Carved in Wood

Gruesome-looking headpiece to an eighteenth-century medical text. (Book shown: 1733.2 Burnet)

To begin: the grotesque headpiece of an eighteenth-century medical text. (Book shown: 1733.2 Burnet)

Woodcut of STL skyline by Westminster Press

Woodcut of the STL skyline by Westminster Press.

Autumn: “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” – but also of crafts and harvest festivals. Growing up in New England, I placed fall festivities like Old Deerfield Craft Fair and the Eastern States Exposition right up there with Halloween on the list of Major Events of childhood importance. Now, transplanted to the Midwest, I both take comfort in the familiarity of local seasonal festivals and see them as a means to acquaint myself with the region through the distinct output of its creative community. At last month’s St. Louis Small Press Expo, for example, I came across a stunning print of the St. Louis skyline that speaks volumes about the city it depicts. In this image, produced by Westminster Press on Cherokee Street, we see a colorful, urban landscape, modern and undergoing constant improvement (see the construction equipment silhouetted on the right), but defined by its history. Here, references to the past are embodied not only by the symbolism of the Arch or the riverboat in the foreground, but by the artists’ choice of a traditional – and fascinating – form: the woodcut.

An example of the delightful oddities of woodcuts, as demonstrated by a sixteenth-century German midwives' manual (Book shown: RG 91 .R84 1588 4to)

An example of the delightful oddities made possible by woodcutting. (Warning: don’t look at sixteenth-century German midwives’ manuals if you’re considering having children.) (Book shown: RG 91 .R84 1588 4to)

Woodcuts – prints made from designs carved along the grain of a block of wood – have been around for centuries, and are well-represented in SLU’s rare books collection. Woodcutting is the oldest method of relief printing, and – like paper-making, printing, and marbling – it originated in the East. The earliest known woodcut, depicting two Buddhist charms, was commissioned in Japan by Empress Shotoku sometime between A.D. 762 and 769, while the first woodcut-illustrated book, the Diamond Sutra, was produced in China in 868. It wasn’t until the fifteenth century – hand-in-hand with the adoption of Gutenberg’s moveable type – that woodcutting became common in Europe. There, the first woodcuts were printed not in books, but as broadsides catering to (somewhat contradictory) popular pastimes: pilgrimage and gambling. Devotional prints flooded the market (the survival of even some of these ephemeral documents attests to their popularity) and hand-colored decks of playing cards became available to wealthier customers. It was in 1460 that woodcuts made their European book debut in the workshop of printer Albrecht Pfister, the first German to send woodblocks through the press with movable type.

Woodcut of a woodcutter (so meta) in Jost Amman's 1458 book of trades

Woodcut of a woodcutter (so meta) in Jost Amman’s 1568 book of trades.

Early woodblocks were usually the creative work of two individuals: the artist who drew the design and the carver who transferred it to wood. In Germany, the craftsmen who produced woodblocks were called “Formschneiders,” (“cutters of forms”) and were classed with carpenters in the guild system. These craftsmen did not engage in original artistic expression, but accurately reproduced artists’ work in a widely distributable format, pre-copy machine. This role is made clear in Jost Amman’s 1568 book of trades, where the image (a woodcut) of a Formschneider at work is accompanied by verse that translates, “I cut so well with my knife every line on my blocks, that when they are printed… you see clearly the very lines that the artist has traced, his drawing whether it be coarse or fine reproduced exactly line for line.” This skilled partnership between artist and woodcutter facilitated the duplication and distribution of such great work as Albrecht Dürer’s, and it was only in the nineteenth century, with the rise of the Arts and Crafts Movement, that woodcutting became the work of one person rather than two.

A (partial) alphabet in woodcut initials, pieced together from books throughout our collection.

A (partial) alphabet of initials, pieced together from books throughout our collection.

The similarities of man and cattle, as illustrated in a seventeenth-century physiognamy text

The similarly dour face of man and ox, as illustrated in a seventeenth-century physiognomy text. This book features only a small handful of woodcut images, all of which repeat — this one five times. (Book shown: 1618.2 Porta)

Woodblocks are resilient and take considerable time and skill to craft, so historically, a block was used until it no longer printed a clean image. French woodcutter Papillon used a cut of the Virgin Mary carved in pear wood by his grandfather for ninety years at an estimated rate of 500-600 pulls per year, and only at the end of its life did he note that “the wood looked a little worn” (Bliss 7). Ornamental woodcuts with generalized designs, including decorative initials, printer’s devices, headpieces, and tailpieces, were reused by and even circulated among printers for decades, with the result that their designs don’t always logically complement the text. (Pagan gods, for example, might adorn the initials of a Christian text.) Some thrifty printers even “edited” old woodblocks through a process called “plugging.” The carver would bore a hole through the offensive section of the woodblock, drive in a plug of fresh wood, sand down the surface, and re-carve the newly blank slate. This practice had mixed, often amusing results, as in a 1494 edition of Launcelot du Lac in which a knight wearing a bishop’s mitre was re-carved wearing a crown, but with the pendants of his old hat still hanging down over his shoulders (Bliss 4).

Artists of the nineteenth century’s Arts and Crafts Movement breathed new life into old techniques of illustration. This Kelmscott Press book showcases the lavish, full-page floral borders and detailed illustrations for which William Morris’s press would become known. Kelmscott illustrations such as these are stylistic “hybrids,” for while this is actually a wood-engraving, it mimics the thick, black lines of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century woodcuts. (Book shown: PR5078 .L5 1897)

While woodcuts are still used today, they gradually fell out of common use in the eighteenth century as a new form of illustration, wood-engraving, rose in popularity. Wood-engravings, made with gravers rather than knives and carved into the end grain of a piece of wood (a horizontal rather than a vertical section of a tree’s trunk), could be produced more efficiently than woodcuts. The new form enabled artists to instill full-blown illustrations with more sophisticated detail and subtlety of design, and woodcuts were, for the most part, relegated to the sole role of ornamentation.

A more typical example of wood-engraving, found in the 1860 Report of the St. Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Association. Wood-engravings were generally small, as they were engraved on the end grain of a piece of wood, and can be distinguished by their fine details formed by thin, white lines. (Book shown: F 474 .S2 S226 v. 5 1860)

The contents of Speedball's Block Printing Kit.

