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Dante – weekly readings

TabithaTuckett29 January 2018

One of Doré’s illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy

Why is the Mediaeval Italian poet Dante important to us now? Can his work tell us anything about how to approach our own lives? And what does UCL Special Collections have to offer those interested in Dante?

To find out, or just to unwind at the end of the day with some beautiful poetry, try our weekly readings  from Dante’s Divine Comedy (in English and Italian), followed by discussion with UCL’s Professor John Took, every Monday, 6-7.30pm at the Warburg Institute, Woburn Square. More information here:

Weekly Dante readings at the Warburg Institute

Or, if you prefer an in-depth talk without the readings, we’re running these on Tuesdays every fortnight, 7-8.30pm, at the Italian Institute of Culture in Belgrave Square:

Dante talks at the Italian Institute of Culture, Belgrave Square

Tonight’s reading is from the Inferno, but tomorrow’s session is on love. Both courses are free and open to all.

Look out later in term for displays of selected items from our outstanding collection of rare and early editions of Dante’s works. Read more about UCL Special Collections’ Dante Collection, or search the library catalogue using ‘Dantecollection’ (without spaces between the words).

Advent Definitions: Jingling books

TabithaTuckett12 December 2017

UCL Special Collections R 221 DICTIONARIES WEBSTER 1869 – Webster, The people’s dictionary of the English language (London, [1869?])

Does today’s Advent word leave you humming seasonal songs, whether you like Jingle Bells or not? If so, UCL Special Collections can offer you the comfort (or irritation) that people have been singing for centuries. To get you into the spirit, here is what might look very like a singer or musical scribe, perched inside an initial letter in one of our illuminated manuscript Bibles from the late 13th or early 14th century:

UCL Special Collections MS LAT 9

Before you attempt to climb inside a book and start singing, it’s worth saying that this is in fact most likely to be a representation of Baruch, scribe of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, hard at work in the many days before computers.

To see what Mediaeval musical scores actually looked like, find out about our musical Mediaeval manuscript fragments. They are fragments because almost all were re-used at a later date for non-musical purposes, such as book covers, paste-downs to secure leather book-bindings, or hidden reinforcement elsewhere in the bindings of books. Now salvaged, one of the earliest in our collection, from 11th-century Germany, might not look much like today’s sheet music (the little ticks above the words, known as ‘neumes’, are the musical notation):

UCL Special Collections MS FRAG/MUSIC/8

but, as an antiphonal intended to be sung by two alternating voices or choirs, it would probably have made a sound closer to the corresponding jingle of our 18th-century Advent Definition (even without the English rhymes you’d dread in an advertisement jingle):

 

UCL Special Collections R 221 DICTIONARIES PERRY 1778 – Perry, The ro[yal] standard English dictionary (Edinburgh, [1778])

To go back to our studious figure above, the rare book we found him in is a Latin Bible with a particularly interesting history: at some point before being given to UCL, it belonged to a refugee who came to England fleeing persecution in Spain, carrying the family Bible with him on mules, its original binding having been ripped off to make the book lighter to transport in a hurry. This at least is what we learn from a dramatic account of the book’s condition given in a letter dated 1859 that now appears inside the front cover. The refugee and the book arrived safely, the latter now handsomely protected in a beautiful, neo-Mediaeval binding from WH Smith probably dating from 1904. Read more about this book and its story in Treasures From UCL.

If I’m honest, one of the closest things to a jingle that I could find among UCL’s rare books was the sound this chained book makes every time I bring it out. The book (MS LAT 4), containing various manuscripts from the 14th and 15th centuries, was probably part of the chained library of Würzburg, and the chain would have been used to attach it to the shelves to make sure nobody walked off with it.

If all this talk of jingles and Christmas music is the last thing you want to hear at this time of year, you’re probably feeling like stamping on the nearest piano, in which case you might take comfort from the great Nicholas brothers doing just that in 1943 or, if this doesn’t help and you’d prefer to see cats rather than carols emerging from musical instruments in December, try Fred Astaire taking it one step further with his ‘piano dance’ from the 1950 film, Let’s Dance. I’ll leave you to search for a clip of that while I go off for a spot of carol-singing.

Dr. Tabitha Tuckett, Rare-Books Librarian

Advent Definitions: All that glitters

Vicky APrice7 December 2017

‘Gold’ in R 221 DICTIONARIES WORCESTER 1855 – Worcester, A universal critical and pronouncing dictionary of the English language (London, [1855])

There is much to be celebrated about gold in its many forms. From the most precious jewellery to the cheapest golden glitter pen, for me gold always brings about a giddy fascination.

As the definition suggests, it’s a material and colour that usually denotes value, beauty, godliness or importance.  When I see it in art I often think of the adoring artist, unashamedly displaying admiration and enchantment with someone – think Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I – or a pious artist creating an icon intended to glow with luminosity above an awe-struck congregation.

 

Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I

The same is the case when I happen upon gold in UCL’s Special Collections.  We hold many manuscripts and rare books that feature gold leaf – either on the pages’ edges, the binding or within the text and illustrations themselves. Perhaps the most staggering example is a copy of the Persian poet’s Masnavi-I Akbar Sultan (‘Romance of the Sultan Akbar’) from 1749. The cover is gilded and ornately decorated, while the leaves inside radiate a dazzling richness only possible through the use of gold leaf:

 

The beginning of the Masnavi-i Akbar Sultan poem

This tome, along with other manuscripts and manuscript fragments were the inspiration for a community art project in the Summer with with Sidings Community Centre. They host regular adults’ colouring in sessions, during which local residents for whom social isolation is a high risk come together to enjoy some light-hearted art.  I brought them copies of UCL’s most glamorously golden items, and together we had a go at doing some of our own gilding, inspired by the collection.

