Past Impressions: seals as an insight into medieval life

Bateman's seal

This year’s Supporters of the Old Library event “Past Impressions: seals as an insight into medieval life”, a talk by Dr Elizabeth New will take place on Saturday 24 September. The talk will look at some of Trinity Hall’s seals (including the seal of Bishop Bateman pictured here) and give an insight into the “Imprint” project. The speaker is a medieval historian, an expert on British seals and Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the Department of History & Welsh History at Aberystwyth University. She is also co-investigator on the “Imprint” project, which is a forensic and historical investigation of fingerprints on medieval seals. There will be a display of seals in the Chetwode Room before the talk.

Supporters of the Old Library are also invited to the preview of “Women in the Special Collections of Trinity Hall”, an exhibition in the Old Library to celebrate 40 years of admitting women to Trinity Hall.

Date: Saturday 24 September 2016
Time: 1:30-2:30pm Old Library Exhibition and seals in the Chetwode Room | 2:30-3:30pm Talk ‘Past Impressions: seals as an insight into medieval life’
Location: Trinity Hall, Cambridge
Cost: Free of charge | booking required

This is an open event for both Trinity Hall and non Trinity Hall members.

Booking: Online booking is available or alternatively, please contact the Alumni and Development Office on 01223 332550. Please book by Monday 18 September. Places are limited so book early.

If you have any enquiries, please contact the Alumni Office on or 01223 332550

A rare sixteenth century calligraphic inscription

Provenance inscriptions in rare books can elicit very different reactions from librarians and cataloguers. On the one hand, we are grateful to have clues that can provide information about who owned the books, when and potentially where; on the other hand, it can get very frustrating at times to try to decipher century-old scripts that look obscure and illegible to our modern eyes. Every once in a while, a rare event does occur: a book with a calligraphic inscription comes along and surprises us. That is what I found while cataloguing the Historia del descubrimiento y conquista de la India por los Portugueses from the Old Library’s collections at Trinity Hall:


A quick search for Barnard Hampton’s name revealed the fact that he was a clerk to the Privy Council of three monarchs: King Edward VI, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I, from 1551 until 1572. Hampton also served as the Spanish Secretary to Queen Mary and was one of the four witnesses who signed her will in 1555. He had a wife named Katherine and a daughter Anne; together they resided in a manor house in Twickenham, in south west London.

Unfortunately, not much else is known about Barnard Hampton; his date of birth is unrecorded and his name is rarely mentioned in any official documents of the time. Considering this lack of information, it would be tempting to assume Hampton’s name could have easily slipped into the hidden recesses of time. However, that didn’t quite happen, because Barnard Hampton did leave something behind: his books.  Some of the Italian and Spanish volumes that once made up his private library still survive today. They all carry the same beautiful, calligraphic inscription on one of the preliminary pages: Sum Barnardi Hamptoni eiusq[ue] amicor[um] (‘I belong to Barnard Hampton and his friends’). Who exactly were Hampton’s friends and how many of them there were, is difficult to determine precisely, but we can assume they included members of the court, official dignitaries and perhaps some scholars as well. The fact that most of his books were printed in Italian or Spanish, suggest that the borrowing friends must have been able to read in either one or both of those languages.



Title page of the Chronica del Peru (Antwerp, 1554)

Up to the year 2014, when Dr. Dennis Rhodes wrote the article Barnard Hampton and His Books, only six volumes from Hampton’s library were known to be extant. Dr. Rhodes traced these copies to the British Library (3), Cambridge University Library (1), John Rylands University Library (1) and Trinity Hall Old Library (one volume containing four tracts bound together). However, in the summer of 2016, during the cataloguing project of the Old Library at Trinity Hall, four more volumes with Barnard’s inscription were discovered on the shelves. Out of the total of nine items presently at the Old Library, five were printed in Venice between 1540 and 1548, on subjects such as the history of the Turkish Empire and of the Kingdom of Naples. The remaining four were published in Antwerp in 1554, and they chronicle the discovery of India and Peru. The somewhat unusual topics of these volumes suggest that Hampton had a taste not only for foreign languages (he is said to have been particularly talented in Spanish and its dialects), but also an interest in the history and geography of faraway lands.



