Pet Book # 1: Iani Gruteri Pericula

The book I have chosen is Iani Gruteri Pericula by Janus Gruterus. Since his name has been Latinized, he is more commonly known at Jan Gruter. This book is a collection of poems, specifically elegies, written by a Flemish poet and philosopher. It was published in 1587 in Heidelberg, Germany. The interest I have in this book did not come from it’s content, since I am not very familiar with Latin poetry, but from the long lineage of ownership. Supposedly this book originally belonged to Ben Johnson’s library. On the title page of this book, there is Ben Johnson’s signature and his motto inscribed in the top right reading “Tanqua[m] Explorator.” It has never been authenticated, but his supposed ownership has given this book value and prestige over the centuries.

Second to Shakespeare, Ben Johnson was a famous playwright and poet of the 17th century. The value of this book not only comes from the supposed owner, but from certain circumstances that took place in 1623. That year, a fire occurred in Ben Johnson’s library. To this day most do not know how much was destroyed, but it is believed that a majority of his collection did not survive. This copy of Iani Gruteri Pericula supposedly then is one of the few survivors of this tragic event. Since then, this copy has clear evidence of at least 5 owners who has either inscribed their name or their bookplate into this copy. One prominent sign of ownership is a bookplate by Birket Foster. There is a seal on the inside of the front cover, but this book was then placed in what appears to be a 19th century case, due to the marbling on the edges, with the same seals in the case itself. The valuable nature of this work makes it clear why an extra case was built, with its title on the spine, in order to protect something of this nature. I would like to delve deeper into the owners of these works to create a picture of where this book has been and would ideally like to place it in chronological order in order to uncover more about the history of this book.

As Darnton evaluates his previous diagram, he compares it to the Adams-Baker diagram that adds “survival” as one of their last boxes. For Darnton, this “represents a significant improvement over [his]…” and he “did not do justice to phenoma such as preservation and evolution in the long term history of books.” (Darnton 504) The preservation of this book in the libraries of many has given new life and new meaning to a pretty unknown work written by Gruter. It makes us question why such a revolutionary writer such as Johnson was reading this work. I begin to question whether this specific book influenced any of his work. Although I cannot read Latin, by getting at the base of what these poems say, it brings to light the readership of such a book.

Although I find the ownership to be the most interesting part of this book, there is much to say about the book itself. It is bound in leather and the spine is ruled in blind with the title stamped in gilt. It appears as if the binding has been repaired, but it is hard to tell when. The edges of the book cover show a faint pattern of leaves or a floral design also stamped in gilt. The front of the book has a distinguishable pattern that with more research can be traced to a specific time and style. It has a rectangle standing on its short side, double lined, with a leaf in each corner. The paper appears to be hand made and one is able to see the chain lines on each page. On some pages there is some vatman’s tears. On the last two pages there are watermarks, but they seemed to be cutoff. In upcoming weeks I expect to discover more about the production of this book by studying the watermarks located on the pages and the history of the decoration used on the exterior of the book.

I believe this book has seen far more than most. It has gone into the hands of so many owners and has been preserved beautifully. This study will bring up important questions, but one of the most important that I would want to know is was this really Ben Johnson’s book or is it a forgery. That is a question I may never be able to answer, but the mystery still lies unsolved with a desperate need for some clarity. In the upcoming week, I believe that the mysteries of this book’s production, ownership, and readership will allow me to uncover the full history of a book that has survived centuries.

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