Oxford Dictionaries Word of 2013 Inspires Evening of Dance

Dancers on the floor with their smartphones.
Dancers on the floor with their smartphones.

“Please take out your phones. Please turn your ringers on, your volume on high. Please take phone calls. Please text. Please take photographs. If you tweet, set your profile from private to public. Tweet images and text with the hashtag #mxselfie. If you use Instagram, do the same. If you use Facebook, please like the Facebook Modernextension Dance Company page and post to our wall. In fact, please don’t stop doing these things from now until the performance ends. Please change your vantage point often. At the conclusion of a piece, offer your chair to a different person, go upstairs, downstairs. If a dancer interacts with you or takes a photograph with you, say yes.”

Those were the unusual instructions to the audience from Matt Karkutt, Wilson Library employee and Modernextension Dance Company member, before the UNC student ensemble performed “Self(i.e)” on Saturday, November 8. The creative improvisational program, inspired by the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2013, selfie, provocatively examined how we communicate–and don’t–in our world of new technologies.

Conceived by Karkutt, the performance connected those in attendance virtually on vertiginous multiple levels–with real-time screening of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts behind the dancers–as well as physically–by bodily presence and movement in the Gerrard Hall space.

Selfie. page

MX-SELFIE-205x300An event with great positive energy, “Self(i.e.)” was the second collaboration between the Rare Book Collection and Modernextension. As Karkutt noted, the RBC, with its holdings ranging from cuneiform tablets to codices, “celebrates millennia of media.” “Self(i.e.)” publicity featured dancer Meredith Woodson at Wilson Library with smartphone in hand and Samuel Johnson’s legendary 1755 Dictionary of the English Language at her feet. Modernextension’s performance underscored the dual nature of the dictionary today as an online and physical book representing words “that are spoken and created in person and now online through virtual Media.”

The word SELF in Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (London, 1755), predecessor of the OED / Folio-2 J.B. 36 v.2 c. 1 / Presented by William A. Whitaker

Modernextension’s innovative performance came just a week before the OED announced its Word of the Year for 2014, “vape,” a verb that means to inhale or exhale the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette.

The Oxford Dictionaries website

The RBC sees another subversive program in Modernextension’s future. Imagine the company (and the audience?) smoking their way across the floor of Gerrard Hall. Can we consider cigarettes a medium of communication?

Tales of Terror

Happy Halloween to our followers!

Scarey happenings between two covers

For this “holiday” of ghosts and goblins, we offer you images from a recent acquisition, Tales of Terror (London, 1801), complete with its ghoulish full-plate illustrations.

The work was long attributed to M. G. “Monk” Lewis, master of the Gothic novel, who acquired his moniker for writing The Monk: A Romance–a sensationalist story of monastics and murder. However, twentieth-century scholarship has declared Tales of Terror to be a parody of his work.

Trick, or treat? Or both? Come into Wilson Library, and you decide.

Tales of Terror (London, 1801) PN6110.T5 L5 1801 c.2
Tales of Terror (London, 1801) PN6110.T5 L5 1801 c.2

Poets of the First World War

Here at the Rare Book Collection we are gearing up for the centennial of World War I, and we’re expecting an influx of students, scholars, and other curious visitors to work with our extensive international holdings of related materials. To prepare, we are combing the collection, assessing what we have, and looking for those special items that might be of particular interest.

KIC Image 4
PR6037.A86 O43

One item of note is a first edition of Siegfried Sassoon’s The Old Huntsman and Other Poems, Sassoon’s first book of poetry about his experience at the front. Sassoon published this volume in 1917, the same year he began treatment for neurasthenia (more commonly known as “shell shock”) at the Craiglockhart War Hospital, where he met fellow poet Wilfred Owen.

