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Marking Books and Bookmarks: Evidence of Provenance and Use in the Fagel Collection

By Jenny Coulton

Jenny Coulton worked with the Fagel Collection during a month-long placement at the Library of Trinity College Dublin, as part of an internship with Durham University’s Archives and Special Collections Department. She will be starting a DPhil in medieval history at The University of Oxford in 2023.  

When Trinity College Dublin purchased Hendrik Fagel the Younger’s (1765–1838) estimated 20,000 volumes in 1802, it was not a library of new, clean books. Some of the items had passed through numerous hands and institutions before finally arriving in the Old Library, and still today bear the marks of their previous lives on their leaves.

The names and signatures of previous owners in Fagel volumes were recorded in 1962 by the Dutch book historian Ernst Braches, in annexes IV and V of his report. As part of my placement with the Library of Trinity College Dublin, I supplemented Braches’ annexes with binding descriptions, images and transcriptions of inscriptions and associating named individuals with authority files wherever possible. Through this, I examined numerous forms of provenance evidence, and in this post, I detail the types of evidence I encountered, and reflect on how these marks might be used to explore the acquisition, use, and organisation of books by private readers.

Ownership Inscriptions and Marks

The most common type of provenance evidence I encountered in the collection was a name or identifying mark. Often this is a manuscript signature, sometimes dated, on the front flyleaves or title page. Names of individuals from sixteenth- to eighteenth-century society abound in the pages, including the First Minister of France Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683)[i] and his librarian Étienne Baluze (1630– 1718)[ii] (see figures 1 and 2). Sometimes, there is no name, but instead a motto. While not as immediately identifiable as names, certain readers or families can be associated with a specific phrase. For example, Platina’s Lives of the Popes shows two generations of the Van der Borcht family adding the motto ‘Dum spiro spero’ to a flyleaf (figure 3).[iii] Further work is still needed to create a comprehensive list of mottoes, but David Pearson’s work on mottoes in England offers an insight into how these mottoes might be used to identify readers.[iv] Lastly, expressions of ownership can also be found on the outside of the book – for example, a 1627 volume of Laurea Austriaca, was stamped with a gilt armorial design in the centre of both parchment-covered boards, with the name of a previous owner: Johannes Bocquet (see figure 4).[v]

These marks are not simply antiquarian curiosities but can be used to reconstruct book ownership. The Fagel Library is lucky to still be intact, but many early modern libraries were dispersed by auction. The library of the Dutch poet, diplomat and scholar Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687) was one such collection, sold by auction in 1688, 1695, and 1701. While catalogues of these auctions exist, they do not record all of Huygens’ books, as items absent from the catalogues are periodically found with his inscription ‘Constanter’. A work by theologian Gisbertus Voetius is one of fourteen books in the Fagel collection with a ‘Constanter’ inscription (figure 5),[vi] however it was not recorded in any auction catalogue. Without the inscription, its earlier presence in Huygens’ library would be lost. The work of Huygens scholars, systematically compiling extant items with this inscription, has made possible a reconstruction of the contents of the library, and how it developed over time.

Fig. 5: Title page with inscription ‘Constanter / Ultrai: [Utrecht] 26. Jul. 1660’.


After ownership inscriptions, dedications are the most common mark I encountered in the collection. The title page of Antiquitez Judaïques contains but one example, inscribed with ‘A Monsieur Fagel Gref[fier] par son tres humble et tres obeisss[ant] serviteur / Basnage’ (figure 6).[vii] Such dedications provide a fascinating insight into the lattice of networks the Fagels worked with – the French Protestant Jacques Basnage (1653–1723), the Dutch mathematician Johannes Lulofs (1711–1768),[viii] and the French author Claude Saumaise (1588–1653),[ix] are  a few examples of the many individuals who gifted books to, and engaged with, the Fagel family via their library.

Yet, the collection also illuminates gift-giving outside of the Fagel’s social network. These range from casual inscriptions, such as the dedication to a female reader ‘Mad[emoiselle]D’Angeau’ in a copy of An essay on the memory of the late queen,[x] to highly ostentatious and ornate inscriptions in both design and language, such as the dedication of a copy of Emblemata varia by its author Gregorius Kleppisius to Ferdinand III, Holy Roman Emperor (1608–1657).[xi] Gift-giving both temporarily disturbs, and consequentially enforces, the balance of obligations and reciprocity between powerful individuals, and patrons. It is not uncommon to find lavishly bound presentation copies from authors, and gifting these would not only ingratiate the donor to the recipient, but perhaps also inflate the author’s image by situating their work within a prestigious collection. 

However, not all book-gifting was necessarily intended to curry favour. For instance, an editionof Publius Vergilius Maro’s works has the following inscription: ‘W. H. J. Fagel reçu de J. Fagel 1786’.[xii] This book is one of several gifted by Jacob Fagel (1767–1840) to his younger brother Willem Hendrik Jacob Fagel (1774–1822). Indeed, if the dates are correct, W.H.J. Fagel would have only been twelve years old when he received this book. The volumes gifted between brothers are small sextodecimo volumes, pocket-sized for easy reference, and on Roman history. It is tempting to read these gifts as an attempt to support Willem Hendrik Jacob’s good education. Nevertheless, these dedications offer a glimpse into the maintenance, development, and manipulation of various social bonds and networks.