Foundation of the city of Frontera in Peru (Chronica del Peru)

Precisely where and when Barnard Hampton acquired the books is difficult to ascertain, but it is possible he bought them while travelling to Europe, perhaps on diplomatic missions (he is known to have been officially sent abroad once, but the location and time were not recorded). The fact that most of the surviving volumes from his collections were printed either in Venice, Antwerp or Lyon, and bound in what appear to be continental design bindings corroborate this theory. Moreover, works on slightly ‘exotic’ subjects such as India and Peru would have been difficult to purchase in early sixteenth century England. That might be, in fact, one of the reasons Hampton chose to share them with his friends. Book lending among close acquaintances was a fairly common practice in early modern Europe, motivated by the high prices of some of the publications and the difficulty in acquiring certain copies.

It is not known what happened to Hampton’s books after his death in 1572, but the presence of a significant number of copies in Cambridge libraries suggests a possible purchase by a Cambridge student or scholar. The identity of this Cambridge buyer remains a mystery (he did not inscribe his name on any of the volumes at Trinity Hall, though he did write some notes in Latin in one of the Venice tracts). Considering the subjects of the volumes, it is slightly intriguing that their owner chose to donate them to Trinity Hall Library (a collection well-known for its strong legal bent). Nevertheless, the cataloguing project of the Old Library collections is still in progress, so perhaps future discoveries will shed some light on the unanswered questions surrounding Barnard Hampton’s books.


Rhodes, E. Dennis. ‘Barnard Hampton and His Books’. The Library: The Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, vol. 15, no. 3 (2014), 343-346.

The ‘Travelling Book’: a provenance story

Provenance research in book history is a relatively new, but growing area of study for librarians, historians, book collectors and regular readers alike. Being able to trace the itinerary of a book that travelled through centuries and countries (not to mention various owners’ hands) can be a challenging, but rewarding activity. In most cases, what is required is attention to detail and a willingness to look for clues or traces of material evidence. The clues can be found in the books themselves: on their covers (the style of the binding can indicate a particular period or country) or within (in the form of ownership inscriptions, bookplates, stamps, annotations, etc.). By following these pieces of material evidence, the librarian or book historian is able to piece together the story of a book’s history of ownership and use. Some histories are more puzzling than others, either because the former owners are difficult to trace, or simply because there aren’t enough clues left behind. A good example of a book with an interesting ownership history can be found in the special collections of the Trinity Hall Old Library in Cambridge, England.

photo 2(3)Vitruvius iterum et Frontinus (classmark E*.7.16) is the title of the 1513 combined edition of Vitruvius’ treatise De architectura  and Frontinus’ De aqueductibus. The volume was printed in Florence by Filippo Giunta, a renowned publisher of classical texts and humanist works in Latin and in Italian. It is a beautiful edition, printed in an elegant italic typeface, and adorned with numerous woodcut illustrations throughout. But a closer examination of the volume reveals an interesting detail: although printed in Italy, the book is bound in what appears to be a German blind-stamped pigskin binding (Fig. 1).

photo 1(1)

Fig. 1


The front and back boards are decorated with three concentric panels, the exterior one depicting a hunting scene: a stag being chased by a hunter with a long spear and by a hound (Fig. 2). Further research into the design of this roll confirmed its German origins; Ernst Kyriss, a leading authority on continental bindings identified this hunting roll as the “Jagd-Rolle I” and assigned it to a bindery in Tübingen, active between 1486 and 1539.

photo 4(1)Fig. 2

What this means is that the book travelled to Germany unbound, and there it was presumably sent to the binding shop in Tübingen by its new owner. Unfortunately, the identity of this first owner remains elusive, because the clues that could have provided information about him have been removed: two manuscript inscriptions, written in what appears to be early handwriting, are visibly erased from the inside of the front cover.

