Collaborative works are notoriously difficult to organize. Easiest perhaps are volumes which act in effect like a hardbound journal issue, where articles on any relevant topic can appear next to one another. Festschriften are also fairly straightforward: the field of interests of the dedicatee of the volume provides thematic unity, and people are generally motivated to write promptly in tribute to someone they admire.

The Cambridge Histories provide special challenges. They consist of an organized collection of commissioned pieces covering a limited period of history with contributions from the best authorities in the field. The idea was first mooted at the Syndicate meeting of 11 March 1896 on the initiative of R. T. Wright, Secretary to the Syndicate: they needed to make some money. The minutes read “A suggestion as to a history of the World having been discussed it was agreed to recommend that Lord Acton be asked whether he would entertain the possibility of his undertaking the direction of such a work”. Lord Acton, Regius Professor of Modern History agreed and set to, submitting a detailed proposal in October. He was appointed editor, but had to resign in 1901 because of ill health. The first volume of The Cambridge Modern History was published in 1902, and the final, 12th volume in 1912. The Modern History was followed by Ancient and Medieval, extending the coverage back from the Renaissance to the verges of prehistory. There have been lots of other Cambridge Histories in recent years as can be seen at the University Press’ website.

There’s a target of a consistency of level and clarity of writing in these Histories. The volumes were a god-send for this undergraduate looking for easily accessible facts to put in those weekly essays one’s supervisors required. Life being what it is though some authors do better than others. Some will require more editing, others will hit the target without fuss. Some will turn in their chapters on time; most will be a bit late; and a distressing number will be very late. Now of course as you’ve asked the best possible person to write chapter 6, you are reluctant to sack the author (in itself a delicate matter) and try to find another — after all you may end up waiting all over again. So you mostly remain patient. While you are waiting for the laggards all those pieces you’ve already received start to age. This can go on for years, so that in theory you might ultimately end up having to ask the early deliverers to revise their chapters in light of new scholarship. Penalizing efficiency is never a good strategy.

With the new edition of The Cambridge Ancient History, afflicted by too many authors writing on prehistoric schedules, the decision was made to publish individual chapters as little paperbacks ahead of the entire volume in which they would ultimately appear. The one illustrated is 52 pages long, which at 50p was not a bad value. The booklet was typeset exactly as it would appear in the final volume (though no doubt many had some later correction) so it was as if you were buying 52 pages of the final volume without any of the rest of the book. The type would be held as standing type — this was in hot metal days — and eventually imposed along with all the other chapters for the final volume.

These little booklets were called fascicles. The word comes from the Latin: fasciculus the diminutive of fascis, a bundle — a word somewhat tainted by its parental role in the origin of fascism. The word, no doubt proposed by a classicist, is pretty rare. The Oxford English Dictionary shows three supporting quotations of this sense ranging from 1647 to 1887. They describe it as “a part, number, ‘livraison’ (of a work published in installments)”. In addition to fascicle, livraison apparently meant “An allowance or ration of food dispensed to servants, retainers etc.” Unsurprisingly the word is described as being obsolete.