Collections of Distinction Tue, 21 Jun 2016 11:53:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Recently processed: three manuscript treasures Tue, 12 Jan 2016 15:36:09 +0000 (Click on the title of each item to view the digitized copy)


Picture above: the author’s autograph on the final line of the leftmost page, and the license on the lower right.

Lope de Vega. El Castigo sin Venganza. 1631. MS D.174.19

This is the original autograph manuscript of Lope de Vega‘s El Castigo sin Venganza (Punishment Without Vengeance). Felix Lope de Vega y Carpio (1562-1635) was a major Spanish playwright and poet during the period of flourishing Spanish art and literature known as the Siglo de Oro, and Castigo sin Venganza is considered by many to be his finest tragedy. The manuscript itself represents a remarkable working document, with many authorial corrections and interlineations. Though it once belonged to George Ticknor, whose collection of Spanish and Portuguese literature was acquired by the BPL through a bequest in 1871, this manuscript remained with the Ticknor family until his daughter, Anna Eliot Ticknor, gave it to the library in 1895.

(Bibliographic record)



The Signatures of the Subscribers to the Shakspeare. Ca. 1789-1804. MS f G.164.2

Recently, much attention has deservedly been paid to UT Austin professor Janine Barchas’ online, virtual recreation of the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery. This particular manuscript, titled The signatures of the Subscribers to the Shakspeare, is an artifact from the gallery itself. A bound volume of 80 vellum leaves containing the signatures of 746 people, this is the original list of the subscribers to Boydell’s Shakespeare venture. Those who wished to receive copies of Boydell’s illustrated Shakespeare edition would have signed this book during their visit to the gallery. The manuscript thus contains the signatures of King George III, Queen Charlotte, and the Prince of Wales (George IV), as well as many important book collectors, literary figures, and notable members of British society.

(Bibliographic record)


John Adams. Boston Massacre Trial Notes. 1770. MS Adams 307

Adams_NotesOne portion of John Adams’ defense notes from the trial of the eight British soldiers accused of murder for their role in the Boston Massacre (Rex v. Wemms, et al.), this manuscript fragment is comprised of twenty pages, thirteen of which contain Adams’ handwriting, along with seven blank pages.

Adams’ notes record testimony, both on behalf of the defense and the prosecution, regarding the events leading up to and during the Boston Massacre. This particular fragment is part of a larger extant body of Adams’ Boston Massacre trial notes. Those pages of notes not held by the BPL are held by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

(Bibliographic record)


Though these three items have long been in the collections of the BPL, they were recently recataloged and conserved thanks to the generous support of the Associates of the Boston Public Library.




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Frances Wolfreston and ‘Hor’ Playbooks at the BPL Mon, 21 Dec 2015 17:19:33 +0000 Title page to East-ward Hoe (G.3962.2 no.1) with Frances Wolfreston's autograph and annotation.

Title page to East-ward Hoe (G.3962.2 no.1) with Frances Wolfreston’s autograph and annotation.

Boston Public Library Rare Books Librarian Jay Moschella in collaboration with University of Illinois scholars Sarah Lindenbaum and Lori Humphrey Newcomb would like to announce the recent identification of four playbooks in the Boston Public Library collection as items once owned by Frances Wolfreston, the best-known English woman book collector of the seventeenth century. Wolfreston has been of great interest to scholars and collectors since Johan Gerritsen’s 1964 essay “Venus Preserved: Some Notes on Frances Wolfreston” called attention to her remarkable collecting habits. The frequently cited 1989 essay “Frances Wolfreston and ‘Hor Bouks’: A Seventeenth-Century Woman Book Collector” by Paul Morgan includes an appendix of 106 books owned by the Wolferstan family, 95 of them bearing the trademark inscription “frances wolfreston hor bouk.” The most famous of these items is the sole extant copy of the first edition of Shakespeare’s poem, Venus and Adonis.

Yhe Sotheby's sale catalog for the sale of the Wolfreston library (G.314.2).

The Sotheby’s sale catalog for the  Statfold Hall library (G.314.2 no.2)

Frances Wolfreston was a Staffordshire gentlewoman, not titled; nothing in the basic details of her life suggests that she would have been a collector of drama. Born a Middlemore in 1607, she married landowner Francis Wolfreston in 1631 and moved to his family seat of Statfold Hall sometime after. Francis died in 1666 and Statfold Hall passed to the oldest of their six children, also called Francis, whereupon Frances Wolfreston moved to the town of Tamworth some 3 miles away, dying there in early 1677. During the 70 years of her life, she amassed what may have been the largest library collected by a 17th-century Englishwoman. Only Francis Egerton, Countess of Bridgewater (1583–1636), with a collection of 241 books and manuscripts, is known to have had a larger library.[1] An 1856 Sotheby’s catalog for the auction of the family library includes over 400 titles published within her lifetime. Lindenbaum and Newcomb are tracing the whereabouts of these volumes to see which contain her signature.

At least four of these books, all plays, found a home with the Boston Public Library. There is Thomas Heywood’s A Pleasant Conceited Comedy, Wherein is Shewed, How a Man May Choose a Good Wife from a Bad (1621) and Eastward Hoe (1605), a controversial play co-written by George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston. The two remaining plays are by none other than Shakespeare, A Wittie and Pleasant Comedie Called the Taming of the Shrew (1631) and The Most Excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice (1637).

