Sir Thomas Tresham’s Senecan Mathematics


Throughout the process of scholarly research, tangents seem to reveal themselves all the time. They quickly tempt you away from your original point of focus and offer the possibility of a story entirely different from the one you were looking for. When I came across a set of annotations in a Cambridge University Library copy of Henry Billingsley’s 1570 edition of Euclid’s Elements, I was confronted with one such tangent, which I felt compelled not to ignore.


A ‘pop-up’ from Billingsley’s edition of Euclid; CUL Adams 4.57.1. Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

I was looking at the book as part of the early stages of my PhD research on the intersections between early modern mathematical thinking and the period’s drama. I felt that to truly understand the intellectual history I was interested in, I needed to learn its content myself, and to put myself through the kind of education an aspiring mathematician in Elizabethan England might have had. I decided to do a quick survey of every mathematical book held in the Munby rare books room, so long as it was printed in London between 1500 and 1650. By far the most beautiful and ambitious of these books was Billingsley’s: a massive volume printed at great cost and featuring what might be England’s first ‘pop-ups’. I quickly found unusual handwritten annotations: three sentences placed at the beginning of the volume’s lengthy preface by John Dee and another three at the end. Their mixture of Spanish and Latin at first made them opaque, but the signature underneath the first set of annotations captivated me: ‘Tresame prisoner’. These were the writings of a criminal.

Annotations in Tresham’s Euclid, CUL Adams 4.57.1. By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

It quickly became obvious that this ‘criminal’ was Sir Thomas Tresham, a gentleman architect and builder from Northamptonshire perhaps best remembered for his beautiful and symbolic triangular building, Rushton Lodge. In the 1580s, Tresham was placed under house arrest in Hoxton for Catholic recusancy, and his son would later be involved in the Gunpowder Plot. The date of his imprisonment matched with the date that the author of the annotations had provided (‘19-mar-1587’), and ‘Tresame’ was a version of his surname, adjusted to bring out his obsession with the number three, especially the three-in-one of the Trinity. The copy of Billingsley’s Euclid I was reading, then, had surely once belonged to Tresham, and I was seeing fascinating evidence of his own treatment of this book.

rushton lodge

Rushton Triangular Lodge, Northamptonshire.

The simple bit (identifying the author) done, I now needed to decipher what Tresham’s annotations meant, and why they existed at all. Putting my small Spanish and less Latin to work, I was able to slowly piece together fragments of quotation. The single Latin sentence proved easy to find in the Vulgate Bible—it had been lifted directly from Hebrews 12:1-2—and one sentence of the Spanish was helpfully preceded by the word ‘Seneca’. To find its exact location in Seneca’s work, though, I had to translate the Spanish into English and then again into (very shaky) Latin, searching online editions of all Seneca’s writings in both languages to see if I would hit upon it somewhere. Eventually I did, and was able to pin the sentence to Epistulae morales 85.41: ‘Grief, poverty, indignities, imprisonment, exile: these should be feared everywhere, but when they come upon the wise man, they are tamed’. Upon the recommendation of my supervisor, Gavin Alexander, I began poring over the rest of the Epistulae morales: it seemed probable that if one annotation was a quotation from there, others might be also. After hours of trawling, I managed to trace all but two of Tresham’s annotations to the Epistulae morales.


More Tresham annotations in CUL Adams 4.57.1. By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

Tresham’s Spanish constructions, however, vary in their degree of translational exactness: sometimes they are close to Seneca’s original Latin, sometimes they are very loose. This, I believe, provides the key to understanding precisely what Tresham was doing that day whilst under house arrest in London. The dull hours of imprisonment must have passed slowly, and offered Tresham a quiet opportunity to sit down and read. The location of his annotations suggest that he read all of Dee’s preface, and used it as a springboard for recalling snatches of his previous reading (Seneca, the Bible) and for practising his foreign languages (Latin, Spanish). He almost certainly did not have a copy of Seneca with him, and he probably did not own a Spanish edition at all. That he chose to write such snatches of Stoic wisdom in a book of mathematics is surely no coincidence. As a devotee of architecture, Tresham attributed great significance to lines, angles and numbers, and reading Dee’s words on the importance of mathematical labour to a truly spiritual existence seems to have inspired his own philosophical reflection. In his annotations, mathematics becomes a grander tale of humanity, brotherhood, life and death. ‘What good is there for me in knowing how to divide an estate into parts, if I do not know how to split it with my brother?’ ‘You know what a straight line is, but how does it benefit you if you do not know what is straight in life?’ (Epistulae morales, 88.11, 13).

