Conferences & events, The Bulletin

Provenance Workshop with David Pearson

Led by David Pearson, was held at Norwich Cathedral Library on Monday 9 July.
David Pearson (Research Fellow, at the Institute of English Studies in the University of
London) led this workshop looking at various aspects of provenance. David began the day with an introduction to recent developments in provenance work, and its importance, and then the rest of the day was split between sessions considering different aspects of provenance. Each area was introduced with a PowerPoint showing examples, and then we looked at real examples from the collection at Norwich Cathedral.

The first session covered frustrations of provenance research, such as indecipherable
writing (see also palaeography below), or ciphers or other cryptic marks which cannot be interpreted without supporting evidence. We saw books where the provenance evidence had been removed, either by clearly being cut out, or by being scratched or torn out – this was surprisingly more difficult to spot, as a tear lacks the clean, hard edge of a cut, and so doesn’t stand out so clearly. Other ways of deliberately obliterating inscriptions included erasures, crossing-out, and washing-out (particularly used in incunabula). Rebinding of books, with the attendant trimming of the textblock, can remove all or part of an inscription or marginal annotation.

Next came inscriptions, and things written in books. We saw different styles of
handwriting over ages, typical schoolboy doodling and pen trials. We learned that if a
particular individual is known to use a certain motto, this can be used to extrapolate
ownership even when the name is not present. Inscriptions may record purchase or gift;
inscriptions especially in bibles may indicate much more information such as dates of
birth, baptism, marriage, death. Booksellers’ codes may also be found, although it may
not be possible to understand them. Occasionally, marks may be a form of censorship,
particularly when something such as a prayer book continues to be used after certain
saints have been declared unacceptable.

After lunch we had a palaeography session. When you set out to read a document from
whatever period, you are faced with a body of text, within which letters will appear more than once, so you can get to know the hand, and learn how it works. With provenance research you are more likely to be faced with at most a short inscription, so the chances of being able to compare forms to decipher particular letters are slim at best. Furthermore, when working with a collection of books ranging in date across three or four centuries, you will encounter the full range of possible handwriting styles. So palaeography, whilst a vital skill, is at its most difficult when applied to provenance research. David suggested that a good palaeography handbook is an essential part of your provenance toolkit, along with as much experience as you can gain. Even so, there will be some inscriptions that you simply cannot decipher; in such cases noting the presence of an inscription in a catalogue entry at least recognizes its existence, and might one day encourage attention from another reader who can interpret it.

Bookbindings can be a fruitful source of provenance evidence: stamped initials may be
identifiable; more elaborate heraldic devices are more likely to be traceable through
published sources. Armorial evidence may indicate ownership, but it may also be a sign of a gift; appearance of royal arms is possibly more likely to be a sign of adherence to the royal cause, rather than actual royal ownership. Institutional arms may mark ownership of the books (but may not!); prize bindings – a book given by a university to a student literally as a prize – are quite easily identifiable once you know what you are looking for. Occasionally particular binding styles or tools can be associated with a town or even workshop.

The overall message of the workshop was that there is no real substitute to gaining hard
experience – look at as many books as you can! But the real beauty for me of a workshop
like this is having an expert explain to you what it is you have seen: I might have seen it, but not recognized it for what it was. Now I feel considerably better equipped to recognize what I see before me, and indeed scarcely two weeks after the workshop a book was placed before me which contained two of the distinct forms of marking which David had mentioned, one of which I had not seen before outside of the workshop; this made me very happy – in a librarian sort of way!

Gudrun Warren, Norwich Cathedral Library

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