The Folger has recently acquired some interesting hybrid books; that is, books which consist of a mixture of thematically-connected printed, manuscript, and graphic material gathered from a variety of sources into a single binding. Sidney scholar and Folger reader Margaret Hannay and I just spent some time with one of these acquisitions, an embellished copy of Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke’s translation of Philippe de Mornay’s treatise, A discourse of life and death (London, 1600), with 17 pages of manuscript texts and 4 pages of hand-colored prints appearing before and after the printed text, all tightly focused on the theme of the transitory nature of life.
This edition of Sidney’s work is fairly scarce—it is known to survive in only eight copies, including this one. The last printed page has the date 1605 written in gold ink next to the printed words “At Wilton” (Wilton House was the seat of the earls of Pembroke), while the title page (see above) has the date 1600 written in gold ink.
The volume, bound in a contemporary binding bearing the gilt device of a falcon with crown and sceptre, begins and ends with engravings by Crispijn van de Passe the Elder that have been hand colored: “Memento Mori” and “Memorato Novissima” (possibly related to circular emblem prints published in 1594), surrounded by Latin and English tags written in gold.
On the opposite sides of the title page and the last printed page, someone has glued hand-colored images cut from the borders of Richard Day’s A booke of Christian prayers (published in multiple editions in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries), and interspersed the images with couplets transcribed from Day and other sources. A series of virtues and vices written near the beginning of the volume also come from Day.
The manuscript texts are in verse and prose, in English and Latin, in italic and secretary hands, and both scriptural (from the Geneva Bible and the Vulgate) and secular in content. They appear to have been compiled and written over a number of years between 1600 and the 1620s. Almost all of the texts are easily identifiable, such as the poems “Like to the Damaske Rose” and “Jacob’s Last Blessing.” We hope that readers of the blog might be able to unravel some of the book’s many remaining mysteries, however, such as the source of a 2-page Latin poem, which Hannay has found on a monument in Croydon (and the first two lines appear with emblems and in parish registers), but nowhere else, so far. It begins: “Vita quid est hominis, nisi, vallis plena mallorum”:
One of the most confusing aspects of this volume is the metallic-looking substance on many of the leaves. Folger conservators immediately identified this as lead white, which would have originally appeared as white. It appears to have been used as an adhesive in the van de Passe engravings, but what would have been adhered over them, and why? Lead white is also used to emphasize passages in the printed Discourse, as a support for gold ink, and to “white out” and frame text. Is there some sort of coded messaging in all of this?
The volume has obviously been created with great care, skillfully turned into a personalized miscellany of reflections on life and death, matching both the subject and tone of A Discourse. And yet it is unfinished. Blank pages are interspersed among manuscript pages, and while there is an attempt to create a parallel structure at the beginning and end, this structure ultimately breaks down.
It would make sense if this copy were somehow linked to the Sidney circle, but so far we have no solid evidence. After all, Mary Sidney originally translated Mornay to honor her brother Philip Sidney (Mornay’s friend), who had died in 1586. Her niece Bess (Mary Wroth’s sister) died in 1605, and it could be argued that the final inscription on the second leaf with Day’s woodcuts closely resembles Wroth’s hand. The volume then could have been added to over the years to commemorate other family deaths. The combination of piety, wealth, elegance, and erudition apparent in the supplemental material fit with what we know of Mary Sidney’s household in Wilton, but there were certainly other wealthy, learned Protestant households as well, such as the Cecils, or perhaps Lady Anne Clifford, who married Mary Sidney’s son Philip Herbert and lived, for a time, at Wilton. We look forward to your thoughts and theories, and are happy to share additional images upon request!
[This post is a condensed version of "Detective Work on a Personalized Copy of Mary Sidney's Discourse of Life and Death," a presentation given on April 9th by Margaret Hannay and Heather Wolfe as part of the Folger Shakespeare Library's Work-in-Progress Series.]
MARGARET HANNAY, Professor of English at Siena College, is the author of Philip’s Phoenix: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (Oxford UP, 1990) and of Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth (Ashgate, 2010). She has edited, with Noel J. Kinnamon and Michael G. Brennan, The Collected Works of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke 2 vols. (Oxford UP, 1998); the modern-spelling paperback Selected Works of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (ACMRS, 2005), and, with the addition of Hannibal Hamlin, The Sidney Psalter: The Psalms of Philip and Mary Sidney for the Oxford World Classics series (2009).