Category Archives: Ken Gibb

The Cardiff Rare Books Project: historical highlights and favourite finds

IMG_9828The Cardiff Rare Books Collection, acquired by Cardiff University in 2010, includes 14,000 rare and early printed books and pamphlets dating from the 15th to the 20th century. Before arriving here, the collection had been in storage for decades and had never been comprehensively catalogued. The Esmee Fairbairn Foundation kindly agreed to fund a specialist rare books cataloguer to work on the collection over a three year period and I happily took up the role in June 2011. The Cardiff Rare Books Project began with the aim of cataloguing as much of the collection as possible, uncovering hidden treasures and making them accessible to scholars and the general public alike.

Cardiff’s incunabula (books printed before 1501)

During the course of the project, almost five and a half thousand records have been added to the library catalogue and numerous exciting discoveries have ???????????????????????????????been made. The library’s cataloguing team and I have been able to provide access to one of the finest collections of private press books in the UK, as well as a remarkable collection of annotated Restoration dramas which are already attracting considerable interest from researchers. Our 178 incunabula, some of them printed as early as 1470, have been fully described and accurately recorded for the first time.

With so many wonderful discoveries made during the project (many of which I have been able to blog about here), it is hard to pick favourites but a few very special items do come to mind.


Pietro Duodo’s copy of “Amadis de Gaula” (1582), bound in the olive-brown leather for literary works

I love the story behind the beautiful Duodo bindings I found very early on in the project. These two little volumes were intended to be part of a gentleman’s travelling library for Pietro Duodo (1554-1611), Venetian ambassador to Paris in the late 16th century. The books were sent to a Parisian bindery to be luxuriously bound in gilt-tooled morocco leather, colour-coded by subject and incorporating Duodo’s arms and motto (“She whom I await with longing will not elude me”), but the ambassador never returned to collect his library; suddenly and unexpectedly recalled to Venice, Duodo was forced to leave his beloved books behind.


You never know what you might find when you pull a book of the shelf in the rare books stack and on a few occasions I was delighted to discover paintings on the fore-edges of books I retrieved for cataloguing. We are lucky to have two examples of the fore-edge paintings produced by John T. Beer, a successful businessman and  book collector who turned to fore-edge painting after his retirement. Beer selected books from his own collection to be decorated and, as with our examples, he often took inspiration from texts themselves.


Our “Newton book” certainly deserves its place on any list of favourite finds. On opening a copy of John Browne’s Myographia Nova (1698) I discovered two unidentified bookplates together with other evidence of former owners. With a little detective work, I was able to trace all the previous owners and follow the book back into the library of the renowned scientist, Sir Isaac Newton, whose books were dispersed and lost after his death. The discovery of this volume led to an unprecedented level of media interest for Cardiff Special Collections and our rare books. Articles and photographs appeared in national newspapers and I was rushed off to be interviewed live on BBC Radio Wales, an unusual experience indeed for a rare books cataloguer!

A woodcut of me, hard at work on the collection – a cataloguer’s work is never done!

IMG_9467Last but not least, I have had enormous fun rummaging through the collection trying to track down as many manicules as humanly possible. I find these little pointing fingers, created by or for readers to mark noteworthy passages, endlessly fascinating and I have always been delighted to discover new and surprising variations in our early books. I am sure there are many, many more out there.


I will shortly be moving on to work with an even larger and hopefully equally Smileyinteresting collection at Lambeth Palace Library, as the new cataloguer of the Sion College Collection. The SCOLAR blog will keep going strong as library staff continue to work with the Cardiff Rare Books Collection and share their exciting discoveries. We can be certain there is much more to be revealed about these fascinating books.



Building Noah’s Ark: instructions from Thomas Stackhouse’s “A new history of the Holy Bible” (1733)


Construction begins on the ark as mankind ignores the danger: this engraving from the 1752 edition of Stackhouse’s “A new history of the Holy Bible” clearly shows the three decks, single window and door described in Genesis

These fascinating illustrations come from A new history of the Holy Bible, written by Thomas Stackhouse and first published in 1733. We hold several editions of this work in the Cardiff Rare Books Collection, each containing different engravingsIMG_0973a depicting the design and construction of Noah’s ark as described in the Old Testament. The book of Genesis tells how God decided to undo his creation of the Earth by sending a flood to wash away the wickedness of man. Noah was instructed by God to build an ark, a large waterproof vessel that would save Noah, his family and a sample of the world’s animals from the coming storm that would soon cleanse the Earth.


