The Ultimate Literary Fake-Out!

Painting of Ossian. Blind with a blue cloak, holding a Celtic harp with a spear resting against his right knee.
Nicolai Abildgaard’s painting of Ossian, available here

If Napoleon, Diderot, Jefferson, Goethe, Walter Scott, Thoreau, Petőfi, Voltaire, Wordsworth, Boswell, Coleridge, and Byron liked your book. . .it was probably pretty good, right?

So why in 1761 did James Macpherson say he “discovered” the works of the old blind Scottish poet Ossian, when it was actually his own work?

No clue.

In the 1760s, the budding writer James Macpherson voyaged around Scotland’s remote highlands, collecting tales. Stringing together his knowledge of Gaelic stories along with Scottish fragments he actually discovered, Macpherson secretly wrote the Ossian poems, Scottish epics of incredible emotional highs and lows that pumped fire into the later Romantic movement.

Right away, even in Macpherson’s lifetime, other scholars were skeptical, noticing similarities to Gaelic works. Samuel Johnson called Macpherson a “fraud” and others challenged Macpherson’s doubtful command of the ancient language. Perhaps Macpherson thought others would accept the poems more credibly if they were assumed to be ancient and not from his hand? Maybe he thought his sources and creation were legitimate enough to credit Ossian?

No good answer. Contemporary scholars have judged conclusively that Macpherson pulled a fast one on the literary world and many of its giants.

But despite being little read today, maybe it’s time to come up to SCUA and look at the beautiful old copies of Ossian’s Poems in order to judge for yourself: Did James Macpherson swindle the world. . .or did he instead give it a gift, literature at its best?

The best questions have no answers.

Portrait of a white-haired James Macpherson in a red cloak lined with fur on the collar and a white cravat.
Painting of James Macpherson, available here

The Little Blue Books

Three Little Blue Books picked out at random

Books are expensive!

Every time I destroy my bank account to fund my addiction, I think these words and add a few I can’t write here. BOOKS—ARE— EXPENSIVE—!

The other day, our University Archivist Greg opened up some drawers in the Rare Books area for me to look at—

“Check these out.”

Pulling out the drawers revealed over a thousand little pocket pamphlet type books, light sky blue and faded. I glanced at the covers: King Lear, An Intro to Chaucer, Famous Russian Stories, Herbert Hoover: The Fatuous Failure in the White House. . .literally an entire reading life could be spent inside these. Any subject, any classic, all right here.

What are the Little Blue Books?

Way back in 1919, Emanuel Haldeman-Julius read a 10-cent copy of The Ballad of Reading Gaol in a frenzy. Seeing that so cheap a book could be dearer than any possession, Haldeman-Julius bought a publishing house and made the “Little Blue Books”, hoping to bring ideas and literature to workers who couldn’t afford them otherwise. Especially important was their size: able to fit in a pocket. Eager to reach people, Haldeman-Julius sold them in drug stores, toy stores, and even created a line of book vending machines for them. The Little Blue Books became so popular that an estimated 300-500 million were sold by the time they stopped publication in 1978.

Discover the same joy as 300 million other people in opening a slim, sky-blue faded cover of any topic in the world. Reading heaven lies in Iowa State Special Collections, a Little Blue Book for any dream you have.

Check them out here:

Drawerful of the Little Blue Books with their blue and faded brown spines showing, along with stapled binding.
The Little Blue Books

Rare Books Highlights: Black lives in Early Modern Spain

As part of ongoing efforts to diversify our holdings in Special Collections and University Archives, about a year ago I purchased the book Historia eclesiastica, principios, y progressos de la ciudad y religion catolica de Granada by Francisco Bermúdez de Pedraza, published circa 1638 or 1640. An English translation of the title reads, Ecclesiastical history, principles and progress of the city, and the Catholic religion of Granada.

Image of an engraved title page. Book title is within an architectural archway motif. Two archbishops sit at the top of either side of the arch--the left one labeled St. Es Fon, and the right one labeled SHIS Cio.Standing in front of either column are San Tiago and San Cecilio. There are additional features of heraldry and decorative elements.
Engraved title page of Historia eclesiastica. It was created by Ana Heylan, one of only a few women engravers working in Spain at the time.

I purchased this book for a couple of reasons: we do not have many Spanish language rare books in our collection, and–as highlighted by the book dealer who knows his market–the book contains positive representation of four people of African descent living in Granada. Many academic libraries, including ours, are interested in developing more inclusive library collections, and the book dealer knew to highlight this aspect of the book in his description. And while it is true that this book sheds some light on the history of Black people in Early Modern Spain, I think it behooves me to acknowledge that this book helps to diversify our collections in only a limited and inherently compromised way.

