Egges or Eyren?: The “boundless chase”

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1755, was a landmark work in the development of English. (SLU’s copy, shown here, is the third edition, published in 1765. Book shown: Spec Coll Rare Bks PE 1620 .J6 1765 fol. v. 1)

The fractured state of fifteenth-century English is colorfully expressed by printer William Caxton in the preface to his 1490 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid. To illustrate the effects of the “dyuersite [&] chauge of langage” in his time, Caxton recounts a confused communication between a southern woman and a northern merchant:

“In my dayes happened that certayn marchau[n]tes were in a ship in tamyse [the Thames] for to haue sayled ouer the see into zelande [in Holland]/ and for lacke of wynde thei taryed atte forlond [in Kent]. and wente to lande for to refreshe them[.] And one of theym named sheffelde a mercer cam in to an hows [house] and axed [asked] for mete [food], and specyally he axyed after eggys[.] And the good wyf answerde, that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchau[n]t was angry, for he also coude speke no frenshe, but wolde haue hadde egges/ and she understode hym not/ And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren/ then the good wyf sayd that she understood hym wel/ Loo what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, egges or eyren, certainly it is harde to playse euery man, by cause of dyuersite [&] chau[n]ge of langage.”

The “egg dilemma,” penned and printed by William Caxton in Eneydos (1490). Image from page 110 of Lotte Hellinga’s William Caxton and Early Printing (Spec Coll Archives/ Rare Bks Ref. Z 151.2 H45 2010).

Caxton’s oft-referenced “egges” versus “eyren” anecdote may be humorous, but at its heart is a real quandary: how was Caxton to make foreign-language (and Old or Middle English) works accessible to the masses by translating them into modern English when there was more than one “English” from which to choose?

Complaints of the mutual incomprehensibility of neighboring English dialects predate Caxton, but the problems posed by a lack of language standardization were magnified in his time by the printing press. Texts were churned out at a previously unimaginable rate, and, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as books became more affordable, the literate population grew, publishers’ markets expanded, and national sentiment increased, more and more books were published not in Latin, but in European vernaculars. In England, where the native tongue had both Germanic and Norse roots that appeared in varying degrees in regional dialects (e.g., the Old English “eyren” and Old Norse “egges”), this meant that authors and printers of texts in the vernacular had to decide which dialect to use in order the reach the widest audience. Many (Caxton included) published in the East Midlands dialect spoken in the greater London area, and, as the word forms of this dialect were preserved in print, it increasingly became the English standard.

As you can see from this sampling of SLU’s early English imprints, London was England’s major printing hub. It is unsurprising, then, that many early English printers chose to print in the dialect of the capital region.

This “standard” of language was loose, for even within a given dialect, spelling was phonetic and notoriously mercurial. (Recall, for example, how a certain playwright might choose to go by “Shakesper” or “Shake-speare” as the mood struck him.) It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that the standardization of word forms, meaning, grammar, and usage were fully worked out and put into print.

Enter: one of SLU Rare Books’ English language stars, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language of 1755.

Samuel Johnson’s dictionary is an English-language giant in more ways than one. SLU’s copy of the 1765 third edition, an imposing two-volume folio set, makes the 500+ page work that sits atop it look like a mere novella. (Books shown: Spec Coll Rare Bks PE 1620 .J6 1765 fol. v. 1-2 and 1765.2 Ward)

Johnson’s was not the first English dictionary (English scholars had been compiling “hard word” dictionaries listing long words, technical terms, and/or slang as early as 1604), but it was the most comprehensive general dictionary at the time. This is a fact that Johnson is keen to point out in his introduction, where he emphasizes the arduousness of lexicography in a language suffering from a “deficiency of dictionaries” (6). His words were not harvested from preexisting lists, but had to be “sought by fortuitous and unguided excursions into books, and gleaned … in the boundless chase of a living speech” (6) — a beautiful image of lexical scholarship.

Johnson’s work is all the more impressive for its many examples of usage, mined from publications; his prefatory essay on the history of English, which traces the language’s evolution from Old English, through its Middle and Early Modern forms, and finally to Modern (eighteenth-century) English; his essay on English grammar, which laid the groundwork for grammarians such as William Ward; and the astounding speed with which the work was produced. While a comparable work in French had taken 55 years and 40 scholars to produce, Johnson was able to complete the first edition of his dictionary in only eight years and with the help of six contributors. The dictionary is overwhelmingly the work of a single man, and has been both celebrated and criticized for its evident infusion of Johnson’s personality (and biases) in the centuries since its publication.

Johnson converses with readers in his work’s prefatory material, but this isn’t the only place where his voice can be detected. Johnson’s personality, tastes, and biases (such as this rather rude observation about the Scots in his definition of “oats”) make their way into the definitions themselves.