Such tangential thoughts perhaps arose from Tresham’s unnerving personal circumstances, and just as he must have been unsure of the details of his future, so must we remain uncertain of the details of his past. My narrative is, I hope, convincing, but it is also necessarily hypothetical. This is the kind of thrill that work with material texts can offer: annotations and marginalia in books offer us flirtatious glimpses of a narrative, but from the physical evidence alone that narrative almost always remains incomplete. It is up to our imaginations to fill the gaps.

Joe Jarrett

If your library has a subscription, you can read Joe Jarrett’s article on the Tresham Euclid here.

Rushton window


Chasing wild geese


Generally speaking, these days, when someone says she has been on a wild goose chase, she’s been out trying to accomplish something she has come to recognize as fruitless and zany. When we use this phrase, our emphasis is on the goal, some object we have been seeking, the quarry, which has eluded us. This is strange because the clear emphasis in the phrase itself is on the process of the movement – the chase – and not on the quarry. It’s the more odd because the phrase originally did refer to the course and not to any sort of goal; the goose was not to be caught, but its erratic and unpredictable flight imitated. Geese come into it because when wild geese migrate, those following the leader will imitate and pursue its every move, no matter how erratic or unpredictable. Thus a “wild goose chase” described a country sport in which a follower was required to reproduce the exact movements of a leader, or a horse race in which the second rider had to direct his horse in just those motions and gestures set, as a pattern, by the first. Over time, its true purpose having been forgotten, the phrase was taken to refer to a course without a purpose, “a foolish, fruitless, or hopeless quest” (OED, “wild goose chase”, n. 2); the phrase’s focus on the course at the expense of the goal was taken to be a flaw, rather than the point of the experience.

I was on a wild goose chase this afternoon, in the Cambridge University Library. Due to space limitations, in places the classification system no longer corresponds to the physical organization of the books on the shelf, and by a series of imperfectly visible notices you may be led from a truncated series on one shelf, to another part of the library, from there to a window, from the window to a far corner, from the corner to a rebate behind an elevator shaft, and so on until at last you discover that the object of your increasingly abject desire – and the desire has of course been growing exponentially in proportion to your frustration – is somewhere in use, by someone else. This is a wild goose chase in both senses: an absurd and erratic dance, orchestrated by the librarian who, discarding notices in his wake, has preceded you; and a fruitless and zany quest for a fugitive end.


A sixteenth-century epistolary cipher. Doesn’t this fill you with a sense of collegial calm?

It so happens that the book I was looking for contains an essay on early modern codes and ciphers, and their use in the manuscript letters of the period. In particular, it deals with the the almost inexplicable fact that most of these codes are remarkably, even incredibly, straightforward. Even a wild goose wouldn’t be fooled. A simple alphanumeric substitution, especially one that proceeds linearly from a=1 to z=26, was unlikely to detain Sir Thomas Phelippes for very long. So why bother? It may be, say some, that the goal was not to deceive or confuse prying eyes, but to lead the reader on a satisfyingly sociable wild goose chase; that is, if I use a cipher, you must get out your key and decipher it, following every step I take, in a way that brings us together. We may look like a couple of dumb birds, but we look like a couple of dumb birds. Share the key with a small community of like-minded friends, co-religionists, or conspirators, and you have a gaggle, or what scholars call an epistolary community.

This kind of socially constructive practice turns on the materiality of the things that pass between people – the material letter with its material marks, the physical book in its lovingly prepared oubliette. I have no doubt that the scholars on South Front 4 this afternoon had watched a succession of agitated, swearing colleagues bustle from notice to notice around the University Library stacks, and in some sense we were brought closer together by the experience. Quite apart from the book that I ought now to be reading (reader: I found it somewhere else), these professional and educational rituals have an interest in their own right, for they are the ceremonies that we perform around the sacred or devotional objects at the centre of our intellectual pursuits. By contrast, the fragmentation of scholarly communities through the deprecation of material texts, and the gradual transformation of libraries into internet workstations, deprives us of our wild goose chases, and of the ritually enacted performances that construct us as a social group, and create bonds of affection, trust, and communication between us. The instant gratification characteristic of online databases – those that hold citations, journal articles, scanned books, and copies of rare printed and manuscript material – collapses the race and the chase into a single step. Everything is so much faster and less frustrating, it’s true; but all the same, everything is so much faster, and so less frustrating. It needs no Michel come from Montaigne to tell us that difficulty increases desire, nor to tell us this:

C’est, au demeurant, une très utile science que la science de l’entregent. Elle est, comme la grace et la beauté, conciliatrice des premiers abords de la societé et familiarité; et par consequent nous ouvre la porte à nous instruire par les exemples d’autruy, et à exploiter et produire nostre exemple; s’il a quelque chose d’instruisant et communicable. [The knowledge of entertainment is otherwise a profitable knowledge. It is, as grace and beautie are, the reconciler of the first accoastings of society and familiarity: and by consequence, it openeth the entrance to instruct us by the example of others, and to exploit and produce our example, if it have any instructing or communicable thing in it.] (Montaigne, “Ceremonie de l’entreveuë des Roys”, Essais, 1.13)


Now for my book.

An armful of waffle


wafflesThe skin is a supple and a slippery surface on which to write, so already impregnated and under-primed with various kinds of meaning that no word or phrase, when scored or inked on the skin, can be read simply. Cattle are branded, slaves and prisoners marked, warriors wounded both ritually and really, while the demographics of tattooing both abroad and at home predispose people to read the inked skin in particular ways – class, race, gender, and other categories are all at play, stressed and sometimes fractured. Last weekend’s (Ninth) International London Tattoo Convention ( put me in mind of tattooing again,  and made me worry about the fact that I had written “WAFFLES” across my forearm in mad majuscules – not the “Que sais-je” of the post-modern Montaigne, alas, but a reminder to myself to season the irons before next Saturday breakfast, so that I don’t let down my daughter (again).

The tattoo convention also reminded me of the two inked skincases in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick – Queequeg’s metaphysical mapping, and Ishmael’s mnemonic self-writing. Of Queequeg’s illustrated skin Melville tells us a great deal, but nothing of all that description gets us any closer to an understanding of Queequeg himself, or of the “heavens and the earth” of which he is the microcosm:

[T]his tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last.

The tattooing on Queequeg’s skin, the liminal surface between his beating heart and the world, draws attention to the incommensurability of the man and his universe, the strangeness of the human figure in its wide and inhuman seascape. The skin here is a material witness of the unintelligibility of the world to the human observer, but also of the human observer to the world. By contrast, Ishmael uses at least part of his body as a surface for recording observations about this world, here the dimensions of a whale:

 The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics. But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing—at least, what untattooed parts might remain—I did not trouble myself with the odd inches; nor, indeed, should inches at all enter into a congenial admeasurement of the whale.

The literature with which Ishmael crowds the surface of his body lies cheek by jowl with “valuable statistics”; here, on the surface of his body, the world can be measured, and represented. What other fantastical figurations might cover the tattooed parts, we never learn, but certainly his skin appears (unlike Queequeg’s) a legible parchment. In both cases, though, Melville draws attention to the skin of the human body as a site for literary writing, as the place for “a wondrous work in one volume”, or the material on which one might compose a poem. Certainly the two men provide different versions of what Moby Dick, as a novel, itself is – a collection of facts and figures, of methods and dimensions, a narrative, a history, but also a poem of the world and its making, its flourishing and its destruction, a sort of occult chronicle of all things. In that sense, the two men’s skins provide by analogy two models for the novel. But in his tattoos Melville seems also to draw us right down from the grand literary project to the human basis, and the leaves fanning beneath our fingers become momentarily the case of a whale, the skin of a whaler. The skin might be a version of the novel; or the novel might be skin.


“Prince Giolo”, a tattooed Pacific Islander famously purchased, returned to England, and displayed in 1691. According to Thomas Hyde’s account of Giolo’s life (An account of the famous Prince Giolo, pub. 1592), the tattoos on Giolo’s back were even more impressive, and Queequeggian: “the more admirable back parts afford us a lively Representation of one quarter part of the World upon and betwixt his shoulders, where the Arctic and Tropick Circles meet in the North Pole upon his Neck.”

