Renaissance Readers

Wednesday, October 16, 1996 to Friday, March 28, 1997

Five-hundred-year-old school books with student marginalia, 16th-century doctors’ manuals with notes about their own cases, and books from the Age of Copernicus with handwritten observations added by astronomers in the field are a few of the items on display at the Beinecke Library from January 20 to March 28. The exhibition, called “Renaissance Readers,” is drawn from from the Bernard M. Rosenthal Collection of 15th- and 16th-century annotated books, recently acquired by the library.

The 160 volumes in the collection, all of which will be on display, document the diversity of Renaissance reading, from classical authors to patristic and biblical studies, from vernacular poetry to Reformation theology, from law and medicine to drama, farming, and geography. The books all contain extensive manuscript notes, comments, criticisms, and reactions to the text supplied by the people who first owned and read them. These annotations provide a personal perspective on the reading public in Europe during the Renaissance.

Although the books on display were printed in 32 cities, the greatest numbers come from Paris and Leipzig, where local printers produced texts for university students. These volumes give us insight into 16th-century educational practices and curricula, and a firsthand record of how specific texts were read and interpreted. The Parisian volumes are largely Aristotelian and philosophical in nature, the Leipzig imprints primarily belles lettres, especially classical poetry. Most of the books are in Latin, but Greek and Hebrew are also well represented, as are Italian, French, and German.

If the primary interest of the Rosenthal collection as a whole lies in the evidence it provides about the reading habits of the general public, the collection is not lacking in books annotated by well-known scholars, including Joseph Scaliger, Daniel Heinsius, and Hieronymus Wolf. In addition to the medical and astronomical texts annotated by practicing physicians and scientists, there are plays with stage directions added by 16th-century actors, the working books of lawyers and notaries, and volumes used by editors preparing new editions of the works.

The collection was formed, beginning in 1960, by the antiquarian bookseller Bernard Rosenthal. At that time handwritten additions were widely regarded in the trade as blemishes to the printed book, but Rosenthal saw these annotations as vital evidence of the interests and reactions of the original audience of the books. In time, he says, he came to feel that a book was somehow defective if it lacked such evidence of use. Scholars and academic libraries have long recognized the importance of these records of early readership, and the study of annotated books has recently taken on new life under the rubric “reader response criticism.”