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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

the Past

Earle Havens remembers the day that books became magical.

He was a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin when his professor in a course on English Renaissance literature took the entire class to visit the rare books in the university's famed Harry Ransom Center. "We looked at one of the first published works of Shakespeare, we leafed through medieval illuminated manuscripts, and examined a medieval manuscript version of the Canterbury Tales," he says. "Suddenly, all of these great books of the Renaissance became real."

So real, in fact, that Havens went on to the doctoral program in Renaissance Studies at Yale, where he had initially planned a future career as a Miltonist—studying and explicating the works of English poet, polemicist, and sometime-radical John Milton. Before long, though, Havens moved away from the idea of concentrating on the written work of one writer or one era. Increasingly it was the books themselves that drew his attention, particularly texts of the late medieval and Renaissance periods. Havens became an expert in learning not just how to read the texts but how to understand them—how they were printed and assembled, who published them and why, and how the earliest printed books changed reading, thinking, and understanding across Europe. In many ways, his subject of expertise became the birth of the modern mind. It is, Havens believes, an evolution you can watch unfold through the pages in a great collection, like the one in the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins.

Printed books and texts from the decades before 1501 are collectively known as incunabula, a term derived from the Latin word for cradle and signifying something new and in its very earliest stages. Johannes Gutenberg ignited a technological and social revolution when he published his 42-lines-per-page Bible in about 1455. By 1470 there were about a dozen printing houses in Europe; 10 years later there were more than 100. One estimate puts the total number of printed books, pamphlets, and other texts by the year 1501 at more than 7 million; according to the definitive international catalog maintained by the British Museum, about 29,000 originals survive to this day (including 48 partial or complete copies of Gutenberg's Bible, making it relatively common among early printed books). The explosion of written material made possible by printing has been described as the most important technological advance of the second millennium, laying the groundwork for subsequent events ranging from the Protestant Reformation to the scientific revolution.

Recognizing that incunabula serve not merely as historical artifacts but as powerful teaching tools, Johns Hopkins scholars are focusing increasingly on doing what once may have been unthinkable: getting them into students' hands.

Havens encourages students in the spring course Writing and Wonder: Books, Libraries, and Discovery, 1250–1550 to handle the surprisingly sturdy pages of a late-medieval Italian illuminated antiphonary.


A leader in that effort is Earle Havens. Two decades after his first magical encounter with old books, the high-energy Havens has brought his infectious enthusiasm to Johns Hopkins, where he has served since 2008 as curator of early books and manuscripts ("I handle most anything before 1800," is how he puts it) at the Sheridan Libraries. He performs his duties with the zeal of a true believer. "You can digitize anything you want, but there is no substitute for flipping through a book published before Columbus sailed for the New World," says Havens. "We are actively encouraging people to make use of these materials." In the past three semesters, he and his colleagues in the Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts have helped arrange nearly 120 sessions in which Hopkins students have been given the opportunity to work directly with the library's extensive collection of pre-modern books and texts.

"The first time I came to the Rare Books Room I was expecting some stereotype of the nasty librarian hissing, 'Don't touch!'" admits freshman Danae Vokolos, a classics and art history double major who had her first opportunity to handle the early books during the spring semester. "A lot of people don't understand how these classes work," she says. When you are in direct contact with the original source, "it's not really the book or the painting that's so important. It's what you learn about other cultures and history. It's really about learning to see how other worlds existed."

Christopher Celenza, who directs the Charles Singleton Center for the Study of Pre-Modern Europe at Hopkins, has been thrilled to introduce so many of his students to the library's earliest works. "There is no better way to make history come alive for people than to have them interact with documents that are as old as the people you're studying," says Celenza, a professor of Italian literature. "When you have a direct engagement with the text you begin to experience the human element, you get the feel for how others experienced these books."