The first critique that I can make of this book as a window into the experience of Black people in Spain is that it is written by (as I presume) a non-Black author. Biographical information available online seems to indicate that Francisco Bermúdez de Pedraza was a white Spaniard from Granada, who studied and practiced law, was later ordained as a priest, and was always very interested in the history of his native city. Given this assumption, his portrayal–positive or otherwise–of Black men and women in Granada is inherently a white gaze. We are not hearing directly from those Black people about what their lives were like.

Secondly, let’s take a look at the historical context in which this book was written. The year of its publication, 1640, was almost 150 years following the end of the Reconquista, or Christian “reconquest” of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslim kingdom of Al-Andalus. A number of Arab or Berber rulers out of Northern Africa ruled parts of the Iberian Peninsula from around 711 to 1492, until Emir Muhammad XII of Granada surrendered to King Ferninand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile in 1492. The Treaty of Granada of 1491, in which Emir Muhammad XII surrendered the emirate to the so-called Catholic Monarchs, also granted Muslims living in the territory the right to practice their faith free of molestation. (The same rights were not granted to Jews living in the territory, who were forced to convert to Christianity or leave.) It did not take long for the Spanish authorities to break the terms of the treaty, however. By 1499, the second Archbishop of Granada, Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, began the practice of mass forced conversions of Muslims. When this led to an uprising, the Catholic Monarchs revoked the treaty rights, and beginning in 1501, Muslims in Granada were forced to convert or be expelled, or even executed. Some moved to Northern Africa, but others remained and converted.

This book was also written 150 years into the Spanish Empire, begun under the very same Ferdinand and Isabella, who you may recall, sponsored Christopher Columbus on his voyage across the Atlantic, seeking a shorter trading route to Asia, and ultimately leading to Spanish colonization of the Americas. In 1640, the Spanish Empire included some outposts along the North African coast as well as the colonies in the Americas. Closely bound up with the empire was the Iberian slave trade, in which Spain and Portugal, under the same monarch until 1640, were the first European powers to transport African captives across the Atlantic to be sold as enslaved people in the Americas.

This history reveals a relationship between Spain and Africa in which Spanish officials persecuted Muslims of African descent and in which Spanish slave traders committed atrocities against Black Africans–severing them from their homes, communities, and cultures; de-humanizing them; and commodifying them for the ultimate enrichment of the Spanish monarchy. I cannot see but that this context must have some influence on how a Spanish writer would represent individuals of African descent in their community.

Let’s take a look at the mentions of these Black men and women in the actual pages of the text. It is a short passage, spanning a couple of pages. Outlined in red in the images below, you can read four names:

  • Juan Latino, a professor at the University of Granada
  • Cristobal de Meneses, a priest
  • Licenciado Ortiz, a lawyer for the Royal Court
  • Catalina de Soto, an artist and embroiderer

Image of text on a page in an older Spanish. The name Juan Latino is outlined in a red box digitally added to the image. The name Juan has an archaic spelling of I-U-A-N.
Entry on Juan Latino.

With the help of Google Translate, I find that Bermúdez de Pedraza describes Juan Latino as “a dark black man” (negro atezado), that Latino was raised in the house of the Duchess of Terrano, and that he was a scholar of rhetoric and Latin in both prose and verse. (What does it mean that he was raised in the house of a duchess? Was he enslaved, or the son of an enslaved person? Was he a servant, or son of a servant? I am no scholar of Spanish history, and so I have no idea.)

Image of a page of Spanish text with red boxes added to outline three names: Christobal de Meneses, Licenciado Ortiz, and Catalina de Soto.
Passage mentioning Christobal de Meneses, Licenciado Ortiz, and Catalina de Soto.

Bermúdez de Pedraza’s discussion of three more prominent Black people continues in the second column of the page. He writes that Father Christobal de Meneses belonged to the Order of Santo Domingo and was also Black. He was a good priest and preacher with a graceful and agreeable conversation.

Third is the Lawyer Ortiz, who was the son of a Black woman and a military man. (Though part of the sentence is unclear, it seems that Ortiz is attributed with saying something along the lines of something being due more to my mother who gave me a good father, than to my father who gave me such a mean mother.)