(Click to view digitized copies):

A Pleasant Conceited ComedyEastward HoeThe Taming of the ShrewThe Merchant of Venice

In addition to owning the only surviving copy of the 1593 Venus and Adonis, Wolfreston is also the earliest known female collector of the Bard, possessing no fewer than 13 of his titles. Next to playwright James Shirley and “Water Poet” John Taylor, Shakespeare is the author most prominently represented in her collection. Not since 1916, when Wolfreston’s copy of Othello was indexed in Henrietta Collins Bartlett’s and AW Pollard’s A Census of Shakespeare Plays in Quarto, 1594–1709, has one of her Shakespeare quartos been unearthed. At the writing of this post, the whereabouts of five of these quartos, including Romeo and Juliet (1637), are still unknown.

Wolfreston's annotation in The taming of the shrew is badly faded, but can be read under UV light. "a very prity mery one of a […?] begar found by a lord who persuaded him he was a lord, and this play was playd befor his new lordship”

Wolfreston’s annotation in The taming of the shrew (G.176.40) is badly faded, but can be read under UV light. “a very prity mery one of a […?] begar found by a lord who persuaded him he was a lord, and this play was playd befor his new lordship”

As more Wolfreston books have been uncovered, so have more annotations. Indeed, Wolfreston left commentary in each of the Boston Public Library playbooks, and also in many other books recently located by Lindenbaum and Newcomb. While the number of the annotations within her books is small, each one reveals something new about her literary life.

On the title page of Heywood’s A Pleasant Conceited Comedy, about a husband who doubts his wife’s faithfulness and worthiness despite her popularity with his friends and family, she has written “a exeding prity on[e].” Beneath the caption title of Eastward Hoe, she writes “a resnabell prity one” and also notes “pris 1s 3d”; in other words, that she paid one shilling three pence for the book. Finances also filter her response to the controversial climax of Merchant of Venice; she writes on that scene that “the rich jue would have a £ of flesh of his creditor,” using the abbreviation for the currency rather than weight. Her comment on The Taming of the Shrew singles out the opening scene that frames the main play: “a very prity mery one of a […?] begar found by a lord who persuaded him he was a lord, and this play was playd befor his new lordship.” Although this frame around the play’s better-known marriage plot is left incomplete in Shakespeare’s play, and often omitted from modern productions, Wolfreston plainly appreciated the nesting of a play-within-a-play.


The title page to G.3970.2 with Frances Wolfreston’s distinctive autograph

All four of these plays came to the Boston Public Library in 1873, when it purchased the collection of Thomas Pennant Barton (1803–1869). Barton acquired Eastward Hoe and the Shakespeare quartos through the 1856 Sotheby’s sale, and bought the Heywood volume the following year through the sale of J.O. Halliwell-Phillipps‘ books on May 21, 1857.

Barton’s personal library of 15,000 volumes, which he painstakingly assembled over the course of his entire adult life, reflects both his everyday interests and his bibliographical obsessions. He was, variously, an urbane man of means and a country gentleman; a scholar who married into an extremely well-connected family, an amateur botanist, an occasional diplomat, and a sophisticated bibliophile with a distinctive collector’s vision. The collection is most famous for its rare, early Shakespeare editions, as well as the many rare volumes of and related to early modern English literature. The collection is also particularly strong in French literature and philosophy, American and French jurisprudence, and botany, among other topics.

Portrait of T.P. Barton, by Etienne Bouchardy (1835)

An 1835 portrait miniature of Thomas Pennant Barton by Etienne Bouchardy (G. Cab 3.190)

Barton’s desire for completeness in the areas in which he collected was tempered only by his overriding insistence on purchasing books in the finest possible condition. In fact, we know a great deal about his collecting habits because the Barton Collection offers an additional treasure: 24 volumes of correspondence between Barton and his book dealers in both Europe and America. This collection of manuscripts, on its own, represents a trove of information on the 19th-century trade in rare books. In his correspondence, we find Barton placing orders, providing instructions for binding and conservation, arranging shipments, and instructing his dealers on how to evaluate the condition of books he wished to purchase.

After a lengthy negotiation, the Boston Public Library acquired the collection, in its entirety, from Barton’s widow, Cora Livingston Barton.[2] Along with the collections of George Ticknor, Theodore Parker, Nathaniel Bowditch, and Josiah Benton, Barton’s library forms part of the foundation of the BPL’s rare books collection.

To view the bibliographic records for each of the four Wolfreston books at the BPL, click the following links:

Heywood, Thomas. A pleasant conceited comedy . . . (G.3970.2)

Chapman, George, et al. East-ward hoe. (G.3962.2 no.1)

Shakespeare, William. The merchant of Venice. (G.176.18)

Shakespeare, William. The taming of the shrew. (G.176.40)


(This post was co-written by Sarah Lindenbaum, Lori Humphrey Newcomb, and Jay Moschella)



[1] McKitterick, David. “Women and Their Books in Seventeenth-Century England: The Case of Elizabeth Puckering.” Library (2000) 1(4): 363.
[2] Chase, Frank H. “Thomas Pennant Barton and his Library.” More Books: Being the Bulletin of the Boston Public Library. Vol.2, no.9 (Dec., 1927), 313-320.

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The Dutch Lady: a late seventeenth-century play, in manuscript Tue, 17 Nov 2015 17:18:02 +0000 dutchladymanuscr00bart_0005The Rare Books Department recently cataloged and conserved a curious and fascinating item: the ca. seventeenth-century manuscript play text of a comedy titled The Dutch Lady.