Of course books used to be bound in skins of various kinds, and it’s not much of a leap to start musing on the material dependence of our culture (including our literature) on the oil extracted from whales. It comes as no surprise when Melville classes his cetacean quarry in its various sizes and bulks, from duodecimo to folio. Michaelangelo stands in a sewer, eating a leg of lamb. But writing on the body brings very immediately to the attention the various ideological, economic, emotional, and even ontological operations at work in verbal representations of all kinds, and the way in which those representations constrain and limit, authorize and empower, connect and divide us. The mother who has tattooed a portrait of her child on her chest, or the child’s name on her shoulder, remembers the child, but also owns and assimilates it. The muscled masculine arm festooned with flowers can tolerate the perfume and sensuous colour of their blooms. The full embrace of a torso entablatured at once celebrates and denigrates the body, adorning it and effacing it, re-conceptualizing and re-equipping it as a surface rather than a solid of penetrable stuff. Paper is close to parchment, and parchment is skin; the activities of writing and reading always memorialize this corporeality, even if you aren’t working on Melville, or Plath, or Gilbert Godfrey. Every time we write and read, we cross that oceanic gap between the heavens and the earth, between the sea and sky, the gap that sounds us from guggle to zatch. Tattoos mind that gap; what do CPUs do?

Rare book holdings


If you visit the webpage of the Senate House Library at the University of London, you will be invited to ‘discover [their] historic collections” and “holdings of manuscripts, archives, printed materials and maps’. Last week it looked as if Christopher Pressler, the Director, had forgotten the meaning of the words ‘collection’ and ‘holding’, as the library announced plans to auction off four early folios of Shakespeare’s complete works, in order to raise money for ‘development’. Following a public outcry (see our contribution below), a petition, and withering criticism from respected bibliographers, scholars, and others, the University of London has now revised its intentions and recalled its sacrificial volumes from Bonham’s,senatehouse where they had been due to be slaughtered in November. Professor Sir Adrian Smith, Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, has said that the university will now consider ‘alternative ways of investing in the collection’. Holding onto the collection is a good first step.

While the Senate House Library begins making muffins for its bake sale, this may be a good moment in which to reflect on the consequences of the corporatization of the university sector for its libraries and archives. Universities are public institutions, and exist to serve the public, but the treasures that they conserve have throughout the centuries often had to be defended from that public. Jack Cade and his loyal followers lamented that the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment, and looting destroyed many manuscripts in fifteenth-century London. Modern Cades may attack from within; in the name of the collection, they are prone to break up the collection, and while hurrying after development they may not care to conserve. It is a simple matter for us to exclaim against these bibliobarbarians, but the academics among us should probably also look within — shouldn’t we be doing more to educate and inform the public about the value of these materials? Shouldn’t we be trumpeting the importance of conservation and material history?

Wrongdoing in Spain 1800-1936


Read all about it! Wrongdoing is in the eyes of the beholder?

Not quite by accident, but largely because of an interest in ephemeral literature printed in Spain shown by Hispanists here in the early twentieth century, Cambridge University Library has an impressive and rich collection of what a French colleague has termed ‘no-books’. Usually referred to in English as chap-books, and in Spanish as sueltos, or pliegos sueltos (loose leaves or folded loose leaves), these predecessors of the yellow press provide a fascinating bird’s eye view of popular culture from the 18th century onwards. They show us, among other things, versions of how forms of wrongdoing (of different kinds, and of different degrees of severity) were perceived, or were presented to the populace as constructed forms of wrongdoing.

The AHRC-funded project ‘Wrongdoing in Spain 1800-1936: Realities, Representations, Reactions’ is now into its first year. The project is broad in scope, and the research of the PI, the Research Associate and the PhD student will focus on particular aspects of the cultural representation of wrongdoing and its relation (or lack of it) to historical realities at the time of production. The work of digitising the sueltos has a bearing on this, as they represent an important tranche of popular literature, and hence of the popular cultural representation of wrongdoing. The UL has a collection of nearly 2000 sueltos, including nearly 200 poster-sized aleluyas, which typically have 48 illustrations and accompanying text in couplets. The digitisation of this material began in May, and will be followed shortly by a similar digitisation project at the British Library. Eventually between the two collections we will have digitised close to 4500 items. Both here and at the BL, these collections have suffered in the past from a lack of attention from cataloguers, so that at present it is difficult for the researcher to scan the material for themes or characteristics. The consequences of digitising and cataloguing will open the way for a new wave of activity in relation to this material. Not only will digitisation of the sueltos be a significant contribution to the stewardship, conservation and enhanced accessibility of a body of cultural material (under an open license, it will be possible to see and use these fascinating items from all over the world, at any point where internet access is possible), but they will also be catalogued in a way that will make it much easier to work with these sources. An innovation is that the project will do this cataloguing not only for UL items, but for those of the BL also. Held in the Cambridge Digital Library, they will be available through a dedicated website, but also through the general catalogues of both libraries, making the material doubly available.