The fourth of the “black prodigies” (negros prodigios) is Catalina de Soto, who deserved for her illustrous parts to be queen of Black women, was of a gentle body and a well-liked face, and of the best hands of labor in her time, was the first needle of Spain to knit and embroider and draw,…

(Here I have recorded loose translations Bermúdez de Pedraza’s descriptions, taken largely from Google Translate, but with some interpretation of my own. Some portions of the text were less decipherable due to the combination of my elementary Spanish knowledge and the archaic quality of the text. Any misinterpretations are due to that dangerous combination.)

These descriptions of four Black residents of Granada are largely positive, but they also clearly portray that white gaze, which I see especially apparent in the use of the term “black prodigies.” It also hints at social hierarchies, norms, and biases that someone with more familiarity of the history and culture of that place and time would be better able to parse.

For a broader context on the representation of Blacks in Spain from a Black scholar of Spanish and the African Diaspora, check out this article: Nicholas R. Jones. “The Legacy and Representation of Blacks in Spain.” Black Perspectives, June 1, 2018,

Work Cited:

Francisco Bermúdez de Pedraza. Historia eclesiastica, principios, y progressos de la ciudad y religion catolica de Granada, corona de su poderoso reyno, y excelencias de su corona. Granada: Andrés de Santiago Palomino, 1638 [ie, 1640]. Call number: BX1588 G7 B4 1638

Rare Book Highlights: new purchase by William Morris

Page on left hows a black and white print of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Eve is seated on a fallen log with a fur wrapped around her lower abdomen and long hair somewhat covering her naked breasts. At her feat are two young children, one with its arms wrapped around her leg. Adam is standing, bending over to push a spade into the ground. Printed text at the bottom reads, "When Adam Delved and Eve Span Who was then the Gentleman. There is an intricate black and white printed border around the image on the left page and the text on the right page. Both borders have design sof leaves, and the righth one includes bunches of grapes.
Frontispiece and first page of William Morris’s “A Dream of John Ball; and, A King’s Lesson.”

Just look at that frontispiece! Is that classic William Morris, or what? The book featured here is among our newest additions to the rare books collection.

William Morris was a Victorian British designer, craftsman, and author, known for his wallpaper and textile design and associated with the Arts & Crafts Movement. You may be familiar with his famous quote:

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

In rare book circles, he is known as the founder of the Kelmscott Press and the designer of the famous Kelmscott Chaucer.

William Morris believed in the importance of manual labor and skilled craftsmanship. In the wake of mechanization during the Industrial Revolution, he made sure that his own decorative arts company performed impeccable handwork in crafts that he first made sure to master himself. In 1891 at the age of 56, Morris founded the Kelmscott Press to produce books that were a pleasure to look at and to read. Following his principles of skilled craftsmanship and handiwork, he learned the skills of hand printing, type design, and paper making. Taking inspiration from the type of the famed 15th century type designer Nicholas Jensen, who created one of the earliest Roman typefaces, he designed three typefaces for use by the press–Golden, Troy, and Chaucer–that were clear, readable, and beautiful. He also designed ornamental letters and borders. You can see that the ornamental borders in the image above look very similar to Morris’ wallpaper and textile designs (see examples here).

The book we purchased is William Morris’s A Dream of John Ball; and A King’s Lesson (1892). It includes two of Morris’s own writings. The illustration for the frontispiece was designed by Morris’ friend, longtime business partner, and Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. See more pictures of this book below:

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The founding of the Kelmscott Press marks the begininng of the private press movement that flourished around the turn of the 20th century, in which private individuals set up presses that were focused on producing high-quality handmade books emphasizing the book as a work of art and generally without a strong profit motive. Other famous private presses include the Doves Press and the Ashendene Press.

Rare Book Highlights: A Sophisticated Copy of “On the Origin of the Species”

During a class visit to Special Collections last week, the professor brought something to my attention that I had not noticed before. Our supposedly first edition of Charles Darwin’s famous On the Origin of the Species, which he had requested for his class, was a sophisticated copy.

Sophisticated. That’s good, right? It means that the book is refined, polished, cultured, right? Wrong. In this case, the definition of sophisticated relates to the origins of the word, pointing to the ancient Greek Sophists, or teachers that specialized in the subjects of philosophy and rhetoric. Plato criticized Sophists for teaching deceptive reasoning and rhetorical skills to those seeking political office. You might think of the term spin doctor today. Well, a sophisticated book is ‘spinning’ the truth of its own origins, in a way, since it refers to a doctored book, or one that is deceptively altered. In this case, the title page from a first edition has been bound at the front of the text of a second edition.

