rare books and manuscripts


I got to attend the New York Antiquarian Book Fair for the first time on Friday! It was so lovely to see all of my booky friends, as well as to see the wonders everyone brought to sell– from the very small to the very large, from gorgeously tooled leather to embroidered cloth, and from fore edge to spine, everything was dazzling! If you can ever get to an antiquarian book fair, even if you don’t have the money to buy anything, I highly recommend it! It’s such a treat to see the wide variety of books that are out there, and to wonder at their beauty.

With thanks to @maggs-bros , Sokol Books, Quaritch, Jonathan A. Hill, @justincroft-blog and everyone else ♥

A Secret Jew, the New World, a Lost Book: Mystery Solved
An octogenarian cracks the case of a missing prized manuscript by Luis de Carvajal the Younger that surfaced on sale for a fraction of its value.
By Joseph Berger

Until 1932, the 180-page booklet by de Carvajal, a secret Jew who was burned at the stake by the Inquisition in Spain’s colony of Mexico, resided in that country’s National Archives.

Then it vanished. The theft transformed the manuscript into an object of obsession, a kind of Maltese Falcon, for a coterie of Inquisition scholars and rare-book collectors. Almost nothing was heard about the document for more than 80 years — until it showed up 13 months ago at a London auction house. The manuscript was on sale for $1,500, because the house had little sense of its value.


The Luttrell Psalter
London The Folio Society 2012
624 pages - Over 600 pages of illuminations
Limited edition 34/1480 copies only

Bound in the finest grade Nigerian goatskin, Blocked with a design by David Eccles using gold, silver and coloured foils
The binding design using motifs from the Psalter and the Luttrell coat of arms of six martlets argent.
Presented in a hand-made solander box, with a leather label, the Psalter is accompanied by Professor Michelle P. Brown’s fascinating scholarly commentary.

Gustave Flaubert’s travel diary among rare books at historic sale 

“The handwritten manuscript is page after page of scratched out notes, smudges, comments and ink blots that reveal just how arduous the French novelist Gustave Flaubert found the writing process.

Celebrated for his first and most famous published work, Madame Bovary, which took five years to write, Flaubert was meticulous about the style and elegance of his work.

The 277-page Flaubert travel diary […] was written in 1848 when Flaubert and his friend Maxime Du Camp went walking in Brittany and decided to write a joint work: Flaubert the odd-number chapters, Du Camp the even. They were never published in his lifetime.” [source]


It took at least 14 full cow skins to make the Voynich Manuscript. Here is some of the rest of what we know about this mysterious book.



Here are a few of the many shelves that hold books from the Lawrence D. and Betty Jeanne Longo Collection of Reproductive Biology, a collection of rare books, pamphlets, manuscripts, and reference works spanning the late 15th to the 20th century and related to women’s health, human reproduction, and the history of gynecology and obstetrics. Titles pictured here include Maladies de L'Utérus, Maladies dés Femmes, Hamilton on Female Complaints, Osborn’s Midwifery, Clinical Notes on Uterine Surgery, What a Young Girl Ought to Know, and Married and Single.

Find out more about the Longo Collection here and here.


Charting the rough waters of Easter

Well, it appears Easter Sunday came and went without any schisms or epic arguments between branches of the church. However, in c. 1150 northern England, when this manuscript was written, Easter without a great deal of disagreement would’ve been a relatively new concept!

You may recognize the bearded fellow above from my previous post on book holes. He is, in fact, the Venerable Bede, ‘the father of English history’ and all-around Renaissance man before there was even a Renaissance. It is he that we have to thank for not only the BC/AD dating system and the first scholarly books in English, but for the recording of the standardization of the methods used to calculate the yearly date of Easter. Before standardization, people were excomunicated or worse for celebrating Easter on an “incorrect” day. The Synod of Whitby in 664 set the Easter rules in stone, and Bede’s record of the event is the most detailed that remains in existence.