The cataloguing itself began shortly after the imaging. A regular rhythm of meetings between Sonia Morcillo, the UL’s expert Hispanic cataloguer, and Professor Alison Sinclair, the PI, has allowed for extensive discussion of how to flag up the subject-matter. More has been learned about the principles of librarianship by the PI than ever anticipated, not to mention being made aware of linguistic gaps through which concepts might fall, and the sheer range of wrongdoing and other related activity that the material covers. The vocabulary of wrongdoing in the two languages is a minefield. First of all, there is no word as such in Spanish for ‘wrongdoing’ (you can have crime, you can have sin, you can have transgression, but nothing like the collective implication of ‘wrongdoing’). The word ‘crimen’ itself usually refers to murder, or at least to violent crime (graphically referred to as a ‘delito de sangre’, or ‘crime of blood’). There are two distinct words for prison. There is no word for ‘elopement’ as such in Spanish, only ‘fuga’, which refers to general flight. And so the list goes on. A further complication is the preference of cataloguers for distinguishing between ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’. In the case of this type of crime-writing, the distinction is far from clear, as popular accounts in sueltos, as in their close cousin, gutter-journalism, amply demonstrate.

The material in itself is fascinating, whether in the portrayal of one killer whose weapon seemed to be a giant pair of scissors, or in the disturbingly recurrent motif of infants being chopped up, fried and offered to unsuspecting adults (shades here of Titus Andronicus….). This last alerts us to a further element: the resonances with classical culture that can be surprisingly present in this most popular of forms.

For further information about this project, please visit Professor Sinclair’s web page at

Cambridge University Library Incunabula Project


A unique leaf from the Legenda ad usum Sarum (Paris: Guillaume Maynyal for William Caxton, 1488), CUL Inc.2.D.1.18, sig r4 recto.

The Incunabula Cataloguing Project began in October 2009 and is scheduled to run until 2014. Generously funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, it will see the creation of a modern and comprehensive catalogue of  the University Library’s renowned collection of incunables (books printed in or before the year 1500).  Until the start of the project, access to this collection was only available via the printed short-title catalogue compiled by J.C.T. Oates and published in 1954. At the end of the project, detailed records for all incunable holdings will be available online via Newton, Copac and OCLC WorldCat.

The UL’s collection comprises some 4,650 separate works, collected over the 500-year course of the Library’s history, with books previously found in the libraries of the great collectors from Thomas Rotherham (1423–1500) to A.W Young (1852–1936) and beyond. The collection includes examples of some of the oldest, rarest and most beautiful incunables extant worldwide, with particular strengths in holdings from the presses of the low countries and England.

Dott. Laura Nuvoloni was appointed to the post of Research Associate in October 2009, and has already passed the 1000-catalogue-records mark.  The cataloguing work has revealed much new information about the books, spanning many book-historical fields:

  • The possible identification of the editio princeps of Cicero’s De finibus bonorum et malorum (CUL Inc.3.B.3.1b[1332]).
  • The identification of Felice Feliciano as the annotator of a copy of Roberto Valturio’s De re militari (SSS.4.14).
  • The discovery of an unknown edition of the Liber de intentionibus, a work by the 14th-century Dominican friar Franciscus de Prato, in an edition of Johannes Versoris’s Quaestiones librorum praedicabilium et praedicamentorum et posteriorum Aristotelis (Inc.5.B.7.10[4004]).
Roberto Valturio, De re militari (Verona, 1472), CUL SSS.4.14, sig r10 recto. Image of a war machine with captions added by Felice Feliciano.

