The discussion about ‘Shakespeare’s Dictionary’ prompts the question of whether many books known to have been owned by eminent literary figures from the 16th and 17th century do in fact survive. The answer is provided in a fascinating paper by A.N.L. Munby, on ‘The Libraries of English Men of Letters’.
This was originally a lecture given to the Library Association on 29 October, 1964: it was collected in his Essays and Papers (1977). Munby was the author of what might very well be regarded as one of the best collection of antiquarian ghost stories written in emulation of M.R. James, The Alabaster Hand (1949). But he was also the distinguished Librarian of King’s College, Cambridge, and a devoted book-collector, bibliographer and antiquarian, with a particular interest in unexplored literary byways.
Munby’s bookish explorations around the country were assisted by a half-ownership in a 1925 Bugatti, acquired from selling two medieval manuscripts he had found. He related in another paper in his collection, ‘Book Collecting in the 1930s’ (originally published in the TLS of 11 May 1973), that “one of the gaskets, which kept on blowing, was finally found to be responsive to vellum, and a thick leaf from a water-stained and ruined Antiphonal was cut up for the purpose”. When admirers asked him the car’s age, he was able to reply, with studied nonchalance: “parts of it date back to the fifteenth century.”
In his paper on writers’ libraries, he first notes that there are no extant books known to have been owned by any English literary figure from the Middle Ages, such as Chaucer, Gower, Langland or Skelton. The earliest books relevant to his theme that he has noted do not start until the early 16th century: for example, a few survive with the signature of Nicholas Udall, the author of Ralph Roister-Doister.
But soon survivals start to become more frequent, even if these are uneven, and quite an array belonging to Shakespeare’s contemporaries can be identified. The most notable of these are the books of Ben Jonson. Munby notes that Jonson’s books “are readily identifiable since they normally bear his name upon the title-page and the motto ‘Tanquam explorator’” (approximately, “[I go] as an explorer”) . He further observes that “additional books from Jonson’s library turn up continuously.” As a keen collector himself, he then relates rather wistfully a couple of anecdotes about how he narrowly missed acquiring Jonson books himself.
The researches he cites, by Percy Simpson, had up to that point identified over 200 books with Jonson’s ownership marks in them. Munby explains that Jonson’s library was known to his contemporaries as impressive, helped by an annual gift of £20 on New Year’s Day, from his patron Lord Herbert, to buy books. Many of Jonson’s books are copiously annotated, with very characteristic marginal comments.
What sort of books did Jonson have? Munby provides an outline. As well as Greek and Latin classics, his library included “belles lettres, science, history and antiquities and, as might be expected since Jonson himself was the author of a grammar, there was quite a substantial section of books on languages.” Further, there were editions of poetry, plays, essays and courtly romances. He also owned five medieval manuscripts, one of them a magical treatise, Opus de arte magico (etc), attributed to King Solomon.
The other Shakespearian contemporaries whose books Munby's survey shows have survived in some measure include Sir John Harington, John Donne (and one of his had also once belonged to Jonson), Robert Burton and Francis Bacon, whose volumes are embossed with the armorial emblem of a boar. The probability is, of course, that there are other books that once belonged to men of letters of the time that have not yet been identified, since they do not have the clear signs of ownership adopted by Jonson or Bacon. Attributing those will always involve an element of conjecture, and sometimes the slenderest of clues.
Picture: Ben Jonson. After Abraham van Blyenberch, 1618.
©National Portrait Gallery, London.