The contents of Speedball’s Block Printing Kit. (Please DO try this at home!)

Today, a variety of materials are available for making prints stylistically similar to early woodcuts. Many vendors offer beginning print-making kits containing the necessary cutting tools (at minimum, a sharp knife and a scrive – a v-shaped tool used to cut a channel in a single stroke), ink, a roller to apply the ink, and a piece of the material into which you will carve your design. Some artists still use blocks of wood, as evidenced by the Westminster Press print pictured above. Linoleum, a softer, more malleable (and thus more forgiving) option, is also widely available. You can purchase plain sheets of linoleum cheaply at your local hardware store, but can also find sections cut to size and pre-mounted on wood blocks at most art supply stores. (Rip up your floor tiles, folks – it’s time to make some art!) Since linoleum is easier to cut than wood, it’s the better option for beginners, and, according to wood-engraver John R. Biggs, offers more “freedom of line” (Biggs 38).

My penciled design, transferred to the surface of what will become a rubber stamp.

My penciled design, transferred to the surface of what will become a rubber stamp.

Short of the apples and potatoes you used in kindergarten, however, the least intimidating medium for a novice printmaker is rubber. This is the material I turned to in making my first print (baby steps, people). Rubber offers a soft, springy surface, freeing you to become acquainted with your tools (the same set of tools you will use to cut linoleum or wood) before facing off with a more obstinate canvas for your design. The printmaking process is relatively simple (albeit time consuming): you sketch a design on paper, transfer it to the surface you plan to carve, and cut away the background surrounding the design you want to print. (You can also sketch your design directly on the surface of your block, but this is trickier, as the sketch must be a mirror image of the desired print.) Then, you apply ink to your design with a roller and either lay a piece of paper over the inked block, burnishing it evenly, or flip the block over and press the inked side into a piece of paper. And voilà! You’ve made a print in relief.

My first attempt at printing

My first, rather spooky attempt at printing. (Doesn’t it look as though it should read “Happy Halloween”?)

… Now all you have to do is sign up for a booth at next fall’s craft fair.

A tailpiece (to mark the end of our tale). (Book shown: PN 6349 .E54 C3 1727 4to v. 2)

A tailpiece to mark the end of our tale. (Book shown: PN 6349 .E54 C3 1727 4to v. 2)

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“Medieval Connections: Linking Body and Mind” – An Exhibition in Pius XII Memorial Library

The Knights of Columbus Vatican Film Library announces the opening of the exhibition “Medieval Connections: Linking Body and Mind.”

Connections Body and Mind Poster_427x640Whom can you marry? How can you stay healthy? What forces regulate the universe and daily life? How do you express religious, scientific, juridical, philosophical, and familial concepts? Curated by Susan L’Engle, Assistant Director of the Vatican Film Library—with collaboration from graduate research assistants Benjamin Winter, Theology, and Kyle Lincoln and Benjamin Halliburton, History—this exhibition explores the many interrelationships between ideas and activities that occupied body and mind in the Middle Ages.

To the medieval mind, the body was full of contradictions. Christian doctrine encouraged people to deny their bodies through fasting and abstinence, while some of the central images of Christianity, especially the Eucharist and the Passion, referred to the body as a locus of spiritual feeling. Death and disease were seen as natural phenomena but with supernatural origins; thus the practice of medicine became a blend of reason and superstition. The forces of nature and the universe could also cause changes in human health; the seasons of the year, meteorological events, air and the environment, and the positions of the stars and planets could affect bodily conditions.

In this period of intellectual and spiritual transition, one’s sense of identity was defined by rules of church and secular law, and represented in diagrammatic configurations derived from those used to convey religious and scientific relationships. In this manner, the circular format used to portray the genealogy of Christ was also utilized to present the dynastic history of a noble family such as the Este of Ferrara.

On display are facsimiles of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts that present essays and treatises composed by medieval scholars to describe and explain events and experiences that affected human life—and also to provide guidelines for dealing with them. This information is filtered through various viewpoints: medicine and health; astronomy and astrology; religion and law; philosophy and superstition. The authors of these works also enlisted images to assist in the comprehension of complex concepts and procedures, many of them in the form of schema or charts; others providing explicit visual illustrations. As the Spanish monk Maius (ca. 945) who illustrated an early copy of Beatus of Liébana’s Commentaries on the Apocalypse, explained: “… I have painted in series pictures for the wonderful words of its stories, so that the wise may fear the coming of the future judgment of the world’s end.” In like fashion, the diverse stories interpreted through diagrams and illustrations in this exhibition demonstrate how medieval individuals articulated their understanding of their bodies, their thoughts, and the world around them.

The exhibition is free and open to the public and will be on display through 31 October 2015 in the 2nd floor gallery of Pius XII Memorial Library. For further information, contact Susan L’Engle, Assistant Director of the Vatican Film Library, at 314-977-3084,

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Mediating Between East and West: Confucianism and the Jesuit Order

Are you attending Friday’s lecture by Ronnie Hsia on “Confucian Christianity” in the Matteo Ricci Speakers Series? Then you will be interested in today’s installment of  “Students in the Stacks” by doctoral student Ben Halliburton, in which Ben gives the background on an important Jesuit work in our holdings, the 1687 Confucius Sinarum philosophus.

Title page of Confucius Sinorum philosophum

Title page of Confucius Sinorum philosophus

The examples in history of one culture meeting another for the first time are few, but they come easily to mind. We think of Columbus stepping off the Niña onto the shores of Hispaniola, of Livingstone laying eyes on Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, of Marco Polo traveling a continent to the court of Kublai Khan. These are moments of discovery, but they aren’t the only way that two cultures come into contact. Sometimes it’s more subtle, through the written word.

This book, the Confucius Sinarum philosophus, has a century-long story behind its creation, going back to the arrival of the Society of Jesus in China during the late sixteenth century. When Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci started educating other missionaries on the language and culture of China, they did it through the translation of the Four Books, the foundational texts of Confucianism. At first, these works were chosen because they were part of the civil service examination that dictated the Chinese sociopolitical hierarchy, which the Jesuits sought entry into, but Ricci especially came to see Confucianism also as a philosophical framework, within which Christianity could make itself part of Chinese culture. In the years before his death, he began to encourage more formal translations of Confucian works, in the hopes of producing an authoritative collection for distribution and analysis.