The plot of this play centers around Fuscara Gabriella, the eponymous Dutch lady, a widow who has travelled to England in order to collect the sizable debts owed to her late husband. Nearly destitute and unable to collect what she is owed, she decides instead to search for a new husband, along the way contriving various plots to lure wealthy men into marriage. At the same time, several Englishmen, either taken by her beauty, or under the mistaken belief that she is still a wealthy woman, hatch their own marriage gambits. These men include Dispensation Surfet, a lascivious Puritan preacher; Justinian Aimwell, a kindly gentleman; Aimwell’s lawyer, the corrupt and bumbling Francis Withernam; and Hotlove, a young gallant enamored of and in league with Fuscara, who plans to marry her off to the wealthy, but elderly Sir Ralph Beetl so that the two might soon inherit Beetl’s fortune.

The play itself, a withering social satire, is a delightful read. The majority of The Dutch Lady‘s most pointed barbs are aimed toward Puritans, collectively embodied in the play by the above-mentioned Surfet, who is described as “a holderforth, gluttonous, lustfull, cruel, covetous, hypocritical”, and who spends much of his time bumblingly attempting to seduce various women.

This manuscript came to the library in 1873 with few clues about its origin. It was originally purchased by Thomas Pennant Barton, who seems, for the most part, to have set the manuscript aside without further review. A knowledgeable bibliophile and a discerning collector, Barton often appended lengthy bibliographical inscriptions to the volumes he purchased. However, in this case, he left no comment on the play. The catalog of the Barton Collection, which frequently records Barton’s descriptions of peculiar items, describes the play only as “laid in London, after the accession of James I.”

A cursory reading of the text, however, reveals several obvious clues that would dispute the chronology given in the Barton catalog. In the first place, there are numerous references to the political and religious schisms of the mid-seventeenth century. Indeed, in the prologue (which is wonderful, and well worth a read), the anonymous presenter laments,


Full text of the prologue

Sure, a schismatique spirit rules the age

And, having torn the Church, would rend the Stage!

For, witts, (as Zelots) now are factious grown,

Each one condemns what is not his own.

And, for no other Reason, too, perhaps,

One Party Hisses, what another clapps.

Nay, Poets (like Fanatiques) threaten warrs,

In Comique Scenes fomenting Tragique jarrs

Gainst one another, when the Mighty Cause

Is but the airy Nothing of Applause.

A short-liv’d Noyse, that grates the ears o’ the’ wise,

And he that best deserves, doth most Despise.

The most specific chronological reference within the text of the play itself is a mention of  John Saltmarsh’s Dawnings of Light, a book that was published in 1645, a full 42 years after James’ coronation (Saltmarsh, who died in 1647, is referred to in the past tense). Other literary allusions include references to Don Quixote, and Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I. Physical evidence, in the form of several watermarks, suggests that the paper on which the text is written and with which it’s bound was manufactured some time during the latter half of the seventeenth century.

The precise nature of the manuscript, however, remains ambiguous. It does not appear to be an early working draft, though corrections to the text are present. An extra sheet, written on different paper stock and in what appears to be a later (or simply different) hand, is appended to the final page and contains a possibly rewritten ending. Could the manuscript, then, be a presentation copy that was restored to completion by its owner after the final pages were lost?

The full text of The Dutch Lady has been digitized and is now freely accessible online. Perhaps those with an interest in English Restoration drama might have information that could help identify this fascinating manuscript?





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Newly digitized: five early, rare, and unusual books Tue, 08 Sep 2015 11:37:36 +0000 The Associates of the Boston Public Library continue to provide critical support for an ongoing round of collections maintenance. This work includes the cataloging, conservation, and digitization of many noteworthy, though frequently under-described items, including the five books detailed below. To see the digitized copies of each, click on the titles.

coryatscrudities00cory_0009Coryate, Thomas. Coryats crudities. London: William Stansby, 1611.

Ben Jonson, in his caption to the engraved title page (pictured at left) that shows a seasick Thomas Coryate leaning over the side of a boat, wryly quips: “First th’ author here glutteth sea, haddock, & whiting with spuing, and after the world with his writing.” It’s an ironical jab that sets the tone for this eccentric, highly amusing travelogue.

Coryats Crudities details Coryate’s tour — by boat, horse, cart, coach, and on foot — through 45 different European cities. In addition to the author’s observations on the people he meets, places he visits, and the retelling of his various misadventures, the main text is itself preceded by a full 108 pages of bitingly satyrical poems, epistles, and panegryics — all aimed squarely at Coryate — by a virtual who’s who of Jacobean poets, including Jonson, John Donne, Michael Drayton, and numerous others.

The BPL’s copy of this book is in remarkable condition and is annotated with numerous corrections in Coryate’s own handwriting.


threesisterstear00nicc_0009Niccols, Richard. The three sisters teares : shed at the late solemne funerals of the royall deceased Henry, Prince of Wales, &c. London: Thomas Snodham for Richard Redmer, 1613.

An elegaic poem of 118 stanzas, The Three Sisters Teares is written in the style of Edmund Spenser and mourns the premature death of King James’ eldest son Henry, Prince of Wales.

