A 1595 Geneva Bible at Northwestern . . . and water damage

In this post, I’ll give you all a look into the Humanities Without Walls project I’m piloting this summer, “Renaissance Books, Midwestern Libraries.” (With a little luck, this’ll be the first of several installments.) Thanks to the instrumental help of my research assistants Hannah Bredar, Erin Nelson, and Nicole Sheriko, as well as the constant aid of librarians and faculty at Northwestern and elsewhere, I’m proud to say that thus far the project has almost tripled number of Northwestern’s early print holdings (from 1473 to 1700) represented in the ESTC. When we began there were only 188 items registered, and now there are 555. With a couple months of the summer ahead of us, as well as a good portion of Fall term allotted to the project, we aim to raise this number even higher, bringing Northwestern’s Special Collections holdings digitally to the view of scholars searching today’s most extensive bibliographic catalog for early printed books. Ideally, a second round of funding will allow the project to expand into our eighteenth-century holdings and out to other institutions as well.

100_3776A particularly interesting item that I had to page at Special Collections (meaning it was a “hard case,” unmatchable to an ESTC record by online catalog consultation alone) is this raggy old Geneva Bible, published by Christopher Barker in 1595. I photographed the Bible like this because its front matter and final few leaves have been lost, as have many leaves and portions of leaves throughout its entirety. (Northwestern’s catalog reads: “NUL copy incomplete: t.p. and numerous pages missing at beginning and end, many pages mutilated.”) Looking at the ESTC records in the hopes of a match, I could not identify an edition of Barker’s Geneva Bible of 1595 that fit perfectly with this item. That could mean one of a few things. First, it could be me: I might just need to devote more time to the volume in the hopes of matching it with the variant details listed in the ESTC. Second, though, it could be that this is an extant state of a particular edition that has yet to be recorded. This can sometimes be the case. That the date on the “NEWE TESTAMENT” title page is not dated 1594 made this seem a possibility; the title page is dated 1595 here. (STC 2161 has”Newe” and is dated 1594.) Third, there may not yet be enough criteria available in the ESTC that survives in this very fragmentary Bible to verify it as belonging to any particular record.


But let’s take a look at the really interesting part of this book: its messy survival condition. I defer to Aaron Pratt when it comes to early printed Bibles, but this particular one interested me enough for me to write a few things here about its history and provenance. As you can see in the photos I’ve included, certain early owners of the book inscribed their names in it and crossed out the names of previous owners; this is a common practice among Renaissance readers. I held the leaves this way to show how the manuscript annotations, pen-trials, and markings in this book add to an already-rich typographical texture  (see the cartographic woodcut on the mangled verso, as well as the woodblock initial beginning Matthew).

100_3775Especially interesting about this book is the provenance it preserves through a nineteenth-century owner’s note slipped into the first few leaves. According to the note, inscribed sometime between 1865 and 1873, the book was probably purchased by Samuel Winsor and Rhoda Delano Winsor of Duxbury, MA shortly after their marriage in 1746. Here, we get not only an account of the former owners of the book, but the means by which the pages were made yellow and damaged (as you can see in another photo I’ve included here, the vellum binding covering the book has also suffered a gaping hole). It’s not too often that we get this level of detail about a book’s use, neglect, and “injury”:

It is not age that caused
the leaves to turn so yellow
but during the Winter of 1857
it was packed in a trunk with
clothing, the trunks stored in
a basement in Washington. St Boston;
the water pipes burst, were not
attended to, when every thing became
filled with dampness & injured this book.


Having once lived not very far from Washington Street in Boston, and having stored my clothing and books in the basement there, I can definitely sympathize with the Winsors! Strangely though, as you can see in the photo above, this portion of the inscription is crossed out. We find out at the bottom of the inserted leaf that the person responsible for the inscription is “the daughter of Job & Betsy Winsor Sampson, who was the daughter of Sam & Rhoda Winsor.” This was either Betsy or Judith, and knowing this helps us to date the inscription. (Ancestry.com provided a substantial amount of help here in clarifying identities and relationships mentioned in this account.)

So, altogether, what I report here is a small portion of this HWW project that concerns a particular book’s provenance and water-damage history. But stories like these, as Andrew Stauffer repeatedly has said, constitute the hidden histories of books both in Special Collections libraries and in the library stacks. They show how Renaissance books accumulate eighteenth- and nineteenth-century histories as well. Maybe one day I’ll dig into the history of this Bible’s passage from Massachusetts to Evanston — unless someone out there wants to do it first, that is. Until then, there will be numerous other stories, family-related and otherwise, to uncover about men and women and their lives with Renaissance books.

