Early Icelandic literature: a selection of books from the library collection of George Powell, Nanteos.

From amongst the many interesting materials in Aberystwyth University’s Rare Book Room, we’ve chosen some about countries Way Up North for this blog post.  To be more accurate, about Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland.  You may wonder, why would materials like these end up in Aberystwyth of all places?   The answer to a certain extent lies in the eclectic interests of a certain George Ernest John Powell, and his generous donations.

In my will, therefore, I had left to your University – as well as being quite the worthiest and most intelligent corporate body in my dear but benighted town – all I possessed ‘of bigotry and virtue’ – Letter from GP to Principal T C Edwards, 4.iv.1879

George Powell of Nanteos (1842-1882) came from a family of local dignitaries and landowners, growing up at the Nanteos mansion quite near the benighted Aberystwyth.  He eventually took over the estate and became High Sheriff of Cardigan, but before that he spent most of his adult life in London, Paris, and travelling widely elsewhere.  A detailed biography has been by compiled by the School of Art, where much of his collection is kept.

One part of the world he visited was Iceland, and like many Victorian travellers he developed a special interest in this isolated country of rugged landscapes and a romantic history preserved in sagas over centuries.  He took Icelandic lessons from Eiríkur Magnússon (a scholar and librarian at Cambridge University), and provided financial support to the Icelandic nationalist writer Jón Árnusson.  At that time Iceland was still a Danish dependency, and ancient sagas as well as folk history provided the inspiration for a strong nationalist movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Saga þess haloflega Herra Olafs Tryggvasonar Noregs Kongs – published by Jone Snorrasone, 1689.


iceland image 2

Little is known about the 10th century Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason, but this saga describes him (sometimes forcibly) converting the Norse to Christianity.  In the 12th century a monk at the Þingeyrar monastery in Iceland, Oddr Snorrasson, wrote a Latin biography of the historic king – that original text no longer survives, but the work was translated into Old Norse and copies of that still exist.  From this title page we can see that it comes from George Powell’s collection.

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The Johnson Shakespeare

April 2014 means Happy 450th Birthday to Shakespeare. Will you be seeing the Information Services Players channelling Lear, raging at the next great storm to hit Aber?  Or finding forbidden love, leaning out of balconies, and it all ending tragically?  Well watch this space! (I have been asked to clarify that this will probably not actually happen…bah, spoilsports!).

Nevertheless, we would still like to present one of our greatest Library treasures to celebrate the occasion. This is the 1747 Bishop Warburton edition of Shakespeare, used by Dr. Samuel Johnson in the preparation of his Dictionary.  The volumes will be on display on Level D, in addition to an earlier 1725 collection by Pope and some famous forgeries of plays that William Ireland tried to pass off as ‘lost works’ by Shakespeare on Level F.


The Warburton edition of Shakespeare (1747)…’restored from the Blunders of the first Editors, and the Interpolations of the two Last’

After being approached by a group of publishers in 1746, Johnson (and a number of assistants for the copying work) took 9 years to complete the task – in a biography of Johnson, the dictionary is described as:

“easily ranking as one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship, and probably the greatest ever performed by one individual who laboured under anything like the disadvantages in a comparable length of time” (from Samuel Johnson, Walter Bate 1977).

This copy of Warburton’s collected Shakespeare is filled with notes by Johnson, as he found examples of words to use in the dictionary – more than from any other work.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary today, the first evidence of 1,582 new words in the English language come from Shakespeare, as well as the evidence of 7,956 words used with new meanings.  His completely new words included admired, ghost, and leap-frog, and nobody would be saying that the world was their oyster, or that there was method in their madness without him.

Johnson Shakespeare 2

‘Richard III’ with Johnson’s annotations.

Johnson’s friend Sir John Hawkins described the scene during the process of collecting examples for the dictionary:

“The books he used for this purpose were what he had in his own collection, a copious but a miserably ragged one, and all such as he could borrow; which latter, if ever they came back to those that lent them, were so defaced as to be scarce worth owning.” (from Life of Samuel Johnson, 1787).

