Tag Archives: Early Fine Print Collection

The Cervantes Collection

Part of the Cervantes Collection

The Cervantes Collection is the second oldest Special Collection in the Library of Birmingham. The original collection of 1,500 books was donated by William Bragge (1823-1884), a highly successful, much travelled and cultured businessman, who, prompted by the setting up of the Shakespeare Library in 1861, gave his Cervantes books, the most important part of his extensive collections, to the city of his birth.

Son of a well-known jeweller, Thomas Perry Bragge, in Birmingham, William Bragge studied mathematics and mechanics and practical engineering, training as an engineer and railway surveyor. He started work at the Birkenhead Railway in 1845 and then spent much of his life in South America, where he built gas-works, railways and waterworks for Buenos Aires and had the Order of the Rose conferred on him by the Emperor of Brazil. He also visited Spain frequently, and it was probably these connections which led to his particular interest in Spanish literature and the writings of Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616).

Smollet’s Edition of Don Quixote

Cervantes was a novelist, playwright and poet and the most celebrated writer in Spanish literature. He created the character of Don Quixote, an elderly gentleman who sets off from his home, La Mancha, with his servant Sancho Panza to undertake chivalrous acts and has many rather ridiculous adventures. Thanks to numerous translations, extensive literary criticism and adaption of the story into art, drama and film, Don Quixote is recognised throughout the world. Continue reading


Rediscovering the Milton Collection at the Library of Birmingham

With the expert help of Corinna Rayner and the Archives & Collections team, and my research assistant Ellie Rowe, I have recently begun a project to reassess the contents and significance of the Library of Birmingham’s Milton Collection, an extensive but little-known collection of books relating to the English poet and polemicist, John Milton (1608-1672).

The Library’s Stock Book shows that the Milton Collection began in 1882 in the Gladstone era, when the Library was being rebuilt after the catastrophic fire of 1879. The core of the collection was a gift of about 160 volumes of editions of Milton’s works and Miltonian commentary and criticism. The books were given by Frank Wright (1853-1922), a Liberal politician and member of the Free Library Building Sub-Committee, son of the well-known nonconformist John Skirrow Wright (1822-1880), and partner in the firm of Smith & Wright, makers of buttons and tin-plate.

Free Library Committee Minutes 1882

Wright donated the books in the hope that they might be made ‘the nucleus of a Milton Collection worthy of his name and that of our town’. Wright’s interest in Milton almost certainly stemmed from the family’s Liberal and nonconformist leanings. Over the century following Wright’s initial donation, the Milton Collection swelled to over eight times its initial size.

Today, the Milton Collection includes approximately eighty 17th century editions of Milton’s work, and more than 1,200 volumes of later editions and works of criticism. The oldest works in the collection are pamphlets written by Milton in the Civil War and Commonwealth periods, such as The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643), Areopagitica: a speech for the liberty of unlicenced printing (1644), and Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (Defence of the English People) (1651).

Continue reading

Archi’ve Discovered: Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, 1563


One of the items selected by our researchers for our Explore Your Archive pop-up exhibition on Saturday 19th November was a hefty sixteenth century volume created by John Foxe, The Book of Martyrs printed in 1563. As a new member of the team constantly learning more about the collections we hold, I decided to look in to the background of this sizeable work.

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Foxe’s [AF094/1563/3].

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Foxe’s [AF094/1563/3].

The longer name of this work is the Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perilous Dayes, Touching Matters of the Church by John Foxe. With such a lengthy title, it is understandably often known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. The book gives a detailed history of the Church covering the apostles, a succession of popes, heretical episodes and accounts of martyrdoms running all the way to Foxe’s time. It is particularly well known for its detailed accounts of religious persecutions during the reign of Queen Mary I (1553-1558) and accompanying (somewhat gruesome) illustrations.

The book was very popular and influential. Following Mary’s death Queen Elizabeth I’s Privy Council to the Archbishop’s of York and Canterbury encouraged every parish church to acquire a copy. It would have been used by clergy to provide material for sermons and may also have been viewed by parishioners.

Decoration in a classical style, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs [AF094/1563/3].

Decoration in a classical style, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs [AF094/1563/3].

