Back on the trail

La bibliothèque Ceccano in the autumn sunshine.

La bibliothèque Ceccano in the autumn sunshine.

I am fortunate enough to be on sabbatical leave this term, which has given me the opportunity to return to Avignon to continue my work on Macintosh. My primary aim this week is to complete a task I started in June—that of identifying, by correct title, the books that are listed (often in a highly abbreviated forms) in the inventory that was drawn up by the revolutionary authorities when they seized Macintosh’s library in 1793.

On a practical level, this job involves deciphering the handwritten inventory (a task in which I have been greatly assisted by Dr Emily Hayes) and then attempting to identify correspondences in the catalogue of the municipal library. This is then followed by a physical examination of the specific book in order to determine whether the match between inventory and catalogue is 1) certain (i.e., it is confirmed by an ownership inscription or similar provenance), 2) probable (where the book matches the inventory description, but does not have any provenance to confirm the match with total confidence), 3) possible (where there is a match in terms of title, but not in terms of format—e.g., a book that is listed in the inventory as one volume is listed as two volumes in the library catalogue), or 4) negligible (where there is either no possible candidate for a match between the inventory and the catalogue, or there are simply too many possible matches to warrant calling up all the books for examination—e.g., where the inventory lists a generic “grammaire anglaise“).

I began in June with the low-hanging fruit: the titles I could easily decipher and which only appeared to correspond with a single item in the library catalogue. In most cases, these were English-language texts and almost all have shown some form of ownership inscription or provenance. I am moving now, however, into the more complicated territory of the possible and the negligible. Part of the reason that so may titles fall into the category of possible has to do with the fact that, presumably for ease or use or for conservation reasons, many of the books that are listed in the inventory as being en broché (i.e., unbound paper- or board-backed), have since been bound and sometimes also collated in ways that do not correspond straightforwardly with the inventory.

Matters are even more complicated in the case of serial or periodical titles, where the library tends to hold more than just the specific volumes and numbers that Macintosh owned. By way of example, item 47 in the inventory of seized books reads “bibliotheque phisico-economique dont 2 vol brochés”. This description corresponds with an annually produced book-length periodical, Bibliotheque physico-économique, instructive et amusante, issued in Paris from 1782. While the municipal library holds annual editions of the periodical between 1782 and 1792 there would, I had feared, be no way to know which two volumes specifically belonged to Macintosh. Having ploughed through the first four years of the periodical, I was delighted to discover (in the second volume of the 1786 number) a handwritten inscription on the front free endpaper—an inscription, in English, that I immediately recognised as being in Macintosh’s hand.

Inscription in Bibliotheque physico-économique, instructive et amusante, année 1786. Tome II. Bibliothèque Ceccano, P 57.

Inscription in Bibliotheque physico-économique, instructive et amusante, année 1786. Tome II. Bibliothèque Ceccano, P 57.

Macintosh’s note summarised a report in the British press describing the “remarkable properties” of the elder tree. Although it is not possible to identify which newspaper was the source of Macintosh’s summary (the properties of the elder tree were communicated in a high-profile report of the Privy Council that was widely covered by the press), the existence of this annotation is tremendously helpful in being able to make a definitive link between the inventory and the specific number of the Bibliotheque physico-économique in the municipal library that Macintosh actually owned.

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