The rectangular, box-shaped design is apparent here in the first edition of 1733, but the many (impractical?) windows allow us to view the animals on the decks. In his text, even Stackhouse refers to this depiction as “pure imagination”.

In Genesis 6:14-6:16, God gives Noah detailed directions for the construction of the vessel: “Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark 300 hundred cubits, its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits. You shall make a window for the ark, and finish it to a cubit from the top; and set the door of the ark in the side of it; you shall make it with lower, second, and third decks …” The length of a cubit has varied over time but Stackhouse calculated the measurements to correspond roughly to a vessel 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high, which, as Stackhouse readily admits, would make the ark of Noah larger than any wooden vessel ever built.

Although slightly closer to the familiar boat design, this ark also shows the single skylight in the roof as described

A more traditional view of a ship-shaped ark from Weigel's "Biblia ectypa" (1697)

A more traditional view of a ship-shaped ark from Weigel’s “Biblia ectypa” (1697)

Stackhouse and his illustrators depict the ark as having a rectangular box-like design, very different to the traditional sea-going ship with curved keel, bow and rounded hull (the Hebrew word for the ark, “tebah”, actually means box or container, as in the Ark of the Covenant). In Stackhouse’s words, Noah was commanded to “build a kind of vessel, not in the form of ships now in use, but rather inclining to the fashion of a large chest or ark”. As this ark was “intended only for a kind of float, to swim above the water, the flatness of it’s bottom did render it more capacious”. It was, Stackhouse argues, designed for protection and not for navigation.

An earlier illustration of the ark depicting the single door and triple decks (from our 1474 copy of Rolewinck's "Fasciculus temporum")

This earlier illustration of the ark is very similar to the one above and also depicts the single door and triple decks (from our 1474 copy of Rolewinck’s “Fasciculus temporum”)

Surprisingly, the box-shaped ark has resurfaced once again in 2014. Despite the apparent unseaworthiness of the design, film director Darren Aronofsky chose to depict an ark very similar to Stackhouse’s ‘floating container’ for his retelling of the flood narrative, Noah, starring Russell Crowe as the titular prophet.


An illuminated manuscript of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”

IMG_0926In addition to our many private press books and fine bindings, the Cardiff Rare Books Collection also holds a few modern illuminated manuscripts. This beautiful copy of Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard was written out and hand-illuminated by a man named Sidney Farnsworth in 1910. Mr Farnsworth was a painter, sculptor and illuminator, and also the author of a how-to guide for people wishing to learn the craft, Illumination and its Development in the Present Day (New York: George H. Doran, 1922).









A well-travelled travel book: tracing former owners of a copy of Sandys’ Travels (1658)

???????????????????????????????George Sandys’ Relation of a journey begun an. Dom. 1610, more commonly known as Sandys’ Travels, relates the author’s wanderings through Europe and the Middle East. Setting off in May 1610, Sandys spent several years touring extensively through France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Cyprus and Palestine. His narrative of the journey was published in 1615 and was an influential work on geography and ethnology. Sandys was eventually appointed colonial treasurer of the Virginia Company and sailed for the New World in April 1621.

Like Sandys himself, our copy of the 1658 edition of his book has travelled far in its lifetime with several of the book’s previous owners leaving their mark in some way. An inscription on the front free endpaper reads, “Tho Sergeant. 1708. The gift of Joseph Moyle Esqr.” Some research revealed that Joseph Moyle was brother to the English politician, Walter Moyle, who was born in Cornwall in 1672, studied at Oxford and was admitted to Middle Temple in 1691. While a Member of Parliament for Saltash in Cornwall, he also wrote several essays on the forms and laws of government. After Walter’s death in 1721, his brother Joseph arranged for his works to be published and he selected Thomas Sergeant to be the editor. As our copy of the Travels was a gift from Joseph Moyle to Sergeant in 1708, they had apparently known each other for a long time.


Further evidence of previous ownership can be found pasted onto the rear of the title page: an engraved bookplate of an unusual coat of arms with the caption, “Mr. Smart Lethieullier of Alldersbrook in Com Essex”. Smart Lethieullier (1701-1760) was the son of Sir John Lethieullier, Sheriff of London, and himself rose to the office of High Sheriff of Essex from 1758. He was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Oxford, and developed a lifelong passion for antiquities and fossils. Lethieullier wrote numerous papers on antiquarian topics, including the first English account of the Bayeux Tapestry, and, like Sandys, travelled widely throughout Europe.


