Ghost Stories from the Library

On the 30th of October the Library held its annual ghost story readings, an on-line event this year for obvious reasons, although compered from the environs of the Library itself. The following is a true relation of proceedings.

This year, to encourage imaginings amongst the College community, stories from current College members and staff were solicited, and two of these were read during the event.

Our winner of the competition was Ungodly Things by Krystalia Karamichou.

Another story entitled A Runner by a member of staff was also read.

There were also readings of poetry, Abiku by Wole Soyinka, and Windigo by Louise Erdrich.

This was followed by a presentation of some of the Historic Collections relating to demons, possession and witchcraft held in Balliol’s Library and Archives.

The oldest of these was our first printing of the Formicarius by Johannes Nider dating to 1473 (although written some 40 years earlier). This instructional work in the form of a teacher-pupil dialogue, uses an ant colony as a model of a well-structured Christian society. Within it, book 5 (the opening of which is shown here), discusses witches. This is the second book ever printed to discuss witchcraft and the one in which the modern idea of a witch as an uneducated female in thrall to the Devil appeared. In earlier centuries the chief focus of discussions of witchcraft was of an educated male wizard indulging in ornate esoteric ritual. Our copy still has its original 15th-century binding (pictured).

George Giffard’s A Discourse of the Subtill Practises of Deuilles by Witches and Sorcerers of 1587 was written by a Puritan and although considered moderate in its assessment of cases of alleged witchcraft, still accepted its reality. Indeed it was written to argue against the first edition of the following work, published in 1584.

Reginald Scott’s Discovery of Witchcraft was an encyclopedic book on the topic which aimed to disprove the existence of its subject matter. This angered James I, who believed there had been an attempt on his life by witches, and there is an apocryphal tale that he had all copies of the first edition burned. To some degree its very encyclopaedic nature worked against its case and it was often cited by those who believed in witchcraft to demonstrate their case, and indeed, also, by those who used the formulae and spells listed to tell fortunes and concoct potions. It became a source-book for magic (see the above diagram showing the layout for a ritual to trap a spirit in a crystal), and also conjuring, as its final section discusses stage magic. This section was later published  separately with additions as The Art of Jugling or Legerdemain, and then as Hocus Pocus Junior. Illustrated above is a trick called the ‘decollation of John the Baptist’ in which the conjurer appears to have his head cut off and put on a plate. Our copy is the second edition of 1651.

Sebastian Michaelis published his Histoire Admirable de la Possession et Conversion d’une Penitente in 1612, and here we have an English translation of the following year. Michaelis was Dominican Prior and Inquistor at Aix en Provence and had already served as Vice-Inquisitor at Avignon, being involved in witch trials there in the 1580s that led to the burning of 14 women. In 1610 a case of possession at the Ursuline convent at Aix was handed to him. One of the nuns accused her confessor, a priest, Louis Gaufridi, of being a witch. Other nuns began to show symptoms of possession too. One would talk in a deep voice, another scream obscenities. Despite protesting his innocence Gaufridi was tortured, strangled and his body burned. Note the addition on the title page of our copy from a sceptical reader.

In 1659 Meric Casaubon was pressed into translating and publishing a manuscript belonging to his patron Sir John Cotton, when a guest at his house. This was a handwritten account of the adventures across Europe of Elizabeth I’s court astrologer, John Dee, and one Edward Kelly. Together they visited the courts of Europe, and looked into the ball-shaped glass Dee is shown holding above. There they would transact with spirits, and the results of their conversations are recorded almost in the form of a play script, together with a representation of a holy table, also used to communicate with the beyond. The traditional view is that Dee’s reputation was being exploited by the conman Edward Kelly, who is pictured middle left in the selection of esoteric thinkers above, along with Dee who is bottom right.