While some of Johnson’s definitions fall short of the standard of objectivity that modern lexicographers strive for, and though some words that he painstakingly collected have since shifted in meaning or fallen out of use altogether, what I find most remarkable about his dictionary is how overwhelmingly familiar it seems to the modern reader. In organization and intent, in its colloquial style and the clarity of its definitions, and in its commitment to describing the movements of a living language rather than prescribing rules to corral it, A Dictionary of the English Language is everything that we expect a dictionary to be, for modern dictionaries have followed in its wake. Though English continues to evolve (in June 2016, over 1,000 words were formally welcomed into our lexicon by the Oxford English Dictionary), it’s worth remembering that our ability to communicate effectively across dialects was exponentially improved by standards set by eighteenth-century lexicographers and the reference tools that they created. So here’s to Johnson’s “boundless chase” — and, perhaps more importantly, to the sweet simplicity of “egg.”


Further reading:

For a general overview of the evolution of the English language from Anglo-Saxon Britain to today, see the British Library’s “English Timeline”:

For a look at the evolution of the English dictionary into the collection of general words, definitions, and etymologies that we’re familiar with today, see “The first dictionaries of English” by John Simpson, Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary:

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“(Re)presenting the Medieval Body: The Role of Clothing and Textiles”—VFL Exhibition & Lecture

(Re)presenting the Medieval Body: The Role of Clothing and Textiles
An Exhibition in Pius XII Memorial Library
12 October 2016 – 2016 December 31

The Knights of Columbus Vatican Film Library—part of Special Collections in the Saint Louis University Libraries—announces the opening of an exhibition of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, “(Re)presenting the Medieval Body: The Role of Clothing and Textiles.”

Mark Twain once qualified the statement “Clothes make the man” with a pithy observation: “Naked people have little or no influence on society.” Although this statement might not be so true today, it was certainly valid in the Middle Ages, when clothing defined a person’s social class, economic status, and personal identity. “(Re)presenting the Medieval Body: The Role of Clothing and Textiles,” an upcoming exhibition (12 October 2016 – 31 December 2016), on the second floor of Pius Library, will investigate secular and ecclesiastical clothing as illustrated in works of art dating from Antiquity through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The exhibit will cover this topic from various points of view, seeking to answer a number of questions, such as: What sorts of garments did church officials—mainly those of the Roman Catholic Church—wear for daily worship and ceremonial events; what are the individual items called; and why? How can you tell a pope from a bishop? What social, cultural, and gender-specific constraints did clothing distinguish—and impose—on their wearers? What fabrics and colors identified or differentiated the various levels of society? Where were the various types of cloth made; by whom; and when did the concept of “style” become meaningful? What inspired fashion, and what caused it to change?

The exhibition is divided into two main sections, comprising ecclesiastical and secular clothing. Dominating the clerical side will be a nearly life-sized replica of the thirteenth-century Ascoli-Piceno cope, donated by Pope Nicholas IV in 1288 to the cathedral of the city of Ascoli Piceno, in Italy. Below is an early twentieth-century watercolor of it, now located in New York City.

Watercolor of the Ascoli-Piceno Cope New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, acc. no. 06.1313

Watercolor of the Ascoli-Piceno Cope
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, acc. no. 06.1313

On the secular side, displays and manuscript facsimiles will present the clothing of royalty, the nobility, merchants, those in professional occupations, and finally laborers and peasants. Individual panels and exhibition cases will concentrate on categories of clothing: headgear, gowns, underwear, footwear; details of fabrics (linen, silk, brocade); as well as the types of decoration applied to them and an explanation of how they were executed. Free and open to all, the exhibition was conceived to interest and inform a wide range of visitors, including students, professors, textile historians and craftspeople, and the general public.

The exhibition is free and open to the public and will be on display through 31 December 2016 in the 2nd floor gallery of Pius XII Memorial Library. Curated by Susan L’Engle, Assistant Director of the Vatican Film Library, assisted by the meticulous and much-appreciated efforts of graduate students Ben Halliburton and Samantha Cloud from the History Department.  For further information, contact the Vatican Film Library at 314-977-3090,

In conjunction with the exhibition, there will also be a guest lecture delivered by Désirée Koslin, Ph.D., retired Assistant Professor in Fashion and Textiles Studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, NY.

“At Face Value: Visual Representations of Fashion in the Middle Ages”
Tuesday, 25 October 2016, 3:30 p.m.
Pius XII Memorial Library, 2nd floor gallery

koslin-picDésirée Koslin has taught courses on the history of western textiles, dress and textiles in world cultures, and fabric structure and analysis. She has published and lectured extensively on fashion, textiles, and the representation of clothing in the middle ages. She is also a textile expert and artist, and has exhibited her fiber art in various galleries over the years.

The lecture is free and open to the public and will be followed by a reception. For further information, contact the Vatican Film Library at 314-977-3090,

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New Issue of Manuscripta — Vol. 60, Issue 1 (2016)

The Vatican Film Library announces the latest issue of its biannual journal on medieval and Renaissance manuscript studies, Manuscripta: A Journal for Manuscript Research. In publication since 1957, the journal features articles, notes, and reviews and welcomes submissions on medieval and Renaissance manuscript production, distribution, reception, and transmission — encompassing paleography, codicology, illumination, book production, library history, reading and literacy, textual editing and transmission, manuscript catalogues, and other subjects.