Bibliographically, The Three Sisters Teares is also notable for its use of “mourning pages,” which are printed entirely in blocks of solid black ink, one of which, emblazoned with the Prince’s heraldic badge, is pictured at right. This book is extremely rare, with only six copies recorded in the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC).






bibliagermanica00quen_0461Quentell’s Low-German Bible. Cologne: Heinrich Quentell, 1478.

The BPL’s copy of this rare Bible contains a spectacular series of puzzle initials and rubrications. It is also bound out of order, and includes three gatherings taken from a copy of Quentell’s earlier, undated German Bible. Anton Koberger, who may have had a working relationship with Quentell, used the same wood blocks for his own German Bible.

This is one of a number of early and important Bibles currently being cataloged, conserved, and digitized at the BPL, including Mentelin’s Latin Bible (ca. 1460), Eggestein’s Latin Bible (ca. 1469), The Ninth German Bible (1483), The Douai/Rheims Bible (1582 and 1609), and numerous others, including leaves from the Gutenberg Bible, and from Schoffer and Fust’s Latin Bible of 1462.





Rastell, John. The pastyme of people : the cronycles of dyuers realmys and most specyally of the realme of Englond. London: John Rastell, 1530.

This early history of England comes from the press of John Rastell, brother-in-law of Sir Thomas More and an important early English printer in his own right. The text is unusual in both its scope and style. Decorated with Rastell’s own woodcuts, Pastyme chronicles English history from the earliest mythologies, with illustrations and genealogical diagrams of kings from William the Conqueror through Richard III. The ESTC records just ten other copies.

pastymeofpeoplec00rast_0009   pastymeofpeoplec00rast_0082















cupidscabinetunl00shak_0009Cupids cabinet unlock’t, or, The new accademy of complements : odes, epigrams, songs, and sonnets, poesies, presentations, congratulations, ejaculations, rhapsodies, &c. : with other various fancies created partly for delight, but chiefly for the use of all ladies, gentlemen, and strangers, who affect to speak elegantly, or write queintly. London: William Thackeray, ca. 1672.

Throughout much of the 20th century, Shakespearean criticism focused on the theatrical Shakespeare — a man who wrote for the stage and who showed little interest in printed posterity. But a new wave of scholarship has cast Shakespeare as a literary figure who, far from being indifferent to the world of print, was a man deeply engaged with the English book trade. Much of the evidence for this scholarship is derived from close analyses of publishers’ approaches to Shakespeare, including the design and wording of title pages and the use of Shakespeare’s name (or lack thereof) during and shortly after his lifetime. A poetic miscellany, Cupids Cabinet Unlock’t is an example of a restoration publication that was spuriously attributed to Shakespeare. The BPL holds the only recorded copy of this previously unknown edition of the text.




Those interested in more closely following the BPL’s digitization of rare books and manuscripts can check the BPL’s Internet Archive portal. Sorting by “date archived” will bring up new titles as they are digitized.



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Early bindings at the BPL Thu, 02 Jul 2015 20:29:47 +0000 Distributed throughout the many distinct collections in  our  stacks are thousands of early bookbinding specimens. Pictured below are a few representative examples, pulled at the request of a visiting researcher.

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A Caxton autograph, but which? Fri, 26 Jun 2015 15:00:41 +0000 MS-med.92-front

The binding of MS f Med. 92 is attributed to a monastery in northern France, no later than 1471.

William Caxton (ca. 1422-1491) is primarily remembered as the printer of the first English book, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, and for his subsequent production of at least 100 other books, pamphlets, and other pieces of printing. Caxton’s work, along with that of Richard Pynson and a small group of other early printers, helped to usher in a period of linguistic standardization through which an often disjointed patchwork of local dialects was molded into modern English.

William Caston (fl. 1452-1460) was a wool merchant of the English Staple at Calais who has been all but forgotten save for an accident of history: W.J.B. Crotch found Caston’s name within certain contemporary legal documents and mistook him for the printer. Such a mixup was understandable: the two Englishmen worked in similar fields for a time and had both lived abroad during roughly the same period in roughly the same part of the world. Even their names — “Caxton” and “Caston” — were themselves historically interchangeable.

It seems highly likely that one of these two men — the printer or the wool merchant — owned the volume of manuscripts at the BPL now cataloged as MS f Med. 92 (formerly BPL MS 1519). Three distinctive autographs, along with a raft of circumstantial, but substantially convincing evidence attests to its provenance. Still, exactly which of the two men did in fact own the volume has been the source of numerous long-running disagreements.

Before he established himself as a printer, William Caxton, born in the Weald of Kent, had made himself into a prominent member of the  Company of Mercers. As Governor of the English Merchant Adventurers at Bruges during the 1460s, he frequently acted as an agent of the House of York in negotiating trade agreements and diplomatic accords between England and the wealthy dukes of the Burgundian Netherlands. It was only during the final paroxysms of the Wars of the Roses that Caxton reinvented himself as a printer. Then, sometime shortly after producing the Recuyell, he moved his press homeward to Westminster. Thus, to study Caxton is to study early English politics and a world in the throes of transition: from Medieval to modern, from Plantagenet to Tudor, from manuscript to print.

Why, though, did Caxton abandon his apparently lucrative career as a merchant in order to undertake the far more risky business of printing? The relative lack of primary source documentation available to answer this question has left Caxton’s biographers at a loss, and scholars eager to glimpse the inner workings of his print shop have long sought, and occasionally found extant books and manuscripts used as exemplars by the typesetters he employed. However, no books or manuscripts thought to have personally belonged to Caxton have been discovered and no examples of his own handwriting are known.