Dedication to King Louis XIV

Louis XIV dedication

However, after Ricci’s death, the purpose of the translation project quickly changed. Dominican and Franciscan friars, who had begun to arrive in China by the mid-seventeenth century, challenged the Jesuit policy of accommodation and assimilation of Confucian ritual into Christian theology. They argued that Confucianism was superstition among the lower classes and atheism among the upper classes, both of which were antithetical to Christian missionary work. To refute these claims, the translations of the Four Books, well over half a century old by this point, now had to go about proving their own orthodoxy instead. Several promising young Jesuits, among them Philippe Couplet, worked feverishly on the manuscript, which was finally sent to publishers in the Netherlands and Rome in 1670.

Confucius before a school containing an extensive library

Confucius standing before a contemporary Chinese library with surprisingly few concessions to European sensibilities

As the rites controversy escalated, Couplet made the long and dangerous journey from China to Europe in order to make the case for an expansion of the Jesuit mission. When he arrived in 1684, he found that the manuscript still hadn’t been published. Couplet decided to revise it himself, mostly by removing “digressions” that he found to be too heretical on reflection, and then went looking for someone to publish it. He’d hoped to have it published in Rome by a papal press, as a way of demonstrating its orthodoxy, but that didn’t work out. Instead, he appealed to the French royal court. King Louis XIV had just revoked the Edict of Nantes, restoring his status as “most Catholic” king, and was the next best thing to the pope for Couplet. Luckily for him, Louis was eager to enjoy the prestige that came with having a piece of the Far East with his name on it. He gave Couplet five thousand livres to finish the work and had it published by the Bibliothèque Royale in 1687. And that’s how we get the book in front of us today.

When you open the book, the front page immediately makes you aware of the king’s hand in it. The device on the title page is three fleurs-de-lis, the French royal emblem, after all. An unknown but apparently huge number were printed, all opening with a dedication praising the king of France for his wisdom and generosity. As far as public relations go, it was a victory for Louis.


The bagua, a diagram showing how the forces of yin and yang become the eight trigrams of Taoist cosmology

The content of the Confucius Sinarum philosophus has just as much of an agenda, namely defending its use by the Jesuits, but it isn’t any less impressive for that. The hundred-page introduction presents Confucius as a philosopher somewhere between Cicero and Aristotle in terms of importance, but also with a relationship to the Chinese like Moses for Hebrews and Muhammad for Muslims. Even the biography of Confucius, which mostly repeats the traditional account from the Spring and Autumn Annals, ends with a comparison to St. Paul using pagan Greek philosophy to spread Christianity. You can see how anxious the Jesuits were to defend Confucius as an ally in their missionary efforts.

Still, there are many exciting places in the text where we can see Eastern philosophy and culture being transmitted to the West for the first time. For instance, Couplet explains the basic principles of Taoism, another philosophical and religious tradition in China, in his introduction, including a description of yin, yang, and how they combine to form the eight elements of Chinese cosmology. In the back of the book, there’s even a chronology of the “kings” of China along with a map of East Asia. All in all, it was a complete work that represented the sum knowledge of the hundred years the Jesuits had spent there.

East Asia map

East Asia map

More than anything, the Confucius Sinarum philosophus represents a truly epic clash of cultures, not with swords but with words. For perhaps the first time in the history of Western civilization, the philosophical tradition of one culture was used to provide context and interpretation for the philosophical works of another culture. What’s more, the Jesuits did it in plain and simple Latin that had been refined over a century of work and that could be read by anyone in Europe. In fact, many people did read it, helping to spark what has been called the Sinomania of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. It wasn’t just common people who caught the bug while drinking tea out of porcelain for the first time. It spread even among intellectuals like Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who developed an obsession with Confucius and the I Ching.

And we have here the work that started it all. If you’re interested in seeing the Confucius Sinarum philosophus for yourself, come visit it right here in Rare Books!

–Ben Halliburton

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A Story within the Story

Another reader’s pressed plant, left for us to find. (Book shown: 1728.2 Jansenius)

When I was eight years old, I spent hours combing through a clover patch in my parents’ backyard, searching determinedly for an elusive specimen: the four-leafed clover. At length, persistence paid off, and when I ran inside, it was with a lucky clover clasped in my hand. My mother told me that the best way to preserve my find was to press it between the pages of a book and let it dry, so I immediately set off in search of the biggest, heaviest tome in my bookcase. I shut the four-leafed clover firmly in the middle of my children’s illustrated bible before moving on to whatever business next consumed me. Book and clover both were soon after donated to a library book sale, and I never got to see the result of this early attempt at botanical preservation.

By far the weirdest thing I've ever found in a book: a woman's undergarment. (What's the strangest thing you've ever found in a book?)

By far the weirdest thing I’ve ever found in a book: a woman’s undergarment.

After my initial disappointment over losing the clover had passed, I began to imagine some other child flipping through the bible and serendipitously finding my treasure. Working in, borrowing from, and generally frequenting a number of libraries, I myself have made many such discoveries of ephemera, or, as defined by life-long ephemera-hunter Maurice Rickards in The Encyclopedia of Ephemera (yes, there’s a whole encyclopedia devoted to ephemera), “the minor transient documents of everyday life” (Rickards v). In books donated or returned, I’ve uncovered countless improvised bookmarks, from postcards and scrap paper to playbills and family photos. Each tells its own unique, often strange story within the story of the text. Not that the story is always easily deciphered — without a first-person explanation of the original reader’s intentions (which could very well have been nothing more than to mark his place with anything near to hand), we can often only speculate about ephemera’s significance. Sometimes – as with my strangest discovery to date, a pair of women’s underwear sandwiched in a chemistry textbook – its significance is not something I care to consider too deeply. Usually, however, uncovering a relic of past readership feels like a gift from the owner who laid some piece of herself, her time, or her culture into a book. Like annotations, bookplates, and ownership stamps, ephemera can be a reminder of the many human hands an old book has passed through, and give us insight (albeit sometimes fanciful) into how those men and women interacted with a single volume, each one making it their own.

