The Books of the Collector

By Andrew Lang

  The easiest way to bring order into the chaos of desirable books, is, doubtless, to begin historically with manuscripts.  Almost every age that has left any literary remains, has bequeathed to us relics which are cherished by collectors.  We may leave the clay books of the Chaldeans out of the account.  These tomes resemble nothing so much as sticks of chocolate, and, however useful they may be to the student, the clay MSS. of Assurbanipal are not coveted by the collector.  He finds his earliest objects of desire in illuminated manuscripts.  The art of decorating manuscripts is as old as Egypt; but we need not linger over the beautiful papyri, which are silent books to all but a few Egyptologists.  Greece, out of all her tomes, has left us but a few ill-written papyri.  Roman and early Byzantine art are represented by a “Virgil,” and fragments of an “Iliad”; the drawings in the latter have been reproduced in a splendid volume (Milan 1819), and shew Greek art passing into barbarism.  The illumination of MSS. was a favourite art in the later empire, and is said to have been practised by Boethius.  The iconoclasts of the Eastern empire destroyed the books which contained representations of saints and of the persons of the Trinity, and the monk Lazarus, a famous artist, was cruelly tortured for his skill in illuminating sacred works.  The art was decaying in Western Europe when Charlemagne sought for painters of MSS. in England and Ireland, where the monks, in their monasteries, had developed a style with original qualities.  The library of Corpus Christi at Cambridge, contains some of the earliest and most beautiful of extant English MSS.  These parchments, stained purple or violet, and inscribed with characters of gold; are too often beyond the reach of the amateur for whom we write.  The MSS. which he can hope to acquire are neither very early nor very sumptuous, and, as a rule, MSS. of secular books are apt to be out of his reach.

Yet a collection of MSS. has this great advantage over a collection of printed books, that every item in it is absolutely unique, no two MSS. being ever really the same.  This circumstance alone would entitle a good collection of MSS. to very high consideration on the part of book-collectors.  But, in addition to the great expense of such a collection, there is another and even more serious drawback.  It is sometimes impossible, and is often extremely difficult, to tell whether a MS. is perfect or not.

This difficulty can only be got over by an amount of learning on the part of the collector to which, unfortunately, he is too often a stranger.  On the other hand, the advantages of collecting MSS. are sometimes very great.

In addition to the pleasure—a pleasure at once literary and artistic—which the study of illuminated MSS. affords, there is the certainty that, as years go on, the value of such a collection increases in a proportion altogether marvellous.

I will take two examples to prove this point.  Some years ago an eminent collector gave the price of 30 pounds for a small French book of Hours, painted in grisaille.  It was in a country town that he met with this treasure, for a treasure he considered the book, in spite of its being of the very latest school of illumination.  When his collection was dispersed a few years ago this one book fetched 260 pounds.

In the celebrated Perkins sale, in 1873, a magnificent early MS., part of which was written in gold on a purple ground, and which was dated in the catalogue “ninth or tenth century,” but was in reality of the end of the tenth or beginning of the eleventh, was sold for 565 pounds to a dealer.  It found its way into Mr. Bragge’s collection, at what price I do not know, and was resold, three years later, for 780 pounds.

Any person desirous of making a collection of illuminated MSS., should study seriously for some time at the British Museum, or some such place, until he is thoroughly acquainted (1) with the styles of writing in use in the Middle Ages, so that he can at a glance make a fairly accurate estimate of the age of the book submitted to him; and (2) with the proper means of collating the several kinds of service-books, which, in nine cases out of ten, were those chosen for illumination.

A knowledge of the styles of writing can be acquired at second hand in a book lately published by Mr. Charles Trice Martin, F.S.A., being a new edition of “Astle’s Progress of Writing.”  Still better, of course, is the actual inspection and comparison of books to which a date can be with some degree of certainty assigned.

It is very common for the age of a book to be misstated in the catalogues of sales, for the simple reason that the older the writing, the plainer, in all probability, it is.  Let the student compare writing of the twelfth century with that of the sixteenth, and he will be able to judge at once of the truth of this assertion.  I had once the good fortune to “pick up” a small Testament of the early part of the twelfth century, if not older, which was catalogued as belonging to the fifteenth, a date which would have made it of very moderate value.

With regard to the second point, the collation of MSS., I fear there is no royal road to knowing whether a book is perfect or imperfect.  In some cases the catchwords remain at the foot of the pages.  It is then of course easy to see if a page is lost, but where no such clue is given the student’s only chance is to be fully acquainted with what a book OUGHT to contain.  He can only do this when he has a knowledge of the different kinds of service-books which were in use, and of their most usual contents.

I am indebted to a paper, read by the late Sir William Tite at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries, for the collation of “Books of Hours,” but there are many kinds of MSS. besides these, and it is well to know something of them.  The Horae, or Books of Hours, were the latest development of the service-books used at an earlier period.  They cannot, in fact, be strictly called service-books, being intended only for private devotion.  But in the thirteenth century and before it, Psalters were in use for this purpose, and the collation of a Psalter is in truth more important than that of a Book of Hours.  It will be well for a student, therefore, to begin with Psalters, as he can then get up the Hours in their elementary form.  I subjoin a bibliographical account of both kinds of MSS.  In the famous Exhibition at the Burlington Club in 1874, a number of volumes was arranged to show how persistent one type of the age could be.  The form of the decorations, and the arrangement of the figures in borders, once invented, was fixed for generations.  In a Psalter of the thirteenth century there was, under the month of January in the calendar, a picture of a grotesque little figure warming himself at a stove.  The hearth below, the chimney-pot above, on which a stork was feeding her brood, with the intermediate chimney shaft used as a border, looked like a scientific preparation from the interior anatomy of a house of the period.  In one of the latest of the MSS. exhibited on that occasion was the self-same design again.  The little man was no longer a grotesque, and the picture had all the high finish and completeness in drawing that we might expect in the workmanship of a contemporary of Van Eyck.  There was a full series of intermediate books, showing the gradual growth of the picture.