Sassoon’s poems, at their most caustic, register his disgust with war authorities in Britain, whose casual use of propaganda from the safety of the home front Sassoon critiques. Other poems, like “To His Dead Body,” convey his deep affection for his fellow soldiers while unflinchingly recording their deaths: “When roaring gloom surged inward and you cried, / Groping for friendly hands, and clutched, and died, / Like racing smoke, swift from your lolling head / Phantoms of thought and memory thinned and fled.”

KIC Image 5
PR6037.A86 O43
KIC Image
PR6037.A86 O43  / Courtesy of the Estate of George Sassoon

What makes our copy—a second printing of the first edition—special is that it reveals how Sassoon used his time at Craiglockhart to create literary networks with fellow poets. Pasted to the back endpaper is a letter from Sassoon to Douglas Ainslie, a Scottish poet who was known to Oscar and Constance Wilde as well as Arthur Conan Doyle. In the note, written on Craiglockhart stationery, Sassoon tells Ainslie that he regrets not being able to meet him for lunch but says he hopes they can meet at a later time. Sassoon admits that he is “keen to know whether you like my poems, & equally impatient to read your own.” Ainslie’s autograph on the front endpaper suggests that the book was his. All the pages are cut, so we can surmise that Ainslie read Sassoon’s work. One can only wonder what, in fact, he thought about it and whether the two men got the chance to meet!

We are most grateful to the Estate of George Sassoon, Siegfried Sassoon’s son, for kindly granting permission to reproduce this letter. Readers who wish to publish the letter should contact the estate.

The Rare Book Collection has print holdings of many World War I writers, in addition to the extensive Bowman Gray Collection of World War I posters, postcards, and pamphlets, as well as other documents relating to the war. We welcome readers to explore our holdings in the second floor reading room of Wilson Library.

In Living Colour

The Cambridge University Library has just mounted Printing Colour in Tudor England, a display informed by the research of Munby Fellow of Bibliography Dr. Elizabeth Upper. The exhibition traces the history of color printing in England from its earliest example, the Book of Hawking, Hunting, and Heraldry (1486)—also referred to as the Book of St. Albans, after its place of printing—through the sixteenth century.

Dame Juliana Berners, supposed author, The Book of Hawking, Hunting, and Heraldry (St. Albans, England, 1486) / Incunabula 533.7, superv'd.
Dame Juliana Berners, supposed author, The Book of Hawking, Hunting, and Heraldry (St. Albans, England, 1486) / Incunabula 533.7, superv’d. / Hanes Foundation

The Book of St. Albans is certainly well known here at UNC, as the Rare Book Collection acquired a copy in 1974 as the University’s second millionth volume. The RBC copy was featured in the Meaningful Marks: Image and Text and the History of the Book exhibition at Wilson Library in 2011. And this past semester the artistically significant rarity made an appearance for Professor Tatiana String’s course “Art and Culture in Tudor and Stuart England.”

The Book of Hawking, Hunting, and Heraldry is the first printed English sporting book and the first English printed armorial, as well as the first English book to employ color printing—most interestingly, in the heraldry section. Heraldic symbols became widespread in Europe in  the thirteenth century. They were certainly an effective means of visual communication in a preliterate society, particularly in warfare, serving as they did to announce loyalties. Color was of course integral to the power of armorial designs, as the woodcut illustrations in this volume demonstrate. That’s the Tudor coat of arms, bottom right, on the page above.

Millionth volumes are a grand tradition at UNC-Chapel Hill, thanks to the John W. and Anna H. Hanes Foundation. Our millionths are always very special single volumes or book collections that promote ongoing conversation, like the Book of St. Albans. We look forward to celebrating another millionth volume—the seventh—on March 20, 2014. Stay tuned to our blog for further details.

On the Road: Armenian Exercises

Spitakavor Monastery, Armenia
Spitakavor Monastery, Armenia

A month ago, this blogger found herself in the spectacular landscape of Armenia, deep in the Trans-Caucasus, skirting the borders of Georgia, Turkey, Iran, and Azerbaijan.

