Monday, October 30th, 2017...11:49 am

A Long Whip with a Snapper

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As a cataloger at Houghton, I am frequently tasked with correcting minor errors or otherwise improving particular catalog records in response to suggestions from readers or fellow staff. Edits as simple as fixing a typo nonetheless have an immediate and positive effect, and so I always take satisfaction in these easy victories. As an added bonus, corrections sometimes point the way to previously unrecorded features and culminate into something noteworthy, as occurred in the instance of this 1541 Ingolstadt edition of Alexandreis, an epic about Alexander the Great, composed in Latin by the poet Walter of Châtillon around the end of the 12th century.

A few weeks ago one of the Houghton Library curators let me know that me that a bookdealer had offered for sale a copy the 1541 Ingolstadt Alexandreis. The dealer had dutifully checked HOLLIS and determined that of the three 16th-century printed editions of this work, all of which are scarce, Houghton owned only the 1513 Strasbourg edition. Our curator did some searching of his own, and finding that Houghton does in fact own the 1541 edition, declined the opportunity to buy a second copy. But he was troubled that his search had not turned up the 1513 edition said by the dealer to be at Houghton. As turns out, Houghton holds not only 1513 edition (MLg 528.3), and 1541 edition (Sum 157), but also the 1558 Lyons edition (Typ 515.58.439). Here were two sophisticated and experienced catalog users searching HOLLIS for all early editions of a particular work, yet one of them finds only 1513 edition, the other only the 1541 edition and both missed out on the 1558. The fault was not in the users but in the cataloging. Such a failure underscores how easily a special collections library can spend large sums of money acquiring undesired duplicates as a result of inadequate cataloging. (I hasten to repeat that no duplicate was purchased this time.)

On examining the books and their catalog records, I found that the crux of the problem was name authorities, Walter of Châtillon being the authorized designation for the author known also as Gautier de Châtillon, Gualterus de Castellione, and Philippe Gaultier de Lille, among other variants. Similarly, Alexandreis is the established uniform title for the work, the title page of which reads Alexandreidos Galteri poetae clarissimi, libri decem in the 1541 edition but Alexandri Magni, Regis Macedonum, vita in the 1513 edition. I whipped all three records into shape and that might have been the end of it, but I became intrigued by the abundant evidence of ownership manifest in our 1513 edition, and wanted to bring that out in the catalog record as well.

The 1541 Alexandreis comes from the library of the abolitionist and U.S. senator Charles Sumner, one of 3,750 volumes he left to Harvard. This much was apparent in the HOLLIS record already, from its call number, Sum 157, bookplate, and Sumner’s autograph on the flyleaf. But Sumner was only the latest of three distinguished owners to leave his mark of ownership, for we also find inscribed on title page: “Ex libris M.Z Boxhornij.” And inscribed on the second flyleaf: “I. Mitford. 1805. No. 465 Dorville sale / 1.10.6 / Park 7.” Below this is a full page of manuscript notes in the same hand with additional notes on the rear flyleaf.

On the front flyleaf is pasted a clipping of unidentified origin advertising a mysterious 1521 Venice edition – mysterious because there is no known 1521 edition of Walter’s Alexandreis. I surmised, eventually, that the compiler of the catalog could only have made an error in transcription, for the edition in question is without a doubt Alexandreida in Rima cauata dal latino … printed by Bernardinus Vercellensis. Not to be conflated with Walter’s Alexandreis, this epic poem is in fact a wholly distinct work, being an Italian translation of the Historia de Preliis composed in the 10th century by Archipresbyter Leo of Naples.

Finally, on the third flyleaf are pasted tracings of the title-page and three lines of text from the 1558 Lyons Alexandreis, a remarkable edition renowned for its use of cursive type.

From this evidence it is possible to establish the chain of provenance as follows.  The first known owner was the University of Leiden professor and linguist Marcus Zuerius Boxhorn (1612-1653), who autographed the title page. The book evidently remained in Leiden for another century or so, for the next identifiable owner was another Dutchman, the classicist Jacques Philippe D’Orville (1696-1751), who studied at Leiden, traveled extensively around Europe while amassing a great library, and eventually made his home in England. After his death in Oxford in 1751, D’Orville’s library was passed on through two generations of heirs and finally dispersed in 1804. The manuscripts wound up at the Bodleian, while the printed books were sold at auction. Our little 1541 Alexandreis was lot 465, picked up for £1.10s.6d by a young John Mitford (1781-1859), then finishing up his final year at Oxford, who obligingly recorded the details of his purchase on the front flyleaf (the 7s. to “Park” may refer to a bookbinder). Below is the title page from sale catalogue of the Bibliotheca D’Orvilliana with a detail of lot 465.


On his death Mitford’s library was likewise sold at auction. Houghton holds a copy of that catalogue too, in this case annotated with the names of buyers and prices paid, which is how we know that the next owner was a fellow named Parker, possibly the Oxford bookseller and archaeologist John Henry Parker (1806-1884) or his son.


By 1865 the book had arrived on the desk of Charles Sumner, who wrote a scholarly article about the work and its author for the December 1865 issue of the Atlantic Monthly titled Clemency and Common Sense: A Curiosity of Literature; with a Moral. The essay focuses mainly only the reception of the author’s immortal line “Incidit in Scyllam cupiens vitare Charybdim” (He falls in Scyllla’s jaws who would escape Charybdis), but for our purposes the exciting part is this: “The copy in the library of Lord Spencer is the Lyons edition of 1558 … and I have now before me a tracing from its title page.” The Earl of Spencer was a friend and occasional correspondent of the senator, and so we can surmise with some confidence that Sumner obtained the tracing directly from him. Sumner continues: “My own copy – and the only one which I know this side of the Atlantic – is the Ingolstadt edition. It once belonged to John Mitford, and has on the fly-leaves notes in the autograph of this honored lover of books.”

Anticipating our surprise that Sumner, writing in 1865, should be preoccupied with Latin poetry of the 12th century, the statesman concludes his essay with a surprise twist, alerting the reader “This article is only a long whip with a snapper.” The “snapper” is an impassioned call on the federal government to defend the civil rights of African Americans and bar leaders of the defeated Confederacy from reasserting positions of power. Applying the metaphor of Scylla and Charybdis to the national crisis, Sumner warns that the ship of state, having escaped from the brink of annihilation in the whirlpool of Civil War now veers towards destruction on the rocks of “concession and compromise.”

While it is not uncommon to have as complete a record of a book’s provenance, it is remarkable to see a particular copy of a book with all its unique features appear in a corpus of political writings. Consider that Sumner left almost 4,000 books to Harvard. In all his published essays and speeches, how many of these are so much as mentioned, much less singled out for such extensive study?

Of course I am curious as to how and from whom Sumner obtained the book, and it would be gratifying to positively identify the buyer at the Mitford sale, but with provenance research such questions always seem to remain, the next clue always just beyond reach.

Thanks to Noah Sheola, Bibliographic Assistant, for contributing this post.

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