Found in the Vault: Ownership Inscriptions and More

“The easiest and most common way to indicate ownership of a book is to write one’s name in it.”

David Pearson, Provenance Research in Book History

Book owners have been inscribing their names on endpapers, flyleaves, and title pages ever since the invention of the book.  Not every signature necessarily indicates ownership, of course – authors have been signing copies of their work for other people nearly as long as people have been signing their own books, and students are often encouraged to write their names in the front of textbooks, books which may get reused year after year.  Take the following inscription found in the front of MSU’s copy of English Orthographie, a primer on reading and writing from 1670:

William Richards

William Richards
not owner of this
book but his name
in it yould find if rite
you look

If you do look to the rite (right), you’ll see a series of squiggles that apparently is supposed to be Richards’ signature.  Turning to the inside of the back cover (the rear pastedown endpaper), we can see that this particular scribe has been quite busy, again practicing his elaborate signature:

William Richards 2And in case you were curious about the upside-down line written in the outer margin of that first picture, it appears to be part of a song or a poem our William Richards was writing:

Come all you brave gallant and m[???]...

Come all you brave gallant and m[???]…

The Jacobean-era handwriting, combined with the flourishes of someone keen to show off his penmanship, make these inscriptions somewhat challenging to read.  Look at the varying ways Richards writes even the same letters in that first inscription!  This isn’t helped by the fluidity of spelling which was common prior to the late 19th century.  Writers would sometimes even change up the spelling of words from line to line, even varying the spelling of their own names at different points in a single text.  We can see an example of this in another set of inscriptions at MSU:

John Baskervyle His Book 1718 Ownership inscription found on the front flyleaf of

John Baskervyle
His Book
1718
Ownership inscription found on the front flyleaf of Des. Erasmi Roterod. Colloqvia; nunc emendatiora (XX PA8506 1679).

John Baskervile Ownership inscription found on the rear flyleaf.

John Baskervile
Ownership inscription found on the rear flyleaf of the same book.

This loose approach to spelling is compounded by the style of early handwriting, making many manuscript inscriptions in books very difficult for the untrained modern eye to read.  Combine these issues with the characteristic quirks of an individual’s penmanship (as we saw last week in the John Greenleaf Whittier letter), and making heads or tails of some provenance evidence can be quite the challenge indeed.  I’m going to leave you this week with another inscription that time has made difficult to interpret.  Can you make out what it says?  Post your best transcription in the comments below!

Test

Inscription in MSU’s copy of The Passion of Dido for Æneas (XX PA6807.A5 W3), Virgil, translated by Edmund Waller & Sidney Godolphin in 1658.

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