Marta Luigina Mangini, “Tabelliones scribunt de foris: Captions and their Functions in Italian Notarial Records of the Twelfth to Fifteenth Centuries”

Anneliese Pollock Renck, “Reading Medieval Manuscripts Then, Now, and Somewhere in Between: Verbal and Visual Mise en Abyme in Huntington Library MS HM 60 and Bibliothèque nationale de France MS fr. 875

John B. Wickstrom, “Reassigning an Eleventh-Century Monastic Antiphoner: From Fossés to Glanfeuil (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 12584)”

Manuscript Notes:

— John T. Slotemaker, “Robert Holcot’s Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard: Basel, Universitätsbibliothek, MS A.XI.36″

Book Reviews:

— Blockmans, Wim, Till-Holger Borchert, Nele Gabriëls, Johan Oosterman, and Anne van Oosterwijk, eds. Staging the Court of Burgundy: Proceedings of the Conference “The Splendour of Burgundy” (Gregory T. Clark)

— Coleman, Joyce, Mark Cruse, and Kathryn A. Smith, eds. The Social Life of Illumination: Manuscripts, Images, and Communities in the Late Middle Ages (Sandra Hindman)

— Drossbach, Gisela. Die Collectio Cheltenhamensis: Eine englische Decretalensammlung; Analyse beruhend auf Vorarbeiten von Walther Holtzmann (†) (Atria A. Larson)

— Mittman, Asa Simon, and Susan M. Kim. Inconceivable Beasts: The Wonders of the East in the Beowulf Manuscript (Heather Pulliam)

— Whittington, Karl. Body‐Worlds: Opicinus de Canistris and the Medieval Cartographic Imagination (Danielle B. Joyner)


The journal accepts articles and notes on topics relating to medieval and Renaissance manuscript studies, including (but not limited to) paleography, codicology, illumination, library history, reading and literacy, and manuscript catalogues.

Contributions are evaluated by peer review. Material for consideration should be submitted in English, following the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., with footnotes, double-spaced, and in electronic form (Microsoft Word). Please include an abstract of no more than 150 words as well as ten keywords. Citations and footnotes should be robust and full manuscript shelfmarks are expected. Where appropriate, please include citations to pertinent critical editions.

“Manuscript Notes” are a means to share preliminary observations, conjectures, and conclusions. The maximum length of submissions for such notes is 1,200-1,500 words (including foot notes), with accommodation for up to two black-and-white illustrations.

Address submissions and books for review to Manuscripta, Knights of Columbus Vatican Film Library, Pius XII Memorial Library, Saint Louis University, 3650 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63108-3302 or to


Manuscripta (ISSN 0025-2603) is published twice yearly for the Knights of Columbus Vatican Film Library. For print and online subscriptions, contact Brepols Publishers. The journal is available online through Brepols Periodica Online. Print back issues for 1957-98 are available from the Vatican Film Library at $10 per issue.

The journal also publishes Manuscripta Publications in Manuscript Research, a subsidiary monograph series of studies, essay collections, or catalogues pertaining to medieval and Renaissance manuscript studies. Contact Brepols Publishers for more information. The first volume in the series is A Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library at Holkham Hall. Vol. 1, Manuscripts from Italy to 1500. Pt. 1, Shelfmarks 1–399, by Suzanne Reynolds.

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“In The Manuscript Margins”—VFL Exhibition Opening

In the Manuscript Margins: Notes and Decoration by Scribes, Illuminators, and Readers
An exhibition in Pius XII Memorial Library, Vatican Film Library
26 August 2016–2017 January 31

The Knights of Columbus Vatican Film Library—part of Special Collections in the Saint Louis University Libraries—announces the opening of an exhibition of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, “In the Manuscript Margins.”

This exhibition takes a look at the manuscript margins and some of the marks—texts and images—that can be encountered there. The margins—defined as the blank space around or between text columns—are handy places to add accessory texts or decoration, as well as providing space for scribes and readers to make corrections or notes. The traditional format of the manuscript page, with its widest margins at the outer and lower sides, was certainly devised with this in mind.

The exhibition cases present two different aspects of marginal additions. Case 1 is devoted to marks and text  added by scribes and readers during the production or use of the manuscript. In a thirteenth-century English Bible (MS 56), for example, the margins bear corrections by the scribe, as well as notes made by a reader, proving that this Bible was studied closely.

MS 56 crop

Case 2 deals mainly with marginal decoration executed by illuminators, usually comprising painted or penwork borders alongside the text, which may be enriched with floral or zoomorphic motifs. A book of hours leaf (MS 35b verso) is decorated with a double vertical bar along the left side of the column, topped by a two-legged, winged dragon with a feathery hat.

