December 2022

The Medieval Manuscripts Provenance blog

A favourite blog of mine is Medieval Manuscripts Provenance, the work of Peter Kidd, a UK based freelance researcher in the field of medieval manuscripts. There are new posts every couple of weeks; they vary in content within the general theme; and they are consistently well written and clearly presented, excellently illustrated, and always interesting and appealing.  To date there are some 480 posts in total, all archived and easily accessible, and the site gets a few thousand views per month.

Struggling to identify my own favourites among the wealth of possibilities I asked Peter Kidd to suggest a few which would give a flavour of what the website can offer.  Here are his suggestions and links:

Richard Linenthal, President

November 2022

‘The Cost of Culture’: the podcast of the Cultivate MSS Project

‘Women in the Manuscript Trade’ is the intriguing title of the latest episode of the Cost of Culture podcast, published on 25 October.  In this twenty-minute episode Natalia Fantetti, in conversation with Dr Elizabeth Dearnley, introduces three women who in different ways were influential figures in the collecting, study, and selling of medieval manuscripts in the early twentieth century:  Belle da Costa Greene, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Anne Nill.  The last of these is less well-known than the others. Nill worked for the New York bookseller, Wilfrid Voynich and his wife Ethel.  Over time Nill became involved in almost every aspect of the business.   When Ethel died, it was Anne Nill who, in 1960, eventually sold the enigmatic ‘Voynich manuscript’ to bookdealer H. P Kraus.  There is much more in the podcast, which is accessible for those with little knowledge of the manuscript world, but which also brings in recent research findings that will interest specialists.

There are many good stories waiting to be told about the world of manuscripts, collectors, sellers and scholars between 1900-1945.  Exploring the deeper historical picture and the cultural and scholarly legacies of this significant period of selling, buying and collection-building is the remit of a major ERC-funded project, Cultivate MSS, led by Dr Laura Cleaver at the Institute of English Studies, University of London.  The project, which has two more years to run, recently hosted a successful conference, ‘The International Trade in Pre-Modern Manuscripts 1890-1945 and the Making of the Middle Ages’ that took place at the Institute of Historical Research in London 20 – 23 September 2022.  The project website is already a useful and growing resource, with information about the research strands, biographies of the major and lesser-known players, and links to further resources, publications, and of course, the podcast.    You can also keep up with the latest developments by following @cultivate_mss.

The podcast is available via Apple PodcastsStitcherPodbeanSoundCloud and Spotify

Julia Walworth, Vice-President

October 2022

Francysk Skaryna (c. 1470 – 1552) Belarusian humanist, physician, and translator

2022 marks the 500th year since the first printing house was established in Vilnius, Lithuania, when Francysk Skaryna published his Little Travel Book (1522) and printing began in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania declared 2022 the Year of Francysk Skaryna.

Skaryna was the first printer in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, contributing to the development of the Belarusian izvod or Church Slavonic language. He was also one of the pioneers of publishing in Cyrillic script. He adopted an Eastern Slavic language although there was no standard Belarusian language at the time, and it seems that Skaryna’s books, mostly in Church Slavonic, were heavily saturated with Ruthenian, Skaryna laying the foundations of the Belarusian literary language.

Francysk Skaryna (Franciscus Scorina, Францыск Скарына)  c. 1470 – 1552, was a Belarusian humanist, physician, and translator, much travelled but whose most important work was conducted in Prague (23 Books of the Hebrew Bible) and in Vilnius, Lithuania (the Little Travel Book and the Apostol (Apostle), comprising the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles). Well known in his homelands, he is comparatively neglected in Western Europe – something that should be corrected. There is much reading available. Of recent work for example, in 2021 Ilya Lemeshkin from Charles University, Prague, published in Russian (but with French and Lithuanian prefaces and final resumés) a major study of Skaryna: Илья Лемешкин (Ilja Lemeškinas), Портрет Франциска Скорины / Portrait de Francisk Skorina.  Travaux du Cercle Linguistic de Prague 10.  The broader context is given in Aušra Navickienė et alThe History of Publishing in Lithuania, Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Literature, OUP, 2021. The website of the Laboratory of Francysk Skaryna Studies has a good range of research articles with abstracts in English ( and an extensive Bibliography on Skaryna (mainly in Belarusian and Russian):

READ ON – via this link

James Raven, President

September 2022

Searching the Gerald Coke Handel Collection at the Foundling Museum

Many members of the Bibliographical Society will, like me, make daily use of numerous online library catalogues. There have been remarkable developments over the last 20 years in amalgamating data from around the world to form powerful finding aids, and it is no longer possible to imagine life as a librarian, as a researcher in the history of the book, or as an antiquarian bookseller or collector, without the ready availability of WorldCat (from OCLC), Library Hub Discover (formerly COPAC), ESTC, and several other invaluable resources. But despite these huge advantages, there remain important additional benefits in the smaller specialist catalogues which feed into these larger structures.