Continue reading

Science and magick in the stores

Book plate for Natural Magick

This stunning front piece is from an earlier English edition of Natural Magick held in Boston Public Library unfortunately our edition does not contain a similar one.

This week’s blog is about a volume that I stumbled across whilst working in the storerooms last week. I was initially going to write about Micrographia which is one of my favourite books in the Early and Fine Printing Collections. Micrographia was written by Robert Hooke in 1665 and was the first book published by the recently formed Royal Society. It revealed a mysterious microscopic world unseen by human eye with its incredibly detailed etchings of plants, insects and mineral and is a wonderful example of the work from the Scientific Revolution when experiments and empirical data began to be seen as essential to understand the world.


Page from Micrographia, Robert Hooke, 2nd edition, 1667 [Ref: AQ094/1667/13]

Engraving of a fly as observed under a microscope from Micrographia. Robert Hooke, 2nd edition, 1667 [Ref: AQ094/1667/13]


When I went to retrieve Micrographia a volume called Natural Magick stored a couple of shelves down caught my eye and intrigued, I took it down to the office to have a look. Natural Magick was originally written in Latin by John Baptist Porta (Giambattista Della Porta) from Naples. Porta  was   born in about 1535 and was  a polymath who wrote on subjects as wide-ranging as cryptography, military engineering, distillation and agriculture as well as writing  seventeen plays.

Magiae Naturalis (Natural Magic) is his most famous work. We have a copy of the expanded edition written in 1559  and first published in English in  1659. Our volume was printed for John Wright next to the sign of the Globe in
Little-Britain [London] in 1669. Continue reading

Spring has sprung!

With the recent warm weather and crocuses and daffodils beginning to fill the parks with the joyful colours of spring I thought I would have a wander through our collections to find some treasures to celebrate this happy time of year. Our Early and Fine Printing Collections hold a wealth of botanical and zoological studies and many of them contain beautiful coloured illustrations. It was hard to pick out a favourite to talk about but a stunning Art Nouveaux gilded binding caught my eye and I found myself leafing through Maurice Maeterlinck’s ‘The Life of the Bee’ (collection reference AQ 096/1912).


Maurice Maeterlinck’s ‘The Life of the Bee’ [AQ 096/1912]

Unknown to me previously, it turns out that this is a classic text relating to the bee. It is not a practical manual nor does it claim to be a scientific treatise. Instead it is an in-depth study of the complexities of hive society, the queen and her interactions with her workers, male drones. It is clear that Maeterlinck was fascinated by the subject and spent many hours examining his hives before creating this work. What makes it even more interesting is the way it is written. The language is strikingly exuberant and poetic, clearly expressing Maeterlinck’s fascination with the little insects. It is hard not to be swept into the detail such as this extract relating to how a bee sting feels

‘… which produces a pain so characteristic that one knows not wherewith to compare it; a kind of destroying dryness, a flame of the desert rushing over the wounded limb, as though these daughters of the sun had distilled a dazzling poison from their father’s angry rays, in order more effectively to defend the treasure they gather from his beneficent hours.’1


The Queen. Page 20

This may be unsurprising as Maeterlinck (1862-1949) was a Belgian playwright, poet and essayist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911

“in appreciation of his many-sided literary activities, and especially of his dramatic works, which are distinguished by a wealth of imagination and by a poetic fancy, which reveals, sometimes in the guise of a fairy tale, a deep inspiration, while in a mysterious way they appeal to the readers’ own feelings and stimulate their imaginations”2

The original version of this book was published in French in 1901 and translated into English by Alfred Sutro in 1911.  Maeterlinck was writing at a time when concerns over increasing industrialisation and the urban environment were fashionable. Whilst ‘The Life of the Bee’ is primarily a natural history text it also draws out parallels relating to human society and the relationship of man to nature. Much of this can appear dated to the modern reader but nevertheless captures a vivid sense of the philosophy of the time. Continue reading

Fancy a piece of cake?