MS 35b verso

Additionally, a legal document granting a piece of land to a monastery (MS 33) bears the armorial seal of the knight who donated the land.

MS 33 crop

The exhibition is free and open to the public and will be on display Monday through Friday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, through 31 January 2017 in the Vatican Film Library of Pius XII Memorial Library (Room 105). For further information, contact Susan L’Engle, Assistant Director of the Vatican Film Library, at 314-977-3084,

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Stamped Stories: A Look at Provenance

A tool of the trade: SLU’s newly designed ownership stamp.

One of my regular tasks here at SLU is ownership marking our books for security. This entails applying our newly designed “Saint Louis University Libraries” stamp to title pages and plate versos.

Our clean and compact new ownership stamp, looking even more clean and compact beside the sprawling figure in this neighboring title vignette. (Book shown: SLU Spec Coll Rare Bks 1748.2 Gravesande)

For some, the idea of marking up centuries-old books elicits a knee-jerk, Madam Pince-ian reaction (“Despoiled! Desecrated! Befouled!”), yet marking books has long been standard practice in special collections and is a measure recommended by the Security Committee of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of ACRL/ALA to guard against theft. Such basic security procedures are crucial to the balancing act of rare book caretaking, in which providing free and open access to materials is constantly weighed against the need to preserve both individual books and the integrity of collections. Much thought goes into marking tools, from the design and placement of a stamp (which should be legible, but detract from the look of the book as little as possible) to the composition of the ink (which must be permanent, but not deleterious to paper or parchment), and the markings themselves often play a key role in the identification of books stolen from institutional collections.

Provenance can tell us much about a volume. Case in point: the SLU High ownership markings on this former textbook contextualize its wear and tear. (Book shown: SLU Spec Coll Rare Bks PA2084 .D388 1798 12mo)

Ownership marking is vital from a security standpoint, but knowing that I’m helping to safeguard our collection from hypothetical future thieves doesn’t help me to shrug off the instinctive cringe I feel when I press our inked stamp onto a pre-1820 page. What does help is to consider our ownership markings within the broader context of provenance, or the traceable history of hands through which a book has passed. Our books are filled with provenance markings, including the signatures, inscriptions, and bookplates of former owners; stamps proudly blazoning institutional names; and booksellers’ labels discretely pasted in. These are visible traces of the humans who owned, read, or sold a book, and these traces can tell us all sorts of stories.

Here are some of the best stories that our books have told me thus far.

An STL Neighbor

The bookplate of Henry Shaw appears in SLU’s Moeurs des Sauvages Ameriquains, published in 1724. (Book shown: SLU Spec Coll Rare Bks E58 .L16 1724 4to)

Who hasn’t toured Tower Grove House, the former residence of Henry Shaw, and wondered if the books lining the walls of the formal dining room belonged to Shaw’s own library? Books can give insight into the tastes, preferences, and even the mind of the one who purchased and (presumably) read them, and thus the “authenticity” of the house museum’s library has always seemed of greater importance to me than that of the other furnishings. Well, I may have yet to answer the Great Question of Henry Shaw’s Books (though I’m sure it would be as simple as asking a museum docent), but this bookplate, adhered to the front pastedown of Moeurs des Sauvages Ameriquains, Comparées aux Moeurs des Premiers Temps (1724) tells us that at least one volume from Shaw’s library ended up here at SLU.

A Taste of Bloomsbury in St. Louis

This book passed through many hands, including those of Mary Augusta Elton, whose bookplate appears in the upper left-hand corner of the paste-down; Roger Senhouse; and Lytton Strachey. (Book shown: SLU Spec Coll Rare Bks DC63 .R36 1584 8vo)

You’ve likely heard of the Bloomsbury Set – the famed friendship group of artists, writers, and other intellectuals who first came together in Bloomsbury, London in the early twentieth century (and who are remembered nearly as much for their tangled web of scandalous relationships as for their minds). Also likely is that you probably wouldn’t expect to find much trace of this tradition-eschewing social circle in SLU’s Catholica- and Jesuitica-heavy Rare Book Collection. Nevertheless, while gathering materials for a March table-top exhibition on the works of Peter Ramus, I found this pictorial bookplate of Giles Lytton Strachey, biographer, critic, and member of the Bloomsbury set. The plate, pasted to the inside cover of a 1584 edition of Ramus’s De Moribus Veterum Gallorum, appears alongside the marks of Roger Senhouse (one of Strachey’s lovers), and Mary Augusta Elton (née Strachey).

A Metaphysical Poet

The title page of this volume from the library of poet John Donne features Donne’s motto (above the title) and his signature (to the right of the imprint information). (Book shown: SLU Spec Coll Rare Bks KBU205 1609 8vo)

One of the Rare Book Collection’s claims to fame is the signature of Renaissance poet John Donne on the title page of Codex Canonum Vetus Ecclesiae Romanae (1609). Donne does not appear to have used the book as a notepad for working out his verse (if only the couplet written on the flyleaf were in Donne’s hand!), but the presence of both his autograph and his motto, “Per Rachel ho servito [& non per Lea]” (“I served you for Rachel and not for Leah”), makes it certain that this volume was once part of his personal library.

