Treasure under a desert sun

Nicola Freegard shares her research in Balliol’s Historic Collections and the remarkable story of the gift that she gave to the College in return:

The annual car enthusiasts’ yard sale was an unexpected stop for me that winter day in 2015.  Set up outside on the pavement around the Shriner Temple, just a few hundred yards from my home in Tucson, Arizona, lay a collection of old army jeeps, 50’s cars, bumpers and unrecognizable pieces of car parts and road signs for avid collectors.  Under the cover of a torn tarp, shadowing a warm winter desert sun, I came across a small, brown leather-bound book laying hidden in a plastic crate of car parts.  Excited by my find, I flipped the book open and saw the brown ink of verse fall across a page, and quickly closed it. Instinctively, I rushed enthusiastically to purchase it when the seller said his asking price was $5.00, and the only information I got from him was, “That one’s old.”  I tucked it in my handbag and hurried home.

Back in my writing studio, I cautiously opened the book and began to read.  The pages were clearly legible and unfaded, lightly yellowed with age and filled with a beautiful, cursive handwriting, permeated with the dusky aroma of another time. At the top of the inner first page was the handwritten year 1797, and a name: ‘Fanny Merivale’.  The first entry was a poem – “The Exile” – and the entry dated March 1797. The notebook contained around 80 pages of poetry and verse.  Some original, some (as I later discovered) by the writer’s brother, John Hermann Merivale, and some by Robert Burns, Lord Byron and other popular poets of the day. The authors of some still remain mysterious.  Over the coming months, I would spend hours researching through ancestry sites to find any information I could that would help me understand who Fanny Merivale was and why this journal was in Tucson.

After an extensive google search, I stumbled upon the digitized materials of Balliol College Library which mentioned her name in a ‘Family Memorial’.   This book, documented by several generations, covered her ancestry through her grandparents, parents, her siblings and then her nephew and niece.  I read it hungrily from cover to cover, learning about the family secrets, hardships and celebrations, and fascinated by the vivid descriptions of a warm and loving young Frances (Fanny).  I was now led deep into a story of a family that intrigued me. I found myself impossibly entwined because, as I dug further, I discovered we held some blurred connections which gave cause to wonder –  had Fanny been reaching out that day to me, to pull her from the box of car parts?

Being British born and having emigrated to the United States in the early 1980’s myself, I was also drawn into the provenance of the book and how it had arrived, in a box of discarded items, in this small Arizona city.  Every friend I told the story to, had asked me, “But how did it get to Tucson?”  I was not able to reach out to the man who had sold it to me at the yard sale, and I felt some guilt because I had not done my due diligence in asking more questions.  I had to dig deeper.

My curiosity only grew when I learned Fanny had lived just a few streets away from my father’s house in Highgate, London; albeit 230 years earlier.  Her nephew had attended the very same small school, in Hertfordshire, that my father and brother had attended, when it had made its transition from the East India Company College to the public school that is now known as Haileybury. Her nephew had walked the same cloisters as they.  Her mother was a German who had moved to England, as was mine.  Frances had spent holidays in Hastings, East Sussex (then the hot new tourist destination for Londoners looking for some fresh sea air) where my mother also had been living for the past 40 years.   There were enough parallels to get my attention and lead me to pursue the idea of unravelling Frances Merivale’s story, with a creative purpose of seeking out a motive for either a book or screenplay treatment. Perhaps, had I found this notebook in a market stall in England, I would have been less surprised by our comparative connections; but it was undeniably remarkable that my fellow countrywoman had appeared in Tucson two centuries later, echoing similarities of my own family story.

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‘Sonnet by Miss Hole — 1793’ – one of several poems attributed to female authors in Frances Merivale’s commonplace book.

In 2016 I wrote to an email address on the Balliol College Library website to discuss this notebook.  The curator responded with interest.  Subsequently, on my next visit to London, I made the journey to Oxford with my then 14-year-old son to take the notebook to the curator for review, and to confirm that it was authentic, and not my imagination playing tricks.  The added experience of sharing the history of Balliol College and Oxford’s libraries with my son was worth the long journey.   This small purchase led us to stand in front of an impressive exhibition, on display at the Bodleian, of the original Magna Carta, as well as first and second edition William Shakespeare publications, making it a memory which is now etched into our own collective family experience.  My son put down his phone.  He took notice of the grand scheme of things, and as a parent, it felt like an event of immense value.   Even he, with his American teenage attitude, was impressed by this experience.  It was the moment when it occurred to me that this was the best $5.00 I’d ever spent!

