Revisiting a mysterious manuscript

Cowell manuscript


On Wednesday 19 June four panellists gathered to discuss Senate House Library’s MS294, the so-called “Cowell manuscript”. Was this manuscript ascribing Shakespeare’s plays to Bacon the record of two lectures delivered by James Corton Cowell to the Ipswich Philosophic [sic] Society in 1805, as it purports to be, or was it a much later creation? If the former – assumed from the time that the manuscript entered public ownership and was publicised by Allardyce Nicoll in the Times Literary Supplement of 25 February 1932 – it is the earliest written evidence of the Baconian theory of Shakespearean authorship. If not, the earliest evidence for the theory remains Joseph C. Hart’s Romance of Yachting (1848), and mystery surrounds the Cowell manuscript: who forged it and why?

James Shapiro of Columbia University used vocabulary (the phrase “very unromantic”) and the presence of information about Shakespeare in the manuscript which was unknown in 1805 to expose it as a fake in his book Contested Will (2010). In the symposium he expanded upon evidence from the book, showing use of the terms “unromantic” and “very unromantic” from 1700 to 1930 to demonstrate how minimal the use was before the 1820s, and showed how the lectures used material first published by Sir Sidney Lee in 1880. The manuscript was bequeathed to the University of London by Edith Jane, Lady Durning-Lawrence. How it entered her, or her Baconian husband Edwin’s, possession, is unclear. Drawing upon previous publications, especially her transcript of the manuscript with an editorial introduction in Shakespeare Survey, 65 (2012), Karen Attar talked about the Durning-Lawrences and the manuscript. Nicholas Eastaugh of Art Access & Research had examined the ink used to write the manuscript. It was iron gall with silver in it, attributable to the manuscript having been written by a pen with a silver nib. Iron gall ink and pens with silver nibs were used in 1805 and have been used since, such that tests were inconclusive.

Paper analyist Peter Bower talked fascinatingly about the strong, stable wove drawing paper used to write the manuscript. It does not fit the standard paper sizes of the early nineteenth century, and contains no watermark. The paper is identical to paper produced after 1815 by Smith and Allnutt at the Great Ivy Mill in the Loose Valley, near Maidstone in Kent. Bower’s thesis is that the date and name in the watermark had been cut off, and that the reason the paper is not a standard size is because it was cut. Curiouser and curiouser …

The fascination of the topic was evidenced from the fact that the audience remained alert for two hours. Questions evidently remain, and further investigation remains to be done.


Senate House Library treasures volume: featuring hieroglyphs

Emilie Berrin’s bilingual French and German Secretair der Liebe first came to our attention as a rare and exquisite item during a project in 2001/2 to catalogue the Durning-Lawrence library, to which it belongs. Its beauty attracted the cataloguer, and its rarity was apparent Berrin_1808_pl-20when searching other library catalogues for cataloguing purposes: this turned out to be the only copy in Britain, with just one other copy of this edition recorded in Europe, in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. He researched it further. A decade later, a feature in Senate House Library, University of London is a distillation of some of what he learned. The beauty of the book is in its thirty-six hand-coloured plates in which musical notes, animals, flowers and other pictures make up hieroglyphs with ambiguous meanings. In one combination, the symbols can be deciphered as a potentially scandalous letter between young lovers, or as an epistle from a Reverend Father to the young girl’s aunt. A reason for the rarity is that the symbols were intended to be cut out and used. An emblem book of sorts, the book is a far cry from the seventeenth-century emblem books more common in the Durning-Lawrence Library, which were intended, in Durning-Lawrence’s view, to indicate to the initiated Sir Francis Bacon’s authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.

Marking the anniversary of a great printer: our book of the month for January

Biblia Latina
Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 30 July 1477

Incunabula 124-125

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of the great Nuremberg printer and businessman Anton Koberger (c.1445-1513). Koberger, like Gutenberg, worked as a goldsmith before moving into the printing, publishing and bookselling trade. Printing his first volume in 1472 (a work on Platonic philosophy) he soon established the then-largest printing business in Germany, running, at the height of his powers, twenty-four presses and a staff of over a hundred compositors, proofreaders, pressmen, illuminators and binders, and enjoying fruitful trade partnerships in Italy, France, Poland, Austria and Hungary. His press produced more than 200 titles during his career, mostly in large folio format, covering works of medieval theology and philosophy, sermons, Bibles, liturgical works, treatises on church law, lives of the saints and church fathers, and some classical texts, mostly in Latin but also in German. The most famous products of his press are Hartmann Schedel’s Liber Chronicarum (the Nuremberg Chronicle), issued in 1493 in Latin and German editions with some 1800 woodcut illustrations, and a 1498 Apocalypse illustrated by Koberger’s godson Albrecht Dürer.

