Sealed with a kiss

This discovery about a secret Viking message is special - and will put a big smile on your face. For years researchers have tried to crack a Viking rune alphabet known as Jötunvillur. It is found in some 80 inscriptions, including the one above, which dates from the 11th or 12th century [see the correction in the Post scriptum, below]. Recently the news broke that a runologist in Norway was successful. It turns out that you had to replace the rune character with the last letter of the sound it produced. So the rune for “f”, which was pronounced like “fe”, represented an “e”. And so researchers were able to decode the 900-year-old message on the piece of wood above, which turned out to be - wait for it… - “Kiss me”! It gets better, however. It turns out that coding and decoding such messages was a playful game, a leisure activity. This is clear from the fact that some of the inscriptions invite the reader to solve the code, stating for example “Interpret these runes.” This, of course, makes the discovery of the “Kiss me” message even more sensational. The kiss was no doubt the reward for the successful individual who cracked this particular message. Two Viking lovers entertaining themselves with a playful coding game - that came with a delightful climax. Awesome.

More information: this Norwegian article originally reported the story, which is also the source of the image (made by Jonas Nordby, the researcher who cracked the code). I picked up the story from the invaluable Medievalists blog (here).

Post scriptum 14 February, 2014 - The author of the Norwegian article linked to above expressed via email that the “kiss me” inscription is written in a different rune language than the one cracked by Jonas Nordby. It concerns a cipher rune alphabet, more particularly a variety called “Ice Runes”, which was decoded years ago. More information is found in this English article. Furthermore, only nine of the eighty rune messages studied by Nordby are written in Jötunvillur runes.


Miniature Monday!

Today we have a 24 volume set of Shakespeare’s works by the Knickerbocker Leather and Novelty Co., published in New York around 1900. Each is leather bound with gilding.

Shakespeare’s Works. New York: Knickerbocker Leather and Novelty Co.  1900’s.  Charlotte Smith Miniature Collections. 

See all Miniature Monday posts

-Laura H. 


Embossed bindings in the Loring collection. Many of these, you can see on the spine, are from A. Mame and Company, a 19th century publisher, printer and bookbinding establishment in Tours, France. 

Mame made many such bindings, called “chocolate box” style by some historians. They featured embossing on paper of multiple colors with a window in the covers through which showed a lithograph, often of a young lady or an outdoor scene, which may or may not relate to the contents.

[Crossposted from our Instagram page.]


Marginalia Monday: Valentine’s Edition

The annotator of this 16th century Latin bible (one of our favorites for all its interesting markings) always adds what looks like a little heart to the “nota” abbreviation and pointing finger.

Bible. Latin. Vulgate. 1527.   Biblia cum concordantijs veteris et noui testamenti et sacrorum canonum … –  [Lugdini : Jacobum Mareschal], 1527.

Doodle by bored medieval school boy

This 15th-century doodle is found in the lower margin of a manuscript containing Juvenal’s Satires. This classical text was a popular device to teach young students - kids - morals. The medieval teacher Alexander Nequam stated: “Let the student read the satirists […] so that he may learn even in his younger days that vices are to be shunned” (quote here). Spoken like a true optimist, because this page shows what young school boys like to do with rules: disobey them. And so in stead of studying the student who used this book drew a funny doodle in the lower margin: a figure with a flower in one hand and what appears to be a pipe in the other. Could it be his teacher? Doodles are of all ages but those produced by bored school kids are the most entertaining.

Pic: Carpentras, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 368 (here). Here is another example of school kids doodling.


Pleased to announce our newest book arts acquisition: 

The Deep by Kevin Steele.


“The Deep is a tribute to maritime folklore and tradition developed over centuries of nautical exploration… [It] is a circular accordion pop-up book which unfolds to an oversized eight-point compass rose. The compass, arguably the sailor’s most valuable instrument, not only enables accurate navigation but brings good luck, ensuring safe passage home and protecting against a watery end in the Deep.”

Visit the artist’s website, for many more beautiful views of this work and additional description!

If you want to take a look in person just stop by the desk in our reading room and our librarians will probably offer a bit of assistance.  I particularly recommend getting a group together and stopping by since it is a great one to gather around. 

See it in the catalog:

12 volumes in metal case with glass front, resembling miniature bookcase; miniature magnifying glass in slot at foot.