With regard to chronology, it may be roughly asserted that the earliest books which occur are Psalters of the thirteenth century.  Next to them come Bibles, of which an enormous issue took place before the middle of the fourteenth century.  These are followed by an endless series of books of Hours, which, as the sixteenth century is reached, appear in several vernacular languages.  Those in English, being both very rare and of great importance in liturgical history, are of a value altogether out of proportion to the beauty of their illuminations.  Side by side with this succession are the Evangelistina, which, like the example mentioned above, are of the highest merit, beauty, and value; followed by sermons and homilies, and the Breviary, which itself shows signs of growth as the years go on.  The real Missal, with which all illuminated books used to be confounded, is of rare occurrence, but I have given a collation of it also.  Besides these devotional or religious books, I must mention chronicles and romances, and the semi-religious and moral allegories, such as the “Pelerinage de l’Ame,” which is said to have given Bunyan the machinery of the “Pilgrim’s Progress.”  Chaucer’s and Gower’s poetry exists in many MSS., as does the “Polychronicon” of Higden; but, as a rule, the mediaeval chronicles are of single origin, and were not copied.  To collate MSS. of these kinds is quite impossible, unless by carefully reading them, and seeing that the pages run on without break.

I should advise the young collector who wishes to make sure of success not to be too catholic in his tastes at first, but to confine his attention to a single period and a single school.  I should also advise him to make from time to time a careful catalogue of what he buys, and to preserve it even after he has weeded out certain items.  He will then be able to make a clear comparative estimate of the importance and value of his collection, and by studying one species at a time, to become thoroughly conversant with what it can teach him.  When he has, so to speak, burnt his fingers once or twice, he will find himself able to distinguish at sight what no amount of teaching by word of mouth or by writing could ever possibly impart to any advantage.

One thing I should like if possible to impress very strongly upon the reader.  That is the fact that a MS. which is not absolutely perfect, if it is in a genuine state, is of much more value than one which has been made perfect by the skill of a modern restorer.  The more skilful he is, that is to say the better he can forge the style of the original, the more worthless he renders the volume.

Printing seems to have superseded the art of the illuminator more promptly and completely in England than on the Continent.  The dames galantes of Brantome’s memoirs took pleasure in illuminated Books of Hours, suited to the nature of their devotions.  As late as the time of Louis XIV., Bussy Rabutin had a volume of the same kind, illuminated with portraits of “saints,” of his own canonisation.  The most famous of these modern examples of costly MSS. was “La Guirlande de Julie,” a collection of madrigals by various courtly hands, presented to the illustrious Julie, daughter of the Marquise de Rambouillet, most distinguished of the Precieuses, and wife of the Duc de Montausier, the supposed original of Moliere’s Alceste.  The MS. was copied on vellum by Nicholas Jarry, the great calligraph of his time.  The flowers on the margin were painted by Robert.  Not long ago a French amateur was so lucky as to discover the MS. book of prayers of Julie’s noble mother, the Marquise de Rambouillet.  The Marquise wrote these prayers for her own devotions, and Jarry, the illuminator, declared that he found them most edifying, and delightful to study.  The manuscript is written on vellum by the famous Jarry, contains a portrait of the fair Julie herself, and is bound in morocco by Le Gascon.  The happy collector who possesses the volume now, heard vaguely that a manuscript of some interest was being exposed for sale at a trifling price in the shop of a country bookseller.  The description of the book, casual as it was, made mention of the monogram on the cover.  This was enough for the amateur.  He rushed to a railway station, travelled some three hundred miles, reached the country town, hastened to the bookseller’s shop, and found that the book had been withdrawn by its owner.  Happily the possessor, unconscious of his bliss, was at home.  The amateur sought him out, paid the small sum demanded, and returned to Paris in triumph.  Thus, even in the region of manuscript-collecting, there are extraordinary prizes for the intelligent collector.



If the manuscript is of English or French writing of the twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, or fifteenth centuries, it is probably either--(1) a Bible, (2) a Psalter, (3) a book of Hours, or (4), but rarely, a Missal.  It is not worth while to give the collation of a gradual, or a hymnal, or a processional, or a breviary, or any of the fifty different kinds of service-books which are occasionally met with, but which are never twice the same.

To collate one of them, the reader must go carefully through the book, seeing that the catch-words, if there are any, answer to the head lines; and if there are “signatures,” that is, if the foot of the leaves of a sheet of parchment has any mark for enabling the binder to “gather” them correctly, going through them, and seeing that each signed leaf has its corresponding “blank.”

1.   To collate a Bible, it will be necessary first to go through the catch-words, if any, and signatures, as above; then to notice the contents.  The first page should contain the Epistle of St. Jerome to the reader.  It will be observed that there is nothing of the nature of a title-page, but I have often seen title-pages supplied by some ignorant imitator in the last century, with the idea that the book was imperfect without one.  The books of the Bible follow in order—but the order not only differs from ours, but differs in different copies.  The Apocryphal books are always included.  The New Testament usually follows on the Old without any break; and the book concludes with an index of the Hebrew names and their signification in Latin, intended to help preachers to the figurative meaning of the biblical types and parables.  The last line of the Bible itself usually contains a colophon, in which sometimes the name of the writer is given, sometimes the length of time it has taken him to write, and sometimes merely the “Explicit. Laus Deo,” which has found its way into many modern books.  This colophon, which comes as a rule immediately before the index, often contains curious notes, hexameters giving the names of all the books, biographical or local memoranda, and should always be looked for by the collector.  One such line occurs to me.  It is in a Bible written in Italy in the thirteenth century -

 “Qui scripsit scribat.  Vergilius spe domini vivat.”

Vergilius was, no doubt, in this case the scribe.  The Latin and the writing are often equally crabbed.  In the Bodleian there is a Bible with this colophon - 

“Finito libro referemus gratias Christo indict. viij.
Ego Lafracus de Pacis de Cmoa scriptor scripsi.”

This was also written in Italy.  English colophons are often very quaint—“Qui scripsit hunc librum fiat collocatus in Paradisum,” is an example.  The following gives us the name of one Master Gerard, who, in the fourteenth century, thus poetically described his ownership:-  

“Si Ge ponatur—et rar simul associatur - Et dus reddatur—cui pertinet ita vocatur.”

