Early Modern British, European, and Osborn Collections

Readers, forgers, annotators, authors: the Beinecke Library’s early modern collections reflect the complexities of print, manuscript, and visual culture in Britain and Europe from 1500 to 1800. Particular strengths in the early modern British holdings include works in manuscript and print relating to the literary circle of Samuel Johnson, such as an annotated proof copy of The Dictionary of the English Language (1755) and the copies of The Spectator and the works of Alexander Pope owned and annotated by Hester Thrale Piozzi. The Beinecke Library holds the papers of James Boswell that, together with the several centuries spanned by the Boswell family archive, represent a significant resource for the study of early modern British literary and social history. Several important British manuscripts are also held in the general early modern collections, including a volume of William Henry Ireland’s Shakespeare forgeries, a manuscript of William D’Avenant’s 1674 production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a practical mathematical manuscript presented by the navigator George Waymouth to James VI & I, and a letter from Robert Hooke to Isaac Newton, among others. The collections of early modern British pamphlets, newspapers, ballads, broadsides, and printed ephemera augment the holdings of the Beinecke Library’s James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection and are particularly comprehensive for the Wing era, from 1641 to 1700.

The early modern European collections support the study of readers and reading, literature, history, the history of science, and the spread of humanist culture. The collections are especially rich for the study of early modern theater, music, the performing arts, and court culture, with particular strengths for the French dramatist Molière, the composer Monteverdi, Italian commedia dell’arte, and Italian festival books from the sixteenth through the eighteenth century. Significant manuscript holdings include the Spinelli Collection, the archive from the fifteenth through the eighteenth century of the Spinelli family, merchants and financiers in early modern Florence. The Paul and Mary Mellon Collection of Alchemy and the Occult traces the psychologist Carl Jung’s early modern collection of printed and manuscript alchemical works, including a copy of the sixteenth-century Ripley scroll. The history of science, as well as of technology and the military arts, is extensively represented, such as in an early sixteenth-century manuscript copy of Francesco Giorgio di Martini’s treatise on the military and architectural arts. Maps, city plans, and topographical views document the early modern city, with particular strengths for Paris, Rome, and London. 

The Osborn Collection consists primarily of English literary and historical manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon period to the twentieth century, with a particular emphasis on the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Founded by James Marshall Osborn while a student at Oxford in the 1930s, the collection represents his particular interest in English readers, and in the ways in which English literary culture was created, encountered, and collected at the time of its emergence through the nineteenth century. English poetry, drama, history, and court culture form the core of the collection, with additional strengths in the accounts and correspondence kept by the English as diplomats and travelers on the Continent and in the West Indies trade.

Some highlights of the collection include manuscript copies of the poetry of John Donne, Ben Jonson, Thomas Carew, William Shakespeare, the Earl of Rochester, and others; works by women writers, including Jane Cavendish, Lucy Hutchinson, Aphra Behn, and Hester Thrale Piozzi; diplomatic correspondence and commentary on court culture, including letters to Philip Sidney; and notes kept by English travelers on the grand tour in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The collection is particularly strong for readers’ notes, with extensive holdings of annotated books and notebooks, including recipes, accounts, drafts, letters, and other observations by early modern readers. Other archival holdings include the nearly fifty years of diaries and reading notes kept by Thomas Thistlewood, an eighteenth-century British planter in Jamaica, among other holdings on the West Indies; letters and notes kept by the literary scholar Edmond Malone; and James Marshall Osborn’s own correspondence archive, documenting his friendship with Cleanth Brooks, William Wimsatt, and other literary critics and scholars at Yale and Osborn’s collecting from the 1930s until his death in 1976.