It’s been a bit quiet on the blog lately, so here’s an attempt to rectify that! Unfortunately, for both you and me, what I’ve been working on for the past few months hasn’t exactly been the most stimulating thing in the world. More paint-drying than paint-balling, if I’m honest. But as it’s now done, the final challenge is to transform it into something worthy of a blog post. This might be tough. Mission Impossible? Perhaps, but hopefully without Tom Cruise. Every cloud … etc.
It’s been almost three months, then, and I’ll admit it, cards on the table, in the confessional, time to come clean: I’ve only catalogued one thing. In two-and-a-half months. Sort of. But, as a disclaimer, it isn’t the case that I’ve just been being slow. I haven’t been trying to master the art of cataloguing in the style of a tortoise. Rather, in my defence, m’lord, the item I’ve been cataloguing was a bound-with with 22 (yes, you read that right, TWENTY TWO) individual items contained within the same binding. I’m led to believe that this was a pretty common practice until the nineteenth century; books weren’t sold as units as they are today, and it was often the responsibility of the purchaser to get things bound. So presumably binding all these little individual items together would have been more economical than binding them all separately.
Still, though, twenty two. Did you catch that? Two little ducks. Twenty two.
In terms of the catalogue process of bound-withs, the rules are pretty simple. Each individual item has to be catalogued separately (yes, all twenty two of them, and yes, I’ll shut up about that now), and then the bibliographical records of each item are linked together in the same holding and item record. The way to do this is simultaneously: a) extremely straightforward; b) entirely unfathomable; c) strangely, and instantly, forgettable. For me, anyway. And this means that I’ve spent quite a long time in the past few months looking up how to do this, jotting down instructions, losing instructions, cursing lost instructions, looking up how to do this, and so on. You get the picture.
And then, to continue my list of excuses for being to industriousness what The Wizard of Oz is to gritty realism, or what Catch 22 is to chick-lit, the subject matter of these items was hardly riveting. In fact, ‘hardly riveting’ is a bit of a stretch. They’re a series of doctoral dissertations, mostly from Lugduni Batavorum (now commonly known as Leiden) in the Netherlands, mostly on Roman law, and mostly in Latin. So at the very least they make some sense as a ‘collection’, justifying the way in which they’ve been bound. Not that I approve of the way they’ve been bound! Twenty two! Seriously. Oops, sorry.
One thing that struck me was the way in which they’ve been printed: they don’t half put dissertations these days to shame. I remember submitting mine a couple of years ago (don’t be silly, not a doctoral one), and it was a case of very last-minute rushing to a printing shop, with dissertation lovingly crafted and hurriedly converted to pdf and shoved on a usb stick, one eye on the clock while the shop assistant patiently exhorted the benefits of heat binding over everything else in existence, ever, and then filling out billions of forms, guessing my student number, exasperating the poor (yet brilliant) faculty secretaries, and all the while praying that the massive typo on page 18 would escape the notice of the markers.
Not so much in the Netherlands in the early eighteenth century. These dissertations have engravings and woodcut vignettes on their title pages, and headpieces, and illustrated initials. And the engravings weren’t just done by anyone, either, but by Francois van Bleyswyck, that famous and celebrated … well, I hadn’t heard of him, and he’s not on Wikipedia, but that doesn’t mean he’s not famous and celebrated, all right? Plus the dissertations are written in Latin: ’nuff said. I’m already impressed. I could barely write mine in English (that typo on page 18 still haunting me…)
The dissertations are mainly connected to the University of Leiden, founded by Prince William (no, not that one, this one) in 1574. They date from the early eighteenth century, though their dates span about 40 years in total; and no, they’re not bound chronologically. In fact, I can’t see any method as to the order in which they’ve been bound. They do reveal a couple of interesting facts about the way dissertations were submitted, though. For one thing, they all acknowledge the “Rector Magnificus” of the university, on whose authority (presumably) they’re awarded their degrees. I thought that was a nice practice…not to mention an amazing job title! It’s also good to see that some of the writers of the earlier dissertations eventually became the “Rector Magnificus” themselves and were credited in later ones (or at least, they’ve got the same name); it shows, if nothing else, that their doctorates were valuable! The information on the title-pages also reveal how widespread the printing trade was in Leiden at the time–remarkably few of them have been printed by the printing houses.
As for how Trinity Hall came to be in possession of this interminable fascinating item, well, here’s a story for you! Or not, unfortunately. The book was given to us by James William Geldart, though I’m not sure which one. There were two: both lawyers here, father and son. My money would be on Geldart Senior. He was vice-Master at Trinity Hall from 1809-1821, as well as Regius Professor of Civil Law at Cambridge from 1814-1847. His son, also James William, took a law degree here as well, as did his other son, Henry Charles; and not forgetting arguably the most important Geldart, Thomas Charles, the elder James William’s brother (are you keeping up?), who was Master of Trinity Hall, from 1852-1877, and also a lawyer, and also Regius Professor of Civil Law. Talk about keeping in the family.
So that’s that. Finished. Finito. Caput. It’s almost the end of a very short, and really rather boring, era. Perhaps I’ll “never quite be the same again”, as Joseph Heller(‘s publisher) promised. If nothing else, then I’m once again terribly pleased that I’m not a student having to read this stuff. But here’s to the next three months of rare books cataloguing. There’s hopefully not a single bound-with in sight.
Thanks to: Leo Reynolds