Script/Print/Code: the information revolution in one afternoon

Bodleian Library, Douce Woodblocks d.1, detail
Bodleian Library, Douce Woodblocks d.1, detail

On Monday 11 October 2021 in the Bodleian’s Weston Library for Special Collections there will be a race between The Oxford Scribes , the Bodleian Bibliographical Press, and the Centre for Digital Scholarship.

This webpage,, tells the story.

This is a chance to compare script, print, and electronic text encoding side-by-side, in real time. The text will be written in manuscript, printed in movable type, and encoded by three teams, starting at 1pm.

In this blogpost we’ll report on the progress and the thoughts of the scribes, printers and encoders as they work through the same text, a portion of Psalm 107 (‘… They that go down to the sea in ships …’), to create a published version, in one or many copies.

Onlookers are welcome in Blackwell Hall, the main public foyer of the Weston Library on Broad Street, Oxford.

The event is in honour of the start of the Lyell Lectures 2021, The Genesis, Life, and Afterlife of the Gutenberg Bible, which will be given by Paul S. Needham, beginning on 11 October 2021. Details in the event listing include links to watch the livestream of these lectures. The lectures will be recorded and will be available a short time after the conclusion of the series, at

A webpage showing many digitized copies of the Gutenberg Bible, for comparison, is available here.

Here is the webpage for this event:

A virtual tour of Dante 1481 in multiple copies

See recording of the online multi-library event on 4 May 2021

See the film demonstrating printing an intaglio plate on a letterpress sheet

A follow-up seminar will take place on 6 July 2021; Registration at this link.

View of intaglio illustration of the 1481 edition of Dante, from Bodleian Auct. 2Q 1.11. The illustration is upside down.
Bodleian Auct. 2Q 1.11, Canto Tertio, detail

[re-blogged from Teaching the Book]

Examining several copies of the same book, especially one printed before 1500, is an enlightening experience. The copy-census is a valuable method for the study of early printing and one which requires personal inspection of copies which may be widely distributed around the world. To do this in person is a long and expensive process. A glimpse of the knowledge gained, though, could be had in a virtual visit to eight libraries, coordinated on 4 May 2021 to look at copies of one particular publication, the 1481 edition of Dante’s Comedia with a commentary by 15th-century Florentine scholar Christoforo Landino.

Although the invention of printing seemed to promise a stream of identical copies from the press, scholars of early printing are well aware that this was not always the result. Stop-press changes and accidents in the press account for minor or sometimes major differences between copies of the same edition. The marks of ownership over several hundred years have added further copy-specific elements to the objects held in libraries today.

Springing happily from a suggestion by Tabitha Tuckett, Rare-Books Librarian at University College London, this international tour co-hosted by UCL and the Bodleian Libraries Centre for the Study of the Book, with support from the Italian Cultural Institute in London and the Bibliographical Society of America, expanded on a growing practice of librarians showing books online using a visualiser. In pre-pandemic times the visualiser or document camera could be used for teaching in a lecture theatre or at a distance; in times of limited international travel it is a way to communicate across institutions, and librarians have grasped the possibility of ‘face-to-face’ comparisons on camera, as at the January, 2021 seminar on Myles Coverdale’s Goostley Psalmes between the Queen’s College Oxford, Beinecke, and Bodleian Libraries.

For a description of the ambitious – perhaps too ambitious – 1481 edition and the drawings by Botticelli which seem to be the source of the illustrations, see this blogpost by Gervase Rosser, Professor of the History of Art at the University of Oxford, The first printed and illustrated edition of Dante’s Comedy

The edition is now the subject of a collaborative copy-census research project co-ordinated by Cristina Dondi, Professor of Early European Book Heritage, University of Oxford, via the Printing Revolution project

The event included short talks on Dante (Professor John Took, UCL and Dr. Alessandro Scafi, Warburg Institute), Botticelli’s illustrations (Professor Gervase Rosser, University of Oxford), on surviving copies (Professor Cristina Dondi, University of Oxford and Secretary of CERL) and on the context of the book’s production (Dr. Tabitha Tuckett, UCL).