Yet another interesting inscription can be found on the book’s front pastedown which reads, “C. E. Norton. Bought at auction for my father, perhaps in 1847-8”. Some research of the web led me very quickly to an identical autograph of one Charles Eliot Norton (1827-1908), professor of the history of art at Harvard University and a leading American writer and social reformer. So our book, like its author, had also found its way to the New World. Between 1864 and 1868 Norton was editor of the first literary magazine in the United States, the North American Review, alongside his friend, the Romantic poet James Russell Lowell. In 1861 Norton and Lowell had assisted Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with his translation of Dante and together they had founded the Dante Club.


Norton’s father, Andrews Norton (1786-1853), was professor of sacred literature at Harvard. A renowned preacher and theologian, he was instrumental in bringing liberal Unitarianism to New England. In addition to his duties as a lecturer, Andrews Norton also acted as librarian of Harvard College from 1813-1821.


There is no evidence in the book to reveal how it made its way back across the Atlantic from the United States to Wales. Cardiff Public Libraries were certainly purchasing many books at auction in the early 1900s in the hope of becoming the Welsh national library, and it is possible that the book was bought at a sale after C. E. Norton’s death in 1908. However it returned to these shores, our copy of the Travels clearly lives up to its name.



The high and low adventures of Robert Knox, sailor, prisoner and discoverer of cannabis

Captain Robert Knox (1642-1720)

Among the many books on voyages and exploration in the Cardiff Rare Books Collection is a copy of Robert Knox’s An historical relation of the island Ceylon, in the East Indies. First published in 1681, the work was one of the earliest European accounts of the inhabitants, customs and history of Sri Lanka. How Knox came to write the book is a remarkable tale of adventure, misfortune and daring escapes.

Rajahsinge II, King of the Kandyan Provinces of Ceylon

Rajahsinge II, King of the Kandyan Provinces of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Knox’s jailer

Robert Knox was just 14 years old in 1655 when he first joined his sea captain father on the ship Anne for a voyage to India. Three years later, the Knoxes set sail again for Persia in the service of the East India Company but had the ill luck to run into a storm which destroyed the ship’s mast and forced them to put ashore in Ceylon for repairs. King Rajasinghe II was suspicious of the Europeans’ intentions and ordered the ship be impounded and the Knoxes taken captive along with sixteen member of their crew.

Knox's "Historical relation of the island Ceylon", complete with a glowing endorsement from Sir Christopher Wren and a Preface by Robert Hooke

Knox’s “Historical relation of the island Ceylon”, complete with a glowing endorsement from Sir Christopher Wren and a Preface by Robert Hooke

The sailors were forbidden to leave the kingdom but otherwise treated fairly, with some of the captives eventually choosing to enter the king’s service. Although Knox refused to work for the king, he was still permitted to become a farmer and make a living. Knox senior died from malaria in February 1661 but Robert remained in captivity for 19 long years before finally making a bid for freedom with a fellow crewman. They managed to reach a Dutch fort on the coast of the island and gain passage to the Dutch East Indies, before at last setting sail for home aboard an English vessel.


The grisly fate which awaited servants who displeased the king; Knox believed, apparently with good reason, that entering the king’s service would result in his death

Map of Ceylon showing Knox's escape route

Map of Ceylon from “Historical relation…” showing Knox’s escape route

Knox returned to London in September 1680, having spent the journey writing the manuscript for a book about his experiences. When published a year later as An historical relation of the island Ceylon, the book immediately attracted widespread interest, influencing Daniel Defoe’s famous castaway tale Robinson Crusoe and turning Knox into a celebrity. He continued to work for the East India Company for another thirteen years after his return, captaining the Tonqueen Merchant for four further voyages to the East which made him a wealthy man.

A yadda or wild man of Ceylon with pipe

A yadda or wild man of Ceylon with pipe

One final strange adventure in Knox’s remarkable life deserves our attention. Having become close friends with the scientist Robert Hooke, Knox often returned from his travels with gifts and curiosities for Hooke. After one trip, he presented the scientist with the seeds of a plant previously unknown in Europe. This “strange intoxicating herb,” which Knox referred to as ‘Indian hemp’ or ‘bangue’, is  better known today as cannabis indica. In December 1689, Hooke gave a lecture to the Royal Society in which he provided the first detailed description of cannabis in English, praising its “very wholesome” virtues and noting that Knox “has so often experimented it himself, that there is no Cause of Fear, tho’ possibly there may be of Laughter.”


