‘I dare say will please you when you see them’ – more ‘new’ wood-blocks of an old grotesque alphabet.

Andrew Honey (Bodleian and English Faculty, Oxford)

An earlier blogpost introduced a newly acquired wood-block, a 19th-century copy made of the letter K from a woodcut alphabet – the original ‘K’ being one of 23 letters from a Netherlandish woodcut grotesque alphabet of 1464 that is now at the British Museum. The facsimile copy was used in 1839 to print Treatise on Wood-engraving. In the last post we saw that the popularity of the original grotesque alphabet resulted in 15th and 16th century printed and manuscript copies, and we also saw that the facsimile was printed in 1839 using brown ink to convey the materiality of its water-based printing ink. This relates the interest in this alphabet to the curiosity about the printing of blockbooks, a lasting subject of fascination for historians of printing.

Bodleian Library, MS. Hearne’s Diaries 50, pp. 18-19
Figure 5: Bodleian Library, MS. Hearne’s Diaries 50, pp. 18-19.

This desire to convey the materiality of early water-based printing inks was shared a century earlier by Thomas Hearne (1678-1735). In his 1714 essay on early printing ink the Oxford antiquarian and sub-librarian at the Bodleian Library discussed the colour and texture of the ink used for some blockbooks and early woodcuts, while discussing their place in the history of printing.

“any one that will give himself the trouble of considering the first Specimens of Printing that we have in the Bodlejan Library, being two thin folio Books containing odd Pictures (from wooden cuts) […] will afford to a curious observer many Speculations. But because those Books cannot be conveyed out of the Library […] to give him a better Idea of the nature of them I shall here subjoyn the Speciment of a Fragment of another Book […] that was communicated to me by Mr. Bagford.”

To illustrate his point he pasted a fragment of a German blockbook Biblia pauperum c.1462-8 (Bod-Inc BB-5) into his diary, a fragment given to him by John Bagford (1650-1716) the antiquary and bookseller.

The Treatise tells us more about the interest shown in the 15th century grotesque alphabet when it was rediscovered. On the 27 May 1819 the antiquary Samuel Lysons (1763-1819) wrote to Sir George Beaumont (1753-1827), the then owner of the grotesque alphabet:

“I return herewith your curious volume of ancient cuts. I showed it yesterday to Mr. Douce, who agrees with me that it is a great curiosity. He thinks the blocks were executed at Harlem, and are some of the earliest productions of that place. He has in his possession most of the letters executed in copper, but very inferior to the original cuts.”

Francis Douce (1757-1834), an antiquarian and collector, had been a Keeper of the Department of Manuscripts at the British Museum between 1807-11. The ‘letters executed in copper’ are probably the early copy of the grotesque alphabet by the Master of the Banderoles. Douce would visit the Bodleian in July 1830 where he studied the three complete blockbooks then in the Bodleian’s collection. In 1834 he bequeathed his enormous collection to the Bodleian which included two blockbooks and three wood-blocks.

Woodcut of letters X and Y
Figure 6: Bodleian Library, Douce woodblocks f.1
Woodcut of letter Z
Figure 7: Bodleian Library, Douce woodblocks f.2

These two blocks shown above are facsimiles of the letters X, Y & Z from the same grotesque alphabet. Their existence in the Douce collection was first mentioned in 1897 by the incunabulist Robert Proctor who demonstrated that they had been made for John Bagford in the early eighteenth century for a projected history of printing. Recent work by Whitney Trettien and Edward Potten has linked our two blocks with a block for the letters K & L at the British Museum. These three alphabet blocks and our third Douce block join two others, one at the John Rylands Library and one at the British Library, to form a group of six surviving blocks for Bagford’s history of printing.

Impressions of woodcuts of letters X, Y, Z formed from grotesque figures
Figure 8: Impressions of wood-blocks for John Bagford’s projected History of Printing given to Thomas Hearne. Bodleian Library, MS. Rawl. D. 384, fol. 38r.

We also have prints of A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, X, Y & Z from the Bagford blocks in Hearne’s collection (now part of MS. Rawl. D. 384). A note on the back of X, Y & Z states “These are figures of odd letters wch I had from Mr Bagford. I have an Account of them from his own mouth in one of my Diary Books”.

In a letter to Hearne from Bagford dated 6 February 1708 we learn that:

“Mr Wanley hath lately hapined on some very ould Alphibets antiqe of yt Sorte of printing, cut on wood which I shall exhebite in my Booke, as sone as I have got them cut I shall send you a specement of them, and I dare say will please you when you se them.”

Later that year on 8 October Hearne gives a fuller account, presumably after he received the prints.

“Mr. Bagford has had a German printed Book of the Alphabet drawn exactly. It contains nothing more yn the Alphabet, only here and there a sentence in German inserted in ye Letters. They are all of a very large size for ye use of ye Illuminators, & are made up of several figures, as heads of Men, &c. The Z is made [backward z], […] He has another Alphabet, the letters of a stranger form. They are made up in Knotts with scroles of parchment.”

Just like our newly-acquired 19th-century facsimile wood-block linked Douce, Lysons and Beaumont, these prints of Bagford’s earlier facsimile blocks link these 18th-century printing historians to a specific copy of the 15th-century grotesque alphabet. This copy  was owned by the antiquarian and librarian Humfrey Wanley (1672-1726), and is the second surviving copy, given to the British Museum in 1947.