"Iste liber co[n]stat Will[el]mo Caston [and in a different hand:] quy dedit Will[el]mo Son[n]yng Ano m[i]iiij[c]lxxj." (This book belongs to William Caston, who gave it to William Sonnyng in the year 1471).

“Iste liber co[n]stat Will[el]mo Caston [and in a different hand:] quy dedit Will[el]mo Son[n]yng Ano m[i]iiij[c]lxxj.” (This book belongs to William Caston, who gave it to William Sonnyng in the year 1471). From the first page of MS f Med. 92

Here, then, we return to MS f Med. 92, a composite manuscript that was produced in both England and in northern France during the final half of the 15th century. It is autographed, in three places, by “Willelmo [i.e. William] Caston.” If these autographs are indeed those of Caxton the printer, MS f Med. 92 is a totally unique historical document; aside from the only known examples of his handwriting, it would be the only known, extant volume from the personal library of a man whose literary tastes Shaped both the history of the printed book and the English language itself. It would be a collection of manuscripts owned by Caxton just before he left Bruges for Cologne, where he was first trained in the art of printing. If, however, MS f Med. 92 belonged to Caston of the English Staple, its still-considerable literary and historical import will need to be interpreted differently.


An opening of MS f Med. 92 showing leaf 143 (on the right) with one of the three autographs in the lower right corner.

The evidence suggesting that this volume once belonged to Caxton the printer is not unconvincing. The contents — treatises on international and mercantile law, as well as one piece that Caxton himself eventually printed (Lydgate‘s The Churl and the Bird) — would seem to be precisely the types of materials that an erudite English merchant living abroad on the continent might, at that time, have been reading. The presence of the three autographs, even in their variant spellings, represents the next piece of this puzzle: we know, at least, that a man with the same name as the printer owned the volume. Physical evidence provides yet another clue: based on its style of decoration, the binding has been attributed to the Abbey of St. Peter of Hasnon, in the northern French city of Arras. Established in the 8th century, the Abbey of St. Peter is just 80 miles south of Bruges, where Caxton lived and worked. Thus, we have a book that was evidently owned by a man with the same name and the same literary and commercial interests as Caxton the printer; a man who even lived in the same region where Caxton the printer once lived. Finally, because two of the autographs are dated, the whole volume can be somewhat confidently placed near Caxton the printer at a specifically meaningful period in his life. 1471, the year borne by both of the dated autographs, is exactly when Caxton was leaving Bruges for Cologne. Perhaps, then, it was during the resulting reorganization of his possessions that Caxton chose to give this book from his precious library to William Sonnyng?

The rear pastedown showing the last of the three autographs

The rear pastedown showing the last of the three autographs

However, most all these pieces of circumstantial evidence could be used to make the same case for the volume having belonged to Caston of the English Staple. One can only assume that he, too, would have been interested in international and mercantile law. And Calais, where several of the pieces in the volume were copied down, is ten or so miles closer to the Abbey of St. Peter than Bruges. Furthermore, though the printer Wynkyn de Worde, who worked under Caxton for many years, occasionally spelled his master’s name with an “s” rather than an “x,” there are no instances of Caxton himself having done so.

The most optimistic case for Caxton the printer, then, seems at best uncertain. N.F. Blake, the leading 20th-century Caxton scholar who addressed the issue remained in doubt, while other scholars were more readily convinced.

Those interested in further reading on MS f Med. 92 and the questions surrounding its origins and provenance might find the following publications to be enlightening:

  • McCusker, Honor. “A book from Caxton’s Library.” More Books: The Bulletin of the Boston Public Library 15 (1940): 275-285
  • Sotheby & Co. Catalogue of a Selected Portion of the Valuable Library and Collection of Manuscripts, the Property of Major Q.E. Gurney, D.L. London: The Firm, 1936 (lot 146, pp. 35-40)
  • Blake, N.F. Caxton and His World. London: Andre Deutsch, 1969. pp. 36-38, 222-223
  • Blake, N.F. William Caxton and English Literary Culture. London: The Hambledon Press, 1991
  • Crotch, W.J.B. The Prologues and Epilogues of William Caxton. London: Oxford University Press, 1928. pp. xvli-xlviii
  • Painter, G. William Caxton, a Biography. New York: Putnam, 1977. p. 161


The BPL holds many books produced by the early English printers, including Richard Pynson, Wynkyn de Worde, and William Caxton. Of the latter, the BPL holds the following:

Jacobus de Voragine. The Golden Legend. Ca. 1484

Several detached leaves from John Gower’s Confessio Amantis. 1483

Duff, Edward Gordon. William Caxton. 1905 (contains an original leaf from Caxton’s first edition of The Canterbury Tales)

Bibliographic records for MS f Med. 92:

L’arbre des Batailles

The Libel of English Policy

The Churl and the Bird





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Hidden messages Wed, 06 May 2015 13:20:10 +0000 chaucer_fluoresced

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.

G.409.38 showing embrittlement due to the acidity of iron-gall ink.

G.409.38 showing embrittlement due to the acidity of iron-gall ink.

To overcome these challenges, librarians at the BPL employ a variety of tools and techniques. The photograph at the top of this post, for example, comes from the BPL’s copy of an edition of Geoffrey Chaucer printed in 1542. On the top, we see the writing as it appears to the naked eye: rusty brown and very nearly invisible. But below that image, we see the text as it appears during exposure to a brief flash of ultraviolet light. UV light causes the iron in the ink to fluoresce, darkening the pen marks and making the handwriting readable again. This particular passage is written in what is known as secretary hand — a style of writing popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. At least one portion of the inscription dates to 1583 and is signed by a John Abbotte.