Armenia is well known for being the first country to establish Christianity as its official religion, having certainly done so before 314 AD. Unsurprisingly, the nation has a rich architectural heritage of ancient Christian churches and monasteries, such as Spitakavor (left). It also has a remarkable scribal tradition, which produced tens of thousands of manuscript books.

In 405 AD, a unique alphabet was invented for the Armenian language, which constitutes its own distinctive branch of the Indo-European language family. The alphabet consisted of thirty-six letters, and it is still in use today, with the addition of three more letters for a total of thirty-nine. The monk Mesrop Mashtots is credited with the invention, which was promptly employed to write Armenian translations of the holy scriptures.

Located at the end of Mesrop Mashtots Avenue in Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia, is the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts and the Matenadaran, or “manuscripts repository.” This public building houses over 17,300 manuscripts, 450,000 archival documents, and 3,000 printed books. Most of the manuscripts are in Armenian, although there are also examples written in Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Old Slavonic, and other languages.

An impressive selection of that large collection is on display. Many are beautifully illuminated and illustrated, including a number of medicinal manuscripts. The one below, a veterinary text, was particularly arresting, even though–or perhaps, because–I could not read a single word of it.

Horse medicine manuscript, Matenadaran, Yerevan, Armenia
Horse medicine manuscript, Matenadaran, Yerevan, Armenia

When seeing books while traveling, I always think about the Rare Book Collection. Regrettably, we have no ancient Armenian manuscripts. But Armenian-language texts do lurk in RBC, among its fine Byron Collection, one of our British Romantic author collections (along with Keats and Wordsworth).

Page from Byron, ???
Beauties of English poets = Tsaghkakʻagh kʻyrtʻoghatsʻ Angilyatsʻwotsʻ (S. Lazzaro, Venice, 1852). / Byron PR1179 .A7 B43 1852 / William A. Whitaker Fund

While resident in Venice, Lord Byron sought out the company of the Mekhitarist fathers on the island of San Lazzaro.  The Mekhitarists were a Roman Catholic order founded in the early 18th century by an Armenian monk who had left the Armenian Apostolic Church. Byron was fascinated by Armenian culture and boated across the Venetian lagoon to learn the language at the monastery.

Note the reproduction at left of Byron’s English and Armenian signatures in a bilingual book, Beauties of English Poets = Tsaghkakʻagh kʻyrtʻoghatsʻ Angilyatsʻwotsʻ, published by the press on the island after the author’s death. This volume features mainly Byron’s own poetry, but also his translations of Alexander Pope, John Milton, and Thomas Gray. See below the latter’s “Elegy in a Country Church-Yard.”

Beauties / Byron PR1179 A7 B43 1852
Beauties of English Poets, p.150-151 / Byron PR1179 A7 B43 1852


The San Lazzaro connection led to Byron becoming one of the most widely read English poets among Armenians. The island monastery published other Byron writings in the 19th century, including Armenian Exercises, which contains his English translations of Armenian historical and biblical writings, as well as anonymous Armenian translations of Byron’s letters and poetry, accompanied by their original English texts. The RBC holds the 1870 edition of this work.

Armenian travels, Armenian exercises. On the road, all roads lead home–even the Silk Road–to the Rare Book Collection.

Moonrise at the Selim Pass Caravanserai along the Silk Road, Armenia
Moonrise at the Selim Pass Caravanserai along the Silk Road, Armenia

Wordsworth Bibliography in Print

Mauchline fern ware binding on The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth (Edinburgh: William P. Nimmo ..., [between 1863 and 1873?] ) / Wordsworth PR5850 .E63 1863d c. 21
Mauchline fern ware binding on The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth (Edinburgh: William P. Nimmo …, [between 1863 and 1873?] ) / Wordsworth PR5850 .E63 1863d c. 21
At the end of 2010, Professor Emeritus Mark L. Reed, III, made a bountiful gift to the UNC Rare Book Collection, his extensive William Wordsworth collection. An exceptional scholar and collector, Professor Reed amassed a remarkable group of Wordsworth printings, dating from the end of the eighteenth century through the early twentieth century and including volumes with notable provenance, as well as examples from large  stereotype editions in variant bindings. For a full discussion of the gift, see “Worthy of Wordsworth” in Windows, vol. 20, no. 1 (Spring 2011), pages 10-11.