Image from the Baskerville Bible. [EFP 255458/1826]

Image from the Baskerville Bible.
[EFP 255458/1826]

Would you be able to decipher the following recipe? Scripture cakes are a bit like a crossword. You need to know what the lines of the Bible refer to in order to work out the ingredients. These cakes were popular in the 19th century in Britain and America and were used to teach young girls how to bake and learn the Bible at Sunday School. This recipe has the actual ingredients followed by the Bible references:

The Home Mission Book of recipes, Printed 1909 [MS 4082,]

The Home Mission Book of recipes, Printed 1909
[MS 4082]

One cupful of butter: Judges, Chapter 5, Verse 25;

3½ cupsful of flour: 1st of Kings, 4-22;

2 cupsful of sugar: Jeremiah, 6-20;

2 cupsful of raisins:  1st of Samuel, 30-12;

2 cupsful of figs: 1st of Samuel, 30-12;

1 cupful of dates: Genesis, 24–17;

1 cupful of almonds: Genesis, 43-11;

6 eggs: Isiah, 10-14;

1 tablespoonful of honey: Exodus, 16-31;

A pinch of salt: Leviticus, 2-13;

Spices to taste: 1st of Kings, 10-10;

2 tablespoonful of baking powder: 1st of Corinthians, 5-6;

Follow Solomon’s advice for making a good boy and you will make a good cake: Proverbs, chapter 23, Verse 14.

Method: proceed as in ordinary rules for cake making: fruits and nuts last of all; raisins should be seeded; figs chopped; almonds blanched and sliced; as well floured to prevent sinking to the bottom.

So if you are not too full of Christmas cake, why not give this a go?!

Macbeth and War

1 The Tragedie of Macbeth.  Illustrated by Moyr Smith. 1889. S334.1889

The Tragedie of Macbeth. Illustrated by Moyr Smith. 1889. S334.1889

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a bloodthirsty tale of ambition, treachery and aggression, one which resonates with the Library of Birmingham’s season of ‘Voices of War’.  To coincide with the library’s wonderful exhibition: ‘Voices of War: Birmingham People 1914 – 1918’, the Collection Curators at the Library of Birmingham are holding a public display of some of the art work from this great story to highlight the extensive Shakespeare collection, the second largest in the world behind the Folger Library in Washington.

This free event will be held on Saturday 1 November, 12.00 – 2.00 in the Heritage Learning Suite on Floor 4 of the Library of Birmingham.

‘Macbeth and War’

The play opens with three witches, described by Banquo, friend to Macbeth, as “So withered and so wild in attire, that look not like th’ inhabitants o’ th’ earth and yet are on ‘t? – Live you?”  (Act I, Scene II)

2 H. Fuseli.  Three Witches.  1783. The Forrest Collection.  Macbeth Vol. 1.  S790.1 F

H. Fuseli. Three Witches. 1783. The Forrest Collection.  Macbeth Vol. 1.  S790.1 F

The witches arrange to meet Macbeth, who is fighting a great and bloody battle against the allied forces of Norway and Ireland. When they meet the witches give them three predictions: that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor, that he will be the King of Scotland, and Banquo’s descendants will also become kings.

Macbeth relays these prophesies to his wife, Lady Macbeth, and between them they go on a spree of treachery and murder, invoking evil spirits to achieve their perceived covetous right.

3 Lady Macbeth played by the renowned Shakespearian actor Mrs Siddons who frequently acted for Royalty.

Lady Macbeth played by the renowned Shakespearian actor Mrs Siddons who frequently acted for Royalty. From the scrapbook: Illustrations of Shakespeare                    Vol. 2. S790.8 FL

Due to his war heroics Macbeth is proclaimed Thane of Cawdor by King Duncan but to enact the prophesies Macbeth and Lady Macbeth need to remove the King from his position.  Whilst Macbeth’s loyalty to the King causes him to deliberate with killing King Duncan, his masculinity is questioned by Lady Macbeth who goads him into action.  Macbeth states that “We will proceed no further in this business.  He hath honoured me of late and I have bought golden opinions from all sorts of people, which would be worn now in their newest gloss, not cast aside so soon” (Act I, Scene VII) to which Lady Macbeth responds: “What beast was’t, then, that made you break this enterprise to me, then you were a man; and to be more than what you were, you would be so much more than man” (Act I, Scene VII).  Helped on by this verbal onslaught Macbeth kills King Duncan via a plan hatched by his wife.

