Books, Owners and History

David Pearson

This exhibition is concerned with looking at various ways in which the things that owners do to their books, and the ways in which the books are changed through the processes of ownership, can add significantly to our understanding of those books and their place in history.

The history of individual copies of books, and of individual libraries and collections, can give us direct insights into the ways the books were read, how they were used and regarded, what influence they really had. These things can correct our possibly distorted perception of the contemporary significance of particular texts, where we may be unduly influenced both by our own literary tastes and fashions, and by the accident of survival.

When people talk about books, all too often they actually mean texts.  Much of the veneration with which books have been surrounded for so long is really to do with texts, rather than with the books as artefacts; when Milton spoke of a good book as ‘the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life’, he was really praising the ability of words, put together as texts, to inform, inspire, educate and move. If we move away from the idea that books are interesting primarily as gateways to texts, if texts are freed by the possibilities of cyberspace from the bondage of physical volumes, we can concentrate on the artefactual qualities of the books and come to realise what an important dimension that opens up.

Books develop their own individual histories which become part of our broader historical heritage. Books have not been passive vessels in their role as intermediaries between authors and readers; they have been tangible frames, noticed and respected as such, and fully exploited for the opportunities they provide for interaction between the texts and their recipients. A book can be written in, defaced, altered, beautified or cherished, to produce a preservable object with an individual history. A computer used to display texts taken from a web-accessible databank does not have the same qualities.

For many centuries, until the introduction of mechanisation in the printing and publishing industries in the nineteenth century, all books were unique handcrafted objects. Even before owners had the chance to make their own separate marks, the texts were set by hand, each copy represented a series of separate pulls on the printing press, and the resulting printed sheets were gathered, folded and sewn by hand.

No two copies of a book of this period, even before leaving the bookseller’s shop, can be truly identical; the printing process could introduce no end of slight variance between one copy and another, and the binding process yet more. The idea of uniform edition binding, with which we are familiar today, is a fairly modern one, and if you locate twenty copies of any particular eighteenth- century book, let alone a sixteenth-century one, the chances are that the bindings will all be different.

Binding was just the beginning of a customisation cycle that developed as books passed from hand to hand and were owned by successive generations, each of whom could leave some mark - inscriptions, annotations, bookplates, new bindings, armorial stamps, defacements.

The study of individual library collections, based on surviving books which can be associated with particular owners, and perhaps augmented by other evidence such as inventories or sale catalogues, has been quite a growth industry during recent decades and many valuable studies have been produced to explore the ways in which books were owned and used.

The study of Thomas Cranmer's library by David Selwyn (a former curator of the rare books and manuscripts housed in the Roderic Bowen Library and Archives), issued by the Oxford Bibliographical Society in 1996, is an example, which amply demonstrates the insights to be had from a detailed analysis of a particular collection. As David says in the introduction to that book, ‘it was Cranmer’s habit not only to underscore passages in the books that interested him, but to annotate the text in the margins. A study of his surviving books can suggest possible influences on his thought and shed light on the course of his theological development and his attitude on many of the disputed issues of the day.’

Annotated books can provide us with a direct interface between the author and the reader, to see how the reader was reacting to the book’s ideas, or the parts that were particularly interesting. The Roderic Bowen Library and Archives is fertile hunting ground for this kind of material.

microcosmos titlepage

An example is shown here, a copy of Peter Heylyn’s Microcosmos, or a little description of the great world, printed in 1621, a geographical-cum-historical survey of the countries of the world which was enthusiastically seized upon by a more or less contemporary owner who interleaved it throughout to give him space to write his own thoughts and reactions to the text. The notes on the flyleaf include a comment to the effect that the most observable passages in the book have been ‘seriously selected by a first and second lection’, that is, reading, but the annotations go well beyond copying out bits of text to replying to them and adding additional thoughts.

There are numerous observations about other parts of the world and how they were perceived, going beyond the more moderate opinions fit to be expressed in print to the real xenophobia of early seventeenth-century England: Spayne is like a libbards skin here a sport and there a spott inhabited. Shee swells soc every where with huge hills, and some question whether the mindes of her inhabitants or her mountatins bee highest. The Brasilians cannot pronounce the letters L F R, of which one gave this reason, because they had neyther Law Fayth nor Rulers amongst them.

The owner was clearly a supporter of Charles I, as the annotations are peppered with staunchly royalist statements, and overall these notes give a nice snapshot of contemporary opinions on geography, history and national identity. The only sad part of this story is that the owner, despite his liberal use of ink to record his opinions, nowhere uses it to write his name, so we do not know who he was, a twist in the tail that is all too common in the world of provenance research.

Not everyone writes in their books to that extent, of course, but the image here shows another instance of heavy contemporary annotation taken from the Roderic Bowen Library and Archives, this time a late seventeenth-century theological text, which an owner of that time clearly found to be a stimulating read.