In the spring semester Celenza teamed up with Havens and Italian studies professor Walter Stephens to teach Writing and Wonder: Books, Libraries, and Discovery, 1250-1550. The course, primarily designed by Stephens, acquaints undergraduates with how scholarship and intellectual exploration occurred in pre-modern Europe before mass literacy, mass-produced books, and modern methods of archaeology forever altered how knowledge was discovered and transmitted. Students in the course worked with the original texts in much the same way great Renaissance humanists such as Petrarch or Erasmus would have. The goal: to gain a better understanding of the intellectual processes pre-modern scholars employed in preserving and enlarging their European cultural heritage.

"We think of our rare book and manuscript reading room as a laboratory for the humanities," says Winston Tabb, Sheridan Dean of the University Libraries, in describing the hands-on encounters with some of the library's most valuable possessions. "Unlike some libraries, we want our unique collections to be used by students and faculty just as our other collections and services are. Our primary mission is to support the academic mission of Johns Hopkins, and books sitting on a shelf do not fulfill that mission!"



In the quiet before classes, in a deserted book-lined reading room on A level of the Eisenhower Library, Earle Havens rolls out two metal book carts holding several linear feet of mismatched volumes. They are old books—very, very old books—that are counted among some of the most significant works of early printing. Sanctae Peregrinationes is there, alongside a handsomely printed 1477 edition of Dante's La Divina Commedia and the enigmatic and sumptuously illustrated Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. With them is the enormously oversized and elaborately bound Nuremberg Chronicle. Havens points to a marking inside the latter volume's cover indicating that at one time it was part of the collection of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and presumably before that, property of the czar. Another book in the collection carries markings indicating it was once owned by an 18th-century pope.

"This is our Scholar's Bookshelf project, in which we have assembled a collection that you might find in the possession of a prominent scholar in the Renaissance—say Sir Thomas More, for instance," Havens explains. "What you are going to find is everything from Bibles to ancient histories to contemporary fiction." The works have been brought together to support the Writing and Wonder class co-taught by Havens with professors Stephens and Celenza. Even though many of the undergraduate students are unable to read the Latin writing in these volumes, the books themselves are no less a source of wonder. Havens places the Chronicle on a gray foam book rest and opens the book to a bull's-eye illustration. It depicts a pendant globe surrounded by concentric circles of the zodiac, hung at a distant remove from God, who is enthroned among the heavenly angels. It is the pre-modern worldview of fallen humanity, captured in a single diagram. "The visual strangeness of the work reinforces how different their understanding was from ours," he notes.

Far from being brittle or especially fragile, the leaves of the book turn easily and feel resiliently supple despite being more than 500 years old. The ink and illustrations are still crisp. Leafing through the volume is a delightfully tactile sensation; the pages seem to carry the weight of history. Why, you wonder, would anyone want to keep this inside a glass case?

This is exactly the mental process Walter Stephens has said he wanted to invoke for his students when he first came up with the idea of the Writing and Wonder course.

While the very earliest written works were produced on animal hide (vellum), the advent of printing may have saved many animals from slaughter. The Nuremburg Chronicle and most other incunabula are printed on paper, a technology that had arrived in Europe via the Islamic world several hundred years earlier. Paper proved especially well-suited to the oil-based inks and other technological innovations Gutenberg pioneered. Only about a quarter of his 42-line Bibles are believed to have been printed on the animal-skin vellum that was typically used in illuminated manuscripts and other hand-copied books of the medieval period. The linen and rag­based paper used by early printers was especially strong, sturdy, and resistant to the yellowing and disintegration common to books of later centuries, which are printed on paper made from trees. Early books were meant to last, and their very sturdiness offers an insight into the pre-modern mind.

“There is no better way to make history come alive for people than to have them interact with documents that are as old as the people you’re studying.”

—Christopher Celenza


An ancient Sumerian text in the Scholar’s Bookshelf collection dates back to the end of the third millennium B.C.E. It tells the story of a hero who—at the direction of the gods—goes out and collects all the world’s written materials and buries them in a citadel to protect them from the great flood that prefigures the biblical story of Noah. “This notion of saving human knowledge was an extremely widespread myth,” Stephens says. “There is this underlying fear that human knowledge cannot be reconstituted if writing is allowed to perish. You find this thread running all the way down to Diderot’s Encyclopedia, where there is this idea that it will preserve human knowledge against cataclysmic loss.”

