serve.
       Then, when I started this blog, I decided to call myself a Remembrancer, since what I'm doing is remembering the future!  I named the blog "Ruminations of a Remembrancer."
       Rather recently Google has started this Google Alert thing, where you can ask them to notify you when certain terms crop up on the internet.  I put in "termite queen," thinking I might find people referring to my book (however, I've mostly gotten articles on how to eradicate termites!)  I also put in "remembrancer" and that has led to this blog post.
(The above URL is the source of this picture, but unfortunately when you click on the link,
 you get only a page asking you to log in to PBS.)
       First off, the word really is quite archaic, but it was common from the 16th through the first half at least of the 19th century.  I've found several books with Remembrancer in the title -- a type of book of book that included things you ought to or would want to remember.   One of the most interesting is John Bell's London's Remembrancer.  See a facsimile of the title page above.  This book relates to the Great Plague of London in 1665.  Curiously, I wrote a term paper on the Great Plague in my British history class when I was a college junior.  Clearly, the word is used to indicate a way to remember the people who died in that disaster.
       Then I found the word used on The Obstetrical Remembrancer; or Denman's Aphorisms on Natural and Difficult Parturition; the application and use of instruments, etc., published in 1848.  Fascinating!  And a little bit gruesome!  You can leaf through the book at the source given and contemplate the torture instruments used in difficult labors!
       Less gruesome and much wordier is The Builder's Jewel; or, the Youth's Instructor, and Workman's Remembrancer, Explaining Short and Easy Rules, made familiar to the meanest capacity, for Drawing and Working, : the whole illustrated by upwards of 200 examples, engraved on 100 copper-plates [1787] ...     Again, you can leaf through the book at the source given, although most of the text is illegible.  I'm showing one of the engravings above, showing the profile of an entablature.  It seems like quite a book!

       This overview of the use of the word in book titles wouldn't be complete without a mention of Pastor James Smith's The Believer's Daily Remembrancer, or Pastor's Evening Visit, which appears to have been first published around 1840, before the word went out of style.  Can you believe the book is still in print?!  If you want evening devotional Bible quotations, get it at Amazon!  And I was flummoxed to find that Pastor James Smith and his Daily Remembrancer has a Facebook page!  The man lived from 1802 to 1862, and I'm sure he's saying right now, "Duh ... what's a facebook?  A book with engravings of people's portraits?"  I can't find a facsimile of the original edition -- I'm sure it exists out there on the internet somewhere, but I've spent too much time searching already.

       And now for a contemporary use of the word.  I found this website called The Evening Room ("Alex, Rich and Thom graciously welcome you to the Evening Room, a fledgling haven for all things geek.")  Among other pieces, it has a piece of fiction called The Remembrancer Files, a noir private eye story subtitled "Being the Case Books of Stanislaus H. Geiger: PI, Mind-for-hire, Remembrancer."  It appears to be by the above mentioned Alex under the moniker XanderPayne and it seems to have 13 chapters so far.  While I only skimmed the first installment, it looks like it could be run to read.  Intriguingly in this story a Remembrancer is defined as a "memory walker" -- I presume, some kind of telepath or with the ability to probe people's memories.  Nifty idea!  Check it out at

       And then my final discovery, which is the most fun of them all!  There is a British governmental post called the Queen's Remembrancer.  And you can find a picture of the current holder of this post at this URL:
The photo is copyrighted and won't allow me to save it to publish here, but I do encourage you to click on the URL because the Remembrancer is a very imposing chap, and quite worth contemplating! 
       The Queen's Remembrancer has an illustrious past.  Let me quote Wikipedia:

       "The Remembrancer is the oldest judicial position in continual existence. The post was created in 1154 by King Henry II as the chief official in the Exchequer Court, whose purpose was 'to put the Lord Treasurer and the Barons of Court in remembrance of such things as were to be called upon and dealt with for the benefit of the Crown, a primary duty being to keep records of the taxes, paid and unpaid."

