Item of Interest: Hidden Treasures

The latest Item of Interest post comes from Alexandra Wade (Preservation Project Assistant), who tells us about the treasures that have been uncovered during conservation work being carried out on Lambeth Palace Library’s manuscript collection.

This year in the conservation studio I have been working on a National Manuscript Conservation Trust (NMCT) funded project to clean and re-package our early manuscript collections to prepare them for the move to the new library in 2020. This collection is made up of the libraries of Archbishops Bancroft and his successor Abbot, and contains the bulk of our medieval manuscript collection. I have been dry cleaning the books using a combination of a rubber smoke sponge and a series of soft brushes. Once the book is cleaned it is boxed in a new complete enclosure. We custom make these boxes in-house using a Zund production machine and acid free, archival card.

MS 573 in custom made storage box
MS 573 in its custom made storage box.

Whilst sampling this material I often come across many unique and interesting items that hold hidden treasures. An example of this is MS 573, simply titled: Arabic Manuscript. Initially the book appeared to be an average volume, bound in an oriental, red leather binding with paper leaves, it wasn’t until I opened it that I found a few treasures waiting for me.

MS 573 binding
The gilt stamped binding of MS 573.

Each page has a basic illumination around the edges of the block of text, which is usual for the Arabic texts that Lambeth holds. In comparison, the Western texts tend to have images which are illuminated rather than creating marginalia. There are odd words or phrases highlighted in gold throughout MS 573 and these are recitational markings for the pieces that are to be vocalised.

It is noted in David Wilkin’s catalogue of 1720 that:

MS 573 David Wilkins catalogue entry (002)
David Wilkins’ catalogue entry.

“The solution to the difficult terrain of tradition about the issues (Books) directions were recorded by Mahmoud Ebn-Seder Esharia, authors Obeid Allah, Ebn-Masuud Ebn-Esharia Tagus.”[1]

We can also see an inscription inside of MS 573 in the hand of Archbishop William Sancroft, providing an earlier description given by Edmund Castell (1606 -1685):

The religion of Arabia. The Meslimis. Concerning the purification of fasting, the prayers of the pilgrimage of faith, teaching of those who make profession of the religion of muhammedici.”[2]

The ownership inscription indicates to us that Archbishop Sancroft owned this text and that it was gifted to him by John St. John in 1679. We know from our records that John St. John presented a series of Arabic Manuscripts to Archbishop Sancroft in 1679 and again in 1680 from his personal collection.

Upon working through the text, I discovered two small, loose inserts that had been placed inside of the book. The red images are inked onto a very thin piece of parchment and in both cases, they are partial images with some areas missing. The first appears to be part of the Muslim Star of David with some inscriptions present within it.

MS 573 Star of David
Inscribed insert depicting the Star of David.

The six-pointed star is actually a common symbol throughout many different religions, including Islam. Muslims know the hexagram as the Seal of Solomon— both Solomon and David were prophets, and both are mentioned in the Islamic holy book, the Quran. The hexagram appears in Islamic artefacts and mosques worldwide.”[3]

The other piece is more faded but depicts a series of circles that also has inscriptions within it. There is debate around the intended purpose of these pieces of parchment, were they meant to add context to the main text? Were they precious keep sakes, or even book marks? The missing sections are interesting and the straight edges suggest that the piece was deliberately cut either before the ink was laid or after.

MS 573 inscribed insert
Inscribed insert with circular design and inscriptions.

It is important that we preserve these decorative pieces to add to the provenance of the text. Through research and the dedication of time we will be able to decipher the writing and add some context to the images. To keep the items in good condition I create custom fit wallets from age compatible paper which is an acid free substance that adds little bulk to the overall text but maintains a more rigid structure than tissue. I enclose all edges around the insert and I also write on the MS number so that in the unlikely event that it was separated from the main text it could find its home again. These little envelopes are placed back into the text at the place they were found so that the provenance of the text is not disturbed.

MS 573 packaged insert
Insert safely packaged in an envelope and returned to the manuscript.

As I came to the end of the text I noticed that there were several notes added in to the margins of the pages. Although I am unable to read the text myself one can assume that the notes relate to the subject matter: the purification of fasting, the prayers of the pilgrimage of faith, teaching of those who make profession of the religion. Seeing additional notes like these remind us that we are intimately connected with the people of the past and provide insight into the everyday practices, thoughts, feelings, and priorities of those using this text.

MS 573 illumination
Example of an illumination from MS 573, with marginalia.

Interestingly, the last page also contains an illuminated image. Through research I have been able to determine that several Arabic texts feature this image on the final page. It is suggested by Julia Friedman that the:

“text is often placed within or adjacent to holy symbols; what may look like a visual decision may be primarily symbolic.”[4]

In this collection I have been unable to find another example of an early protective covering for an illumination. This works in the same way that a protective piece of tissue would be used in more modern books to protect plates and engravings. This one is made from parchment and is bound into the text block so that it is held in place.