These unique volumes passed from Johnson to the  Shakespeare scholar George Stevens in 1785.  They came into the possession of scholar and serious bibliophile Richard Heber (whose libraries in Britain and abroad supposedly contained over 150,000 volumes), and at some point were also owned by a Major Charles Thoyts (whose book-plates are in all 8 volumes – the sale of his library is recorded in a Sotheby’s auction catalogue from 1815) .  In 1862 they were acquired by George Powell of Nanteos for 15 guineas, and were then left to the University.

Johnson Shakespeare owners

Written notes and book-plates showing previous owners.

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William Dowsing

A recent library discovery is a copy of Richard Rogers’ Commentary upon the Whole Book of Judges (1615) which was extensively indexed and annotated by the Civil War iconoclast William Dowsing (1596 – 1668).   A devout Puritan, land-owning farmer, and soldier, he had his own library of religious texts – his earliest recorded book purchases were some illegal separatist works printed in the Netherlands and smuggled into England.

In March 1643, at the beginning of the Civil War, Dowsing wrote an angry letter to a local Puritan preacher complaining about the “blasphemous crucifixes, all superstitious pictures and reliques of popery” (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – ODNB) he saw around the town and university of Cambridge. Opinions like this must have brought him into favour with the authorities at the time, as he had been appointed Provost-Marshall of the Parliamentary armies in the east of England.

Dowsing was directed by his superior, the Earl of Manchester, to act as ‘Commissioner for the destruction of monuments of idolatry and superstition’.  In the role he proceeded to carry out a Parliamentary ordinance recorded in the Journal of the House of Commons from 26th August 1643, “concerning the taking away of all superstitious and idolatrous Monuments out of all Collegiate, Cathedral Churches, and other Parish Churches and Chapels”.

He took this undertaking seriously – he and his deputies (all of whom were his own neighbours or relatives) visited the chapels of all sixteen Cambridge colleges, and recorded visits to eighty-two other parishes in Cambridgeshire.  They also visited over 147 parishes in Suffolk.

On these visits they concentrated on levelling chancels, removing altar rails, removing inscriptions on tombs or in glass, and breaking “all representations in glass, wood, or stone of the persons of the Trinity or of the heavenly host” (ODNB).  Later they moved on to organs as well.  He made recordings of most of the actions in a journal (available to read online), including this entry from Peterhouse College chapel, Cambridge:

“1. Peter-House. We went to Peter-house, 1643, December 21, with officers and soldiers, and in the presence of Mr. Hanscott, Mr. Wilson, the President Mr. Francis, Mr. Maxey, and other Fellows, Dec. 20, and 23.  We pulled down two mighty great angells, with wings, and divers other angells, and the 4 Evangelists, and Peter, with his keies on the chappell door and about a hundred chirubims and angells, and divers superstitious letters in gold.”

and the entry for the parish church in Madingley, Cambridgeshire:

“133. March 6 …There was 31 pictures superstitious, and Christ on the cross and two thieves by him, and Christ and the Virgin Mary in another window, a Christ in the steeple window. Ordered the steps to be levelled and 14 cherubim in wood to be taken down…”

Dowsing spent many hours reading and indexing Rogers’ book – 2 hours a night over two months and 16 pages every evening. One annotation on the evils of long hair notes that Judge Popham at Bury Assizes in the late 16th century ordered a member of the Grand Jury to have his hair shorn, since it was a disgrace to Queen Elizabeth!



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The Librarian Connection

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings….Also through here passes a spiral stairway, which sinks abysmally and soars upwards to remote distances.

– from ‘The Library of Babel‘ by Jorge Luis Borges.

Here at Aberystwyth University there have always been librarians, assisting students and staff to find what they’re looking for and ensuring that all the resources needed for teaching, learning and research are available.  The latest rare book display at the Thomas Parry Library includes a number of volumes and papers owned by the University that are associated with famous historical librarians.

Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire (1677) with notes by Henry Ellis


Henry Ellis  became Principal Librarian of the British Museum in 1805, and remained in that position until 1856 – he was an accomplished antiquarian and scholar.  His assistant, and direct successor in the post at the British Museum was Anthony Panizzi, who doubled the number of books (making the collection the largest library in the world) and push through many reforms.  