The Rare Books Department has recently begun to describe and systematically index all examples of these kinds of inscriptions by using the RBMS controlled vocabularies. To browse through some of the examples in our collections, visit the research catalog and, selecting “genre” from the drop-down menu under the search box, enter terms from the provenance evidence thesaurus using the following format: Marginalia (Provenance), Inscriptions (Provenance), Autographs (Provenance), etc.

To learn more about early inscriptions and marginalia in our collections, please contact the Rare Books Department via email ( or telephone (617-859-2225).

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A Minor Poet Tue, 28 Apr 2015 18:03:07 +0000 Benlowes_portrait

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.

A mystical meditation on the soul’s communion with God, Theophila was printed by Roger Norton in 1652. It is a difficult poem to read, having been composed in a jolting, monorhyme triplet of 10, 8, and 12 syllables. The design of the book, with its strange typographical features and lavish, incongruous illustrations does little to soften the edges of Benlowes’ jagged cadences.

In this example, from canto three, the bizarre typographical layout and rhyming scheme are apparent.

In this opening, from canto three, the bizarre layout and rhyming scheme are apparent.

Even still, Theophila was well-received in certain circles before it eventually fell out of favor with critics and literary historians. By 1728, Pope was mocking Benlowes in The Dunciad as “propitious still to blockheads,” and by the 20th century, the poem was remembered, if at all, as a towering example of jumbled artistic hubris. “It is not possible to attempt any sort of narrative synopsis,” writes Jenkins, “Benlowes moves from ecstasy to ecstasy without coherence of incident.” George Saintsbury, who reprinted Theophila in 1905, makes an earnest attempt to defend Benlowes, though he ultimately musters a half-throated, if brutally honest apologia. Benlowes, he writes, “never expresses the slightest consideration as to symphonic or symmetrical effect in rhyme. He showers italics and capitals in a fashion which might give pause to the sternest stickler for literal typographic reproduction.” Saintsbury goes on to describe the writing, at different turns, as: “extravagant,” “absurd,” and “hideous.” (A brief and deliciously sardonic piece of criticism, Saintsbury’s magnificent introduction to the poem is a highly amusing and worthwhile read).

One of the Hollar portraits (from the ladies in winter costume series) reused by Benlowes in Theophila.

One of the many repurposed engravings (this from Hollar’s series depicting ladies’ costumery)

Its shortcomings aside, Theophila has always been something of a bibliographical curiosity, as few if any copies of the book are alike. These incongruities stem from Benlowes’ intervention in its production and distribution. He continued, for instance, to edit his manuscript while the book was already at the press. As a result, many copies contain fuller treatments, along with edits not present in others. He also corrected many errors in the printed text by hand, though he was not particularly thorough. Thus, while certain copies are extensively modified with pen-and-ink corrections, others contain fewer corrections or are left untouched.

Apparently eager to embellish his book in a manner befitting its linguistic decadence, Benlowes had also acquired a number of copperplate engravings, many of which were decades old by the time Theophila went to press. Largely unrelated to the text, these plates, which included the work of Wenceslaus Hollar, were occasionally printed off on Benlowes’ personal rolling press, then added in greater or lesser numbers to various copies as he saw fit.

The end result of these frenzied revisions, inconsistent corrections, and capricious inclusions of illustrated matter was a nearly untangleable web of bibliographical variants. It comes as little surprise, then, that bibliophiles, ever in search of rare or unusual editions, seized on the book. They prized, in Theophila, the very oddness that critics abhorred, and the mismatched plates and hand-corrections that symbolized amateurishness for some represented, for others, desirable scarcities. Thus, despite its many literary flaws, the book quickly became something of a collectors’ item.


One of the two plates of word puzzles.

According to Jenkins, certain presentation copies of Theophila may contain, at their fullest, 25 plates. The BPL’s copyformerly owned by Henry E. Huntington, among others, contains 15 plates, including the two word puzzles appended to the end of the text. Some of the plates in this copy are considered to be quite rare, including the image of Theophila treading on the serpent, as well as the tearful, praying woman.

The BPL copy was recently cataloged, conserved, and digitized thanks, in part, to the support of the Associates of the Boston Public Library. The revised bibliographic record can now be found in our research catalog and the book can be viewed online, in its entirety, at the Internet Archive. To see this book in person, please contact the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department.

Those interested in reading more about Edward Benlowes and his work might find the following publications illuminating:

Jenkins, Harold. Biography of a Minor Poet. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952.

Roditi, Edouard. “The Wisdom and Folly of Edward Benlowes.” Comparative Literature 2.4 (1950): 343-353.

Saintsbury, George, ed.  Minor Poets of the Caroline Period. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905.

Clark, Andrews, ed. The Life and Times of Anthony Wood, Antiquary, of Oxford, 1632-1695, Described by Himself. Vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford Historical Society, 1892.

Title page of the BPL's copy, with the bookplate of Thomas Hanmer.

Title page of the BPL’s copy, with the bookplate of Thomas Hanmer.

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Anton Koberger at the BPL Tue, 17 Mar 2015 15:31:51 +0000 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.