In a Bible written in England, in the British Museum, there is a long colophon, in which, after the name of the writer—“hunc librum scripsit Wills de Hales,”—there is a prayer for Ralph of Nebham, who had called Hales to the writing of the book, followed by a date--“Fes. fuit liber anno quarto ab incarnatione domini.”  In this Bible the books of the New Testament were in the following order:- the Evangelists, the Acts, the Epistles of S. Peter, S.

James, and S. John, the Epistles of S. Paul, and the Apocalypse.  In a Bible at Brussels I found the colophon after the index:-

"Hic expliciunt interpretationes Hebrayorum nominum Do gris qui potens est p. sup. omia.” 

Some of these Bibles are of marvellously small dimensions.  The smallest I ever saw was at Ghent, but it was very imperfect.  I have one in which there are thirteen lines of writing in an inch of the column.  The order of the books of the New Testament in Bibles of the thirteenth century is usually according to one or other of the three following arrangements:-  

(1.)  The Evangelists, Romans to Hebrews, Acts, Epistles of S. Peter, S. James, and S. John, Apocalypse.

(2.)  The Evangelists, Acts, Epistles of S. Peter, S. James, and S. John, Epistles of S. Paul, Apocalypse.  This is the most common.

(3.)  The Evangelists, Acts, Epistles of S. Peter, S. James, and S. John, Apocalypse, and Epistles of S. Paul.

On the fly leaves of these old Bibles there are often very curious inscriptions.  In one I have this:- “Haec biblia emi Haquinas prior monasterii Hatharbiensis de dono domini regis Norwegie.”  Who was this King of Norway who, in 1310, gave the Prior of Hatherby money to buy a Bible, which was probably written at Canterbury?  And who was Haquinas?  His name has a Norwegian sound, and reminds us of St. Thomas of that surname.  In another manuscript I have seen:

“Articula Fidei:- Nascitur, abluitur, patitur, descendit at ima Surgit et ascendit, veniens discernere cuncta.”

In another this:-  

“Sacramenta ecclesiae:-
Abluo, fumo, cibo, piget, ordinat, uxor et ungit.”

I will conclude these notes on MS. Bibles with the following colophon from a copy written in Italy in the fifteenth century:- 

“Finito libro vivamus semper in Christo - Si semper in Christo carebimus ultimo leto.  Explicit Deo gratias; Amen.  Stephanus de Tantaldis scripsit in pergamo.”

2.   The “Psalter” of the thirteenth century is usually to be considered a forerunner of the “Book of Hours.”  It always contains, and usually commences with, a Calendar, in which are written against certain days the “obits” of benefactors and others, so that a well-filled Psalter often becomes a historical document of high value and importance.  The first page of the psalms is ornamented with a huge B, which often fills the whole page, and contains a representation of David and Goliath ingeniously fitted to the shape of the letter.  At the end are usually to be found the hymns of the Three Children, and others from the Bible together with the Te Deum; and sometimes, in late examples, a litany.  In some psalters the calendar is at the end.  These Psalters, and the Bibles described above, are very frequently of English work; more frequently, that is, than the books of Hours and Missals.  The study of the Scriptures was evidently more popular in England than in the other countries of Europe during the Middle Ages; and the early success of the Reformers here, must in part, no doubt, be attributed to the wide circulation of the Bible even before it had been translated from the Latin.  I need hardly, perhaps, observe that even fragments of a Psalter, a Testament, or a Bible in English, are so precious as to be practically invaluable.

3.   We are indebted to Sir W. Tite for the following collation of a Flemish “Book of Hours”:-  

1.   The Calendar.

2.   Gospels of the Nativity and the Resurrection.

3.   Preliminary Prayers (inserted occasionally).

4.   Horae--(Nocturns and Matins).

5.   (Lauds).

6.   (Prime).

7.   (Tierce).

8.   (Sexte).

9.   (None).

10. (Vespers).

11. (Compline).

12. The seven penitential Psalms

13. The Litany.

14. Hours of the Cross.

15. Hours of the Holy Spirit.

16. Office of the Dead.

17. The Fifteen Joys of B. V. M.

18. The seven requests to our Lord.

19. Prayers and Suffrages to various Saints.

20. Several prayers, petitions, and devotions.

This is an unusually full example, but the calendar, the hours, the seven psalms, and the litany, are in almost all the MSS.  The buyer must look carefully to see that no miniatures have been cut out; but it is only by counting the leaves in their gatherings that he can make sure.  This is often impossible without breaking the binding.

The most valuable “Horae” are those written in England.  Some are of the English use (Sarum or York, or whatever it may happen to be), but were written abroad, especially in Normandy, for the English market.  These are also valuable, even when imperfect.  Look for the page before the commencement of the Hours (No. 4 in the list above), and at the end will be found a line in red,--“Incipit Horae secundum usum Sarum,” or otherwise, as the case may be.

4.   Missals do not often occur, and are not only very valuable but very difficult to collate, unless furnished with catch-words or signatures.  But no Missal is complete without the Canon of the Mass, usually in the middle of the book, and if there are any illuminations throughout the volume, there will be a full page Crucifixion, facing the Canon.  Missals of large size and completeness contain--(1) a Calendar; (2) “the proper of the Season;” (3) the ordinary and Canon of the Mass; (4) the Communal of Saints; (5) the proper of Saints and special occasions; (6) the lessons, epistles, and gospels; with (7) some hymns, “proses,” and canticles.  This is Sir W. Tite’s list; but, as he remarks, MS.  Missals seldom contain so much.  The collector will look for the Canon, which is invariable.

Breviaries run to an immense length, and are seldom illuminated.  It would be impossible to give them any kind of collation, and the same may be said of many other kinds of old service-books, and of the chronicles, poems, romances, and herbals, in which mediaeval literature abounded, and which the collector must judge as best he can.

The name of “missal” is commonly and falsely given to all old service-books by the booksellers, but the collector will easily distinguish one when he sees it, from the notes I have given.  In a Sarum Missal, at Alnwick, there is a colophon quoted by my lamented friend Dr. Rock in his “Textile Fabrics.”  It is appropriate both to the labours of the old scribes and also to those of their modern readers:-  

“Librum Scribendo—Jon Whas Monachus laborabat - Et mane Surgendo—multum corpus macerabat.”

