Justin Croft Antiquarian Books has issued a catalogue with a very simple, one-digit title: 8. That doesn't tell us too much, other than that Croft has probably published seven catalogues prior to this. However, once you begin reading the listings, it becomes clear that this is a catalogue of antiquarian manuscripts. The largest concentration is in French, despite Croft hailing from England, though there are many in English and a few other languages. The great majority were written either by people who are not household names, or are anonymous. The writers weren't exactly ordinary people, as the level of education and means to create such documents a couple of centuries ago implied being among the more privileged in society. They required solid writing skills, both in terms of thought and penmanship. Many are highly illustrated, and if these people did not become great artists, their skills exceeded what most of us possess. This is a fascinating look at life long ago, filled with original (or sometimes copied) words. Here are some examples.
We will start with an item that looks to be an unimaginable labor to those of us used to writing on a keyboard. It is an exceptional piece of Victorian calligraphic writing, in “an obsessively neat black letter hand, with minute chapter headings and shoulder notes.” It is a complete copy of the King James version of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is written on smooth paper, allowing for the intricate penwork. Croft notes that it was evidently not intended for use, but perhaps for honing one's penmanship or as an act of sustained contemplation of the Gospels. Item 4. Priced at £1,000 (British pounds, or roughly $1,666 U.S. dollars).
Item 10 consists of two manuscript volumes of unpublished poetry circa 1842-1879 entitled Mes Vers. Croft notes it is “a lifetime collection of autograph poetry by a prolific, cultivated and accomplished provincial poetess, comprising several thousand lines.” The poet was Herminie Delavault, who lived most of her life in the small western French town of Poitevin. In the early material, she uses her maiden name of Herminie Vauguyon. Her father was a lawyer, while her husband was notable in the local music scene of the day. Some of her verses were intended to be set to his music. She writes about friends, but also about the issues of 19th century France. She traveled on occasion, with some poems being written in the Netherlands, Austria, Spain and Algiers. There is no indication that any of her poems were ever published. £1,200 (US $2,000).
Item 29 contains 47 notebooks written by another young French lady, Claire Sallard, from 1828-1836. That roughly covers ages 9-17. This is part of her learning, with teaching of literary skills by a tutor, but it also provides a look at life in a prosperous French family during the Restoration. Much of the material is autobiographical. She tells us about such things as family visits, shopping, making jam, playing with her siblings, and the activities of their servants (a sure indication they were of reasonable means). There are also a number of morality tales in the over 150,000 words she has written. She later married Paul Huet, a notable landscape painter whose work still hangs in many important art museums. £950 (US $1,582).
Next we have a copy of La Sainte Bible, a 1669 edition of the Bible notable for its provenance. This one belonged to a woman who was definitely not ordinary – she was quite extraordinary. It was about Emilie du Chatelet whom Voltaire famously said, she was “a great man whose only fault was being a woman.” That comment referred to the fact that 18th century women were not supposed to be involved in anything much more weighty than housekeeping. Du Chatelet was a brilliant woman, a writer, mathematician, physicist, philosopher, and all-around scholar. Voltaire obviously did not find her being a woman entirely a fault as they conducted an affair for many years. Voltaire spent many of those years living at her country estate, where they helped each other with their studies and writing and amassed a large library. Emilie also had a husband, but he was absent most of the time, and evidently did not mind the relationship when he was present. She was an expert on Newton and translated his Principia to French, adding her commentary. It is still the standard French translation of this work. Among her other works is Examens de la Bible, a refutation of biblical authority based on inconsistencies, contradictions, and mistranslations, the result of ten years of study on the subject with Voltaire. It was a potentially controversial and dangerous piece of writing, unpublished, except in manuscript form, during her lifetime. This Bible includes numerous annotations made by Mme du Chatelet during her studies. £25,000 (US $41,661).
Here is another survival from Voltaire and de Chatelet's years together - Histoire du Concile de Trente... by Paulo Sarpi, a French translation published in 1738. It is an impossible to find book from Voltaire's library outside of Russia. There may be fewer than five, though Voltaire possessed a library of some 7,000 books. Voltaire was determined to keep his library together. After he died in 1778, Catherine the Great bought up his entire library and moved it to St. Petersburg, where it remains today. However, this book was evidently left behind in Mme du Chatelet's home after she died in 1749 and Voltaire and his library moved on. £25,000 (US $41,661).