History of the Collections


The General Collection of Early Books and Manuscripts includes Greek and Roman papyri, medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, Near-Eastern manuscripts, and historical archives of English and Italian families. Early printing is represented by nearly 4,000 incunables and an extensive collection of sixteenth-century imprints, with substantial holdings in Greek and Latin classics, Italian, French, English, and Neo-Latin literature, Reformation theology, and New World exploration. Other special holdings include the Mellon Alchemical collection, the Cary Playing Card collection, the Tibetan collection, and the Wagstaff collection of sporting books.

There were many early printed books, and even a medieval manuscript, in the Yale Library already in the early eighteenth century, but it cannot be said that these were particular areas of collecting at that time. These early printed books then held by the library were acquired mainly, if not exclusively, for their texts, principally ancient literature, theological works from the patristic period through the Reformation, and sermons. That some of these volumes were recognized by later ages as monuments of early printing, including books from the presses of Aldus, Estienne, and Plantin, would probably have interested the eighteenth-century founders of the Yale Library very little, if at all. Only in the mid nineteenth century is there evidence of the systematic collecting at Yale of early books and manuscripts as historical artifacts that would support the teaching programs of Yale College, the research interests of the faculty, and the typographic and book design work of the campus printers. The contributions of Yale professors and of Yale alumni to the building of the collections of early books have been instrumental, as the following paragraphs make clear.

With over 3,500 items, Yale is among the world's largest repositories of incunabula, books printed in the fifteenth century. Yale Library began to collect incunabula systematically in the 1920s and 1930s, a collecting interest that seems to coincide with the activities of Yale printers like Carl Purington Rollins, 1920 Hon. The acquisition of the Melk copy of the Gutenberg Bible, the gift of Mr. Edward S. Harkness in memory of Mrs. Stephen V. Harkness, in 1926 further inspired collecting in this area. Important additions to the holdings of incunabula and early printing were made by Louis Rabinowitz, Harold Hugo, 1963 Hon., Frank Altschul, 1908, and Edwin J. Beinecke, 1907, with an emphasis on collecting rare and unusual presses and on documenting the spread of printing in the early period. The holdings are strong in Greek and Latin classics, Italian humanist literature, historical texts, biblical literature and exegesis, and Hebrew printing. More recent areas of concentration are secular vernacular texts, illustrated books, and works by fifteenth-century authors. Copies in early bindings, notably a large group in German monastic bindings, or with evidence of early readership or provenance are prominent in the collection and in current collecting. Italian, German, and French imprints constitute the largest portion of the collection, but English and Spanish presses are well represented. The Beinecke's record of early printing in England is augmented by the extensive holdings of books printed by William Caxton, Wynkyn de Worde, and Richard Pynson held by the Yale Center for British Art.

