Navigating Newton’s Novels: Exhibiting the Value of Personal Libraries

Personal libraries of famous people and scholars have long been revered for their wealth of insight into the lives of their collectors. We can analyse the content of a library by subject area in order to identify its strengths and weaknesses, track the signatures and dedications inscribed under the covers to map social circles or simply examine the books for signs of use – weakened spines, marginalia and notes or pamphlets pressed inside as bookmarks can be tell-tale signs of how treasured or useful a book may have been to its owner. This is an online exhibition to compliment the new display in the Wren library which explores Sir Isaac Newton’s personal library as a case study to investigate the value of this form of special collection.

A History of Sir Isaac Newton’s Library

trin newtonUpon his death in 1727, due to the lack of a last will and testament and to settle the outstanding debts from his position as the Master of the Mint which fell upon him personally rather than to the governmental position, the personal library of Sir Isaac Newton was purchased by one John Huggins for his son Charles, rector of Chinnor in Oxford, rather than inherited by Newton’s nieces and nephews. At this time a catalogue known as the Huggins List, now preserved at the British Library, was formed and this is the most reliable list we have of the original contents of Newton’s library. The list claims 1,934 volumes, although the repeated use of the word ‘circa’ in terms of numerical values does not inspire a great deal of confidence in that conclusion. This is an enormous amount considering it was a time of slow literary production and expensive books and therefore we already have evidence to suggest that Newton was a wealthy man.

Charles Huggins also died without will or heirs in 1750, at which point the library was sold on to the new rector, James Musgrave, for the price of £400. Musgrave seems to have had a lot more involvement with the books, compiling a much more detailed catalogue and even adding his own shelf marks. However, the number of volumes detailed here skyrocketed to 2,385. Between these two vague lists it is impossible to know exactly how many genuinely belonged to Newton and how many were added by the subsequent owners, yet it is possible to compare them, as titles which appear on both can be identified as almost certainly passing through the hands of Newton himself.

Great Britain, Hampshire, The Vyne - SIR ISAAC NEWTON (1648-1727) after Kneller from the Library at The Vyne. Photographed in March 1992. - Paintings ©National Trust Photographic Library/Derrick E. Witty/The Image WorksTo complicate matters, after trickling down the generations of the Musgrave family, being moved to a new estate at Barnsley Park, and steadily losing the recognition of the public eye, a very large part of the library was put up for auction in 1920 with utter disregard for their provenance. The collection has never been together since, certain titles are still, despite the greatest efforts of cataloguers, missing, and years later individual volumes would be uncovered in second hand bookstores. Lots can be found in institutions all over the world from the Huntington Library in California, to Babson College in Massachusetts, to Cambridge University Library. However, 864 volumes were donated to this Library by The Pilgrim Trust in 1943 and here, at Newton’s alma mater, they occupy their own special bay as a signal of their continued value to scholarship today.

Online Exhibition

To view the presentation: Click the ‘Open in new window’ icon open in the bottom right hand corner and use the icons to navigate.

Exhibition curated by Emma Carter,
Library Graduate Trainee 2014-15

Portolan Chart of the Mediterranean

Manuscript R.4.50 is a spectacular example of a particular type of map which became common among mariners and sailors during the 13th century and remained in use up until the 18th century. Portolan charts were graphic representations of the advice, directions and instructions contained in portolani: these were manuscript sailing instructions, aimed at ensuring a safe navigation for all the ships crossing the seas at that time. R.4.50 is a portolan chart of the Mediterranean, the sea that is literally located “in the middle of the land”; the centre of the Medieval European world.

Section of the Chart
Section of the Chart

The chart, dating from 1584, was hand-drawn and coloured on vellum by Joan Martines, a Mallorcan cartographer. Martines lived and worked in Messina, Sicily from 1556-1587 before moving to the court of Philip II of Spain, in Naples, where he became Royal Cartographer in 1591. He was a famous and prolific cartographer and produced more than thirty charts and atlases between 1550 and 1591.

Joan Martines’ name, location and date of production of the chart.

Developed by mariners for mariners, with an emphasis on practicality and functionality, portolan charts were not only about getting from one place to another, but also about avoiding danger. To emphasize their intended use at sea, the coastal place names were written on the land side of the coast line and perpendicular to it, to avoid interfering with marking courses on the sea. Any point can be located using the combination of direction and distance from a known starting point. The names of lesser ports appeared in black ink, while the names of the more important ones were written in red. The chart shows the characteristic system of “rhumb lines” and compass roses, serving a dual purpose: first, the cartographer used them to construct the chart when drawing the coastlines; later, the sailor used them to plot his course.

Sardinia, and a compass (wind) rose. Rhumb lines are clearly visible.

The coast line can be read as a continuum, thus highlighting the connections between Mediterranean ports. The unifying power of the “sea between the lands” is evident from the co-existence of ports which were bastions of different religions and cultures. Flags drawn over ports, Christian symbols, Islamic features, and various references to the different political allegiances of the time can all be seen. There is no real sense of separation between Southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East; everything is connected by people, trades and ideas, from Gibraltar to the Black Sea.

Genoa, Italy. The flags over ports show their political allegiance.
Damietta, Egypt. The flags over ports show their political allegiance.










Further reading:

Pflederer, R. Finding their way at sea: the story of portolan charts, the cartographers who drew them and the mariners who sailed by them. H&DG, 2012

Labours of the Month: August

Threshing wheat using a flail. Trin MS B.11.31, f. 8r
Threshing wheat using a flail. Trin MS B.11.31, f. 8r

As we found out last month, the wheat harvest was a crucial part of keeping people fed year-round in the middle ages. In August, the Labour of the Month is threshing. By using a flail to beat bundles of wheat, the edible grains were shaken loose from the rest of the stock. Threshing wheat is best done indoors to stop the edible parts of the grain from blowing away. For this reason threshing was also a winter activity, allowing agricultural workers to perform warming labour in dry barns. It is also a good indoor activity for typically British summers like the one we’re having this year. It may be hard work, but at least you’ll stay dry!

It is worth noting at this point in the year the level of attention paid to portraying agricultural tools in the manuscripts featured. We tend to think of wealthy landowners – i.e. those who had enough money to fund something as luxurious as an illustrated manuscript – as being fairly removed from the process of growing food. The detail provided in picturing equipment, such as the flail, scythe, mattock and so on, speaks to the fact that the artists and the patrons of these works would have been more familiar with the tools and rhythms of agriculture than many of us are today.

Virgo. Trin MS B.11.31, f.8r
Virgo carrying a palm leaf. Trin MS B.11.31, f.8r

Virgo, the zodiac sign beginning in August, is the second largest constellation in the sky after Hydra, and the largest constellation in the zodiac. There is a diversity of opinions as to who exactly Virgo represents. Some link her with the goddess Demeter/Ceres, making her a figure of fertility and plenty, symbolised by the wheat she often carries. The brightest star in Virgo (and the 15th brightest star in the sky) is called Spica. Its name comes from the Latin spica virginis, ‘the virgin’s ear of grain’, referring to classical representations of the constellation as a winged goddess holding a sheaf of wheat. Other sources, such as Ovid, connect Virgo with Astraea, daughter of Dusk and Dawn and a virginal goddess representing purity and innocence.

Virgo as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c.1825. (From the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division.)

Christianity adopted elements of the Classical representation of Virgo, but to the medieval Christian mind there could be little doubt who Virgo best represented. “The palm frond, an emblem of victory and an attribute of virgin-martyrs—as well as a symbol of the Virgin Mary herself—was given to Virgo. Wheat, too, was identified with the Virgin, and these Christian elements were incorporated into the calendar tradition inherited from antiquity.” (Larkin, 2009) Virgo, then was an amalgam of ancient and Christian sources, symbolising a wide range of concepts from fertility to purity to victory.

Historiated initial with an Annunciation scene, immediately following the Kalendar pages, Trin MS B.11.7, f.7r
Historiated initial with an Annunciation scene, immediately following the Kalendar pages, Trin MS B.11.7, f. 7r.

This relationship between Classical antiquity and medieval Christianity – with its ambiguity between Greco-Roman gods and Christian figures – might seem strange to us. However, scholars, artists and patrons in the Middle Ages felt they had much to learn from the pagan past and therefore preserved and appropriated ancient sources within a Christian context. The comfort with which pagan mythology and Christianity sat side by side in the medieval mind is evident in medieval manuscripts, where religious allegories and scenes from the life of Christ inhabit pages alongside pagan zodiac symbols and the sign of Virgo might be the Virgin Mary or the Greco-Roman Goddess of purity.

Wet or dry, barren or fruitful, enjoy your August!

Trin MS B.11.4, ff.iv verso.
The month of August. Trin MS B.11.4, f.iv verso.


Herren, M.W. (2014) “Classics in the Middle Ages“, Oxford  Bibliographies.

Larkin, D. (2009) “The Zodiacal Sign of Virgo“, The Cloisters Museum and Gardens.