Wednesday, November 30, 2016

William L'Isle, A Saxon Treatise Concerning the Old and New Testament, 1623

L'Isle, A Saxon Treatise, 1623
Often enough, an interesting old book is found in an unprepossessing binding. In this case, the book in question is William L'Isle's 1623 printing of an Old English text by Ælfric of Eynsham, which L'Isle printed under the title, A Saxon Treatise Concerning the Old and New Testament.

As luck would have it, this copy includes only the front matter and Ælfric's piece; the full-sized book ought to also have a reprint of the older A Testimonie of Antiquitie as well as some additional materials, as described (in brief) on the title page of the present book.

But even a quick glance at the binding suggests that the book has been its current size at least since the middle 1800s. More, the pebbled cloth that now covers the boards looks like it may lie overtop of an older brown calf covering: the boards, at least, may belong to an even older binding, though whether that older binding included only the present pages or once included the whole of the original book may no longer be determinable. It is possible, of course, that this copy of this book provides evidence for an early independent presentation of just the initial Ælfric material, but the most we can be sure of, I think, is that the book has stood in its present form for some 150 years or so.

My academic interest in Old English, of course, makes printed books with Old English texts an area
Title Page; a pencil note beside the
final section of the title reads "Not Here"
of special interest for me. L'Isle, with the publication of this book, really set in motion the seventeenth-century project of publishing Old English texts (some had been printed in the 1500s, but not many), and before the century was out, a good many of the familiar Old English prose and verse works would have been set into type at least once.

During all the time I worked as an academic, I never had occasion to consult L'Isle's book, I am sorry to say. My long-standing project of reclaiming Ælfric as a poet or versifier might have led me here, though, as this Ælfrician composition is, indeed, in his characteristic rhythmical style. This alliterative style has (in my opinion) long been misunderstood and mischaracterized as prose. L'Isle, of course, seems to have had no notion that the work he was printing was in verse, and his error has been repeated now for almost four centuries.

As is the way of things when I encounter a new old book, I took the time, of course, to glance through this new one, and I was surprised to encounter the following passage in the final section of the Preface:

The bottom of leaf f3 [verso]; the typesetter
appears to have misunderstood L'Isle's "son,"
printing "same," giving "Woden, which was
the same of
Frealaf, &c." (left margin)

Here, L'Isle imagines King Alfred reflecting on the present [i.e., 1623] state of learning about the Anglo-Saxons, and lamenting it in terms clearly influenced by Alfred's own Preface to the Pastoral Care, which had been printed (the Preface, that is), in the 1574 edition of Asser's Vita Alfredi. In part, of course, I am interested in the alliterating genealogies as they are also another unrecognized type of Old English verse.

Seeing this passage, I immediately thought it would be a fun project to try to track down which manuscript L'Isle might be taking the genealogies from: with a West Saxon and a Mercian genealogy, a manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle immediately seems a possibility.

Interestingly, as L'Isle prints it, the genealogy of Ine (or "Ina") includes the reading "Ceolwald Cuþulfing,"which is present in copies of the West Saxon Regnal Table (in the copies associated with both A and B Chronicle manuscripts), but not in the Chronicle proper. Unfortunately, here I've run aground, and I have not--yet, at least--been able to trace where the unusual forms "Þinferð" and "Ænwulf" come from, neither of which seems to turn up in the Chronicle manuscripts. David Dumville's edition of the genealogies found in Cotton Vespasian B vi, CCCC 183, and Cotton Tiberius B v likewise indicates that none of those is the source for these spellings ("Anglian Collection," Anglo-Saxon England 5, pp. 23-50). Attempting to trace these genealogies has given me, I must admit, a kind of fun puzzle to work on, and even if I haven't solved it all, it has indicated the real breadth of manuscripts and texts that L'Isle must have known. 

And, of course, if any of my readers can pin down L'Isle's source or sources for these genealogies, I'd be eager to hear about it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Eastern National Antiques Show, Carlisle, PA, Nov. 18-19

Four cranberry cut-to-clear stemmed glasses.
Though books remain my real antiquarian love, my business name remains Chancery Hill Books and Antiques, and I continue to have sales and stock in antiques--which means I am constantly buying in that area, too.

For historical reasons, the antiques side of my business mostly involves nineteenth- and twentieth-century American glass table ware: glass made to be used. Today, I'll be loading up the vehicle we affectionately call "the bookmobile" with about twenty boxes of glass to show at the Eastern National Antiques show in Carlisle, PA, one of the oldest shows around. 

It will be my second time setting up at the show, and I guess, among other things, it will be a chance to see if the new political winds blow well or poorly for the antiques world. 