Sixteenth-century books are collected for their texts as well as for the study of the history of printing. Humanism, history, theology, travel and exploration, linguistics, art and architecture, theater, festival books, and women's studies are major areas of current collecting. Notable contributions to the collection of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century printed books were: a group of incunabula acquired by Professor James Mason Hoppin, 1840, during travels in southern Germany in the 1840s; works on Scandinavia from the library of Count Paul Riant, given in 1896 by the widow of Henry Farnam, 1871 Hon.; a collection of books documenting the history of early printing formed by William Loring Andrews, 1893 Hon., described by Addison Van Name, 1858, and published in New Haven in 1913; the Ionides Collection of first editions of Greek writers, given by Chauncey Brewster Tinker, 1899; the collection of books printed by Aldus Manutius, given by Dr. Arthur E. Neergaard, 1904; and early editions of Greek and Latin classics from Professor Thomas Day Seymour, 1870 Hon.; the Gryphius collection of E. K. Schreiber; the Rosenthal Collection of printed books with manuscript annotations; and the Erdmann Collection of sixteenth-century books by, for, and about women. The ancient authors have been a major focus of the early book collections at Yale from the beginning. Significant gifts from William S. Mason, 1888S (editions of Marcus Aurelius), Professor Clarence W. Mendell, 1904 (Tacitus), and Thomas E. Marston, 1927 (Juvenal), enhanced especially the collection of early editions of Latin classical authors. Several sixteenth-century printers are collected in depth, including Badius Ascensius (Paris), Sebastian Gryphius (Lyon), Aldus Manutius (Venice), Christopher Plantin (Antwerp), and the Estiennes (Paris and Geneva). Early printing in non-Western languages is another particular interest. Beginning at the end of the nineteenth century, a concerted effort was undertaken to acquire original editions of Luther and of the major Protestant reformers. Extensive additions in this area were made through the 1970s, thanks in part to the efforts of Professor Roland Bainton, 1917 Div. Reformation pamphlets continue to be prominent in current collecting, with special emphasis on illustrated items and pamphlets of interest for social history, women's history, and music. [Cf. Milton McC. Gatch, “Collecting Reformation Pamphlets at Yale in the Nineteenth Century,” Yale University Library Gazette 76 (October 2001): 36-62; My Gracious Silence , ed. Axel Erdmann (Lucerne, 1999); The Rosenthal Collection of Printed Books with Manuscript Annotations, ed. Bernard M. Rosenthal (New Haven, 1997); Robert Babcock and Mark Sosower,Learning from the Greeks. An Exhibition Commemorating the Five-Hundredth Anniversary of the Founding of the Aldine Press (New Haven, 1994).]

The first medieval manuscript recorded in the Yale collection was acquired in 1714, and was the gift of Elihu Yale. It is an illustrated copy of the Speculum humanae salvationis, and it attracted the special attention of Yale President Ezra Stiles, 1746, who read the manuscript and annotated it in the 1790s. The systematic collecting of medieval manuscripts at Yale, however, dates from the late nineteenth century, and the most active period for collecting was after 1930. Western manuscripts, principally in Latin, Greek, English, French, German, and Italian, were added for their texts as well as for their interest in documenting the history of the book and of book scripts. They were used in teaching the elements of paleography, typographic design, and book design, and also to support the research of Yale scholars. Collecting was guided for more than thirty years by Thomas E. Marston, advisor to the collection, and his own collection of more than 230 manuscripts was purchased by Yale in 1962. His interests in Italian humanism, in medieval university manuscripts, and in monastic manuscripts of the twelfth century are reflected both in Yale's acquisitions during his tenure and in his own collection. Important gifts of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts were made by Mr. and Mrs. David Wagstaff (hunting, fishing, sporting books), by Henry C. Taylor, 1917 (travel and exploration), by Paul Mellon, 1929, and his wife Mary (alchemy and the occult), by the Jacob Ziskind Charitable Trust (Greek manuscripts), by Hannah D. and Louis M. Rabinowitz, and by H. P. Kraus. Yale's small but important holdings of illuminated manuscripts were mostly acquired in the 1950s and 1960s, many of them through the generosity of Edwin J. Beinecke and of the Library Associates. [Cf. Catalogue of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University , vol. 1, MSS 1-250; vol. 2, MSS 251-500; vol. 3, Marston MSS, ed. Barbara A. Shailor (Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, Binghamton, N.Y., 1984-92); vol. 4, MSS 481-485, ed. Robert G. Babcock, Lisa Fagin Davis, and Philip Rusche (Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, Tempe, Ariz., 2003); Walter Cahn and James Marrow, “Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts at Yale: A Selection,” Yale University Library Gazette52:4 (April 1978); Barbara A. Shailor, The Medieval Book, Illustrated from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching 28, Toronto, 1991 and 1994); Robert G. Babcock, ed., Beinecke Studies in Early Manuscripts, Yale University Library Gazette 66, Supplement, 1991); Robert G. Babcock, Reconstructing a Medieval Library: Fragments from Lambach (New Haven, 1993); Robert G. Babcock and Lee Patterson, eds., Old Books, New Learning: Essays on Medieval and Renaissance Books at Yale (Yale University Library Gazette, Occasional Supplements vol. 4, 2001).]

