Category Archives: Rare Books

Uses for an 11th Century Latin Manuscript

At an unknown moment in the 16th century, no earlier than 1520, a European bookbinder reached for scrap vellum to complete the binding of a recently printed book, an edition of Suetonius’ De Vita Duodecim Caesarum Libri XII (Lives of the Twelve Caesars) printed by Johann Prüss in Strassburg.

Title page of De Vita Duodecim Caesarum Libri XII
Title page of De Vita Duodecim Caesarum Libri XII

The bookbinder’s exterior work, beautifully blind-stamped calf over oak boards, stands in contrast to what’s found inside. The first interior views for a reader would be these centuries-old vellum scraps, encountered as paste-downs and flyleaves, before and after Suetonius’ work.

What’s found on these vellum pieces is something wonderful. The vellum features a manuscript of Lucan’s Pharsalia, or Civil War, Book 4, lines 634-659, 667-692, and 700-725. The epic poem, which narrates the war between Caesar and Pompey, was written in the first century C.E. This book of the Pharsalia recounts a legendary battle between Hercules (Alcides) and the terrible Antaeus, a creature who gains renewed strength simply by touching the earth beneath his feet. In the end, Hercules understands that to defeat his enemy, he has to lift him from the ground—and at last he’s victorious.


This manuscript is very clear, clean, and legible, and can easily be read. For instance, the leaf above begins with lines 634-637:

nec sic Inachiis, quamuis rudis esset, in undis
desectam timuit reparatis anguibus hydram.
conflixere pares, Telluris uiribus ille,
ille suis.

Even in the Inachan waves, although he was inexperienced, he was not afraid when the hydra regenerated her snakes after being cut.

They struggled equally, one with the strength of Mother Earth, the other with his own. (trans. Paolo Asso)

It’s striking that the bookbinder used fragments of the Pharsalia, a poem concerning Caesar, in his work on the Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Was the choice purposeful? Was it accidental?

Dating as early as the 11th century, this fragment of Lucan is one of Duke’s earliest Latin manuscripts (Duke Latin MS 125). The book bears evidence of its provenance. It was purchased by Duke in 1970; in its distant past, the book was owned by classical scholar Pieter Burman (1668-1741) (or his son, also named Pieter Burman!) and bears annotations by him. It bears the (somewhat intrusive!) bookplate of a British owner named Campbell.


Duke holds many important early manuscripts, including a complete 12th century Italian manuscript of the Pharsalia. Many of these manuscripts need scholarly attention: contact us to learn more about our collections!

Post contributed by David Pavelich, Head of Research Services.

Where’d you get this book? Bertha Payne Newell and the Book of Mormon

title page

Many visitors to the Rubenstein Library have asked about the provenance (origin) of this particular copy of the first edition of the Book of Mormon (1830). Until recently, we knew only what the bookplate states: that it was donated by “Mrs. W. A. Newell.” Its history was lost, until some diligent research turned up a very interesting story about a remarkable woman.

Book Plate listing Mrs. Newell as the donor

We now know that this copy of the Book of Mormon was donated by Bertha Payne Newell to Duke University, late in the summer of 1941.

Bertha Payne was born in Racine, WI, on January 20, 1867. She was home schooled, but later attended classes at the University of Leipzig (Germany) and Clark University (Worcester, MA). Eventually Payne found her calling as a school teacher and educational reformer. She was progressive in her philosophy and soon found exciting outlets for her evolving pedagogy. In her early teaching career, according to The University of Chicago Magazine, Payne was “associated with Hull House, the Chicago Froebel Association, and the Chicago Institute under Colonel Frances W. Parker.”

She attended the University of Chicago, where she matriculated in the autumn of 1899 at the age of 32. She arrived at Chicago during John Dewey’s influential years as the head of the nascent School of Education. During her eight years as an undergraduate, Payne also taught many courses in the School, and among them were “Pedagogy of the Kindergarten,” “Froebel’s Educational Philosophy,” “Mental Development in Early Childhood,” and “Kindergarten Theory and Practice.” She received her PhB (bachelor’s degree) in March 1907.

Payne quickly distinguished herself as an expert on kindergarten education, publishing many articles on the subject and serving on the editorial board of the journal, The Elementary School Teacher.

On August 2, 1909, Bertha Payne married the Rev. William Allen Newell in Asheville, NC. Rev. Newell was a Methodist minister from Cabarrus County, NC. They eventually settled in Morganton, N.C.