Over the following two years, my research continued whenever possible.  The curator at Balliol confirmed the common notebook’s authenticity, inspiring further reading through a multitude of digitized documents. I was led through the tranquil life of Frances Merivale’s childhood in Devon, when she had started the notebook, to its final entry of verse in July 1816, entitled “Lines on the Splendid Funeral of R. B. Sheridan”. This was penned shortly after her sister’s own death, which was, by accounts, a tragic and life changing loss to Frances, throwing her into deep depression.  It was this that sparked the family’s need to help her move on, and after introductions, she was proposed to by a young man who was recently widowed, John Lewis Mallet.    There was record of an etching completed by Frances (a competent art student) held in archive at the Tate Gallery.  Reading further of her brother’s close friendship with Lord Byron at Cambridge, her family life, and her eventual marriage to John Lewis, son of the renowned French political journalist of the time, Jacques Mallet du Pan, I was compelled to continue.

Through those digitized files held in Balliol’s Historic Collections, I was able to research her childhood home, discovering portraits of her father, husband and family members (although sadly, I have not yet found a portrait of Frances).  I read in detail about her tranquil life before marriage, then about the move to her first married home in Russell Square, where she wrote descriptively of the fields that surrounded them when they first moved in – now hard to imagine; I learned of the subsequent and final home she shared with her husband for the last half of her life, not far from Windmill Hill.

She was raised into a society filled with art and poetry, like many young women of her day, yet she was surrounded with some of the most eminent creatives of her era, and the influence of that was deeply evident.   As a writer in research, I was driven to find something more than her quiet life in Exeter, and her painting excursions along the muddy banks of the River Exe.  Her young adult life was tranquil and full of love for her family.  However, I did not want to recreate Little Women.  Frances’ life was a period piece captured with both charm and comfort.

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Frances Merivale’s commonplace book includes poems by famous writers such as Robert Burns.

This past summer, I took a leap of faith and funded a trip specifically with the purpose of going deeper.  Research required I go to Balliol’s Historic Collections in St Cross Church in person.  With the help of the library staff, I spent a focused week pouring over the sections of the Mallet family archives that related to Frances and John Lewis Mallet in person.  Not really knowing what to expect or find, I was treasure hunting again, reading many letters (mostly scribed in French in very tiny spidery penmanship).  A few days in, among the boxes of letters and transcripts, lay the autobiography of the story that captured me.

Frances had led me here to her husband, John Lewis Mallet, who in later life served as a rising star of the Whig party and a respectable civil servant of colonial Britain.  Mallet had published an autobiographical book specifically for his family’s own reading and sense of their place in history, outlining a compelling story of his life as a young man, at the beginning of violent change in his then home town of Paris, in 1792. Here he stood alongside his father, Jacques Mallet du Pan, who, under strict instruction from Napoleon, was to be executed or exiled from France in response to the publication of du Pan’s liberal published journal criticizing the Revolution. The Revolutionary Tribunal at the Bastion in 1794 was the turning point for John Lewis (then John Louis) and his father, whose friends included Voltaire, among other influential philosophers. In du Pan’s own words: “Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.”  Father and son fled Paris on foot in the dark of night, leaving family and friends, in the hopes that they could seek refuge within Switzerland, the birthplace of Jacques Mallet du Pan, with a loose plan to reunite with loved ones later.  Without a firm destination, John Louis recounts his story as a young man finding his place in an upturned world, with a tough journey of self-discovery, but also of his passage towards a new life in a vastly changing Europe.

Because of Balliol’s Library resources, an intimate world opened wide, and travels to locations I was compelled to experience through his eyes:  Geneva, Switzerland, Northern Italy, Paris, France as well as my home town of London.  The depth of my subjects’ own words, the descriptions of the times and textures of the characters surrounding them, breathed life into this valuable history lesson, and insight into the suffering that occurred through the rise of nationalism. He eloquently revealed how the Revolution unfurled a particular cruelty among the nobles and working class of Europe. These documents have provided me with a complex foundation for the story that I became inspired to tell by this research. My work is still in process as I write this, and I anticipate its first draft completion in the coming year.

Balliol’s Historic Collections have provided me the luxury to delve into a deeply personal creative experience and uncover a moving historical personal story of courage and strength in a time of far reaching social and political upheaval.   Without such archives, I have no doubt I would have held onto Frances Merivale’s common place book, and it would have remained in my own library, another remnant of an unknown and disconnected past collecting dust. Because it sparked curiosity, it has given so much in return.   I am still working on the ‘How did it get to Tucson?’ part, and that may end up revealing itself soon.  I’ve learned that several of the Mallet family future generations also emigrated to the United States in the late nineteenth century.  Another parallel I could not brush off.  I will continue to follow this lead as I work on the next chapters.