Photos here are published courtesy of the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections at Northwestern University; this item is shelfmark 220.52 1595. Renaissance Books, Midwestern Libraries is supported directly by the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, The Graduate School, and Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University. This program is also supported by the Humanities Without Walls consortium, based at the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The Humanities Without Walls consortium is funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

*** Update 2:24 PM CT on 7-9-14: On Twitter, Aaron Pratt explained that this artifact is in fact STC 2166.

News: “Renaissance Books, Midwestern Libraries”

As some of you may know, I recently received a grant through the “Global Midwest” Humanities Without Walls Initiative. A Mellon-funded program, HWW unites humanities centers at 15 research universities in the Midwest and is designed to stimulate inter-institutional collaboration. (You can read more about it here.)HWW-Logo-web

The project I proposed, “Renaissance Books, Midwestern Libraries,” hopes to do two things over the next few months: 1) register Northwestern’s Special Collections holdings, at least for now the printed matter issued 1473-1700, in the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC); and 2) develop relationships among HWW-institution faculty, graduates, and undergraduates who have investments in some combination of Renaissance literature, book history, and digital humanities. You can find my sub-page on the HWW Wiki here.

I’m very happy to report that I just got the project off the ground  this week. My highly-recommended research assistants Erin Nelson, Nicole Sheriko, and Hannah Bredar recently joined me for an orientation session outlining the project’s objectives and workflow. As I mentioned, our task will be to register about 2600 early printed books into the ESTC, thereby putting our institution’s rare books “on the map” for scholars and students around the country and around the world. This is done by the process of matching, or correctly identifying and updating records on the ESTC’s back-end based on a carefully curated list of our holdings. Special care must be taken in the case of multiple issues or states, fragmentary printed matter, sammelbände, and incorrect catalog information (should we be able to pick it out). Modern facsimiles require some caution as well, since NU’s catalog does not always designate them as such (for instance, the Upcott typographical facsimile of Shakespeare’s First Folio [1807] is dated “1632” in the library record.)  Discussing these “hard cases” in the Special Collections reading room was one of the purposes of our orientation sessions. At this stage, I have divided the first 1600 items between the four of us, and although Erin and Nicole will be working remotely for the majority of the job, Hannah and I will be on point to verify a record in the archive, if need be. (And need there will be.) You can expect to read about some of our triumphs and challenges here.

I’ve  also begun to communicate with scholars at a few other Midwestern institutions about the prospect of spreading this effort. If you feel your institution’s Special Collections holdings aren’t well-represented in the ESTC (or, if you just don’t know what you have), feel free to get in touch. Ideally, this initiative will be able to demonstrate that the Midwest is actually a profoundly good place to study Renaissance book history (or, to do rare book research more broadly).

I’ll close here with a few key thank-yous. I’m very grateful to Northwestern’s Kaplan Institute for the Humanities for bringing this project into being. I also have Ben Pauley (Eastern Connecticut State U), Ginger Schilling (UC-Riverside), and Northwestern Special Collections Librarians Sigrid Perry, Gary Strawn, and Scott Krafft for their diligence, patience, and encouragement. Gary was instrumental in providing a list of NU’s Special Collections holdings, and Sigrid has provided critical help since the consultation stage. And of course, I’m indebted to the usual suspects in the Department of English, as well as my wonderful assistant book historians, Erin, Nicole, and Hannah, who will likely be adding guest postings here about what they find during the course of their work.

Typography and Obscenity: The Case of John Donne’s “The Flea”

More or less out of use since the end of the eighteenth century and the contemporaneous transition to machine-press printing, the “long s” occupied for centuries a curious but consequential position in the third line of John Donne’s three-stanza poem “The Flea.” Below is an image of the first stanza as it appeared in the Poems volume of 1633:


To many modern readers and critics, the third line of this poem — a poem concerned with seduction, sex, and the mingling body fluids of a lover and the beloved — includes a kind of visual pun. The “long s,” only narrowly distinguishable from the letter “f,” invites an alternative reading imbued with obscenity. The unstable textual condition of Donne’s manuscripts is well-known to us now, but this “long s” points suggestively to the ways in which the typographical fortunes of Donne’s lyric could also provide a particular kind of textual malleability — that is, they could furnish, and continue to furnish, readers with multiple approaches to gender, sexuality, and desire. In today’s post I will trace — if in a cursory manner — the “long history” of this “long s,” and I will argue that its ambiguity illustrates one way in which typography can destabilize and reconstitute a poetic speaker’s sexuality and desire before new reading audiences (and critics).