Library curators from several institutions gave their time and expertise to this exciting tour which revealed the complexity of the original printing project and the rich history of collecting this edition over the succeeding centuries. A recording of the online event is hoped for. Libraries taking part in the 4 May virtual tour:

·      Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, UK (co-organiser)

·      Library Services, University College London, UK (co-organiser)

·      Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, Italy

·      Biblioteca Vallicelliana di Roma, Italy

·      The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, USA

·      The British Library, UK

·      John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, UK

·      Trinity College, Cambridge, UK

The Bodleian’s copy, which is available in digital facsimile online, includes three printed illustrations; the illustrations to Canto 2 and Canto 3 are each printed from the same intaglio plate, but in Canto 3 this has been printed upside down. A film made at the Bodleian’s Bibliographical Press workshop demonstrates how the printing of an intaglio illustration on a letterpress page might have been done by fifteenth-century printers.

Where did you get that hat?

from Alexandra Franklin (Bodleian) & Giles Bergel (Engineering)

re-blogged and updated from the Bodleian Ballads blog, 2012

2021: Updating the discovery of detachable woodblock hats in Bodleian broadside ballads, we’ve had a printing block made with the detachable hat, and a matching hat for the woman pictured on the same ballad sheet, ‘Unconstant Phillis’.

Newly-made printing blocks from a 17th-century ballad in the Bodleian Libraries, 4o Rawl. 566(121), showing a man and woman with hats
Newly-made printing blocks reproduced from images on a 17th-century broadside ballad in the Bodleian Libraries, 4o Rawl. 566(121)

The idea of applying image-matching software to the illustrations within the broadside ballad collection occurred to Giles Bergel in 2011. Under a John Fell Foundation-funded pilot project in that year Dr Bergel, in partnership with the Bodleian Library, asked Professor Andrew Zisserman of the Visual Geometry Group at Oxford to test their pioneering technology on a sample of broadside ballads.

The hat — in “Unconstant Phillis”

The hat — in “The Noble Gallant”

The first step was to obtain high-quality images. A sample of 800 ballads dating from the seventeenth century was chosen: this was the period when ballads were most typically illustrated, with a combination of commissioned and stock images. Photography, carried-out by the Bodleian’s Imaging Services studio, was funded with a grant from the John Fell Fund. High-quality colour images (600 DPI, 24-bit) were the result: these are now mounted within the current Ballads database and replace some of the older, lower-quality bitonal images which the Bodleian is hoping to fully replace.
Relja Arandjelovic at the Visual Geometry Group processed the new images and built a test site to demonstrate the image matching. The results were impressive: the pilot proved that software can match woodcut images on multiple printings, in varying conditions. The software, still under development, will be migrated to a new Bodleian Broadside Ballads interface under the current JISC-funded project.

What does “image match” offer to researchers?

Researchers working with ballads quickly notice that the same or similar woodblock-printed illustrations appear on multiple broadsides. The same hand-holding couple appears time and again on ballads of love; the same ships decorate songs of naval battles; the same cityscape appears, surprisingly, in ballads about London and Troy. And sometimes the same illustrations appeared in early modern English books and pamphlets, too. (See A guide to English illustrated books, 1536-1603, by Ruth Samson Luborsky and Elizabeth Ingram).

The repetition of generic illustrations in this way is often derided as evidence of ballads’ lowly status, but (as well as providing evidence for popular iconography), for early-modern bibliographic detectives, the re-use of woodblocks provides evidence for the date of a ballad’s printing: deterioration of  a woodblock might be a way to establish a timeline of broadsides that share the same illustration.

But there are other questions to be answered, sometimes questions we didn’t even know we needed to ask, which could be answered by selection portions of woodcut printed images: like, ‘Where DID you get that hat?’

John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Adams: Their Life, Their Times, and their Library

Jessica Leeper, Exeter College, Oxford
DPhil student in History
shortlisted for the Colin Franklin Prize for Student Book Collecting, 2021

Bookshelf of book collector Jessica Leeper

My antiquarian collection began by chance in the winter of 2011 on a snowy day in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There I discovered an illustrated 1946 edition of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in a tiny downtown bookstore. Since that day my collection has grown to include over 230 volumes and prints, spanning the period between 1484 and 1980. Though my collection includes a variety of themes, there is one overwhelming theme that has become increasingly evident in my collecting. As a student of history, I have focused my research since my undergraduate days on the lives and works of the American presidential Adams family. My undergraduate, masters and now DPhil research has been an examination of the political lives of John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa Catherine. Because of my interest in them, I have acquired a significant number of books and prints related to their life, their times, and their library. The association has led me to collect books which are not only antiquarian and beautiful, but also extremely useful for my research.

Issues of Niles' Weekly Register
Niles’ Weekly Register

Most notably, I have a first edition copy of William H. Seward’s Life and Public Services of John Quincy Adams, published in Auburn, New York in 1849. I also have several newspapers of the General Advertiser, the Edinburgh Evening Courant, and the Nile’s Register, documenting the American Revolution up through Adams’s cabinet career in the early 1820s and the tumultuous election of 1824. The General Advertiser copies have Adams’s name inked at the top of the first page, indicating that they may have been delivered directly to his office in Washington D.C.

However, the majority of my books and prints are those that were directly mentioned in the Adams family’s letters and diaries and appear on the listings of their private library collections in Boston. Many of these are classical texts, such as my 1653 works of Statius, and Lucan’s Pharsalia. My copy of the latter was printed in Leiden in 1612, and it is the oldest book in my collection, still maintaining its original vellum binding and red wax seals on the pastedowns. This gorgeous duodecimo bears the signature of its 17th century owner, Peter Wybrants, who does not let me forget that it is still “his booke.” Being able to claim something as mine from a year when Shakespeare was still alive is extraordinary to me.

The Beauties of Johnson, a collection of Samuel Johnson’s maxims, printed in 1782 in London for G. Kearsly of Fleet Street. An inscription has been added by  J.L. Chambers of Newcastle in 1851.

I also have a large number of texts that were written in the 18th century, which would have been household names to the Adamses and their circle of acquaintances. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s The Spectator was read again and again by the Adamses, and was referenced often in their letters. My set of The Spectator was published by Jacob Tonson in 1726, and they are some of the most beautiful books in my collection, still appearing polished and practically untouched. However, the crown jewel of my collection is my first edition two volume set of Henry St. John Bolingbroke’s Letters on the Study and Use of History, published by Andrew Millar in 1752. This work was also referenced in the Adams family writings, but my set is uniquely fascinating: these two volumes bear the 19th century library stamp of the first Earl of Lovelace, who was married to Ada Lovelace, the brilliant daughter of Lord Byron. It is astounding to me to own two books which once belonged to their home.

Why I Collect Antiquarian Books

Old books offer a direct physical access to the past, while also revealing a glimpse of the passing of time. Old books offer first-hand physical evidence of the lives of our predecessors, their social norms, their popular culture, the kind of collections they might have had. Collecting antiquarian books allows me to engage in a form of micro-historical case studies, with primary sources on my own shelf for my own leisure and study.

I like to imagine that the Romantic poets would sigh to see how their own books have lasted and aged, to see my 1847 Waverley Novels for instance. I think they would be amazed to see how their books have ignored the passing of time and have denied the end of their own familiar eras. Though their books have been cast into this new world of technology, industry and speeding lights, they remain like picturesque ruins standing monumentally out of place in a futuristic world. They are a reminder that life was different once.

With all of my books I like to imagine their origins – the sort of print shops they came from, what the printer looked like, etc. How many were in great and noble libraries? How many were thoroughly abused by uninterested students? How many were read or printed during wars? How many were the last book someone ever read, or someone’s favourite book they ever read? How many were never read even once? How many were read in horse drawn coaches, or carried along to spring hillsides? How many have never been overseas, or have sat on shop shelves for years before I came along? How many have seen politicians like the Adamses, or suffragettes, or servants and lords? How many were cherished as much as I cherish them now? I like to imagine women in corsets and men with cravats reading them, some lounging in a sitting room by a winter’s fire, some hunched over a desk reading by candlelight. Some of my books are fourteen times my age, reminding me that I am only a passing figure in their long existence, a number in its list of owners. Antiquarian books are incredible relics, and I consider it a sort of job looking after them all. I am all in one the historian, the conservator, the curator, the archivist, the exhibition curator, and the amazed museum spectator.

Motorbikes and mousetraps: the history of ecology at Wytham Woods

from Dr Georgina Montgomery, Associate Member of the History Faculty affiliated to the Oxford Centre for the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, and Byrne Bussey Marconi Visiting Fellow at the Bodleian Libraries in 2021

Charles Elton on his motorbike with mouse-traps, at Bagley Wood, Oxford, 1926 (Bodleian Libraries, MS. Eng. c. 3328, folder A71)
Charles Elton on his motorbike with mouse-traps, at Bagley Wood, Oxford, 1926 (Bodleian Libraries, MS. Eng. c. 3328, folder A71)

Charles Elton – looking young and adventurous on his motorbike in the 1920s, in the picture above – is often referred to as the “father of ecology.” Elton spent much of his career conducting long-term ecological research in Wytham Woods, which remains an active field site to this day. Although it would be easy to imagine Elton working alone in the Woods, Wytham has embodied a collaborative approach to science. Groups of students and researchers worked together with Elton to collect data on the huge diversity of fauna and flora that exist in Wytham.

