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Rare by Association Two tiny, leather-bound volumes in Special Collections feature signatures and bookplates that make them extraordinarily rare.

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The exquisite, leather-bound, diminutive pieces featured in this story are not particularly rare in themselves however, the association with one of America’s most important and well-known families elevates the two 1749 pieces to an uncommonly high level of rarity.

In preparing for a Latin class presentation on Cicero in the fall of 2016, I was working with Adrienne Hagen, visiting assistant professor of classics. While reviewing the fairly extensive and rich collection of early classics by and related to Cicero in the Special Collections vault, we made a startling and wonderful discovery. Volume VI and Volume XX of the multi-volume set of “Ciceronis Opera” (the works of Cicero) bear the beautiful and distinctive bookplate of John Parke Custis, the stepson of George Washington.

Adding even more excitement and intrigue to the discovery is the distinctive signature of Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the granddaughter of John Parke Custis and the wife of General Robert E. Lee, president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) from 1865-1870.

The two small volumes became part of the Washington and Lee library collection when George Washington Custis (G.W.C.) Lee left the president’s office in 1897. He had held the position since his father’s death in 1870. Presumably, the books were part of the Washingtonian Collection that Mary Custis Lee had acquired when she inherited Arlington House.

Upon federal occupation of Arlington House in 1861, Mary Custis Lee had much of the Washington-related material removed to Richmond for safekeeping. The items ultimately were shipped to Lexington, but prior to the 1864 Hunter’s Raid of Lexington, the Washington family treasures were removed to the village of Brownsburg, on the outskirts of Lexington, for additional security measures. The recent provenance of the pieces is startlingly clear from the ownership stamps and signatures present on both volumes.

Although the pieces were intact and in fair condition, considering their age, some stabilization work, including the repair and restoration of the bindings and the fabrication of custom linen clamshell boxes, was undertaken during summer and early fall of 2017. That work was generously underwritten by Lisa R. Moore of Staunton, Virginia. Moore, former vice-regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, last year graciously funded the restoration of George Washington’s copy of “The Beauties of Johnson” (1782), which also bears the signatures of George Washington and Mary Anna Randolph Custis.

Although the provenance of the Cicero volumes through the Lee family is quite clear, questions remain as to the ownership of the volumes prior to John Parke Custis. A cursory examination of the volumes shows that the bookplate of John Parke Custis has actually been pasted over a previous bookplate. Further study needs to be undertaken to determine if Custis (known as “Jacky”), who died just prior to his 27th birthday in 1781 at Yorktown after the British surrender, inherited the books from his father, Daniel Parke Custis (Martha Washington’s first husband) or from his stepfather, George Washington.

Perhaps the bookplate that lies underneath John Parke Custis’ bookplate will tell the rest of the story. Upon his death at such a young age, Jacky’s widow and children returned to Mount Vernon for a brief period. It is likely that the Cicero volumes, now residing in Washington and Lee’s Special Collections vault, were added to the Mount Vernon Library by Jacky’s devoted mother, Martha Washington. That lineal association from the Washington family at Mount Vernon to the Lee family of Lexington makes our two Cicero volumes extraordinarily rare.

Prelude to Reformation Four Martin Luther tracts housed in W&L's Special Collections were fully restored in time for the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation.

Four years ago, one of my freshmen work-study students dropped by my office to ask if he could look at the Martin Luther pieces housed in the Special Collections vault. He had found them listed in the library catalog.

Of course, I encouraged him to pull the items for viewing, with one caveat: He had to show them to me first, since I had not seen them and was not aware that Washington and Lee owned early Martin Luther items. What we discovered was nothing short of sensational.

Exactly 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, a German theology professor, composer, priest and monk, nailed his “Ninety-five Theses” to a church door at Wittenberg, Germany, effectively launching a period of history known today as the Protestant Reformation.

On that fateful day, Luther had written to his bishop, Albrecht von Brandenburg, protesting the sale of indulgences. He enclosed in his letter a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” which came to be known as the “Ninety-five Theses.” The Latin theses were printed in several locations in Germany in 1517.

A few months later, supporters of Luther translated the “Ninety-five Theses from Latin into German. Within two weeks, copies of the “Theses” had spread throughout Germany; within two months, they had spread throughout Europe. Luther’s writings circulated widely, reaching France, England and Italy as early as 1519. Students thronged Wittenberg to hear Luther speak, and this early part of his career was one of his most creative and productive. He made effective use of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press to spread his views, switching from Latin to German to appeal to a broader audience.  In fact, between 1500 and 1530, Luther’s works represented one-fifth of all materials printed in Germany.