A quick Google search for “donne,” “flea,” and “long s” reveals that this typographical ambiguity is widely known, if not completely obvious, although a few Donne scholars have addressed it in some detail. (Surely, more than I mention here.) In a discussion of the shifting spatial and temporal dimensions of Donne’s verse, Thomas Docherty suggests that this visual sign, fostered by print, “opens the poem . . . to an immediately titillating ambiguity” in the service of a masculinist project (54). Taking an alternative stance, Susannah B. Mintz argues that this stanza and its ambiguity suggest Donne’s play with gender:

Coursing beneath the overt terms of the seduction is a longing to do the passive thing, not just to penetrate but to be ‘pampered,’ not simply to suck but to be sucked (with the implications both of being nursed and of being ‘fucked’). (584)

These claims evince some clear opposition. While Docherty recognizes the poem’s “long s” alongside “the phallic apprehension of the female body” (58), Mintz encourages readers to view the typographical crux as showcasing jouissance and a challenge to fixed gender categories. These comments, thought brief and made somewhat in passing, fit into a larger debate about Donne and his sexuality. Rehearsing the terms of this debate, Rebecca Ann Bach attempts to break apart what she views as a consensus about Donne’s heterosexuality:

Not only will I suggest that Donne was not a heterosexual, I will also argue that, pace [Catherine] Belsey, [Richard] Halpern, and [Benjamin] Saunders, heterosexuality was not emergent in 1609 when Donne was writing his poetry. (261-62)

Bach suggests that the broader corpus of Donne’s poetry and prose — Holy Sonnets, sermons, &c — evinces a non-modern attitude toward sexuality that is religiously invested, Augustinian in nature, and often deeply misogynistic. This attitude leaves little room, she says, for egalitarian relationships between men and women.

Keeping all this in mind, I’m now going to sideline this debate, investigating — in a manner much more provocative than exhaustive — the typographical instability of “The Flea”‘s third line in relation to these recent conversations about the poet’s sexuality. Such an investigation, if carried out more fully, would join with recent calls to recognize more thoroughly the ways in which histories of editing and textual transmission help to shape critical claims about gender and sexuality. (Here, I’m indebted to D. F. McKenzie, Jerome McGann, Margreta de Grazia, and other scholars and students of the material text.)

So. Although we know the “long s” was conventional in early modern typography, the ambiguity present in “The Flea” may easily have been legible to early readers of Donne’s printed “Songs and Sonets.” An example from one of the poet’s contemporaries can illustrate just how. First published in 1598, John Florio’s Italian-English dictionary A VVorlde of Wordes included “fucker,” “a fucking,” and “fuckt” under the headwords “Fottitore,” “Fottitura,” and “Fottuto.” The lower-case “f,” appearing three times among these entries in italic type, is in close proximity in each case to “a sarder” and “a swiuer,” “a swiuing” and “a sarding,” and “sarded” and “swiued.” Pictured below, the difference between the “f” and the “long s” is very slim, if it can be discerned at all:


I am not suggesting here that readers were “confused” by the multiple “s” and “f” characters in these entries. Rather, I include this passage as an influential (and early) example of printed obscenity that also made immediately visible — indeed, showcased — the typographical similarity between “f” and the “long s.” “Fuck” was indeed known as a word in Donne’s England, and had been for a while (OED lists 1513 as its first appearance). Moreover, this book was in all likelihood familiar to Donne, who, like Florio, had ties with Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford. Both men composed verses for her, and Florio counted her among his patronesses when he composed his translation of Montaigne’s Essayes. Furthermore, Donne satirized Florio following this translation’s publication in 1603. Evidence is lacking (as it often is), but one could speculate that filthy words would have held a special attraction for a young Donne and his colleagues at the Inns of Court.

Although the “long-s” accompanied “The Flea” through its manuscript instantiations, the typographical instabilities of this character as exhibited in Florio’s dictionary became affixed to Donne’s poem upon its first printed appearance in 1633. Furthermore, the ambiguity in line three would persist typographically for nearly three centuries as the poem benefited from increased readerly and critical attention. The second edition of Donne’s Poems, issued in 1635, witnessed the grouping-together and reorganization of the “Songs and Sonets,” as well as the shuffling of “The Flea” from the twentieth position to the first. Modern editor John Carey has commented on the extreme difficulty of ordering or dating Donne’s poems in this collection, and uses the later order of 1635 “on the grounds that whoever assembled the poems for that edition showed some concern for getting the poems into a ‘correct’ order” (88). In doing this, Carey departs significantly from previous editors (notably, Herbert J. C. Grierson, who uses the 1633 order). Yet “The Flea” remained the first poem in the sequence through all the major editions between 1635 and 1669; it can also be found first in editions of 1719, 1779, and 1793. (More can be done to study these editions, of course.) This poem clearly came to occupy a prominent position in Donne’s oeuvre, even through the eighteenth century. In each of these editions, one could find the “long s” in line three — at least, until the nineteenth century, when the character fell out of use.