Fig. 10: Inscription ‘W H: J: Fagel reçu de J: Fagel 1786’ (Fag.G.15.65)

Reading Notes, Scribbles, and Organisation

Lastly, there are marks which indicate how the book was used. In some instances, this was disassociated from the contents of the work. In the above-mentioned volume received from his brother, for instance, W.H.J. Fagel wrote his name numerous times on a blank flyleaf – possibly practicing his signature (see Fig. 11). Other times, these marks may relate to the content of the book: in a copy of Annales rerum a priscis Hollandiae, the author Janus Dousa, (1545–1604), the Dutch statesman and Librarian of Leiden University, included a leaf describing his family lineage, situating his family within a larger narrative.[xiii]   

Sometimes, inscriptions seem to offer the slightest hint at how the books were arranged. The volume now shelved at Fag.I.6.70, for instance, is a book on Roman numismatics that was owned and read by Charles de Croy (1560-1612), who signed the title page.[xiv] However, in what may be a different hand, the word ‘medailles’ is written above the title. It is known that Charles de Croy was an avid collector of coins and medals, and appointed Jacob de Bie as a keeper of his coin collection in 1610.[xv] Given that the book details numerous Roman coins and medals, it is tempting to see this ‘medailles’ as a short subject heading, perhaps used to organise his library.

Elsewhere, several items (all published before 1720) have a long thin slip of paper inside them (see figure 15 [xvi]). While some of these are blank and may have been used as bookmarks, others bear a shelf-mark inscription. While unfortunately many of these have been damaged by dirt, smoke, and handling, others still are legible, and may be evidence of a previous Fagel’s shelf organisation.

Further work is required to uncover the full extent of copy-specific evidence in the Fagel collection, and to explore how this evidence might reveal wider information about the history of reading and book-ownership. Nevertheless, the evidence is rich, and through close study and systematic recording, some of these practices might be teased out.


Book Owners Online

Constanter: Books from the library of Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687)

Jackson, Timothy R. Frozen in Time: The Fagel Collection in the Library of Trinity College Dublin. Dublin, Ireland: The Lilliput Press, 2016.

Monty, Emily. “Used Books? Tracing the History of Ownership in the Fagel Collection.” Research Collections at Trinity: Trinity College Dublin. May 5, 2023.

Olga, Vassilieva. “‘À la recherche des généalogies effigionaires de princes’: Series of Retrospective Dynastic Portraits and the Social Implications of True Likeness (Antwerp, ca. 1600).” In Das Porträt in der Frühen Neuzeit, edited by E.-B. Krems and S. Ruby, 93-107. Berlin: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2015.

Paterson, Samuel. Bibliotheca Fageliana. A Catalogue of the Valuable and Extensive Library of the Greffier Fagel, of The Hague. London: Barker and Son, 1802. Pearson, David. Provenance Research in Book History: A Handbook. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2019.

[i] Fag.N.3.38: Fortunius Licetus, De intellectu agente libri V (Padua: 1627).

[ii] Fag.G.9.54: Joannes Michael Brutus, Selectarum epistolarum libri V. De historiae laudibus, sive de certa via, et ratione, qua sunt rerum scriptores legendi, lib. 1. Praeceptorum coniugalium lib. 1 (Kraków: 1583).

[iii] Fag.W.10.14: Bartolomeo Platina, In vitas summorum pontificum ad Sixtum IV. pontificem maximum, praeclarum opus ([s.l.]: 1645).

[iv] David Pearson, Provenance Research in Book History: A Handbook (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2019), 42-45, 402-422.

[v] Fag.S.5.27: Julius Bellus, Laurea Austriaca, hoc est, commentariorum de statu reipublicae nostri temporis, sive de bello Germanico eiusque causis libri XII (Frankfurt: 1627).

[vi] Fag.H.6.30: Gisbertus Voetius, Theologisch advis over ‘t gebruyck van kerckelijcke goederen van canonisyen, vicaryen, &c. (Amsterdam: 1653).

[vii] Fag.W.10.18: Jacques Basnage, and Pierre Cunaeus, Antiquitez Judaïques, ou remarques critiques sur la Republique des Hebreux (Amsterdam: 1713).

[viii] Fag.D.4.30: Johannes Franciscus Buddeus, Theses theologicae de atheismo et superstitione varriis observationibus illustratae, cum annott. Jo. Lulofs (Leiden: 1767).

[ix] Fag.M.1.7: Claude Saumaise, Plinianae exercitationes in Caii Iulii Solini Polyhistora ; acc. de homonymis hyles iatricae exercitationes, nec non de manna & saccharo (Utrecht: 1689).

[x] Fag.S.2.17: Gilbert Burnet, An essay on the memory of the late queen (London: 1695).

[xi] Fag.HH.4.15: Gregorius Kleppisius, Emblemata varia (Leipzig: 1623). Damage to the corner of the page obscures the signature ‘Gregorius Kl[…]’.

[xii] Fag.G.15.64-65: Publius Vergilius Maro, Opera, sc. Bucolica, Georgica, et Aeneis, ex recensione Heyne (Nuremburg: 1778).

[xiii] Fag.TT.3.24: Janus Dousa, Annales rerum a priscis Hollandiae comitibus per 346 annos gestarum continuatâ serie memoriam complectentes (The Hague: 1599).

[xiv] Fag.I.6.70: Adolf Occo, Imperatorum Romanorum numismata a Pompeio Magno ad Heraclium; &c. (Antwerp: 1579).

[xv] Vassilieva Olga, “‘À la recherche des généalogies effigionaires de princes’: Series of Retrospective Dynastic Portraits and the Social Implications of True Likeness (Antwerp, ca. 1600),” in Das Porträt in der Frühen Neuzeit, eds. E.-B. Krems and S. Ruby (Berlin: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2015), 103.

[xvi] Fag.X.5.11: Nicolaus Rusnerus, Epistolarum Turcicarum variorum authorum libri XIV., ex recensione Nic. Reusneri (Frankfurt: 1598-1600).