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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Journey's End


Sir Thomas Phillipps, 1792-1872, a self-described 'vello-maniac,' attempted a 'frenzied quest to preserve every scrap of paper and vellum fragment he could locate.'[1] In the fifty-plus years that he collected, Sir Thomas amassed over 50,000 books and 100,000 manuscripts, perhaps the largest private library ever. In doing so, he nearly bankrupted himself and drove his family deep into debt. The complete story of Phillipps's acquisitions and the dispersal of his library required five volumes to relate.[2]

The fact that Sir Thomas attempted to acquire manuscripts in both quantity and quality meant that he visited dealers and collectors to purchase superb books and manuscripts: the eleventh-century Gospels of Matilda of Tuscany, the twelfth-century Gundulf Bible, and a fifteenth-century Virgil manuscript are a few of the many major manuscripts acquired by Phillipps. At the same time, he did not hesitate to purchase cartloads of documents destined as waste to be used by shoemakers. In doing so, Phillipps helped preserve English documents that would have been lost.

As a collector, Sir Thomas carefully cataloged his remarkable holdings, marking on the front of the manuscript a number in his distinctive hand. It is through this marking system, and the records of sales of the collection that have lasted more than a century, that the provenance, 'From the celebrated library of Sir Thomas Phillipps,' can be determined. Four such manuscripts have been identified within the manuscript collections at Dartmouth.

A single leaf of the prototype of the dictionary, a Liber Glossarum is the first of the Phillipps manuscripts.[3] Written on parchment early in the ninth century most likely at the Imperial Court at Aachen, this leaf contains a list of words in Latin, from refulgavit to reges, with synonyms and brief illustrative passages from both classical authors and fathers of the church. The leaf is large, 55 x 35 cm, and was one of hundreds of leaves bound together to form a complete list of Latin words and their meanings. Because of its age, this leaf is of great importance in the history of dictionaries. From glossaria such as this, the modern dictionary developed. This leaf bears Sir Thomas's catalog number 36181 in his distinctive hand and was a gift to the Dartmouth College Library of Mark Lansburgh 1949.

The Court of Star Chamber in England was both feared and respected in the sixteenth century. Even this group of individuals, however, had to eat, to travel, and to find lodging. The accounts for Hilary Term of 1563, while the court was sitting in Hertford, provide insight into the work of the organization.[4] The costs of moving the court, supplying it, and insuring that it could function are carefully delineated in this document. It does not bear the typical Phillipps manuscript number, but it was sold by Sotheby's, the London auction house, in their Bibliotheca Phillippica, New Series, Part Seven sale in 1971. The manuscript was the generous gift of Mark Lansburgh 1949.

One of the very important aspects of Sir Thomas Phillipps's collecting was his interest in acquiring every English document that he could find. The result was the preservation of primary materials that are of great value to historians. One such body of materials provides insight into the Tudor court and diocesan affairs.[5] The collection, cataloged under the rubric Tudor Documents, 1550-1602, contains a contemporary copy of King Edward VI's journal from 1550-1551, an agreement of Lord Henry Seymour, documents relating to Jane Seymour, and records of compurgation and penance in the diocesan court of Ely. The documents bear Phillipps's numbers 21008, 28701, 29506, 29759, and 34764 and were the gift of Mark Lansburgh 1949.

Sir Thomas was not parochial. He collected continental manuscripts as well as English. One such continental document is Memoire sur les Controuerses from 1686.[6] This French manuscript is a contemporary account of the events surrounding the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and the effect the revocation had on the status of Huguenots in France. As there are very few surviving contemporary accounts from the Protestant side of the events, this manuscript, bearing Sir Thomas's number 10143, is of great value to students and scholars. It was the gift of Ralph Thompson 1925.

Reviewing our manuscript holdings is an ongoing process. We expect that in the future, more manuscripts with the celebrated provenance of ownership by Sir Thomas Phillipps will be identified.

P. N. C.

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[1] Nicholas Basbanes, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995), 120.

[2] Alan Noel Latimer Munby, Phillipps Studies, 5 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951-1960). A brief review of Phillipps's life, collections, and the dispersal of the collections can be found in Joseph Rosenblum, 'Sir Thomas Phillipps,' Nineteenth-Century British Book-Collectors and Bibliographers, Dictionary of Literary Biography, 184 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1997), 338-353.

[3] Dartmouth College Library, Special Collections, Ms. Lansburgh 3.

[4] Dartmouth College Library, Special Collections, Ms. Lansburgh 17. This manuscript had suffered water damage at some point and was in fragile condition. It was restored through the generosity of the Class of 1946 Fund.

[5] Dartmouth College Library, Special Collections, Ms. Lansburgh 16.

[6] Dartmouth College Library, Special Collections, Ms. Codex 003112.

Last Updated: 5/3/12