Bach suggests that religious vocabularies of shame skew “The Flea” away from a lighthearted conceit or pseudo-argument and towards an Augustinian context (268-70), but this reading does not account for the typographical instability in line three that remains a small, but important element of this poem’s transmission history. Indeed, once Donne’s poem saw print, the “long s” simultaneously fixed and made possible interpretations of the poem that challenge Bach’s author-centric and compositional assessment. In fact, in the hands of a print audience, the first three lines emerge as a tercet that exhorts not only the beloved, but also the reader to pay attention to nuance, both to “Marke but this flea” and to “marke in this.” William Sherman has illustrated how material and how common the practice of “marking” in books was among Renaissance readers; the lengthy entry for “mark” in the OED also makes this clear. Repeated twice in the first line, this word hails a reader to consider something closely, but also to imagine if not engage in a particular form of textual practice with his or her own printed copy of Poems.

Taken in such a way, “this flea” stands not only as a fictional flea sucking the blood of the lover and beloved, but also as Donne’s poem clearly titled so. The meaning of “this” at the end of line 1 is obscure, although it could refer to the poem or to the conceits about to unfold. The second line, a bridge between the exhortation to “marke in this” and the typographical obscenity emerging in line three, accomplishes this task through its focused attention to the infinitesimal: “How little that which thou deny’st me is.” Paradoxically, the speaker here casts a spotlight on what is barely perceptible in order to emphasize its presence. This directs readers to the third line, which presents two instances of the “long s” – one for the speaker, one for the beloved. Straying away from authorial control on the text, this typographical deployment points simultaneously to “s” and “f,” to sucking and fucking, although the distinction between then — presumably as “little” as the deed that the beloved denies the speaker — has now been rendered visible to readers.

The consequences of this rather myopic reading involve an interpretational strategy that empowers the reader and invites appropriations of Donne’s verse according to alternative gendered paradigms. Typography makes this possible, and one may perceive related cases elsewhere in early modern literature (line 6 of the first poem in Richard Barnfield’s Cynthia stands as an example). Mintz regards this instability and its function in the poem as “a compelling example of Donne’s play with gender” through which “Donne manages to identify himself both with the female body and with a kind of ‘bisexualized’ erotic pleasure” (584-85). However, Bach’s thorough-going historical assessment of sex in Donne’s poetry and prose raises serious questions about such an interpretation, and would tend to support Docherty’s conclusions about “The Flea” instead. In order to disengage readerly possibilities from authorial intention, both of which are valid elements in any study of the poem, we might emphasize the histories of transmission that connect the two, and that supply or obscure typographical instabilities such as the “long s” that have been used to argue one way or another about Donne’s sexuality.

Thanks to Amy Nelson & Toby Altman. Images drawn from EEBO according to fair use.


Not Shakespeare’s Beehive? Doesn’t Really Matter

Like many of you, I awoke on Monday to a startling claim about “Shakespeare’s Beehive,” a copy of John Baret’s An Alvearie, or Quadruple Dictionarie (1580) covered in extensive annotations. New York booksellers George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler  launched what is truly a beautiful website to showcase their belief that the annotations in this copy of Baret can be attributed to William Shakespeare. Coincidentally – or not – this week marks the 450th birthday of the poet from Stratford.

Of course, from the moment “Shakespeare’s Beehive” went live, it has faced healthy criticism from scholars of Shakespeare, the Renaissance, and book history. (An updated overview of the conversation can be found here.) Michael Witmore and Heather Wolfe wrote a very smart piece in The Collation about the reasonable doubts forestalling any easy attribution to Shakespeare. This book, they say, must stand thorough tests assessing paleography, rare and peculiar words, associations, and marginalia before any Shakespearean attribution can be confirmed. More recently, Aaron Pratt has examined a particular case in the annotations, the supposed word “Buck-bacqet,” which he finds not to be a word unique to Merry Wives (as Koppelman and Wechsler think), but rather a French and an English word listed beside each other: “Bucket bacquet.” As Pratt suggests, this is “what we might expect a reader to record in their multilingual dictionary.”

Like Pratt and others, I am very glad this annotated copy of Baret has come to light for the things it tells us about Renaissance dictionaries and how they were used. This issue has been a preoccupation of mine from some time, and in recent years I’ve consulted a few hundred copies of books designed for students of Renaissance language, Baret among them. My corpus includes bilingual and polyglot dictionaries, proverb collections, dialogue books, and grammars. Italian, French, and Spanish books are of particular interest to me, and the study of these books’ annotations constitutes the most recent stage in the project. So even if this “beehive” is proven definitively to not belong to Shakespeare, I am pleased to see Twitter “buzzing” (sorry) with questions about Baret’s book and the ways in which Renaissance dictionaries were used by readers and writers.

