The ‘Sunken Library’: An extraordinary collection of books found in a 17th century shipwreck

July 2021

In August 2014, a group of amateur divers revisited a known shipwreck from the seventeenth century but found that shifting tidal patterns had exposed much more of the wreck than had previously been seen, including a number of wooden luggage chests. Over the course of two days around a thousand items were brought up from the wreck, comprising silk textiles, women’s clothing, furnishing items and objects related to life on board ship, many in a remarkable state of preservation. The divers also retrieved a large number of leather bookcovers, the remains of books packed into one of the luggage chests. By paying close attention to the manufacture and design of these bookcovers we are able to gain significant insights both into the collection and the identity of its possible owner, as well as understanding better the international connections of books and their readers at this date. To find out more Dr Sam Willis speaks with Dr Janet Dickinson whose research focuses on the nobility and the court in early modern England and Europe and who recently formed part of an Anglo-Dutch project studying the remains of these remarkable books.

 

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    Sam Willis 

    From the Society for nautical research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Hello, everyone and welcome to the Mariners mirror podcast, we’ve got a real treat today. Now, I do love the history of shipwrecks, and I especially love the clever use of archaeology to recover artefacts. And then, I think most of all, I love the clever historical research that helps us understand objects and items that we are lucky enough to have recovered from the deep. And that’s exactly what we’re talking about today with the excellent Dr. Janet Dickinson. Janet is senior associate tutor in history at Oxford University’s Department for continuing education, and she is also senior faculty advisor and lecturer for New York University in London. Her research focuses on the nobility and the court in early modern England and Europe, and she has published widely on these subjects. Most recently, she formed part of an Anglo Dutch project: Maritime Archaeology meets Cultural History, focusing on the extraordinary objects retrieved from a 17th century shipwreck, in particular, a set of drowned books. What do you say “drowned books?” Well, yes, that’s exactly what we’re talking about today. Janet is a member of the steering committee for Lord Burghley 500. That’s a project celebrating the 500th anniversary of William Cecil’s birth  Cecil of course, being Elizabeth 1st’s most trusted advisor, Janet tweets as WilliamCecil@LordBurghley500 and also as herself at Tudor Nobility, and I would urge you to follow her on social media. Today we are talking about these wonderful drowned books. Well, what what is a drowned book? In August 2014, a group of amateur divers revisited a ship they had known about since 2009. One of a number of shipwrecks that they regularly explored.  This time they found that shifting tides had exposed much more of the wreck than had previously been seen, including a number of wooden luggage chests discovered near the main mast. Over the course of two days, they found around 1000 items brought from the wreck comprising textiles, women’s clothing, furnishing items and objects related to life on board ship many in a remarkable state of preservation. The divers also retrieved a large number of leather book covers, the remains of books packed into one or two of the luggage chests. Many of these were in a remarkable state of preservation, which have provided scholars with a glimpse into the world of trade and travel in the mid 17th century. Now if you’re listening to this do please check out the Mariners Mirror podcast on Instagram. Check us out on Twitter, where you will find images of these astonishing books. I’ll also make sure that they are on Facebook and the Society for Nautical Research website @sr.org.uk.

     

    Sam Willis 

    By paying close attention to the manufacturer and design of these beautiful books we are able to gain significant insights both into the collection and the identity of its possible owner. As well as understanding better the international connections of books and their readers at this date. Now dendrochronological analysis of the wreck timber indicates that the wood used for the ship was cut in the winter of 1640/41.  Taking into account the minimal times for the transport and drying of timber as well as the building of the ship. It can’t possibly have been at sea before 1643. We know from her cargo of palmwood that the ship was involved in trade with the Mediterranean. But that’s enough for me whetting your appetite like the cover of a drowned 17th century book. And here is Janet Dickinson to tell you more.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Hi, Janet. Thanks for talking to me today.

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    Thanks, Sam. It’s pleasure to be here.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So tell me about this wreck.

