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Lincoln College

A Little Treasure

Professor Peter McCullough, Sohmer Fellow and Tutor in English Literature

Since joining Lincoln as Fellow in English in 1997, I have enjoyed leading annual pilgrimages to the Senior Library for my undergraduates who are studying English literature ca. 1500-1760. Those centuries cover most of the period of hand-press printing in England and the Senior Library is a treasure trove not just of early editions of some of the texts we study but also of books that deserve to be studied as artefacts, which allow close-up learning about how books were made and tell us something about the people who used them. Perennial exhibits in these classes include a few of the grander bibliographical monuments in the collection. One is the eight-volume masterpiece of Renaissance printing known commonly as the 'Antwerp' or 'Plantin' polyglot Bible (the names honour the city and printing house that produced it from 1568-73); the Lincoln copy was purchased in 1605 by our then rector, Richard Kilby, for his work on the 1611 Authorized Version of the Bible. Another favourite is the first volume of Alexander Pope's first collected Works (1719), with its fine fold-out engraving of the young poet. But I have found over the years that two far more modest volumes - which I first selected only on impulse – always garner the most sighs and smiles.

The immediate appeal of the first of these is its remarkably small size – measuring only 10cm, it's very much at the opposite end of the scale from something like the Antwerp Polyglot. And opening its little cover reveals the further charm that it is a famous literary work, Sir Thomas More's Utopia, first published in Latin in 1516. This copy, which reprints the Latin text, was printed in Oxford in 1663. And the inscription on the flyleaf – 'Will Vesey e Merton' ('Will Vesey from Merton') – gives it further local interest. While holding the book, which is smaller than the average playing card of the time, it is easy to evoke the picture of a be-gowned gentleman scholar affecting a stylish bookishness as he turned the pages in a casual pose outside a lodge gate while waiting for friends. And the small format also captures perfectly the playfulness of More's work – a humanist jeu d'esprit that invented utopian fiction by combining deadly serious social satire while pretending to be ephemeral. Since 'utopia' in Greek can mean either 'good place' or 'nowhere', this edition's 10cm seems itself to play with notions of novelty and humorous nothings. 

But further research both bibliographical and biographical enriches these first impressions. Technically speaking, the Lincoln Utopia is known as a 'vingesimo-quarto', or, if you prefer English, a 'twenty-fourmo' ('24mo'). All of those twenty-fours refer to the fact that the leaves in this little book are 1/24th the size of the sheets of paper used to print it – that is, type was set so that both sides of a folio sheet of paper received the impression of what would become 24 leaves (= 48 pages) after that single sheet was folded six times to make two 'gatherings' of twelve leaves each, and was then cut to make the individual leaves. Setting type so that each side of so many leaves was not only the right way up and properly sequential after folding and cutting is a brilliant way to impress upon students how complicated hand-press layout could be. Even more mind-boggling is the miniscule size of the type involved – nothing impresses more the skill involved in typesetting than looking at a leaf of this little book about 'nowhere' and stressing that every single letter form and punctuation mark represents a single piece of cast-metal delicately chosen from a type-case, arranged on a compositor's stick, and slidden into place in a large wooden frame. More's Utopia was never a 'grand' book – even in its first edition it appeared in modest quarto. But thereafter it seems to have been fashionable to produce it in even smaller formats, no doubt responding to the work's pose as ephemeral. This made it a prime candidate for the mid-seventeenth century vogue for what we might call 'pocket classics', which proved popular enough for Continental publishers to exploit for economic reasons. And sure enough, the 1663 Oxford Utopia is in fact a reprint of a 1628 miniature edition (a 32mo!) published in Amsterdam in 1629. But, as Philip Gaskell observes about these little books and their short-lived popularity, 'spectacles were then neither common nor efficient' (New Introduction to Bibliography, 108).

The need for spectacles, or at least youthful eyes, may mean that my humorous speculation about an imagined undergraduate reader idling with our little Utopia isn't too far off the mark. Ownership evidence for our copy and a few others suggests not just youthful buyers, but also the kind of cavalier men who flocked to royalist Oxford after the Restoration of Charles II. A copy currently for sale by antiquarian dealer Justin Croft is inscribed by the royalist army officer and courtier Bullen Reymes (1613-72), who also helpfully noted that he paid 1 shilling for it. Balliol's copy is signed by Nathaniel Bridges, a gentleman commoner at Trinity in the 1690s. Which brings us back to our copy's earliest known owner, 'Will Vesey'. As his inscription shows, he was a gentleman commoner at Merton, who matriculated in 1694, aged 17, and proceeded BA 1698 and MA 1701. But Will, or William to give the dignity due him, was in 1703 elected a Fellow of Lincoln on Darby's foundation, a post he held for 52 years until his death in 1755. Vesey contributed in very material ways to what is now the Senior Library. During his tenure as Fellow he also served as Lincoln's first recorded Archivist. And by his will (proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury in 1756), he left to the College not only £100 (£8,500 in today's money) 'to be disposed of for the good of the College', but also ' to be put into their Archives . . . all my old English and Roman Coins', and ' all such of my Printed Books as shall be found in my study in Oxford those of them as shall be thought proper for the Library to be placed there'. Alas, Vesey's collection of ancient coins is nowhere to be found today, but some 200 of his books, including the little Utopia, are still in situ, as well as being recorded in the Donors' Book; and a catalogue of Vesey's private collection, written in his own hand, also survives in the College Archive. Vesey's interests, as evidenced by his library, were wide-ranging. Although his collection included conventional titles in theology and history (including a signed gift copy of John Wesley's Journal), it also extended to important works in medicine and anatomy, and (even less common as books then thought 'proper' for a College library) to English drama and poetry. Seven vellum-bound volumes of over 500 late seventeenth and eighteenth century plays in quarto, as well as folios of dramatic works by Sir William Killigrew and alumnus Sir William Davenant from Vesey's bequest, make up one of the most important collections of its kind. The Senior Library has been enriched not only by Vesey's generosity, but also by the Fellowship at the time who had the open-mindedness and foresight to accept and preserve it.

See the SOLO record for this book