an armorial binding mystery

Another book from my students’ projects, this one with a curious binding:

At first glance, what you might see is an armorial binding: a binding in which an owner has stamped his arms in gold tooling. No big deal, really; there are plenty of books like those in libraries. But this one is more complicated: there are TWO coats of arms, one stamped on top of the other. Here’s a close-up of the center of the binding, where the arms are:

And here’s the picture again with one of the two arms outlined:
A close-up of the top portion, in which you can see that there are two crowns juxtaposed and the heads of two faintly visible supporters:
Looked at in raking light, you can see that the supporter on the right looks like an antlered stag:

And the supporter on the left looks like a horse:

I can’t make out the details of the arms themselves, but you can see the motto on which the supporters are standing:

My student deciphered it as “fidei coticula crux” and that looks right to me.

If you look closely at that last picture, you can see that the arms with the supporters and motto was done second: its lines cross on top of the other arms. And if you look at the original arms, you might recognize them as James I’s arms: there’s the harp on the bottom left of the shield, the lions and fleur-de-lis quartering the right, and the motto “honi soit qui mal y pense” circling the shield. (This gives you some sense of the arms, though that harp is a bit excessive.) (And I should point out, although it’s surely obvious by this point, that I’m not particularly knowledgeable about arms and that my vocabulary choices might not be quite precise. But this is why we need help.)

So whose coat of arms is on top of James’s? Is it possible it’s James’s favorite, George Villiers, aka the first Duke of Buckingham? According to the Burke I was looking at, not only was the family’s motto “Fidei coticula crux”, but he used the supporters of “a dapple grey horse” and a stag. But, as I said, I’m not super confident of my ability to deal with armorial and geneological crap, so does someone want to confirm or deny this? I’m drawn to it because if someone WAS going to stamp their arms on top of the king’s, wouldn’t it be great if it was him? (If you’re not familiar with this period, you might want to know more about Villiers; this link should, I hope, get you into the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography‘s article on him for the next few days [though April 27th]. If it no longer works, well, this would be a good time for you to do some scouting about on your own! If you know of some reliable open access information about him, please leave it in the comments. Or go edit the Wikipedia page, which could use improvement!)

I should say something about what book this is, I suppose. It’s John Smith’s 1624 The generall historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles. It’s a very interesting book, and there’s some great marginalia in it, but that will have to wait until another post, especially since my student is still in the middle of her research! But the arms thing is tricky to decipher and the Folger catalog record identifies only one of the two crests (James’s, of course), so I wanted to lend her a hand in getting it sorted out. And I certainly didn’t want to lead her astray with my desire for it to be Buckingham! So please leave me a note telling me what you think and I’ll pass it on to her.

O rare!


I’ve been looking at another book that a student was working on. It’s unprepossessing on the outside, just a small, worn brown leather binding, with the remains of ties that have long since disappeared. But the book is much more interesting on the inside. Take a gander at some of the photos I snapped (I did these with my cell phone, so they’re not super high quality, but they’re not too bad either):

The whole book is like this, covered with marginalia. There are manicules, trefoils, asterisks, notes more and less extensive. It’s a seriously used book.

And do you know who used this book so seriously? He inscribed his name right there on the title page:

O rare Ben Jonson! And while Jonson’s book when he used it might seem unprepossessing, later owners certainly valued it for its association and house it accordingly, in its own locked box.
There’s much more to be said about Jonson and his books but I wanted to get these pictures up before they burned a hole in my pocket. You can find the catalog record for this book here and I’ll try to follow this up with a bit more Jonsonia.
(Oh, I suppose many of you got the title of the blog post, but just for clarification’s sake: Jonson is buried in Westminster Abbey under a plaque that reads, “O rare Ben Johnson”–and yes, that’s how it’s spelled on the plaque, even though Jonson didn’t spell his name that way.)

essayes of a prentise


Another example of a student project today, this time at the intersection of politics and poetry as well as of England and Scotland: King James’s The Essayes of a prentise, in the divine art of poesie. This book is a collection of poems and translations by James, as well as “A treatise on the airt of Scottis Poesie.” Published in 1584 in Edinburgh, James was then King James VI of Scotland, and net yet King James I of England, a title he didn’t take until 1603, although the book is cataloged by the STC as authored by James I. (The STC record is the source of the Folger’s catalogue entry for the book; there are standardized rules for all cataloging, of course, but it seems to me misleading to think of this work as being by the King of England, rather than an aspirant to that title.)

There are some great things about this book, including the fact that it’s written in a Scots dialect. Are you surprised that James would write a treatise on poetry? He addresses that very surprise in his preface:

“ze may marvell paraventure, quhairfore I sould have writtin in that mater, sen sa mony learnit men, baith of auld and of late hes already written thairof in dyvers and sindry languages: I answer, That nochtwithstanding, I have lykewayis writtin of it, for twa caussis.”

If you want to know the two causes, you’ll have to read the essay yourself. (By the way, I’ve regularized the u/v usage, as I typically do in transcriptions for this blog, and I’ve reproduced the long “s” form as our modern “s”, but you’ll have to provide your own accent to make sense of the rest of it.)

As you might imagine, part of James’s aim is to argue for the particularity of Scottish learning: the rules for English versification are not and should not be the same as those for Scottish. Just as poesie is also politics in the treatise, so it is throughout the book, which proceeds wtihin a network of Protestant politics, from the Huguenot who printed it while in exile in Edinburgh to the substance of the works.

The book itself has a wonderful sense of presence, including lots of white space and even blank pages (a sure sign of luxuriousness, given the cost of paper). The layout of these poems is a lovely example of early shape poetry:


One of the most interesting aspects of the book isn’t what is in it, but what binds it:


That’s a beautiful, and unusual, orange vellum binding, with tooling, including the name of its owner, W. Lord Burghley. According to research done for a Folger exhibition, this binding is nearly exact that of another copy of this book, one which is tooled with the name “W. Lord Hunsden”. The existence of the two bindings, plus the face that this binding does not resemble the bindings of other books Burghley owned, suggests that it could be a presentation copy by James VI to Burghley–bringing us back to the intersection of poesie and politics.

It was the binding that brought my student to this book–Michael came across it by browsing through Hamnet for “tooling” and “ties”. But, as we’ve seen before, when you start looking at a book from one point of view, others open up, so that he moved from physical object, to text, to social and networks–none of which, of course, are separate from each other.