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    It’s mysterious, I think is the best word. We know quite a lot about it now, but there are a lot of things that we’d like to know, that we can’t know without further underwater archaeology being done. So the moment what we know is that there is this sort of merchant ship at the bottom of what they call the the roads of Texel or the Rede van Texel. There’s about 500 to 1000 shipwrecks down there. It’s one amongst many, and it’s a wreck that was covered over with a layer of silt. And then and when I think 2009 a local amateur diving team sort of came across the wreck and then monitored it thereafter. They basically have been intrigued by the kind of uncovering of this wreck, as the silt levels change and move in the area. So what were they had by 2014, I think it was, was a wreck that was increasingly being sort of uncovered, and it seems to be sitting  straight down on the seabed. So it might be a slight angle, but it really just seems to be kind of sitting there. The the upper deck has  got uncovered over time, and they realise that they could see some kind of objects, which appeared to be some sort of chests, or luggage, or equipment of some kind, around about the area of the main mast. It’s difficult to know exactly what was going on. Down there on the bottom of the sea, of course, it’s really silty, the light is poor, you know, they’re trying to see and they can’t see terribly well. Basically, they found that there were a number of items coming loose, they say, and they kind of grabbed them and brought them up to the surface. So what you got then was a whole bunch of quite extraordinary items.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So a whole bunch of give us give us some figures. I mean, I know that I by a ‘whole bunch’, there’s a lot arn’t there?

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    There’s nearly 1000, I think, ultimately kind of individual objects, some are fragments, yes, they’re not all fully intact, but there’s a lot of stuff.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Considering the amount of wrecks that are there. It’s quite remarkable that they chose this one to look at and it was this one that that has so much surviving material is very fortuitous, wasn’t it?

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    It does seem kind of it’s kind of romantic, I think, you know, in a way, I’m sure that they were looking at other wreaks as well. I think it’s just this one seems to have become sort of becoming uncovered. But But what they brought up was extraordinary. The people in the museum, they’re the people that first saw these items, said it was like the Tutankhamun of the underwater world. Particularly because they have these intact textiles. So they had this 17th century woman’s silk dress that they kind of washed off on the dockside. Then thought, OK, what do we do with this? It’s not everyday that you have a kind of elite woman’s silk dress from the 17th century in your hands.

     

    Sam Willis 

    These anaerobic conditions, right? So I suppose the silt or the mud stops the organisms in the sea from eating all of the organic material, is that what’s happened? Is that why it survived In such great detail?

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    Precisely, yeah. And then of course, as soon as you bring it out into the air, then the process of disintegration begins. So some of the textiles, some of the other objects brought up, almost immediately started to fall apart from what I’m told. There was a bit of an urgency there. So they did get in touch with the right people, they went to the local museum, it’s called Kapp Skil is a shipwreck museum on Texel. They’re used to seeing extraordinary and strange things being washed up or brought up. They got in touch with experts of the Rijksmuseum and at the University of Amsterdam, and got everything  in a condition where they could start conserving it. The things that I’m interested in, the book covers, the leather book covers,  the divers told me how they pulled them out, they didn’t know what they were. As they brought them up to the surface, they saw this sort of pulpy substance washing away in the water, which we think was the paper, the pages and books inside. It’s a shame, you know, that they couldn’t do a sort of proper underwater excavation. At the same time, you know, these items were coming loose, they would have been washed away, they would have been lost. So you know, it’s one of those kind of moments, you know, where I’m glad we have what we have. There’s also that sense, we could have perhaps had more, or indeed that there’s more down there.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And so what you’ve got is a is an amazing collection of 17th century, let’s put a date on this rack as well. 1640 something. So mid mid 17th century bookbindings, which are amazing. And yeah, for people out there listening and who are thinking about the history of books, you might assume that all historians are interested in our what’s inside a book, but that would be a mistake. Because bookbindings are absolutely fascinating. They tell us an enormous amount about society at the time, they’re an art form in their own right. What is it about bookbindings that you and you enjoy so much?