The progress of the project is documented on the Incunabula Project blog, where you can find posts about new discoveries and unsolved mysteries.  Guest posts from those studying CUL incunabula are warmly welcomed: see, for example, Paul Needham’s reassessment of three editions by Laurentius Canotius of Padua.

The catalogue records created in this project include detailed information about the binding, illumination and decoration, provenance, and imperfections of the copies held by the Library.  Browsable indexes of institutional and personal ownership are now available on the project pages, and are continually updated as new records are added to the catalogue.

The books can be viewed in person by placing orders as normal in the Munby Rare Books Reading Room of Cambridge University Library.

Katie Birkwood

Rare Books Specialist, Cambridge University Library


Marie Léger-St-Jean has come across three instances of illegible annotation, in the course of curating her Penny Bloods project ( Post any replies, please!

The Fred Hoyle Collection at St John’s College Library


What do a pair of walking boots, five boxes of photographs, two ice axes, some dental X-rays, a telescope, ten large film reels and an unpublished opera have in common? They’re all part of the Fred Hoyle Collection of personal ‘papers’ held at St John’s College Library.

Sir Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) was an astronomer and astrophysicist, a science-fiction author, a mountain climber, a populariser of science, and a famous radio personality.  He is famous as the man who in 1949 coined the phrase ‘big bang’ to describe the cosmological theory that had hitherto been known as the ‘hypothesis of the primeval atom’.  Hoyle himself didn’t actually support the big bang theory, and in a scientific career spanning seven decades he researched and wrote prolifically on a range of subjects — including stellar evolution, the origin of the chemical elements, the age and structure of the universe, the nature of gravity and of time, nuclear energy, evolution, and the origins of life–and was no stranger to controversy in the scientific and popular press.

Fred Hoyle in the 1950s. For permission to reproduce, please contact Kathryn McKee

Hoyle came up to the University of Cambridge as an undergraduate at Emmanuel College in 1933, became a Fellow of St John’s College in 1939, and was the University’s Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy from 1958 to 1972.  In 1972 he resigned from the University and moved away from Cambridge to live in a remote corner of the Lake District, and later in Bournemouth, with his wife, Barbara.

After Hoyle’s death, his family donated his personal papers, books, photographs and some artefacts to St John’s College Library.  This generous donation arrived in ten large filing cabinets, later re-housed in 150 archival boxes, and is the largest collection of papers held by the Library.  The collection spans Hoyle’s lifetime and beyond, from family photographs taken in the late 1800s to biographical research notes donated by Hoyle’s biographer Simon Mitton.  As well as some of the more unusual artefacts mentioned above, it includes drafts of most of Hoyle’s articles and books, correspondence with many of the leading scientists, politicians and personalities of his day, and the minutiae of everyday family life.

It’s almost impossible to summarise the contents of the collection either systematically or comprehensively.  Hoyle was a man of many interests; he would move from topic to topic as inspiration struck and left behind him a trail of draft articles, talks, lectures and mathematical jottings, all written on endless Heffers writing pads, the tops of pages often numbered but the pads rarely dated.

The collection contains a wide variety of correspondence.  Hundreds of letters from members of the public were retained by his family.  Many of these were written in support of Hoyle’s ‘steady state’ theory, a now scientifically unfavoured alternative to the big bang theory, others in response to Hoyle’s radio and television appearances, and a small but significant number voicing the authors’ own scientific, religious and philosophical theories.  In his early career and during World War II he worked closely with Cambridge physicist Ray Lyttleton, and roughly seventy of Lyttleton’s letters, written in pencil and seldom dated, survive from this time.  Towards the end of his life Hoyle was collaborating with Geoffrey Burbidge in California and Jayant Narlikar in India, with whom he communicated primarily via fax.  Revised drafts of their articles and book zipped around the world several times and many copies remain in the collection.

Fred Hoyle’s walking boots, donated to St John’s College in 2002.