This wasn’t a new discovery–it was noted in the catalog entry for this copy, so it was likely known from the time the library purchased it. This was just new information for me; something I hadn’t noticed before. The catalog doesn’t actually use the word “sophisticated,” but what it describes fits the definition of “sophisticated” to a T. What it actually says is this: “Composite copy having t.-p. and half-title of 1st ed., 1859, and text of 2d ed., 1860.

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What does it really mean, though, to add the title page from one edition onto the text of a different edition? Let’s start by defining what an edition is. An edition refers to the entire set of copies printed from one setting of type. After printing up the first edition of a book, it may or may not sell well. If the book does sell well, a printer may want to print more copies to sell. During the handpress period, this would most likely mean that he would have to set all the pages of type again. Below are images showing what it looks like to set lines of type using a composing stick (left), and a fully set page of type (right):

Chances are, in setting them by hand, the new set of pages will not exactly match the original set: words may end up on different pages, typos from the original edition may have been corrected, while new typos may have been introduced. But the changes can be so small that, unless you know just what to look for, it can be very easy to be taken in by a misleading title page.

In the case of the Origin of the Species, I wondered what those differences were the gave away the fact that we had a sophisticated copy. Since we don’t have an actual first edition copy to compare it to, I went searching online. I found Darwin Online, which, among other things, provides scans of the major early editions of Darwin’s writings. It also gives publication history of his major works. In the essay for On the Origin of the Species, it lists a number of textual differences between the first and the second editions. I will focus on one of them to illustrate how we can see that the text of our copy is, in fact, a second edition.

Page 20, line 11 of the first edition has a typo in the word “species,” misspelling it as “speceies.”

Page of text from book, with a red circle around the misspelled word s-p-e-c-e-i-e-s.
Misspelled word “speceies” from the first edition.

Page 20 of our copy looks completely different. As you can see, the typesetting turned out differently. In this edition, that same word doesn’t appear until line 14. And here it is spelled correctly.

Page of text with the same word circled in red, but appears lower on the page.
The same instance of “species” is spelled correctly in the second edition.

Why would anyone sophisticate a book? There are a couple of main reasons. One reason is profit. First editions have a special allure, which tends to make them in high demand by collectors. High demand = high selling price. Perhaps an unscrupulous bookseller had a second edition that wasn’t moving off the shop shelves as quickly as they would have liked. Perhaps they also came across a poor condition first edition that wouldn’t make as much money as one in fine condition. Well, perhaps that bookseller removed the title page from the first edition and bound it into the second edition copy. Caveat emptor*, as the saying goes.

Another reason for sophisticating a book is in order to achieve a “perfect,” or complete volume. The “perfecting” of books was a fashion among 18th and 19th century book collectors. Books deteriorate with use, and with highly used books, it is not uncommon for pages to become worn, torn, or removed entirely. In order to achieve a perfect volume, some collectors would cannibalize pages from another copy and bind them into their own copy. To read more about this practice, see this blog post from the Folger Shakespeare Library about the practice of sophisticating the First Folio. In the case of the Darwin that we have been examining here, it seems clear to me that this instance of sophistication was likely for the purpose of profit.

*So I won’t be accused of defamation of my fellow book lovers working in the book trade, I want to clarify that modern booksellers associations have adopted codes of ethics meant to establish trust in the antiquarian marketplace by laying out standard expectations for ethical business behavior. The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America in their Code of Ethics and Standards, for example, specifies in point 3 that “An Association member shall be responsible for the accurate description of all material offered for sale. All significant defects, restorations, and sophistications should be clearly noted and made known to those to whom the material is offered or sold. Unless both parties agree otherwise, a full cash refund shall be made available to the purchaser of any misrepresented material” (my emphasis added). So, a bookseller knowing her business should have identified and described any sophisticated copies as such. But even the experts can sometimes miss a clue! So, it never hurts to do your own research if you are purchasing book.

Works Cited

Charles Darwin. On the Origin of the Species By Means of Natural Selection. London: J. Murray, 1859 [ie, 1860]. Call number: QH365 .D259o

John van Wyhe, ed. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online (

Rare Book Highlights: ISU’s oldest book in chemistry

Pulling a book of the shelf. Book is bound in vellum with a leather title label.
Pulling the book off the shelf.

Let’s take another trip back into the rare book stacks to find the library’s oldest book in chemistry. I’m defining chemistry broadly, here, to include the precursor to chemistry, alchemy. Basically, I’m looking at everything we have that falls under the Library of Congress Subclass QD. And, in fact, when we check the shelves, the oldest book in the QD section is Geberi philosophi ac alchimistae, maximi, De alchimia libri tres, or The Three Books on Alchemy by Geber, the Great Philosopher and Alchemist, printed in 1529.