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    I found during during the research for this project, that a lot of people haven’t really thought about kind of ordinary bookbindings, if I can put it that way. Some of these are, you know, high quality, quite expensive, but some of them are really quite old. Most of them are 16th century bindings. So you’ve got something that went into the sea when it was 100 years old in the first place, they have terrible damage to them. They have all these little holes and kind of tears and little kind of worm trails through them. When I first saw them,  not as a maritime archaeology expert, I assumed was damaged down underwater, but apparently not, it actually is woodworm damage from when the books were being used above ground. So when they went into the wreck, they were in quite bad state, some of them and actually, that’s the thing that excites me about them is that they’re, they’re not a set of, you know, really fancy expensive books on the shelf of a library. These are books which belonged to someone who kept them for a long time, who maybe acquired them secondhand, who used them. They show signs of wear, my favourite one is has a little doodle kind of scraped into it, probably by a child, it’s a lovely, expensive looking leather book cover, but someone’s child or someone has got bored and they’ve just doodled a little bird into the, into the leather cover. I look at that, and I think, that’s not the sort of thing you often see in a library, it’s not the sort of thing when you go into the Bodleian and, you see a book like that, this is something that’s been used, abused,  it meant something in a kind of a human sense. So it was exciting. When I first saw it

     

    Sam Willis 

    There’s a whole branch of scholarship around marginalia and around doodling in books, which I think is fascinating. It’s such a powerful way of reminding you that books, of the time,  they’re organic, they are made of bits of wood, which is why the woodworm  was trying to eat them, the word woodworms finding them tasty, and is chewing them all up. And so, yeah, I do like the idea that I’m kind of just sitting on someone’s desk and and actually rotting or being eaten. Unless they’re looked after properly. So how many book covers did you find?

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    Okay, this is why it also gets interesting, because we have definitely 34 what I call corporeal bookbindings. So that is something where you have maybe just a fragment of leather, but you have something you can say this was a book once. And then we have a further four what we call ghost bindings. And this is where

     

    Sam Willis 

    Ghost binding what what, what, what is a ghost binding?

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    Ghost bindings, yes, ghost binding is when you have a book that has been laying on top of another book within the chest it was packed in, and it’s imprinted itself on it. So there  was one binding is just a plain leather, small book binding. And I spent so long looking at these really faint designs on it. And I thought, Okay, what am I looking at here? Why is it upside down? It was it was two heads in medallions. And they were clearly not the right way around. So I spent a lot of time thinking, okay, but that’s the back cover of the book, how could that work. And ultimately, it became clear when we dried the bindings out, because they were wet at first, I looked at them, initially, you know, when they were still wet, they were still immersed in water. And when I looked at a dry copy of it, and I spoke to bookbindings experts, it suddenly became clear that we weren’t looking at a, you know, an embossed pattern at all, we were looking at the remains the ghost of another book, which was just so cool.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever heard.

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    When we also found because books was fastened often with metal clasps in this period, we found kind of an angle, you know, where a metal clasp got embedded into another book. So there you have this sense, you know, of this luggage chest with these books packed into it, probably not packed that neatly or that  moved in the wreck, it just gives you again, that kind of human dimension or that sense of almost capturing a moment in the life of these books, you know, that have travelled so far? A lot of them, because

     

    Sam Willis 

    how were they dried it out?

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    They first of all, were immersed in a solution called PEG, which is polyethylene glycol., and this base

     

    Sam Willis 

    Thats what they sprayed the Mary Rose with for centuries.

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    Thats exactly the same thing yes. The books were soaked in that for actually several years ultimately, and that hydrates them, and that means the leather doesn’t become brittle. And then they’re freeze dried. And then you get something which you can handle which is very stable, you know, which is in a fairly good condition. So that’s that’s how they were conserved by the experts.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And where is the collection now?

