The Secret Lives of Books: Uncovering the Hidden (and not so Hidden) Clues

“In a good book the best is between the lines.”

– Swedish proverb

Remember this quote we left you with last time?  Ostensibly the saying is a Swedish proverb (I’m skeptical), but whatever the origin, it’s been on my mind quite a bit lately.  While I’m sure the intent behind the proverb is to extol the merits of interpretive analysis (“reading between the lines,” as it were), I’m happy to take the quote at face value and apply it to the study of provenance.

Cataloging the unique traits of rare books at MSU, I’m reminded again and again that often the most interesting things about a book are incidental to its original, printed content.  As Peter Berg, Head of MSU Special Collections, put it:

“If every picture tells a story, as the saying goes, then it can be said that almost every book tells two stories.”

One story is obvious, of course, but in order to uncover a book’s second story we sometimes have to literally read between the lines — or look in the margins, on the flyleaves, etc.  Here are revealed the secret lives of books: not just the stuff of bibliographies, but of biblio-biographies, life histories told through copy-specific features such as annotations, marks of ownership, or peculiarities in the way books were bound.

It is this last category, in particular, that has been on my mind a lot this week.

Hand-bound books, like any truly artisanal product, occasionally have some idiosyncratic features.  For example, throughout history bookbinders have often repurposed leftover materials — scraps of wastepaper or pages from discarded books — to shore up new binding projects.  As a result, many old books have fragments of other, even older books or manuscripts hidden within their spines or pasted under their endleaves.  When they form part of a book’s pastedown endpaper, these pieces of “binding waste” are often plainly visible, and can be a valuable and easily decipherable piece of provenance evidence.

Here at MSU I have run across several instances of this repurposed binding waste.  Below is one example I found just the other day:

Front pastedown of John Selden's 1631 Titles of honor (XX folio CR3501.S4 1631).

Front pastedown of John Selden’s 1631 Titles of honor (XX folio CR3501.S4 1631).

Rear pastedown of John Selden's 1631 Titles of honor

Rear pastedown of John Selden’s 1631 Titles of honor (XX folio CR3501.S4 1631).

These images show both the front and rear pastedowns of MSU’s copy of Titles of honor, printed in 1631.  Although the work is a treatise on peerage and heraldry, a little bit of research shows that the pages used for its pastedown endsheets come from Book V of the Decretals of Gregory IX, a series of 13th-century papal letters on canonical Catholic law.  I have not yet been able to identify the particular edition represented here, but given the date of the binding and the fact that the text is printed (and not manuscript), its date must fall within a range of 150 years or so.  The appearance of the paper (comparable to that in the text block) and the fact that these pages were on-hand for use as binding waste makes it likely that they come from a printing roughly contemporary with that of the larger work.

Rear pastedown of MSU's 1695 copy of De arte graphica by C. A. Du Fresnoy (XX ND1130.D8 1695).

Rear pastedown of MSU’s 1695 copy of De arte graphica by Charles Alphonse Du Fresnoy (XX ND1130.D8 1695).

Above is another example of discarded pages being used anew.  The work is John Dryden’s 1695 English translation of De arte graphica, or The art of painting, by French painter C. A. Du Fresnoy (originally published in 1668).  The page used in the pastedown is a fragment of John Speed’s geographical study and atlas The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, first published in 1611.  As with the first example, this binding waste has nothing in common with the content of the volume into which it is bound, and was likely just the first piece of scrap paper the binder happened to grab.  This page is hidden a little better than the two used in the previous example, and features less printed text, but most of the words are still visible through the sheet pasted on top.

But scraps of binding waste aren’t the only pieces of provenance evidence that can be found on a book’s pastedown endpapers.  As we have seen before, the inside of the front cover was often the go-to place for ownership inscriptions, bookplates, library stamps, and other marks of provenance.  Like binding waste, these other pieces of evidence can occasionally be hidden in plain sight.  Such was the case of the Phytobasanos:

MSU's copy of

MSU’s 1744 copy of Fabio Colonna’s Phytobasanos (XX folio QK41.C65 1744).

The title page of MSU's copy of Phytobasanos by Fabio Colonna (XX folio QK41.C65 1744).

The title page of MSU’s copy of Phytobasanos by Fabio Colonna (XX folio QK41.C65 1744).

Fabio Colonna’s botanical study ΦΥΤΟΒΑΣΑΝΟΣ, or Phytobasanos (The Torture of Plants, or possibly Botanical Touchstone), was originally published in Naples in 1592, although MSU’s copy of the work is a modestly-bound 1744 edition.  This particular copy is interesting for a number of reasons.  On the title page, the place of publication for this volume is listed as Milan (“Mediolani”) although several other surviving copies of this 1744 edition indicate that they were published — apparently concurrently — in Florence (see for example the copies at UT Dallas or the Lyon Public Library).