       Wikipedia goes on to describe the duties of the Remembrancer:
First, to collect the "Quit Rents" for the City of London, to wit:
The City pays two knives, one blunt and one sharp, for the use of a certain piece of land in Shropshire.  This dates back to 1211.
The City pays six horseshoes and 61 horseshoe nails for the forge in Tweezer's Alley near the Strand. This dates to 1235.
       These two quits are collected in one ceremony, and I simply have to quote Wikipedia here -- it's just too much fun to summarize:

       "These two quits are paid together as one ceremony, during which a black-and-white chequered cloth is spread out — it is from this that the word 'Exchequer' derives -- combined with the introduction to the Remembrancer of the City's newly elected Sheriffs.
       "The Solicitor & Comptroller of the City presents the horseshoes and nails and counts them out to the Remembrancer who then pronounces 'Good number.' The knives are tested by the Queen's Remembrancer by taking a hazel stick, one cubit in length, and bending it over the blunt knife and leaving a mark, and the stick is split in two with the sharp knife. This practice stems from the creation of tally sticks where a mark was made in a stick with a blunt knife for each payment counted. When payment was complete the stick was split down the middle, leaving each party with half of the marked stick and creating a receipt (or foil and counter-foil). After the knives are tested the Remembrancer pronounces 'Good service'."

       The article goes on to describe other services provided by the Remembrancer, including the Trial of the Pyx, which dates back to 1249.  A sworn jury, under the supervision of the Remembrancer, counts out, weighs, and measures 88,000 gold coins produced by the Royal Mint.  The box in which the coins are placed is called a pyx.

       Now, besides entertaining the reader with the quaint customs of our peers across the pond, what is my point here?  It's this:  I love ritual and I'm an Anglophile.  Rituals are symbols and what could better symbolize the ancient and enduring legacy of the Islands of Britan (as they are called in my future history) than the preservation of archaic customs?  These practices have no usefulness or significance in the modern day except to remind humanity of its historical legacy -- of the importance of remembering ("remembrancing") how things were done in a time that existed even before the invention of printing, to say nothing of the steam engine or the internet. 

       I say, let the Queen's Remembrancer flourish and never be forgotten! Unfor-tunately, in my future history I did away with the British monarchy, but I kind of regret that!  I can imagine a day a thousand years into the future when the distinguished gentleman in the wig confronts a visitor to Earth -- a termite Remembrancer.  The gentleman makes a leg and the termite Alate abases and then they both settle down to share the ancient, remembered tales of their own cultures -- to think about the past, each becoming a true thu'dal'zei|!


  1. So you conlanged an existing word and didn't even know it! It's possible you'd seen the word in your librarian role at some point and it lodged itself in your mind.

  2. Well, I did catalog rare books for a time and saw a lot of pieces of the vintage of the ones I discuss here. So that's possible!

  3. This is a fascinating post Lorinda! I've known you long enough now to not be able to remember whether I knew the word remembrancer before or not! But when I got to the place about the Queen's Remembrancer, that seemed familiar, so maybe I have heard of that role before. I do love some of our old ceremonies and traditions, pointless as they may be! When William and Kate had their baby, the process of announcing it to the world had to be done in the traditional way, I can't remember exactly what it was, but it was something like someone had to travel from the hospital to the palace in a horse and cart with the news, tell the Queen in person, and then somebody else had to write it on a blackboard with chalk, with details of the baby's sex and weight, and place that outside the palace in front of the baying press photographers! (I don't think I've got that completely right, but it was similar and definitely involved a blackboard!).

    That obstetrics book is quite something!

    I'm not sure if Neil has seen this post yet, but if he hasn't I'll prompt him to look at it, I know he'll find it interesting too.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Vanessa - taking time away from your burdensome task of becoming a Master! That business about informing the Queen about the baby's birth, etc., was shown all over our newscasts over here! All that stuff fascinates us colonials, you know! And I keep getting notifications from Google Alerts about old books with Remembrancer in the title. I think one of these outfits that digitizes books is running through title listings. I've got The Remembrancer, or, Impartial Repository of Public Events, and also What To Observe, or, The Traveller's Remembrancer!
      Please do prompt Neil to take a look! I did tag him on that same post.
      Don't you just love the Queen's Remembrancer's wig and little bitty hat perched up there? LOL

  4. Don't encourage her, Lorinda. Just because she's taking a master's degree doesn't mean she's going to be the master one day soon. She thinks she's already the master, but then that's my job ... to make sure she 'thinks' she's the master, that is.

    Anyway, we digress. I really enjoyed this Remembrancer blog - all new to me, and I too love the 'little bitty hat' - is it perched, or pinned? And a great word for your purpose - you're inspired!

    1. And I'll bet you do a great job making V. think she's the master! LOL
      Glad you enjoyed this post - I enjoyed writing it! Actually, I looked at the picture again and the hat wasn't as small as I was remembering it - it's just small in comparison with the wig!
      I haven't heard anything about Capt. Robbie lately. Have you given him up?