It is one of the charms of manuscripts that they illustrate, in their minute way, all the art, and even the social condition, of the period in which they were produced.  Apostles, saints, and prophets wear the contemporary costume, and Jonah, when thrown to the hungry whale, wears doublet and trunk hose.  The ornaments illustrate the architectural taste of the day.  The backgrounds change from diapered patterns to landscapes, as the modern way of looking at nature penetrates the monasteries and reaches the scriptorium where the illuminator sits and refreshes his eyes with the sight of the slender trees and blue distant hills.  Printed books have not such resources.  They can only show varieties of type, quaint frontispieces, printers’ devices, and fleurons at the heads of chapters.  These attractions, and even the engravings of a later day, seem meagre enough compared with the allurements of manuscripts.  Yet printed books must almost always make the greater part of a collection, and it may be well to give some rules as to the features that distinguish the productions of the early press.  But no amount of “rules” is worth six months’ practical experience in bibliography.  That experience the amateur, if he is wise, will obtain in a public library, like the British Museum or the Bodleian.  Nowhere else is he likely to see much of the earliest of printed books, which very seldom come into the market.

Those of the first German press are so rare that practically they never reach the hands of the ordinary collector.  Among them are the famous Psalters printed by Fust and Schoffer, the earliest of which is dated 1457; and the bible known as the Mazarine Bible.  Two copies of this last were in the Perkins sale.  I well remember the excitement on that occasion.  The first copy put up was the best, being printed upon vellum.  The bidding commenced at 1000 pounds, and very speedily rose to 2200 pounds, at which point there was a long pause; it then rose in hundreds with very little delay to 3400 pounds, at which it was knocked down to a bookseller.  The second copy was on paper, and there were those present who said it was better than the other, which had a suspicion attaching to it of having been “restored” with a facsimile leaf.  The first bid was again 1000 pounds, which the buyer of the previous copy made guineas, and the bidding speedily went up to 2660 pounds, at which price the first bidder paused.  A third bidder had stepped in at 1960 pounds, and now, amid breathless excitement, bid 10 pounds more.  This he had to do twice before the book was knocked down to him at 2690 pounds.

A scene like this has really very little to do with book-collecting.  The beginner must labour hard to distinguish different kinds of printing; he must be able to recognise at a glance even fragments from the press of Caxton.  His eye must be accustomed to all the tricks of the trade and others, so that he may tell a facsimile in a moment, or detect a forgery.

But now let us return to the distinctive marks of early printed books.  The first is, says M. Rouveyre, -

1.   The absence of a separate title-page.  It was not till 1476-1480 that the titles of books were printed on separate pages.  The next mark is -

2.   The absence of capital letters at the beginnings of divisions.  

It was intended that the open space, occupied by the small epsilon ([epsilon symbol]), should be filled up with a coloured and gilded initial letter by the illuminator.  Copies thus decorated are not very common, but the Aldine “Homer” of Francis I., rescued by M.  Didot from a rubbish heap in an English cellar, had its due illuminations.  In the earliest books the guide to the illuminator, the small printed letter, does not appear, and he often puts in the wrong initial.

3.   Irregularity and rudeness of type is a “note” of the primitive printing press, which very early disappeared.  Nothing in the history of printing is so remarkable as the beauty of almost its first efforts.  Other notes are -

4.   The absence of figures at the top of the pages, and of signatures at the foot.  The thickness and solidity of the paper, the absence of the printer’s name, of the date, and of the name of the town where the press stood, and the abundance of crabbed abbreviations, are all marks, more or less trustworthy, of the antiquity of books.  It must not be supposed that all books published, let us say before 1500, are rare, or deserve the notice of the collector.  More than 18,000 works, it has been calculated, left the press before the end of the fifteenth century.  All of these cannot possibly be of interest, and many of them that are “rare,” are rare precisely because they are uninteresting.  They have not been preserved because they were thought not worth preserving.  This is a great cause of rarity; but we must not hastily conclude that because a book found no favour in its own age, therefore it has no claim on our attention.  A London bookseller tells me that he bought the “remainder” of Keats’s “Endymion” for fourpence a copy!  The first edition of “Endymion” is now rare and valued.  In trying to mend the binding of an old “Odyssey” lately, I extracted from the vellum covers parts of two copies of a very scarce and curious French dictionary of slang, “Le Jargon, ou Langage de l’Argot Reforme.”  This treatise may have been valueless, almost, when it appeared, but now it is serviceable to the philologist, and to all who care to try to interpret the slang ballades of the poet Villon.  An old pamphlet, an old satire, may hold the key to some historical problem, or throw light on the past of manners and customs.  Still, of the earliest printed books, collectors prefer such rare and beautiful ones as the oldest printed Bibles:  German, English,--as Taverner’s and the Bishop’s,--or Hebrew and Greek, or the first editions of the ancient classics, which may contain the readings of MSS. now lost or destroyed.  Talking of early Bibles, let us admire the luck and prudence of a certain Mr. Sandford.  He always longed for the first Hebrew Bible, but would offer no fancy price, being convinced that the book would one day fall in his way.  His foreboding was fulfilled, and he picked up his treasure for ten shillings in a shop in the Strand.  The taste for incunabula, or very early printed books, slumbered in the latter half of the sixteenth, and all the seventeenth century.  It revived with the third jubilee of printing in 1740, and since then has refined itself, and only craves books very early, very important, or works from the press of Caxton, the St. Albans Schoolmaster, or other famous old artists.  Enough has been said to show the beginner, always enthusiastic, that all old books are not precious.  For further information, the “Biography and Typography of William Caxton,” by Mr. Blades (Trubner, London, 1877), may be consulted with profit.