Book's title page has black and white illustration showing a large piece of chemical equipment in the center foreground. In the background are two figures working at a table with different smaller pieces of chemical equipment.
Book’s title page.

Geber is the Latinization of Jabir ibn Hayyan (circa 721–815), thought to have been born near Tus, in modern-day Iran. Around 3,000 works on a wide range of topics, including alchemy, cosmology, numerology, astrology, medicine, and philosophy, are attributed to Jabir. Scholars agree that one man could not have written all of these works on such a wide range of topics. Still, he seems to be an important figure in Arab chemistry, and he is credited with a number of significant contributions to the field, including describing chemical processes such as crystallization and distillation, and discovering aqua regia, a mix of hydrochloric acid and nitric acid, which is able to dissolve gold.


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The book we are examining today is translated into Latin. It contains three parts: examining the properties of metals, alchemical techniques, and the properties of the planets.

Notes on the flyleaf signed by Edward Stark indicate which works of Jabir, or Geber, are included here, including information on which translations are used. I’m not sure who Edward Stark is, but I presume he was a previous owner. Clearly, he has a large knowledge of the body of work attributed to Geber as well as the various Latin translations of those works. From his notes, it seems that this book is a compilation of incomplete pieces of Geber’s works.

Flyleaf reads: “This Book contains the Summa Perfectionis of Geber. See also Manget I. 519 & Alohemiae Gever Arabis 1545 pp 16-164 & Russell’s Translation 1678 pp 22-238. Pages 56-61 do not seem to belong to Geber at all. Pages 61a-66 contain Geber’s Investigatione perfections nearly the same as that in Alchemiciae Geber Arabis 1545 pp. 1-15. Neither this book nor Manget appear to have teh Liber Formacum. The latter contains Geber’s Testamentum [I p 562]. Edward Stark”
Our individual copy is bound in vellum with paste paper pastedown fly leaves in the front and rear.

Inside cover of book covered in a paper that has large blocks of colors (red, blue, gold, and black) that have been sponged onto the surface of the paper.
Pastepaper was used on the inside of the cover.

This may not have been the original binding, since you can see that the tops of the pages have been trimmed. See the image where the words at the very top of the page are almost entirely cut off? It should read, “Tertius,” indicating the third part in the book.

View of an open book. At the top of the right page, you can see only the bottom portion of letters forming the word "Tertius." The tops of the letters have been trimmed off.
Top edge of pages have been trimmed in a rebinding.

This book has been very well used, with underlinings and marginal markings appearing throughout the book. There is no indicating, unfortunately, as to who the early owner may have been. At any rate, this early reader certainly found many things of interest in the text!

Page of text. Several lines across teh page have been underlined in pen.
A well-underlined text.


ISU’s oldest book in chemistry

Jabir ibn Hayyan. Geberi philosophi ac alchimistae, maximi, De alchimia libri tres. Johannis Grieninger, 1529. Call number: QD25 .J113g

Jabir ibn Hayyan

Amr, Samir S. and Abdelghani Tbakhi. “Jabir ibn Hayyan.” Annals of Saudi Medicine, vol. 27, no. 1 (Jan-Feb 2007): 52-53. National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.

Marshall, Vicki. “Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan.” 175 Faces of Chemistry: Celebrating Diversity in Science, Royal Society of Chemistry, published June 2014.

Newman, William R. “Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, updated August 3, 2016.

“The Three Books on Alchemy by Geber, the Great Philosopher and Alchemist.” World Digital Library, updated April 3, 2018.

Early print features: navigating an errata list

 Last week, I highlighted our oldest book in veterinary medicine. I cut this section from that post for length, but thought it would be of interest to readers who may want to learn more about errata lists in early printed books.

During the printing process, the people that set the type, known as compositors, would occasionally make mistakes–as would anyone who had to set type in mirror-image! If these mistakes were not caught before the sheets were printed, printers would often include lists of errors, errata lists, so that readers could correct the text themselves. Here is an example of a corrected error:

Midway down the page, handwritten in the margin is "+ pugnabis"
Marginal correction made to the text.

Pictured below is the errata list from Jean Ruel’s Veterinariae medicinae libri II, printd by Simon de Colines in Paris in 1530. He has titled his list, Erratorum Recognitio, or recognized errors:

First line reads (in Latin): Repone pro purgabis, pugnabis. folio 2 pagina 2 versu 23.
List of printing errors included by the printer in the back of the book.