I’ll make a few remarks now about Baret’s dictionary itself, which has been somewhat obscured in all the talk about Shakespeare’s hand (or lack thereof). This lexicographical effort was first published by Henry Denham in 1574 as a “triple dictionarie” in folio. It includes entries in English, Latin, French, and a smattering of Greek (the Greek would be amplified substantially for the second edition of 1580, now a “quadruple dictionarie”). The production of this dictionary may be of special interest to Renaissance scholars for its compilatory and collaborative nature. A fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, Baret had begun collecting material for the Alvearie nearly two decades before the volume’s publication. In fact, he recounts in a preface that the dictionary had its origins in the pedagogical practice of translation, explaining that he required his students “daily to translate some peece of English into Latin, for the more speedy, and easie attaining of the same” (*5r).

Their labors resembling those of “diligent Bees,” the students’ collaboration resulted in a sort of polyglot reference book assembled from phrases in Latin literature. Soon afterward, supplementing his knowledge from overseas travel with the aid of “M. Chaloner” and “M. Claudius,” Baret added both French entries and index tables. This “Claudius,” I should note, was probably Claudius Hollyband, perhaps the most famous instructor of French in sixteenth-century London, and who was responsible for the massively popular French Littleton and French Schoolmaster. The frontmatter of the Alvearie also contains four lines of commendatory verse by Richard Mulcaster, who taught Edmund Spenser at the Merchant Taylors’ School and who was deeply involved in debates about pedagogical reform in England. Altogether, this collaborative effort at multilingual lexicography stands at the center of debates about Renaissance language-learning and education in England, incorporating the work of Latinists, French instructors, and students at Cambridge.

So, if we stop worrying about Shakespeare, Koppelman and Wechsler’s copy of the Alvearie can tell us something useful about the relationship between language-learning and book use in the Renaissance. (Here, I join with Adam Hooks, who stated in Monday’s Shakespeare Q&A livestream at Iowa that he remains interested in the notion of a “beehive.”) As the “Shakespeare’s Beehive” website shows, the markings across the polyglot dictionary evince the annotator’s linguistic interests in English, French, and Latin, as well as the possibilities commonplacing held for the understanding of these languages. Furthermore, the “trailing blank” at the end of the volume features a number of words and phrases in these languages compiled by the annotator independent from the book’s printed matter. The annotations in this book are impressively thorough, but still merit comparison with other copies of the 1580 Baret. A copy at the University of Chicago, for instance, features the competing hands of Richard Emery (of Arlesley, Bedfordshire) and John Plomer. Although the annotations suggest that this Alvearie was given to Emery “by his Granfather,” Emery and Plomer appear to struggle for the possession of the book through their writing: “John Plomer oweth this dictionarye,” one finds, and elsewhere “But thou shallt not steale.” Another copy of the book at the Boston Athenaeum is inscribed by “Edward Lye” in the central column of E4r, and features trefoil symbols and some Latin inscriptions on Y4r. If closely examined, these copies of the Alvearie, and many others that survive – the ESTC lists 52 second-edition copies, though surely there are more out there – might give us a better picture of how Renaissance students of language used this particular book.

Of course, other polyglot dictionaries and language manuals feature far more extensive signs of use. Gabriel Harvey’s language-learning manuals, which are held by the Huntington Library today, rank among these books. The most impressive example that I have found to date, however, might be the University of Chicago’s interleaved copy of Richard Percyvall’s Bibliotheca Hispanica, a Spanish-English-Latin dictionary first published in quarto 1591. The book features an intricate array of multilingual markings in different colors throught its entirety, with 163 blank leaves bound up with the printed text to faciliate the user’s additions or workings-out of linguistic complexities. It’s fantastic. Among the very first printed efforts in Spanish-English lexicography in England, Percyvall’s dictionary occupies an important political and linguistic place in history, and this particular copy of the book tells us much about how its users could restructure it and mark upon it for their own ends.

How these practices bear upon literature would be the next step, although the answers are admittedly harder to seek out. In Astrophil and Stella, Sidney mocked “You that do Dictionaries methode bring / Into your rimes, running in ratling rowes,” although I suspect that these language-learning books were not as irrelevant or far-off from poetry as we might commonly think.

A 1549 Giolito Anthology at Northwestern

The Giolito anthologies are a series of volumes of collected lyric poetry published in Italy during the mid-16th century. The poems in these books are deeply indebted to Petrarch, and one can find in them conventional images and language that were becoming increasingly common in Renaissance lyric. Scholars have given the volumes their name on account of their publisher, Gabriel Giolito, who ran an enormously successful and wide-reaching publishing institution in Renaissance Italy. The presses operated mainly out of Venice, but the trade reached well into France.

