Incunables at Bryn Mawr and Marge in the Margins

The image shown above is one of 134 new images of provenance marks from the Special Collections Library at Bryn Mawr College that were recently added to POP.  All the images show marks of ownership from Bryn Mawr’s collection of incunables, or books that were printed before the year 1501 in the first fifty years of printing in the west.  These books document printing from the time when it was a start-up technology about to change the number of copies of a text you could produce at one time and altering way people in the Renaissance period shared information just as the internet has revolutionized the sharing of information in our own time. They also are filled with over 500 years of evidence showing the marks of people who owned and read these books over the centuries, like the inscription written by “Marge” above in a 1498 Opera Medica (medical works) printed in Venice in 1498.

Bryn Mawr’s collection of incunables includes over 1225 titles, making it one of the largest collection of these early printed books in the country.  The core of the collection, over 900 books, were collected by Howard Lehman Goodhart (1884-1951) for his daughter, Phyllis Goodhart Gordon (1914-1994), an alumna of Bryn Mawr, to support her work as a scholar of the Italian renaissance.  As a part of Bryn Mawr’s collections, the books continue to support the scholarship of women in the college today.  The Bryn Mawr incunables contain an array of provenance marks from owners across the centuries.  The leather bookplates of the father and daughter donors, Howard Lehman Goodhart, and Phyllis Goodhart Gordon, appear in many of the volumes:

Other past owners of books from this collection include the 19th century artist and printer William Morris:


These marks from the library from the Buxheim Monastery, connect this book at Bryn Mawr with the 58 other Buxheim provenance marks on POP from books at Penn and other libraries:

Other marks indicate the history of the sales of these books, including one seller’s description of “a gayly illuminated incunable” with a past price of $125 (you’d have to add a few zeros to that price today!).

One of the more intriguing marks from this first set of provenance images is the pair of inscriptions with the name of a woman, Marge, and the date 1698 at the top of one of the margins.  The inscription appears in the Opera Medica by Antonius Guainerius, a medical book printed in Venice c. 1498 (Bryn Mawr fG-521).

The name Marge is written twice in the same 17th century hand.  However, underneath “Marge” on the right-hand side is another inscription in a different hand:

Some of this is difficult to read, but an approximate transcription reads:

Emi camberii apud ff. dutour
3ff.  4s. 6d  […] bris[?] 1662

Translated this reads “bought at Camberii (the Latin name for the French town, Chambéry) at F. Dutour,” which may indicate a member of a family of French printers and book sellers by the name of Dutour, who were active in  Chambéry during this period.   This is followed by a price for 3 Francs, 4 ous, and 6 denier.  The Franc was roughly the equivalent of 1 Livre Tournois, another kind of French money in this period, and it the abreviation of L for livre, s for sous and d for denier that provided the abbreviations still used in England for pounds, shillings, and pence. The crown stopped minting the Franc for a period following the year 1641, but because it was the equivalent of a Livre, the term Franc was still employed informally to indicate that unit of money as in cases like this.

Following the price is a date.  The first part is difficult to decipher, but the year 1662 shows clearly.  Below this, in the right hand margin is the name Barre. This name may give a clue as to who Marge is. One possibility is that she could be a Margaret Barre de Montmeillan, who is listed in an English document from 1716 (transcribed in the Proceedings of the Huguenot Society of London, Volume 5) as one of several “French refugees for religion” receiving a pension granted to “widows of officers slain in service.”  The name, Barre, matches that of the inscription, and the year 1716 would be the right period for the Marge who signed her name in the book in 1698.  Montmeillan is in the same region as Chambery, the place where the book was purchased, and it would make sense that the lower part of the inscription from 1662 may have been written by a relative of Margaret, perhaps a father, and that the book came to England when the family fled as Huguenot refugees to England.

This is a conjectural account of who this woman may have been, but it starts to suggest the kinds of story this marginal note may have to tell.  The incunables at Bryn Mawr were collected by a father for his daughter to support her pursuit of knowledge and learning.  Whether she was, in fact, Margaret Barre de Montemeillan, or another woman, the Marge who wrote her name into the margins of book, was also one of the many women in the margins of history, who used these books in their own time to learn and know.  Such inscriptions are witnesses to the many unknown people across history who have used these books before us.

Thanks to Eric Pumroy and Dan Crosby for their work in documenting this provenance for POP!

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