At some point in the latter part of the 19th century, Washington and Lee was given four early Luther tracts by Dr. Samuel Rolfe Millar. Millar, a Virginia native, had been appointed United States Consul at Leipsic, Germany by President Cleveland in March 1886. From the handwritten inscription made by Millar, it is apparent that he acquired the tracts while in Leipsic. Millar was guest lecturer at Washington and Lee University during the 1891-92 academic year, so the gift may have been made during that period. Dr. Millar’s son, Samuel Rolfe Millar Jr., graduated from Washington and Lee in 1911.

The earliest of Washington and Lee’s Luther tracts was done in 1523 and, like the other three, was printed in German. The title of the tract translates to “An Order of Worship for the Community,” and the tract is graced by an exquisite woodblock paper cover executed by Lucas Cranach the Elder, a staunch financial supporter and ally of Martin Luther.

The other three tracts, one published in 1524 and two in 1531, are sermons. The 1524 publication is a sermon on Peter and Jude, and the 1531 pieces include a sermon on Hebrews and one on angels. All have detailed woodblock covers, possibly done by Cranach, although the 1523 tract is the only documented Cranach woodcut.

After making such a sensational “rediscovery,” Special Collections has shared the Luther tracts in numerous classes and special group presentations. In fact, I was able to do some very detailed research on Luther’s writing during summer 2017. While in residence at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, I examined their Luther pieces for comparison purposes.

In light of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s “Theses,” and taking into account the increased attention to such wonderful rarities, the decision was made in winter 2016 to have full conservation work done on all four pieces. That conservation work, including full treatment of every leaf in each tract and the fabrication of elegant linen protective enclosures, was completed in late spring 2017.

In a fitting tribute to the impact of Luther’s simple paper tracts, the full restoration of the pieces was generously paid for by Joshua Duemler ’17. It was Josh, my dedicated and inquisitive work-study student, who brought these pieces to my attention nearly four years ago.

Who knew that the timing of this could be so perfect?

Detail of a woodcut

By Royal Decree A Bible in the Special Collections vault turned out to be the 1642 New Testament that belonged to France’s King Louis XIII.

“The gift of Louis XIII’s New Testament is yet another example of the wonderful support of Washington and Lee’s dedicated alumni.”

— Tom Camden, director of Special Collections

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Anyone who has heard me talk about my work in Special Collections knows that I use the word “discovery” a lot. The 1642 Greek edition of the New Testament that is the feature of this article is one of those serendipitous discoveries made early in my tenure as director of Special Collections, in spring 2013.

While pulling material from the vault in preparation for a guest lecture for Dr. Genelle Gertz’s class on “The Bible as Literature,” I wanted to select an early Bible that would illustrate a vellum, or skin, binding. As I made my way down the vault aisle devoted to folio (oversized volumes), a large, intricately stamped volume caught my eye. Because it was the binding that most interested me, I added the piece to my cart without reviewing the contents.

Upon closer inspection and about five minutes before the class arrived I made a startling discovery. On the beautifully engraved title page were two completely intact red wax seals, one at the top and another at the bottom, denoting ownership by someone who had obviously been of some importance and some means. Having given myself little time to research the crests evident in the wax seals, I was resigned to admitting to my students that I did not know the provenance of the mysterious piece.

However, a quick glance at a tiny dealer’s printed note pasted onto the endpaper opposite the title page revealed the secret: Washington and Lee’s 1642 copy of the New Testament in Greek had been the personal property of France’s King Louis XIII. The excitement generated by this discovery made for a wonderful classroom discussion, and the interest in the piece has now grown to almost cult status on campus.

Louis XIII ascended to the throne shortly before his ninth birthday (after the assassination of his father, Henry IV) and ruled as King of France from 1610 until his death in 1643. His mother, Marie de Medici, acted as regent during his minority, and his lifelong best friend and advisor was the influential Cardinal Richelieu.

Subsequent study of Washington and Lee’s sumptuous volume by students interested in textual analysis tells us that the work was printed under deed of Cardinal Mazarin at the Royal Press at the Louvre in Paris on high-quality paper handmade specifically for the king. Nearly every page of the book bears the royal watermark. There is no indication of how many copies were printed in 1642, one year before the king’s death, but we can assume that the print run was very limited.

