Collections of Distinction

Posts Tagged ‘rare books’

Shakespeare Unauthorized: the Proofreader’s Forgery

Posted on October 2nd, 2016 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction

An photograph of the BPL’s 1603 edition of Plutarch’s Lives taken in 1881 shows what was once thought to be the sixth known example of Shakespeare’s handwriting.

The BPL is home to one of the finest collections of Shakespearean rarities in the world. A selection of these books will be on display in the upcoming Shakespeare Unauthorized exhibition at the central library in Copley Square from October 14, 2016 through March 2017. 

Forgery artists, conspiracy theorists, and mischief makers of every sort have plagued Shakespearean scholarship for hundreds of years. A number of the great Shakespeare scholars of the 18th and 19th centuries, for example — from Steevens and Theobald to Halliwell-Phillipps and Collier — have been accused of everything from tampering with archival collections and lying about sources to petty theft and the brazen and seemingly compulsive forgery of documents. So pervasive is the practice of forgery and falsification in the history of Shakespearean scholarship that both collectors and scholars have been drawn to the subject of forgery on its own merits.

Like many of the major Shakespeare collections in Europe and America, the BPL holds a number of forgery specimens. In some instances, these specimens were collected for what they are: deliberate and often skillful fakes. But in other cases, the forgeries in the collections were purchased — either by the library or by previous owners — based on the assumption that they were genuine artifacts.  One particularly scandalous example, purchased by the BPL in the late nineteenth century, appeared for a time to be one of the most important Shakespearean documents ever discovered.


Shakespeare Unauthorized: Richard II, 1598

Posted on September 28th, 2016 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction

The BPL is home to one of the finest collections of Shakespearean rarities in the world. A selection of these books will be on display in the upcoming Shakespeare Unauthorized exhibition at the central library in Copley Square from October 2016 to March 2017. 



BPL’s copy of the second quarto edition of Richard II (G.176.32)

The Boston Public Library holds copies of nine plays by William Shakespeare that were printed during his lifetime (1564-1616). The oldest among these is one of just eight surviving copies of the second quarto of Richard IIprinted in 1598 by Valentine Simmes for the publisher Andrew Wise.

Richard II is one of Shakespeare’s histories, a group of plays that primarily center around the power struggles of English monarchs and their battles over royal succession. The play is based largely on historical accounts of the final years of the reign of King Richard II of England and his overthrow at the hands of his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke. Through the self-inflicted downfall of Richard and the rise of Henry, Shakespeare explores the nature of hereditary monarchy, the limits of absolute power, and the corrupting psychology of autocratic rulership.

The language in the play is deeply poetic and many of  the passages in Richard II are considered among Shakespeare’s finest, including John of Gaunt’s  “sceptered isle” speech, the Parliament scene, Richard’s “Let’s talk of graves” monologue, and his wistful reflections from a cell in Pomfret Castle (“I wasted time, and now doth time waste me”).


Early bindings at the BPL

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

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

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.


Hidden messages

Posted on May 6th, 2015 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction

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.