This image shows another nice example from the Lampeter shelves of a book which has been extensively enriched in manuscript, this time by a number of hands over several generations. The printed text is a medical work by Johann Crato, printed in 1558, a fragment of a larger work, which was bound up in the early seventeenth century with a quantity of blank paper added at each end to make a family recipe book, a manuscript compendium of domestic wisdom mostly focused on medicine and cookery but which might have all kinds of other things thrown in. Recipe books like this are an important genre of household book in the early modern period, and social historians as well as medical ones are increasingly realising their importance as a window on the cares and practices of people at various levels of society. They were often used and added to over several generations, as is the case here. The handwritten texts begin with excerpts from Galen written out around the middle of the seventeenth century, but the book’s pages now have a patchwork of material, in several hands through to the late eighteenth century. Facing the Galen text is a poem called ‘The Genius of England’, probably copied around 1700, by an annotator who wrote out several other poems, including some on the age-old theme of the relations between the sexes:

Some say that marriage a dog with a bottle is Pleasing their humours to rail at their wives Others declare it an ape with a rattle is Comforts destroyer, and plague of their lives.

There are also some rather more Swiftian verses on the joys to be found in the russet gown, young plump and round, leading on to the effects of venereal disease. This is all mixed in among a medley of more practical texts for cookery and healthcare, including recipes for making an egg pudding and a bread and butter pudding, and advice that ‘a spoonful of cat’s blood, drunk warm upon a fit of the Epilepsy, and at the new of the Moon certainly cureth the Epilepsy’.

The Microcosmos case is an example of someone using the book to interact with the text and record their own thoughts and reactions; the recipe book is more a case of starting with the original artefact, the published text and the codex that surrounds it, as something to be added to in order to make it more useful.

The related theme of books as objects in which it is appropriate to record certain kinds of important information is most obviously seen in Bibles, and many people will be familiar with the kinds of family Bibles whose flyleaves are used to record the key facts of birth, marriage and death of successive family members.

Shown here is a fairly humble example from the Lampeter shelves, a Welsh Bible of 1718, with the chronology of several generations of owners recorded: Enoch Moses was born at 12 midnight on 9 April 1775; he died between 6 and 7 pm on 12 September 1854. There is more than a popular habit going on here; the idea springs from a sense of the book as a holy and special object, the physical manifestation of the word of the Lord, the right place for a permanent record of these really fundamental facts of life.

The kinds of annotations discussed so far generally give us insight into owners and their relationships with books and texts, but the things that people write in their books can have other kinds of bibliographical usefulness. Historians have long valued the habit of Narcissus Luttrell, who amassed an important collection of political pamphlets in the late seven- teenth century, of noting on the title page the precise date of publication, thus making it possible to work out the sequence of squib and counter squib.

The use of inscriptions in books to attribute authorship to anonymous and pseudonymous works is one of the cornerstones of Halkett and Laing’s standard reference work; many of their attributions rely on notes found in individual copies, made by contemporary owners who were in on the rumour of the day, or perhaps had inside knowledge.

On the left is an example from the Roderic Bowen Library and Archives Tract Collection, a late seventeenth-century pamphlet attributed by a contemporary hand to the authorship of Walter Charleton, the celebrated physician and antiquary. Both Wing, and Halkett and Laing, attribute this work differently, to Thomas Blount, and there is a piece of work to be done here to determine where the truth lies.

The Bowdler tracts at Lampeter are, not surprisingly, fertile hunting ground for interesting contemporary annotations. The image on the left shows a copy of George Hickes’s treatises of 1709,  annotated by the author, with additional passages and corrections to the text for a planned next edition which was never in fact published.

We should not look only at what people add to books, we should also look at what they take away. Books have been mutilated for numerous reasons but all such acts become part of a book’s history and uniqueness.

Early religious and liturgical books provide one of the most common arenas in which to find this kind of deliberate erasure, following the ups and downs of ecclesiastical politics. The evolution of the Book of Common Prayer was a gradual process and the catholic liturgy continued in use throughout the reign of Henry VIII, but with changes and new procedures gradually introduced. In 1542 it was decreed that all existing liturgical books should have the name of the Pope expunged and so surviving books from that time will often be found to have been systematically vandalised with a pen or a knife, taking out all references to the Pope and often also to Thomas Becket. This kind of defacement demonstrates the Reformation in action at a direct and personal kind of level.