Title page of Rime diverse di molti eccellentiss. auttori nuovamente raccolte. (Venice, 1549). McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library, 851.08 D668r v.1

The poems contained in these volumes have been known widely among critics as being, well, pretty bad – they are commonly referred to as the work of “minor poets.” Recently, however, JoAnn Della Neva has argued that these Giolito anthologies exerted a profound, if underacknowledged, influence upon the literary efforts of 16th century France. (Joachim Du Bellay’s sonnet collection Olive is a particularly useful example of this.) By extension, these volumes can be seen to have had an effect on emerging poetic traditions in England, which one can begin to find in numerous English poetic anthologies (Tottel’s Miscellany of 1557 being only one of many published in London before 1600).

Verses by Laura Terracina to the volume’s editor, Lodovico Domenichi. In Rime diverse di molti eccellentiss. auttori nuovamente raccolte. (Venice, 1549), R4r. McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library, 851.08 D668r v.1

Part of the interest in the Giolito anthologies comes from their compilatory nature and rather unusual printing history. Following Salvatore Bongi’s Annali di Gabriel Giolito de’ Ferrari, Diana Robin has laid out a useful set of appendices that organizes the anthologies’ bibliographical data by publication date or people’s names, along with descriptions of the 15 volumes in the Newberry Library. (Her book is entitled Publishing Women and has a special eye to the women contributors in the volumes; it was released in 2007).

I’ve looked at a few of the Newberry volumes researched by Robin, but I also found a surviving Giolito anthology in the McCormick Library of Special Collections at Northwestern. There is only one up here, published in 1549 (and, in Robin’s appendix, the 3rd edition of volume 1, or 1c), but it features some interesting elements and annotations that tell us something about how the Giolito volumes could be used. Already, one can find a printed index to the poets in the volume, which is especially helpful because the poems are not grouped sequentially by individual author. Note the initial woodblock representing Actaeon pursued by his dogs after seeing the naked Diana, a figure invoked repeatedly by Renaissance sonneteers:

Index of poets included in the volume. In Rime diverse di molti eccellentiss. auttori nuovamente raccolte. (Venice, 1549), 2A4r. McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library, 851.08 D668r v.1

The Northwestern volume has interesting features beyond the index, though. An early owner inscribed the volume’s tailside foredge with “Rime Diuerse.” While we can’t derive a whole lot of information from this, it may be suggestive of the way the book was stored on a shelf (likely, before it received its marbled binding). Because no number follows “Rime Diuerse,” perhaps this particular owner possessed this volume and none of the other Giolito anthologies (two other first editions and two second editions were available in 1549, when this book saw print).

Exterior binding and foredge, Rime diverse di molti eccellentiss. auttori nuovamente raccolte. (Venice, 1549). McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library, 851.08 D668r v.1

If we open up the book, there are further traces of use in a number of early reader’s annotations. (You can already begin to see this on the title page, pictured above (one can easily make out “Raymondi” to the right of the ornament.) Here, a reader disagreed with the editor Domenichi’s attribution of a sonnet to Pietro Bembo. “questo sonetto / non è del / Bembo” [This sonnet isn’t by Bembo.]

bembo not
Rime diverse di molti eccellentiss. auttori nuovamente raccolte. (Venice, 1549). McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library, 851.08 D668r v.1

Bembo is featured very prominently in the volume; in fact, his name in the index stands out in a much larger type than those used for the “lesser” poets. But this reader’s marginal comment is interesting in that it expresses concern about correct authorial attribution in a literary genre (that is, the c16 lyric anthology) that generally seems to strain against it. (This point I gather from Wendy Wall’s great book The Imprint of Gender.) At least, later in England, poetic anthologies were characterized by unrepresentative titles and authorial attributions, interventions by editors and printers, and the inclusion of “uncertain authors.” From here, one might investigate if this reader is actually onto something, or if the attribution is sustained or corrected in later or other editions. But that’s beyond the scope of this post, which is simply to point out an interesting item at Northwestern’s Special Collections Library.

ASMR and the Pleasures of Book History

What follows in this post is much more anecdotal than usual; it might also seem absurd or ridiculous next to my other Vade Mecum entries. But I’m very curious about a possible relationship between the pleasures of book history and a very strange physiological sensation that I’ve had since I was a child. If that sentence doesn’t daunt you, gentle reader, read on.

When I was in elementary school, I started getting this weird feeling in my head. It still happens now, but I was probably around the age of seven or eight when I first noticed it or started paying attention to it. Far from a painful headache, it was a warm, calming, tingling sensation that spread out from the crown of my head down my scalp and into my neck and spine. I had no idea why it happened, but as I got older and went through high school and college, I began to associate it — at least, in my own mind — with personal, one-on-one moments of detailed instruction, explanation, or directions. For instance, my second-grade teacher tracing her hand on paper to make a Thanksgiving turkey decoration would trigger the feeling. Or, my ninth-grade art teacher demonstrating a complex painting technique to me after class would bring it forward. I associated the feeling with learning and with my teachers, with quiet or whispered speaking, and with certain sounds, visuals, and thought patterns. Mainly, at school.