The final item displayed was this tale of possession and manifestation from a 17th century Dartmoor village. When the spirit of a Gentleman appears to a servant in a field and badmouths his dead wife, be sure no good can come of it. Laces will writhe like snakes, fire-breathing dogs will appear, horses will fly through windows, flitches of bacon will unhook themselves from the chimney, and terror will reign. Again Scot and other sceptics come in for a good deal of abuse as the anonymous author uses the tale to demonstrate the existence of demonic possession. A slightly abridged version (mainly cutting out a page or two of the aforementioned abuse) of the entire pamphlet was read during the event.

Early printed books cataloguing project

Rare Books Cataloguer Sophie Floate introduces Balliol’s new project to make all of Balliol’s c.20,000 early printed books fully discoverable, and shares some of the highlights so far.

A new project to catalogue the early printed books collection at Balliol to a high standard began in January 2020. Over the years many books have been catalogued onto the University’s shared catalogue, SOLO, but very often these were lacking in the information now considered standard for early printed material, such as more detailed bibliographic information, provenance and binding descriptions. Following on from the Wellcome-funded project to catalogue the library of Nicholas Crouch, it is hoped that the cataloguing of the remainder of the extensive holdings at Balliol will bring new information to light on many aspects of the collection.

As with Crouch’s books, many of the historic bequests to the Library are now dispersed amongst the collection; while there are many sources relating to these bequests in the archives, such as the donations register, it will be much easier to bring this information together once the books are catalogued, allowing the collection to be researched more thoroughly.

Beginning with some of the smallest items in the library I have already encountered books which cover a wide variety of subjects, bindings and previous owners, the latter indicative of many of the discrete collections within the shelves. Books from the collections of Nathaniel Crynes (-1745), George Coningesby (1693-1766) and Henry Norris (whose son, also Henry, matriculated at Balliol in 1828 and who donated the collection) are much in evidence, as well as those given by Edwyn Birchenough (Balliol 1929) and his father, Charles (Balliol 1902) to name but a few. Interesting details are appearing relating to these previous owners: many of Coningesby’s books have manuscript notes and inscriptions by other members of his family, including his mother. He wrote extensive notes on the texts of many of his books, which is another useful way to identify them where they lack more obvious identification such as bookplates.

Tracing the ownership of a book prior to its donation to Balliol also throws up interesting connections, often linking now long-dispersed collections. For example, the Library has a volume (30 a 36) previously owned by Edward Gwynn, whose books have very distinctive bindings and have been reported by many other libraries across the world as detailed by the Folger Library.

The front of Edward Gwynn's distinctive binding with his name gold stamped on brown leather

 

Working along the shelf, book by book, can provide a fascinating glimpse into the wide range of subjects within the collection, since in many early printed collections the books have remained shelved by size, rather than by subject. You might find travel in Jerusalem in the 17th century next to a tract about Waldensian Protestants, or a curious collection of religious texts that purport to have been found inside a fish, John Frith’s Vox piscis:, or,, The book-fish : contayning three treatises which were found in the belly of a cod-fish in Cambridge Market, on Midsummer Eue last, anno Domini 1626. (London, 1627) [30 a 30].

 

Engraved title page of A Journey to Jerusalem
A Journey to Jerusalem: or, a relation of the travels of fourteen English-men, in the year, 1669. : From Scanderoon, to Tripoly, Joppa, Ramah, Jerusalem, Bethlem, Jericho, the River Jordan, the Dead Sea; and back again to Aleppo. (London, 1672) [30 a 22]
Even within the first hundred or so books catalogued, a wide variety of bindings is already apparent, from the plainer sheepskin or calfskin, to more ornately decorated goatskin. Or this example of gilt brocade paper with a design of birds and foliage:

Brocade paper binding with gold birds and leaves on a red ground faded to pink

Somewhat incongruously, inside these covers are two theological works by the controversial Scottish Archbishop Patrick Adamson, printed in the late 16th and early 17th century, but bound a little later and given to the College by Coningesby (30 a 62).