Following the categories into which M. Brunet classifies desirable books in his invaluable manual, we now come to books printed on vellum, and on peculiar papers.  At the origin of printing, examples of many books, probably presentation copies, were printed on vellum.  There is a vellum copy of the celebrated Florentine first edition of Homer; but it is truly sad to think that the twin volumes, Iliad and Odyssey, have been separated, and pine in distant libraries.  Early printed books on vellum often have beautifully illuminated capitals.  Dibdin mentions in “Bibliomania” (London, 1811), p. 90, that a M.  Van Praet was compiling a catalogue of works printed on vellum, and had collected more than 2000 articles.  When hard things are said about Henry VIII., let us remember that this monarch had a few copies of his book against Luther printed on vellum.  The Duke of Marlborough’s library possessed twenty-five books on vellum, all printed before 1496.  The chapter-house at Padua has a “Catullus” of 1472 on vellum; let Mr. Robinson Ellis think wistfully of that treasure.  The notable Count M’Carthy of Toulouse had a wonderful library of books in membranis, including a book much coveted for its rarity, oddity, and the beauty of its illustrations, the “Hypnerotomachia” of Poliphilus (Venice, 1499).  Vellum was the favourite “vanity” of Junot, Napoleon’s general.  For reasons connected with its manufacture, and best not inquired into, the Italian vellum enjoyed the greatest reputation for smooth and silky whiteness.  Dibdin calls “our modern books on vellum little short of downright wretched.”  But the editor of this series could, I think, show examples that would have made Dibdin change his opinion.

Many comparatively expensive papers, large in format, are used in choice editions of books.  Whatman papers, Dutch papers, Chinese papers, and even papier verge, have all their admirers.  The amateur will soon learn to distinguish these materials.  As to books printed on coloured paper—green, blue, yellow, rhubarb-coloured, and the like, they are an offence to the eyes and to the taste.  Yet even these have their admirers and collectors, and the great Aldus himself occasionally used azure paper.  Under the head of “large paper,” perhaps “uncut copies” should be mentioned.  Most owners of books have had the edges of the volumes gilded or marbled by the binders.  Thus part of the margin is lost, an offence to the eye of the bibliomaniac, while copies untouched by the binder’s shears are rare, and therefore prized.  The inconvenience of uncut copies is, that one cannot easily turn over the leaves.  But, in the present state of the fashion, a really rare uncut Elzevir may be worth hundreds of pounds, while a cropped example scarcely fetches as many shillings.  A set of Shakespeare’s quartoes, uncut, would be worth more than a respectable landed estate in Connemara.  For these reasons the amateur will do well to have new books of price bound “uncut.”  It is always easy to have the leaves pared away; but not even the fabled fountain at Argos, in which Hera yearly renewed her maidenhood, could restore margins once clipped away.  So much for books which are chiefly precious for the quantity and quality of the material on which they are printed.  Even this rather foolish weakness of the amateur would not be useless if it made our publishers more careful to employ a sound clean hand-made paper, instead of drugged trash, for their more valuable new productions.  Indeed, a taste for hand-made paper is coming in, and is part of the revolt against the passion for everything machine-made, which ruined art and handiwork in the years between 1840 and 1870.

The third of M. Brunet’s categories of books of prose, includes livres de luxe, and illustrated literature.  Every Christmas brings us livres de luxe in plenty, books which are no books, but have gilt and magenta covers, and great staring illustrations.  These are regarded as drawing-room ornaments by people who never read.  It is scarcely necessary to warn the collector against these gaudy baits of unregulated Christmas generosity.  All ages have not produced quite such garish livres de luxe as ours.  But, on the whole, a book brought out merely for the sake of display, is generally a book ill “got up,” and not worth reading.  Moreover, it is generally a folio, or quarto, so large that he who tries to read it must support it on a kind of scaffolding.  In the class of illustrated books two sorts are at present most in demand.  The ancient woodcuts and engravings, often the work of artists like Holbein and Durer, can never lose their interest.  Among old illustrated books, the most famous, and one of the rarest, is the “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,” “wherein all human matters are proved to be no more than a dream.”  This is an allegorical romance, published in 1499, for Francesco Colonna, by Aldus Manucius.  Poliam Frater Franciscus Columna peramavit.  “Brother Francesco Colonna dearly loved Polia,” is the inscription and device of this romance.  Poor Francesco, of the order of preachers, disguised in this strange work his passion for a lady of uncertain name.  Here is a translation of the passage in which the lady describes the beginning of his affection.  “I was standing, as is the manner of women young and fair, at the window, or rather on the balcony, of my palace.  My yellow hair, the charm of maidens, was floating round my shining shoulders.  My locks were steeped in unguents that made them glitter like threads of gold, and they were slowly drying in the rays of the burning sun.  A handmaid, happy in her task, was drawing a comb through my tresses, and surely these of Andromeda seemed not more lovely to Perseus, nor to Lucius the locks of Photis. {6}  On a sudden, Poliphilus beheld me, and could not withdraw from me his glances of fire, and even in that moment a ray of the sun of love was kindled in his heart.”

The fragment is itself a picture from the world of the Renaissance.  We watch the blonde, learned lady, dreaming of Perseus, and Lucius, Greek lovers of old time, while the sun gilds her yellow hair, and the young monk, passing below, sees and loves, and “falls into the deep waters of desire.”  The lover is no less learned than the lady, and there is a great deal of amorous archaeology in his account of his voyage to Cythera.  As to the designs in wood, quaint in their vigorous effort to be classical, they have been attributed to Mantegna, to Bellini, and other artists.  Jean Cousin is said to have executed the imitations, in the Paris editions of 1546, 1556, and 1561.

The “Hypnerotomachia” seems to deserve notice, because it is the very type of the books that are dear to collectors, as distinct from the books that, in any shape, are for ever valuable to the world.  A cheap Tauchnitz copy of the Iliad and Odyssey, or a Globe Shakespeare, are, from the point of view of literature, worth a wilderness of “Hypnerotomachiae.”  But a clean copy of the “Hypnerotomachia,” especially on VELLUM, is one of the jewels of bibliography.  It has all the right qualities; it is very rare, it is very beautiful as a work of art, it is curious and even bizarre, it is the record of a strange time, and a strange passion; it is a relic, lastly, of its printer, the great and good Aldus Manutius.

