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Collections of Distinction

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Hidden messages

Posted on May 6th, 2015 by Jay Moschella in Collections of Distinction
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Exposure to UV light rendered this early inscription in the BPL’s copy of a 1542 edition of Chaucer readable again.

As mentioned in an earlier blog post, provenance can tell us a great deal about how past readers approached and interacted with texts. The nature of these interactions, and of historical readership in general, is an area of ever-emerging research and significant scholarly interest. However, for a number of reasons, deciphering the evidence required to establish provenance is often a challenging task for librarians.

Beyond the idiosyncrasies of early handwriting and the peculiarities of non-standardized spelling, the writing material itself — ink, for the most part — can be problematic. Until the late 19th-century, the most common ink used for writing was made from a mixture of iron salts and the acid derived from oak galls. This so-called iron-gall ink produced a rich, black line on the page. However, over the centuries, iron-gall ink oxidizes, lending it a recognizable, rusty hue. Depending on the mixture of the ink and the extent to which previous owners might have tried to erase it, the writing might also appear faded and is sometimes all but invisible to the naked eye. With its high acidity, iron gall ink also tends to be volatile. In extreme, though not entirely uncommon cases, it can slowly eat through paper, crumbling entire pages and rendering lengthy inscriptions unreadable.

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A Minor Poet

Posted on April 28th, 2015 by Jay Moschella in Collections of Distinction
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Portrait of Benlowes by Francis Barlow

In his biography of Edward Benlowes (1603-1676), Harold Jenkins writes:

A minor poet may sometimes reflect more faithfully than a great one the age which produces them both, merely by reason of that completer submission to circumstance which is part of what makes him “minor.”

Benlowes is remembered today as an eccentric poetaster on the fringes of 17th century English literary culture. As an artist he was, as Jenkins suggests, a product of his times, reflecting through his life and work both the political and religious tensions, as well as the loftier aesthetic aspirations of Caroline England. He was Catholic, then later, a zealous Anglican convert and an anti-Puritan Royalist. He was a man of means, lavishing his inheritance on friends and acquaintances until he was ruined by debt. But above all, Benlowes considered himself a man of letters, and his magnum opus, a sprawling poem of 13 cantos, is titled Theophila, or, Loves Sacrifice.

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Anton Koberger at the BPL

Posted on March 17th, 2015 by Jay Moschella in Collections of Distinction
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Die so nöthig als nützliche Buchdruckerkunst und Schriftgiessereij, mit ihren Schriften

An engraved portrait of Anton Koberger published in 1745.

Anton Koberger (ca. 1440-1513) was a printer, bookseller, and publisher from Nuremberg. A major figure in the history of book production, he played a central role in the dissemination of modern literary culture during the earliest decades of printing.

Like Gutenberg, Koberger had been a goldsmith before turning his attentions to the printing press. But whereas Gutenberg was an innovator of process in the world of printing, Koberger’s major contributions to the art came via his development of a highly sophisticated, vertically-integrated business model for book production and distribution.

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Heb Ddieu Heb Ddim: the False Folio Affair

Posted on March 2nd, 2015 by Jay Moschella in Collections of Distinction
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Jaggard’s Heb Ddiue device on a false folio title page

The corpus of surviving Shakespearean manuscript materials is comprised of just twelve words: “William Shakespeare,” or variant spellings thereof, signed six times across four different legal documents. There are no rough drafts of his plays or sonnets, no correspondence or diaries; nothing to help us understand the inner workings of Shakespeare’s creative process.

This vacuum of evidence has been filled by centuries of speculation over everything from which printed editions most accurately reflect Shakespeare’s original intent, to whether Shakespeare himself was anything more than an elaborate fraud — a boorish country actor at the center of a plot to pass off the writing of another man as his own.

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The universe in motion: Apian’s Cosmographia

Posted on January 30th, 2015 by Jay Moschella in Collections of Distinction
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nocturnal in use, from the the 1524 edition of Cosmographia

Cosmographia . . . is about the world, which consists of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire

Thus writes Petrus Apianus in the opening lines of Cosmographicus liber a Petro Apiano mathematico studiose collectus, more commonly known as Cosmographia. The nod to the four classical elements is a fitting introduction to a delightful, wide-ranging work that was partly a rehash of medieval scientific thought and partly a paean to Renaissance ingenuity and the burgeoning spirit of discovery.

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