Further reading

C.E. Doble, (ed.), ‘Remarks and Collections of Thomas Hearne: Vol. II (20 March 1707–22 March 1710)’, Oxford Historical Society 13 (Oxford, 1889).

Campbell Dodgson, ‘Two woodcut alphabets of the fifteenth century’, Burlington Magazine 17:90 (September 1910), pp. 362-5.

Edward Potten, ‘Dating the Rylands Apocalypse wood-block: John Bagford and the earliest facsimiles of blockbooks’, Journal of the Printing Historical Society TS 3 (2022), pp, 14-46.

Robert Proctor, ‘On two plates in Sotheby’s ‘Principia Typographica’’, Bibliographica 3 (1897) pp. 192-6.

Whitney Trettien, Cut/Copy/Paste: Fragments from the history of bookwork (Minneapolis, 2021).

Hermán Luis Chávez wins the Colin Franklin Prize for Book Collecting 2024

Hermán Luis Chávez, winner of the Colin Franklin Prize for Book Collecting, 2024.

The 2024 Colin Franklin Prize for Book Collecting has been awarded to Hermán Luis Chávez for their essay on the composer Atiliano Auza León (b.1928) and 20th C. Bolivian Art Music. In their essay, Hermán shares the experience of discovering a piano score by Atiliano Auza León tucked beneath a pile of sheet music, and how this led to a desire to perform, research and collect little-known compositions by Atiliano Auza León. “Performance brought me to research, which brings me back to performance once again, as I see my collection as a budding personal library of Bolivian musical culture that will allow me to cultivate a synergy of textual and notated materials to facilitate historically-informed performance research.” Hermán is currently studying an MSt in Modern Languages at Balliol College.

The funder of the Colin Franklin Prize, Anthony Davis, commented of the submissions in 2024: “It is always an overawing and moving experience to judge the entrants for the student collecting prize.  Once again, we had a wide range of exceptional entrants showing the breadth of collecting among a new generation of bibliophiles.  Hermán’s thoughtful essay showed exceptional insights into the collecting process and the qualities of determination, perseverance and scholarship which mark a true collector.  I am delighted that they have won the prize and look forward to hearing what book they have chosen for Bodley.”

Keeper Special Collections, Chris Fletcher, and one of the judges of the prize said of Hermán’s essay: “This was a marvellously written essay which balances the emotional and intellectual motivations behind the quest to bring a little-known Bolivian composer into the light.”

The judges also wish to highly commend two other submissions, from George Adams, an MSt student in English (1700-1830) at Harris Manchester College for his essay, Reading Romanticism, 1790-1830, and from Madeline White, a DPhil student in History (History of Science and Medicine) at Lincoln College for her essay, Peter Pan Printed Books.

The Colin Franklin Prize is awarded every year to an undergraduate or postgraduate student of the University of Oxford or the University of Brookes for a collection of books or other printed materials. You can find out more about the Prize on the Bodleian website.

Hermán will present their collection and perform a composition by Atiliano Auza León at the Scholar’s Coffee Morning on Friday 31 May in the Visiting Scholars Centre, Weston Library. For more information please email bookcentre@bodleian.ox.ac.uk.

Winner of the Colin Franklin Prize, 2024, Hermán Luis Chávez, describes the personal journey behind a collection.

The cover of ‘Dinamica musical en Bolivia’, or Musical Dynamics in Bolivia, by Atiliano Auza León. From the collection of Hermán Luis Chávez.

“Lamento Criollo,” the first movement of Atiliano Auza León’s six dances for violin and piano, begins with an inward melancholy that quickly swells, pushing, however meekly, to be heard. The violin seems to beg as it rises and falls, repeating the opening motif until it crowds the piano out, crying briefly before settling into gently rolling chords once more. The piece ends with the violin climbing to a soft but high scream that lingers before the piano allows it to fade away.

When I arranged the piece for cello I realized how much the opening dance demands despite its repetitive motion and short length. Launching my arm to play the same melody on another string, touching harmonics with the right wistfulness, breathing with the closing bawl without betraying the tightness in my own chest. Auza León wrote the movement—in his first published composition—upon hearing a chapaco[1] pass by on the street beneath the composer’s window, singing the tune. This happenstance mirrors my own discovery of Auza León, when I’d pulled out a stained, torn copy of the piano score to the six dances from within an aunt’s piano bench, poking around as a teenager eager to practise some first-year exercises despite the out-of-tune keys.

Fifteen years after composing the dances, Auza León published the second edition of his history of Bolivian music, which became the object of my undergraduate dissertation research. The book vacillates between simplicity and romanticism, even as it attempts to be encompassing and definitive. From an opening chapter that addresses some pre-Columbian Indigenous music to a set of short biographies of contemporary composers, Auza León wrote primarily of burgeoning classical music in the country. Fascinated by one of the only books by a Bolivian composer held at a handful of libraries in the United States, I set about analysing the composer’s work, only to realise there was much more than I could access from the northern hemisphere.

The choir and piano score composed for a celebratory children’s concert called ‘La fiesta del lugar’, or The Party of the Place. Courtesy of the author. From the collection of Hermán Luis Chávez.