Next to the old woodcuts and engravings, executed in times when artists were versatile and did not disdain even to draw a book-plate (as Durer did for Pirckheimer), the designs of the French “little masters,” are at present in most demand.  The book illustrations of the seventeenth century are curious enough, and invaluable as authorities on manners and costume.  But the attitudes of the figures are too often stiff and ungainly; while the composition is frequently left to chance.  England could show nothing much better than Ogilby’s translations of Homer, illustrated with big florid engravings in sham antique style.  The years between 1730 and 1820, saw the French “little masters” in their perfection.  The dress of the middle of the eighteenth century, of the age of Watteau, was precisely suited to the gay and graceful pencils of Gravelot, Moreau, Eisen, Boucher, Cochin, Marillier, and Choffard.  To understand their merits, and the limits of their art, it is enough to glance through a series of the designs for Voltaire, Corneille, or Moliere.  The drawings of society are almost invariably dainty and pleasing, the serious scenes of tragedy leave the spectator quite unmoved.  Thus it is but natural that these artists should have shone most in the illustration of airy trifles like Dorat’s “Baisers,” or tales like Manon Lescaut, or in designing tailpieces for translations of the Greek idyllic poets, such as Moschus and Bion.  In some of his illustrations of books, especially, perhaps, in the designs for “La Physiologie de Gout” (Jouaust, Paris, 1879), M. Lalauze has shown himself the worthy rival of Eisen and Cochin.  Perhaps it is unnecessary to add that the beauty and value of all such engravings depends almost entirely on their “state.”  The earlier proofs are much more brilliant than those drawn later, and etchings on fine papers are justly preferred.  For example, M.  Lalauze’s engravings on “Whatman paper,” have a beauty which could scarcely be guessed by people who have only seen specimens on “papier verge.”  Every collector of the old French vignettes, should possess himself of the “Guide de l’amateur,” by M. Henry Cohen (Rouquette, Paris, 1880).  Among English illustrated books, various tastes prefer the imaginative works of William Blake, the etchings of Cruikshank, and the woodcuts of Bewick.  The whole of the last chapter of this sketch is devoted, by Mr. Austin Dobson, to the topic of English illustrated books.  Here it may be said, in passing, that an early copy of William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence,” written, illustrated, printed, coloured, and boarded by the author’s own hand, is one of the most charming objects that a bibliophile can hope to possess.  The verses of Blake, in a framework of birds, and flowers, and plumes, all softly and magically tinted, seem like some book out of King Oberon’s library in fairyland, rather than the productions of a mortal press.  The pictures in Blake’s “prophetic books,” and even his illustrations to “Job,” show an imagination more heavily weighted by the technical difficulties of drawing.

The next class of rare books is composed of works from the famous presses of the Aldi and the Elzevirs.  Other presses have, perhaps, done work as good, but Estienne, the Giunta, and Plantin, are comparatively neglected, while the taste for the performances of Baskerville and Foulis is not very eager.  A safe judgment about Aldines and Elzevirs is the gift of years and of long experience.  In this place it is only possible to say a few words on a wide subject.  The founder of the Aldine press, Aldus Pius Manutius, was born about 1450, and died at Venice in 1514.  He was a man of careful and profound learning, and was deeply interested in Greek studies, then encouraged by the arrival in Italy of many educated Greeks and Cretans.  Only four Greek authors had as yet been printed in Italy, when (1495) Aldus established his press at Venice.  Theocritus, Homer, AEsop, and Isocrates, probably in very limited editions, were in the hands of students.  The purpose of Aldus was to put Greek and Latin works, beautifully printed in a convenient shape, within the reach of all the world.  His reform was the introduction of books at once cheap, studiously correct, and convenient in actual use.  It was in 1498 that he first adopted the small octavo size, and in his “Virgil” of 1501, he introduced the type called Aldine or Italic.  The letters were united as in writing, and the type is said to have been cut by Francesco da Bologna, better known as Francia, in imitation of the hand of Petrarch.  For full information about Aldus and his descendants and successors, the work of M. Firmin Didot, (“Alde Manuce et l’Hellenisme a Venise:  Paris 1875),” and the Aldine annals of Renouard, must be consulted.  These two works are necessary to the collector, who will otherwise be deceived by the misleading assertions of the booksellers.  As a rule, the volumes published in the lifetime of Aldus Manutius are the most esteemed, and of these the Aristotle, the first Homer, the Virgil, and the Ovid, are perhaps most in demand.  The earlier Aldines are consulted almost as studiously as MSS. by modern editors of the classics.

Just as the house of Aldus waned and expired, that of the great Dutch printers, the Elzevirs, began obscurely enough at Leyden in 1583.  The Elzevirs were not, like Aldus, ripe scholars and men of devotion to learning.  Aldus laboured for the love of noble studies; the Elzevirs were acute, and too often “smart” men of business.  The founder of the family was Louis (born at Louvain, 1540, died 1617).  But it was in the second and third generations that Bonaventura and Abraham Elzevir began to publish at Leyden, their editions in small duodecimo.  Like Aldus, these Elzevirs aimed at producing books at once handy, cheap, correct, and beautiful in execution.  Their adventure was a complete success.  The Elzevirs did not, like Aldus, surround themselves with the most learned scholars of their time.  Their famous literary adviser, Heinsius, was full of literary jealousies, and kept students of his own calibre at a distance.  The classical editions of the Elzevirs, beautiful, but too small in type for modern eyes, are anything but exquisitely correct.  Their editions of the contemporary.  French authors, now classics themselves, are lovely examples of skill in practical enterprise.  The Elzevirs treated the French authors much as American publishers treat Englishmen.  They stole right and left, but no one complained much in these times of slack copyright; and, at all events, the piratic larcenous publications of the Dutch printers were pretty, and so far satisfactory.  They themselves, in turn, were the victims of fraudulent and untradesmanlike imitations.  It is for this, among other reasons, that the collector of Elzevirs must make M. Willems’s book (“Les Elzevier,” Brussels and Paris, 1880) his constant study.  Differences so minute that they escape the unpractised eye, denote editions of most various value.  In Elzevirs a line’s breadth of margin is often worth a hundred pounds, and a misprint is quoted at no less a sum.  The fantastic caprice of bibliophiles has revelled in the bibliography of these Dutch editions.  They are at present very scarce in England, where a change in fashion some years ago had made them common enough.  No Elzevir is valuable unless it be clean and large in the margins.  When these conditions are satisfied the question of rarity comes in, and Remy Belleau’s Macaronic poem, or “Le Pastissier Francais,” may rise to the price of four or five hundred pounds.  A Rabelais, Moliere, or Corneille, of a “good” edition, is now more in request than the once adored “Imitatio Christi” (dateless), or the “Virgil”’ of 1646, which is full of gross errors of the press, but is esteemed for red characters in the letter to Augustus, and another passage at page 92.  The ordinary marks of the Elzevirs were the sphere, the old hermit, the Athena, the eagle, and the burning faggot.  But all little old books marked with spheres are not Elzevirs, as many booksellers suppose.  Other printers also stole the designs for the tops of chapters, the Aegipan, the Siren, the head of Medusa, the crossed sceptres, and the rest.  In some cases the Elzevirs published their books, especially when they were piracies, anonymously.  When they published for the Jansenists, they allowed their clients to put fantastic pseudonyms on the title pages.  But, except in four cases, they had only two pseudonyms used on the titles of books published by and for themselves.  These disguises are “Jean Sambix” for Jean and Daniel Elzevir, at Leyden, and for the Elzevirs of Amsterdam, “Jacques le Jeune.”  The last of the great representatives of the house, Daniel, died at Amsterdam, 1680.  Abraham, an unworthy scion, struggled on at Leyden till 1712.  The family still prospers, but no longer prints, in Holland.  It is common to add duodecimos of Foppens, Wolfgang, and other printers, to the collections of the Elzevirs.  The books of Wolfgang have the sign of the fox robbing a wild bee’s nest, with the motto Quaerendo.