These charts come from a manuscript volume of works that include Bede’s Treatise on the Reckoning of Time, as well as writing by Dionysius Exiguus, whose research and figures laid the groundwork for Bede’s own calculations. I don’t pretend to know what exactly the figures mean, but I marvel at the amount of mathematical work that went into them. The 5th graph looks positively modern!

(bunny from Edinburgh MS 2, other images from Glasgow MS Hunter 85)

The Special Bequest of Francis Douce

Francis Douce was a wealthy Englishman whose hobby was to collect various antiques, especially rare children’s books, games, artwork, coins, and manuscripts. Douce had an extensive collection, when he died in 1834 he donated most of it Bodleain Library, including 15,000 books, 50,000 prints and drawings, and a large collection of coins.  However, in his will he left a strongbox containing his letters and correspondence, manuscripts, books, essays, diaries, and various other papers of rarity and importance to the British Museum on the stipulation that it not be opened until after 66 years.  The strange bequest stirred up many rumors as to what precisely could be inside the box. What secrets could lie within? Unfortunately speculation would have to go unquenched as the British Museum dutifully obeyed his request.

On January 1st, 1900 the British Museum opened the box with the entire board of trustees in attendance. Inside the box were pieces of scrap paper, torn book covers, and various other pieces of worthless trash. Also inside the box was a letter by Douce to the board of trustees, in which he explained that in his opinion, it would be a waste to leave anything of greater value to the philistines at the British Museum.


Holy Books, Hole-y Books

Just like marginalia, holes in the pages of books come from diverse sources. However, it seems that insect actions in some form or another are the cause of the majority of the damage!

In the first set of images, the holes in the vellum actually come from bug bites that occurred before the death of the animal. Such holes wouldn’t become visible until the animal’s hide was stretched, and as vellum was (and is!) such an expensive commodity, some late-presenting holes wasn’t always enough to put off medieval bookmakers. The holes in the 5th image probably come from a similar source.

The 3rd and 4th images show holes made by a human hand. It’s unclear why this manuscript was so thoroughly mutilated, although it’s likely that it fell victim to an illumination collector from the Victorian era or earlier. Such collectors had no qualms about cutting up an manuscript to extract illuminations and decorative initials, sometimes pasting them into scrapbooks. This kind of mutilation can also occur when teachings or sentiments within the text fall out of favor, and owners want to make sure their books don’t contain anything offensive.

The final image shows holes from the librarian’s old nemesis, the bookworm. A whole family of bookworms had quite a good time chowing down on the paper of this Incunable page! These holes were clearly made after the book was made, as the bookworms managed to tunnel through about half of the book before giving up.

(MS Hunter 85, MS Hunter 279, MS Hunter 366, and MU7-x.5 from the University of Glasgow special collections)


We’re currently processing a collection of rare book leaves. Some of them are beautiful, but extremely difficult to identify!

We have this great page of Persian poetry illuminated with gold leaf boarders and only one sentence of information. Do you know anything about this leaf? Or maybe you know someone who does?

Get in touch via Tumblr or email:

uls-specialcollections@pitt.edu. Please mention “Persian illuminated manuscript” in the subject line. 


Voynich Manuscript

Discovered in 1912 by a book dealer, this rare manuscript remains an incredible mystery. No cryptographer has been able to decode it, as the book is basically illegible. The pages have been dated back to the early 15th century and contains about 116 pages, though many of them are missing. The author also remains unknown. The illustrations present in the book seem to divide it up into sections: astronomical, biological, cosmological, herbal, pharmaceutical, and possibly recipes. It seems likely the book was written to keep information secret, but what information was so important that it needed such indecipherable language to keep it secret? The reason for its secrecy, most people believe, is the books connection to alchemy. In recent years, there have been efforts to prove the book as a fraud. 

I wanted to go into this rare book library to look at the little visitors’ display they have and see some cool illuminated manuscripts and practice that dank paleography and the guy at the desk thought I wanted to go into, like, the stacks or whatever and he was like “can I HELP you with something. This is a RARE BOOK AND MANUSCRIPT LIBRARY you can’t go in” so yeah now Im gonna never show my face there again