Some members of the group brought in a chosen fable or poem:

 

A gilded chicken!

Others preferred to stick to colouring in, tackling copies of some ornate lettering:

 

A slightly psychedelic take on an image from Biblia Latina, an illuminated bible from the 13th or 14th century (MS Lat 9)

We even experimented with ‘aging’ the gold leaf:

 

Not a bad first try with using gold leaf!

We look forward to more community and school projects that explore the incredible collection of manuscripts and manuscript fragments at UCL – especially if it means we get to bring the glamour of gilding to more workshops!

Advent Definitions: Domestic angels?

HelenBiggs4 December 2017

‘Angel’, in: R 221 DICTIONARIES WEBSTER 1869 : Webster, The people’s dictionary of the English language (London, [1869?])

It’s fascinating to see that in Webster angels are defined as both godly and evil spirits, but what really piqued my interest is the idea of being angelic – “partaking of their nature or dignity”. It immediately brought to mind one of the other items in our collections:

A is the Angel woman should be

Waiting to pour out her husband’s tea:

“Better than man” the Antis say-

But the better half has got to obey

These words may sound like they’re promoting woman as a domestic figure, but in fact they’re from the satirical Anti-Suffrage Alphabet, which playfully imitates a rhyming children’s alphabet book to ridicule the arguments used by anti-suffrage campaigners. One such argument was that a wife and mother was the moral centre of a household, and that this role would be diminished or corrupted if she took a more active role in public life. The Alphabet’s creators contend that this supposed moral purity was already compromised, as a husband was meant to be the final decision-maker in all non-domestic matters, whatever a woman’s own beliefs and values were.

The Alphabet is held as part of the Laurence Housman Collection, which will feature heavily in next year’s Main Library exhibition “Dangers and delusions”? Perspectives on the woman’s suffrage movement, set to open February 2018.

For more daily Advent-inspired definitions from our Rare English Dictionaries collection, follow @UCLSpecColl on Twitter.

Advent Definitions: Don’t be a goose!

HelenBiggs1 December 2017

December begins today, and with it we welcome you to Advent Definitions.

Each day this month, UCL Special Collections will be tweeting a festive word, together with a historical definition from our Rare English Dictionaries Collection.

Linked to the tweets will be regular blogposts highlighting aspects of the department’s work with UCL’s treasure of archives, rare books and records.

To get you into the spirit, we start with a traditional food around Michaelmas time: the poor goose:


‘Goose’, in: R 221 DICTIONARIES SHERIDAN 1800: Sheridan, Sheridan’s pronouncing and spelling dictionary (London, 1800)

But while the goose might have suffered from a reputation for foolishness in 1800 and having its name used as a general term of abuse in 1869, there were other more respectful applications of the word:


‘Goose’, in: R 221 DICTIONARIES WEBSTER 1869: Webster, The people’s dictionary of the English language (London, [1869?])

And this is the kind of comparison for which the Rare English Dictionaries Collection was put together. When I started as Rare-Books Librarian at UCL, I was immediately interested in a small collection of English-language dictionaries gathered by my predecessor. I had worked in the past as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary, and knew how helpful former dictionaries could be for researchers tackling the challenges of tracing English usage through time.

As my colleagues and I worked through various other collections of books at UCL, I came across more and more English dictionaries, mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries. Individually these books were not as significant as treasures we already kept in some of our more famous named collections, such as the Ogden Collection with its strength in language and communication. But gradually it became clear that, put together and used as a single resource, the less prized dictionaries could enable research that simply wouldn’t be possible using single editions of titles we already held, so the Rare English Dictionaries Collection was formed.

Most of the dictionaries in the Rare English Dictionaries Collection were published as ordinary household or student reference books, often intended to help with spelling or pronunciation. The title of Webster’s famous dictionary (which was to run into many editions over generations) indicates this: The people’s dictionary of the English language.

As a consequence, it is rare for copies in multiple editions to have survived, but in our collection, you can trace the appearance or disappearance of individual words across 50 or even 100 years of publication of dictionaries by lexicographers such as Bailey, Ash, Dyche or Entick. Former definitions would often simply be reprinted in later editions until the point was reached when the discrepancy between the old definition and current usage of the time became too stark. Being able to trace this in our collection gives C21st readers invaluable insight into how the language has changed.

Forming a usable collection takes a lot more than picking appealing books and putting them together. Our Conservation team, with the help of our invaluable volunteers from UCL and elsewhere alongside our placement students from Camberwell College of Arts, surveyed and cleaned the books. Our long-serving rare-books cataloguer Bill Lehm catalogued the collection before retiring after many years of wonderful work in UCL Library Services. I worked with academic staff to integrate the collection into UCL students’ curriculum, and we now hold regular classes with the collection for MA students studying English language.

For the Advent Definitions project, I would like to thank two student volunteers – undergraduate Odile Panette and MA student Christopher Fripp – who researched and read selected dictionaries to produce a shortlist of their favourite dictionary entries related to advent, Christmas or the holiday season. Finally Steve Wright, head of our Enquiries Team, photographed the entries you will see in our tweets, and Helen Biggs has managed the process of bringing you your daily word.

We hope you enjoy your daily advent definitions. To find out more about the dictionaries available, browse our catalogue by the shelfmark R 221 DICTIONARIES. And if you need convincing of the extraordinary power of keeping such material together in a classified collection, or just want a good library drama for the holidays (admittedly more 20th-century than, I hope, our 21st-century approach), try Stephen Poliakoff’s 3-part BBC drama, Shooting the past. (Viewers from UCL or other subscribing institutions can view this on Box Of Broadcasts.

For more daily advent-inspired definitions from our Rare English Dictionaries collection, follow @UCLSpecColl on Twitter.

Contributed by Tabitha Tuckett, Rare Books Librarian