This in-depth collecting became the basis for a project to record the editions and special physical attributes of Wordsworth publications. And so, Professor Reed also  examined numerous other copies at institutions in the U.S. and abroad. His concentrated research and collecting has culminated in the recent two-volume work, A Bibliography of William Wordsworth 1787-1930, published by Cambridge University Press in Spring 2013.


The Technical Services staff of Wilson Special Collections Library are making good use of Professor Reed’s masterful bibliography as they catalog the over one thousand titles of his magnificent gift. Records are appearing daily in the University Library’s online catalog, enabling access to the volumes in Wilson Library’s second floor North Carolina Collection / Rare Book Collection Reading Room. The RBC is grateful to Eileen Dewitya, Sandi Honnold, and Page Life, emerita cataloger, for their single-minded perseverance in providing the proper cataloging.

We expect the RBC Wordsworth Collection to be a rich resource for present and future generations of Romantic literature scholars, as well as for all those interested in the history of the book in the nineteenth century. And so our loudest lauds and appreciation go to Professor Reed for his scholarly dedication, collecting talent and tenacity, and overwhelming generosity to UNC-Chapel Hill. Thank you Professor Reed!

Sensational Songs

Here in the Rare Book Collection, our materials often tell stories, both through their contents and what we can infer about their former owners. The other day I explored our catalog to see whether we have any broadside ballads—a printing genre related to the oral tradition of storytelling through song.

According to The Ballads Project at the Bodleian Library, “Broadside ballads were popular songs, sold for a penny or half-penny in the streets of towns and villages around Britain between the sixteenth and early twentieth centuries.” The Bodleian also describes them as “one of the cheapest forms of print available” at that time.

Ballad singers would peddle broadsides in busy streets and markets, advertising their wares by singing their contents. Ballads spread news, gossip, and legends and often told tales of romantic tragedy and terror.

Miscellaneous poems. / PR1181 .M5

In the RBC there is a slim volume of twelve eighteenth- and nineteenth-century broadside ballads bound together. The majority are murder ballads, an especially popular form that divulged the details of crimes both real and imagined. The murder ballads here include “The Wittham-Miller, or the Berkshire Tragedy,” “The Unhappy Lady of Hackney,” and “The London Damsel.” It is appropriate that this collection should find its way to UNC, as North Carolina ballad singers to this day sing murder ballads like “Omie Wise,” “Bolamkin,” and “Rose Connolly.”

What is most delightful about this little volume is that it also includes a manuscript ballad. Pasted at the front is a hand-written version of “The Merry Haymakers” (number 153 in the Roud Broadside Index), which tells a simple story of lads and lasses making hay. Upon the arrival of a piper, they throw down their rakes and begin making merry!

It is fascinating to read this pastoral ballad alongside grisly tales such as “The Wittham-Miller” above. In the late eighteenth century, collectors as well as Romantic poets like Robert Burns were beginning to pay attention to the oral tradition of ballad singing, which was related to the broadside tradition. Indeed, “The Merry Haymakers” exists in both. But ballads that survived in the oral tradition tended to be more lyrical and less news-driven. Perhaps this is an example of some of that early fieldwork and the cultural shift toward Romanticism.

Below is an image of “The Merry Haymakers” followed by a transcription.