After telling my family in Tarija about my woes, another aunt surprised me by finding Auza León and helping me acquire twenty-one scores and books directly from the composer. I spoke to him on a video call during the transaction. Among his supportive comments about taking Bolivian music abroad and light humor about my long hair, he noted important milestones in his work, which helped me put his book of music history into personal context. That text had its basis in Auza León’s first book: a treatise on the so-called dynamics of Bolivian music, where he consciously attempted to break with the established dance-music tradition in the country.

It makes sense that Auza León’s musicological work began immediately after his studies at the prestigious Latin American Center for Advanced Musical Studies (CLAEM) at the Torcuato di Tella Institute in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1965. Despite his musical conservatism (he essentially told me Ginastera didn’t know what he was doing when he wrote Bomarzo), he was exposed to a community where Latin Americanist discourses of regional art music would have instilled the importance of articulating national approaches to classical music. Reportedly the first CLAEM fellow to write such a book and share it with those at the institute, Auza León’s books and music derive from his skepticism for modernist composition and intellectual vision of Bolivian music as culturally hybrid.

Aula Villa-Lobos (Villa-Lobos Room) at CLAEM. Alberto Ginastera analyses a work by Johann Sebastian Bach before the first generation of students. Courtesy of Eduardo Herrera, originally the Rockefeller Archive Center. See Eduardo Herrera, ‘Elite Art Worlds’ (Oxford University Press, 2020).
Torcuato Di Tella Institute, the second floor of the Florida building, where CLAEM was located. On the left, the meeting room, where composers Armando Krieger, alcides lanza, and Blas Atehortúa are sat. On the right, three doors lead to the fellows’ study rooms. Additional study rooms are behind the three composers. Courtesy of Eduardo Herrera, originally the Rockefeller Archive Center. See Eduardo Herrera, Elite Art Worlds (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Though he worked at the national conservatory in La Paz and had lived around Bolivia, Auza León eventually returned to Tarija, where he had taught my own grandmother and great aunt during their childhood. Committed to education, he wrote a book introducing music theory and also composed for children, including choral works for a festival celebration. These texts are special in my collection, not only because I know they are the fruit of a teaching career that included my family members, but because they represent the breadth of a work of a composer truly committed to art music in Bolivia, from historical treatises to music for school kids to the country’s first national opera.

I met Atiliano Auza León for the first time nearly three years after my aunt sent me the majority of the materials that make up my collection. He lives in a humble house just a couple of turns away from my grandmother’s. He was accompanied by his daughter-in-law, though completely lucid at ninety-three years old. Dressed in formal attire fitting for a man of his generation, he was kind and encouraging, reminding me how little Bolivian music is played abroad as he shared his excitement for my work, telling me to press on. Our embrace at the end of the short meeting was moving. Even as I knew I was unlikely to see him again, I felt comfort knowing that every time I’d play through a score or share a lecture on his books, I’d be reminded of this encounter, where my legacy work on twentieth-century Bolivian art music was so significantly abetted.

The covers of my copies of three of Atiliano Auza León’s scores. From left to right, they are his string quartet in homage to the centennial of the National Conservatory; arias and duos from his opera Incallajta; and a violin sonata in homage to Cesar Franck.

I am grateful to the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music for the financial support that made my collection possible. My deep thanks to the Bodleian Libraries for their support of my collection work with the Colin Franklin Prize.

Full essay available to download: Chávez Collection Essay for Colin Franklin Prize


[1]“Chapaco” is a colloquial term for a person from Tarija, and may be used specifically to refer to a campesino, or farmer. A person from Tarija can also be referred to more generally as “Tarijeño,” or in English, “Tarijan.” Though Auza León and his contemporaries thought of themselves as Bolivian, their cultural and creative ties to their local communities meant that using specific terms was important in their work.


Auza León, Atiliano. 6 Danzas Bolivianas del ciclo “Runas” para violín y piano. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Impresores Ricordi Americana, 1960.

—. Dinámica musical en Bolivia. La Paz, Bolivia: Cooperativa de Artes Gráficas E. Burillo, 1967.

—. Historia de la Música Boliviana, 2nd ed. Cochabamba, Bolivia: Editorial Los Amigos Del Libro, 1985.

—. La Fiesta del Lugar: Concierto Coral de Niños. Tarija, Bolivia: Escuela de Música Mario Estenssoro, 2013.

—. Introducción a la teoría musical. Oruro, Bolivia: Latinas Editores, 2019.

Flores Meruvia, Ernesto. “El joven centenario (III).” La Opinión. 2 July 2023. https://www.opinion.com.bo/articulo/ramona/joven-centenario-iii/20230701202613912444.html

Herrera, Eduardo. Elite Art Worlds: Philanthropy, Latin Americanism, and Avant-garde Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Making an impression: a ‘new’ wood-block of an old grotesque alphabet

Woodblock for printing the letter 'K'
Woodblock, acquired for the Bodleian Bibliographical Press in 2024

Andrew Honey (Bodleian Libraries and English Faculty)

An unexpected recent discovery on Etsy (of all places) of a wood-block which I bought for the Bodleian Bibliographical Press throws new light on items in the Bodleian’s collections and their place in the study of the history of printing. The block is a facsimile of the letter K, a 19th-century copy of a letter from a woodcut alphabet dating from 1464. It was used in 1839, in the printing of A Treatise on Wood Engraving, historical and practical. With upwards of three hundred illustrations, engraved on wood, by John Jackson published by Charles Knight.