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    It is in. It’s in the possession of the province of North Holland. Ultimately, at least some of the book covers will be put on display at Kapp Skil on Texel. But they are waiting for the museum to be built at the moment.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Okay, well, let’s let’s hope that gets built and we can go go and see them. So how did you actually, so I love this idea of someone’s posturing along, as a researcher minding their own business, so that you get a big collection of things that kind of falls into your lap. But you weren’t expecting that, no one was expecting, and that there’s no kind of pre existing structure for how to study. So how did you go about studying them?

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    It was actually even more panic inducing than that, because when I began the project, I thought that we were looking at a collection of books belonging to someone connected to the Stuart Court in excile , because one of them has a Stuart armorial stamp on it. So it seemed like this might be a royal book or connected to the royal family. Immediately learned this was not the case, that the bookbindings experts that we started talking to basically said no.This is what we call a trade binding, a book bound for sale in a shop. So that immediately kind of as our, you know, destroyed the the central assumption of our research. So then it just became a case of of asking questions. And I think this was where this got really exciting in terms of historical research.To actually collaborate, to talk to experts on bookbindings, to talk to maritime archaeologists, and to understand where these objects might be placed in a context to make sense of them. And people were incredibly generous, and their expertise was astonishing. And as a result of this, we were able to build up or I was able to build up a set of contexts for these books. For where the book bindings had originated, for the rough date that they were created, and then sort of start to hypothesise as to how they might have ended up all together in a shipwreck.

     

    Sam Willis 

    What were the hypotheses? What did you think?

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    Well, one question was whether or not it was a collection at all, whether or not this was just a whole set of books which were not all accidentally perhaps hadn’t a whole collection of books that belong to an individual or whether or not there are a collection of books that somebody had collected together and thought, okay, I can, I can sell these books are easy to sell, make quick money, you know, and I’ll take them home and do that. And we still can’t say for sure that they belong to a single individual, not least because they’re so old, and there’s such a mix of origins. I mean Poland, Lithuania, Germany, France, England, it doesn’t, in a sense come together to give you a single monolingual owner. So someone potentially, who could read multiple languages, the more I’ve looked at them, or more I thought about them, the more I think actually, this is a very personal collection of books, partly because it’s just so random, the things that are here. So, come to thinking about, could it have been a merchant? Could it have been a traveller of some kind? Maybe a young man going over to Europe to study, travelling, have a tutor, picking up books along the way? They’re probably not good quality enough for that. So that might not be the case. So we come to maybe ambassadors, diplomats, anyone who had a reason to travel and who might have had a connection in these territories in these countries these books came from,

     

    Sam Willis 

    Do we know I mean, I’m assuming I might be wrong, that it was expensive to transport something like books?

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    I believe so yeah. I mean, we’re talking at least two chests of books here. There might even be more down there still on the on the on the ocean bed. So I think it is somebody with resources to some extent. If  we go with the hypothesis that they were intended for sale, or secondhand books, that really makes it difficult to understand the ones that were in really poor condition, riddled with woodworm, and so on. That gives weight to the idea that it’s a single owner. The other difficult thing about it all, the interesting thing is that the latest date, we can get the bookbindings to is around about 1620. The shipwreak can’t have taken place before 1643 or there abouts. So you’ve got a 20 year period there where someone apparently hasn’t bought any books. I mean, that doesn’t happen. We all buy books all the time if you are a book buyer. So did that person die? You know, and this is someone’s collection being brought home ultimately? Or did you know the other the other hypothesis, which is a really interesting one, is that because books at the points of sale often aren’t bound, or if they are bound, they might be bound in what’s called parchment which is on tanned leather, that those books have disappeared altogether. So you know, the 20 years worth of new books has just vanished completely. But that’s as far as we can take it really. And the other thing that we can do a little bit of is, is actually attach them to initials, as two of the books have owner’s initials on them. One is MK and it has it also has a date of six four, which is probably 1564 and that’s possibly Polish Lithuanian in origin is possibly also German, or and or German. So that might give us an owner at some point. And the other one is the Stuart arms binding that as that dried out It became apparent that there was a set of initials on it. And those initials are TG. So if you can find me someone that was in a London bookshop in sometime in the 1610/1620s, with the initials TG, who then went over and travelled on the continent and ended up on a ship coming into Amsterdam in around about the 1640s or onwards, then we could find an owner.

