In The Margins
Over the past few months, I’ve been privileged to work with some of the oldest printed books in the Peace Palace Library. Printed medieval glosses by Bartolus de Sassoferrato, early examples of pacifism by Erasmus, and annotated copies of famous treaties such as the Pacification of Ghent. It was my prime assignment to catalogue the sixteenth century collection according to the strict rules of analytical bibliography. Fair enough, but no bibliophile or book scientist would limit himself to any formal assignment, once he is in a rare and fortunate position to have an entire century at hand. In the margins of the project, I consequently shifted my attention to ostensible minor details of individual books.
The collection of close on three hundred volumes is unquestionably one of the most tormented arrays of books that I have ever come across. This is not the result of poor conservation standards by the library, but the consequence of changing ownership over the centuries. Most items in the collection have had a long history on the private market. There can be up to five hundred years between the moment they were printed at a press in Venice, Basel or Paris, and the moment they were acquired by the library. Such a long span in time leaves its traces. Title-pages are torn, complete texts have been added to the fly-leafs, names on the title have been crossed out, numerous contemporary handwritten annotations have been made in the margins, and all over the various texts we find references to Roman law, famous treaties and the Vatican index.
As sad as these historical acts of vandalism may seem to anybody who merely values old books as aesthetical artefacts, they are a blessing for any scientist in the field of law and the history of ideas. Provenances, annotations and other traces of former ownership open up a whole new world to the reception of ideas. A sixteenth century edition of a fourteenth century text, with handwritten annotation from the eighteenth century, offers a kaleidoscopic view of conceptual shifts that no modern text edition can provide. Let alone a spotless digital copy where all the priceless annotations have been miraculously photoshopped from the margins.
Alex Alsemgeest is a book scientist at Naturalis Biodiversity Center, specialized in books from the early modern period. He got his formal training at the Short Title Catalogue Netherlands (STCN) project of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, and previously catalogued the Grotius collection of the Peace Palace Library.