A collectible, color photograph of the town of Nierstein, Germany, laid in beside a newsprint picture of an unknown young man. What did these images mean to the person who placed them here? We'll never know. (Book shown: BS 239 1734 fol.)

A collectible, color photograph of the town of Nierstein, Germany, laid in beside a newsprint picture of an unknown young man. What did these images mean to the person who placed them here? We’ll never know. (Book shown: BS 239 1734 fol.)

A recent project to process and record the ephemera housed in SLU’s rare books has enabled me to acquaint myself with some of the strangest things in our books. As I processed each piece of ephemera, I began to think of our books not only as texts that can be studied for their intellectual content or as artifacts to be appreciated for their craftsmanship and artistic value, but also as presses, containers, and scrapbooks for preserving the assorted miscellania of life. Our collection, I found, is a veritable curiosity cabinet brimming with information in all media and from all periods. What follows is a mere taste of what I found.

A newspaper clipping featuring husband and wife Jean and Inez Bregant.

A newspaper clipping featuring husband and wife Jean and Inez Bregant. (Book shown: BS 239 1734 fol.)

Among the printed ephemera tucked away in our pre-1820 collection is this early-twentieth-century newspaper clipping featuring a photograph of married couple Jean and Inez Bregant. The couple, a pair of little people whose claim to fame (according to this article) was that their adult heights were “seven and forty” and “two and forty” inches respectively, shared a colorful life. They met as vaudeville performers on Coney Island in 1904, opened their own grocery business in Council Bluffs, Iowa in 1912, and became (quite successful) demonstrators for John G. Woodward’s local candy company. This clipping appears to be an advertisement from their sales days, and is one of those rare (and rewarding) pieces of ephemera that serves as a clue to a traceable, documented story.

An ad for Hall’s Painless Corn Cure, distributed by druggist H.H. Ink in Canton, OH. (Book shown: BS 239 1734 fol.)

Another example of printed ephemera is this advertisement for Hall’s Corn Cure. (Remember how Capulet goads his young female guests into dancing during the fateful opening ball of Romeo and Juliet, taunting, “she that makes dainty, she, I’ll swear, hath corns” [Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene V]? Well, in twenty-first century translation, a corn is a painful beast of a callous.) The small brochure, distributed by druggist H.H. Ink of Canton, OH, not only provides an amusing glimpse into past advertising practices (it comprises mainly dramatic testimonials by clients who wax poetic on this miracle cure), but also provides us with a sense of place in the quest to learn more about the book’s past owners.

An enthusiastic students advertisement for the book?

An enthusiastic student’s advertisement for the book in hand? (Book shown: 1731.2 Tournely)

One of my favorite pieces of printed ephemera, however, is this typewritten note to future readers. The author emphatically beckons to us to “LOOK AT THIS BOOK!!,” and outlines the features that, in his or her opinion, make the volume noteworthy. The letter was written in either 1929 or 1932, when the book was probably still in the main stacks at SLU, and, to me, represents the birth of a bibliophile in our library.

A manuscript document glorifying maiden aunts. (Book shown: 1650.3 Caussin)

Standing in for the manuscript ephemera in our collection is a letter found in a book about heaven’s court. The writer celebrates celibacy, particularly for women, and includes the line, “Let the ungrateful world sneer at the maiden aunt, but God has a throne burnished for her arrival…” (Austen’s Miss Bates, finally vindicated!). Unlike the other ephemera listed here, this written meditation seems to be inspired by — and naturally connected to — the text.

A scrap of cloth, perhaps laid in as a bookmark.

A scrap of cloth, perhaps laid in as a bookmark. (Book shown: BS 239 1734 fol.)

Some of our most charming examples of ephemera are neither printed nor manuscript, and, in fact, carry no written information at all. Since ours is a predominantly paper collection, these alternative materials tend to stand out. One such example is a simple swatch of patterned fabric. As cloth goes, it is fairly unremarkable, but it retains its original deep-hued colors, and it speaks to me of the life of the reader who folded it into the book. This fabric is a standard cotton print, and I imagine that the bulk of the material was used to make a garment for everyday use. Because day-to-day needlework so often fell to the women of past centuries, I picture the previous owner who handled this swatch as a woman. Women’s stories so often go unspoken in the written record that any scrap of historical textile – the most lasting medium through which everyday women were able to express themselves – seems significant.

The beginnings of a beautiful sampler, tucked away in a book. (Book shown: 1650.3 Caussin)

Even more evocative of women’s lives and work is this tiny sampler, tucked away in a text for safekeeping. Despite the aging of the fabric, which has browned over time, this small piece of work continues to demonstrate the skill and precision of the girl who began to sew it.

A lovingly stashed away bouquet of edelweiss, accompanied by a manuscript description of the flower's meaning.

A lovingly stashed away bouquet of edelweiss, accompanied by a manuscript description of the flower’s meaning. (Book shown: BS 239 1734 fol.)

Finally, there are the pressed plants, including this delicate – but astonishingly still intact – bouquet of edelweiss (that snowy alpine flower lifted to fame by Christopher Plummer and co. in The Sound of Music). There are a number of pressed leaves hidden among the pages of our collection, their veins growing lacy with age, but this bouquet, accompanied by a handwritten note about its symbolism, is the most remarkable botanical specimen I’ve found. The care with which the flowers have been picked, bound together, documented, and preserved makes me feel truly connected to the reader who placed them here so tenderly, for I remember how the same impetus to preserve drove my eight-year-old self. Looking at these flowers — and all the other odds and ends of life stashed away in our books here at SLU — I feel glad that that long-ago clover passed prematurely from my hands. I can only hope that it sits patiently within its bible on a child’s bookshelf, waiting to become someone else’s adventitious (and perhaps even lucky) discovery.

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VFL OPEN HOUSE — 29 September

Anglo-Catalan Psalter 2

Detail from the full-color facsimile of the Anglo-Catalan Psalter (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 8846)

Have you ever wondered what’s in the Vatican Film Library? Have you ever held a real medieval manuscript in your hands? Are you mystified by the arcana of paleography and sigillography? Are you a student in search of a dissertation topic, or a faculty member seeking manuscript research advice or curious how to incorporate medieval manuscripts into your class? Come to the VFL’s Open House to find your answers!