A scandal repaired – the affair of Penelope Devereux and Charles Blount, Earl of Devonshire

The catalogue of honor, compiled by Thomas Milles and published in 1610, records the names, titles, arms and descendants of the nobility of Great Britain. The entry for Charles Blount, 1st Earl of Devonshire, states simply that he “died in 1606. without any issue lawfully begotten”, however in Cardiff’s copy a section of the page has been excised and later replaced with a handwritten list recording “Natural children which he had by Penelope”. Investigating this intriguing addition revealed a scandalous tale of adultery and forbidden love in the Elizabethan court.



Portrait miniature of Penelope Devereux, c.1590 (public domain)

Penelope Devereux (1564-1607), sister to the Earl of Essex, was considered one of the true beauties of the age, inspiring the work of poets, musicians and authors. She was Philip Sidney’s muse, thought to be the inspiration for Stella in his sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, and had numerous other poems and sonnets dedicated to her. Even now Penelope continues to inspire the arts with her complicated love-life playing a role in Benjamin Britten’s 1953 opera, Gloriana.

In 1581 Penelope was wed to Robert Rich, 3rd Baron Rich, apparently very much against her will. Although they had six children together, the arranged marriage was never a happy one and Penelope soon began a secret romance with Charles Blount, Baron Mountjoy, who would later be created Earl of Devonshire.

The habit and attire of an Earl, from "The catalogue of honor" (1610)

Attire of an Earl, from “The catalogue of honor”

By 1601, Baron Rich had had enough of Penelope’s adultery and threw her out along with the illegitimate children she’d borne with her lover. Penelope moved in with Blount and their relationship became public. In 1605, Rich sued his wife for divorce, which was granted, but Penelope’s requests to remarry were denied by the Church. In defiance of canon law, Charles and Penelope chose to get married anyway and were wed in an unlicensed ceremony in December 1605, offending the social mores of the aristocracy and leading to the disgrace of both parties and banishment from the court of King James. The couple continued to live together as husband and wife until Blount’s death just a few months later. Penelope Devereux died on 7 July 1607.


The English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) states that copies of The catalogue of honor are, like Cardiff’s copy, frequently found mutilated to remove the section referring to Charles Blount’s progeny. When Blount married Penelope he acknowledged their five children together, allowing them to inherit his titles as legitimate heirs and to take their rightful place in The catalogue, but this was perhaps not enough to lift the shame and appease the nobility.


Adam G. Hooks at the University of Iowa examined several copies of the book and concluded that removal of the section was likely done by the printer himself, William Jaggard, to avoid further offense to the aristocracy and his readers (Blount’s shield has also been altered or printed blank to suggest he had no descendants). However, readers were apparently not as sensitive as Jaggard believed and a previous owner of our copy of The catalogue of honor simply rewrote the entry and repaired the scandal.


“A true report of certaine wonderfull ouerflowings”: the great flood of 1607 in a contemporary pamphlet

With so much of the country finding itself suddenly underwater earlier this month, it is no surprise that I couldn’t resist having a closer look at a book called “Of floods in England – 1607” when I noticed it in the stacks.


IMG_9878This little pamphlet, printed in London in 1607, commemorates the terrible events of 30 January the same year, when the Bristol Channel overflowed to truly devastating effect. Entire villages were reportedly swept away, hundreds of miles of farmland and whole herds of livestock were destroyed, and more than 2,000 lives were lost. Here in Cardiff, not much more than a fishing village in 1607, the wave reached up to four miles inland and washed away all before it, including the foundations of the parish church on St. Mary’s Street.

The church depicted here is thought to be the church of St Mary in the village of Nash, near Newport.

The church depicted here is thought to be the church of St Mary in the village of Nash, near Newport.

The author of the pamphlet paints a vivid picture of the chaos of that awful night: “Men that were going to their labours were compelled (seeing so dreadfull an enemy approaching) to flye back to their houses, yet before they could enter, Death stood at their dores ready to receive them. In a short tyme did whole villages stand like islands … and in a more short time were those islands undiscoverable, and no where to be found.”

“An infant likewise was found swimming in a cradle, some mile or two [from that] place where it was knowen to be kept …”

The pamphlet’s terrifying tales of watery death and destruction are thankfully tempered by a few stories of miraculous survival and community spirit: “Here comes a husbande with his wife on his back, and under either arm an infant. The sonne carries the father, the brother the sister, the daughter the mother, whilst the unmercifull conqueror breakes down the walls of the houses … yet like a mercifull conquerour, having taken the towne, it gave them their liues …”


While recent research has suggested that the great flood of 1607 may have been caused by a tsunami rather than a simple storm surge, contemporary reports tended to place the blame firmly on God’s shoulders and viewed the flood as a warning of His displeasure: “If this affliction laid vppon our Countrey now, bee sharper than that before, make vse of it: tremble, be fore-warned, Amend, least a more feareful punishment, and a longer whip of correction draw blood of us.”