Institutional History

This book bears about as many stamps as an envelope addressed by Molly Weasley. (Book shown: 1763.2 Plato)

The most prevalent provenance markings in SLU’s collection are those representing institutional libraries and collections. Among these are retired SLU ownership stamps, bookplates, and other markings from now-consolidated subject libraries and professors’ personal collections. These old markings provide us with an interesting glimpse of SLU history (particularly of its library history).

One such SLU-signed volume, The Republic of Plato, boasts a precursor to our current stamp, and made me feel much more confident about my ownership marking abilities. Rare Books Student Assistant Claire Peterson perhaps best summed up the work of this stamp-happy past library employee when she hypothesized, “Bring your child to work day?”

Physically marking our volumes may still make me cringe, but I love to think that I’m adding SLU’s link to our books’ long chains of provenance, and, in the process, joining the huge cast of characters in the lives of our volumes. Thanks to ownership markings, you never know not only what, but who you’ll find in a rare book.

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43rd Saint Louis Conference on Manuscript Studies, 14-15 October, 2016

The Knights of Columbus Vatican Film Library, part of the University Libraries Department of Special Collections, invites all to attend its 43rd Annual Saint Louis Conference on Manuscript Studies, 14–15 October 2016. This two-day conference each year offers a variety of sessions addressing aspects of the production, distribution, reception, and transmission of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, and featuring work in areas such as paleography, codicology, illumination, textual transmission, library history, provenance, cataloguing, and other subjects.

This year’s guest speaker is Madeline H. Caviness, Mary Richardson Professor Emeritus at Tufts University. Dr. Caviness will deliver the Lowrie J. Daly, S.J., Memorial Lecture on Manuscript Studies and will speak on

  • Medieval German Law and the Jews: The Sachsenspiegel Picture-Books

This lecture is open to the public and will be held on Friday, 14 October, at 4pm. It is co-sponsored with Saint Louis University’s Center for Medieval & Renaissance Studies and is followed by a reception.

2016 Conference sessions:

  • All Things Visible and Invisible: Illuminating Working Practices in Manuscript Making
  • Creating Memory, Creating Identity
  • Pages with Extended Pedigree: Second-Hand Manuscripts and Their Owners
  • Illuminating Metalwork: Representations of Precious-Metal Objects in Medieval Manuscript Illumination
  • Revelations of Codicology
  • Manuscripts for Travelers
  • Beyond Arbiters of Lay Piety and Ambassadors of Culture: Revisiting Bell’s Medieval Women Book Owners

Regular sessions of the conference are open to the public through advance registration. Saint Louis University students, staff, faculty, and Library Associates are admitted free of charge, but are asked to register in advance. For program and registration information, visit the conference webpage. For further information, contact the Vatican Film Library at 314-977-3090 or

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Three Vassar Girls in England (1884)

The title page of SLU’s copy of Three Vassar Girls in England. As in all her juvenile fiction, Elizabeth Champney is familiarly identified as “Lizzie,” while the illustrator, James Wells Champney, is referred to simply as “Champ.” (SLU Spec Coll Rare Bks D980 .C444 1884)

Five years ago, I was at the tail end of a semester-long study abroad experience in London that had brought me everywhere from standing street-side at a royal wedding to learning what “hobs” were (and just how much food residue a group of first-year men could cook onto them in the time between the college’s monthly cleanliness inspections). Now, peppered with Facebook’s frequent reminders of the trip (“Five years ago, you were at Kew Gardens admiring Europe’s largest compost heap!”), this anglophile’s thoughts have been much in England. It is unsurprising, then, that a book titled Three Vassar Girls in England recently captured my attention.

Champney’s novel captures the spirit of discovery still typical of travel abroad today, but certain episodes — such as Maud’s visit to the London Foundling Hospital, closed in 1926, date the work.

Published in 1884, Elizabeth Williams Champney’s Three Vassar Girls in England tells the story of three fictional Vassar graduates – Barbara Atchison, Cecilia “Saint” Boylston, and Maud Van Vechten – traveling through the U.K. Visiting museums, embarking on sketching tours, attending concerts, and participating in women’s discussion groups, the young graduates may as well be students still, and, skimming their stories, I felt an immediate sense of fellowship with them. The experiences of these twenty-something Seven Sisters graduates – though dated in their specifics, such as Maud’s visit to the London foundling hospital – evoke the spirit of heady independence, novelty, and discovery still intrinsic to study abroad today.

While this fuel for nostalgia in the stories of the fictional college graduates was what initially drew me to Three Vassar Girls in England, it was the real Vassar woman behind the novel who held my attention. Between 1883 and 1921, Elizabeth Williams Champney authored five series and more than 30 novels; Three Vassar Girls in England, her second published work, was just the tip of the iceberg. Much of Champney’s commercial success came from her early works of juvenile fiction, among which (as you might deduce from our book’s bright cover art, ample illustrations, friendly prose, and infusion of textbook history) were the eleven novels of her Three Vassar Girls series.

The bright and inviting cover art of Three Vassar Girls in England marks it as a children’s book.

This series was also one of the author’s many artistic collaborations with her husband, artist James Wells Champney (playfully credited as “Champ” in his wife’s children’s books). The pairing of Elizabeth’s text and James’s illustrations in Three Vassar Girls in England might be seen as a visual representation of their partnership, for – although the Champneys’ first encounter was as drawing instructor and pupil during Elizabeth’s school days – their marriage appears to have been largely egalitarian. They named their son after a respected mentor of James’s and their daughter after a teacher of Elizabeth’s, they collaborated on many of Elizabeth’s children’s books, and, in 1876, it was in Elizabeth’s ancestral home in Deerfield, Massachusetts that they settled after years of travel.

In one of many playful pairings of image and text produced by the Champneys, James Champney illustrates an episode in which the spirited Barbara ponders whether or not to “crush” an opponent at lawn tennis.

The ideal of gender equality lived by the Champneys carries over into Elizabeth Champney’s fiction, giving the plot of Three Vassar Girls in England an unusual structure of female empowerment. The author presents many alternatives to marriage and motherhood available to the women of her day; by the end of the novel, two of Champney’s “Vassar girls” have entered into careers that enable them to live independently, while only one has married. Even the marriage plot is qualified by a feminist addendum, for the story of Barbara, the young bride, does not end with her marriage. Champney focuses on how Barbara uses her education to run a philanthropic society, downplaying her match. Champney writes of the courtship:

If this were a love-story instead of a story of friendship, we might tell how John Featherstonhaugh prospered in his wooing. As it is, we can only hint that Barbara was too high-spirited a girl to be easily won, even when the citadel was all in revolt in favor of the besieging army. (213)

Champney’s novel celebrates women’s education and female friendship above all, and characters like the poor, unheroically named John Featherstonhaugh must look on from the sidelines.

While there is little room for romantic love in Champney’s “story of friendship,” I would argue that Three Vassar Girls is a love story – an unconventional love letter to England, to travel, and, most of all, to Vasser and to Champney’s fellow classmates. Champney captures the spirit of a women’s college both then and now with the utmost accuracy. For her, education is empowerment, and a Vassar education is one that produces women for whom, whether they fail magnificently or succeed spectacularly, “mediocrity is the one unpardonable sin” (228). Champney peoples her book with women doing the unexpected: with wild schoolgirls who become church leaders, with female doctors and newspaper columnists, and with single women supporting themselves in careers independently of men. This unconventional love story celebrates these women, and encourages the girls who read it to be anything but ordinary.

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Mystery and Mysticism of María de Jesus de Ágreda (1602-1665)

Title page of María de Ágreda’s Exercicios Espirituales de Retiro, complete with a shelfmark tag inserted by an earlier owner.

The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises tend to take the spotlight at a Jesuit institution, but it was another book of exercises that caught my attention as I explored the Spanish language items in the stacks. Before picking up María de Ágreda’s Exercicios Espirituales de Retiro (1769), I had yet to encounter a set of spiritual exercises written by a woman. Adding to my curiosity was the small slip of cut-up envelope tucked inside the volume that reads, “This book was found in a cave near the ruins of an old Dominican monastery in Sonora, Mexico.” I wondered how this edition published in Barcelona ended up in a cave in Mexico, and I was eager to trace the origins of the book and its author.

By consulting works from the general collection and corresponding with the author of the recently published biography María of Ágreda: Mystical Lady in Blue, I learned that the Exercicios were not only written by a woman, but by one of the most prominent mystics of the seventeenth century. The author was a cloistered Franciscan Conceptionist nun known for her mystic spirituality, bilocation in Mexico and west Texas, levitation and trances during prayer, polemical writing, interrogation by the Spanish Inquisition, role as spiritual and political advisor to King Felipe IV, and incorrupt body. In addition, I discovered that one of her publications, Mística Ciudad de Dios, was cited as an authoritative source in standard Spanish language usage in the Real Academia Española’s first Diccionario (see my earlier post on our copy of the third edition). María’s roles as mystic and as influential published author struck me as unusual for a seventeenth-century woman, especially a cloistered nun.

A note, scrawled across the back of an old manila envelope and inserted into our book, that gives information about its provenance.

“M. Agreda” and her Mística Ciudad de Dios made the list of authors and works cited as language authorities in the Real Academia Española’s 1770 Diccionario.

Mística Ciudad de Dios (Mystical City of God), María’s most famous publication and the one that made her a Spanish language authority at the time, also established her as a controversial figure. This biography of Mary was completed in 1645, burned in the same year by order of María’s temporary confessor, and rewritten between 1655 and 1660. No doubt the controversy surrounding Mística Ciudad de Dios and its me on the Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum prompted the Licencia de la orden in her later Exercicios, which assures readers that the work has been examined by the Theologian of the Order, and “no contiene cosa contra la Santa Fè Catholica, ni buenas costumbres.” (does not contain anything against the Holy Catholic Faith, nor against good moral values).