29 September, 2pm to 5pm, Pius Library Rm 105

Medieval manuscripts, manuscript facsimiles, and other resources will be on display. See the new exhibition “Italian Manuscripts: Codicology and Decoration.” Learn about our latest digitization projects and collaborations with the Center for Digital Humanities. Come explore, ask questions, and discover new resources. Don’t be wary! Don’t be hesitant! All are welcome!

In addition to its 40,000 medieval and Renaissance manuscripts on microfilm from the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana and other libraries, the VFL has a comprehensive reference collection in manuscript studies, comprising catalogues, repertories, facsimiles, journals, and works on paleography, codicology, illumination, library history, and text editing, as well as other tools that aid the identification and analysis of manuscripts and the works they contain. We also have thousands of incunabula and early printed titles on microfilm and microfiche in collections such as Incunabula: The Printing Revolution and the Bibliotheca Palatina. The VFL’s own collection of medieval manuscripts is now online through Digital Scriptorium and can also be browsed through the VFL LibGuide. With its repertories of sermons and incipits, indices of Middle English prose, dictionaries of medieval Latin, bio-bibliographical guides to authors and commentators from antiquity onward, and more, the VFL is an essential resource for medieval and Renaissance studies.

For further information, contact Erica Lauriello, Library Associate Sr for Special Collections Administration, at 314-977-3090,

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“Italian Manuscripts: Codicology and Decoration” — VFL Exhibition Opening

The Knights of Columbus Vatican Film Library – part of Special Collections in the Saint Louis University Libraries – announces the opening of the Fall 2015 exhibition “Italian Manuscripts: Codicology and Decoration.”

Poster jpeg web pgCurated by Susan L’Engle, Assistant Director of the Vatican Film Library, the exhibit focuses on physical characteristics that distinguish Italian manuscripts from those produced in northern Europe, among them script, decoration, and illumination. The items are displayed in two cases, separated into books produced for sacred and secular use, and are drawn from the VFL’s Teaching Collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts.

Among the examples produced for sacred use are two leaves from the famous Llangattock Breviary, a richly illuminated manuscript written in Ferrara, Italy for Leonello d’Este (1407–1450), Duke of Modena and Marchese of Ferrara. In the same case are examples from books of hours, from a hymnal, and a large leaf from a choir book. The case with secular manuscripts includes leaves from a veterinarian’s manual on the cure of equine diseases, and from textbooks of Roman and canon law.

The exhibition is free and open to the public and will be on display Monday through Fridayfrom 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, through 31 January 2016 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,

Saint Louis University Libraries Special Collections — Rare Books and the Vatican Film Library — houses the rare book and medieval manuscript studies collections of the University Libraries and provides a laboratory for learning and research that enables students, faculty, and visiting scholars to engage directly with unique, rare, and original materials. Visit Special Collections in Pius XII Memorial Library or online or follow our blog.

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The Mysterious Art of Floating Ink

The "floating inks" of a marbling trough, ready to be captured on paper.

The “floating inks” of a marbling trough, ready to be captured on paper.

One of the many books holding a marbled treasure inside its covers. (Book shown: 1750.2 Penn)

One of the many books holding a marbled treasure inside its covers. (Book shown: 1750.2 Penn)

Our books like to keep many secrets (from centuries-old flowers pressed carefully among their pages to the carcasses of bookworms who gorged to death on words), but among my favorites is their hidden cache of vibrant, marbled papers. The art of marbling, which most likely originated in Japan (read about Japanese marbling, or “suminagashi,” here), but first made its book arts debut in sixteenth-century Persia, has always had an air of mystery. This mystique stems in part from the magical quality of the technique, which (counterintuitively) uses a fluid process to imitate stone. Colorful droplets of paint floated on thickened water are combed into a design that is then applied to fabric or paper laid onto the surface of the water. Manipulation of this “floating ink” (as the Japanese aptly name it) is mesmerizing to watch (seriously — check out this video of the process used to make a nonpareil pattern), but easy to replicate. In fact, the basic process of marbling is so simple that early commercial marblers safeguarded their craft by veiling it in mystery. They kept the ingredients used to treat paper, thicken water, and produce certain effects from the public, and doled out the secrets of the art to new craftsmen only sparingly. Guild masters would teach their apprentices only one or two marbling techniques apiece, enabling them to produce a handful of designs without posing the threat of serious competition in a tight-lipped industry working to produce such high-demand art (Loring 17).

Another popular hiding spot for marbled designs: the edges of the text block. (Book shown: 1742.2 Blyth v. 3)

Another popular hiding place for marbled designs: the edges of the text block. (Book shown: 1742.2 Blyth v. 3)

An example of the Turkish Stone pattern on eighteenth-century boards. (Book shown:

An example of the Turkish Stone pattern on eighteenth-century boards. (Book shown: 1794.2 Becanus)

The secrecy surrounding the production of marbled paper also affected its spread from east to west. While it appears to have spread naturally (albeit gradually) from Persia, through Turkey, and into continental Europe by the end of the sixteenth century, its initial foray across the Channel to England was just as clandestine and somewhat underhanded. Duties on imported paper were so high at the time that the first marbled papers acquired by bookbinders were imported under-the-radar as wrapping paper for Dutch toys (Loring 19). (If only Amazon packages came wrapped in marbled paper…)

Stormont patterned boards (Book shown:

Stormont patterned boards. (Book shown: BX 3702 .T53 1817 8vo)

By the seventeenth century, however, what had been a closely guarded decorative technique unknown outside of Japan and Persia had come into widespread use in Europe, and marbling was used to adorn endpapers, both board and leather book covers, and the edges of text blocks. An array of decorative styles and techniques (all of which are pictured in either this handy style guide from the University of Washington or in Iris Nevins’s book Traditional Marbling) developed regionally before coming into wider use. Some common designs in our collection are Turkish Stone, French Snail, Stormont, French Shell, and Fine-combed (or “Nonpareil”).