Midget Library, Glasgow : David Bryce & Sons, [between 1880 and 1900]


Houghton Library, Harvard University

Contents: 1. New Testament 2. Burns poems 3. Old English, Scotch and Irish poems 4. The Koran 5. Golden thoughts from great authors 6. Witty, humorous and merry thoughts 7. The smallest English dictionary in the world 8. The smallest French & English dictionary in the world 9. A new pocket dictionary of the English and German languages 10. The tourists’ conversational guide in English, French, German, Italian 11. Tiny alphabet of birds 12. Tiny alphabet of animals.


This 1665 edition of Boccaccio’s Decameron has been bound in red velvet with beautiful silver filigree decoration and brocade endpapers.  It’s just lovely, but it’s not very practical; the delicate silver makes it difficult to handle (as evidenced by the damage to the upper right corner of the front cover) and the binding is so tight that opening the book past the title page is not easy! 


These aren’t just pictures of butterflies - they are butterflies. 

Sort of.

These illustrations are examples of nature printing, a process that makes a direct impression on paper from a leaf, flower, rock, or animal.  These butterfly wings are:

direct transfers from the insects themselves; that is to say, the scales of the wings of the insects are transferred to the paper while the bodies are printed from engravings and afterward colored by hand.

If you like butterflies, stay tuned - we have a few more from this collection queued up to share.  There are seven volumes, after all.

Denton, Sherman F. (Sherman Foote), 1856-1937. Moths and butterflies of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains : with over 400 photographic illustrations in the text and many transfers of species from life.  Boston : Bradlee Whidden, 1898-1900.  Rare QL549 .D42 1898.

- Kelli Hansen & Karen Witt


Two examples of marcas de fuego, or book brands, from the Recoleta’s collection. This marking practice is more typically seen in Mexican monastic libraries, but was also common at the Recoleta. To remove the mark, one would have to guillotine the entire edge off the text block, potentially risking the text inside, making this an effective marking system. Most of our brands appear at the head of the text block, some on the tail, and a few on both edges. We don’t often find them on the fore edge.



Medieval book transport

You are looking at two ‘wraps’ (top), the outside and inside of a box (middle), and a leather satchel (bottom). What they share is not just their old age (they are all medieval), but also the purpose for which they were made: to transport a book from A to B. The actual reason for transporting books in these objects varied considerably. The wraps are late-medieval girdle books, which were hanged from the owner’s belt by the knot. The text inside - which was often of legal or religious nature - could be consulted quickly and easily: just unwrap it and read. The box (and the ninth-century book inside) had a more exotic use: the package functioned as a charm for good luck on the battlefield, where it was carried in front of the troops by a monk. The satchel, which also dates from the ninth century, was just a bag to transport a book while on the go - it was popular among monks. Read more about these fascinating devices in my blog post “Medieval Books on the Go” (here).  

Pics -  Wrap at top: Stockholm, Royal Library (16th century, source); Wrap below it: Yale, Beinecke Library, MS 84 (15th century, source); Box: Dublin, Royal, Irish Academy, D ii 3 (8th/9th century, source); Satchel: Dublin, Trinity, College, MS 52 (Book of Armagh, 9th century, source).


Not too many of our books are held together with iron bars and nails, but this hefty hymnal needs the support for its massive wooden boards.

Privately printed in 1646, for the Monastery of Santa Maria della Pace by Giovanni Agostino Casoni della Spezia in Genoa, no expense was spared for this weighty wonder, including commissioning a giant unique typeface and initials that were used exclusively for this work.  (Do you see how big that “I” is?  It is as big as my hand!).  In addition, each of the 103 pages is a full sheet printed as a broadside.

This is our most recent acquisition, and the bookseller Bruce McKittrick and his team did an incredible amount of research to figure out all the details about this unique hymnal.  As we sort through the included research and catalog this item, we will post an update.


Last week thesetenthings asked for a beautiful math book, and I can’t think of one more beautiful than this.  Written by mathematician Luca Pacioli with illustrations designed by his friend Leonardo da Vinci, this is De Divina Proportione, a treatise that applies geometry and the mathematical golden ratio to art, architecture, type design, and even the human body.  

We’re incredibly lucky to have a 1509 first edition of this work.  A previous owner’s name was excised from the title page of our copy, but there are notes and calculations from this early reader throughout the book, written in the margins.