Ellis had previously argued against some of these reforms in a parliamentary committee – he stated that if the museum were not closed for three weeks in the autumn, the place would positively become unwholesome, and that to open on Saturdays would be a mistake as that was when the most mischievous part of the population was abroad (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).   This copy of Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire was owned by Ellis during his time as a student at St John’s College, Oxford in the 1790’s.

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Sir Isaac Newton

At the Hugh Owen Library there is a collection of rare volumes relating to the famous physicist and mathematician, Sir Isaac Newton. These include an early edition (1721) of Newton’s own Opticks in which he overturned the accepted theory of the time – that ‘pure’ light from the sun was white or colourless. Through analyses of light’s behaviour through prisms, he proved that just the opposite was true, and that light is composed of seven different colours. Also on display is a 1760 edition of his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica – a seminal work laying out in mathematical terms the laws of motion and an account of universal gravitation.   

isaac newton 4

We also hold a copy of Bernhard Varen’s Geographia Generalis, a 1672 edition that Newton published himself – in it Varen discusses the general principles of geography as a scientific subject using the knowledge of the time. This includes mathematical facts about the dimensions and motions of the earth, as well as their practical applications in navigation and map-making.

isaac newton 2

Recently a book from Newton’s own library has come to light. This is William Baxter’s Glossarium Antiquitatum, published 1719, and acquired when Newton was Master of the Mint – later bookplates indicate that this volume was in Newton’s possession when he died.

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Gleaning From a Denbigh Grocer

Back in the 1890’s Thomas Roberts, a grocer and provision dealer from Denbigh, presented the University with two 16th century Bibles, one being a New Testament published by Christopher Barker in 1589 and the other a “Breeches Bible”, so called from the translation of Genesis ch3 v7.   Whilst these are interesting in themselves they also demonstrate the variety of historical evidence provided by such volumes, ranging from the marking of particular texts, annotated family trees, and bookmarks on tithe disputes, to binders waste taken from earlier printed volumes. It is likely that these bibles were donated to the University by Thomas Roberts in response to an appeal which went out from Principal T F Roberts in 1897. (Another Denbigh trader, E. T. Jones, Ironmonger, presented a series of 1820 pamphlets from the radical publisher William Hone around the same time). The 1589 New Testament was produced by William Fulke, the Master of Pembroke College Cambridge, as part of his confutation of the Rheims New Testament which had been produced by English Catholics.

Roberts Bible

The other volume is a copy of the Breeches Bible which has also been dated to 1589. Family bibles were often used to record births and deaths of successive generations and the Breeches Bible includes an interesting set of annotations for the Davies and Lloyd families from the 1680’s and 1690’s. The Fulke New Testament had obviously been well studied over the years with numerous page turnings marking significant texts. The volume also included a watch paper from Robert Jones, a Ruthin watchmaker of the early 19th century, and a short pamphlet setting out arguments against tithes. Although the binding is fragile there is some binders waste from an earlier black letter printed volume.

Breeches Bible title page

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Information Services Advent Calendar

December saw the launch of the Information Services Advent calendar. For each day until the 24th of December we revealed an image from our special collections and University’s archive material, some of which had a Christmas theme! The calendar highlighted our vast range of collections such as A book of Christmas carols with illustrations published in 1846:

Image from  A book of Christmas carols, illuminated from ancient manuscripts in the British Museum published by Joseph Cundall of London, c. 1846. Held by Information Services in the Appleton Collection. http://www.aber.ac.uk/en/is/collections/appleton

Held by Information Services in the Appleton Collection. http://www.aber.ac.uk/en/is/collections/appleton

and old photos from 1907 of Shakespearian dramatics at the Christmas college play:Shakespearian dramatics

This was a new venture for us, and we’re pleased with the result and feedback we’ve received about the calendar. Please share your thoughts too if you wish. You can view the complete calendar here: http://www.aber.ac.uk/en/is/collections/special-collections/advent/

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Christmas drama performances from the 1890s

For December the Special Collections display on Level F in the Hugh Owen Library takes a look back to the 1890s and the early years of the Aberystwyth University Dramatic Society.

A dramtic scene from Much ado about nothing set against back drio of trees, 4 cast members are shown in a variety of poses.

A scene from Much Ado About Nothing 1893

The display is made up of a variety of photos and copies of the college magazine, giving a glimpse into the history of the university and the local area.

The display includes some academic staff from the early years of the University in dramatic garb, including Profs Ainsworth Davies who co-wrote the College Song Edward Edwards and Herman Ethe.

Two pictures, the left shows Edward Edwards from a scene in The Rivals he is in costume and dramatically grasping his head. The picture on the right show the cast of The Rivals shown is a mixture of staff and students in costume. They are arranged in two tiers, some standing some sitting.

Left – Edward Ewards from a scene in The Rivals 1897.
Right – The cast of The Rivals 1897.

Bill Hines the Collection Curator who arranges these displays writes;  In the early years of the College performances by the Dramatic Society formed a rare bonding opportunity in the restricted social round for academics and students, both male and female! The College Magazine gave a full write up to these performances and we are lucky to hold a series of photographs from plays such as “The Rivals” and “The Librarian”.

12 of the cast members from The Librarian from 1894. The picture shows a mixture of female and male staff and students in costume, they are arranged in two tiers some sitting and others standing.

The cast of The Librarian from 1894.

Other displays currently on show include one on Alfred Russel Wallace the evolutionary theorist on Level D of the Hugh Owen Library and in the Thomas Parry Library there is a collection of beautiful horn books.

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Launch of the Welsh experience of the First World War digital archive

On Thursday 28 November the digital archive, The Welsh Experience of the First World War, was launched at The College Merthyr Tydfil by John Griffiths AM, Welsh Government Minister for Culture and Sport and Huw Lewis AM, the Welsh Government Minister for Education and Skills.

The Welsh Experience of the First World War was developed as a collaborative initiative led by The National Library of Wales, in partnership with the Archives and Special Collections of Aberystwyth University; Bangor University; Cardiff University; Swansea University; the University of Wales Trinity St David; BBC Cymru Wales, The People’s Collection, Wales, and archives and local records offices that are part of ARCW, and the Archives and Records Council of Wales. The project was funded by a grant from the Jisc e-Content programme as part of their work in support of education and research, and through support from the partner organisations.

Elgan Davies (Aberystwyth University), Elizabeth Bennett (Swansea University), Sian Williams (South Wales Miners' Library) and Professor Lorna Hughes (National Library of Wales)

Elgan Davies (Aberystwyth University), Elizabeth Bennett (Swansea University), Sian Williams (South Wales Miners’ Library) and Professor Lorna Hughes (National Library of Wales)

As part of the launch Dr Paul O’Leary of the Department of History and Welsh History, Aberystwyth University, spoke of how he had used the resource to prepare an online exhibition, ‘The First World War and the Industrial Valleys’. Dr O’Leary has said, “It would have taken many years in the archives to find these resources and bring them together in a way that demonstrates the impact of the First World War on south Wales. Having the digital archive freely available will be of tremendous benefit for research and teaching”.

Dr Paul O’Leary (Department of History and Welsh History, Aberystwyth University)

Dr Paul O’Leary (Department of History and Welsh History, Aberystwyth University)

Material from the Hugh Owen Archives and Special Collections that have been digitised includes The Dragon (1914-1918); Y Wawr (1913-1917); the Ifor Leslie Evans papers; In Ruhleben Camp; material relating to Professor Hermann Ethé; and photographs of military training and lists of casualties and honours.

During 2014 we intend placing on our Special Collections website articles that place these materials in their historical context.


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The Student newsletter and Moscow 1812

Come along and see our unique Special Collection displays in Hugh Owen Library. This month we’ve got two collections: On Level D is a display of The Student newsletter from the late nineteenth century while on Level F you’ll find material on Moscow 1812, a turning point in the Napoleonic wars.

The Student

Although UCW Magazine which began in 1878 was intended for student use it was seen by some as rather dry in content and an attempt was made in 1894 to develop a newsletter for the Common Room, called The Student. This wallsheet provides a fascinating picture of student activity a century or more ago, long before the days of Courier.

Moscow 1812

A display featuring contemporary accounts of this turning point in the Napoleonic Wars along with some later representations in music, literature and art.

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