Early family archives are represented in our collections by the Spinelli Archive, acquired in 1988, the Italian Castle Archive (the gift of H. P. Kraus), and the Boswell Family Archive, which includes items dating back to the fifteenth century. The Spinelli Archive comprises over 100,000 documents produced by the residents of the Palazzo Spinelli in Florence between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries. It includes original research materials for the study of economic, banking, agricultural, diplomatic, papal, political, and family history. [Cf. Robert G. Babcock, The Spinelli Family. Guide to an Exhibition at the Beinecke Library ( New Haven, 1989).]

Near Eastern manuscripts were acquired, especially in Arabic and Persian, for the same research and teaching purposes as Western manuscripts, but the nineteenth-century Yale librarians were much more active in collecting Near Eastern manuscripts than Western ones, probably because so few of the important texts for the study of Arabic and of Islam were available in print. The foundation of the Near Eastern holdings at Yale are the collections assembled by Professor Edward Elbridge Salisbury, 1832, given by him to the University in 1870, and that of Carlo Count Landberg, presented to Yale in 1900 by Morris Ketchum Jesup, 1891. The largest subsequent additions came from the Wellcome Museum in London in 1949 (over 300 manuscripts), and from Oskar Rescher of Stuttgart and Istanbul, in the 1960s and 1970s. The principal strengths of the Near Eastern manuscript collection are in Arabic language, grammar, and linguistics, in Islamic law, and in Islamic history, but the collection is comprehensive and most areas of Arabic and Islamic culture are represented to some extent. The collection includes over five thousand manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Ethiopic, Urdu, Syriac, Armenian, Coptic, and Samaritan, and it is greatly augmented by the collection of the American Oriental Society, which is on deposit in the Beinecke Library. The Library also has holdings in Hindi languages and an extensive collection of manuscripts and printed books in Tibetan. [Cf. Leon Nemoy, Arabic Manuscripts in the Yale University Library(\(\(\(Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, vol. 40, New Haven, 1956); and his “The Rescher Collection of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish Manuscripts,” Yale University Library Gazette 47:2 (October 1972): 57-99. The Arabic manuscripts are cataloged on-line in the Library's Orbis system.]

The nineteenth century also saw the beginnings of the papyrus collection here. Yale's first papyri, three Greek pieces excavated at Hawara by William Matthew Flinders Petrie, were the gift of Jesse Haworth in 1889. Modest additions to the collection came through the distributions of the Egypt Exploration Fund of items excavated in the Faiyum and at Oxyrhynchus by B. P. Grenfell and A. S. Hunt in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth. Further acquisitions, in Greek, Arabic, and Egyptian languages, were made through dealers in the 1920s, the greatest number acquired by Professor Michael Rostovtzeff, 1925 Hon., during his yearly visits to the Middle East. The joint excavations of Yale University and the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters in the 1930s brought the papyri from Dura-Europos to Yale. The Dura collection includes a significant number of Latin papyri. The largest subsequent gifts to the collection came from H. P. Kraus and from E. J. Beinecke. The collection now numbers over six thousand inventoried items, and is cataloged, digitally scanned, and accessible on the web. [Cf. Yale Papyri in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, American Studies in Papyrology, vol. 2 (by John F. Oates, Alan E. Samuel, and C. Bradford Welles, New Haven and Toronto, 1967); vol. 24 (by Susan Stephens, Chico, California, 1985); and vol. 41 (by Paul Schubert, Oakville, Conn., 2001); The Excavations of Dura-Europos (8 vols, New Haven, 1943-67); Stephen Emmel, “Antiquity in Fragments: A Hundred Years of Collecting Papyri at Yale,” Yale University Library Gazette 64 (October 1989): 38-58.]

Written by Robert G. Babcock