The Treatise explains the model for this facsimile block.

“There is in the Print Room of the British Museum a small volume of wood-cuts, which has not hitherto been described by any bibliographer […] it consists of an alphabet of large capital letters, formed of figures arranged in various attitudes.”

Our block – K – has four figures. A man is kneeling, holding a ribbon on which are written the words ‘mon ♥ aues’ (with my heart) while presenting a ring to a standing woman. These two figures form the stem of the letter, while two men fly out to form the arm and leg of the K. The description of the printed image in the Treatise states “the above is a fac-simile of the cut referred to, the letter K, of the size of the original.”

An open book and printing block
The facsimile ‘K’ woodblock and the illustration it printed, in the 1839 book ‘A treatise of wood-engraving’; Bodleian Library, Jessel d.58 , p.135.

The original is a letter K from a Netherlandish woodcut grotesque alphabet of 1464. There are now two surviving copies of that printed alphabet at the British Museum, but only one of these was known in 1839 when the Treatise of Wood-engraving was published.

15th-centuy print of the letter 'K'
15th-centuy print of the letter ‘K’ : British Museum, B,10.1-23 (© The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The Treatise describes both the unusual printing method and the water-based ink of the original alphabet print. It relates these to the printing of blockbooks, a subject of fascination to printing historians because these printed texts from carved blocks, without moveable type.

“There is only one cut on each leaf, the back being left blank as in most block-books, and the impressions have been taken by means of friction. The paper at the back of each cut has a shining appearance when held towards the light [… and] the ink is merely a distemper or water-colour, which will partly wash out by the application of hot water, and its colour is a kind of sepia.”

The Treatise reproduced three letters from the alphabet – K, L & Z – in brown ink, the only coloured ink in the book, explaining: “the colour of the above […] will give the reader, who had not had an opportunity of examining the originals, some idea of the colour in which […] are printed; which in all of them is a kind of sepia”.

Our information about the block might have ended there had the real author of the Treatise not fallen out with both John Jackson the wood-engraver and Charles Knight the publisher. William Andrew Chatto (1799–1864) was clearly so angered by the absence of his name on the title page that he responded with a densely written, privately printed, 36-page Third Preface! As well as being extremely rude about Jackson – “an illiterate, ignorant man”, Chatto gives the names of the real contributors:

“of the numerous copies of old wood-cuts contained in the work, not a single one has been either drawn or engraved by Mr. John Jackson [… Jackson and Knight had supressed] the name of Mr. F[rederick]. W[illiam]. Fairholt, the artist by whom all ‘the elaborate fac-similes’ of old wood-cuts contained in the work – except two – were copied and drawn on the block. The best of the copies of old wood-cuts, […] were engraved by a young man named Stephen Rimbault, at that time a pupil of Mr. Jackson’s”.

He also notes that the size of the book as originally planned meant that the reproduction is not an exact facsimile.

“It is in consequence of the work having been originally intended to be printed in demy octavo, that most of the cuts now appear so small when compared with the size of the page. It is from this cause that the so-called fac-similes for the […] Alphabet […] want the outer border-line at the sides”.

Bodleian Library, MS. Ashmole 1504, fol. 45v.

If the grotesque alphabet stirred interest when it was rediscovered in or before 1819 it appears to have stirred even greater interest when it was first produced in the 15th century. There are near contemporary woodcut [now at the Kunstmuseum BasleInv. X.1881-1882] and copper engraved versions, as well as our kneeling man and woman adapted as a stand-alone letter ‘I’ in a German manuscript of 1467 and drawn copies in the Nuremberg chronicle now at the Newberry Library. The interest was not short lived and the Bodleian has a finely painted copy of A, B, C & D dating from c.1520-30 in MS. Ashmole 1504, described in a 1845 catalogue as ‘Book of patterns of an illuminator of MSS’. This wasn’t the only English interest: the ‘S’ was adapted and used as an initial by the London printer John Rastell in 1530 and continuing interest is witnessed by two further sixteenth-century manuscript copies; a complete version as part of the  Macclesfield Alphabet Book (British Library, Additional MS 88887) and a partial version from the 1540s-1560s now at the National Art Library.

The story will continue ….

Further reading

A Treatise on Wood Engraving, historical and practical. With upwards of three hundred illustrations, engraved on wood, by John Jackson (London, 1839).

William Andrew Chatto, A third preface to “A treatise on wood engraving, historical and practical”: exposing the fallacies contained in the first, restoring the passages suppressed in the second, and containing an account of Mr. John Jackson’s actual share in the composition and illustration of that work (London, 1839)

Campbell Dodgson, Grotesque Alphabet of 1464: Reproduced in facsimile from the original woodcuts in the British Museum (London, 1899).

Early donors to the Bodleian Library: Katherine Sandys and colonialism

by Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull

One rich example of the Bodleian’s acquisition of books produced outside of Europe is provided by the donation of £20 (nearly £3000 today) in 1607 from Katherine Sandys née Bulkeley. Katherine was a shrewd businesswoman and the fourth wife of Edwin Sandys: a prominent MP, religious writer, and coloniser.