Just as I am especially fascinated with manuscripts, as a rule, rather than printed books, my interest in glass is also often piqued by the hand-made craftsmanship of an item. Every manuscript, after all, has been produced by hand.

In the nineteenth century, and for a good part of the twentieth, handmade glass remained a staple of production and use in this country. Nowadays, most glass items that one might drink from, or otherwise use in a kitchen, are made by machine. In the items I am picturing here on the blog today, the level of hand craftsmanship is especially high.

First, the color of these glasses is what is often called "cranberry": the shade of glass made by the addition of gold. "Gold ruby," as it is also called, is an exceptionally intense color, though, and to achieve the color shown here, a very thin layer of gold ruby is blown together with a thicker layer of clear crystal glass. If this were not done, either the color would be so dark as to be almost black, or the bowls of these glasses would be too thin to use.

The stems here are also shaped by hand, and the feet are applied by hand. The hand-blown (that is, mouth-blown) bubbles that form the bowl would be scored by a diamond, cracked off, then polished flat to give the top rim. The stems have been cut by hand to give them flat panels, and then the decorative cutting of flowers and a ribbon tied in a bow also cut by hand--on the bowls, the cutting cuts through the cranberry layer to reveal the clear glass underneath. The feet were also cut with a floral design. 

The cut panels and design were then polished: in this case, the polishing appears to have been done by an acid bath: the only real labor saving effort in this case. The effect is often called "rock crystal" and this acid polishing, and the shape of the glasses, tells me these were probably made in the 1930s, just about the last time anything with this level of hand-crafting was made with any regularity. I'd guess these were probably made in Europe.

The people who did all this hand-work, of course, were professionals, and it was all accomplished more quickly than we might imagine. But even so, it is worthwhile to consider how much a set of such glasses would cost these days, if one could find someone to produce them. 

These glasses, I think it's important to say, were always "nice things." But the truth is, I like having nice things.

If you happen to be in the Carlisle area, over the weekend, don't hesitate to stop by and visit a bit. The show has what many find to be an overwhelming amount of glass, but there's a lot of beautiful stuff, at virtually every price range. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Mini-Catalogue 166: A dozen French Items, 1379-1974.

Le Petit Almanach des Dames, 1813.
Slipcase on the left
I was chatting with a friend recently, and I described the most interesting part of my stock as "oddball items." For good or for bad, it's largely true: I am always attracted to unusual things, or things that seem unusual to me. Sometimes, it's just an illusion: what seems unusual to me isn't really all that unusual after all. And sometimes, I think, the truly oddball stuff is the hardest to sell at all: it doesn't fit into any reasonable collecting category.

That, too, is a kind of comforting illusion: all the stuff I buy that I can't sell will end up being a collection all its own: stuff so unusual no one wants it.

This week, I am posting a small mini-catalogue or list of items that come under the general heading of French: all twelve items were either made in France or written in French. Sometimes both.

Interested parties can follow this link, I believe, to the catalogue itself.

Title page
Two of these books I am especially pleased to have because of their oddball nature: two little early nineteenth century "almanacs" for lack of a better word, both in their original cardboard slip cases.

If one can judge a genre from two examples, these French examples are almanacs in that they include calendars for the year, but unlike the American almanacs of the period, which I've handled a number of, they use that calendrical material almost entirely as an excuse to present readers with a collection of poems and a few small engravings. American almanacs frequently have room for agricultural notes: when the corn got planted, when the first frost took place. The calendars are the hearts of those books.

These French almanacs have the opposite effect: the literary, poetic content is at the heart of these little books.

For me, as a person who is always fascinated with the materiality of books and texts, it is the original slipcases on these books that have as much appeal for me as anything. The books are interesting in their own right (and both are scarce in institutional collections, if OCLC/WorldCat is to be believed), but the original slipcases put them into my "oddball" area of interest. In the case of Le Petit Almanach des Dames, where the title of the book is present on the spine of the slipcase, but not present on the spine of the book, there can be no doubt that the case is original to the book. 

Le Petit Nain Rose, Chansonnier Caustique et Joyeux
(undated, probably 1818 or 1819)
But one suspects that this second item, Le Petit Nain Rose, would be oddball enough for me, regardless. Who couldn't love a songbook that describes itself as "Caustic and Joyous" in the subtitle?

In the case of this book, both the slipcase and the book itself have completely undecorated exteriors: there is no printing or writing of any sort on the outsides. Yet both case and book match perfectly; there doesn't seem to be any reason to imagine they are not original.

Because these slipcases are constructed from cardboard, rather than printed paper, they are more likely to survive than a printed dust jacket would have. Even so, for these books and their cases to have remained together for these past two centuries seems remarkable to me, and it's been a pleasure to find them.