After her move to North Carolina and after the birth of their daughter, Olive, in 1910, Bertha Payne Newell became an activist for racial justice, labor rights, and peace. She worked hard to end lynching in the American South. She was a leading member of the influential Commission on Interracial Cooperation, which she directed 1931-35, and from 1931 to 1938 she served as secretary to the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching.  She joined several other committees and commissions in the 1930s and 1940s that advocated for child labor laws and other social change.

Attendees – including Bertha Payne Newell – of the joint meeting of the ASWPL and African American members of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation at Tuskegee Institute, 1938.
From Jessie Daniel Ames Papers, 1866-1972, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Her husband, Rev. Newell, died February 26, 1940. 18 months later, Bertha Payne Newell donated more than 100 books to Duke University, including this copy of the Book of Mormon. It’s likely that the university’s Methodist origins and the proximity of the school to Morganton were factors in this important gift.

Bertha Payne Newell died September 4, 1953, in Greensboro, NC.

The provenance of this book was surprising to us; assumptions about who might have donated it were challenged and proven incorrect by archival research. Our books and manuscripts come to us in many ways and through many means (gift, purchase, abandonment!). We continue to be enthralled and inspired by the history of these important cultural treasures.


Post contributed by David Pavelich, Head of Research Services

Fortunes Told at the Rubenstein

Did Valentine’s Day leave you with more questions than answers? Wondering who sent you that sweet Valentine? Want to know when you’ll meet your own Rapturous Codfish? Perhaps Mother Shipton’s Gipsy Fortune Teller and Dream Book can be of help.

Shipton - Cover


Not which of your many admirers sent you that “love token?” Get your crow quill ready and try this spell on Friday:



You’ll have to wait until June to try this one – plenty of time to find a tobacco pipe full of pewter so you can augur your future husband’s career:
know your husband's trade


Did two pigeons fly around your and your darling’s heads this weekend? Or maybe a rabbit crossed your path on Saturday morning? Both good signs:
speedy marriage

But Mother Shipton thinks you should be careful if your love is the quiet mysterious type “given to musing and melancholy.”

signs to choose

‘Tis the Season: Gifts to the Rubenstein Library, Day Five

To celebrate the holiday season this week, we’re highlighting a few of the many wonderful books that the Rubenstein Library has received as gifts over the past year.  We are truly grateful for the generosity of our donors.  A hearty “Happy holidays” and thanks and to all of those who have contributed to making 2013 a wonderful year for the Rubenstein Library!

A beautiful copy of one of the pinnacles of American literature, the 1854 first edition of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods, has been donated to the Rubenstein Library by Professor Leland Phelps.


Thoreau’s genre-bending record of his experiment in simple living in the forest by Walden Pond has been an WaldenSpineCoverimportant influence and inspiration for literary scholars, naturalists, environmentalist, philosophers, economists, and many others for over 150 years.  While it was immediately recognized as an important work by many of Thoreau’s transcendentalist contemporaries, such as his friend (and owner of the land on which Thoreau  Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 2000 copies printed for the first edition took almost five years to sell.

The copy donated by Professor Phelps to Duke was formerly owned by Professor Frederick Whiley Hilles and is in excellent condition, with its original binding and remarkably bright pages.  Thanks to this gift, students and scholars at Duke will have the opportunity to experience this iconic text in its original form, nearly as it would have been encountered in 1854, fresh from the press.

Walden is one of the highlights of a large donation by Professor Phelps this year, which also includes other editions of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature such as a remarkable collection of William Faulkner’s works (including many first editions), and many important books in art and architecture.  We are honored by his support of the Rubenstein Library and thankful for his remarkable donation!

‘Tis the Season: Gifts to the Rubenstein Library, Day Four

To celebrate the holiday season this week, we’re highlighting a few of the many wonderful books that the Rubenstein Library has received as gifts over the past year.  We are truly grateful for the generosity of our donors.  A hearty “Happy holidays” and thanks and to all of those who have contributed to making 2013 a wonderful year for the Rubenstein Library!

The Münchener Bilderbogen are a famous series of illustrated broadsides produced in Munich for over fifty years, from 1848 into the first decade of the twentieth century.  Important documents in the development of comic strips and cartooning, and quite influential in Europe’s visual culture in the nineteenth century, the Bilderbogen were created by German artists, illustrators, and writers such as Wilhelm Busch, Lothar Meggendorfer, and Adolf Oberlander.