I remember attempting to explain this sensation to family and friends on multiple occasions, but no one could quite understand. In college, I spoke about it with one friend who claimed that she’d felt the same feeling too. (Please bear with me; I know this sounds strange.) This was really exciting for me to hear, but we lacked any kind of terminology to talk about it. Basically, we didn’t know what it was, so the fact that we both had it seemed more of a coincidence than anything else. I’ve since gone about my life, reading and writing here, watching hockey there, socializing with friends, and traveling whenever possible. But I’m frequently on the lookout for moments that trigger that weird, pleasurable sensation for which I had no point of reference or explanation.

Until yesterday, that is. I learned that I’m far from alone in experiencing what is known as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR. Wikipedia’s entry defines ASMR as “a perceptual phenomenon characterized as a distinct, pleasurable tingling sensation in the head, scalp, back, or peripheral regions of the body in response to visual, auditory, olfactory, and/or cognitive stimuli.” The materials cited for this Wiki-entry are startlingly new, the earliest article having been published in February of 2012. Tracing my way through these news stories and a recent radio episode of This American Life, I listened to and read about others who experienced roughly the same perplexing sensation during childhood and the great difficulty of classifying, understanding, or even explaining it adequately to family and friends. The ASMR “community” online is actually quite substantial, as can be seen from hundreds and hundreds of YouTube videos of people – often, women, though not always – who play certain roles, whisper, speak in an explanatory manner, and use inanimate objects to create soft, soothing noises. The view-counts for these videos are staggering. As Andrea Siegel explains on This American Life, it might seem at first that these videos are sexual or pornographic, but they’re not; on the contrary, rather than arousal, they inspire a sense of peace, almost a stoner-like high.

As I learned about this and watched a couple of the trigger-videos, I immediately recognized my sensations, and I began to think about my love for books and the bibliographical threads of my research in graduate school. What if ASMR, I wondered, has some kind of connection to my deep interest in material books? My scholarship concerns Renaissance printing and bookmaking, and requires me to visit research libraries like the Newberry where I handle and study 400-year-old artifacts. These books often have roiled vellum bindings or exposed stitching jobs; the letters of the text have been stamped into the watermarked leaves in a very three-dimensional way; traces of readerly practice or use are visible in 16c or 17c marginalia. To these quiet, whispery reading rooms, I bring a set of developed, but hardly complete bibliographical methods that often depend on sequential instructions and great attention to physical detail. In fact, I can recall moments in my own bibliographical training in which I experienced ASMR, though I had no name for it at the time.  Could this research, let alone my general love for books and my own (unfortunately expensive!) book-collecting habits have any relationship to ASMR? I definitely know, now more than ever, that I experience this pleasurable brain-tingling. But is it possible that this sensation, triggered commonly by inanimate objects, whispered descriptions and instructions, sweet or particular smells, and certain mental connections, has something to do with my investments in bibliography and book history?

I will probably never be able to answer that question, but I find it deeply provocative. I also wonder how many other bibliographers or book historians out there experience ASMR, in or outside the archive. As my colleague Rebecca Fall has suggested recently in a NUDHL blog post, Renaissance reading involved a very sensory set of practices hardly limited to the visual; she wonders furthermore how this knowledge comes to bear on how we read in the 21st century. “When we read with our whole bodies, it seems,” she says, “we learn better—or at least I do.” I do as well, and scribble on any copy I get my hands on (barring the archive, that is). But while Fall is interested mainly in the tactile here, I wonder about how other sensations come into play when we do book history. And I wonder about how ASMR might offer some kind of increased incentive for bibliography and archival investigation. My research isn’t only interesting to me — it feels good.

If my isolated case still seems strange, I’ll conclude this post by pointing to some videos on YouTube. Hardly conclusive, this picture is meant mainly to be suggestive about ASMR and the pleasures of books. A good number of the role-playing videos, some created upon YouTube users’ requests, suggest that booksellers and librarians are common activators of ASMR. This particular clip features a young man playing the part of a librarian; his whispering, his accent, his explanations of the books’ content, and the page-turning sounds are designed to stimulate the sensation in viewers.  Another video simply shows a bookshelf, and the sounds of the books being taken down and perused by the video’s creator deliver the sensation. Here, a video creator rakes her fingernails against two books’ bindings; this clip has a place among many other “tapping and scratching” book videos. While contemporary books appear in many of these videos, some include older or rarer artifacts. For instance, in this video, which is nearly an hour long, the creator examines an 1892 edition of The Scarlet Letter with a very unstable, damaged binding and a 1907 edition of Shakespeare’s Pericles.  “The Aberdine University Press, Limited,” whispers the reader-narrator at the end of the clip. The bibliographical accuracy of the whispered commentary in these videos could easily be criticized as lacking, and the notion underlying this post might seem equally absurd. However, I think that these clips speak to a broader and perhaps more consequential issue: a particular physiological sensation that we are only beginning to comprehend and its relationship to the world of books.