4 Illustrations Of Shakespeare. Heath, Hall, Rhodes, Fitler, etc. 1817.

Illustrations Of Shakespeare. Heath, Hall, Rhodes, Fitler, etc. 1817. S794 SL

Macbeth ascends to the throne but with the realisation that the second prediction from the witches has come true, he is now in fear of the third prediction, that Banquo’s descendants will also be kings. Macbeth therefore decides to kill Banquo and his son, Fleance, but the ghastly deed does not go as planned, Banquo is killed but Fleance escapes the murderers.

5 Illustrations Of The Plays Of Shakespeare.  H. Bunbury.  1793.  S792 FL

Illustrations Of The Plays Of Shakespeare. H. Bunbury. 1793. S792 FL

Attending a royal feast with tables laden with food, Macbeth goes to sit at the head of the royal table but finds Banquo’s ghost sitting in his chair.  With no-one else able to see the apparition Macbeth believes he is going mad.

6 Scenes From Shakespeare For The Young.  Illustrated by H. Sidney. 1885. S794.FL

Scenes From Shakespeare For The Young. Illustrated by H. Sidney. 1885. S794.FL

Macbeth again visits the witches to ask them to reveal the truth of their prophecies. The witches circle their bubbling cauldron, chanting spells and adding strange ingredients to their brew: “eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog, adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting, lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing, for a charm of powerful trouble, like a hell-broth boil and bubble” (Act IV Scene I).

7 From the Scrapbook Illustrations of Shakespeare Vol. 2. S790.8 FL

From the Scrapbook Illustrations of Shakespeare            Vol. 2. S790.8 FL

To answer his questions the witches reveal to Macbeth horrible apparitions. The first is a floating head warning him to beware of Macduff to which Macbeth responds that he has already guessed as much. The second is a bloody child which states that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth” (Act IV Scene I). Next, a crowned child holding a tree tells him that he is safe until ‘Birnam Wood’ moves to Dunsinane Hill, the royal castle. The last apparition is of a procession of eight crowned kings, the last holding a mirror. Banquo’s ghost walks at the end of the line. Macbeth demands to know the meaning of this final vision, but the three witches perform a bizarre dance and vanish from view.

8 The Tragedie of Macbeth.  Illustrated by Moyr Smith. 1889. S334.1889

The Tragedie of Macbeth. Illustrated by Moyr Smith. 1889. S334.1889

Macbeth becomes more ruthless and blood thirsty, killing the family of Lord Macduff, whom he has been told has fled to England to amass troops to fight against him.  Lady Macbeth, wreaked with guilt about King Duncan, becomes deranged, having “thick-coming fancies” (Act 5, Scene 3) and news comes to Macbeth via a messenger that she is dead.

9 Lady Macbeth played by Violet Van… From the scrapbook Illustrations of Shakespeare Vol. 2. S790.8

Lady Macbeth played by Violet Van… From the scrapbook Illustrations of Shakespeare Vol. 2. S790.8

Near Birnam Wood a large army masses and Macbeth plans to defend the fortified castle. The soldiers each take a branch from trees in the wood and together they march to the castle, thereby disguising their numbers.

Macduff finds Macbeth and a spirit relates to him that Macduff was born by a caesarean, “Macduff was from his mother’s womb, untimely ripped. (Act 5, Scene 8)”. The final two predictions by the witches, that Birnam Wood’ moves to Dunsinane Hill and none of woman born shall harm Macbeth come to pass and Macbeth is slain by Macduff.

10 The Tragedie of Macbeth.  Illustrated by Moyr Smith. 1889. S334.1889

The Tragedie of Macbeth. Illustrated by Moyr Smith. 1889. S334.1889

The tale highlights that the manner of Macbeth’s kingship, one of tyranny and without legitimacy, as it is not based on loyalty to the state, is the worst possible and that true kingship can only be one motivated by love of the kingdom more than by pure self-interest.

The free event ‘Macbeth and War’ will be held on Saturday 1 November, 12.00 – 2.00 in the Heritage Learning Suite on Floor 4 of the Library of Birmingham.

All are welcome though queues may be possible.

Phil Burns, Collection Curator, Library of Birmingham