An important part of the cataloguing project is contributing to the ESTC (English Short Title Catalogue) database. The ESTC is a union catalogue which aims to cover letterpress items printed before 1801, in British Isles, Colonial America, USA (1776-1800), Canada or territories governed by Britain in all languages. It also includes items printed in any other part of the world wholly or partly in English (or other British vernaculars) and items with false imprints claiming publication in Britain or its territories.

Any item catalogued which fits into any of the above categories is checked against the catalogue and any discrepancies reported. In the first few months of our project, six items were found not to have Balliol holdings reported, and one item not previously listed on the ESTC at all. This was the third part of the French writer and Protestant exile Pierre Bayles’ “Commentaire philosophique sur ces paroles de Jesus-Chrit [sic] contrain-les d’entrer; Troisiéme partie …” (30 a 16) printed a year after parts 1 and 2 in 1687. Although this part was not reported until now to the ESTC, there are a few other copies worldwide though apparently none in the UK. Its inclusion in the ESTC relates to the false imprint of “Cantorbery” which is probably why it has not appeared until now, as it is not an obviously “English” item. It has apparently long since been considered scarce, as the Balliol copy has a note in a 19th- or early 20th-century hand:
“Very rare 3rd part to go with my other 2 parts in one vol”.

The library also has parts 1 and 2, so is the only library in Oxford to hold a copy of this important work on religious toleration.

Another rare item is a volume of three bound tracts by religious and political controversialist William Sedgwick. Sedgwick studied at Pembroke College in the 1620s and went on to become rector of Farnham, Essex during the civil war period. Although he had impressed Cromwell with his evangelical style, there were doubts relating to his sanity in the following years, leading to his nickname “Doomsday Sedgwick”. However, his tracts about the outbreak of war were fairly balanced in assigning blame to both sides, though some accused him of being a Royalist. The tracts in this volume record his reflections on the whole period of the Civil War and Protectorate but copies are fairly scarce now, with the second bound item “Inquisition for the blood of our late soveraign, in an humble addresse to His most sacred Majesty” (printed in 1660) being one of only three known copies listed in the ESTC.

As the project progresses, it will be fascinating to see what other discoveries lie on the shelves and what we can learn about the history of the collection.

The binders behind the books

We all too often read books without noticing their bindings. Particularly when the books are old, brown volumes like those from Nicholas Crouch’s library. However, the binding as a physical object can tell so many stories: they are the products of seventeenth-century craftsmanship, and through the leather or the sewing structure, the decorated edges and the coloured endbands, we can read so much more beyond the pages.

Book conservators are well trained in how to read a book’s binding for clues as to its history. We trace materials and techniques to particular places and times, reading repairs and damage as indicators of how the object has been used. In conservation work, we document each object that comes into the studio: taking note of how it is sewn, its size, materials used. For the Nicholas Crouch project, the documentation took the form of digital spreadsheets, allowing us to build up a body of data on the collection. By the end of the project, we had documented 132 volumes.  This data is now available to researchers by contacting Balliol Library.

One of Crouch’s legacies to us, are his detailed contents pages that list not only the items and their costs, but also the cost of the binding, and in some cases who the binder was and the date of the binding. By including these notes in the object documentation, we were able to link specific named binders with the decorative tools on the cover, sewing style, and edge decoration. These markers can be read like binders’ signatures, and by building up a body of data, patterns and comparisons could be drawn up throughout the collection. Here are some of the binders that can be traced in Crouch’s books

Dollive

Alum tawed sewing supports, sometimes cord; edge colouring on all edges.

binder 2

Ingram

Alum tawed or tanned sewing supports; head and tail edges sprinkled, fore edge coloured (red, plain).

binder 2

Terrill

Alum tawed sewing supports; edge colouring on all edges (blue, red, yellow)

binder 3

Doe

Mostly cord sewing supports; head and tail edges sprinkled, for edge coloured (red, yellow)

binder 4

By Nikki Tomkins
Project Conservator

Anatomy of a binding

Each aspect of a book’s binding holds information about its history:  from the materials used, to the mechanical structure. A key part of this project is documenting specific aspects of Crouch’s bindings, both to understand their damage and to trace the history of the collection.