MS Annotations in a 17c Polyglot Dialogue Book

Frontispiece engraving, Colloqvia et Dictionariolvm octo Linguarum (Antwerp, 1662). Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, 413 D554, Northwestern University.

Thanks partly to a growing body of Protestant refugees in London, the sixteenth century in England witnessed a significant increase in the production of printed aids for vernacular language-learning. During the seventeenth century, it seems that trade and travel amplified the importance of these books. I’ve been assessing the development of this niche in the print marketplace across the Italian, Spanish, and French languages thus far, and I’m beginning to turn my attention to Dutch, German, and polyglot books as well, both in England and on the continent.

In fact, this past summer, I spent several weeks training around the Chicago/Central Illinois area to dig around in the archive to see what I could find. Institutions I visited included Northwestern University, Loyola University Chicago, the University of Chicago, the Newberry Library, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Overall, I looked at 76 books (50 for learning Italian, 12 for French, 7 for Spanish, and 7 polyglots). I’d already been keeping record of the physical dimensions of language-learning guides and dictionaries in other libraries, so I took measurements of each of these copies. I also looked at both sides of every leaf in every book. It was tedious work sometimes, but I found a number of very interesting manuscript inscriptions throughout these books, inscriptions that I view as material traces of early modern language study.

To give an idea of what I’m talking about, here’s one example from my home institution’s Special Collections library. This is a 1662 edition of the Antwerp language teacher Noel van Berlaimont’s Colloqvia et Dictionariolvm octo Linguarum. As the title suggests, this oblong octavo volume features seven dialogues in eight languages arranged horizontally and in different typefaces. It also includes guides to practical letter-writing, treatises on proper pronunciation and conjugation, and a brief dictionary in the back. First published in 1530, it was issued from the press of most major European cities and saw nearly 150 editions throughout the handpress period. Susan Phillips has called it an “international best seller” (see note below for this comment’s location).

As you can see in the image at the top of this post, this edition includes a frontispiece engraving in which two groups of four men converse with and greet each other. An art historian with a finer 17c fashion sense than me would be able to explicate the clothing of these individuals in light of the book’s eight languages/nationalities.Berlaimont02

The eight-language apparatus in the oblong octavo Colloqvia (with a handy snake). Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, 413 D554, Northwestern University.

If you open this book, you unfold an apparatus of eight languages printed long-ways upon octavo sheets. The printer deployed three typefaces here, perhaps not merely for the purposes of R.B. McKerrow’s “differentiation type,” but also to make use of the associations between typeface and language that are common in many other language-learning books. Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese appear in roman; French and Italian, in Latin; and “Neder-duyts,” “Hoogh-duyts,” and English are in black-letter.

A closer look at six leaves in the first dialogue, which concerns a banquet (“A dinder [sic] of ten persons”) reveals a significant amount of manuscript annotations in the Italian language column. The annotations are in French, and often underline and translate certain words or phrases, using the corresponding words in the French column on the opposing page.

Berlaimont03French annotations in the Italian column, first dialogue, Colloqvia, C8r. Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, 413 D554, Northwestern University.

Beside “& poi per tutto,” the reader has inscribed “et puis per tout.” “Ici” is written beside the printed word “qui,” which is underlined, and a similar annotation for “qui” appears at the bottom of the column. In another line, “minestra” is accompanied by the manuscript annotation “pottage,” and the final annotation here glosses “mentre” as “tandis.” I’m really no expert in paleography, but the hand seems to me to date back to the late seventeenth century, or perhaps the early eighteenth.

As William Sherman and others have made clear, it is often impossible to derive stable conclusions about reading habits from marginalia in printed books. Indeed, we have no indication in this volume of who our annotator is, where he or she was from, or exactly what he or she needed the book for. However, this edition of the Berlaimont dialogues do showcase how readers could put their language-learning books to productive use through their own manuscript additions, and how the facing-page, polyglot apparatus could support a process of reading, copying, and marking in the interest of language study.


For further reading on books like this one, see Susan Phillips, “Schoolmasters, Seduction, and Slavery: Polyglot Dictionaries in Pre-Modern England,” Medievalia et Humanistica 34 (2009): 129-58; quoted at 130.