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.

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

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