Ten boxes in the collection hold the drafts of thirty-or-so unpublished detective stories set in the fictional St Stephen’s College, Cambridge, written during the 1990s.  Several others contain science fiction novels and plays—Hoyle collaborated for a time with another famous Yorkshire man, J.B. Priestley, on a play called The astronauts that was never completed—mostly in Hoyle’s recognisable (and thankfully legible) handwriting, and sometimes in the hand of his son, Geoffrey (with whom he co-authored several books) or his wife Barbara.  Eighteen of Hoyle’s science fiction novels were published, beginning with The black cloud in 1957 (republished by Penguin in 2010) and ending with Comet Halley in 1986.  The manuscripts of many, though not all, of these survive; some were the victims of Hoyle’s frequent travel between Cambridge and the California Institute of Technology.  All of Hoyle’s published works are, however, represented in his own library of books, also held by St John’s College, which include author copies in myriad languages as well as some copies (in English) annotated by Hoyle in preparation for later editions.

And what of the exceptional items listed at the start? Hoyle was a keen mountain climber and hill walker; the walking boots and ice axes were donated in acknowledgement of that, along with several annotated Ordnance Survey maps, a  and Hoyle’s bright orange walking rucksack complete with compass in the top pocket.  The dental X-rays show Barbara Hoyle’s wisdom teeth in the 1940s: the dentist decided that they didn’t need any work for the time being.  The film reels show family recordings of Hoyle at Stonehenge, considering its possible astronomical uses.  The comic opera in three acts, The Alchemy of Love or the Daemon Servant’s Retribution, with libretto by Hoyle and music by American composer Leo Smit was never performed in full.  Another collaboration between Hoyle and Smit, Copernicus: Narrative and Credo, a ‘secular cantata’ about the life and work of the sixteenth-century Polish astronomer was premiered in 1973 and is available today both as a musical score and a CD recording.

From March 2008 to March 2011, the Hoyle Collection has been catalogued, and opened up to new audiences, as part of the Hoyle Project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, St John’s College, and the Friends of the Center for the History of Physics, American Institute of Physics.  A full catalogue of the papers is available upon request to the Library, and a summary list is available online.  More information about Hoyle including an online exhibition of the Collection is available on the Hoyle Project webpages.

The Hoyle Collection is only one of several significant collections of personal papers in St John’s College Library.  Full details of the Library’s holdings of papers, manuscripts and rare books are available on the Library’s website.

Katie Birkwood (St John’s)

Through a Glass Darkly: Collating Donne’s Sermons


This is a tale about mirrors. My plight is that of the Lady of Shalott: ‘moving through a mirror clear / That hangs before me all the year, / Shadows of the world appear’. My shadows are those of the rare books reading rooms in research libraries throughout the country, of readers and librarians moving in and out of view (or of a sunny day observed through two mirrors, through the glass of a window). But my focus, like the Lady’s on her loom, is firmly on the book in front of me: John Donne’s XXVI Sermons (1660/1).

To explain: as the Research Associate for The Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne, I am collating as many copies as possible of all the early prints of Donne’s sermons. Donne’s autograph manuscripts that may have ended up as copy text in the print shop have disappeared without a trace, hence my job involves establishing the best possible text from print, taking account of each and every variant introduced throughout the long and laborious printing process of three large folios and various quarto books.

Collating happens with the help of ‘Hailey’s Comet’, a so-called optical collator. In short, this is a set of portable mirrors on anglepoised stands which allow me to see simultaneously a page in front of me (the actual book in question), and a reproduction on a laptop screen of another copy of the same book. By superimposing the two images (rather like using transparencies) by endlessly twisting and turning the mirrors, and by unlearning my dominant eye’s impulse to see one but not the other image, my brain finally marries both images, after which any variant on the page jumps out in full 3D. The experience is not unlike watching a 3D movie. The printed page gains real visual depth, and the vagaries of early modern printing practice (and XXVI Sermons is a terribly printed book) come sharply into focus. ‘Hailey’s Comet’, devised by Carter Hailey, is a miracle of invention, mostly due to its portability: whilst the very first Hinman collator (allowing Charles Hinman his groundbreaking observations about the composition of Shakespeare’s 1623 Folio) required a large room to house it, the Comet fits neatly into a backpack with room to spare for lunch.