Let’s take a look at how a reader understood this section. The first listed error reads, “Repone pro purgabis, pugnabis. folio 2 pagina 2 versu 23,” or, Replace for purgabis, pugnabis. Leaf 2, page 2, row 23. The word “leaf” in this instruction brings me to an aside about the difference between foliation vs. pagination. Foliation means that the leaves in a book are numbered; in other words, if you open a book, the page on the right will have a number, but not the page on the left. Pagination means that every page is numbered. This is what we are used to seeing in books today. Early books, however, were often foliated, which is the case here:

Book opening illustrating foliation. The page on the right is numbered “2.” The page on the left has no number.

So, looking again at the instruction, “Leaf 2, page 2, row 23,” leaf 2 refers to the 2nd leaf of the text, the one that has a number “2” in the upper right corner. Then it indicates, “page 2.” Page 1 would be the side of the leaf that has the number on it, or the right side of the page when the book is held open. Page 2 is the other side of the leaf. Sometimes this is referred to as recto and verso, in which verso refers to the reverse side of the leaf. So here, after finding leaf 2, the reader turns the page for page 2 of that particular leaf.

The next item in the instruction is the row number, row 23 here. Starting from the top line of text on the page, count down the number of lines until you reach row 23. This count will include the line for the chapter heading seen on the page. (Confusingly it does not include the running head at the very top of the page that gives the book’s title.)

Numbers added to the rows on the page. (click for larger image)

So, to recap: for this error, the reader turns to folio 2, turns over the page, and counts down 23 lines. There we find the error, “purgabis.” The reader has marked the word with a small cross, and in the margin given the correct word, pugnabis. This reader petered out after several corrections. After trying the process out on the page pictured here, you may understand why.

A "+" above the word "purgabis" printed in the text to match the handwritten correction "+pugnabis" in the margin.
Close up of marginal correction.

Rare Book Highlights: ISU’s oldest book in veterinary medicine

Iowa State University has the oldest veterinary college at a state school in the United States, founded in 1879. It is fitting, therefore, to examine the University Library’s oldest book in veterinary medicine, Jean Ruel’s Veterinariae medicinae libri II, published in Paris in 1530.

Title page of book includes large, black-and-white line illustration showing a bearded man wearing 16th century European clothing on a horse. In the background is a castle, some smaller houses, a herd of horses or other animal. Behind these are woods and a sky with clouds and a group of three flying birds.
Title page of Veterinariae Medicinae Libri II by Jean Ruel, 1530.

The work’s title page credits Jean Ruel as the work’s “interpreter,” and indeed, the text is a compilation of ancient Greek texts on veterinary medicine, translated into Latin. Ruel, born in 1474, was a French physician and botanist, and in 1509 he became physician to King Francis I, who commissioned the work. Ruel taught himself Greek and Latin, and he published a number of compilations or translations of classical scientific texts. He is best known for authoring his own treatise on botany, De natura stirpium, published six years after the veterinary medical work.

Authors are listed in Latin: Apsyrtus, Hierocles, Theomnestus, Pelagonius, Anatolius, Tiberius, Eumelus, Archedemus, Hippocrates, Aemilius Hispanus, Litorius Beneuentanus, Himerius, Africanus, Didyms. Diophanes, Pamphilus, Mago Carthaginensis.
Greek authors included in Ruel’s compilation.

The work was published by Simon de Colines (c. 1480-1546), a Parisian printer and one of the first of the French Renaissance. Colines was connected to the famous Estienne printing family and likely worked under Henri Estienne. When Estienne died in 1520, he took over his print shop until Estienne’s son Robert took it over in 1526. At that point, Colines had set up his own print shop and printed works for the University of Paris. He printed a number of prominent scientific texts, including Charles Estienne’s De dissection partium corporis humani libris tres (1545), and Ruel’s later publication De natura stirpium (1536).

Table of contents in Veterninariae Medicinae, referred to here as an Index.

Today, when we think of nonfiction or scholarly books, we expect to see features that help us navigate these texts, such as tables of contents or indexes. These features did not always exist, however, and Colines made important contributions to the development of these textual structures in early printing. This work includes a table of contents (pictured above), which he labels an “Index.”

Page showing writings on fevers in horses by Greek authors Eumelus, Agathotychus, and Pelagonius.

The text is organized by malady, beginning with fever in horses, and presents texts on that subject by various classical Greek authors. At the end, Ruel has included a glossary of terms.

Ruel has included a glossary of terms.


The most unique feature of our copy of Veterinariae medicinae is its binding. It is rather inexpertly covered in in three separate pieces of waste manuscript vellum — the spine and the front and back covers. Take a look at the turn-ins (pictured below), or the part of the covering material which is turned over the outer edges of the boards. See how sloppily they are done? A little bit like how I covered my high school text books using an old brown paper grocery bag. A more neatly crafted binding would have mitered corners that come to a point in the corners, rather than this overlapping one, and the turn-ins will usually be neatly covered by the paste-down endpapers.

The waste manuscript material is of interest, too. I plead ignorance of all things manuscript-related, but this does not look to me like a typical medieval manuscript piece. To begin with, I don’t believe this is Latin. It looks like French to me. At least, I clearly see the word “amour” (shown above, circled in red). Is this a love poem? It looks like it could be lines of poetry. It is written in a large hand with a lot of space between lines and fairly wide margins. Do you have a guess what this piece of writing is? Do you recognize the hand, and could you hazard a guess at the time period it was written? If you have any insights please share in the comments section below.

Shows handwritten text in an old handwriting style, written on vellum.
Can you read this? The ink is a bit faded.

Work Cited

Jean Ruel. Veterinariae medicinae libri II. Parisiis: Simonem Colinaeum, 1530. (Call number SF743 H612v)

Happy 50th! The Origins of Special Collections and University Archives Part 2: Collection Highlights

2019 marks the Special Collections & University Archives’ (SCUA) 50th year in existence. This blog post is the second in a series of blog posts celebrating SCUA’s 50 years at Iowa State University. My first post in this series gave a brief history about the origins of SCUA. Today’s post will highlight a handful of items from our department that represent milestones for the library and also the university’s emphasis on innovation and technology.

top of image is quarts balance (glass) on wooden mount with illustration of a similar balance below.
Quartz microbalance made by Harry Svec while working at ISU during the Manhattan Project, circa 1942–1945. Artifact Collection 2003-203.03.

I selected the quartz balance because I wanted to highlight the Harry Svec Papers and Svec made the balance while working at ISU, during the Manhatta Project. Harry Svec came to Iowa State University (then Iowa State College) as a graduate student. World War II interrupted his studies and he, instead, worked on refining uranium in the Ames Laboratory on the Manhattan Project, working under the direction of Frank H. Spedding. At the conclusion of the Manhattan Project, Svec continued his graduate studies and built the first mass spectrometers at ISU. In 1950, he earned his Ph.D. and was granted faculty status. When Svec retired in 1983, he had been associated with ISU for 42 years.

Group of faculty and students in front of a chalkboard.
Photograph of Harry Svec and his research group on April 2, 1962. Harry J. Svec Papers, RS 13/6/53, box 20, folder 69.

Featured next are volumes that represent significant milestones for the University Library. Below is the title page of the book acquired as the ISU Library’s one-millionth volume, Trattato della pittvra di Lionardo da Vinci, purchased circa 1975. This is a first edition, written in Italian, and published in 1651.

Title page with engraved half-title illustration.
Title page for the one millionth volume. Leonardo da Vinci. Trattato della pittvra di Lionardo da Vinci. 1651. Rare Book Collection ND1130 .L5 1651.

The images below are of the title pages for the University Library’s two millionth volume, purchased in 1994. The title is a two-volume treatise on mathematical concepts by Italian mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi.

This is the University Library’s three millionth volume, purchased in 2016.  This volume includes Galileo’s defense of heliocentrism and led to his heresy trial and subsequent house arrest for the remainder of his life.  This is a copy of the second vernacular edition in Italian.

Title page of Galileo Galilei. Dialogo di Galileo Galilei (for full title see caption). Stains on pages due to age and illustration beneath title text.
Galileo Galilei. Dialogo di Galileo Galilei. Rare Book Collection, QB41 G35 D5x 1710.

What items do you think would best represent Special Collections and University Archives’ 50th anniversary?

Rare Book Highlights: An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex

Title page of second edition of Drakes Essay in Defence of the Female Sex.

In 1696, An Essay in Defense of the Female Sex was published in London, “written by a Lady.” For a long time, this work was attributed to Mary Astell, an English pro-woman writer, known for her work A Serious Proposal to the Ladies published two years earlier. In recent years, however, the authorship has been attributed to Judith Drake, and English intellectual from the same circle as Astell. She was married to the physician and political pamphleteer James Drake, who wrote a poem dedicated to the author, which appeared in the second edition of the book. Another piece of evidence of Drake’s authorship is in the description of the book that appears in a catalog of books sold after 1741 by the publisher Edmund Curll, in which it was noted that it was written by “‘Mrs. Drake, probably a sister of Dr. James Drake, who attended to the publication of the pamphlet'” (quoted in Hill 877).