MS 573 illumination with covering material
Early protective covering for an illumination.

Are you able to decipher any of the notes or writings on loose parchment? Do you have any more information about what the images or the illumination symbolise?  Leave a comment below to let us know what you think.



[1] Lambeth Palace Library, Calm View Record, [Website], 2008-2018,, (accessed 30 May 2018)

[2] Lambeth Palace Library, Calm View Record, [Website], 2008-2018,, (accessed 30 May 2018)

[3] Unknown, ‘The Star of David’, The Star of David in Islam, [web blog], 7 May 2016, (accessed 30 May 2018)

[4] Julia Friedman, ‘Hyperallergic’, Revisiting the 18th Century Illuminated Islamic Manuscript, [web blog], 13 April 2015, (accessed 30 May 2018)

The marginalia of Sir Thomas Smith: Reading the mind of a Renaissance scholar

P1200920When the Library of Sion College closed its doors in 1996, the College’s collection of rare and early printed books were transferred to Lambeth Palace Library. As well as forming an important and wide-ranging collection in their own right, these books are especially interesting for their provenance, as many of the volumes were owned and donated by prominent citizens of 17th century London, including scholars, clergy, merchants and aristocrats. These citizens have left significant evidence of their former ownership, and inscriptions, bookplates, personal bindings and marginal annotations are all common additions. P1200943One book in particular, a 1534 edition of the works of Plato printed in Basel by Johann Walder, is full of hundreds of drawings, miniature portraits, detailed landscapes, notes,and other marginalia. On the title page is a signature written in Greek: “Θωμας ο Σμιτθος”, i.e. Thomas Smith.

Title page of “Hapanta Platōnos … Platonis Omnia opera” with the signature of Sir Thomas Smith

Sir Thomas Smith (1513-1577) was a Tudor scholar and a politician who attained high office during P1200946the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I, serving as Ambassador to France and Secretary of State. Born at Saffron Walden, Smith was educated at Queens’ College, Cambridge, where he was appointed professor in 1533 and lectured in Greek language and philosophy. Along with his friend and tutor Sir John Cheke, Smith was considered one of the foremost classical scholars of the day and his best known work, De republica Anglorum. The maner of gouernement or policie of the realme of England (1583), achieved widespread influence. Throughout his life, however, Smith maintained many and varied interests beyond his classical scholarship; he was passionate about astronomy, mathematics and architecture, and obsessively conducted his own practical experiments in chemistry and alchemy. P1200935Alongside his other interests, Smith was an enthusiastic collector of books and assembled a large library over his career. Although his collection was scattered following his death and many books were lost, surviving volumes are identifiable on account of his practice of systematically annotating and illustrating ideas and passages, a habit which provides a unique reflection of the interests and thinking of a humanist scholar of the English Renaissance. P1200929During his time at Cambridge University, Smith was trained in the art of active reading. This technique is based on the idea that reading is an interactive and adversarial process with the reader making notes opposite, and sometimes also in opposition to, the author’s text (the classicist Isaac Casaubon coined the term “adversaria” specifically to describe volumes whose margins showed evidence of this type of engagement). Smith thus acquired the “habit … of annotating his P1200974books in their margins with endless corrections, underlinings, and comments” (Sherman, 1997). In Sion College’s copy of Plato, Smith has added summaries, subject headings and symbols alongside important sections of text. When an author is mentioned, Smith noted his name in the margin as an aidemémoire. Throughout the book there are portraits of kings and rulers and sketches of crowns, ships, fortresses and mythological beasts. References in the text to ancient towns and cities, such as Sparta or Athens, are illustrated with a tiny, intricately detailed cityscape. Smith appears to have read straight through the book, adding notes as he progressed as an aid to digestion of the text. P1200930Of Smith’s marginalia, William Sherman writes: “Although we are most inclined to appreciate the P1200945artistic and entertainment value of these pictures, they were not merely doodles: they certainly played an important mnemonic role. It is possible that this use of illustrations was advocated by Cheke and others and may even point to a general annotational style in mid-Tudor Cambridge.” Another student of John Cheke was Dr John Dee, later to become Elizabeth I’s trusted advisor, and he is also known to have added sketches and notes to the margins of books as he read. P1200948P1200956Through his marginalia we can learn not only about the books Smith owned, but also how he interpreted texts and approached his scholarly work. Of his huge library, only a small number of books remain and most that survive are held in the library of Queens’ College, Cambridge, making the book in the Sion College collection a very rare find.

Plato. Hapanta Platōnos … Platonis Omnia Opera, Basel: Johann Walder, 1534. (Sion C11/P69 GRY)

Sherman, William Howard. John Dee: The politics of reading and writing in the English Renaissance, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.