A Christmas Robin from John Gould’s “Birds of Great Britain”


The European robin (Erithacus rubecula), affectionately known as the robin redbreast for its distinctive colouring, has been strongly associated with Christmas since the mid-19th century. The most common explanation is that the postmen who delivered cards and presents in Victorian Britain wore scarlet uniforms and were nicknamed “robins” or “redbreasts” after the birds. The robin itself was eventually depicted on Christmas cards to represent the postman who delivered them, which is why the bird is so often shown holding an envelope or sitting on a postbox.


These illustrations come from our magnificent copy of John Gould’s Birds of Great Britain, published between 1861 and 1873. All 367 lithographs in this monumental five-volume work were hand-coloured; in his introduction to the book, Gould writes: “every sky with its varied tints and every feather of each bird were coloured by hand; and when it is considered that nearly two hundred and eighty thousand illustrations in the present work have been so treated, it will most likely cause some astonishment to those who give the subject a thought”.


Fireworks by candlelight: the art of pyrotechnics in the 18th century

???????????????????????????????Although the first reports of the use of fireworks for celebrations and festivals in China date back as far as the 7th century, displays of fireworks did not begin to gain popularity in Europe until the mid-17th century. In 1706 Amédée-François Frézier published his Traité des feux d’artice pour le spectacle (“Treatise on Fireworks”), the first work to focus on fireworks for recreational and ceremonial use, rather than military applications.

The second edition of “The Art of Making Fireworks” includes a history of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot

???????????????????????????????The biggest fireworks festival in Britain is Guy Fawkes Night, originally known as Gunpowder Treason Day, which commemorates the events of 5th November 1605 when Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators were arrested for placing explosives beneath the Houses of Parliament. As thanksgiving for the failure of the plot, King James I permitted the public to celebrate the day with bonfires and pyrotechnics, a tradition which has now continued in this country for over 400 years.

The frontispiece to the second edition of “The Art of Making Fireworks”

???????????????????????????????Manuals such as Robert Jones’ A New Treatise on Artificial Fireworks (1765, revised 1776) and The Art of Making Fireworks (revised 1813), both held here in Special Collections, allowed people to create their own fireworks displays. By carefully following the step-by-step instructions for refining salt-petre to produce gunpowder, enterprising readers could fashion their own “sky-rockets”, “flaming stars”, “Chinese fountains”, “fulminating balls” and even “a yew tree of brilliant fire”. They just had to remember, remember to put the candles out first!


Some very good advice for the would-be pyrotechnist!


The Drummer of Tedworth: a Halloween tale of witchcraft, demons and an extremely noisy ghost

Joseph Glanvill was an Oxford-educated philosopher and clergyman, best known for his 1681 treatise on the supernatural, Saducismus Triumphatus: or, Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions.


The devil and the drum, from the frontispiece to the third edition of “Saducismus Triumphatus” (1700)

20131031_150420Among its numerous tales of 17th century ghosts, witchcraft and demons, the book includes the spooky tale of ‘The Drummer of Tedworth’, thought to be one of the earliest reports of poltergeist activity. In Glanvill’s version of the story, John Mompesson, a landowner in the town of Tedworth, brought a lawsuit for extortion against a local drummer. After he had won the suit and confiscated the drummer’s instrument, Mompesson’s house was plagued by inexplicable drumming and thumping noises, strange lights, scratching, and unpleasant smells. These disturbances continued for many months, escalating until the children’s bedsteads would shake and levitate into the air by themselves, and objects were thrown violently around the room by unseen hands.


An illustration of child levitation from “Sadducismus Triumphatus”

20131031_140845Mompesson’s plight quickly gained notoriety and many people came to visit the house and witness these strange occurrences for themselves. For most of this period, the drummer had been locked up in Gloucester jail and could not have been responsible without recourse to the supernatural, so it was assumed that he must have used witchcraft to summon a mischievous spirit, or poltergeist, to haunt the landowner’s home.

In the tale of the phantom drummer, we can see the prototype for many aspects of the modern poltergeist story, from banging doors and scratching nails to levitating beds. Glanvill’s book itself was a major influence on Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World, written in 1693 to justify the Salem witch trials.

For an in-depth study of contemporary sources for the tale, see:
Hunter, Michael (2005) New light on the ‘Drummer of Tedworth’: conflicting narratives of witchcraft in Restoration England. London: Birkbeck ePrints. Available at: