‘Cooper’s Dictionary’: a seventeenth-century detective story

The cataloguing project of the rare book collections in the Perne Library is now in its sixth and final year. More than three thousand electronic records have been created and added to the on-line library catalogue, with details about the existing editions and relevant information about individual copies. Along the way, the two cataloguers have made many interesting discoveries, uncovered fascinating stories about some of the books and their owners, and occasionally had to deal with puzzling challenges! And since mysteries often make the best tales of all, we decided to share with our readers the story of a book with a rather enigmatic past.

The Thesaurus linguae Romanae & Britannicae otherwise known as Cooper’s Dictionary (printed in London in 1565) was a popular work in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. Highly regarded as one of the best Latin-English dictionaries of the time (Queen Elizabeth I herself was thought to have been a fan), the Thesaurus was, by all accounts, a useful book to own in a university town like Cambridge, where most of the teaching was still done in Latin. As suggested by the book label pasted on the title page, the Peterhouse copy of Cooper’s Dictionary once belonged to the former Master and bibliophile Andrew Perne, who donated it to the College in 1589, alongside another 1,200 volumes from his private collection.

Cooper’s Dictionary, title page

A comparison between Perne’s will and the present day inventory shows that, once his books entered the College Library, they survived remarkably well, both in terms of numbers and physical condition of the volumes. It is estimated today that no more than approximately 40 volumes from the former Master’ original bequest were lost from the Peterhouse holdings. And this makes the ‘case of Cooper’s Thesaurus’ even more interesting, because the volume has (besides Perne’s label) two other inscriptions on the title page pointing to a certain William Spencer as the donor of the item to the College.

William Spencer's inscription

William Spencer’s inscription

Since one copy of a book cannot be donated twice to the same library (unless somehow it left its premises for a while) the cataloguer was faced with the dilemma of discovering what really happened with the Dictionary during the seventeenth century. Several ‘lines of investigation’ were opened and pursued, including consultations with colleagues, who kindly offered advice and support. In the end, two main theories seemed to hold water: the first was that the book “went for a walk” (as someone delicately put it), that is, it was either stolen or lost. But after going through the well-kept library circulation ledgers for the seventeenth century, we found no concrete evidence that the volume ever left the College (or if it did, it was only for a short period of time).

The second possible explanation was that William Spencer, Fellow of Peterhouse (1680-88) and later Bursar borrowed the book, kept it for a while, inscribed it with his name and then ‘gave it back’ to the library. Writing one’s name on borrowed items and then ‘donating’ them back to the library was not an uncommon habit in Cambridge at the time, as suggested by other volumes with similar ‘provenance issues’ (present in the Lancelot Andrewes Collection at Pembroke College). If we add to this the fact that Cooper’s Dictionary is listed in all the library catalogues for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, then the scales tip slightly in favour of the second hypothesis rather than the first one.

To further add to the mystery of the volume, a red wax seal (possibly eighteenth-century) depicting Hercules with a club and a lion’s skin draped over his shoulder is pasted on the recto of leaf E4. Unfortunately, our efforts to identify the owner of the seal were largely unsuccessful and we were unable to use it in order to find out more details about the book’s past.

Hercules with a club and a lion's skin

Hercules with a club and a lion’s skin

And because no real ‘detective story’ is complete without a skeleton, the book also features a doodle of a skull on its title page:

Skull doodle

Skull doodle

In the absence of definite proof we must leave the case open, but we are hoping that time will bring out relevant information that might solve the dilemma.

If you have any ideas of what might have happened with Perne’s copy of Cooper’s Dictionary or if you would like to add suggestions to our ‘detective story’, please leave a comment below or contact the library staff by e-mail.


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