Miscellaneous poems. / PR1181 .M5
Miscellaneous poems. / PR1181 .M5

In ye Month of July ye prime time of ye yeare
down in yondor Meadow thare runs A Riuer Cleare
& many a little fish dos in that riuer play
many a lad and many a Lass was abroad making hay

Then came in the seythe men to mow this meadow down
with budget & with bottle of Ale ye is so Brown
all Labouring men of Courage bould came there [say] to fiye
Lets whet & blow & stoutly for ye grass Cuts uery dry

Thare is Tib & Tommy with pitchfork & with Rake
with Molly Nel & Susan Came thare their hay to Make
Sweet Yug Yug Yug Yug Sweet the nightingale dosth Sing
from Morning till ye Euening as thay weare a hay making

but when brite phebus the Sun was going down
a mery disposed piper Aproaching from the Town
Puld out his pipe & Taber Resoluing for to play
which made em all lay down thare Rakes
& to Leave off Making hay

Then Jouning in a dance wee Trip it one a green
Though tired wth out Labour no wearyness is Seen
Each triping like to faires our dance we do pursue
with Leading up & fasting of till ye Morning its in vein

Then Each Lad he Takes his Lass the Morning being come
& layes down on thare hay focks till ye rising of the Sun
& Sporting all ye while ye harmless birds do Sing
& arise Each Lad & take ye Lass & away to hay making

Savory Sailors or Neptune’s Barber: Sweeney Todd and the Royal Navy

James Malcolm Rymer, String of Pearls (London, 1850) / PR5285 R99 S8 1850
James Malcolm Rymer, String of Pearls (London, 1850) / PR5285 R99 S8 1850 / William A. Whitaker Fund

In 1846, the prolific but now-obscure Victorian writer James Malcolm Rymer introduced the notorious Sweeney Todd in the String of Pearls, or, The Barber of Fleet Street: A Domestic Romance. The story of a London barber who kills and robs his clients, and whose accomplice turns their remains into meat pies, became an immediate bestseller. Originally published serially, it appeared in 1850 as an expanded one-volume edition, which is a book of excessive rarity today.

Rebecca Nesvet, UNC Ph.D. candidate in English and Comparative Literature, had been able to find only one  institution holding that illustrated classic, the British Library in London. She became aware, however, of another copy for sale by an antiquarian book dealer and alerted the RBC. Thanks to Ms. Nesvet’s tip and the William A. Whitaker Fund, which provides generous amounts for the purchase of English literature at Chapel Hill, that fine copy of the String of Pearls now sits on a shelf at the Rare Book Collection, next to other rare Rymer novels: Grace Rivers; or, The Merchant’s Daughter (1844) and Paul Clifford; or Hurrah for the Road (1853).

As Rebecca Nesvet notes: “Like Sweeney Todd’s Fleet Street establishment, Rymer’s String of Pearls contains intriguing mysteries. Such as, how did Rymer come up with his outrageous premise?”

Rebecca with String of Pearls open to the portrait of Sweeney Todd

On Wednesday, March 6, 2013, Ms. Nesvet answered that question for a full house in the Friends of the Library room in Wilson. She made the new and novel argument that Rymer drew inspiration from a Royal Navy initiation or hazing ritual, the Line-Crossing Ceremony. “Performed at the Equator, Tropics, and Arctic Circle from at least the early nineteenth century through the late twentieth, the Line-Crossing Ceremony features a veteran sailor masquerading as Royal Barber to King Neptune, God of the Sea,” Ms. Nesvet informed the intimate gathering. “Neptune’s Barber shaves first-time crossers of the line, often barbarously.”

Ms. Nesvet, who is writing her dissertation “The Disappearing Explorer, 1818-1900,” directed by Prof. Jeanne Moskal, further elaborated on the ritual in history. “In 1832, as the HMS Beagle approached the Equator, Charles Darwin prepared himself to endure ‘razors sharpened with a file & a lather made of paint & tar, to be used by the gentlest valet de chambre’ during ‘the disagreeable operation of being shaved.’ A certificate awarded to twentieth-century line-crossers depicts Neptune’s Barber as an amphibious monster in a hat attended by a razor-bearing penguin. Close-reading the String of Pearls with attention to this context reveals that by reinventing the Royal Navy’s demon barber as a monstrous human, Rymer created an enduring legend.”