One animal that might seem mundane to us, but is important for understanding the ecology of a place, is the mouse. Details about the mice were recorded on a ‘body card.’ This card was specially decorated
by Elton to celebrate the occasion of the 2000th observation, of a mouse which was live-trapped in 1928.(Bodleian Libraries, MS. Eng. c. 3328, folder A71)

'Body card' recording the 2000th mouse live-trapped in Wytham Woods by Elton and colleagues (Bodleian Libraries, MS. Eng. c. 3328, folder A71)
‘Body card’ recording the 2000th mouse live-trapped in Wytham Woods by Elton and colleagues (Bodleian Libraries, MS. Eng. c. 3328, folder A71)

By 1952, Elton and two collaborators, R.S. Miller and B. Macpherson, developed a custom-made punch card for observations of plants and animals at Wytham Woods.

Punch card showing details of mice captured
Oxford University Museum of Natural History

In the summer of 2021, I will be leading walks in Wytham Woods in the footsteps of Charles Elton. These events are part of an appreciation of the history of Wytham Woods as a scientific environment.

An event for children aged 10-12 will take place on 3 July, with an event for adults to be scheduled later in the summer.

The photos below capture the diversity of researchers who studied field ecology in Wytham during the 1950s. Students came from across the United Kingdom, and travelled internationally, to study ecology with Elton in Wytham. Below, you see just two of the many women who have conducted research in Wytham Woods from the 1940s onwards. From 1950 the number of women enrolled in Elton’s field ecology course frequently outnumbered the men.

Ecology field course, Wytham Woods, 1950. (With the permission of Oxford University Museum of Natural History)
Ecology field course, Wytham Woods, 1950. (With the permission of Oxford University Museum of Natural History)
Ecology field course, Wytham Woods, 1956. (With the permission of Oxford University Museum of Natural History)
Ecology field course, Wytham Woods, 1956. (With the permission of Oxford University Museum of Natural History)

Wytham is not only a place for science. Wytham Woods has attracted artists and poets, including Elton’s wife, E.J. Scovell. Her poems often focused on nature. The scientists and artists who now work here also appreciate the beauty of the Woods.

Preserving the beauty of Wytham Woods was also an important reason why this area was given to the University of Oxford by the ffennell family in memory of their daughter, Hazel, who died in 1939, only in her early thirties.

Hazel, Sal and Leez at Wytham, from Hazel : the happy journey (1945)
Hazel, Sal and Leez at Wytham, from Hazel : the happy journey (1945)
‘Spring in the farmyard, Wytham,’ a watercolour by Hazel ffennell, reproduced from Hazel : the happy journey (1945)
‘Spring in the farmyard, Wytham,’ a watercolour by Hazel ffennell, reproduced from Hazel : the happy journey (1945)

Futher reading:

    • Dr. Georgina M. Montgomery’s recent publication for The Royal Society’s Notes and Records . This essay on the history of Wytham Woods formed part of a special issue entitled “Biodiversity and the History of Scientific Environments” which Dr. Montgomery also co-edited about the history of scientific environments in the UK, USA, and Korea:
    • More information about the Wytham Estate can be found in Notes on the History of the Wytham Estate, a limited edition reprint of the 1955 booklet by A.J. Grayson and E.W. Jones of the Imperial Forestry Institute at Oxford, complete with a pull-out map of the Wytham Estate with annotations from the 19th and 20th centuries.

    • For the work of Charles Elton, see the Charles Elton Archive on ORA, The Oxford University Research Archive

    • And find the Correspondence and papers of Charles Sutherland Elton, FRS (1900-1991) in the Bodleian Libraries

The long influence of William Morris and the Kelmscott Press

Bodleian MS. Laud Lat. 102, a ninth-century manuscript rebound at the Bodleian LibraryBodleian MS. Laud Lat. 102, a ninth-century manuscript rebound at the Bodleian Library

Marking International Kelmscott Press Day on Saturday 26 June 2021, Bodleian Special Collections are counting some of the ways that William Morris’s knowledge and love of the book arts has contributed to library collections and expertise, up to the present day. (For more on this topic, join a lecture by Laura Cleaver, co-hosted online by the William Morris Society UK and the Institute of English Studies, University of London, ‘Medieval Manuscripts and Private Presses: William Morris and his Followers as Collectors and Creators of Books c. 1891-1914.’)