“Der Stallmeister und sein Pferd” (“The Stableman and His Horse”), Munchener Bilderbogen no. 1014, ca. 1886.

Seventeen bound volumes of the Bilderbogen were donated this year to the Rubenstein Library by Christine L. Shore in honor of her mother Ottilie Tusler Lowenbach.

“Vom Osterhasen” (“The Easter Bunny”), Munchener Bilderbogen no. 1015, ca. 1886.

This generous gift complements existing Rubenstein Library holdings related to caricature and cartoons, and our comic book collections.  Our thanks to Christine Shore!

‘Tis the Season: Gifts to the Rubenstein Library, Day Three

Frontispiece of Holy Bible, with circular photographic onlay.
Frontispiece of Holy Bible, with circular photographic onlay.

To celebrate the holiday season this week, we’re highlighting a few of the many wonderful books that the Rubenstein Library has received as gifts over the past year.  We are truly grateful for the generosity of our donors.  A hearty “Happy holidays” and thanks and to all of those who have contributed to making 2013 a wonderful year for the Rubenstein Library!

Funds donated to the Rubenstein Library in 2013 facilitated the purchase of two very different books featuring photographs.  One, the Holy Bible published by Eyre and Spottiswoode in 1865, features twenty mounted photographs by Francis Frith.  Frith, an Englishman, was a pioneering photographer of the Middle East in the 1850s, and some of the early photographic views of Holy Land sites such as Bethlehem and Jerusalem are included in this Bible.  This purchase was made possible by the addition of funds to the Leland Phelps Rare Book Endowment Fund.

"Bethlehem with Church of the Nativity," by Francis Frith, from Holy Bible.
“Bethlehem with Church of the Nativity,” by Francis Frith, from Holy Bible, 1865.

A generous donation of funds for materials related to military history facilitated the acquisition of Lee and Amy Pirkle’s work A Real Fighting Man.  Published in an edition of twenty copies in 2012, A Real Fighting Man is an artist’s book that combines art based on snapshots sent home by Lee Pirkle (Amy’s grandfather) from the Korean War with text chosen by Amy from an essay that Lee wrote about his wartime experience.

Lee and Amy Pirkle, A Real Fighting Man. Image courtesy of Vamp & Tramp Booksellers.

A Real Fighting Man‘s flag book structure, as seen above, allows the reader to juxtapose sections of image and text in many revealing ways.

‘Tis the Season: Gifts to the Rubenstein Library, Day Two

MagnaChartaBindingTo celebrate the holiday season this week, we’re highlighting a few of the many wonderful books that the Rubenstein Library has received as gifts over the past year.  We are truly grateful for the generosity of our donors.  A hearty “Happy holidays” and thanks and to all of those who have contributed to making 2013 a wonderful year for the Rubenstein Library!

Richard Heitzenrater, William Kellon Quick Professor Emeritus of Church History and Wesley Studies in Duke’s Divinity School, donated a number of books in the fields of law, religion, and literature to the Rubenstein Library this year.  Among them is an early printing of the Magna Carta and other laws of England, Magna Charta cum Statutis tum Antiquis tum Recentibus, published in 1587 by Richard Tottell, the foremost printer and bookseller of law books in Elizabethan London.

A rare and important book in any condition, the copy donated by Prof. Heitzenrater is particularly notable for its unusual format: the paper is much larger than in typical copies of the book, and the printing confined to one upper corner of each page, as seen on the title page below.

MagnaChartaTitlePageThis format allowed for very large margins in which those in the legal professions could record their notes and cite additional or updated statutes.  Indeed, this copy contains many early (probably seventeenth-century) handwritten notes and citations throughout the text.

MagnaChartaMarginaliaOur thanks to Prof. Heitzenrater for this important document of the Elizabethan era!

‘Tis the Season: Gifts to the Rubenstein Library, Day One

OBrienDJTo celebrate the holiday season this week, we’re highlighting a few of the many wonderful books that the Rubenstein Library has received as gifts over the past year.  We are truly grateful for the generosity of our donors.  A hearty “Happy holidays” and thanks and to all of those who have contributed to making 2013 a wonderful year for the Rubenstein Library!

