Tag Archives: Sir Robert Cotton

Cotton’s Memory Palace

One recurrent theme in the literature on Sir Robert Cotton’s library is the idiosyncratic arrangement of his collection, a feature which still persists in various ways 400 years later. Within this theme, the two big questions are probably “why did he do it that way,” and “how did users find things, before the library’s first catalog?”

Scholars propose that other people mostly found things by consulting Cotton. He acquired the documents, arranged and bound them to his liking, and thus had intimate knowledge of the collection. This has seemed adequate explanation to me.

Some while back, though, an erudite reader suggested that Cotton also built a mnemonic device into the library itself. The layout of Cotton’s library, suggests Mr. Mark Kindt, was a real-world memory palace.

You can read about the memory palace technique in many places. But the basic concept of memorizing information by mapping it to physical space is, at least, suggestive in light of what we know about Cotton’s library.

Cotton organized his manuscripts into physical niches, each adorned by the bust of a Roman emperor or other figure from antiquity. This curious sorting eventually joined the first catalog, and all those which have followed up to this day. (The Beowulf manuscript is still “Vitellius A. xv,” from its onetime position as the 15th item on the first shelf under a bust of Emperor Vitellius.)

But what if this wasn’t just a novel convention drawn from a purely decorative foundation?

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Robert Cotton & John Dee’s diaries

In Cotton’s Library, I referred to a legend about Sir Robert Cotton buying up a field in which John Dee was reputed to have buried manuscripts of his work, with the intent of prospecting for them. The story seems to have originated in Brief Lives by John Aubrey. I included it as an illustration of Cotton’s eagerness in collecting, though I suggested it was “almost certainly apocryphal” based on the assertions of every other source I consulted.

Then, in October, I came across Jessica Jenkins’ Encyclopedia of the Exquisite. This repeated the same story, and gave The Diaries of John Dee edited by Edward Fenton as a source. Interesting, but I would have to check it out. Which was complicated by the fact that Fenton’s book is not exactly ubiquitous (and I wasn’t going to buy a copy just to re-check one footnote from a book I published a year ago).

However, I was planning to visit two substantial university libraries in December, as part of research for another book currently in progress. So, last week, after a few hours in the University of Iowa Library’s special collections department, I made a quick foray into the stacks and… there it was. And inside…

Excerpt from Introduction of The Diaries of John Dee, Edward Fenton Ed.

See page ix

Naturally, this just points to something else, though for now I’m going to trust that the salient text is reproduced accurately by Fenton. I do wonder whether Casaubon had more to say, as the quote above doesn’t seem like it confirms Aubrey’s story exactly… But, ultimately, this was 400 years ago and I have my doubts about how completely a story like this can be confirmed or disproved, now. Still, for what it’s worth, we can probably upgrade the anecdote from “almost certainly apocryphal” to “very possibly genuine.”

And now you know something about what it was like to research Cotton’s Library.

Cotton’s Library release day!

The official release date for Cotton’s Library is here! You can buy my new book!

To review quickly, this is the story of an incredible 400-year-old collection that has gone through more lives than a cat, and needed them all. Today’s national treasure was repeatedly ignored, pilfered, suppressed, and threatened by fire throughout its long history. Cotton’s Library is the first book-length examination of the whole, mad epic.

The first! Ever!

Retailers should be listing Cotton’s Library soon, if they aren’t already, but you can buy hardcover, paperback or ebook editions here right this minute. Paper books are 20% off the list price, no special codes or gimmicks.

Please have a look at least! You can read a substantial free excerpt here.

n.b. Not entirely by coincidence, this is also the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth I’s Accession Day; though Sir Robert Cotton spent most of his career working for the Stuarts, it would be fair to suggest that both he and his library were products of the Elizabethan world.