Bodleian Libraries Kelmscott Press d.6, The history of Reynard the Foxe
Bodleian Libraries Kelmscott Press d.6, The history of Reynard the Foxe

Morris’s devotion to book design was a deciding factor in the establishment of the Kelmscott Press, and this History of Reynard the Foxe (1892), reprinted from William Caxton, is one of the editions inspiring the forthcoming exhibition, ‘North Sea Crossings’, which will open at the Weston Library in November. But the influence of Morris is present in less visible ways, too.

Saddle stitching linking the cover to the text-block
Bodleian MS. Laud Lat. 102, Saddle stitching linking the cover to the text-block

Morris’s interest in the crafts of book making also included bookbinding and his work with T.J. Cobden-Sanderson (1840-1922) and the Doves Bindery, and his designs for the de-luxe binding of the Kelmscott Chaucer (1896) are well known. Much less well known is the profound influence that his choice of materials would have on future developments in book conservation and the rebinding of medieval parchment manuscripts. Described by Sydney Cockerell (1867-1962) in June 1896 as “a specially-designed binding which has been executed in white pigskin […] inside the skin are oak boards”, the choice of medieval bookbinding materials for the Kelmscott Chaucer was not obvious or entirely approved of by Cobden-Sanderson. Although Morris designed the binding in consultation with Cobden-Sanderson, the work was carried out by Douglas Cockerell (1870-1945) who in turn became the most important binder of his generation. His later conservation and rebinding of the Codex Siniaticus for the British Museum Library in 1935, with oak boards and alum-tawed goatskin, drew upon lessons learnt from the Kelmscott Chaucer and would set the standard for manuscript rebinding and be copied by others for many years. Assisting Cockerell with Codex Siniaticus was Roger Powell (1896-1990), another towering figure in the development of book conservation who would further refine the techniques for rebinding parchment manuscripts with his pioneering work on the Book of Kells for Trinity College, Dublin in 1953 – again bound with oak boards and alum-tawed skins. Powell in turn greatly influenced Chris Clarkson (1938-2017) who worked with him in the late 1960s. Clarkson would later become instrumental in the establishment of the Bodleian’s Conservation Section in the late 1970s and would further refine the techniques of rebinding manuscripts through close observation and appreciation of the structural qualities of surviving medieval bindings. Clarkson trained, encouraged and influenced many book conservators (and many at Bodley) and his approaches continue to be used and developed at the Bodleian today. MS. Laud Lat. 102, a ninth-century manuscript from Fulda, was recently expertly conserved and rebound in oak boards covered with alum-tawed calfskin by Sabina Pugh – the latest in the line reaching back to Morris.

Morris took an active role in the craft of book making. One statement of this commitment was given in the lecture, ‘On the woodcuts of Gothic books,’ available to read online from the William Morris Online Archive,

I cannot help feeling that it would be a good thing for artists who consider designing part of their province (I admit there are very few such artists) to learn the art of wood-engraving, which, up to a certain point, is a far from difficult art; at any rate for those who have the kind of eyes suitable for the work. I do not mean that they should necessarily always cut their own designs, but that they should be able to cut them. They would thus learn what the real capacities of the art are…

Matchbox art by Peter Lawrence, Engraver's Gallery
Peter Lawrence, Engraver’s Gallery (2015)

Peter Lawrence‘s ‘Engraver’s Gallery’ (2015), featured in a 3D rendition in the digital repository Cabinet, is a recent acquisition to the Rare Books collection which featured in a 2019 display ‘Thinking Inside the Box’. This tiny matchbox work repays close inspection. The cover features Morris in the act of wood-engraving (after the drawing by Edward Burne-Jones), shavings scattering around him, as we imagine, in an homage from one wood-engraver to another.

An engaged interest in the craft of making books as a way to appreciate them better, and to learn about the arts of earlier book designers, is the guiding principle of the Bodleian’s Bibliographical Press, where students, schools, and the public can undertake their own experiments to learn ‘the real capacities’ of the arts of printing.