Colophon to the 1477 Biblia Latina

Colophon to the 1477 Biblia Latina

This 1477 Biblia Latina was the second of fifteen Latin Bibles issued by Koberger over a twenty-five year period. It is not an especially rare survival: there are seventeen copies in the British Isles and many more in European and American institutional libraries. Senate House Library owns two copies in fact, the one shown here having formerly belonged to the beguine community in Maastricht and then to Charles Spencer, third earl of Sunderland (1675-1722), one of the greatest British book collectors and connoisseurs of his day. Acquired by Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence, possibly in the early 1880s, it came to Senate House with his library in 1931.

The date of printing can be seen in the first two lines of the Latin colophon (Millesimoquadringentesimoseptuagesimoseptimo being longhand for 1477) while Koberger’s name appears in the final sentence, where he is described as a resident of the city of Nuremberg. The Durning-Lawrence copy opens with a handsome hand-drawn and coloured initial F, at the start of the printed text, depicting St Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, dressed as a cardinal and accompanied by a lion, his traditional attribute.

The opening initial of the 1477 Biblia Latina

The opening initial of the 1477 Biblia Latina

Senate House Library owns several other works printed by Koberger: a 1478 edition of Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea, two copies of the 1493 Latin edition of Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, and two copies of the 1494 edition of Malleus Maleficarum (‘Hammer of witches’). The latter was outside Koberger’s usual area of publishing, but the work’s popularity guaranteed the astute businessman his profits.

‘The Cowell Manuscript, or, The First Baconian’: New Publication about Senate House Library

MS294, ‘the Cowell Manuscript’, entered Senate House Library in 1931 as part of the Durning-Lawrence Library. It gained prominence in 1932 when Allardyce Nicholl

Shakespeare Survey

highlighted it in an article in the Times Literary Supplement, identifying it as the earliest piece of writing attributing Shakespeare’s plays to Sir Francis Bacon. In 2010 Prof. James Shapiro of the University of Columbia exposed the manuscript, allegedly written in 1805, as a later forgery. The time seemed ripe to present a transcript of the manuscript. Dr Karen Attar, who had already published several articles about Durning-Lawrence and his library, undertook the task. Her transcript, with an editorial introduction, has now appeared in Shakespeare Survey, 65 (2012), 323-36 – just a week before publication of the treasures volume Senate House Library, University of London, to which Prof. Shapiro has contributed a piece about the manuscript.

From the Reading Room

Every now and again we like to find out why a reader has decided to consult the material they have selected and how this will relate to their wider research interests.  This week I was particularly struck by the title of a book from the Durning – Lawrence Library chosen by a drama PhD student  –  Histrio – Mastix, The Players Scourge… by William Prynne

The title is worth quoting in full:

‘Histrio-mastix : the players scourge, or, actors tragaedie, divided into two parts, wherein it is largely evidenced, by divers arguments, by the concurring authorities and resolutions of sundry texts of Scripture … That popular stage-playes … are sinfull, heathenish, lewde, ungodly spectacles, and most pernicious corruptions; condemned in all ages, as intolerable mischiefes to churches, to republickes, to the manners, mindes, and soules of men. And that the profession of play-poets, of stage-players; together with the penning, acting, and frequenting of stage-playes, are unlawfull, infamous and misbeseeming Christians. All pretences to the contrary are here likewise fully answered; and the unlawfulnes of acting, of beholding academicall enterludes, briefly discussed; besides sundry other particulars concerning dancing, dicing, health-drinking, &c. of which the table will informe you / By William Prynne, an vtter-barrester of Lincolnes Inne.’

Our researcher writes;

‘William Prynne’s Histrio-mastix, published in 1632,is a thousand-page, prolix, repetitive, and impassioned tract denouncing theatre, theatre people, theatre spectators, and many other forms of pretending or enjoying, as ungodly. The tract is a fascinating document of what Jonas Barish has called ‘the Anti-theatrical prejudice’ in Western thought. It also has an intriguing history. Prynne was writing at a moment when Charles I’s court was producing lavish court masques in which both the King and Queen Henrietta Maria would perform. Prynne’s Puritanism was unwelcome to the ecclesiastical authorities and furthermore his denunciation of theatre in Histrio-mastix was taken as a species of attack on the royals. Consequently, Prynne’s ears were trimmed by the hangman, he was pilloried, branded and imprisoned at Caernarvon Castle. He became a martyr figure for some English Puritans, so that this book, in its small way, is symptomatic of the tensions that would subsequently erupt in the English Civil War.’

I then asked how this book was being used in the wider context of our reader’s research;

‘I am working with Histrio mastix as part of research towards a new performance that will explore anti-theatricality and iconoclasm in the English Civil War. Prynne may feature as a character.’