-The Bodleian’s copy of Fang Gung’s, Dan shi shin fa (Thoughts on Dan Shi) (1522). The vellum cover is annotated in latin with an inscription recording Sandys’ donation Sinica 32/6. Image taken by Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull in 2023.
The Bodleian’s copy of Fang Gung’s, Dan shi shin fa (Thoughts on Dan Shi) (1522). The parchment cover is annotated in Latin with an inscription recording Sandys’ donation. Sinica 32/6. Image taken by Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull in 2023.

In his letters, Bodley complained about donors being allowed to choose the items purchased with their donations. But in the case of this donation, the choice of books made by Bodley and librarian Thomas James may have reflected the Sandys family’s involvement in early colonial activities such as those of the Virginia Company.

Such works included important travelogues containing finely engraved maps. These depicted parts of the world where at this point in history England was a weaker colonising force, such as the Middle East (Arthus Gotthard and Johann Bry’s The Seventh Part of the East Indies (1606)), and Asia (Cornelius Wytfliet’s Universal History of the Indies (1605)). Much like Matal’s atlas, these texts helped to expand Western readers’ understanding of these newly navigated areas. But like Lodge’s manuscript catechism, their subject matter also shone light on the ongoing efforts of European colonists to convert indigenous people to Christianity; making these books fitting acquisitions for a library founded by Bodley as a seat of Protestant learning.

Sandys’ donation also included works acquired from these areas in non-European languages unreadable to Western scholars. This included eight medical texts in Chinese, such as Gong Ting Chien’s Van Bin Hoiye Chun (Cure for all Illnesses) (1573) and Fang Gung’s, Dan shi shin fa (Thoughts on Dan Shi) (1522). Like the Bodleian’s other early Chinese works acquired from 1604 onwards, Sandys’ books are cheaply printed.

Book with Chinese printed characters, Gong Ting Chien’s Van Bin Hoiye Chun (Cure for all Illnesses) (1573)
The Bodleian’s copy of Gong Ting Chien’s Van Bin Hoiye Chun (Cure for all Illnesses) (1573). Sinica 19/2. Image taken by Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull in 2023.

Some are unique survivals of sixteenth-century editions produced in the Fujin province on the southeastern coast of China during the Ming Dynasty. Too cheap to adorn the library of any serious Chinese scholar, they were probably sold by entrepreneurial local booksellers to Dutch merchants, and then exported to Europe by Dutch merchants engaged in the lucrative transcontinental spice trade in the employ of the newly formed Dutch East India Company. Bought in Amsterdam at auction by Bodley’s literary agent, when they arrived at the Bodleian they were simply recorded in the Benefactors’ Register under the catch-all heading ‘volumes in Chinese’. It was not until 1687, when the Chinese scholar and Catholic convert, Shen Fu-Tsung 沈福宗 (Michael Alphonsus), was paid by the Bodleian’s librarian Thomas Hyde to transliterate their titles that their contents became known in England. This enabled the creation of the first catalogue of Chinese Books for the Bodleian, and ultimately paved the way for future scholars to explore the library’s rich East Asian collections.

The books purchased with Sandys’ donation exemplify the complex relationship of the Bodleian’s early collections to colonialism and its legacy. Bodley’s acquisition of Chinese books is part of an explicitly colonial narrative. Likely acquired directly from the emergent oppressive power of the Dutch East India Company, these books were brought to Europe by a chartered company who would come to dominant East Asian trade routes across the Indian Ocean through the forced migration and killing of indigenous people. These books and their acquisition by a Western seat of learning promoted and glorified colonial projects of conquest, trade, and conversion to readers. Bodley did, albeit unintentionally, enable Fu-Tsung and Hyde’s later intellectual endeavours, paving the way for the first known direct Anglo-Chinese scholarly collaboration. The acquisition of these books also ensured the preservation of unique texts of international import and facilitated further study that continues at the library today. But as we continue to unlock their rich histories, we need to consciously centralise, and make accessible, the often-hidden colonial narratives that led to the arrival of items like these volumes at the Bodleian. However problematic and uncomfortable these may be, they are vital to furthering our understanding of the role colonialism played in developing the library’s collection.

My thanks go to Mamtimyn Sunuodula, Curator of Chinese Collections at the Bodleian, for translating the titles of Sinica 19/2 and 32/6. 

Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull is a research associate on the AHRC-funded project ‘Shaping Scholarship: Early Donations to the Bodleian Library’. He is also a final year DPhil student, Clarendon, and Graduate Development Scholar in English at the University of Oxford. His doctoral research focuses on the materiality of women’s texts between 1580 and 1760, and related work has appeared in The Review of English Studies. You can contact Ben via email at b.wilkinson-turnbull@ucl.ac.uk. He can also be found on X (Twitter) @Ben_WT.

Further reading

Cornelius Wytfliet, Histoire universelle des Indes, orientales et occidentales (Douai, 1605)

Arthus, Gotthard  and Johann Theodor de Bry, Indiae Orientalis Pars Septima : Navigationes duas, Primam, trium Annorum, a Georgio Spilbergio, trium navium praefecto, Ann. 1601. ex Selandia in Indiam Orientalem susceptam (Frankfurt, 1606)

Gong Ting Chien,Van Bin Hoiye Chun (Cure for all Illnesses) (Fujin, 1573)

Fang Gung, Dan shi shin fa (Thoughts on Dan Shi) (Fujin, 1522)

David Helliwell, ‘Our Earliest Chinese Accession’, https://serica.blog/2012/11/29/our-earliest-chinese-accession/

William Poole, ‘The Letters of Shen Fuzong to Thomas Hyde, 1687-88’, British Library Journal (2015), article 9. (https://bl.iro.bl.uk/concern/articles/1227de6b-c20f-48fb-8411-b1f811ffa957).