– Andrew Honey and Alex Franklin

Irish Gothic and Beyond

Elisa Cozzi, The Queen’s College, Oxford
DPhil student in English Language and Literature
shortlisted for the Colin Franklin Prize for Book Collecting, 2021

Figure 1: Frontispiece and title page of Regina Maria Roche’s The Children of the Abbey. Personal copy.
Figure 1: Frontispiece and title page of Regina Maria Roche’s The Children of the Abbey. Personal copy.

Irish gothic novels were among the first examples of the genre and greatly influenced later authors who played a key role in the development of the novel as a literary form, including Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Walter Scott. Unlike Ann Radcliffe’s popular gothic romances, set in a vague medieval past in faraway southern Italy or France,  Irish gothic novels such as Regina Maria Roche’s The Children of The Abbey (1796) and Clermont (1798), Sydney Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl (1806), and Charles Maturin’s The Milesian Chief (1812) and Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) share Irish settings, characters, and themes. They deal, directly or indirectly, with Irish history and politics and were influential in the development of Irish literary nationalism.

Roche’s The Children of the Abbey, once among the top bestsellers of the Romantic Age, has had a lasting impact on my studies. While researching material for my undergraduate dissertation I purchased a mid-nineteenth century illustrated edition of The Children of the Abbey from an independent Irish bookshop (John’s Bookshop in Athlone, Co. Westmeath). Printed by William Lane and A.K. Newman’s infamous London-based Minerva Press, which specialised in gothic novels and became the most prolific popular press of the age, my copy is a small one-volume edition, measuring 3x5x1.5 inches and bound in rib grain book-cloth with faint remnants of gilt ornaments on the spine. Although it is undated, the title page of the volume is signed “Elizabeth Jessop, 1859” in faded black ink, while the front free endpaper displays a handwritten place name, “Doory Hall, Co. Longford”.

Figure 2: Indication of “Doory Hall, Co. Longford”
Figure 2: Indication of “Doory Hall, Co. Longford”

Intrigued by these allusive traces of past readers, I discovered that the Jessops were an Anglo-Irish family of the landed gentry, with their seat in Doory Hall, near Longford. I also found (in Burke’s Peerage) that Frederick Thomas Jessop, Esq. had a child called Elizabeth, born between 1839 and the early 1840s.[1] Thus, she would have been around fifteen or twenty years old when she put her signature in this copy in 1859: the perfect age to enjoy what was, by then, a good gothic classic. I find it fascinating that although the Jessops’ extensive library was sold upon the family’s demise, and their big house fell into ruin in the 1920s, a few of their books, like my own copy, survived to tell the forgotten tale of their past owners. This exciting discovery initiated me to the study of the book as material culture and inspired me to research the history of the Minerva Press and its gothic output. During my postgraduate course at Oxford I turned this research into a paper on Bibliography and Book History and included a bibliographical analysis of my own copy of The Children of the Abbey.

Figure 3: During my MSt at Oxford in 2018-19, I took part in the "Practical Printing Workshops" at the Bodleian Library, where I typeset this frontispiece from the first edition of Roche's The Children of the Abbey.
Figure 3: During my MSt at Oxford in 2018-19, I took part in the “Practical Printing Workshops” at the Bodleian Library, where I typeset this frontispiece from the first edition of Roche’s The Children of the Abbey.

Although technically belonging to the genre of the ‘national tale’, Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl contains strong gothic elements and themes, including a ruined castle on a cliff, a sensitive female protagonist, an ancient crime, and a nocturnal, blood-chilling plot twist. What most struck me upon a first reading was the presence of constant comparisons between Ireland and Italy throughout the novel. Irish places, traditions, landscapes, literature, and art are continually juxtaposed with their Italian equivalents. While the evocation of Italy and things Italian in gothic novels was mainstream, as Italy had been shaped as ‘quintessentially gothic’ since Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), I soon realised that, in the Irish context, the Irish-Italian comparisons served a political purpose. In the early 1800s, when The Wild Irish Girl was published, both Ireland and Italy were grappling with foreign domination, fighting to gain independence from England and Austria, respectively. Thus, by bringing Italy and Ireland together, the radical Owenson (one of the founders of Irish cultural nationalism) framed Italy as a compelling mirror-image of Ireland, the epitome of a ‘nation’ oppressed by foreign powers, a politically subversive ‘double’ of Ireland. After all, ‘doublings’ and ‘mirrorings’ are classic features of gothic narratives.