Curious and singular books are the next in our classification.  The category is too large.  The books that be “curious” (not in the booksellers’ sense of “prurient” and “disgusting,”) are innumerable.  All suppressed and condemned books, from “Les Fleurs du Mal” to Vanini’s “Amphitheatrum,” or the English translation of Bruno’s “Spaccia della Bestia Trionfante,” are more or less rare, and more or less curious.  Wild books, like William Postel’s “Three Marvellous Triumphs of Women,” are “curious.”  Freakish books, like macaronic poetry, written in a medley of languages, are curious.  Books from private presses are singular.  The old English poets and satirists turned out many a book curious to the last degree, and priced at a fantastic value.  Such are “Jordan’s Jewels of Ingenuity,” “Micro-cynicon, six Snarling Satyres” (1599), and the “Treatize made of a Galaunt,” printed by Wynkyn de Worde, and found pasted into the fly-leaf, on the oak-board binding of an imperfect volume of Pynson’s “Statutes.”  All our early English poems and miscellanies are curious; and, as relics of delightful singers, are most charming possessions.  Such are the “Songes and Sonnettes of Surrey” (1557), the “Paradyce of daynty Deuices” (1576), the “Small Handful of Fragrant Flowers,” and “The Handful of Dainty Delights, gathered out of the lovely Garden of Sacred Scripture, fit for any worshipful Gentlewoman to smell unto,” (1584).  “The Teares of Ireland” (1642), are said, though one would not expect it, to be “extremely rare,” and, therefore, precious.  But there is no end to the list of such desirable rarities.  If we add to them all books coveted as early editions, and, therefore, as relics of great writers, Bunyan, Shakespeare, Milton, Sterne, Walton, and the rest, we might easily fill a book with remarks on this topic alone.  The collection of such editions is the most respectable, the most useful, and, alas, the most expensive of the amateur’s pursuits.  It is curious enough that the early editions of Swift, Scott, and Byron, are little sought for, if not wholly neglected; while early copies of Shelley, Tennyson, and Keats, have a great price set on their heads.  The quartoes of Shakespeare, like first editions of Racine, are out of the reach of any but very opulent purchasers, or unusually lucky, fortunate book-hunters.  Before leaving the topic of books which derive their value from the taste and fantasy of collectors, it must be remarked that, in this matter, the fashion of the world changes.  Dr. Dibdin lamented, seventy years ago, the waning respect paid to certain editions of the classics.  He would find that things have become worse now, and modern German editions, on execrable paper, have supplanted his old favourites.  Fifty years ago, M. Brunet expressed his contempt for the designs of Boucher; now they are at the top of the fashion.  The study of old booksellers’ catalogues is full of instruction as to the changes of caprice.  The collection of Dr. Rawlinson was sold in 1756.  “The Vision of Pierce Plowman” (1561), and the “Creede of Pierce Plowman” (1553), brought between them no more than three shillings and sixpence.  Eleven shillings were paid for the “Boke of Chivalrie” by Caxton.  The “Boke of St. Albans,” by Wynkyn de Worde, cost 1 pounds:  1s., and this was the highest sum paid for any one of two hundred rare pieces of early English literature.  In 1764, a copy of the “Hypnerotomachia” was sold for two shillings, “A Pettie Pallace of Pettie his Pleasures,” (ah, what a thought for the amateur!) went for three shillings, while “Palmerin of England” (1602), attained no more than the paltry sum of fourteen shillings.  When Osborne sold the Harley collection, the scarcest old English books fetched but three or four shillings.  If the wandering Jew had been a collector in the last century he might have turned a pretty profit by selling his old English books in this age of ours.  In old French, too, Ahasuerus would have done a good stroke of business, for the prices brought by old Villons, Romances of the Rose, “Les Marguerites de Marguerite,” and so forth, at the M’Carthy sale, were truly pitiable.  A hundred years hence the original editions of Thackeray, or of Miss Greenaway’s Christmas books, or “Modern Painters,” may be the ruling passion, and Aldines and Elzevirs, black letter and French vignettes may all be despised.  A book which is commonplace in our century is curious in the next, and disregarded in that which follows.  Old books of a heretical character were treasures once, rare unholy possessions.  Now we have seen so many heretics that the world is indifferent to the audacities of Bruno, and the veiled impieties of Vanini.

