A much travelled book

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By | Early Medicine, From the Collections

It is a truism to say that most libraries are composed of the disaggregated parts of their predecessors. The Wellcome Library is no different, containing as it does the fragments of a myriad vanished collections assembled then disassembled over a thousand years. The details of the journey that an individual volume made before it entered our collection are usually shrouded in obscurity – we may know the immediate source of acquisition but not the earlier history. It is rare to be able to follow the entire story of an early book from publication to the present day.

Title page from "De arte cabalistica libri tres leoni..."

Title page of De Arte Cabalistica, by Johann Reuchlin (1517), with the author’s heraldic device. WI no. L0074389

A chance enquiry received from a German researcher recently drew my attention to one such book in our collection. We hold two copies of De Arte Cabalistica (1517), by the German humanist scholar Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522), a work on Hebrew mysticism that crowned the authors’s lifelong interest in reinvigorating the Christian life by returning to its origins. Did either of our copies, the enquirer asked, contain manuscript annotations by Martin Luther?

Without much optimism I inspected our two copies. They both contained various handwritten notes, the first in an obviously fairly modern pencil scrawl, but the second in what was clearly an early 16th century hand, in brown ink. The notes were in Latin, as is the bulk of the printed text – mainly just signposts to assist navigation of the text or brief explanations of the passages in Hebrew included by Reuchlin. I reported my findings and sent samples of the handwriting to Germany for analysis by a specialist. After a period of silence word came back: not Luther but rather the Nuremberg humanist Willibald Pirckheimer (1470-1530), friend of Dürer and supposed source of the classical references in his artistic works.

Engraving of Willibald Pirckheimer

Engraving of Willibald Pirckheimer (1470-1530) by Dürer. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

How reliable was this attribution? Could we add a provenance note to our on-line public catalogue based on the say-so of an unknown ‘expert’? Happily, proof of their expertise was not long in coming: it is well known that many of Pirckheimer’s books were purchased by Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel, from his descendents in 1636. Arundel’s grandson, Henry Howard, Duke of Norfolk, in turn gave many of his grandfather’s books to the fledgling Royal Society. Sure enough – and this is information the anonymous handwriting expert, who had not seen the book, could not have known – our copy of De Arte Cabalistica, with its 16th-century handwritten notes, contains the tell-tale Royal Society stamp at the front  ‘Soc. Reg. Lond / ex dono HENR. HOWARD / Norfolciensis’, and elsewhere another stamp indicating that the book had later been sold by the Society. It is not clear when this sale occurred but it was probably not long before the book was purchased by Henry Wellcome at Sotheby’s in May 1919.

Painting of Thomas Howard by Rubens

Portrait of Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel (1585-1646), by Rubens. Credit: National Gallery, London.

So we are now able to reconstruct almost the entire life history of this book, from a humanist lawyer’s library in renaissance Nuremburg to 21st century London. How many scholars and virtuosi have pored over it over those five centuries – certainly Pirckheimer, presumably Arundel, possibly John Evelyn, who urged Norfolk to gift his books to the Royal Society?  The volume has worn remarkably well: it was rebound sometime in the 19th century, with predictable cropping of the pages, but otherwise the text block is sound and the type almost as fresh as the day it was printed. Libraries come and go but some books it seems just go on and on.

Author: Dr. Richard Aspin, Head of Research and Scholarship at the Wellcome Library

Richard Aspin

Richard Aspin

Dr Richard Aspin is Head of Research in the Wellcome Library. An archivist and manuscripts curator by training, he has spent many years working with the Library’s collections, as both custodian and researcher. His main motivation for studying the past is to help rescue forgotten lives from the enormous condescension of posterity.

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