“The schip full wonders”

An illustrated Dutch book on astrology from the early sixteenth century might not be a typical work one would expect to find in the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. How would a copy of Tscep vol wonders (Brussels: Thomas van der Noot, 1514) have ended up in the library of an English archbishop?

tscep vol wonders
Figure 1: Tscep vol wonders title page. CCCC SP 53

As scholarship in material philology has continued to demonstrate since the late twentieth century, the physical characteristics of a volume are a rich and fruitful source for unraveling how a book was used, and by whom. A particularly noteworthy feature of the Parker copy of Tscep vol wonders is a handwritten annotation on the title page, which will be discussed here.

But first, let’s briefly introduce Tscep vol wonders. The text is a compilation of astrological and medical knowledge, probably compiled by the printer Thomas van der Noot himself [1]. It is divided into short chapters discussing the qualities and influences of the planets; diseases and ailments caused by imbalances in the humours of the body; health prescriptions on food, bathing, bloodletting etc.; and other medical-astrological content. Some of the chapters start with a woodcut illustration. These depict, among other things, personifications of the planets and the four temperaments, bloodletting, and purging. After the first edition of 1514, Van der Noot published the work again in 1520. There is a third edition with a somewhat different layout and some different woodcuts (Antwerp: Claes de Grave, 1535).

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The Parker copy of Tscep vol wonders is bound with two learned theological works in Latin: Johannes Hug’s Quadruvium ecclesie (printed in Strasbourg by Johannes Grüninger, 1504) and a handwritten transcript of a disputation on the nature of the Eucharist held at Oxford in 1549 (MS 495). It is not known who combined these three texts in one volume, nor when and why this was done, but according to the catalogue entry, “this binding arrangement may well date from Parker’s time”.




Apart from its inclusion in a volume with theological texts, other material evidence of how the Parker copy of Tscep vol wonders may have been used is scarce. Indeed, its pages are so pristine that we may wonder whether it was read at all. It contains only one handwritten annotation, which is in fact an interesting one because it seems to provide a clue of the book’s early provenance. On the title page, above the printed title Tscep vol wonders, is a handwritten translation: “The schip full wonders”.


tscep vol wonders detail
Figure 5: The English translation of the title

The handwriting is not Parker’s [2], nor that of the scribe of MS 495, but it is clearly from the sixteenth century. The annotation therefore indicates that the Dutch work found its way to an English owner early in its lifetime. Even more interestingly, the phrasing betrays a heavy influence from Dutch. Although the spelling “schip” for “ship” was not uncommon in sixteenth-century English [3], it might suggest that the annotator who wrote it was more comfortable in Dutch. This is implied even more strongly by the phrasing “full wonders”. These words are a literal translation of the Dutch “vol wonders”, whereas in English (even in sixteenth-century English) it would be more obvious to say “full of wonders”.

The annotation therefore points to the possibility that this Dutch book was handed to an English reader (to Parker himself?) by someone from the Low Countries who was more familiar with Dutch than they were with English. This suggestion still leaves many questions unanswered regarding the readership of the Parker copy of Tscep vol wonders, but it illustrates how even a single, unobtrusive annotation can prove valuable when attempting to reconstruct a book’s history.


 Andrea van Leerdam

Andrea van Leerdam is a PhD candidate at Utrecht University, the Netherlands, working on the project ‘Woodcuts as Reading Aids: Illustrations and Knowledge Transfer in Printed Books in Dutch on the Natural World, c. 1480 – c. 1550’


[1] More on Tscep vol wonders and the cultural context in which it originated: Arjan van Dixhoorn, ‘Nature, Play and the Middle Dutch Knowledge Community of Brussels in the late Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Centuries’, in: Bettina Noak (ed.), Wissenstransfer und Auctoritas in der frühneuzeitlichen niederländischsprachigen Literatur (Göttingen 2014), 99-122.

[2] I thank Sub-Librarian Anne McLaughlin for examining the handwritten annotation with me during my visit to the Parker Library.

[3] The Oxford English Dictionary lists several medieval and early modern spelling variants starting with ‘sch…’, including schepe, schype, and schippe. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/178226?rskey=KfhUlF&result=2&isAdvanced=false#eid

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