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Contours of the Premodern World

Unboxing a New Acquisition at the James Ford Bell Library

By August 30, 2022September 16th, 2023No Comments

By Anne Good, Assistant Curator

One of the most fun things that we get to do at the Bell Library is acquire new materials for the collection. Earlier this year we were absolutely thrilled to receive a 17th-century manuscript map of the Java sea, by Johannes Blaeu, as a gift from the James Ford Bell Trust and trustees Ford and Amy Bell. This post is about an item that is considerably less rare and vastly less expensive, and yet thoroughly fascinating as well.

The item came from a bookseller known as The Facsimile Finder, whose home is in the Republic of San Marino. Though not the original manuscripts, well-produced facsimiles are incredible, often quite rare themselves, and certainly items that allow greater access to unique materials that would otherwise be accessible in only one place in the world. Having such a facsimile at the Bell, a public research library, again increases its potential for use in a variety of ways.

A well-taped box.

Our new acquisition came well-wrapped, all the way from San Marino.

Styrofoam packing peanuts

Lots of styrofoam packing peanuts! Later, several ended up crushed on my carpet.

Book wrapped in bubble wrap.

I dug through the styrofoam, and eventually an item neatly enclosed in bubble-wrap appeared.

Unwrapped book.

The volume was also protected by a layer of acid-free tissue-paper.

The Reveal: we purchased an Arabic manuscript, sometimes called the Escorial codex; more specifically: Kitāb manāfi’ al-hayawān or Libro de la utilidad de los animales [Book of the Usefulness of Animals], compiled by Ibn al-Durayhim al-Mawṣilī in the year 755 of the Islamic calendar, or 1354 CE. The author-compiler probably lived in Syria, and the work relies on ancient Greek and Arabic texts.

Books laid next to each other.

The set includes the gorgeous facsimile of the Escorial codex manuscript, as well as a modern volume of commentary, transcription, and translation.

Manuscript page in Arabic, showing image of blue cat

Manuscript page – cat or chameleon?

The manuscript is an “encyclopedic bestiary” — describing, first, the main characteristics of various living creatures (including quadrupeds, birds, fish, and insects); and second, the parts of the animals that may be used as healthful remedies for humans.

Manuscript page in Arabic, showing snakes and serpents.

A page of snakes and serpents. Note the annotations in Latin.

The 91 miniatures in the manuscript follow the style of medieval Mamluk painting, with heavy use of gold. The facsimile edition was designed to recreate both the look and the feel of the manuscript itself.

Manuscript page with depictions of insects..

Commentary on insects.

This beautiful text will be catalogued in the coming months, and then we would love to welcome researchers to come and study it.


Anne Good

Author Anne Good

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