Today, Koberger is most widely known as the printer of both the Nuremberg Chronicle and the so-called Ninth German Bible. But he also either printed or published over 230 other books, including numerous histories, theological treatises, hagiographies, and works by the likes of Boethius, Bede, and many of the church fathers. At its height, Koberger’s firm was a massive operation — the largest of its kind in the world. He owned paper mills to supply as many as 24 presses at his Nuremberg workshop, where he employed over 100 workmen, and his business relationships in the major commercial centers of Europe allowed him to exploit foreign markets hungry for new books.

A view of Anton Koberger's Nuremberg Workshop from a 17th century engraving. The site was destroyed during the second world war.

A view of Anton Koberger’s Nuremberg Workshop from a 17th century engraving. The two buildings on the left, beyond the one with the sun dial, were part of Koberger’s print works.

Koberger, like many early printers, acted in several different capacities with respect to the production of books. Sometimes he worked solely as a printer under contract from other parties. The Nuremberg Chronicle is an example of a book produced through such an arrangement. At other times, Koberger assumed a role akin to that of a modern publisher, providing the financial backing for a book while farming out production work to other printers. He also sometimes acted as a retailer and/or wholesaler, with no role in production. In many cases, however, Koberger took on a combination of the three roles, the size and versatility of his firm dictating the level of financial risk assumed. It was this versatility, in part, that allowed Koberger to adapt to changing commercial environments as needed and to thrive, over the long term, where other printers and publishers had failed.

Editions from Koberger’s presses are known today for their crisp printing and well-balanced, highly sophisticated design that often incorporated vivid illustration and technically innovative page layouts. The firm also offered certain editions with varying levels of decoration: for a price, buyers could obtain copies that had been embellished by hand, with painted woodcuts, gilt initials, and rubricated text. Circumstantial evidence based on the examination of extant copies also suggests that the firm may have issued certain books in elaborate bindings — an uncommon practice during the incunable period.

The BPL holds 14 different books either printed or published by Koberger: De vita & moribus philosophorum, 1473  ∗  Summa Theologia (Antoninus), 1477  ∗  Rationale Divinorum Officiorum, 1480  ∗  Vitae Pontificum, 1481  ∗  Biblia Germanica (Ninth German Bible), 1483 (highly embellished version and less embellished version)  ∗  Fortalitium Fidei, 1485  ∗  Legenda Aurea, 1488  ∗  Schatzbehalter, 1491  ∗  The Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493 (Latin and German editions)  ∗  Epistoli Marsilii Ficini Florentini, 1497  ∗  Revelationes sancte Birgitte, 1500  ∗  Hortulus Anime, 1513.


 Below are images from several of these books. Click on the thumbnails for details.

Biblia Germanica (Ninth German Bible), 1483

According to W.A. Copinger, Koberger printed a total of sixteen distinct editions of the Bible, fifteen of which were in Latin. This edition is the only one that Koberger issued in German and it is the ninth German edition of the Bible to appear in print. Koberger issued it in three states: highly embellished, with finely-painted woodcuts and illuminations on some pages; hand-painted, with no illumination; and plain black-and-white, as printed. The BPL has two copies, one of which belongs to the first group, and one to the second.


Revelationes sancte Birgitte, 1500

Koberger printed the Revelations of Saint Bridget of Sweden in 1500. The woodcut illustrations — or at least the designs for the woodcuts — are widely thought to have been executed by Albrecht Dürer himself.


Nuremberg chronicle (German edition), 1493

An extraordinarily laborious undertaking, the Nuremberg Chronicle contains over 1800 illustrations. Note the complex page layouts and the interplay between woodcuts and type. Perhaps the most lavishly illustrated book of the 15th century, the Nuremberg Chronicle is also important for the glimpse it provides into the world of early book production. The original contracts between Koberger, the publishers, the illustrators, and the author still exist, as do the manuscript exemplars used to plan out the printed book.


Fortalitium fidei, 1485

Koberger printed this work of Christian apologetics by Alphonso de Espina in 1485. The BPL’s copy is in an exceptional early binding of blind-tooled calfskin with brass clasps, original paper labels, and evidence of a now-missing book chain. The spine is lined with a leaf from a medieval manuscript gradual. Cannibalizing vellum manuscripts to use in bindings was a common practice throughout the early years of book production.


Schatzbehalter, 1491

A book of meditations on the life of Christ, the Schatzbehalter is lavishly illustrated with woodcuts by Michael Wolgemut and his assistant, Wilhelm Pleydenwurf. Like the BPL’s copy of Alphonso’s Fortalitium, this copy of the Schatzbehalter is in an exquisite, likely original binding. The tooling matches that of workshop w002518 in the Einbanddatenbank and the design motifs, along with the use of a leaf of printer’s waste from the text of the book, suggests that the binding was executed in Koberger’s shop.


The BPL’s collection of books printed by Anton Koberger have recently been recataloged and many of the volumes are presently being conserved. Both the cataloging and conservation of these treasures have been made possible by the generous support of the Associates of the Boston Public Library. To see any of these books in person, please contact the Rare Books Department by phone or email, or visit the rare books reading room on the third floor of the Johnson Building.