Kerry Ward, Networks of Empire: Forced Migration in the Dutch East India Company. (Cambridge, 2009).


‘Counter Archive’: Black Lives in the Archives

by Devika

Peter Brathwaite FRSA is a British baritone, broadcaster, theatre artist, music columnist and a developer of music programming. Read more here. His photographic book project Rediscovering Black Portraiture highlights Black individuals in the history of visual arts, and in a similar but more personal vein Brathwaite has undertaken research to uncover Black histories in archives.

At a workshop with the Bodleian Libraries project ‘We Are Our History’ 24 October 2023, held at the Weston Library for Special Collections, Brathwaite led participants on a journey through archives connected with Codrington College, Barbados, and other historical documents of Britain’s Caribbean colonies during enslavement. For Brathwaite there were familial connections: he found his ancestors Edward/Addo and Margaret Brathwaite, as well as his enslaver ancestor John Brathwaite, referenced in the records.

A key part of the workshop was the ‘counter-archive’ of material that Brathwaite brought into the Library, curated by himself, in the form of photographs, maps, a Bible, and song. The group sang ‘The Breadfruit Song’ together, with Brathwaite prompting participants to think about the vitality of singing compared to the loss of magic, aura, materiality and perhaps of reality when dealing with words on paper. While singing in the Bodleian sounds impossible and almost sacrilegious, music, as Brathwaite explained, is a critical experience and archive. An archive created by the disempowered. When denied their identity beyond being owned as property on paper, the traditional archive, music communicates that experience instead. Traditional archives thus necessitate the use of counter-archives especially in contexts where historically people have been denied inclusion in official records.

Bringing expertise to archival research, including familial and community memories preserved outside of archival sources, was an important theme of the workshop. Brathwaite gave the example of spotting specific words in documents whose significance might be missed by individuals unfamiliar with the relevant context. He pointed out that historical records referred to rebellions by enslaved individuals as ‘mischief’.  Mischief was a shorthand for living, he declared, especially for the enslaved. Words like ‘mischief’ could be used to connote the infantilization of the body of colour, to justify regimes of control.

The workshop led to a very well-attended lecture by Peter Brathwaite … which led to a short film … which led to the temporary display mentioned below.

Collaboration with artists, storytellers, academics and more, as part of the ‘We Are Our History’ project, goes beyond one off events. We are keen on helping researchers discover and work with the archives. This facilitates relationships with the archives, especially beyond traditional treatments, as in this case, that help both the Bodleian and researchers learn from these narratives, stories, unconventional treatments and counter archives. For the library, the learning is about being more inclusive of stories traditionally not told, and more aware of practices that sedimented a lack of inclusion–and how we can change those practices to be more inclusive in the future. Working with artists like Peter Brathwaite is an incredible learning experience for those involved in the initiatives but also for the library as a whole, and that is the purpose of these collaborations as opposed to performative checks.

The temporary display, ‘Mischief in the Archives,’ at the Weston Library until 7 April, draws out the themes of Peter Brathwaite’s archival research.  https://visit.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/event/mischief-in-the-archives

For more on this story see: https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/features/hearing-through-overwhelming-silence-enslaved-ancestors-found-bodleian-archives-opera

Peter Brathwaite at the Bodleian LibraryAlso watch the short film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVQU7El6EqI


Collage Comparison: A Case Study of Comparison and Juxtaposition in Archives

Collage Comparison poster, detail. Collage Comparison Symposium and Julia Utreras

by Devika

Methods of reading and understanding archives are constantly evolving. The question of ‘whose voices?’ are heard in archival materials has encouraged attention to gaps and silences. With the project ‘We Are Our History,’ the Bodleian Libraries have found guidance from researchers inside and outside academia on new approaches to archives. The symposium ‘Collage Comparison,’ (September 29-30, 2023, St Anne’s College Oxford and Bodleian Libraries) was devised by the Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation (OCCT) Research Centre, using collage as a method of bringing archival materials into dialogue with each other. The two-day symposium brought together artists, practitioners, and scholars from a range of disciplines within Oxford and beyond—from English, Modern Languages, and History of Art to Ethnomusicology, Visual Anthropology, and Curatorial Studies.

Organisers Dr Joseph Hankinson, Dr Tinashe Mushakavanhu and Dr Georgia Nasseh explored how collage, conceptually and practically, can provide a new and decolonised rhetoric for understanding translation and archival work.

 Understanding Archives Differently with Collage

On the first day, the group was guided in creative collage-making by artist Sofia Yalla. The session led by Yalla explored how professional archives relate to personal archives, with participants being given either a ‘construction’ or a ‘deconstruction’ kit, having to connect and collaborate in these two processes of selecting and building an archive.

The choice of collage as the focal point for exploration was deeply rooted in its historical ties to the African continent and its diaspora. With its delicate balance of appropriation and expropriation, fragmentation, and juxtaposition, collage played a pivotal role in the artistic expressions of writers like Kojo Laing and M. NourbeSe Philip. From the start, the symposium used the potential of collage as a model, with participants’ self-introductions woven into a conversation ‘performed’ by all the participants, rather than standing as separate, individual statements.