Washington and Lee acquired this magnificent volume in December 2005 as a gift of James L. Green, Washington and Lee Law Class of 1984. The Greek New Testament was one of a number of rare volumes generously bequeathed to Special Collections that year by Green. In a September 2014 letter to me, Green explained that he built most of the collection while he was an undergraduate at Penn State, adding more books later based on the date of printing. It eventually evolved into a collection of Latin and Greek classics; Green assured me in his letter that “eventually more books will get to you.”

The gift of Louis XIII’s New Testament is yet another example of the wonderful support of Washington and Lee’s dedicated alumni. The crowning touch was the full restoration of the Bible (including a beautiful linen box) undertaken in spring 2017 and fully funded by the parent of a 2017 graduate. Full restoration ensures that future generations of Washington and Lee students will be able to enjoy this Special Collections jewel.

Watch Tom Camden handle and discuss the King Louis XIII Bible in this video.

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James Dickey, Masked and Unmasked

This live mask of poet and novelist James Dickey is part of a larger Dickey collection housed at W&L Special Collections. The collection was donated by Ward Briggs Jr. ’67.

One of the most unusual items to grace the shelves of the Special Collections vault is a metal cast of a life mask of the late poet James Dickey. The mask was made by a distinguished American artist and educator, William Dunlap.

The mask is perhaps the single most valuable item in a collection of more than 1,000 items donated in 2014 by Dr. Ward W. Briggs Jr. ’67. Briggs is Carolina Distinguished Professor of Classics at the University of South Carolina and the editor of the book “The Complete Poems of James Dickey” published by the University of South Carolina Press in 2013.  The Ward Briggs Collection of James Dickey consists of the research material generated or collected by Briggs in the compilation of that 2013 edition.

At the time the mask was created, Dunlap was artist-in-residence at Appalachian State University. The mask was requested by Dickey, who apparently had a lifetime fascination with masks and who wore the mask for the February 1976 cover of Esquire magazine. W&L’s mask is one of three made from the original impression. The other two reside in the James Dickey Collection at Emory University.

It was in sitting for the composition of this aluminum life mask that Dickey was temporarily blinded.  According to Esquire, while the sculptor was forming the plaster cast, calcium seeped through to Dickey’s eyes and produced an alkaline burn that scalded his corneas. The poet was raced from Boone, North Carolina, to Johnson City, Tennessee, for medical treatment that saved his vision.

Dickey claimed in the magazine that chemicals used in the making of the mask had blinded him for about a month (other accounts say that he was sightless only for several hours) and that the experience was the starting point for a story, “Cahill is Blind.” This story, which was featured in the February 1976 Esquire, ultimately led to his second novel, “Alnilam.”

“Alnilam” (1987) was a massive, ambitious and ultimately flawed story, set in the early days of World War II, about a blind man who sets off in search of the son he never knew. Unfortunately, the book never attained the critical success of Dickey’s famous first novel, “Deliverance,” which had been published 17 years before.

Ward Briggs will be the speaker at the annual meeting of Washington and Lee University’s Friends of the Library on May 13 at 1:30 p.m. in Northen Auditorium, Leyburn Library. His talk, “James Dickey and ‘Life’: How Poems Are Made,” is free and open to the public.

To read more about the Dickey collection at W&L, click here.

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On the Origin of One of W&L’s Most Valuable Books Washington and Lee University owns a first edition of one of the most important — and controversial — books ever written.

Today, we continue our ongoing series of feature articles about interesting and important items in the university’s Department of Special Collections and Collections of Art and History. To peruse previous articles, click here.

By Tom Camden
Head of Special Collections at W&L

“On the Origin of Species” (or more completely, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” or “The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”), by Charles Darwin was published on November 2, 1859. The book was priced at 15 shillings with a first printing of 1,250 copies. After deducting presentation and review copies and the five copies required for Stationers’ Hall copyright (the British equivalent to our Library of Congress), there were only 1,170 copies for sale, and all available copies were sold immediately. During Darwin’s lifetime, the book went through six editions, with cumulative changes and revisions that dealt with counter-arguments raised.

Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” is widely regarded as one of the most important  and controversial  books ever written. Indeed, there is scarcely an area of human endeavor that has not been impacted by Darwin’s theory, the terms “Darwinism” and “Darwinian” now an integral part of the modern lexicon. Because of the importance of the book, a census of the surviving copies of the first edition was begun in 2009, on the 150th anniversary of the publication.

