Such a lucky pretty little library…

Visus Libelli

First leaf of Visus Libelli (a little book of advices)

We thought we’d kick off your weekend with an amusing and fascinating hybrid book that is ripe for research.

The as-yet unidentified compiler of this late seventeenth-century, ca. 800-leaf volume, a recent acquisition at the Folger, describes it in many flowery ways. He introduces it as a “Vade-Mecum Memorial Manual of Muses, or Compleate Compendious Complexe and Companion, of Learned Languages and Sciences, Scarcely another to be seen so short, small and full.” This pretty much says it all: the manual is indeed small (it is a duodecimo) and full, and in fact looks more like a cube than a book, fat to the point of bursting. 

Looking down on the top gilt and gauffered edge of Visus Libelli

Perhaps because this was a prototype volume that the compiler wanted to sell to aspiring tutors, he devotes nine pages to describing its indispensibility for traveling tutors and their charges, and for all young scholars in general. He calls it “a scarce Lucky Treasure of life … a Personal Ornament, (more then rings) as a Lasting Memorial Memorand of Muses: t’is a Humain Diamond, worth such a great piece of gold,” a “Rare Little Library of Learnings,” “a Lucky Pretty Little Library, Compendious Compass or Memorial Manual of Muse-Companions,” a “Little Library Companion,” a “Ready Repository of Memory,” a “Variety of Muse Rare-shows,” a “Compleat Manual of Muses, the Principil Principles of all Vital Works,” a “Compendium of Compendiums,” and “an Vniversal Manual.” And my personal favorite: “a full Treasure of heart, mind, memory and iudgement, without whimsing and confounded Quack cawdle or hotch-potch: all in a due Right nature and Order of things, both Old and New Rarities, by a full heart, and Ingenious exercised iudgement, not by a pocked paper, and cunning Coucheon Copy-hold, or a babbling Quack spirit.” (I made a full transcription of the manuscript preliminary material, which I’m happy to share upon request.)

The book as jewel/precious stone/precious metal refers not just to the richness of the texts inside, but to the exterior as well. Frank Mowery, rare bindings specialist at the Folger, has tentatively attributed the exquisite binding with a silver clasp to the “Naval Binder.” The black morocco binding is onlaid with an interlacing strapwork pattern, carnations, tulips, rosettes, and dots, and some of the rosettes and dots have the barely visible remains of oxidized silver paint (Frank’s full description will appear shortly in our bindings database at luna.folger.edu).

Binding of Visus Libelli (front and back covers and spine), tentatively attributed to the “Naval binder” (click image to enlarge)

The gauffered gilt edges are supplemented with a foredge painting of a large rosette flanked by two cherubs.

Gilt, gauffered, and painted fore-edge of Visus Libelli

Clearly, the book’s compactness and beauty were its key selling points: because he has pulled together roughly sixteen key educational texts into a single volume (along with additional engravings and manuscript material), his book “saves the troubles and paines of carrying and turning great many book-baggages” when traveling. It contained many texts that young scholars should learn to “repeat by heart (by small degrees, and though not understanding it)” and was a convenient extension of, and supplement to, one’s memory as one got older.

The compiler preempts any complaints from potential buyers about the tightly trimmed leaves (some with text loss) by reassuring them that “the Leafs somewhere Resected, does not much diminish the abundance of Learning: and some are supplied in writing: since the sizes of books could not all agree.” And he suggests that the book might be a poor tutor’s greatest asset: “A Poorer Tutor, by this scarce Manual, may soon find favour and a Rich Pupill: and chiefly an Able Ephorus, a Trawelling Lord or a great Gentleman’s Son.”

The table of contents (below) shows the range of texts, which cover mathematics, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, rhetoric, medicine, theology, law, geography, and astronomy. Authors include Johann Heinrich Alsted, Johann Comenius, Gautruche, Sir Jonas Moore, Thomas Farnaby (poetry up to the letter N from his Phrases oratoriae elegantiores cui accesserunt phrases aliquot poeticae), Georg Horn, and Johann Andreas Schmitzius. The compiler omits all title pages and preliminary matter, and occasionally glues in relevant engravings, and in one section, manuscript leaves. Curiously, individual leaves of Farnaby’s larger format work are interspersed between gatherings of Moore’s Mathematical compendium.

List of works included in Visus Libelli

The compiler also offers a detailed curriculum keyed to his compendium, for students aged 5-12, with specific activities for every day of the week except Sunday. A five year old focuses on reading in English, while the twelve year old devotes his time to “University Conversation, Algebra, Chymistry, Civil and Your Law, Afterwards Languages, Travells, Musick, Picture, Fencing, and such Exercises.”

First leaf of the compiler’s curriculum for children aged 5-12

The volume contains one tantalizing clue to who might have produced or used it. The name “William Waller” and some other scribblings appear on the verso of a folded leaf from Farnaby tipped in at the fold. Could this possibly be Sir William Waller (c. 1639-1699), who was educated at the University of Leiden in 1647 and traveled abroad with a tutor to France in 1656 (where, according to the DNB, “he acquired a reputation as a vicious profligate”)? The signature doesn’t quite match the signature of his father, another Sir William Waller (ca. 1598-1668), and some of the printed material was perhaps printed as late as the early 1680s, which would post-date either Wallers’ use of the manual as a child. It appears that the name was written on the back of the leaf before it was bound in (because of the trimming), which means that the Waller family might somehow be connected to the book’s creation. Was the book perhaps for a younger member of the family, or was this prototype produced in the Waller household by one of their tutors to supplement his income?

Signature of William Waller and other doodlings

While the compiler advertises his book as a convenient teaching aid, it is in fact totally impractical to use. The book is entirely lacking in navigational tools aside from the cursory table of contents at the back, and runs from one section to the next without comment. If only it had the itty-bitty tab dividers that Erin described in Monday’s post!

 

Author: Heather Wolfe

HEATHER WOLFE is Curator of Manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and teaches early modern English paleography for the Folger Institute and Rare Book School.

2 Comments

  1. Is it just me, or do other people think the handwriting of the preliminary material is surprisingly clumsy, given the fancy binding and the hyperbole about the value of the printed contents? Not sure how best to describe it, but “hotch-potch by a babbling Quack spirit” comes to mind.

  2. I’ve just come across this – fascinating. I’m currently working on early modern memory and I’m impressed by the number of memory-related words the writer uses in the extracts you give from the prefatory material! I’d love to see the full transcript you mention, if it’s available. Many thanks.

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