In December 2020, the Friends of the National Libraries provided generous financial assistance to enable the acquisition by the Old Library of a beautifully annotated copy of Aesop’s fables which, quite probably, was used and read at the college nearly five hundred years ago.
Edited by the Byzantine Greek scholar Maximus Planudes and printed in the original Greek (with Latin translation by Aldus Manutius), this edition of Aesop’s fables helped to make available a text essential to humanist education. Published in 1524 by the humanist printer Johann Froben, this was in fact his fourth printing of Aesop’s fables, others having already been issued by printers in London, Milan, Paris, Prague, Strasbourg, Valencia, Rome, as well as the Netherlands. Indeed, the works of Aesop had been among the first Greek texts to be printed following the invention of printing by movable type.
Erasmus, whose work was replete with Aesop allusions and quotes, thought the fables central to education as material ideal to inform instruction in composition, moral training and classical languages.
It is particularly interesting, therefore, to discover the very real possibility that this copy is closely connected to Renaissance Queens’, where Erasmus lived and taught Greek in 1511-14.
An inscription on the title page reveals that in early sixteenth century the volume belonged to one ‘I. Calverdus’. It seems likely that this is the signature of John Calverd (Calvard, Calver), who during that period was a student at Queens’ (BA 1526/27; MA 1530) and later a fellow (1529-30). In accordance with common practices of the period, Calverd adorned specific pages in his copy with annotations, examples of which can be seen in the first fables on p. 102-11 where against the Greek he indicates word roots and verb conjugations, and against the Latin, alternative translations.
In this way the copy offers invaluable evidence of how Greek might have been taught and studied at Queens’ both during the time of Erasmus and after it. Indeed, Calverd’s association with the college coincided with that of a whole generation of humanists inspired by Erasmus, in particular, Thomas Smith who as Greek lecturer famously sought to defend Erasmus’ proposed return to ‘authentic’ Greek pronunciation.
Various signs of ownership and use provide ample demonstration that the histories to be told in relation to this copy extend beyond John Calverd. One such sign on the title-page indicates that ‘Antonius Nowellus’, possibly Anthony Nevill who attended Merchant Taylors’ School in c. 1610, also once owned this volume.
His quotation concerning Thersites – a soldier of the Greek army during the Trojan War – from Thomas Cooper’s Bibliotheca Eliotae interestingly attests to the intemporal status often enjoyed by early modern classical textbooks such as this, as they passed between multiple owners over the course of centuries.
Other former owners include one Samuel W. Bates (eighteenth-century) and the noted bibliophile, Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex (1773-1843).
Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, sixth son and ninth child of King George III, was a passionate book collector. With the help of his Surgeon and Librarian, Thomas Joseph Pettigrew, he built a fine library at Kensington Palace, containing around 50,000 books and manuscripts. His collection was sold at auction in six parts between July 1844 and August 1845. Most of the books from his library bear one of his armorial bookplates. The one in Aesop’s fables consists of his crest within the garter, surmounted by the ducal coronet, with two manuscript shelfmarks at the bottom.
This copy joins two other items at Queens’ previously owned by the Duke:
– Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, In hoc opere contenta Ludus L. Annaei Senecae, De morte Claudii Caesaris (Basel: Johann Froben, 1515) [U.4.3]
– Terence, Comoediae sex elegantissimae (Basel, Nikolas Brylinger, 1550) [X.8.15].
Foremost among the many reasons to celebrate the return to Queens’ of this volume is its status as testimony to the humanist spirit that flourished at the college during the Tudor era. As such it represents a formidable addition to the unique collection of humanist texts already held in the Old Library.
By Lucille Munoz, Rare Books Curator