In addition, the book features a couple of fascinating and potentially telling inscriptions.  On the title page (shown above) is an ownership inscription from “Georgius Mauritius Lowitz”, dated 1751 (MDCCLI).  As it turns out, this is the Latinized name of a certain Georg Moriz Lowitz, who happens to have an entry in the CERL Thesaurus (a database of historical names maintained by the Consortium of European Research Libraries).  According to the Thesaurus, Lowitz died in 1774, and in 1776 his library was sold at auction.

Inscription on the front pastedown

Inscription on the front pastedown of MSU’s Phytobasanos (XX folio QK41.C65 1744).

Another interesting inscription, useful for establishing part of this volume’s ownership history, can be found at the top of the front pastedown:

Jo: Gabrieli Doppelmair Viro Sapientissimo
                                                  Janus [?]anny offert

If we Anglicanize the names and translate the Latin, the text reads as follows:

[To] Johann Gabriel Doppelmair, the wisest man
                                         Presented [by] Janus [?]anny 

This presentation inscription records the gift of the book to Johann Gabriel Doppelmair, a notable late 17th/early 18th century German mathematician and scientist (who even has a crater on the moon named after him).  While this inscription is undated, it must fall within the relatively small window between 1744 (when the book was published) and 1750 (when Doppelmair died).

Both of these inscriptions are crucial to our understanding of this book’s provenance, and the Doppelmair inscription in particular is interesting in its own right (and it gives the work some added value through association with a noteworthy historical figure) — but surprisingly, none of this information is included in the book’s current catalog record.

But I digress.

Front pastedown endpaper

Front pastedown endpaper of MSU’s Phytobasanos (XX folio QK41.C65 1744).

The reason I brought up the Phytobasanos in the first place is not because of its ownership inscriptions.  Take a look at the entire front pastedown — what else do you see?  There is a Dewey Decimal call number penciled near the Doppelmair inscription, as well as a library stamp…  There’s a price (and $5 no less!), and a curious red mark (possibly wax).  But what’s going on near the bottom of the page?  This is where things really get interesting.  It appears as though some sort of bookworm has eaten through part of the endpaper — and through the hole it created, there are markings visible underneath the pastedown:


Close-up of the front pastedown of MSU’s Phytobasanos (XX folio QK41.C65 1744).

Not only are there markings showing through from beneath the pastedown, but the markings appear to be manuscript writing!  Wanting to investigate further, but not wanting to damage the book any more than the insect already had, I was able to carefully pry up some of the loose page (the glue had failed just below the worm-line), and get a better view of the text written there:


Extreme close-up, underneath the pastedown of MSU’s Phytobasanos (XX folio QK41.C65 1744).

“Vicaria” — in ink, in manuscript, under the pastedown endpaper.  It may be difficult to see in these photographs, but there appeared to be even more writing underneath the pastedown, above the text visible through the wormhole (so to speak).  That portion of the page, however, was still firmly glued to the inner surface of the cover.  I called in Eric Alstrom, Head of Conservation and Preservation at MSU, and we discussed possible methods of reading this additional text without causing irreparable damage to the book.  We ultimately decided to spray a fine mist of ethyl alcohol over the area in question, which rendered the pastedown translucent enough to read what was written underneath.


The secret revealed: close-up of the front pastedown of MSU’s Phytobasanos (XX folio QK41.C65 1744), sprayed with ethanol.

As we sprayed the page with ethanol, the text slowly began to reveal itself.  However, discoloration of the paper, combined with some old bubbling between the pastedown and the cover board, made it somewhat difficult to read the entire inscription.


Close-up of the hidden text in MSU’s Phytobasanos (XX folio QK41.C65 1744), computer enhanced.

As far as we could tell given our limited success, the full text of the inscription reads as follows:

   M Rev°: Prē [???]

The text following Prē is difficult to make out, but it appears to be either a “G” or a “6” followed by two smaller, round characters.  I hypothesized that Prē might be short for “pretium” and that the text which follows could represent a price, such as “6-0-0” — but it is difficult to know for sure.  A little research into the other marks produced some additional (speculative) results.  M Rev° seems to be an abbreviation for “Monsignor Reverend” or “Monsignor Reverendissimo” (official forms of address for certain members of the Roman Catholic clergy), while Vicaria can either refer to a specific neighborhood of Naples or to an Italian vicarage more generally (the residence of a vicar or vice-regent).  Putting all of these clues together, could this be a note from the binder, indicating his client, price, and location?

A little learning is a dangerous thing, as the saying goes, and I am hardly an expert on mid-18th century binding marks.  Have any of our readers encountered similar inscriptions?  If you have some insight into the meaning of this text, please post a comment below and help us identify this mysterious piece of provenance evidence.

It’s amazing to think that were it not for the destructive dietary habits of a library pest, this hidden message might never have been revealed.  How many other books in the Special Collections vault bear similar secret marks of provenance, which will never see the light of day?  What else is out there?

Every day there are new surprises here at MSU Special Collections, and the work of a biblio-detective is never done!

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