     

    Sam Willis 

    That some challenging but not necessarily impossible, I love this idea of someone moving basically, also, maybe someone died and all their goods are going back. So that really kind of brings into into clear focus, the fact that this is a period where people were moving around, there’s a lot going on in the 1640s, isn’t there? We talk a bit a little bit about, you know, trade in the 1640s. And also the movement of peoples between Northern Holland and UK.

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    I  assumed before I began this project that people wouldn’t be travelling around because most of Europe’s at war during this period. And it seems like an awfully dangerous thing to do. But, you know, that doesn’t stop people wanting and needing to make money and to travel for education as well.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I actually think war was  a real reason for people to move.

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    Yeah, yeah, I think it is. And I, and I think there’s, there’s a sense again, with the number of shipwrecks that we have in this area, that an awful lot of people are coming in and out of Amsterdam, under quite dangerous conditions. As we don’t know whether it’s the weather that sank the ship, or whether or not in some kind of aggressive hostile action that sank and either could have happened at this time in this location. So that’s very exciting in a way and sort of terrifying and others. The other thing that’s interesting about this shipwreck is it’s known as the Palmwood wreck. This is because it’s got a cargo of palm wood on it. Now, this is not definitive, but it seems possible that this means it was coming from the Mediterranean. It’s got a cargo from the Ottoman Empire, say, coming in some of the textiles appear to originate from the Ottoman Empire, there’s a there’s a flat cut man’s coat, which is Ottoman style, there’s also fragments, tiny fragments now of wool carpets, with designs on them that appear to originate in Persia. It’s a real mix of stuff, and it does indicate possibly if there is a connection between the textiles and the book covers. Which I’m inclined to think there probably is, because they’re all packed in chests together, in the same part of the ship. Which we can’t be definitive about until we know more, and unless we know more. It seems like it could be someone who’s been an ambassador out in the east coming home, or a merchant, that’s picked up bits and pieces along the way and is bringing them home. It’s really hard to be sure, but it does give you that glimpse, I suppose, of this kind of world in which the goods that are produced in the Mediterranean these the luxury items, you know, they have a big market that wants to acquire them. So they’re being shipped around the place, either as cargo or as someone’s personal possessions,  that they’ve bought along the way or accumulated . It’s such a frustrating thing, in some ways, we would love to think that we could find an insurance claim for this rather expensive cargo. Colleagues, you know, researchers have been looking but so far to no avail. We really need the name of the ship. That’s what we need.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah. One explanation, of course, is it might be some some kind of ambassador in the east, like you said, from Holland, who’s been out there for for 10 or 15 years, which is why he hasn’t bought any new books. And then it is coming home is coming home after his stint after his stint is done. Or I’d also like to think it was a it was a merchant ships captain’s personal library or the ship’s library. There you go, is a ship’s library for merchant sailors and people are sailing around all over the world having to read. I like that very much.

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    Yeah, I was just gonna say I love the fact actually, in a way. I mean, as a historian, I’d like to know who it belongs to. But as a sort of history fan, I quite liked the idea that you can tell multiple stories from these books that there isn’t just sort of, here’s someone’s books, and they’re at what was what was in them there. That’s where they came from. It actually opens up the possibilities. And I think that’s the excitement for me.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Well, I completely agree with you, histories are much more creative discipline than many people give it credit for. And it’s in the holes like this, that I think history is the most exciting and it’s the most challenging, there is no definitive answer, but that doesn’t stop us asking questions of the past. Which is I completely agree with you, well done. It’s such a wonderful story of these books coming up from this wreack, are there any other examples like this that any people have discovered?