I had no plan to become a savant of the Mallet family when I started this journey.  It’s the fourth year into the project, and now the Mallets have become a part of my everyday life –  a reminder that their history is entwined in our present; that the common experience of social upheaval set 200 years earlier is not much different than the current political climate.   They are now familiar friends from another time; discovered through a notebook found in a box of car parts under the desert sun.  This commonplace book now resides in the care of Balliol’s Historic Collections, digitized to share, where it will remain in safe keeping with the remnants of Frances’ letters and the volumes of work of the Mallets family archives. Now I am telling their story.

We are grateful to Nicola Freegard for her discovery and subsequent gift. Frances Merivale’s commonplace book is now Manuscript 477 in Balliol’s Historic Collections. It has been fully conserved and digitised by the Oxford Conservation Consortium, with a view to making the images available online in future.

 

 

Cataloguing Crouch: detective work

Much of Nicholas Crouch’s library exists as bound volumes which include between two and fifty distinct bibliographic works. These Sammelbände have been kept together in Balliol College Library since at least 1799, shelved among other tract volumes with varied provenance. Within this collection, Crouch’s books are frequently easy to identify due to his meticulous hand-written contents lists; other typical stylistic features of a Crouch binding are described here.

Many of Crouch’s donations to the college were recorded in the Library Benefactions Book, which provides a list of 319 volumes acquired by the library upon Crouch’s death in 1690. However, we know from comparing the records in the Benefactions Book to the items catalogued so far that not all of Crouch’s books were bequeathed at this time. In particular, many of the Crouch volumes composed of 16th century texts are not listed in the Benefactions Book.

Crouch’s name and bequest are recorded in elaborate calligraphy (Balliol College Library Benefactions Book, page 194)
Crouch’s name and bequest are recorded in elaborate calligraphy (Balliol College Library Benefactions Book, page 194)

At present we don’t know precisely when these unlisted items arrived in the library. A small gift of two volumes is recorded in 1656 as ‘P. Fronseca Metaphysica’, but other than this we haven’t found evidence of additional donations from Crouch. One possibility is that Crouch was also purchasing texts for the college library, and that certain volumes were chosen by him but not intended for his personal collection.

From the descriptions, around half of the Crouch items listed in the Benefactions Book appear to be Sammelbände. These volumes are frequently listed as ‘A Collect. of Tracts’, followed by a description of the first (or ‘ye 1st’) item in the volume.

Many items in the Crouch bequest are listed as ‘A Collect. of Tracts’; others are entered under author and title (Balliol College Library Benefactions Book, page 195)
Many items in the Crouch bequest are listed as ‘A Collect. of Tracts’; others are entered under author and title (Balliol College Library Benefactions Book, page 195)

The remainder of the Crouch books are listed under author and title. These works are scattered throughout Balliol’s collections, frequently uncatalogued. Because they contain only a single bibliographical item, they lack Crouch’s distinctive contents lists and are often more difficult to definitively identify.

One characteristic of many of the Crouch volumes catalogued so far is an early shelfmark in the style:

[format] [capital letter] [number]

These shelfmarks appear to be inscribed in Crouch’s distinctive hand:

Shelfmarks side by side with Crouch MS
(Balliol College Library shelfmarks 910 b 8, 300 i 9, 905 c 1, 915 c 7)

Seeking out these shelfmarks will allow us to confirm the Crouch donations recorded in the Benefactions Book, and to identify volumes not listed there. The shelfmarks may also give us clues as to how Crouch arranged his personal library. It’s estimated that there are between 100-200 Crouch books to be located in this way. These volumes will be gathered together and catalogued as part of the current project, and kept with the Sammelbände. In this way, the majority of Crouch’s library will be reunited for the first time in 300 years.

By Lucy Kelsall
Project Cataloguer

Reconstructing Nicholas Crouch

A Wellcome Trust-funded project to restore a 17th-century library

December 1634: Nicholas Crouch, a 16-year-old from a small hamlet just north of Luton, Bedfordshire, arrives in the city of Oxford to enrol at the University.

July 1690: He dies at Balliol College, his home for the intervening 56 years. He leaves a collection of books that encompasses the intellectual, spiritual and political life of the turbulent middle years of the 17th century. Balliol College Library’s donor register records 319 volumes which he left to the College on his death; and other volumes in his library, probably given during his lifetime, are identifiable by their similar bindings and his handwriting inside them. His total library consists of an estimated 4,000 separate titles.

July 2016: Supported by a Wellcome Trust grant, the College embarks on an ambitious project to make this collection of books accessible through cataloguing and conservation.