Also on the subject of mutilation, it should be added that books often preserve, by accident, fragments of other books which have themselves been cut up as waste. During the sixteenth century, particularly, but also to some extent in the fifteenth and seventeenth, the relatively high cost of plain white paper meant that recycled materials were heavily used for making endleaves, spine linings and sometimes whole pasteboards. Many pieces of early printing, including examples from the earliest presses in Europe, are known of today only because discarded fragments of these things were used in this way instead of being used as pie cases or any of the other purposes to which Waste paper might be put. Primary archival evidence of the workings of the book trade in the sixteenth century is almost non existent today, except where booksellers’ account books have been cut up and used as endleaves. In the 1950s an American researcher found some discarded bookseller’s accounts of 1603 used in this way in a binding of the 1630s. The lists of books included an entry for ‘Loves labours von'. Shakespeare scholars have long been intrigued by a list of his plays drawn up in 1598, which includes a play of that title alongside Love’s Labours Lost, and there has long been speculation that there was once such a companion play whose text has not survived. This discovery added significant evidence to support that idea, although the play itself remains elusively lost. Nothing quite as intriguing as that has yet been found in the Roderic Bowen Library and Archives, but the collection does contain its fair share of fragments from medieval manuscripts preserved in this way. This was another important source of waste material for bookbinders, as the sixteenth century saw the destruction of vast quantities of pre-Reformation manuscripts, either because they had become politically incorrect or because they were superseded by printed texts. Vellum is a good strong material for spine hinges and it is well known that Oxford binders in particular used cut up leaves to make pastedovvns, although it happened in Cambridge and London also.

13th century  mss aristotle as pastedown

Many fragments like this survive today, although they are merely the tips of icebergs of medieval libraries now lost. Shown here is a leaf from a mid thirteenth-century manuscript of a text of Aristotle, preserved for posterity as a pastedown in a mid sixteenth-century edition of Scribonius, bound in Oxford around that time, and now in the Roderic Bowen Library and Archives. Several other fragments like this are known today in Oxford bindings of the Reformation period now at Lampeter.

Although the focus thus far has been on the kind of evidence found inside books, we should not forget the outsides. The hand-crafted nature of all aspects of early book production was mentioned earlier and bindings of this period, however humble, should not be ignored as constituent parts of the unique histories of individual books. Binders have been decorating the outsides of books almost since the codex format was invented in the first few centuries of the Christian era, and many people will be familiar with pictures of elaborately decorated bindings, produced for wealthy collectors down the ages, where the books become both aesthetically striking objects and vehicles for advertising the owner’s wealth and status. Of course, most historic bookbindings do not look like this, and for every one of those there are hundreds more with a much plainer appearance. Throughout the handpress era, binders offered customers a range of possibilities for their books, from the simplest and cheapest to the fanciest and most expensive, decorated according to the fashion of the day. The fashions themselves changed, but there was always a spectrum of options. Every binding represents an active choice, dictated by the depth of the customer’s pocket, by their individual taste, or by the judgement of the retailer as to what would sell most readily. Bindings can tell us something about owners, therefore, or they may tell us something about contemporary regard for the books themselves. It is more likely that an early seventeenth-century theological text will be found in a fancy binding than a contemporary literary one.

This exhibition began by referring to the growing question mark over the traditional physical form of the book which the digital age may pose, leading on to a question mark over whether we will want to go on preserving them. I hope it has demonstrated a range of reasons as to why books can, in fact, matter. Of course they matter as texts, and will go on doing so unless we evolve some radical new communication process which is independent of words, but what I have been talking about is why they matter as objects, individual and unique objects, part of the historical fabric.

The examples of annotated and altered books mentioned here have largely been particularly striking examples, and of course not every book on the shelves of the Roderic Bowen Library and Archives is as extensively individualised as the Microcosmos.

However, inspection of the shelves of any historic library will inevitably reveal all kinds of evidence to show who the previous owners have been and how they have done things with their books. People have left their mark in books as inscriptions of all kinds, by using bookplates, by putting their names or initials on the covers, by using armorial binding stamps.

They may not always have annotated their books, and indeed most people do not, but the mere evidence of ownership makes it possible to recreate the private libraries of the past and deepen our understanding of the effects of books in history. Even an uninscribed book in a humble contemporary binding has something to tell us about its past status. The purely textual function of a collection like the Founders’ Library has already changed radically since Burgess’s day, in line with changes to the curriculum as well as newer changes in the delivery of information. That change is likely to continue but the books have much to teach us even in an age of cybertexts.

David Pearson is Director of Libraries, Archives and Guildhall Art Gallery at the City of London. He was previously Director of the University of London Research Library Services (2004–09), Librarian of the Wellcome Trust (1996–2004), Head of Special Collections at the National Art Library (1992–96) and a curator in the Eighteenth-Century Short Title Catalogue project at the British Library (1986–92). He has lectured and published extensively in aspects of book history, with a particular emphasis on books as artefacts, and the ways in which they have been owned and bound. He is author of Provenance Research in Book History (1994), Oxford Bookbinding 1500-1640 (2000), English Bookbinding Styles 1450-1800 (2005) and most recently Books as History : The importance of books beyond their texts. He is President of the Bibliographical Society, 2010-12.


Permission to republish this text was given by Janet Burton and William Marx, general editors of Trivium.