One of my favourite smaller catalogues is that of the Gerald Coke Handel Collection held at the Foundling Museum in London. Gerald Coke (1907–90) was a fastidious collector of manuscript and printed music, books, journals, printed ephemera, sound recordings, artworks and artefacts relating to Handel and more generally to musical life in the eighteenth century. It is conventional elsewhere for such varied items to be entered into separate catalogues, but the nearly 15,000 items in the Coke Collection are all treated together. This means that searching for the name of a particular singer in Handel’s operas will bring results in many different media, ranging from inscriptions in manuscripts to references in journals, concert tickets and programmes, portraits and perhaps even a statuette. A large proportion of the records are now directly linked to digital images.

Such detailed results depend, of course, on the quality and consistency of the catalogue data, which is one of the reasons why the richness of the results becomes diluted when multiple library catalogues are merged together. But a rich and consistent body of data can only be effectively mined if the right search tools are supplied. Many library catalogues today have an ‘advanced search’ facility which allows searching by five or six different criteria. The Coke catalogue has an astonishing 77 search fields on its advanced search menu. The intrepid scholar can search the catalogue for individual watermarks, or for particular types of bindings or unusual formats. Such versatility opens up many new avenues of research, which complement the advantages of the larger amalgamated catalogues in useful and unexpected ways.

Nicolas Bell, Vice-President and Hon. Reviews Editor, The Library

August 2022

London Customs accounts

The early trade in printed books was an international one, with many books travelling large distances across Europe from printer to purchaser. It has long been recognised that a key source for tracking such movement and those involved in the trade can be found in the customs paid on imports and exports. For the port of London, the details of the customs paid on these and other commodities were recorded in Exchequer records, now held at The National Archives.

In recent years the economic historian Stuart Jenks has produced editions of the ‘particular’ accounts for the port of London for the Hanseatic History Association. They are freely available to download on the Association’s website: They run from the late 14th century to 1540, and so include records for the early trade in printed books into England. They also compare the particular account with the audited accounts, and each volume contains a detailed introduction and notes in English, and extremely full indexes of merchants, cargoes and ships. Having this material so readily available is of incalculable value to our understanding of the trade and those involved in it.

Matthew Payne, Hon Treasurer

July 2022

Online exhibitions at the Grolier Club

While no substitute for the real thing, on-line exhibitions have much to offer.

Cognoscenti know that the Grolier Club in New York City mounts outstanding book exhibitions – all free to the public – but less well known is that many of their exhibitions are also available in an on-line version. Each exhibit is shown in an enlargeable image with its accompanying text and citation, and the viewer can scroll from exhibit to exhibit or dip in and out of the themes. For more recent exhibitions, a curator-led tour is available too, so that one has the opportunity to hear highly knowledgeable curators talking about their specialist subject, such as Jerry Kelly, a foremost scholar on modern fine printing, on 100 Books Famous in Typography.

The Grolier Club website currently has 25 on-line exhibitions, and I recommend them for both pleasure and study (link).

Margaret Ford, Past President

May 2022

Lock up your libraries?

It’s all too easy to reduce the stories of women’s struggles for equal rights to easy and straightforward narratives of linear progress, but the truth was rarely so simple. In this article, Jill Whitelock writes a nuanced account of women’s access to Cambridge University Library from 1854 to 1923, a time when their access to other learning spaces (such as laboratories) within the university, and indeed, to formal graduation with a degree at the end of their studies, was famously restricted.

From 1854, library rules permitted the admission of non-members of the university, including women, to use the ‘collections of every kind’ by making a formal application to the governing syndics. Before women students were making use of this access route (the first such application was received and accepted in 1871), other women connected with the university were applying for readers’ tickets: the first, recorded in 1855, seem to have been the wives of academics. Is this a glimpse of a richer intellectual life than most women of this period are assumed to have had access to?

Access for women – undergraduates or others – under the rules for non-university members was not necessarily straightforward, governed as it was by restricted opening hours, the need for sponsorship by two members of the university Senate, and an older age restriction (21) than that for male undergraduates.The library’s ongoing concerns about the effects of extra ‘external’ readers on space constraints, revenue, and the overall atmosphere of the library will be familiar to many today: concerns that ultimately boiled down to misogyny and a fear of change were couched (as they ever are) in terms of damage to a revered institution and its traditions. By requiring women students to apply to library access alongside other ‘external’ readers, bureaucratic administration served to limit their numbers (whether or not limiting numbers was an officially state aim). However, it’s precisely because of these bureaucratic roadblocks that this story is traceable through the university archives today. Women’s disappearance as distinct entities from the rulebooks and administrative documents in the middle of the twentieth century marks a victory, albeit a by-then long overdue one.

Katie Birkwood, member of Council

April 2022

The Breslauer Prize for Bibliography

The ILAB Breslauer Prize for Bibliography is awarded every fourth year for the most original and outstanding published work in the broad field of bibliography. The first prize is currently $10,000, with second and third prizes of $5000 and $3000 respectively.

The prize was first established in 1964 through a generous gift by scholar-bookseller Dr Bernard H. Breslauer (1918-2004) and was reinforced by a generous new gift from the Breslauer Foundation in 2019. Its inception was very much in the spirit of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) in the aftermath of the Second World War, aiming to unite booksellers around the world and to foster the highest standards of bibliographical expertise. Breslauer himself needs little introduction in bibliographical circles, but the Breslauer Foundation maintains a website with a fascinating biography, which explains the deep roots of his commitment to bibliography in print.