The following diagram illustrates some of the key components of a binding:

Key components of a binding (Sketch and photograph by Nikki Tomkins)

Book bindings can vary hugely, and often certain styles and techniques will be specific to one bindery. Crouch’s collection was probably commissioned by Crouch himself, from an Oxford binder. There are clear stylistic similarities throughout the collection. The following diagrams illustrate some of the typical features of a Crouch binding:

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However, among these common stylistic features there is still a great deal of variation: from the tool of the corner fleuron used, to the material of the sewing support and the colours of the endbands.

Examples of different tools used (Sketch and photograph by Nikki Tomkins)
Examples of different tools used

A selection of Crouch bindings displayed fore edge out, as they were probably intended to be (Photograph by Nikki Tomkins)
A selection of Crouch bindings displayed fore edge out, as they were probably intended to be

Each of these details are documented when an item comes into the studio in order to build up a body of data on the bindings and begin to trace a timeline of when, where and how they were bound together. It will teach us a little more about the mind of Nicholas Crouch, a man who evidently took pride in the organisation of his collection.

By Nikki Tomkins
Project Conservator

Illuminated Incunabula

Most people are familiar with illumination, the beautiful colours and intricate elaborations of initials and margins in medieval manuscripts. But it is less common to come across illuminated printed books.

A four-volume incunabula set of the Bible with commentary, Biblia cum postillis Nicola de Lyra, in Balliol Library is an example of this rarer illumination from the early days of the hand press.

This edition of the Vulgate Bible was published in Venice in 1481 by the master printer, Nicholas Jenson. The volumes were evidently owned by one Henry Clifford, though his signature appears to be 15th century.

clifford-signature
‘Henricus Clifford me possidet’: inscription on first leaf of volume 1 (Photo: Balliol College Library)

One assumes that to own this set of books so soon after the invention of printing Clifford would have been a wealthy man. One candidate might be Henry Clifford, tenth Baron Clifford (1454–1523), who, the Dictionary of National Biography  notes, was ‘…not just literate but even bookish, owning volumes on law and medicine, and developing a taste for astronomy and alchemy’. However the books themselves have no other marks of ownership.

The illuminations are a reminder how much the printed book borrowed from the manuscript. It was usual for print fonts to emulate handwriting. Here, this additional characteristic of the manuscript is borrowed.

There is one striking feature of the pattern of illuminations: many are incomplete, some hardly started. While some glitter lavishly others are no more than the rough drafts in black ink.

Clearly there is a story contained in this set that we will never be privy to. Why break off halfway through? Was this some sort of practice set that was never intended to be finished? The more complete illuminations seem to have had too much trouble taken over them for that. Did the illuminator who took on the job simply die before he could finish? But then why did the owner not go to someone else to finish the job? Or was it the owner himself who died, the gospels being laid to one side in the craftsman’s workshop and ultimately forgotten?

We will never know. The rather rough and ready plain paper-covered boards, a dull purple familiar in Oxford college libraries, suggests that their later history was not as grand as it once had been.

Cover and binding of Biblia cum postillis Nicola de Lyra Vol 4 (Photo: Balliol College Library)

Balliol College Library shelfmark 595 c 1-4

By Jeremy Hinchliff

A golden hind

Martin Bucer’s Scripta Anglicana (1577)

Our copy of Martin Bucer’s Scripta Anglicana (1577) came via the large bequest of Sir Thomas Wendy in 1677. The gold-tooled centrepiece on the boards of this book shows a ‘hind statant’. It is believed this is the armorial device of the Hatton family, politicians and bibliophiles of the 16th and 17th century. Books from their collections can be found in a number of college libraries in Oxford.

Sir Christopher Hatton (1540-1591) helped finance Sir Francis Drake’s voyages of circumnavigation from 1577-1580. In 1580 Drake changed the name of his vessel mid-voyage from The Pelican to The Golden Hinde to honour Hatton.

Identification by Paul W. Nash