María’s reported bilocation and widespread religious following in Mexico and west Texas earned her the attention of King Felipe IV of Spain, who sought her out as a spiritual and political advisor. They corresponded by letter beginning in 1643; over the next twenty-two years, six hundred exchanges passed between María’s convent and the King, all in the utter secrecy he demanded. Many of their exchanges consisted of the King’s writing his problems on the right side of the page and María’s responding to each of them in the left margin.

The “Licencia de la Orden” assures readers that María’s book has been approved by the church as a valuable (and moral) resource.

Our copy of Exercicios Espirituales de Retiro is as humble as María is described to be, and has survived generations and institutions. Its binding is wrinkled and withered, perhaps from the arid climate of Sonora. A small piece of paper attached with string to the book’s spine gives the title and author, and was presumably meant to be hung outside of the book allowing readers to identify the work without having to open it. The humble body of the book was cared for with multiple repairs to the spine in green and white thread.

This humble book has traveled far in this worn parchment cover.

The book’s missing final leaf reminded me of the larger mystery surrounding its travels from Barcelona to Sonora to our collection here in St. Louis. I learned there were around 69 Dominican and 172 Franciscan monasteries established in Mexico and the Southwest by the year 1612, eight years before María reported her bilocation encouraging missionaries in their work. After discovering this, it does not surprise me that a volume of her Exercicios espirituales would be found in the area. The question I am left pondering is: how did her book get from a cave in Mexico onto my desk in Rare Books?

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An 1873 Manual for Modern Mothers

Men have had their say. It is but fitting now that a woman should have hers, especially as the woman who assumes to speak does so with an authority man cannot venture to claim. (18)

The title page to Eliza Bisbee Duffey’s What Women Should Know. (SLU Spec Coll Rare Bks HQ 46 .D83 1873)

So writes Eliza Bisbee Duffey in the introduction to What Women Should Know: A Woman’s Book About Women Containing Practical Information for Wives and Mothers (1873). Part women’s health guide, part sex-ed manual, and part feminist tract, the work offers a refreshingly accurate, no-nonsense look at such topics as puberty, conception, childbirth, and motherhood, all from a much-needed woman’s perspective. In What Women Should Know, Duffey seeks to arm a “new regime” (248) of women — those “striving to do, and claiming to do, many things… heretofore… considered beyond their physical and mental capabilities” (19) — with a thorough knowledge of their bodies’ workings. This knowledge, Duffey hopes, will enable them to better safeguard their health and maximize their potential, reconciling new roles in the workplace with those of the domestic realm. Duffey’s work is, in many respects, groundbreaking: she de-stigmatizes menstruation, declaring that it “is not a disease” (44); details the physical and emotional “Evils of Stays” (41) that not only warp women’s bodies, but convince them that they are naturally flawed; broaches the taboo topic of marital rape, an issue largely unacknowledged (or thought not to exist) at the time (117); and argues that women’s seeming mental and physical shortcomings are not “inherent to the sex” (19), but the result of miseducation. Bear in mind that Duffey was writing about women’s bodies at a time when sex education was thought to be, at best, a morally dubious topic, and the confidence and clarity with which she delivers her message of empowerment seem all the more remarkable.

Duffey’s book is clad in an attractive publisher’s binding of the period.

Surprisingly, many of Duffey’s points remain relevant in 2016 America. She appears to have been an early proponent of gender-neutral play, contending that maternal “instinct” is not innate but instilled, and that few young girls dream of becoming mothers. Boys and girls alike, when given a doll to play with, will naturally make it their “baby.” Likewise, adolescent girls are naturally as inclined to “romping” outside as their brothers. Mothers should permit them to be “tomboyish,” running, swimming, and climbing trees as they please, rather than admonishing such healthy behavior as “improper and unlady-like” and forcing them to partake in “calisthenics, gymnastics… and other feminine substitutes for exercise which so many persons recommend” (35).

Such equality between the sexes, Duffey contends, should also structure education. She argues that when boys and girls attend classes together, there are moral (as well as intellectual) benefits. She writes that “the two sexes exert a restraining and an elevating influence upon each other, and where they are mingled in educational institutions on the same terms of freedom and equality as in the home, there the standard of morality will be found to be highest” (56). (Anyone who attended high school in this century can see that this is a bit of a rosy picture, but good for Duffey for joining the co-ed movement so early on.) She also believes that the effects of co-education should extend beyond the classroom to make adult gender roles more fluid. Boys should learn housework and sewing, while girls should learn how to harness a horse and “use carpenters’ and gardeners’ tools with ease and dexterity” (161) so that they are later able to assist their spouses.