An example of a French shell pattern adorning the boards of a nineteenth-century book. Doesn't it look like cells under a microscope? (Book shown: 1816.2 Ignatius of Loyola)

This is not, in fact, a magnified view of an animal’s cellular structure, but an example of a French Shell pattern adorning the boards of a nineteenth-century book. (Book shown: 1816.2 Ignatius of Loyola)

The most technically basic marbling design is Turkish Stone, a pebbled pattern achieved by dropping paint on the water and applying it to paper without further manipulation. This technique was popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Variations on the pattern include Stormont and Shell, both of which involve mixing additive into the dye to produce specific effects. Stormont, a design technique of the mid-eighteenth century, uses turpentine, which, when mixed with the body color (the color applied last to the water solution and therefore most prominent on the finished paper), produces a lacy effect. Shell, on the other hand, is achieved when the marbler mixes his dyes with oil. The oil prevents the dye from spreading far across the size (the thickened water), and creates patterns of concentric circles in which the body color nests.

Spanish Marbling. Note the lines running diagonally from the top left of this board to the bottom right; this is what distinguishes Spanish Marbling from Stone. (Book shown:

Spanish Marbling. Note the lines running diagonally from the top left of this board to the bottom right; this is what distinguishes Spanish Marbling from Stone. (Book shown: Toulouse K.006.02 4to)

Spanish Marbling is another design that begins as a simple stone pattern. A striped overlay effect is created by rocking the paper gently back and forth as it is laid on the size. (Interestingly, legend has it that the first Spanish Marbled pattern was a mistake, resulting when one marbler jostled the trough of another just as the second was a laying his paper onto the size. I’ll stick with my favorite story, though, which attributes the pattern to a hung-over seventeenth-century craftsman whose shaky hands prevented him from transferring paint cleanly from size to paper [Loring 27].)

A close-up of French snail-patterned endpapers. (Book shown: )

A close-up of French Snail patterned endpapers. (Book shown: 1723.2 Bourdaloue v. 1)

The French Snail pattern has been used on endpapers since the mid-seventeenth century, and, browsing through our seventeenth- and eighteenth-century books, its popularity is apparent. “Snails” – small, curled waves drawn at intervals to further embellish another design – crawl across numerous pages in our pre-1820 collection.

Nonpareil -- the darker-toned, nineteenth-century revival of fine-combed patterns. (Book shown:

Nonpareil — the darker-toned, nineteenth-century revival of fine-combed patterns. (Book shown: PR 1578 .A1 1843 v. 1)

Finally, Fine-combed patterns, created when the teeth of a comb are run through a stone design, have been popular since the introduction of marbling into Europe. The earliest designs are in light, whimsical pastels, while older, nineteenth-century revivals of this classic design favor a dark palette of predominantly deep red.

One of my attempts at marbling -- dye pinwheels ready to be combed.

One of my attempts at marbling — dye pinwheels ready to be combed.

I don’t know about you, but the beauty and vibrancy of these old patterns, combined with the seeming simplicity of the process used to make them, left me with the hankering to try marbling myself. Now that the art is no longer a closely guarded secret, marbling kits for beginners are available in most art supply stores. I found my Jacquard Marbling Kit on Amazon, but you can find a number of options from numerous vendors. The kit contains alum (which, when dissolved in water, is used to treat paper so that paint adheres to it) and carrageenan (or “Irish moss,” a seaweed derivative used to thicken water so that paint floats on its surface), as well as several paint colors. The set-up was as simple as expected: I simply soaked paper in an alum solution, mixed the carrageenan with water, and went crazy with the colors! Clearly, I have a natural talent for marbling. See how closely my pattern mimicked the intended fine-combed design?

I could play it like a cat and say, "I meant to do that"... But in my attempt at marbling (pictured at right), I was really trying to achieve the beautiful uniformity of the early fine-combed design at left. (Book shown:

I could play it like a cat and say, “I meant to do that”… but in my attempt at marbling (pictured at right), I was really trying to achieve the beautiful uniformity of the early fine-combed design at left. (Book shown: BX 2179 .F8 I5 1651 8vo)

Better luck next time, I suppose – and there will definitely be a next time! For now, I invite you to come see some fine examples of marbling in SLU’s collection (there’s so much more than what is pictured here) and, hopefully, to take inspiration for your own marbling adventures.

A sample of my attempts. I may not have achieved the pattern I was looking for, but I still had fun trying!

A sample of my attempts. I may not have achieved the pattern I was looking for, but I sure had fun trying!


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A Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library at Holkham Hall: A New Publication from the VFL

The Vatican Film Library announces the recent publication of the first volume in A Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library at Holkham Hall by Suzanne Reynolds. The Holkham Hall catalogue is the inaugural title in the VFL’s new series, Manuscripta Publications in Manuscript Research—a subsidiary publication of Manuscripta: A Journal for Manuscript Research, which is published for the Vatican Film Library by Brepols Publishers. This series will comprise monographs, essay collections, and catalogues pertaining to medieval and Renaissance manuscript studies.

Suzanne Reynolds
A Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library at Holkham Hall. Vol. 1, Manuscripts from Italy to 1500. Pt. 1, Shelfmarks 1–399.
XXIV+389 p., 57 b/w ill. + 196 color ill., 230 x 330 mm. (2015). ISBN 978-2-503-52900-4, Hardback, 170,00 Euros. To order, contact Brepols Publishers.

The Holkham Hall catalogue is planned in four volumes. Vol. 1, pt. 2 will cover manuscripts from Italy to 1500, shelfmarks 400 and onward. Vol. 2 will cover manuscripts to 1500 from Britain and the rest of Europe outside of Italy, principally from the library of Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634). And Vol. 3 will cover all other manuscripts after 1500.

Publisher’s description: The manuscript library at Holkham Hall is among the most significant private collections in the world—yet no catalogue of its riches has ever been published. The volumes in this series will cover all the Holkham manuscripts and open up these hidden treasures to scrutiny for the first time.

This first volume in the Catalogue is devoted to the heart of the collection at Holkham Hall: manuscripts made in Italy in the Middle Ages and the age of humanism. This first part of Volume 1 covers one hundred and twenty-seven Italian manuscripts: biblical and liturgical codices (notably a lavishly illuminated Book of Hours made for Lorenzo de’ Medici), patristic texts, and the exceptional collection of Latin classical authors collected by Thomas Coke (1697–1759). New attributions to illuminators and significant discoveries in textual history and provenance will stimulate new research; every manuscript catalogued is generously illustrated, and a full bibliography and indices are also included. A substantial historical introduction, drawing on unpublished archives at Holkham, reconstructs in detail for the first time the formation and development of the Holkham manuscript library in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Suzanne Reynolds is Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts and Printed Books at the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. She was Curator of Manuscripts at Holkham Hall until 2014, and Lecturer in Medieval Literature at the University of Birmingham from 1992–1998. She has published widely on glossed and illuminated manuscripts, the history of the classical tradition, and the history of collecting.

