Collections of Distinction

The Dutch Lady: a late seventeenth-century play, in manuscript

Posted on November 17th, 2015 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction

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.

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Newly digitized: five early, rare, and unusual books

Posted on September 8th, 2015 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction

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.

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Early bindings at the BPL

Posted on July 2nd, 2015 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction
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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.

A Caxton autograph, but which?

Posted on June 26th, 2015 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction
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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.

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Hidden messages

Posted on May 6th, 2015 by jmoschella 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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