Nicholas Crouch was a true 17th-century character. His books, diary, notes and prescription books, all surviving at Balliol, show that he studied and practised medicine, perhaps as a politically neutral subject after supporting the losing side in the English Civil War. The minutes of the Philosophical Society of Oxford also show him joining in with contemporary scientific experimentation and debate; at the gathering on 19 January 1686 he ‘acquainted ye Society, that in ye Abdomen of Mr Hodges, who lately died of a dropsie, 7 gallons of watery humor were found’ (Gunther, R.T., Early Science in Oxford, (Oxford, 1925), v.4, pp. 171).

Typically for his times, his interest in medicine did not limit his reading to scientific publishing. Alongside medical books in his library there are also plenty of political, literary, and religious texts. Most of the titles in his library are bound together in groups of anything up to about 65 short texts. For example, in one book a catalogue of medical books is sandwiched between two catalogues of theological works, one in English, one in French. Crouch’s collection shows medicine from a 17th-century perspective, at the nexus of science, politics and religion – a vision that is often obscured by today’s more distinct disciplines. It is hoped that once the project is complete, medical humanities researchers will be able to use Crouch’s library to explore the connections between disciplines in the 17th century.

The short publications that make up the bulk of Crouch’s library are of an ephemeral nature and the cataloguing project has already found items that are completely unique to Balliol’s collection, so demonstrating the desirability of having this collection fully catalogued.

Entry in Crouch's hand in Balliol College Lease Book (Photo: Catherine Casson)
Entry in Crouch’s hand in Balliol College Lease Book (photo: Catherine Casson)

Nicholas Crouch played a major part in the life of Balliol College. His handwriting appears frequently in contemporary records in the College Archives and the survival of many of them may be down to his meticulous administration.

His attention to detail extends to his library, where he has left a treasure trove of book history in the form of handwritten contents pages for each volume, detailing what he spent on each title, how much it cost to bind the whole, and sometimes even the name of the binder.

Handwritten contents and costs note in one of Crouch's pamphlet volumes (Photo: Lucy Kelsall)

Project staff – cataloguer Lucy Kelsall and conservator Nikki Tomkins – will spend a year working to achieve a much higher level of accessibility for Crouch’s books. Lucy’s cataloguing will allow researchers to find all the titles in Crouch’s amazing library on the University’s public catalogue (SOLO), including details of the rich copy-specific information such as the handwritten contents pages. Nikki’s conservation will allow us to use the collection without fear of damaging it and make sure it is preserved for posterity. The benefits of the project will extend beyond academia helping Balliol to make the most of the collection’s potential for public exhibitions, school sessions and University teaching, so benefitting a wide range of audiences.

By Naomi Tiley, Librarian at Balliol College

 

How Bede’s Works came to Balliol: a sidelight on the Reformation

Tracing the trajectory of an early edition of Bede’s Works from Hailes Abbey, dissolved under Henry VIII, to Balliol Library

Manuscript additions on the title page of this book provide a little snapshot of English Reformation history. It is an edition of Bede’s Latin Works ([Paris]: Josse Badius, 1521). Abbot Stephen Whalley (or Sagar) of Hailes Abbey had acquired this volume of Bede’s works in 1538 and written his name at the head of the title page, as this detail shows:

‘Ex exempc[i]o[n]e dompini Stephani Whalley abb[at]is de heyles pro domo cap[itu]lari 1538.’
[Purchased by master Stephen Whalley, abbot of Heyles, for the chapterhouse 1538.]

The abbot's ownership inscription replaced by Grisset's donation note
The abbot’s ownership inscription replaced by Griffith’s donation note  (Photo: Paris O’Donnell)

By the year of acquisition, 1538, the dissolution of English monasteries by Henry VIII was under way.

Hailes Abbey was home to a popular relic, a phial of blood thought to have been collected from the dying Christ. This attracted huge numbers of pilgrims, to the consternation of the reforming Bishop of Worcester, Hugh Latimer. The relic was investigated and declared a fake in 1538. By the following year, Stephen, the last abbot of Hailes, had surrendered the abbey to Henry’s men.

Stephen’s title-page inscription was then supplanted by the donation note of John Griffith, probably an alumnus of Balliol, who donated the book to the College.

The note reads: ‘Liber collegii ballioli ex dono d[o]m[ini] Joh[ann]is Gryffyt’. Griffith’s inscription (‘Ioh[ann]es Gryffytt’) is repeated at the foot of the title page.

John Grissett’s ownership inscription
John Grissett’s ownership inscription (Photo: Paris O’Donnell)

Griffith’s donation is noted in Balliol’s benefactions book (below), and seems to have taken place between 1540 and 1543.