The census project was undertaken by the Huntington Library, in conjunction with Cambridge University and under the auspices of the website Darwin Online. A representative of the project contacted Washington and Lee University’s Special Collections in November 2013, informing me that Washington and Lee owned a “true” first-edition of Darwin’s landmark work, and requesting a full physical description with vital details about Washington and Lee’s copy.

Washington and Lee University’s copy of “On the Origin of Species,” while in excellent condition, nevertheless bears a stamp on the inside front board (across an ownership bookplate) which states “Withdrawn 18 July 1927” from the Ilkley Public Library. It was purchased either that year or in 1928 by a Washington and Lee biology professor and given to the University Library.

Ilkley is an ancient spa town in Yorkshire, England, and it is known that Charles Darwin was undergoing hydropathic treatment at Wells House spa in Ilkley while waiting for his book to come out in 1859. It was thought that he might have presented W&L’s copy to the public library there in person, but further research has proven that story unlikely. Darwin was given only one advance copy, and it is in Cambridge University Library with his annotations. All other presentation copies were sent directly to the recipients from the publisher.

Regardless of the disappointing provenance, Washington and Lee owns a very fine, “true” first edition of a landmark work. It is housed in the Special Collections vault. A similar copy, which had been rediscovered sitting on a bookcase in the guest bathroom of the vendor’s home in London, was sold at Christie’s Auction House in London on Nov. 24, 2009  150 years to the day after the seminal work of scientific literature was first published. That copy fetched $200,000. Of the 1,250 original copies published, fewer than 300 have been located, either in institutions or private hands.

Discovery Takes Historic Document from Ordinary to Extraordinary This seemingly ordinary subscription list from 1776, which has long been a part of W&L Special Collections, has a fascinating connection with American independence.

In preparing for a social media post regarding the document several weeks ago, I noticed a special significance to five of the signatures on the subscription list.

— Tom Camden, Special Collections

By Tom Camden, director of Special Collections at Washington and Lee

Tucked among the hundreds of official early Washington and Lee University (formerly called Liberty Hall Academy) records housed in the Special Collections vault is one seemingly ordinary subscription list that, upon close inspection, proves to have an extraordinary association with American independence.

In May 1776, the Board of Trustees of the Timber Ridge Academy formally voted to rename the school Liberty Hall Academy in response to the patriotic fervor then sweeping the Colonies. During the school’s first months of operation as Liberty Hall Academy, the board embarked on a fundraising campaign that enjoyed considerable success, particularly in the Shenandoah Valley. The most successful effort, however, was a subscription list (in more modern terms, a pledge sheet) that was circulated in Williamsburg by Thomas Lewis and Samuel McDowell. Lewis and McDowell, trustees of the academy, were representatives from Augusta County to the Virginia General Assembly.

During the same legislative session when they circulated the subscription for Liberty Hall Academy, a related advertisement appeared in the Virginia Gazette (November 8, 1776). The advertisement announced to the public that “all the most important branches of literature necessary to prepare young gentlemen for the study of law, physick [sic] and theology, may be taught to good advantage, upon the most approved plan.” Potential patrons were advised that the school owned a “considerable library of books and the most essential parts of a mathematical apparatus.” Tuition was set at four pounds; board was to cost six pounds, 10 shillings. Firewood was available, but students were expected to provide their own candles, beds and washing. The healthful climate of the location was mentioned. In order to reassure Anglicans who might have had qualms about supporting a Presbyterian school, the advertisement declared: “the education and morals of youth being the great objects in view, those peculiarities which form the complexion of any party shall have no place in the scheme.”

Pledges were secured from 107 persons, all of whom signed the original subscription list. The list includes the distinctive signature of Thomas Jefferson, who pledged (and paid) three pounds. In all, the successful campaign raised 215 pounds, nine shillings.

The original subscription list has been well-known to university historians and scholars for some years, and I have used it often in special presentations. However, it was only recently that I made a startling discovery that takes one of Washington and Lee’s earliest documents to an extraordinary new level.

In preparing for a social media post regarding the document several weeks ago, I noticed a special significance to five of the signatures on the subscription list. In addition to Thomas Jefferson, other noted signatories included Benjamin Harrison, George Wythe, Carter Braxton and Thomas Nelson Jr. (Nelson pledged the largest amount of the more than 100 subscribers at nine pounds, 12 shillings).

