Judging a book by its cover …

A National Leather Collection mystery

Written by Philip Warner

We celebrated world book day at the National Leather Collection a few weeks back. Local names from Northants Authors (a co-oprtative of published writers) visited to talk about their work; Graham Sloper, Geoffrey Iley, Stepen Collier and Morgen Bailey. It was a pleasant evening with lively discussion, and long may it continue!

In-keeping with the literary theme, we set out a display of our own books: the museum has collected nearly 200 to celebrate the fine bindings and craft skills involved in book covering. This collection spans five centuries, most of Europe and beyond. The exhibition will stay on display until the end of June, so do pop along and take a look if you are local to Northampton.

One little book on display (measuring just 110mmx 140mm x 60mm) was bought back to my attention. I cited it, back in 2014, as …

An ‘Illuminated Psalter’; calfskin-bound, from Utrecht, circa 1500. A survivor of an Augustinian Monastery. Modern repairs to spine and covers. The writing is old Dutch.

I also had to give it a new accession number as, like several hundred others (!), the book held no obvious inventory mark. To date I have not been able to cross reference it to the paperwork that came with the job.

© National Leather Collection 2018
© National Leather Collection 2018

There were a few clues conveniently glued into the reverse of the front board that I had painstakingly translated from Dutch and Latin via my extensive network of curatorial professionals (friend of a friend on Facebook) that read …

Band from the region of Deventer-Zwolle, probably from an abbey bookbinder from the order of the Augustinians. The same panel and the small stamp on the binding are from presses/editions from 1529-37. The panel stamp with double series of three animals in ranks, description: [followed by a Latin reference to Psalm 148] … wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds, praise the Lord. Then: In the edges, prints of smaller stamps: a pierced flaming heart.’ Handwriting on parchment, illustrated circa 1500, tidings in Dutch, with a calendar for the Bishopric of Utrecht.

© National Leather Collection 2018
© National Leather Collection 2018

The only other line of enquiry being that a previous owner had scrawled a signature in pencil on the inside cover; a Charles Douglas Scriven.

Charles Douglas Scriven was born 15 Dec 1893 in Lewisham, son of Charles Richard Scriven, a leather merchant. He was admitted to the Leathersellers as a Freeman (by Redemption) on 21 Jan 1920, & joined the Livery in August the same year. His occupation is given in our Livery Lists as Leather, Hide and General Merchant, trading in Bermondsey and living in Surrey. He served as Warden in 1948, and was Master for 1961-62. He died 26 April 1966, aged 72.

Charles Scriven was the first chairman of The National Leather Collection, elected by his peers in 1952 at the museum’s inaugural meeting, alongside John W. Waterer as Secretary and Claude H Spiers as Keeper of the Collection. How and where he acquired the book is still unknown. Possibly the answer awaits discovery in the archives here at the NLC? Alas, proper research and curatorship are still but a pipe dream in my day job, (some days it feels a little like we are more pundit than professional).

The hand-crafted parchment pages of this book, beautifully illuminated, were created sometime around 1500 in the Netherlands in the region of Deventer-Zwolle. References to the Bishopric of Utrecht and the Augustinians perhaps points us to the Brethren of the Common Life, or The Congregation of Windesheim for its authorship.

The Brethren were a Roman Catholic religious community founded in the 14th century. The Congregation of Windesheim was an Augustinian monastery formed as offshoot from the Brethren, based on the Hill of St. Agnes, four miles south of Zwolle. The monastery’s most notable resident was the author and copyist Thomas a Kempis, who died there in 1471.

“Without the Way, there is no going,
Without the Truth, there is no knowing,
Without the Life, there is no living.”

Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 1418-27.

The Archdiocese of Utrecht (695–1580) is fascinating too! It was a civil principality of the Holy Roman Empire until 1528, in which bishops of Utrecht ruled as princes of the Holy Roman Empire. The Bishop of Utrecht, at the time our book was written, was Frederick IV of Baden who had been ‘eased’ into the office by the influence of Emperor Maximillian I. By 1527 Frederick had fallen out of favor with Charles V, the new (and soon to be last) papal Emperor. Frederick was forced to resign in May of that year.
© National Leather Collection 2018
© National Leather Collection 2018

It is wonderful to think that our little book was put together in the manner and skills practiced by such a heavyweight Christian theologian. That it was written during the political and religious turmoil that saw the end of the Holy Roman Empire. Only time will tell more … or, rather, time to visit the Netherlands and to converse with leading researchers on this type of text. For now we show off our little treasure as best we can. At least we have a way, and we know where we are going.

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