June 2014 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Heraldry at the Folger Shakespeare Library

JamesI_057085 small.jpgLast summer I took a class at Rare Book School (RBS) titled Provenance: Tracing Owners & Collections. We looked at ownership inscriptions, stamps, bindings, and bookplates, and we dipped into paleography and heraldry.  Deciphering coats of arms was utterly new to me, and I found its application for book collectors fascinating. So when I read, a few months later, that the Folger Shakespeare Library was planning an upcoming exhibit titled Symbols of Honor: Heraldry and Family History in Shakespeare's England, I knew it was something we should cover in our summer issue. We were very lucky that Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library and co-curator of this exhibit with Nigel Ramsay, agreed to write a behind-the-scenes account of the mounting of such an exhibit. Her essay, "Impaled and Quartered" is available in our summer quarterly, out this week.

Symbols of Honor, which opens tomorrow, looks at the craze for coats of arms and introduces us to the cantankerous yet talented heralds who debated who was worthy of such an honor--one feud involved Shakespeare's father, granted arms in 1596--and drew beautiful, unique designs for each family.

One of my favorite items from the exhibit is this James I binding (above). The royal arms encircled with the Garter appeared everywhere, including on bindings. King James I of England must have commissioned the binding of this copy of his Meditatio in orationem Dominicam (1619), since his own arms (as king of England, Scotland, and Ireland) are surmounted by a crown and inlaid in gilt on crimson velvet.

For those of you visiting Washington, D.C. this summer, the exhibit runs through October 26. There is also a case-by-case online version of the exhibit, which will be an excellent resource when RBS holds the Provenance course again in the summer of 2015.

Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.