The Wild Irish Girl alerted me to a previously unappreciated wealth of Irish-Italian literary connections in the Romantic period, and has directly inspired my doctoral thesis topic. In the case of Irish gothic novels especially, Ireland and Italy are often brought together and personified in overtly political romance plots. A good example is Charles Robert Maturin’s The Milesian Chief, which tells the story of an Irish-Italian girl called Armida Fitzalban who, although promised to an Englishman, travels to Ireland and falls in love with the Irish Connal O’Morven, the descendant of a dispossessed Gaelic prince, and fights alongside him in a rebellion against the English. A similar politicised Irish-Italian plot is at the centre of Bianca: A Tale of Erin and Italy (1852), another forgotten gothic tale by Maturin’s son Edward. These avenues of research brought me to my current doctoral project, which looks at the literary connections between Italy and Ireland in 1798-1848, with a particular focus on the literary production of Irish exiles and expatriates in the Italian peninsula.

No Irish gothic collection would be complete without the Victorian classics Carmilla (1872) and Uncle Silas (1864) by Sheridan Le Fanu, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). The last notable Irish-Italian novel in my collection is a second edition of Luttrell of Arran (1863) by Charles Lever (1806-1872). My 1866 edition is enriched by 44 illustrations by H.K. Brown and has an emerald binding embossed with Celtic patterns. Partly set in Italy and containing humorous-gothic tropes, Luttrell was written in Trieste (about an hour away from my hometown) where Lever, predating James Joyce, spent the last years of his life.

Despite their critical neglect, the enduring appeal of Irish gothic classics is reflected in contemporary publications. For example, Sarah Perry’s Melmoth (2018) reimagines Maturin’s masterpiece in a feminist key, while Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Deathless Girls (2019) tells the untold story of Dracula’s three vampire brides.

[1] John Burke, A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland (London: Colburn, 1847): 649.

In Search of the Heroic City: Cartagena de Indias, 1821–2021 – Winner, the Colin Franklin Prize for Book Collecting, 2021

The Colin Franklin Prize for Book Collecting 2021
The following is an abridgement of the winning essay, which can be found here.

Yvette Siegert, Merton College, Oxford
DPhil student Medieval & Modern Languages

In order to consult the historical archives in Cartagena, Colombia, you have no choice but to visit the Palace of the Inquisition. You climb a grand colonial staircase, past displays of religious iconography and authentic torture devices, to the only air-conditioned room in the building. There you meet with Don Aníbal, the archivist, who invites you to sit in front of a blinking computer screen and describe what you are looking for. Birth certificates, newspaper folios, fin-de-siècle magazines, city plans, or revolutionary pamphlets – it makes no difference: Don Aníbal can coax almost any resource out of the cumbersome digital database that only he can decipher.

The problem lies in procuring the desired item itself, since it may no longer be available. One of the obstacles to preserving materials in Cartagena is the intense year-round tropical heat and humidity. Onsite documents have suffered the effects of dampness or flooding; various irreplaceable volumes have disintegrated owing to disorder or neglect. Digitisation efforts have not been able to keep up, and many documents of national interest are stored in far-off Bogotá, the capital of Colombia.

My aim as a collector parallels my research aims as a D.Phil student: to understand how Cartagena managed to survive its century-long stagnation since Independence and become a central inspiration for important works of Spanish American political thought and cultural production.

The reason my collection keeps expanding – one extra suitcase per visit – is owing to my desire to develop my D.Phil thesis into a cultural history of the city, one that will not only trace its broader intellectual and literary currents but also incorporate details of its astonishing contradictions and inequalities, while capturing its vibrant whimsy, resilience, and creativity. This book collection is a loving act of resistance against forgetting the history of a city that is not only essential to my intellectual growth but also, I’ve discovered, a part of my family heritage.

Some items came into the collection thanks to my friendship with Ibeth, the first person I ever met in Cartagena. Ibeth – we share a name – manages Librería Los Mártires, a famous makeshift bookstall in the archway of the clock tower in the heart of the city. During my fieldwork, I’d visit her on most days and stay for a cup of hot tinto under the breezy arches.  Ibeth  introduced me to Ruby Rumié’s Tejiendo Calle/Weaving Streets, an artbook from a ground-breaking exhibition, at Nohra Haime Gallery, that portrayed fifty of Cartagena’s famous Afro-Colombian palenqueras, or street vendors, who are depicted in brochures and guidebooks in familiar costumes bearing the colours of the Colombian flag.  This exhibition called urgent attention to the women’s exploitation in a gentrifying city where they are icons of its largest economy.