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    No. And that was really exciting as well. So I looked around I asked around the Vassar, nice comparable ship wreaks sunk in 1628, only four books on board. The Mary Rose, sank in 1545, nine books, but spread out across the ship. So they’re sort of six of them were found within five lockable chests so you know there that it’s probably someone’s private prayer book or something, a single book belonging to a single person. This collection there’s nothing like it. There’s the Sterling Castle sank 1701, six books found so far. The London sunk in the Thames Estuary, some really exciting stuff coming up from there. Sunk in 1665 few books coming out from that, but again, only in single numbers and spread out across the wreck. So nothing like this as an underwater collection exists. And it’s also pretty difficult to find dry collections, as it were, you know, above ground above water collections. Because these aren’t the kinds of books that you keep in a fancy library. Again, that idea that these are working books or someone’s personal collection, that they’re pretty scruffy in some cases that, you know, there’s a few new additions, but you know, nothing too fancy. that strikes me as being pretty unique. And if someone else knows of anything comparable, I’d love them to get in touch.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, it makes you think about the nature of collections, because someone might be listening, going, Oh, well, of course, there are 17th century books in the British Library or wherever, you know, there are 17th century books in libraries all over the UK, and elsewhere. But the point is that they may not they might have just come as an individual donation, they they’re not part necessarily part of a collection. And it’s it’s the collecting nature of it that makes it so so fascinating.

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    Yeah, exactly so, and actually, the other very thrilling thing that came up came up in research was being able to match some of these books to some of these single books or dotted across collections. So with the Stewart arms stamp, I was able to match that with a book in the Royal Collection of Windsor, and a book at Cambridge University Library. Nothing similar in terms of their contents, one’s a travel book about Venice, one’s a rebound copy of an old Bible, but the same armorial stamp was used. We can be absolutely sure about it, because there’s a mistake with the stamp. The stamp has the garter motto, ‘Honi soi que mal y pense, and on the ‘pense’, the ‘n’ is the wrong way round. So we have this brass stamp a  binder was using which has the ‘n’ the wrong way round, and he stamped these three books. Now we can reunite them and say at some point, they pass through the same binder studio. And we have the exact same thing with a book in an archival library in Munich, which again, it has slight flaws in the the decoration that was used. It’s a crucifixion scene and Christ rising from the grave, and we can match that exactly as well. With the one small alteration, which is that the Texel example is one millimetre smaller, because it shrunk was being under the sea.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Okay, but it does make you realise that, you know, to make sense of these, these wonderful discoveries that you’ve got to tap into the work of so many different scholars, you realise the importance of the network of scholarship. So you want people to know about bookbindings people who who know about clasps on bookbindings people who know about stamps, and you’ve got the archaeology side of things, the collecting side of things, the library side of things. And it does make you see how how, you know, scholarship really kind of fits in and that’s so creative and dynamic, working with other people in different fields. And you suddenly get something unusual, which which combines everyone’s knowledge. That’s why I like it. I think it’s brilliant.

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    I love it, too. And I, I am so grateful to all those people that talk to me as well. You know, this has to be the way forward that we talk to each other. We share these amazing discoveries and we learn.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, yeah. Well, and it’s wonderful. And I hope that we’ll be able to read about it or find out more about this in the future

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    Soon, soon.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Okay, we’ll come back to you as soon as you’re ready to share. Thanks, Janet, so much for speaking to me.

     

    Janet Dickinson 

    Thanks Sam.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Well, thanks so much for listening. Please do make sure that you find the Society for Nautical Research online @sr.org.uk which is where you will find images of these wonderful books and also all over social media the Society for Nautical Research on Twitter and Facebook and the Mariners Mirror podcast on Instagram and YouTube, particularly the YouTube channel is rapidly becoming a fabulous repository of some really innovative ways of presenting the maritime past. Please share, share, share these episodes, share the podcast tell everyone you know about this it really really helps and please leave us a review on iTunes if you can. You can also get in touch with ideas I’ve set up a strand on the Society for Nautical Research’s free forum for idea proposal’s  for the Mariners Mirror podcast. Best of all, please put your hand in your pocket and join the SNR, your annual subscription, it’s not very much money, will nevertheless support this podcast and also help us publish the most important maritime history and preserve our maritime past.