June 2010 | L. D. Mitchell

A Prize Collection

It may be hard to believe, but there once was a time, not that long ago, when diligent students looked forwarded to receiving (wait for it...) a book in recognition of their commitment to scholarship.

So-called prize books have routinely been awarded to top scholars in a variety of disciplines since the 16th century, though the past century has seen a precipitous decline in such awards.  (These prize books should not be confused with today's Harvard Book Prize or Yale Book Award or similar prizes awarded by other university alumni associations, none of which are awarded for work done at those institutions.)

Prize books today are collected less for their texts than for their bindings and other matters of scholarly interest:

The research interest is usually not in the individual text of the prize, but rather in the type of text selected, the type of student honored, and the aesthetic attempts in dressing up the prize by means of a special binding, bookplate, calligraphic inscription, etc.

The above comes from the introduction to the Dr. G. J. Brouwer Collection of Dutch Prize Bindings and the William B. Todd Collection of Prize Books at the University of Texas.  (A catalog of the latter collection, some 750 prize books dated 1644-1959 from primarily English, Irish and Scottish schools, was published in 1961.)

Prize book bindings often incorporate the coat-of-arms of the relevant school, or of the municipality within which such school is located.  The example to your right was awarded by the Latin School in Leiden in the 17th century. Now held by the National Library of New Zealand, the binding

shows Pallas Athene holding a shield containing the arms of that city. It is bound in typical style and includes endbands on the spine in cream and faded pink thread, silk ties alternately pink and white at the fore-edge, and red-sprinkled edges. Thus the red and white colours of the Leiden coat of arms are represented on the whole binding.

A Latin school existed in Leiden from at least the second half of the 13th century, becoming the town school from 1356. From 1586 books were awarded to the best pupils at the half-yearly examinations; folio formats (the largest size) for the top two classes, and quartos and octavos (smaller volumes) for the rest....

Folks interested in collecting Dutch prize book bindings may want to consult a copy of Spoelder's Prijsboeken op de Latijnse school. Een studie naar het verschijnsel prijsuitreiking en prijsboek op de Latijnse scholen in de Noordelijke Nederlanden ca. 1585-1876, met een repertorium van wapenstempels (2000). The definitive reference, its almost 900 pages thoughtfully includes an English-language summary.  (Latin schools provided the equivalent of a pre-university education.)

Because prize books are not avidly pursued by many book collectors, such books often can be obtained for very little money.  (This is not true of particularly early or especially outstanding examples.)  A diligent search (utilizing, perhaps, the help of a specialist independent bookseller) may prove to be quite rewarding....