Duffey’s example of the benefits of such shared practical duties? That of the “washer-man,” a husband who (heaven forbid!) endeavored to wash five weeks’ worth of accumulated laundry in order to help his sick wife. Duffey describes how, in only three hours, the man had neatly and efficiently completed what would have taken his wife an entire exhausting day. Duffey concludes wryly, “I have felt convinced ever since that whenever a woman occupies the wash-tub she is encroaching upon man’s sphere, as he can do a washing quite as well as she, and so much more expeditiously, neatly and easily” (161).

Decades ahead of the curve, the author also challenges stigmas about working mothers. While Duffey claims that it isn’t her “purpose, in this book, to indulge in any discussion in regard to women’s right to enter into any field of labor they may see fit” (19), she makes no secret of her belief that women are capable of taking on a variety of roles outside the home while simultaneously raising healthy families. She cites several examples (including personal experience) of literary mothers who work as writers or editors and have never had to leave work for more than a month at a time to give birth and convalesce. None of these women, Duffey argues, have neglected their homes or their families in favor of work, and their infants have grown into healthy, happy, intelligent, self-sufficient young people. Again drawing from personal experience, Duffey recounts how, returning to work four weeks after giving birth to her daughter, she was met by exclamations of, “‘But your poor babe!’” Duffey’s rebuttal? That her “‘poor babe’ was the best, the quietest, the healthiest babe ever borne into the world” and that “as a child she is now bright and active beyond her years” (251).

Duffey dedicated her book “To the wives and mothers of America.”

The author maintains that not only can mothers work outside the home without negative implications for their children, but they can also excel at their jobs. In fact, Duffey believes that women can exceed male colleagues in workplace performance. A female doctor, for example, “is to be preferred to a man,” for she is “just as capable, more reliable, more sympathizing, and more helpful” (201) – especially during childbirth.

Who would have thought that modern women could find such a powerful defense of sexual equality and work-life balance in a book published in 1873? Yet over a century ago, poised on the brink of major social change for women, Duffey and her fellow nineteenth-century pioneers were already paving the way for modern motherhood, and the book’s dedication statement – made out to “the wives and mothers of America” that it may “cheer them when despondent… encourage them to endure bravely and wisely the trials incident to their sex; and… inspire them to become truer and nobler women” (5) – still rings true today.

The enduring relevance of What Women Should Know more than a century after its publication is, at least in part, a measure of our own sluggish progress toward promoting gender equality from early childhood and adopting widespread policies – such as paid parental leave – that support work-life balance. Yet this book also serves as a testament to the boldness and tenacity of Duffey and women like her, who not only challenged assumptions of their mental and physical limitations on paper, but, through their actions, proved them to be irrelevant. In this sense, the book is a celebration: it recognizes the women who began the slow process of reshaping “motherhood,” relegating it from the single purpose of a woman’s existence to just one part of her multifaceted identity — and, arguably, producing better-rounded and more fulfilled mothers along the way.

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The Trial of the Assassins and Conspirators… for the Murder of President Abraham Lincoln (1865)

This latest post by student assistant Claire Peterson will be the last issue of “Students in the Stacks” to feature a work from her list of top Civil War books in Special Collections (though we welcome you to visit us in Room 307 of Pius XII Memorial Library and to see more Civil War related materials any time!). From this fine month of May, 2016, Claire looks back 151 years to May 1865, when John Wilkes Booth was on trial for the murder of President Abraham Lincoln.

A portrait of the infamous John Wilkes Booth, set beside the title page of The Trial of the Assassins and Conspirators. (Book shown: E457.5 .T83)

Claiming to contain “the whole of the Suppressed Evidence” of John Wilkes Booth’s guilt, The Trial of the Assassins and Conspirators at Washington City, D.C., May and June, 1865, for the Murder of President Abraham Lincoln falls into the genre of sensationalist literature spawned by the murder of President Abraham Lincoln.

One of many crowded pages that fill Trial of the Assassins and Conspirators.

The small, cramped print of the testimonies of witnesses at the 1865 trial displays the cheap, tabloid quality of the work. Among the book’s simple illustrations are depictions of John Wilkes Booth and his executioner and maps of “The Scene of the Great Tragedy” (the site of Lincoln’s assassination on April 15, 1865).

In a book detailing the trial of President Lincoln’s assassin: a portrait mocking the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.

In contrast to the somber images of Lincoln’s coffin in the railroad car that carried his remains to Springfield and in “Old Independence Hall,” the book includes a mocking image titled “Portrait of ‘Jeff. Davis’ in his wife’s clothes.” The confederate president was rumored to have grabbed his wife’s coat in his haste to escape capture by Northern forces in Georgia on May 10, 1865.

Seemingly out of place in a book about Lincoln’s assassins, the image of Jefferson Davis in his wife’s clothing was part of an 1865 media trend after his capture. Photographs that had been “photo-shopped” with petticoats and crinoline — the nineteenth-century equivalent of memes — were published. Although out of context, the inclusion of such an image in The Trial of the Assassins and Conspirators contributes to its appeal as a work of sensationalist journalism.

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