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Battling Inherent Vice in Rare Books

What do tending livestock and working in a rare book room have in common? Both have a tendency to make your hands look like this:

The outcome of a morning spent measuring unstable books for protective enclosures: dirty hands and a sense of accomplishment.

Fortunately for me, dirty hands spell job satisfaction. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been mocked by friends, family, and fiancé alike for measuring productivity by the color my hands turn the tap water after a day of work. (At my last job: “I stabilized books for four hours this morning, and my hands were absolutely black. It was great!”) Yet, satisfaction aside, isn’t it curious for books to be so grimy? The inquisitive among you may (understandably) be wondering, why is it that shifting books for an hour leaves your hands roughly as grubby as would weeding a garden for the same amount of time?

See? Pretty tidy...

See? Pretty tidy…

The answer is not that I make a habit of sweeping the floor of the stacks with my bare hands (ew), nor is it that our books are just that filthy. Paper does attract dust, as you may have noticed in your own experience from the fine veil of particles that accumulates on bookshelves at home, and the majority of our collections – which range from incunabula (the earliest printed books, produced before 1501) to current faculty publications – have been around long enough to attract a legion of dust bunnies burrowing snugly beneath dust blankets. Fortunately, thanks to routine collection maintenance, neither we nor the books are living beneath the accumulated airborn detritus of centuries here in the rare book room. We routinely sweep the floors and dust the shelves in rooms where our books live, and valiant student worker Micah Miller vacuumed the edges of materials in our pre-1820 collection as recently as 2011, keeping the dust at bay with the type of vacuum (equipped with a HEPA filter and soft brush attachment) recommended for book cleanings by the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC).[1] Kudos to his dust-busting (periodic cleanings are an important part of any book conservation program), but the question still remains: what is making my hands so dirty?

An example of deteriorating leather, which comes away in a powdery dust called “red rot.” Wouldn’t this make a mean episode of The Magic School Bus? (Book shown: 1810.2 Walsh-ii)

An example of deteriorating leather, which comes away in a powdery dust called “red rot.” Wouldn’t this make a mean episode of The Magic School Bus? (Book shown: 1810.2 Walsh-ii)

The main culprits are the books themselves, which are made from organic materials plagued by inherent vice. Rakishly exciting though it sounds (Alec D’Urberville, anyone?), in conservation circles, “inherent vice” refers to materials containing agents that naturally cause deterioration over time, independent of outside forces. The treated leather used in most pre-industrial book bindings is prone to gradual decay. The leather absorbs sulfur dioxide from the air and, through a process of oxidation, produces sulfuric acid. The acid weakens the chemical structure of the leather through hydrolosis, which, on a molecular level, breaks down chains of collagen (a protein in animal hide also found in human skin). The visible result of this process is slight cracking of the leather, which gradually deteriorates and comes away in a fine, reddish-brown powder called “red rot” (or, as a former colleague at the University of Illinois used to call it, “mummy dust”).

Delaminating sheepskin binding (shelfmark)

Delaminated sheepskin binding (Book shown: PN 6349 .S83 1665 8vo)

While red rot results from a natural process, it can be hastened and exacerbated by a number of factors. First of all, the type of animal hide used affects leather longevity. Sheep, calf, and goat skin were all commonly used in fifteenth- to eighteenth-century bindings, and while calf and goat tend to produce fairly hardy cases, sheep skin has a tendency to delaminate – to not only lose its sheen, but to peel away in layers. This is due to differences in a sheep’s coat, which forms a thick, insulating, deep-rooted fleece made up of crimped hair rather than straight (like that of cows and goats).[2] The deep roots of this crimped hair mean that when hair follicles are removed during tanning, sheepskin is left with a tiny gap between dermal layers.[3] As the resulting leather ages, the top layer tends to peel away, leaving the exposed under-layers more susceptible to deterioration.

When you picture a cow today, the ubiquitous white and black Holstein most likely comes to mind. The Holstein is an example of a cow that has been bred for specific traits – rapid growth, high milk production, and docility – that have changed its appearance and the quality of its hide. This pretty little lady, a Kerry heifer, is now a rare breed. She represents the older cattle ideals of high intelligence, ability to forage, and a thicker coat, and is more similar in traits and appearance to the cattle whose hides were used to make early bindings. (Rosie, taken at Plimoth Plantation in 2010)

When you picture a cow today, the ubiquitous white and black Holstein most likely comes to mind. The Holstein is an example of a cow that has been bred for specific traits – rapid growth, high milk production, and docility – that have changed its appearance and the quality of its hide. This pretty little lady, a Kerry heifer, is now a rare breed. She represents the older cattle ideals of high intelligence, ability to forage, and a thicker coat, and is more similar in traits and appearance to the cattle whose hides were used to make early bindings. (Rosie, taken at Plimoth Plantation in 2010)

The original quality of the animal hide will also affect the hardiness of the resulting leather, and agricultural changes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in which farmers began to favor larger, more productive livestock over smaller, hardier, and (literally) thicker-skinned animals began to affect leather durability.[4] Additives from vegetable tannins, which came into widespread use in the processing of animal hides during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, have also been found to exacerbate the deterioration process.

A book in a phase box (our enclosures like to go incognito) and two banded volumes. (Books shown: 1700.2 Crasset v. 1-3)

A book in a phase box (our enclosures like to go incognito) and two banded volumes. (Books shown: 1700.2 Crasset v. 1-3)

Unfortunately, since red rot is a natural process that springs directly from qualities intrinsic to processed leather, there is no known way to treat or reverse it. All we can do is track the deterioration of books in our collection and, when necessary, stabilize or conserve them through the application of supports (such as conservation bands) and enclosures. This is an ongoing project at SLU, where Rare Books staff do periodic sweeps of the whole pre-1820 collection, making note of books’ condition, banding items in need of structural support, and measuring them for custom-made enclosures. The upside? The process of deterioration is a slow one, so these materials should still be around – and available for use, whenever you choose to come look at them – for a long time yet.