I have a few more posts on Beautiful Math in reserve - I was planning to do a pop-up exhibit and series of posts this spring, so your question was very well timed, thesetenthings​! Consider this one the kickoff, and stay tuned!

Pacioli, Luca, approximately 1445-1517. Diuina proportione : opera a tutti glingegni perspicaci e curiosi necessaria oue ciascun studioso di philosophia… Venetiis : A. Paganius Paganinus characteribus elegantissimis accuratissime imprimebat, [1509].  University of Missouri Libraries, Special Collections and Rare Books, Rare Vault NC745.A2 P3 


In the spirit of Halloween, here are some gorgeous books from Arkham House Publishers.   Arkham House was founded in Sauk City, Wisconsin in 1939, by Derleth and writer Donald Wandrei. Their initial intent was to publish editions of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction—hence the company’s name.  Arkham House published Lovecraft as well as other writers such as Ray Bradbury, Clark Ashton Smith, Algernon Blackwood, Robert Bloch, Seabury Quinn and Sheridan Le Fanu.  These books represent a small fraction of the Arkham House holdings we have in the Hevelin Collection. Enjoy the madness!!!!!


Derleth, August. The Mask of Cthulhu.  Arkham House, Sauk City: 1958.   Cover by Richard Taylor.

H.P. Lovecraft & Others.  The Shuttered Room & Other Pieces.   Arkham House, Sauk City: 1959.   Cover by Richard Taylor.

Derleth, August.  The Trail of Cthulhu.   Arkham House, Sauk City: 1962.   Cover by Richard Taylor.

Derleth, August.  Something Near.   Arkham House, Sauk City: 1945.  Cover by Ronald Clyne.

Long, Frank Belknap.  The Horror from the Hills.   Arkham House, Sauk City: 1963.  Cover by Richard Taylor.

Hartley, L.P.  The Traveling Grave and Other Stories.   Arkham House, Sauk City: 1948.  Cover by Frank Utpatel.


Heavenly library

Today I visited the medieval library at Merton College, Oxford as a guest of the Fellow Librarian. It is the UK’s oldest library that was designed to be used by scholars, and it has been functioning as such since its construction in the 1370s. You enter the library at the ground level through a massive door. Going up the stairs you reach the upper floor, where the books are stored. It is sensational to walk among the rows of book cases in the half-lit room. Their shelves are filled with hundreds of early-modern books (many still fitted in their original bindings), which are patiently waiting until someone will touch them again. Heavy benches hoovering over wooden floors are a reminder that this room was once filled with scholars leaning over their books, trying to catch the last light of the day. In the middle of the library a big 13th-century book chest is found, next to a small collection of shiny 14th-century astrolabes. What a heavenly place.

Pics (my own): library, book cases, consultation bench, book chest (13th century), stained-glass window (medieval), and entrance. More information about the library on Merton College’s website (here) and also here; more on Merton College, which dates from the 13th-century, here.


Continuing last week’s mission into the stacks, betweensocksandphilosophy requested “anything to do with King Arthur.”

Aubrey Beardsley was just barely into his 20s when he illustrated L'Morte D'Arthur and died only a few years later leaving behind iconic Art Nouveau illustrations for works by Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe. L'Morte D'Arthur was issued in twelve parts from 1893-1894 so The University of Iowa copy is bound into two volumes, “1893” and “1894.”  

The birth, life and acts of King Arthur, of his noble knights of the Round table, their marvellous enquests and adventures, the achieving of the San Greal, and in the end Le morte Darthur, with the dolourous death and departing out of this world of them all. The text as written by Sir Thomas Malory, and imprinted by William Caxton at Westminster the year MCCCCLXXXV, and now spelled in modern style. With an introduction by Professor Rhys and embellished with many original designs by Aubrey Beardsley.  [Edinburgh, Printed by Turnbull & Spears] 1894.

See it in the catalog.

This color illustration from The Nursery Alice (an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland for very young readers) shows the behind-the-scenes process of color printing. Each stage represents a printing plate of the same image inked with different colors, building to the finished illustration. 

One of the many highlights from our online exhibition celebrating the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland.

Tenniel, John. Proof plates for “The Jury Box,” 1889, from The Nursery Alice


Houghton Library, Harvard University