Cambridge University Library is a particularly helpful place to work on Donne’s XXVI Sermons, since the library acquired, in 1982, the collection of Sir Geoffrey Keynes, famous surgeon and bibliographical scholar (see The Keynes collection comprises around 8,000 items, many of which are still kept in Keynes’s own bookcases at CUL, in what is now known as the Keynes room. Apart from many other influential works on English literature and bibliography, Keynes produced the authoritative bibliography of Donne, and owned a significant amount of early printed books by the author, including 4 copies of XVII Sermons. The book in question was issued with three variant title pages, and Keynes owned an example of all three. Keynes’s books made for extremely rich pickings for me as collator. We are fortunate to have the very exact number of XXVI Sermons that were printed, since this information is relayed by John Donne the younger, who saw the volume through the press:

Whether or not Donne the younger was simply fleecing money out the pockets of the seventeenth-century book buyer remains difficult to know for certain – XXVI Sermons is not remotely a ‘polished’ book and so Donne Jr was disingenuous on at least one count. Yet let us for the moment accept that 500 copies were indeed printed. From this print run I have managed to retrace around 50 copies, a very significant amount in light of the normal expected chances of survival for early printed books. Thus around 10% of the print run survives, 1% of which (5 copies) can be consulted side by side at CUL (and a further two, respectively, at King’s and Newnham Colleges) – an unrivalled opportunity to observe print variants and other bibliographical features of the book.

Collating renaissance printed books is an unsettling experience. Firstly comes the initial feeling of seasickness (I have also heard reports of migraines) when tricking your brain that you are seeing one, not two pages at once. But seasickness abates with practice. Physical discomforts overcome, for the intrepid collator the printed page will never give the same static impression of type upon page, as I used to see it. Rather, the early printed page becomes a living organism. Each single impression of each page in a copy of the Sermons is subtly, sometimes unsubtly, different: variously inked, occasionally with a hair caught between press and paper, sometimes with some type knocked out of place, sometimes with the furniture of a forme rearranged, and frequently, with the type reset to correct mistakes. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has ever edited anything from early print – but for the EEBO generation nurtured by the single digitised copies that are freely downloadable, this lesson must continually be taught. Collating books teaches one about the sheer physicality of the printing process, and about the fact that printed texts are not the stable entities they are purporting to be.

In early modern thinking the mirror features as a pervasive metaphor and poetic image, and also as a frequent object in, and subject for, scientific and theological enquiry. Examples abound, so I shall limit myself to one:

So speaks Donne, from his Easter sermon for St Paul’s, 1628 (on I Cor. 13.12, ‘For now we see through a glasse darkly, but then face to face; Now I know in part, but then I shall know, even as also I am knowne’). I will resist the temptation to wrench Donne’s carefully crafted prose out of context: for example, how the sermon text observed through the collator is ‘but a representation onely’; and how the sermon itself, dramatic performance piece par excellence, is only imperfectly present, as if by ‘reflected beams’, in the printed text; and how whatever Donne wrote in manuscript can only imperfectly be reconstructed from print, as if reading ‘through a glasse, darkly’.

Granted, in the already arcane field of textual criticism, the optical collator takes the prize for most unlikely contraption to take into a library. Yet renaissance readers loved mechanical reading aids (see Ramelli’s famous ‘Reading Wheel’; for a recent attempt to actually build this fantastical machine, see here:

We might not catch our glimpse of God, yet in light of such reading machines it feels curiously appropriate to examine the renaissance book through two collating mirrors.

Sebastiaan Verweij is the Research Associate for The Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne (see ). He previously worked on Scriptorium at Cambridge ( ) and designed this CMT website, so this Gallery exhibit is his parting shot.

1. The Hinman Collator. Courtesy of

2. The Comet (and Sebastiaan) at work in the Cambridge University Library.

History of Material Texts Seminar: Michaelmas 2010

Events, Seminar Series;

This term’s seminars in the History of Material Texts are as follows.

Thursday 14 Oct, 5.30, room SR-24 in the Faculty of English Prof. Anne Coldiron (Florida State University) Printers Without Borders: Translation and Literary Transnationalism in the Long Sixteenth Century

Thursday 11 Nov, 5.30, room SR-24 in the Faculty of English Prof. Jim Secord (HPS, University of Cambridge) Nebular Visions: Image and Text in John Pringle Nichol’s Architecture of the Heavens

All are welcome. The seminar is a forum for research across disciplines and across periods, for all those interested in the history of the book, bibliography, histories and theories of reading, and the intersections between intellectual history and material culture, including the creation, production, publication, distribution, reception, transmission, editing and subsequent history of texts as material objects in manuscript, print, digital media or other forms.

For information, contact this term Daniel Wakelin (