*The portrait of Koberger in this blog is taken from Hager, Johann Georg. Die so nöthig als nützliche Buchdruckerkunst und Schriftgiessereij. Lepizig: Christian Friedrich Gessner, 1740-1745. Vol. 4, p. 192.
**The image of Koberger’s print works is taken from a 1682 engraving by Johann Ulrich Kraus.
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Heb Ddieu Heb Ddim: the False Folio Affair Mon, 02 Mar 2015 14:25:36 +0000 firstpartoftrueh00mund_0011a

Jaggard’s Heb Ddiue device on a false folio title page

Allowing for caveats and scholarly disagreement, the corpus of surviving Shakespearian 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.

Without manuscript evidence, those interested in the array of questions surrounding Shakespeare’s life and work are forced to rely on printed matter only. This fact is reflected in the volume of textual scholarship focused on comparisons between the various editions. In order to facilitate such comparisons, scholars have sought a definitive chronology of Shakespeare’s printed output. Historically speaking, however, the establishment of such a chronology has proven difficult.

*          *          *

Before the publication of the First Folio in 1623, Shakespeare’s plays had been issued in a modest number of slim quarto editions that frequently varied in content. Many of these quartos borrowed from earlier editions or from other, retrospectively elusive sources. The processes through which the quartos were produced may have led to the promulgation of post-authorial errors and spurious additions to the texts, though the nature of Shakespeare’s relationship to the publishing houses and the methods through which his texts were transmitted from manuscript into print, remains a matter of continuing scholarly debate. Further muddying the bibliographical waters, a number of these early quartos were apparently issued under false imprints, which makes the establishment of a publication chronology all the more difficult.

Today, the early quartos are extremely rare, with a few scattered exemplars from each edition remaining. The Thomas Pennant Barton Collection of Shakespeare and Shakespeariana, one of the BPL’s collections of distinction, includes over 45 of the early quartos, 18 of which were printed before 1623.

One group of these quartos has been the source of much confusion for both bibliographers and scholars alike. The nine titles in question (or ten, depending on how you count them) were issued in 1619 through the partnership of William Jaggard and Thomas Pavier. For reasons that remain unknown, the plays in this group were printed with individual title pages that bore a range of misleading dates, from 1600 to 1619, while their publication was either falsely attributed to other booksellers or left ambiguous.

The titles in the collection were:

Title page to the BPL's copy of The whole contention. . .

Title page to the BPL’s copy of The whole contention. . .


By the beginning of the 20th century, both A Yorkshire tragedy and Sir John Oldcastle were no longer attributed to Shakespeare, but the false imprints were still taken at face value and the Pavier/Jaggard quartos were still thought to have been discretely published. This view began to change in 1906 when Alfred W. Pollard, one of the major figures in the revival of modern bibliography, posited that all nine had been printed simultaneously and that, furthermore, they had originally been bound together for sale in a single volume. In short order, Pollard and other bibliographers, including W.W. Greg, came to consider these editions piracies — unauthorized knock-offs issued through the machinations of an unscrupulous printer/bookseller duo. Thereafter, the collection of quartos was derisively referred to, by many, as the false folio.


*          *          *

BPL call no. G.406.76, printed in London, displays a typical false imprint.

In bibliographical terms, the identification of a book’s publisher, typically found on the title page, is called an imprint. In order to evade copyright or to insulate themselves from dangerous associations with controversial works, publishers sometimes issued books under falsified imprints. In such cases, any of the three elements of the imprint (place, date, name of publisher) might be altered or omitted in order to mislead. The plays in the so-called false folio, however, were hardly controversial. What’s more, Pavier seems to have held publication rights to five of the titles, while rights to at least two of the others had already gone derelict. Thus, the typical motives behind imprint falsification do not seem to have been at play.

An additional contradictory point within the piracy theory relates to the apparent lack of consequences for Pavier and Jaggard’s alleged misdeeds. In early 1619, the company of actors known as the King’s Men, to which Shakespeare himself had belonged, petitioned the Stationer’s Company for publication rights to the late playwright’s works. Those who subscribe to the piracy theory have traditionally seen this petitions as a move against the unscrupulous work of Pavier and Jaggard. And yet, just two years later, Henry Condell and John Heminge, both senior members of the King’s Men, turned to Jaggard to print the First Folio.

In Shakespeare and the Rise of the Editor (Cambridge University Press, 2007) Sonia Massai advocates for a radical scenario that would explain some of the inherent contradictions of the piracy theory. Massai believes that Pavier and Jaggard weren’t usurping any rights when they produced the collection and that, furthermore, they were actually working with the King’s Men. The false folio, she suggests, was printed in such a way as to resemble a bound-up collection of previously printed, hard-to-find works from a playwright who had not been published since his death three years prior. According to Massai, the issuance of the collection was an attempt by the group to whet the appetite of the book-buying public in the run-up to their production and eventual publication of the first folio.  The whole thing was, in short, a sales gimmick.

Massai’s scenario would account for many of the inexplicable contradictions in the traditional piracy theory. Ultimately, however, the motives behind the publication of the Jaggard/Pavier quartos remain the subject of ever-evolving scholarship. With implications that extend well beyond the boundaries of traditional bibliography, this is exactly the kind of open question that researchers turn to rare books collections for. As one of a handful of institutions in the world to hold a copy of all nine titles, the BPL has recently recataloged the whole collection and is in the process of digitizing each play. Those that have already been scanned can be viewed at the links provided above.

To learn more about the so-called false folio, to view the BPL’s copies of each individual title in person, or to learn more about the Thomas Pennant Barton Collection of Shakespeare and Shakespeariana, please contact the Rare Books Department via email ( or telephone (617-859-2225).





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