In a world of digital information that appears and vanishes at the touch of a button, the Scholar’s Bookshelf tells students a story utterly foreign to their experience. It is a tactile reminder of an age of information scarcity. The physical, says Stephens, has a way of making abstract notions seem very real: “I think as a sensory experience the books themselves win it hands-down. Once the students are exposed to the strangeness of the old books, then the strangeness of the text and the thinking behind it becomes more evident.”


As the snow falls on a Thursday afternoon in February, a half dozen students in the Writing and Wonder class gather in an improvised classroom in the lower level of the Eisenhower Library, amid the special collections. Like other classes that make use of the library’s extensive collections, this group meets about a third of the time among the rare and early books, with more frequent meetings in a regular classroom. Today the students are examining a diverse group of incunabula and earlier handwritten manuscripts (some of which are, in fact, museum-quality facsimile copies) drawn together in reference to Umberto Eco’s 1980 best-selling The Name of the Rose, a historical whodunit set in a medieval monastery that is part murder mystery, part learned discourse on semiotics and theories of meaning. “This is a story that takes place in the year 1327 during the Avignon period when the pope resided in France,” says Celenza to the assembled students. He goes on to describe the role and function of the scriptorium in medieval religious houses, sophisticated operations whose main function was to copy and preserve existing texts. “Libraries at this time were based around a concept of conservation and protection, in contrast to the modern idea of diffusion.”

“Exposing undergraduates to seeing what a book was like 500 years just the biggest kick imaginable.”

—Walter Stephens

Photo: Willkirk/

Walter Stephens follows by initiating a discussion of the postmodern sensibility of intertextuality and how this concept would have appeared to the medieval mind. “Keep in mind that The Name of the Rose is a book about books,” he says. “Semiotics and meaning are Eco’s particular fascination.” Eco’s central metaphor of the library as labyrinth in some sense reflects the pre-modern concern with differentiating between good and bad knowledge, the holy and the abominable text—and this is a radical divergence from the postmodern tendency to assume all information is in itself value-neutral, Stephens notes.

For this class meeting, a dozen books—ranging in size from something not much bigger than a deck of tarot cards to a small microwave oven—are set out in foam cradles on two tables in the middle of the room. “I want you to walk around and browse the books,” Stephens tells his students near the end of class. “See what you can find.”

Putting his students in touch with these books, he later confides, is one of his favorite things about teaching. “I can’t remember a literature course I’ve ever taught where I didn’t take the students to the rare book room,” he says. “Exposing undergraduates to seeing what a book was like 500 years ago and then giving them the chance to work with it is just the biggest kick imaginable.”

Stephens, Celenza, and other faculty say they are able to offer their students such experiences because of the Sheridan Libraries’ unusually strong collection of pre-modern and early books. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that the library comprises not one, but three different collections of early books, each with a slightly different focus. “I don’t know of any other research library that has a blend of this sort,” says Havens, whose purview includes the rare book library at Evergreen, the George Peabody Library, and the main Eisenhower collection of rare books and manuscripts. “We have a historical personal library, one of the earliest public research libraries in America, and then our own core collection, and all three have been maintained and added to over the years.”

Moreover, it is a collection that continues to grow. One of Havens’ responsibilities is to monitor the international booksellers market and make regular purchases to expand and enhance the collection. There are still many prizes to be won, he notes with a grin. “It’s not that all the early books are known and safely tucked away in various libraries. This is a very lively world in which we are actively engaged.” He is especially pleased to have recently acquired an edition of Tostado’s 15th-century commentary on Genesis from a bookseller in the Netherlands.

“This is what libraries should be doing,” he says. “In 25 years it may be impossible to do this. There may be no more copies left to sell.”
Mike Field is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.

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