For my part, I can look forward to many years of satisfaction in using my “dirty hand gauge” of productivity. Maybe I should look into a patent?





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“Charlotte Jenner her book”

Front endpapers of British Curiosities, rife with writing in at least three hands

Living history has nothing on rare books (entrance to the 1627 English Village at Plimoth Plantation, 2010)

Living history has nothing on rare books (entrance to the 1627 English Village at Plimoth Plantation, 2010)

Holding a rare book is the closest I’ve come to time-walking. Perhaps this assertion seems dubious coming from someone who spent childhood summers chopping rutabaga to be stewed in an open hearth and teaching other kids Nine Men’s Morris in a short gown, cap, and petticoat. (My first foray into living history was as my mother’s shadow when she worked at Indian House Children’s Museum in Deerfield, MA.) Yet I maintain that when you want to immerse yourself in the worldview of a previous century, texts from the period are a good place to start. Often you can find an old text prettily bound, prefaced, and annotated in a modern edition that you simply pull off the shelf of a library or secondhand bookstore and take home. This ease of use affords you the leisure to read and reread, to become acquainted with an author’s language by interacting with the text both intellectually and literally, through underscores, highlighting, or notes (although please, no Mr. Bean moments in the library — keep annotations and alterations to your own books!). It can be freeing to lose yourself in the text of a book without sparing much thought for its material value, and odds are, you aren’t pulling quotes for your Shakespeare final from a 1623 First Folio kicking around your dorm room, but rather from a modern Oxbridge critical edition of the Bard’s works.

This is an artifact, created in 1728, that I can hold (carefully) in my bare hand! (Gold-tooled spine of British Curiosities)

This is an artifact, created in 1728, that I can hold (carefully) in my bare hand! (Gold-tooled spine of British Curiosities)

The downfall of exploring history solely through uncontextualized ideas is an incomplete understanding of the past. Physical objects can give us some of the best insights into the daily lives of the people who made and used them, and, in a history museum, you can see how inhabitants dressed, worked, ate, interacted, and spent their leisure time. How much closer can you get to a fashionable young English lady at the turn of the nineteenth century than her neoclassical white muslin gown, yellowed with age and faint sweat stains? (Sorry, Nana, ladies don’t just “glow.”) Yet most of us – unless we (a.) go to school to become museum conservators, (b.) inherit illustrious European estates, or (c.) are Lara Croft – do not have the opportunity to touch centuries-old artifacts that our predecessors once wore, held, used, and considered unremarkably commonplace.

Blind-tooled front cover of British Curiosities

Blind-tooled front cover of British Curiosities

Perhaps you’ve deduced where I’m going with this, but here it is nevertheless: the single most amazing thing about rare books and manuscripts is that they house texts and are also artifacts. And – wait for it – YOU CAN TOUCH THEM. An eighteenth-century book not only holds a text that speaks volumes (often three, if we’re talking early novels) about the author’s worldview and the culture that produced it, but also of book production at the time of its publication. Even more invigorating is the fact that someone owned this book, and that perhaps many someones flipped through the same pages you hold in your hand. You can find traces of these people – of a book’s provenance – in bookplates, ownership stamps, inscriptions, marginal notes, and sometimes random scribblings. This is what I mean by time-walking, for I never feel closer to people of the past (whoever and whenever they were) than when I’m holding the same book that they held when it was new. This feeling reminds me of a line from Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, when the boys’ teacher Hector describes the profound connection you have with an author who has written something you’d always thought “particular to you.” Then, suddenly, “here it is,” he says. “Set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours” (Bennett 56). I’ve hardly worked in SLU’s rare book room for a month, but already I’ve had the pleasure of clasping many such hands reaching down from the shelves.

Extraordinarily descriptive title page of British Curiosities

One book that I’ve become particularly attached to is this 1728 edition of British Curiosities in Art and Nature. A travel guide to eighteenth-century England’s counties, complete with post-chaise timetables and calendars listing the dates of annual fairs and events (whoever said we need the internet to plan a trip?), the volume has been caringly bound in calf-skin with blind tooling on the covers and a gold-tooled spine. The title page alone could occupy me all day, with the endless title that helpfully excuses the reader from perusing the whole text (was SparkNotes inspired by pre-industrial subtitles?), the conspicuously absent author, and the clear visual direction to the publisher’s house “under Serle’s Gate” in London. Yet it is the pastedowns and endpapers – spaces left intentionally blank by the publisher – that enchant me. It is on the front pastedown that Charlotte Jenner supplants the anonymous author to take possession of what she has emphatically retitled “Charlotte Jenner her book.” Though the endpapers are rife with hands – at least two others, Thomas Good and John Webb, have signed their names here – Charlotte’s is the name that reaches out to me. Perhaps it has something to do with how she practiced her numbers only up to six, or with the line of j’s she scrawled across the page, trying to get the form of this most crucial letter in her name just right. Perhaps her hand, material and metaphorical, reaches out to me because I remember practicing my own letters in just such a way, laboring over the capital letters that made my name decisive. I can see a young Charlotte Jenner curled over the book, writing slowly and with great concentration, before taking a break to read of the wonders beyond her own small corner of England.

Times and distances of travel by post stage, for your (eighteenth-century) convenience

Distances of travel by post stage, for your (eighteenth-century) travel convenience

In reality, I have no idea who Charlotte Jenner was. Was she a child learning to write? A young woman proud to own her first book? An older woman practicing her letters? I don’t know where she lived, or even when within the wide window of time after 1728. She wrote nothing profound in British Curiosities – only her name and some numbers. Yet her disregard for this book as an artifact, using a now safeguarded object as her writing tablet, is a reminder that this book was once new. It was to Jenner as your textbooks are to you: a source of information, of text to be interacted with, underlined and doodled beside: both a text to be learned from and an everyday object to be marked proudly as one’s own, but no more to be idolized than a toothbrush. And thus, we come full-circle.

Who was Charlotte Jenner? I don’t know, but she held out her hand, and I took it. So now I ask you: who will you meet in your rare book room?


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