There are, however other pieces of material evidence that allow us to trace the book’s later itinerary. A bookplate affixed to the front pastedown and bearing the name of the German doctor Georg Franz Burkhard Kloss (1787-1854), suggests that the volume was bought by him sometime in the early 19th century.

photo 1(8)

Georg Kloss was a physician practising in Frankfurt, who developed an avid interest in book collecting, purchasing entire collections of manuscripts and early printed books. His interests however, seemed to have changed with time, because in May 1835 Kloss put his entire library for sale at Sotheby’s in London, and spent the rest of his life writing a history of freemasonry.


photo 2(5)

The front pastedown: the main source of evidence for this vol.

From London, the book probably travelled to Cambridgeshire, together with its new owner Samuel Horatio Banks (1798-1882), the Vicar of Dullingham, Cambs and Cowlinge. We know Banks bought the book because he left a manuscript inscription on the front pastedown reading: “S.H. Banks, Feb. 1839”. A Cambridge graduate with two law degrees from Trinity Hall (LL.B in 1821 and LL.D in 1841), Reverend Samuel Banks must have been a man of diverse intellectual interests, as suggested by his purchase of Vitruvius’ book on Roman architecture. Banks died unmarried in 1882 and, given his association with Trinity Hall, and the presence of a 19th century college bookplate on the front pastedown, it is fair to assume he either donated or bequeathed the volume to his old Alma Mater in Cambridge.

Today, the 1513 edition of Vitruvius’ De architectura is resting quietly on the shelves of the Old Library at Trinity Hall, waiting to be picked up by readers, so that it can reveal to them the story of its wandering past.



“Trinity” at the Hall: a personal reflection

The space outside the Old Library has been transformed by a new sculpture. The work “Trinity” was created by the artist Helene Fesenmaier for her exhibition “Trans|figur|ation” at Trinity Hall.

All the works in the exhibition have multiple resonances and this sculpture is no exception. Looking relatively modest at first glance, “Trinity” works on many levels to challenge the viewer. Its tripartite construction, embodying the title with its associations of Christian spirituality, is striking for its appearance of fragility. Its verticality and the use of wood and metal echoes the Crucifixion, and in particular the artist’s preoccupation with Grunewald’s Isenheim altarpiece which has played a pivotal role in her work.

Grunewald’s depiction of the lacerated arms and tortured hands of Christ is echoed by the emaciated and battered arm and hand (possibly of the artist herself?) which help to anchor the piece. The gilding on the arm links it back to the altarpiece, reinforces its sacred/sacrificial quality and reminds us also of the toxic therapy used for cancer (through its visual reference to “The man with the golden arm”).

That a such a fragile looking sculpture can stand up to the elements is a surprise, but within it is a hard core, literally the backbone of the piece. This central element of concrete, metal, wood, slate and flint speaks of humanity’s ability to endure, even when completely stripped back to essentials. Here we have an embodiment of suffering: from Christ’s suffering on the cross, through the universal suffering of living beings, to the artist’s own struggle with cancer and the ravages of the illness and treatment.

Trinity spine

As we move round the sculpture we are challenged once again: writ large is “The birth of a book is the death of a tree”. What are we to make of this statement in the middle of a Cambridge college – at the heart of academia? The title of the piece leads us to identify the “book” with the Bible (and the New Testament in particular) and the “tree” with Christ, through his sacrifice on the cross. However, the artist’s choice of words also points away from the specific to the general – to further layers of meaning.

Trinity by Helene Fesenmaier

The choice of site for the sculpture is significant. It is set squarely between the Fellows garden and the Old Library. Here we have the opposition between the natural world and civilisation. The rough wooden plank faces the garden while the gilded arm with its polished books faces the Old Library. In order to read the message on the piece we have to turn our back on the garden and face the Old Library. Are we in danger of turning a blind eye to the damaging effects of our civilisation on planet Earth? The artist forces us to confront the impact of human progress on the natural world and to count its cost.