What sets these individuals apart from the other 102 signatories? All five individuals who strongly supported an early investment in Liberty Hall Academy were also signers of the Declaration of Independence, arguably one of the most important documents created in the course of America’s history.

The same patriotic fervor that spawned such an extraordinary document clearly is reflected in the somewhat ordinary, routine subscription list generated for the new school on Virginia’s frontier. The early days of the institutions that evolved into Washington Academy and Washington and Lee University were often precarious ones, but simple, ordinary records like the Liberty Hall subscription list show how strong-minded trustees overcame the economic problems that continued to overshadow the institution until George Washington’s gift of 1796.

To read more about the objects in Special Collections and University Collections of Art and History, click here.

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Ancient Tablet is ‘Exquisite in its Simplicity’ In the first installment of this new series, Tom Camden offers the story of a Sumerian clay tablet that is the oldest recorded document in W&L's Special Collections.

Editor’s Note:

Welcome to “Out of the Vault,” a brand new series in The Columns that will highlight the many fascinating objects in Special Collections at Leyburn Library. Through the ages, Washington and Lee University has been a trusted steward of important documents; today, it is home to many rare books, manuscripts and other intriguing finds.

Some of these items are on display for the campus community and visitors to see, while others are currently housed in the vault. In addition, the university frequently acquires new objects for Special Collections. In monthly installments written by Special Collections staff, “Out of the Vault” will tell the stories of some of these items, from the oldest objects to the most exciting new acquisitions. 

If this subject matter is of interest to you, you may enjoy our other new series, “From the Collections,” about items in the University Collections of Art and History. New installments in these series will appear monthly in The Columns.

At more than 4,000 years old, this Sumerian tablet is the oldest object in W&L’s Special Collections.

Quite plain, yet exquisite in its simplicity, the tiny clay object lies nestled in its recently crafted, elegant custom-made protective enclosure.

This Sumerian clay tablet is one of Washington and Lee University’s most intriguing treasures, and the oldest recorded document in the collection. It dates from 2030 BCE and resides in the vault in Leyburn Library’s Special Collections, where it has been housed since it was given to W&L in 1983 by Jean Knight of Buena Vista. Her husband, Benjamin P. Knight Jr., was a 1929 graduate of the university.

The little clay tablet, which measures 1 ½ inch by 1 3/4 inch, is from the southern Mesopotamian (Iraq) city of Ur (Ur of the Chaldees). Written in Sumerian, it is just over 4,000 years old. The form of writing is known as cuneiform (wedge-shaped), and was, at the time, the only type of writing that was known. Cuneiform was invented in the same area because of the prevalence of clay and reeds, which were used to make the tablet and stylus and form the characters.

The tablet itself is a commercial document and relates to the distribution of wheat to certain individuals. Because it references specific rulers of Ur, we are able to determine its date of origin. From the Sumerian King Lists, it is known who ruled Ur during this last century of the Third Millennium BCE, and two of the five kings of this Ur dynasty are actually mentioned in Washington and Lee’s tablet. The kings who had their capital at Ur, which is well known to biblical scholars as the home of Abraham, had a uniform method of keeping the record, as is evidenced by the tablet. Abraham himself would have been familiar with the wedge-shaped cuneiform writing in which all business and official correspondence was then conducted.

While Washington and Lee’s tablet records the distribution of wheat, many similar tablets recorded the tax on grain and other products, or provided instructions to priests or temple servants. Others were contracts, lists of sacrifices, or records of the payment of salaries from temple stipends. Still others were inventories of sheep and goats, and some were records of payments made to messengers who traveled from city to city.

Sumerian tablets are molded from clay that contains a great deal of marl or chalk and was relatively free from grit. After the cuneiform characters were marked in the damp clay by a scribe, the tablet was then sun-baked or kiln-dried. These tablets would have to be periodically re-fired, or baked even harder, in order to be preserved.

This lends another intriguing and powerful aspect to W&L’s tablet, which was recovered from ancient ruins. About 24 years after the tablet was created, the Sumerian government experienced a rapid collapse, possibly brought on by famine. In 2006 BCE, southern Mesopotamia was invaded by the Elamites from southern Iran, who attacked Ur, took the last king captive and burned the city of Ur to the ground. One side of W&L’s tablet shows the very distinctive scorch marks of that burning.

The Sumerians disappeared forever. However, the tiny clay tablet that remains is a poignant reminder that the fires of destruction that destroyed Ur likely ensured the preservation of Washington and Lee’s oldest document.

Click here to watch a video about this tablet.