Detail from benefactions book  (Photo: Paris O'Donnell)

Balliol College Library shelfmark 30 f 115

Caxton fragment

A single leaf from one of the very earliest books printed in Britain, Caxton’s 1477 Canterbury Tales

The leaf was donated to the Library in 1965. There are traces of earlier provenance on the front pastedown (it was bound between gold-printed paper-covered boards in the 19th century) but they do not shed much light on the fragment’s pre-19th-century history.

This fragment, leaf 191, is slight in itself but represents a landmark of early English printing history, and inspires several questions about authenticity and origins.

Authenticity

The leaf’s authenticity is not certain. The print is still remarkably black: Caxton’s ink quality is well-known and weathers well.

Caxton leaf type detail

The paper, by contrast, betrays its age. Its discolouration is not surprising given its detachment from protective neighbouring pages. Our fragment spans the end of the Clerk’s tale and the Franklin’s prologue: not an especially desirable passage to forge. The profile of line endings exactly matches the equivalent leaf in a British Library copy (which is digitised and online).

Forgery or facsimile?

It is conceivable that our leaf may be the work of a facsimilist. Some facsimilists were lauded for their skills in producing reproductions of early printing. John Harris (1791-1873), for example, received commissions from celebrated collectors Earl Spencer (1758-1834) and George III (1738-1820). These men, along with respectable institutions like the British Museum, commissioned facsimile leaves to replace absent leaves in their copies of valuable editions. Harris’ processes for creating facsimiles, far from being a shameful secret, were described by him for publication in 1852 with details of both his hand-drawn and lithographic methods. Indeed, among other copies of this edition, those at the British Library, John Rylands and Folger Libraries contain pen-and-ink facsimiles of missing pages (see the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue).

Theories of detachment

If this is not a facsimile, why does only one leaf survive? It is a little grubby, true, but there is no sign of water damage or buckling. The survival of this single leaf, in good condition, suggests that the rest of the text block did not disintegrate around it, but was severed from it.

Is it the legacy of a form of early print trophy-hunting, such as the fashion for leaf books at the turn of the last century? E. Gordon Duff’s William Caxton (1905) was issued with single leaves from this very edition. The Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC) records that many other European and North American libraries hold one or a few leaves of the same edition.

Or perhaps our single leaf is related to the practice of completing or ‘sophisticating’ incomplete books? Among the half-dozen copies of the 1477 edition of Chaucer in British Libraries according to ISTC is another Oxford copy, at Merton. Merton College is blessed with not only a superb library but a thorough antiquarian catalogue. In their record we find a suggestive explanation for the detachment of individual leaves. Merton’s copy was rebound in 1815 by Charles Lewis of London ‘on the recommendation of Lord Spencer’ (probably the same Earl Spencer who was John Harris’s client). The record quotes from Merton College’s Register for 17 May 1815:

It is agreed that the Warden be requested to thank Lord Spencer for his great kindness to them, in permitting them to take from His Lordship’s mutilated duplicate of Caxton’s 1st edition of Chaucer, any leaves that might supply the deficiencies in the copy belonging to the College Library, and which upon collation, did supply them with one leaf, out of the three that are wanting …

Earl Spencer was a recipient of leaves for incomplete books as well as a donor. In 1810, the antiquary Francis Douce had agreed – unhappily – for leaves to be removed from his copy of another Caxton, the Golden Legend, for insertion into the Earl’s own copy. This ‘gift’, Douce estimated, increased the value of the Earl’s copy by £100.

This practice is now frowned on by most bibliographers because it disrupts this historical evidence of a book’s production. It was common before the 19th century, though. Extensive collections of ‘orphan’ leaves still surface from time to time, relics of an age in which the completion of almost-perfect copies using collections of fragments was commonplace.

Bibliography and further reading

  • Freeman, A. (1982). ‘The workshop of T.J. Wise.’ Times Literary Supplement, 17 September 1982: 990
  • Freeman, A. (2008). ‘Everyman and others, part I: some fragments of early English printing, and their preservers.’ The Library, 7th series, 9(3): 267-305
  • Harris, J. (1852). ‘Account of creating facsimiles of early printing’. In Reports by the juries on the subjects in the thirty classes into which the exhibition was divided. London: Royal Commission, p. 405
  • Jensen, K. (2011). Revolution and the antiquarian books: reshaping the past, 1780-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Silver, J. (2004). ‘Beyond the basics: leaf books.’ Fine Books and Collections, September/October 2004. [Online journal article]. Accessed 2 May, 2012