And of course, seeing the two books together tells us something: such slipcases were seen as useful or appropriate for these almanacs. And further, they came in a variety of degrees of adornment, from the basic to the elaborate. 

Slipcase and book: Petit Nain Rose (ca. 1818)

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Samuel Wesley's "Epistle to a Friend Concerning Poetry," 1700.

Title page of Samuel Wesley's
"Epistle to a Friend"
It may be mere self-distraction to spend part of the evening after election day writing about a book more than three hundred years old, older by a good deal than the American democracy itself. But books, I remind myself, endure, as long as they are not exposed to more than their fair share of fire, water, and other destructive forces. And in them, we can be reminded, in all the best and most wonderful ways, of the record of human striving: for greatness, for excellence, for worthiness. These things, too, remain.

So today, it was an especial delight to open the mail and find this book, bound within an early eighteenth-century volume labeled "TRACTS" on the spine. 

I bought the book because it seemed unusual, and literary books like this one are always harder to find and more interesting (to me at least) than the religious books one encounters more frequently. 

When I opened the book, I knew nothing of Samuel Wesley, nor his poem "An Epistle to a Friend Concerning Poetry." though he's well enough known that one can discover something about him, and the reception of this work, on his Wikipedia page. Presented as a response to a friend who had inquired about how one might go about achieving fame through poetry, the "Epistle" is, it turns out, a poetic discussion of poets, style, criticism, and composition, and it very much must have served as a context, if not a model, for Alexander Pope's far more famous Essay on Criticism, published eleven years later. 

from p. 12
Pope's Essay, of course, is a poem I have often taught, though it's somewhat difficult to persuade students these days to value it. And Pope, though he makes some comments about classical authors, makes no attempt at all to address the criticism, or even the meter, of Old English verse, a topic near and dear to my own heart. 

But Wesley, remarkably, did at least make the attempt.

After brief discussions of Chaucer ("Of CHAUCER'S Verse we scarce the Measures know /So rough the lines, and so unequal flow") and Spenser ("more smooth and neat, and none than He / Could better skill of English Quantity"), Wesley moves on to more recent figures. Accusing the Frenchified Alexandrines of Chapman (translator of Homer) and Sternhold (translator of the Psalms) of weakness and lack of variety, Wesley then attempts to praise Pentameter instead, and appears to describe the verse of his "Saxon fathers" as a "strong" meter.

Page 13.
What he means by "strong" here is somewhat difficult to tell, but it is appealing to note that some modern-day discussions of Germanic meter describe it as a "strong stress meter," which I usually take to mean a metrical system defined by the placements of stressed syllables, rather than "feet" in the classical formulation.

In the footnote, Wesley cites some contemporary writing on the origins of the English people, which in turn, cites or mis-cites a bit of Eddic verse from the Havamal on runes. Though some Old English verse had, of course, been printed by this time, it was still little understood and Beowulf had not yet even been mentioned in print, in Wanley's catalogue of the Cotton manuscripts. 

In suggesting the Edda is built upon "Mysterious Rhimes, [ones] horrid to the sight" Wesley seems to miss the alliteration that structures these Eddic lines, and his claim that Taliessin might have used the same "rough Numbers" as the Eddic poem seems pretty far off.

Regardless, Wesley's understanding that "runic staves" might survive for long indeed "on Rocks engraved" is right on the money. 

Pope, coming along a decade later, must have known this poem well, I think. Where Pope reminds us that "the sound must seem an echo to the sense," Wesley says:

Nor equal Numbers will for all suffice,
The Sock creeps low, the Tragic Buskins rise:
None knew this Art so well, so well did use
As did the Mantuan Shepherd's Heavenly Muse:
He marry's Sound and Sense, at odds before,
We hear his Scylla bark, Charybdis roar; (ll. 497-502)

Perhaps my sense of humor is too obvious, but I can hardly keep from laughing at the image of the sock falling and the leggings riding up, the clash of directions leading to a sense of the tragic as surely as the clash between monosyllables and disyllables.

But Pope, of course, covering some of this same ground, uses some of these same words, telling us, for example that "ten low words oft creep in one dull line." And using "roar" to indicate the effective use of meter: "the hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar."

Pope, for better or worse, resists any temptation to address the specifics of any of the ancients as Wesley here does: and Pope, it is probably fair to say, is a better poet than Wesley. But what a surprise and a pleasure it was to find this little gem, an attempt to consider the field of English verse and English criticism in the early eighteenth century, which seems to give Pope some of his own more famous language, and also at least makes the attempt to trace the genealogy of English verse back farther than Chaucer. 

And if Wesley misunderstands his Eddic text and its meter, who are we to laugh, when he at least has made the attempt?