On the second day, the symposium worked with an archive held in the Bodleian, the archive of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. In this workshop hosted by Dr Mushakavanahu,  it was fascinating to observe the different creations by individuals interacting with the same document. Participants sitting side-by-side and creating collage (from photographs of the archival materials) became a true example of diversity: difference, similarity, and juxtaposition of perspectives in the archives. The need to understand how one set of texts could mean something entirely different for different communities–multiple understandings of the same texts–is an advantage, not a limitation.

 Digital Collage and Future Accessibility

Discussion during the symposium explored how academic work informed the aesthetics of collage and considered future accessibility to the created material. The Zine created by attendees as part of their final morning in the Symposium will be available on the Collage Comparison website. The Zine exemplifies many of the ideas discussed above; most importantly, the potential collage holds as a technique towards interacting with archives – digitally or in person.

See Collage Comparison for description of the symposium aims and images of the workshop in progress.

For the Bodleian Libraries,  Collage Comparison provided a model of collaborative working and showed the alchemy in archives placed in a new relationship with researchers. See the ‘We Are Our History’ project website. https://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/about/libraries/our-work/we-are-our-history

Dr Tinashe Mushakavanhu will lecture on ‘Cut/Copy/Paste: Collage as a form of reading and writing the archive’, on Tuesday 24 January at 1 pm, in the Weston Library, Broad Street, Oxford. Registration required: https://visit.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/waoh-conversations

Rediscovery of a 17th-century miscellany of Asian scripts

guest post by Dr Katja Triplett (Marburg/Leipzig)

Original Manchu and Tibetan manuscripts, the models for two engraved plates in Thomas Hyde’s celebrated History of Religion of the Old Persians (1700), have been rediscovered in the Bodleian Library.

Sample of handwriting MS. Or. Polygl. c. 1, fol. 5r.
Sample of handwriting in Manchu (MS. Or. Polygl. c. 1, fol. 5r.). This is the original manuscript on which table XV in Hyde’s monograph is based.

The Bodleian Library is home to some of the earliest books printed with a European letter press on Japanese soil. Bodley’s Librarian and Laudian Professor of Arabic Thomas Hyde (1636–1703) added a provenance note to one of these books, a Japanese translation of the “Imitation of Christ”, printed at a secret location near Nagasaki in 1596 (Arch. B e.42). The note states that the book was “the gift of a Reverend man lately brought back from India, Mr. John Evans, 1695”. Researching the provenance of the Bodleian copy, one of only three extant, I took a closer look at Anglican minister John Evans (c. 1652–1724), later bishop of Bangor, and his collaboration with Thomas Hyde. How did Evans get hold of this translation created by the Jesuit mission press in Japan and why did he donate it to the Library?

A first trace led to two additional gifts bestowed to the Library by Evans in 1695. One was a scroll with a birthday calculator in Bengali (now deemed lost); the other (MS. Or. Polyg. c. 1) [see a summary record for the Or. Polyglot manuscripts], which was brought to my attention by Dr Alessandro Bianchi, is a most significant miscellany with specimens of Asian scripts and official correspondence. The newly rediscovered miscellany provides an unexpected opportunity to explore transnational networks involving Asia and Europe.

The miscellany contains samples of scripts from China, Bhutan, from the Manchu people and from continental Southeast Asia, in addition to a Bengali syllabary. The letters appear to be copies. The samples also contain dates (some not conforming to official dynastic chronology), place names and personal names and titles. My analysis of the watermarks suggests that the miscellany was assembled not much before or in 1693, the year Evans returned to England from Bengal.

The nature of Evans’s miscellany and its possible uses in South Asia clearly points to its trade connection. It contains, for example, a sample of a Japanese letter and the cover of a Chinese letter issued by the “Chief Surveillance Bureau”.

Most exciting was the discovery that a Manchu text sample and a Tibetan safe-travel document (lam-yig) issued in 1688 to an Armenian merchant are the originals of two engraved plates in Thomas Hyde’s 1700 pioneering study on the history of Persian religion. The work includes comparisons of various Asian languages as well, illustrated with plates of Asian scripts engraved by Michael Burghers (c. 1647/8–1727). Until the discovery of the miscellany, Hyde’s plate with the Tibetan passport counted as one of the earliest witnesses of Tibetan writing in the West.

The sources on John Evans suggest that his office in India as well as his clandestine trade business took him to different places in Bengal and the Coromandel Coast where the Portuguese had been present from the 1530s onward. Evans may have got hold of a Jesuit mission press book from Japan at one of the Portuguese settlements in India. Since his friend Thomas Hyde seemed to have been keen on studying Asian languages, a field of study in its infancy, Evans gifted the three items from his Bengal days to the Library.

*Because of the polyglot nature of the miscellany, various specialists were consulted, notably Alessandro Bianchi, Ryūji Hiraoka, Ana Carolina Hosne, Jana Igunma, Nicholas Kontovas, Peter Kornicki, Charles Manson, Sven Osterkamp, Johannes Reckel, and Dagmar Schwerk. A more thorough investigation which is currently being undertaken will be published in the near future.