In 2022, the Breslauer Prize judging committee has no fewer than 99 submissions to consider when it meets before the 18th ILAB Breslauer Prize award is made in Oxford on the 14th of September. This is by far the largest set of entries ever received and represents an astonishing range, in both chronological and geographical coverage. The complete list of submissions can be consulted at (each with a brief outline or description). Many of these books will already be familiar to members of the Bibliographical Society and several members will themselves have made submissions.

The committee is an international body and includes librarians and members of the antiquarian book trade: Bettina Wagner, Daniel de Simone, Fabrizio Govi, Justin Croft, Winfried Kuhn and Yann Sordet.

While submissions are now closed for 2022, members of the Bibliographical Society and others working on publications now are warmly encouraged to consider applying in the future. The prize aims to be inclusive and considers publications relating to descriptive and analytical bibliography, the history of the book, typography, paper making, historical and artistic bookbinding. More information can be found at

Justin Croft, member of Council

March 2022

Showcasing Provenance

Our burgeoning interest in exploring the individual histories of books, through all the evidence which previous owners leave behind, has sparked an ever-growing list of online resources and initiatives to support such work. Online catalogues are increasingly enriched with provenance data, and many librarians go the extra mile by creating web pages to showcase their holdings. We might think of the Sion College Library Provenance Project, at Lambeth Palace Library,, or the images of early bindings put up by the Parker Library,

A particular favourite of mine, which I often use as an example when teaching courses on provenance, is the set of pages created by St John’s College Library in Cambridge – Each of the four subheadings (bequests, interesting provenances, types of evidence, interesting bindings) leads to lists which exemplify different kinds of material evidence, with descriptions and images – it’s a very helpful quarry in building but it’s also a simple and elegant model to show how such things can be done.

David Pearson, Honorary Editor of Monographs

February 2022

Early Modern Letters Online

I have for several years been editing the correspondences of two major early-modern English figures, namely the antiquary John Aubrey and his friend the natural philosopher Robert Hooke. It is astonishing that neither of these men’s correspondences has been collected and published before now, not least because they are both unstoppably interesting persons, and (most) of their correspondents were too. For Hooke we have just over 200 letters, but for Aubrey the total is something more like 900. If anyone knows of any out-of-the-way letters I may have missed, please tell me!

The resource for tracking such letters is the ‘Early Modern Letters Online’ (EMLO) database ( It provides one interface to manage and combines over a hundred separate catalogues of early modern letters. EMLO contains the ‘metadata’ of dozens of continental correspondences too, but for the student of Aubrey, it also offers images of the manuscript letters themselves, an unbeatable resource, especially in times of COVID.

One of the most interesting catalogues it has successfully electrified is an old one, remembered by many of us who used to work in Duke Humfrey’s: the Bodleian’s ‘Index of Literary Correspondence’. This extraordinary venture was commenced in the 1920s, and comprises 48,817 typed and handwritten cards, one per manuscript ‘literary’ letter, giving not only basic information on sender, date, recipient, and so forth, but also a brief summary of the content of each letter—albeit the three librarians responsible for this Herculean task often found the letters very hard to read. These summaries have been included in EMLO so that one can search by keywords too.

Those 48,817 cards were turned into electronic records as part of an early initiative orchestrated by the late Richard Sharpe for Oxford’s Cultures of Knowledge project. Tributes to this extremely missed colleague, a great friend and inspiration to both the honorary editors of The Library, who died suddenly in 2020 just as the country was entering its first Lockdown, can be found here:

William Poole, Co-Editor, The Library

January 2022

Which John Smith? Problems of provenance research

I am currently (and intermittently) helping to create new records for David Pearson’s new venture Book Owners Online (BOO: which was launched in September 2020 as a project co-sponsored by the Bibliographical Society. For a number of years I have also been researching the provenance history of books in the Cathedral Library at Canterbury, especially pre-1801 items given or previously owned by members of the Cathedral community; this is available in the form of a Mediawiki implementation (under development at

Providing biographical identification for books owned by deans or canons of Canterbury rarely presents any problem. This is not always the case for lesser mortals. For the BOO project, I am currently working through a list of Scottish armorial bookplate owners drawn from the catalogue of the Franks bequest at the British Museum. Search engines such as Google often provide sufficient links to start a successful hunt but there are known snags. Families have a bad habit of using the same forename for father, son and grandson. Scottish family history websites proliferate on the internet and are frequently very helpful but are not always accurate and tend to take in each other’s washing, accurate or not.

The Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL) maintains pages of reliable provenance data created by professional and academic collaborators at There are sections for many European countries, including the United Kingdom. Sites listed at include

CERL also offers a database of provenance images at with requests to help identify unidentified owner inscriptions.

The internet is a great resource for provenance research but David Pearson’s Provenance Research in Book History: A Handbook (second edition, Bodleian Library, 2019) is still invaluable: a suggestion for a late Christmas present if you don’t have it already.

David Shaw, Hon. Editor of Electronic Publications