The Sweeney Todd legend was revived in 1979 for Broadway by Stephen Sondheim in his Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: A Musical Thriller. Ms. Nesvet quotes the following verse from it:

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd
His face was pale and his eye was odd
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again.

The RBC is grateful to Ms. Nesvet for reviving the legend for the UNC community in 2013, by her apt acquisition suggestion and an afternoon of sharing her research.


Feminists of the 17th Century

The Rare Book Collection is pleased to celebrate Women’s History Month by highlighting two recent acquisitions by notable female authors. It just so happened that last month, we were in the right place at the right time to acquire two exemplary works by women writers. Adding to the serendipity of it all is the fact that the books in question were published within a year of one another, in 1688 and 1689.

PR1213 .P6 1688 / William A. Whitaker Fund

The earlier volume is Jane Barker’s Poetical Recreations: Consisting of Original Poems, Songs, Odes, &c. with Several New Translations (London, 1688). According to Kathryn King’s book Jane Barker, Exile: A Literary Career 1675-1725 (Oxford, 2000): “By any reckoning Jane Barker was a remarkable figure. A devoted Jacobite who followed the Stuarts into exile, a learned spinster who dabbled in commercial medicine, a novelist who wrote one of very few accounts of female same-sex desire in early modern Britain, she was also one of the most important women writers to enter the literary market-place during the Augustan period.” Poetical Recreations is her only volume of verse, and our particular copy of it is an appealing one, complete with the license leaf bearing the woodcut publisher’s device.

PQ7296 .J6 A6 1689 superv’d / Leslie Weil Memorial Fund

Our second acquisition was published the following year in Madrid and is nothing less than the first book of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, widely regarded today as the first published feminist of the New World. A child prodigy who was born in Mexico in the middle of the seventeenth century, Sor Juana has been lauded as the most outstanding writer of the Spanish American colonial period. In the twentieth century, scholars rediscovered her poetry, and she is now taught as part of the Baroque literary canon, including here at UNC Chapel Hill. Indeed, UNC’s Prof. Rosa Perelmuter is the author of two books on Sor Juana: Noche intelectual: la oscuridad idiomática en el Primero sueño (Mexico, 1982), and Los límites de la femineidad en Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: estrategías retóricas y recepción literaria (Pamplona, 2004).

The volume that the Rare Book Collection has purchased is, quite wonderful to say, the first edition of Sor Juana’s first book, Inundación castálida de la única poetisa, musa dézima, Soror Juana Inés de la Cruz, religiosa professa en el Monasterio de San Gerónimo de la Imperial Ciudad de México (Madrid, 1689). This rare edition is truly a touchstone for those studying Spanish and New World literature, and we look forward to sharing it with students and scholars.

Both  Inundación castálida and Barker’s Poetical Recreations build upon RBC’s strong holdings of women writers and give witness to the enormous literary contributions of women over the centuries.

It’s Spring Again

We’ve been hibernating for a few weeks, but now it truly is Spring – and time to reappear! Indeed, Chapel Hill is covered in a dusting of yellow pollen. And at the Rare Book Collection, we’ve turned to our shelves of James Thomson’s Seasons. We have shelves and shelves of editions, so enormously popular was the poetical work on nature’s cyclical changes. Our excerpt of the first lines of the poem Spring comes from the first separate edition of 1728. The complete work with poems for all four seasons was published in its first version in 1730.

PR3732 .S66 1728 / William A. Whitaker Fund

Come, gentle SPRING, Aetherial Mildness, come,

And from the Bosom of yon dropping Cloud,

While Music wakes around, veil’d in a Shower

Of shadowing Roses, on our Plains descend.

.   .   .


Best wishes to our followers in the new season!