Dr Katja Triplett is Affiliate Professor of the Study of Religions, Marburg University, and senior research fellow at Leipzig University with a project on religion and translation in the Early Modern period, funded by the German Research Council (DFG). 

BOOKNESS with Ron King, coming soon…

As we enter the final week of the Bodleian’s Alphabet’s Alive! exhibition we wanted to share a taster of what’s to come in our next BOOKNESS podcast.

In the summer Alice and Jo were very lucky to speak to artist and founder of Circle Press, Ron King, who has multiple alphabet inspired works in the exhibition.

Alphabets Alive! is on at the Weston Library until 21st January 2024. Photo credit: Ian Wallman
‘ABC Paperweights’ and ‘Alphabeta concertina majuscule’ on display in the Weston Library

You have until 21st January to visit the exhibition which is spread cross the Bodleian’s Weston Library exhibition space and the Proscholium display (located in the entrance of the Old Library), and you can find Ron’s work in both parts of the exhibition.

So if you are in Oxford this week make sure you pop by and see the pieces for yourselves, and listen out for the next episode of BOOKNESS, featuring our conversation with Ron, which is on its way soon…

‘Alphabet Poster II’ in the Bodleian’s Proscholium display case

Useful links:

Colonial Connections of the Early Bodleian Library

Book open at a map of the world
Jean Matal’s atlas from 1600: America, sive Novus orbis, tabulis æneis delineatus. I. Matalius. Shelfmark: H 7.2(3) Art.

by Dr Anna-Lujz Gilbert

When Thomas Bodley re-founded Oxford University’s library in 1598, he knew he would need the help of a “great store of honourable friends” for the project to be a success. He asked people he knew to donate to the Library and, as an encouragement, he had the names of donors written into an ornate Register of Benefactors.  Shaping Scholarship is an AHRC-funded project at UCL, in collaboration with the Bodleian, which uses that Benefactors’ Register to examine cultures of library donation in early seventeenth-century England, and their impact on the Bodleian’s book collections. The early Bodleian Library had many colonial connections, and the public database of the early donations to the Library (c. 1600–1620) which we are producing for this project will help further research in this area.

Page of the Benefactor's Book of the Bodleian Library
Bodleian Library Records b. 903, Registrum Donatorum, the Benefactors’ Register

The Bodleian Library was established at a time when England was striving to become an imperial power. Many of the Library’s donors were statesmen, civil servants, soldiers, and courtiers—the kinds of people who were likely to be involved in overseas affairs of different kinds. Some donors were directly involved in colonial activities, such as Sir Walter Raleigh (1554?-1618), who led expeditions to the Americas, and who gifted the library £50 in 1603 (worth over £8,000 today). Others were involved in these activities from afar. Donor Sir Walter Cope (1553?–1614), for example, invested in and energetically raised funds for new merchant companies set up to promote international trade through colonising practices. Companies like the Virginia Company, which established England’s first North American colonies, made substantial losses. To raise money for these colonial ventures, they presented investment as a public-spirited act for the good of the nation. This context can inform how we understand donation to the early Bodleian Library as a similarly public-spirited act.

Overseas conquest, as well as trade and embassy, facilitated the movement of books into the Library. In the 1610s, for example, the Bodleian acquired a manuscript catechism  which had been produced by Jesuits in Brazil to help convert indigenous people. It was written in Tupi, a now extinct indigenous language. [See an online edition of this manuscript at the link here.] It was gifted to the Bodleian by English author Thomas Lodge, who had taken it from a Jesuit library during an English raid on a Portuguese settlement in Brazil. [see footnote 1]  (Lodge’s gift was, however, considered to be too small to be included in the Benefactors’ Register).

Exploration and colonisation helped to expand Western knowledge, and this was reflected in the content of some of the books purchased by the Bodleian. The 1603 gift of Henry Brooke, Baron Cobham, for instance, paid for the acquisition of Jean Matal’s [Johannes Matalius] atlas of the world with its new maps of America.

The Bodleian collected books in non-European languages in the hope that these too would be used to advance Western knowledge, even if, for some of these languages, there was no-one in England who could read them at the time.

By looking at who was donating to the early Bodleian Library and what books were acquired, we can ask how this seventeenth-century project to encompass knowledge was aligned with English and wider European activities to compass the globe itself. Lines of enquiry include examining the colonial activities of donors, the acquisition of books produced outside of Europe, and the kinds of knowledge represented in the books acquired.

footnote 1: See: Vivien Kogut Lessa de Sá and Caroline Egan, ‘Translation and prolepsis: the Jesuit origins of a Tupi Christian doctrine,’ in Cultural Worlds of the Jesuits in Colonial Latin America, edited by Linda A. Newson (London: University of London Press, 2020), 189–206.

Anna-Lujz Gilbert is a postdoctoral research fellow on the ‘Shaping Scholarship’ project at UCL. For this project, she is leading the construction of a database of donations made to the Bodleian Library in its first twenty years, c. 1600–1620, which will be published as a free online resource. Her wider research interests are in the movement to establish semi-public libraries in early modern England.

For more information about the Shaping Scholarship project, see the project website at: http://www.livesandletters.ac.uk/projects/shaping-scholarship 

This blogpost is one of a series exploring the Bodleian’s colonial and imperial connections, as part of the ‘We Are Our History’ project in 2022-24.