A donation from Duke Professor of French Studies Helen Solterer features rare and iconic works of Irish and American literature.  These volumes came from the library of Elizabeth Solterer, whose father, Constantine Curran, was a friend of James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, and other important figures in twentieth-century Irish literature.

The donation includes a very rare first edition, first printing of At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien (the pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan).  The book’s publication was poorly timed, appearing a few months before Great Britain declared war on Germany in 1939.  Only 240 or so copies were sold before most of the unsold stock was destroyed in a London bombing raid by the German Luftwaffe in 1940.  Its reputation as a groundbreaking and hilarious work of comedic metafiction has grown from a small cult following, and it now features regularly in lists of best English-language novels and novels of the twentieth century.  Copies of the edition printed before World War II are exceptionally rare, especially in the original dust jacket, present on the copy now at the Rubenstein Library.

Another highlight of the donation is a 1934 edition of the Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats featuring two handwritten lines of his poem “Into the Twilight” and his signature, dated to December 1935.

YeatsInscriptionOther books in the donation include signed works by Robert Frost and Henry James.  We thank Prof. Solterer for this marvelous donation!

New Acquisitions: Scenes from the Life of St. Catherine

In June and July we’re celebrating the beginning of a new fiscal year by highlighting new acquisitions from the past year. All of these amazing resources will be available for today’s scholars, and for future generations of researchers in the Rubenstein Library!  Today’s post features a remarkable addition to the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture. Check out additional posts in the series here.

The Library has acquired a rare incunable (item printed from moveable type in Europe before 1501), the Legenda de Vita S. Catharinae by Frater Petrus, published in Strasbourg on April 6, 1500.  It tells the story of St. Catherine of Binding of Legenda Vita de s. Catharinae, Strasbourg, 1500Alexandria, one of the most popular and important saints in late medieval Europe, and an enduring icon of women’s learning.  She was said to have won a debate with the Roman emperor’s elite philosophers over the value of Christianity, leading to her imprisonment and torture on the breaking wheel, now often called the Catherine wheel.

This edition includes seventeen beautiful woodcuts attributed to the artist known as the “Master of Terence,” who worked frequently for the book’s publisher, Johann Grüninger. The copy now in the Rubenstein Library, just the third known copy in an American institution, also features a contemporary binding with elaborate tooling and a brass clasp, and extensive rubrication both in the text and bordering the woodcuts.  It will reward a variety of research approaches, from literary scholars interested in book history and the popular medieval genre of saints’ lives to those working in women’s history, religious history, and art history.

A Birthday Present for Walt Whitman

ExtraIllFrontBoardresizedToday, 31 May 2013, is the 194th birthday of Walt Whitman.  The Trent Collection of Whitmaniana in the Rubenstein Library is one of the largest collections of Whitman’s manuscripts and printed works in the world.  Just in time to celebrate the Good Gray Poet’s birthday, a beautifully “wrapped” new addition to the collection is available for research.

From an otherwise unremarkable edition of Whitman’s Prose Works, the copy newly arrived at the Library was lavishly extra-illustrated and expanded into two leather-bound volumes by an early owner, with the addition of 26 autograph letters and manuscripts and one hundred portraits and views.  Extra-illustration, also known as Grangerization, involves the addition by a collector of separately produced items such as portraits and manuscripts to a printed text.  Controversial today because it involves dismantling and transforming books, the practice was quite popular in the nineteenth century; this example is from the early twentieth century, perhaps the 1920s.

Added title page and frontispiece etching of Whitman in Prose Works.

Many of the added items are of interest, including a manuscript slave deed and letters by Whitman friends and notables such as John Burroughs, John Swinton, William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and General William T. Sherman.  Most importantly for Whitman scholars, the first volume contains a page of Whitman’s manuscript notes on the Quaker preacher Elias Hicks.   The manuscript had fallen into three pieces due to being folded into the binding; thanks to the work of Conservator for Special Collections Erin Hammeke, it has been repaired and remounted.


While we cannot say with certainty who created these extra-illustrated volumes, the second volume bears the bookplate of Mary Young Moore, a Papal countess for whom a high school on Staten Island, New York is named.  Given the connections of both Whitman and Hicks to New York City, this manuscript fragment may have especially appealed to Countess Moore.

Post contributed by Will Hansen, Assistant Curator of Collections, Rubenstein Library.