Sometimes solving a provenance mystery is simply a matter of digging a little deeper, doing the right research, or having the luck to come across a resource that helps shed some light on an unusual bookplate or connects a signature with the right biography. At other times the challenge begins with simply trying to understand what you are seeing. Such is the case with the interrupted inscription in the image above, which has been chopped off at the edge of the page.
The inscription appears in a copy of Apophthegmatvm ex optimis vtrivsque lingvae scriptoribvs qvvm priscis, tvm recentioribvs (1573), (Penn Libraries call number GC5 L9828 555a 1573 ). The book is a collection of Apothegms, another word for maxims or famous sayings, and this is one of many inscriptions adorning the book’s margins. While it is just possible to make out the name “John Robinson”, the inscription then gets cut off just after what appears to be the word “ano” (year) that might have told us the date this inscription was written. Elsewhere in the book, inscriptions like the one on the left are so truncated that they may forever remain a mystery, or remain difficult to decipher like the one shown here.
The point at which a book’s covers wear out or are deemed undesirable and it gets rebound can be the salvation of a book, providing protection and allowing more people to read it. However, rebinding can also be a precarious turning point in a book’s life, with the potential for pages to be lost or altered as they are transferred into a new form. The spine of Penn’s copy of this Apophthegmatum (shown above) certainly presents a handsome face to the world: a nice looking leather, probably 20th century, binding, with gold stamping. However, once a reader begins turning the pages, it becomes clear that some past binder did a fairly sloppy job fitting the folia into their new boards.
Not only has the binding itself not held up very well (the left board had fallen off by the time the book came to Penn), but a group of pages have been bound in upside down, and another section has been bound out of order. Most importantly, the book has also been dramatically trimmed down, ruthlessly cutting off the printed headings and some of the text itself. Trimming pages when rebinding a book sometimes serves the useful purpose of removing mold or damage on the edge of the page before it can spread, but it is often done simply to make the pages look better, more straight and uniform within the boards, or even, occasionally, to make a book a slightly more convenient size. In some cases, like the book we are looking at today, a past binder paid such exclusive attention to the exterior appearance of the book that some of the book’s content has been lost. While the occasional missing printed header may not necessarily be too difficult to deal with, the many inscriptions and annotations from past hands can be a significant loss.
Elsewhere in this book there are several inscriptions that have remained intact. From the inscription “Isaac Prutherch owneth me” we can likely claim that this book was owned by a particular 17th century Welsh rector of that name. The multiple inscriptions of an anonymous “Morgan James,” surrounded by test marks and letters, suggest the way the margins of the book were used as a place for someone (possibly a bored student?) to scribble his name, while the more elegant “How[ard] Powel” who left his mark on the frontispiece demonstrates a more formal claim to ownership. These still legible inscriptions have much to tell us about the history of who owned and read this book, how they responded to it, and what uses they made of it. They also tell us how much we may be missing from all those places where people have come in contact with these pages and attempted to leave their mark only to be, literally, cut off.
To see all the provenance images in this book visit this link on the POP Flickr site.