The book is written in the form of a letter to a female friend, as an outgrowth of “a private Conversation, between some Gentlemen and Ladies, and written at the request, and for the Diversion of one Lady more particularly,” as she writes in the Preface. The essay begins, in its characteristic complex style:

The Conversation we had ‘tother day, makes me, Dear Madam, but more sensible of the unreasonableness of your desire; which obliges me to inform you further upon a Subject, wherein I have more need of your instruction.

Sentence is repeated in text below.
Opening sentence of the “Essay.”

This “essay” takes up 148 pages, in which she uses a rationalist arguments to defend women against accusations that suggest women are inferior to men. Point-by-point, she makes the case that women are not naturally less intelligent or talented than men, but that “due care has not been taken, to cultivate those Gifts to a competent measure in us” (Drake 9). She also lampoons men through a series of satirical sketches that show the follies and weaknesses of male stereotypes, as outlined in the work’s full title, “…in which are inserted the Characters of A Pedant; A Squire; A Beau; A Vertuoso; A Poetaster; A City-Critick; &c.”

Black and white engraving of a man dressed in 17th century fashion with a large wig, a long coat hitting at the knee, stockings, and healed shoes, standing in front of a mirror, while a second man arranges his hair from behind.
Illustration of a “beau” used as the book’s frontispiece.

Take, as an example, her description of a Beau (or dandy):

When his Eyes are set to a languishing Air, his Motions all prepar’d according to Art, his Wig and his Coat abundantly Powder’d, his Gloves Essenc’d, and his Handkercher perfum’d, and all the rest of his Bravery rightly adjusted, the greatest part of the day, as well the business of it at home, is over; ’tis time to launch, and down he comes, scented like a Perfumers Shop, and looks like a Vessel with all her rigging under sail without Ballast.


…From hence he adjourns to the Play-house, where he is to be met again in the side Box, from whence he makes his Court to all the Ladies in general with his Eyes, and is particular only with the Orange-Wench. After a while he engages some neighboring Vizor, and together they run over all the Boxes, take to pieces every Face, examine every feature, pass their Censure upon every one, and so on to their Dress; here he very Judiciously gives his opinion upon every particular, and determines whose Colours are well chosen, whose Fancy is neatest, and whose Cloths fit with most Air; but in conclusion sees no Body compleat, but himself in the whole House. (ibid 69-71)

Drake concludes by arguing that women are in the position to teach men certain virtues of character. She writes, “There remains nothing more, but to shew that there are some necessary Qualifications to be acquir’d, some good Improvements to be made by Ingenious Gentlemen in the Company of our Sex. Of this number are Complacence, Gallantry, Good Humour, Invention, and an Art, which (tho’ frequently abus’d) is of admirable use to those that are Masters of it, the Art of Insinuation, and many others” (ibid 135).

Drake also pokes gentle fun at herself, apologizing for the long-windedness of her essay, writing, “One Experience I have gain’d by this Essay, that I find, when our Hands are in, ’tis as hard to stop ’em, as our Tongues, and as difficult not to writ, as not to talk too much” (ibid 147-148).

There is just one more things that I wanted to note before I conclude my own essay, which is also in danger of growing long-winded. That is the provenance of this particular copy of Drake’s Essay from our collection. Did you notice the author signature on the title page above? Let’s look at it again.

Description in text below.
Ownership signature on title page.

“Matthew Steel” is written in full on either side of the words “In which are inserted the,” and below is a location and date, “Quantico 1753.” One of the back fly-leaves has more:

Description in text below
Year and location of owner noted on back fly leaf.

Ann. Domini 1755

the Year of our Lord 1755




Quantico and Dumfries are towns in Virginia that were settled in the 17th century by Scottish colonists. This copy of a book published in London was at some point brought to the American colonies and owned by a Matthew Steel in the colony of Virginia. Though by no means our oldest book, there is something thrilling in looking at this book and knowing it traveled so early on across the Atlantic.

Works Cited

Drake, Judith. An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex: in which are inserted the characters of a pedant, a squire, a beau, a vertuoso, a poetaster, a city-critick, &c. in a letter to a lady. Second edition. London: Printed for A. Roper and E. Wilkinson at the Black Boy, and R. Clavel at the Peacock, 1696.

Hill, Bridget. “Drake, Judith.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

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