The last of our categories of books much sought by the collector includes all volumes valued for their ancient bindings, for the mark and stamp of famous amateurs.  The French, who have supplied the world with so many eminent binders,--as Eve, Padeloup, Duseuil, Le Gascon, Derome, Simier, Bozerian, Thouvenin, Trautz-Bauzonnet, and Lortic—are the chief patrons of books in historical bindings.  In England an historical binding, a book of Laud’s, or James’s, or Garrick’s, or even of Queen Elizabeth’s, does not seem to derive much added charm from its associations.  But, in France, peculiar bindings are now the objects most in demand among collectors.  The series of books thus rendered precious begins with those of Maioli and of Grolier (1479-1565), remarkable for their mottoes and the geometrical patterns on the covers.  Then comes De Thou (who had three sets of arms), with his blazon, the bees stamped on the morocco.  The volumes of Marguerite of Angouleme are sprinkled with golden daisies.  Diane de Poictiers had her crescents and her bow, and the initial of her royal lover was intertwined with her own.  The three daughters of Louis XV. had each their favourite colour, and their books wear liveries of citron, red, and olive morocco.  The Abbe Cotin, the original of Moliere’s Trissotin, stamped his books with intertwined C’s.  Henri III. preferred religious emblems, and sepulchral mottoes—skulls, crossbones, tears, and the insignia of the Passion.  Mort m’est vie is a favourite device of the effeminate and voluptuous prince.  Moliere himself was a collector, il n’es pas de bouquin qui s’echappe de ses mains,--“never an old book escapes him,” says the author of “La Guerre Comique,” the last of the pamphlets which flew from side to side in the great literary squabble about “L’Ecole des Femmes.”  M. Soulie has found a rough catalogue of Moliere’s library, but the books, except a little Elzevir, have disappeared. {7}  Madame de Maintenon was fond of bindings.  Mr. Toovey possesses a copy of a devotional work in red morocco, tooled and gilt, which she presented to a friendly abbess.  The books at Saint-Cyr were stamped with a crowned cross, besprent with fleurs-de-lys.  The books of the later collectors—Longepierre, the translator of Bion and Moschus; D’Hoym the diplomatist; McCarthy, and La Valliere, are all valued at a rate which seems fair game for satire.

Among the most interesting bibliophiles of the eighteenth century is Madame Du Barry.  In 1771, this notorious beauty could scarcely read or write.  She had rooms, however, in the Chateau de Versailles, thanks to the kindness of a monarch who admired those native qualities which education may polish, but which it can never confer.  At Versailles, Madame Du Barry heard of the literary genius of Madame de Pompadour.  The Pompadour was a person of taste.  Her large library of some four thousand works of the lightest sort of light literature was bound by Biziaux.  Mr. Toovey possesses the Brantome of this dame galante.  Madame herself had published etchings by her own fair hands; and to hear of these things excited the emulation of Madame Du Barry.  She might not be CLEVER, but she could have a library like another, if libraries were in fashion.  One day Madame Du Barry astonished the Court by announcing that her collection of books would presently arrive at Versailles.  Meantime she took counsel with a bookseller, who bought up examples of all the cheap “remainders,” as they are called in the trade, that he could lay his hands upon.  The whole assortment, about one thousand volumes in all, was hastily bound in rose morocco, elegantly gilt, and stamped with the arms of the noble house of Du Barry.  The bill which Madame Du Barry owed her enterprising agent is still in existence.  The thousand volumes cost about three francs each; the binding (extremely cheap) came to nearly as much.  The amusing thing is that the bookseller, in the catalogue which he sent with the improvised library, marked the books which Madame Du Barry possessed BEFORE her large order was so punctually executed.  There were two “Memoires de Du Barry,” an old newspaper, two or three plays, and “L’Historie Amoureuse de Pierre le Long.”  Louis XV. observed with pride that, though Madame Pompadour had possessed a larger library, that of Madame Du Barry was the better selected.  Thanks to her new collection, the lady learned to read with fluency, but she never overcame the difficulties of spelling.

A lady collector who loved books not very well perhaps, but certainly not wisely, was the unhappy Marie Antoinette.  The controversy in France about the private character of the Queen has been as acrimonious as the Scotch discussion about Mary Stuart.  Evidence, good and bad, letters as apocryphal as the letters of the famous “casket,” have been produced on both sides.  A few years ago, under the empire, M. Louis Lacour found a manuscript catalogue of the books in the Queen’s boudoir.  They were all novels of the flimsiest sort,--“L’Amitie Dangereuse,” “Les Suites d’un Moment d’Erreur,” and even the stories of Louvet and of Retif de la Bretonne.  These volumes all bore the letters “C. T.” (Chateau de Trianon), and during the Revolution they were scattered among the various public libraries of Paris.  The Queen’s more important library was at the Tuileries, but at Versailles she had only three books, as the commissioners of the Convention found, when they made an inventory of the property of la femme Capet.  Among the three was the “Gerusalemme Liberata,” printed, with eighty exquisite designs by Cochin, at the expense of “Monsieur,” afterwards Louis XVIII.  Books with the arms of Marie Antoinette are very rare in private collections; in sales they are as much sought after as those of Madame Du Barry.

With these illustrations of the kind of interest that belongs to books of old collectors, we may close this chapter.  The reader has before him a list, with examples, of the kinds of books at present most in vogue among amateurs.  He must judge for himself whether he will follow the fashion, by aid either of a long purse or of patient research, or whether he will find out new paths for himself.  A scholar is rarely a rich man.  He cannot compete with plutocrats who buy by deputy.  But, if he pursues the works he really needs, he may make a valuable collection.  He cannot go far wrong while he brings together the books that he finds most congenial to his own taste and most useful to his own studies.  Here, then, in the words of the old “sentiment,” I bid him farewell, and wish “success to his inclinations, provided they are virtuous.”  There is a set of collectors, alas! whose inclinations are not virtuous.  The most famous of them, a Frenchman, observed that his own collection of bad books was unique.  That of an English rival, he admitted, was respectable,--“mais milord se livre a des autres preoccupations!” He thought a collector’s whole heart should be with his treasures.

En bouquinant se trouve grand soulas.
Soubent m’en vay musant, a petis pas,
Au long des quais, pour flairer maint bieux livre.
Des Elzevier la Sphere me rend yure,
Et la Sirene aussi m’esmeut.  Grand cas
Fais-je d’Estienne, Aide, ou Dolet.  Mais Ias! 
Le vieux Caxton ne se rencontre pas,
Plus qu’ agneau d’or parmi jetons de cuivre,
En bouquinant!

Pour tout plaisir que l’on goute icy-bas
La Grace a Dieu.  Mieux vaut, sans altercas,
Chasser bouquin:  Nul mal n’en peult s’ensuivre.  
Dr sus au livre:  il est le grand appas.
Clair est le ciel.  Amis, qui veut me suivre
En bouquinant?




Original text by Andrew Lang from the 1881 Macmillan and Co. edition, edited and revised by D. J. McAdam 2006.  This text © 2006.


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