The “Trinity” can be seen as the trio of nature, civilisation and the human being who, as the fulcrum of the piece, is poised between the two. There is conflict: humanity is faced with a choice and is pulled in two directions. But there is also interdependence: each of the three elements of the piece plays a vital part in supporting the whole and cannot exist in isolation.

Trinity detail

Moreover, human beings act as both agents of change and interpreters of the world around them. This is not nature in the raw – the tree has been through the saw-mill and it has been inscribed (maybe even beautified) by the power of the word. Our environment is constantly affected by our intervention and is perceived through the filter of our literary imagination. We may yearn for Arcadia, but our very presence alters, interprets, tames and even brutalises the wilderness.

Culture does not come without human cost – the arm is elongated and weighed down by the books it holds. We are reminded of the pressure of academic life at Cambridge and the demands that are made of students and academics alike. But learning is something to be prized. Books are precious: they are brushed with gold and are the most polished element of the piece. They form the anchor of the sculpture underpinning the structure just as learning and academic excellence underpin the life of the College.

Detail of Trinity by Helene Fesenmaier

For Fesenmaier poetry is at the centre of her inspiration and books are a recurring theme in her work. And this brings us full circle to the Isenheim altarpiece – itself many layered, with its leaves unfolding just like the leaves of a book.

Forthcoming talk

There will be a unique opportunity for students and the general public to hear the artist Helene Fesenmaier talk about the exhibition on Tuesday 13 November 2012 at 5:45 pm in the Graham Storey Room.

Exhibition opening times

Trans|figur|ation – an exhibition of paintings and sculpture by Helene Fesenmaier is open to the public from Saturday 29 September until Sunday 25 November 2012 at the following times:

Saturdays 9.30 – 12.30

Sundays 2-5pm


The exhibition catalogue is available for purchase from the Porters Lodge:

Helen Fesenmaier: Trans|figur|ation (London: Redfern Gallery, 2012) ISBN: 0948460377

See in particular the Introduction by Mary Rose Beaumont with her discussion of “Trinity” on page 6 of the catalogue.


Helene Fesenmaier is represented by the Redfern Gallery

Wikipedia for articles on Arcadia, the Isneheim altarpiece and the “Man with the golden arm”.

Isenheim altarpiece image from

You Tube video of the unfolding of a maquette of the Isenheim altarpiece

Man with the golden arm image from

TTrinity Hall and Cambridge University offer an extensive network of pastoral support  to students and academics to help them with the demands of academic life.


Hello and welcome to our lovely new blog!

I’m the Deputy Librarian at Trinity Hall in Cambridge and I’m utterly delighted to say that we were recently lucky enough to receive some funding from the College to embark on a challenging but very cool project to catalogue online the eighteenth-century books housed in our Old Library.  It’s a bit of a mammoth task—I couldn’t even estimate how many books there will be—but it’s one I’m very excited about.  Undertaking this sort of project is important for so many reasons.  It’s about making the resources of the Old Library more widely available to current scholars, it’s about preserving our special collections, it’s about finding out what’s actually in there and learning more about the Old Library and maybe even about the College itself.

An exterior shot of the Old Library

We decided to write a blog about this project because we want to document some of the more interesting things we come across during the process of cataloguing.  One of my favourite things about the Old Library is that you never know quite what you’re going to find—there are so many secrets still to be discovered, and hopefully the work that will be carried out over the next year will bring some of these hidden gems of information to light.  Which, of course, we’ll be more than happy to share!

There’ll be lots more information to follow, not just about the things that the books reveal, but about the Old Library itself and the process of cataloguing the books.  Not too much of the last bit though, hopefully.  Maybe by the time the year is out I’ll have enough tacit knowledge about the secrets of these rare books to become the next Dan Brown.  For now, though, and just to emulate Blue Peter for a minute, here’s one I did earlier…

From this:

Baronia AnglicaTo this:

Back to work, then, these books won’t catalogue themselves!