My favourite workplace in Cartagena is a bookshop named Ábaco, where the shop-sellers let customers sit for hours with a book and a glass of coffee (or cocktail). There I obtained Ortíz Cassiani’s account of the Cartagena railway, a rare work of scholarship that shows how the ‘devil train’ modernised the city and connected it to the interior metropolitan centre.

One of the most unusual items in my collection is the recent full-length comic Lezo, about the blind, one-legged hero who miraculously staved off an invasion by Sir Edward Vernon, who was so confident of a victorious plunder that he had celebratory commemorative coins minted in England ahead of his sea voyage. This book, crowd-sourced and self-published in Spain, calls attention to a nearly-forgotten hero of Spanish America.

Collecting books about Cartagena is part of an attempt to resist the erasure of the city’s past while remaining hopeful about the prospect of peace in Colombia. That optimism is sustained by the friendships that make my collection possible.

Books mentioned in this extract:

Rumié, Ruby. Tejiendo Calle/Weaving Streets. Cartagena de Indias: Villegas, 2018.

Ortíz Cassiani, Javier. Un diablo al que le llaman tren. Bogotá: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2018.

Miranda, Ángel et al. Lezo, Parte I: La toma de Bocachica, illus. Guillermo Mogorrón. Madrid: Espadas de Fin del Mundo, 2020.

I am grateful to the Socity for Latin American Studies, the Clarendon Fund, and Merton College, Oxford, for research funds that made it possible to carry out my 2019 fieldwork in Colombia and acquire several items for this collection. – Yvette Siegert

Chiara Betti brings to light the Rawlinson copper plates at the Bodleian Library

This post by Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student Chiara Betti, who is studying the Rawlinson collection of copper plates at the Bodleian Library, is re-blogged from the St John’s College, Oxford, blog – read the whole text there.

Copper plate from the Rawlinson collection, Bodleian Library

In 1756 the University of Oxford and St John’s College received one of their most significant bequests ever from the late Richard Rawlinson (1690–1755).

Following a quarrel with the London Society of Antiquaries, Richard Rawlinson left most of his printed books, manuscripts, and all his printing plates to the Bodleian Libraries. His extensive estates went to St John’s College.
While there has been a constant interest and much research on Rawlinson’s books, the copper plates have been awaiting further studies for centuries. Thanks to funding from UKRI, the Rawlinson copper plates are now at the centre of a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership project jointly supervised by the Institute of English Studies (University of London) and the Bodleian Libraries.


Award of the Colin Franklin Prize for Book Collecting, 2021

Yvette Siegert; photo credit: Cyril Closset
Yvette Siegert. Photo credit: Cyril Closset

The winner of the Colin Franklin Prize for Book Collecting, 2021, is announced. This competition is open each year to current undergraduate or postgraduate students of the University of Oxford.

This year’s prize has been awarded to Yvette Siegert, Merton College, Oxford, D.Phil Medieval & Modern Languages, for her collection, ‘In Search of the Heroic City: Cartagena de Indias, 1821–2021’

Siegert’s collection is inspired by a fascination with Cartagena, as she writes, ‘“the Heroic City” … a fortressed city that withstood invasion for centuries and was part of the first province in New Granada to declare independence from Spain (in 1811) … My aim as a collector parallels my research aims as a D.Phil student: to understand how Cartagena survived a century-long stagnation since Independence and became a central inspiration for important works of Spanish American political thought and cultural production.’

Her winning essay describes encounters with books and documents in and of Cartagena, evoking the story of this port city in documentary and architectural survivals, from the historical archives kept in the Palace of the Inquisition to Librería Los Mártires, the makeshift bookstall managed by Ibeth (Yvette’s namesake, in translation) in the archway of the clock tower at the heart of the city.

As well as the £600 prize to the winner, £300 is given to the Bodleian Libraries for purchase of a book, in consultation with the winning student book collector.

In 2021, a strong field of entries was considered by the judges. Several entrants have been invited to contribute versions of their essays to The Conveyor blog, and will be featured here.

This year, in awarding the prize, we also mark the passing of the bibliophile and collector for whom it is named. Colin Franklin (1923-2020) was a distinguished author, book collector and bookseller who over many decades encouraged numerous young book collectors at the University. The prize is funded by Anthony Davis in his memory.