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Woodcut of Noah's Ark from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493 ;

Rare Books Collection

The Rare Books Collection holds some 12,000 printed books ranging from a 1483 Venice printing of Silius Italicus’s Punica to first editions of the novels of Charles Dickens and the Left Book Club's 1937 edition of Orwell’s The road to Wigan Pier.

'View of the Valley of the Plistus, with part of the Gulph of Salama' from Hobhouse's 'Journey through Albania ...' (London, 1813).

The collection largely comprises pre-1850 books which do not fall within another named collection. The material is wide in subject scope covering history, literature, music and sciences. The collection is partly catalogued.

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Areas of strength include:

  • Byzantine and Ottoman studies
  • Theology
  • Literature
  • Travel and voyages of exploration and discovery
  • Music
  • Science
  • Medicine

Byzantine and Ottoman studies

The Rare Books Collection contains rich holdings relating to Byzantine and Ottoman studies, particularly the social and military history of the Ottoman Empire and travel literature relating to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Some examples include Sir Paul Rycaut’s continuation (sixth edition, 1687) of Richard Knolles’ detailed history of the Ottoman Empire, the first English edition (1718) of Joseph Pitton de Tournefort’s classic account of his journey through the Levant (Tournefort was a renowned French botanist and collected copious species of plants during his journey), William Eton’s comprehensive description of Turkish government, military and commerce in his Survey of the Turkish Empire (1799), and Charles MacFarlane’s Constantinople in 1828: a residence of sixteen months in the Turkish capital and provinces (1829), covering the recent political history at that time.

Travel literature for the region is well represented with works by a host of classical scholars, antiquarians, historians and topographers. The collection includes, for example, illustrated accounts by Richard Chandler (1738-1810), Edward Dodwell (1767-1832), Sir William Gell (1777-1836), Sir Henry Holland (1788-1873), Thomas Smart Hughes (1786-1847), Peter Edmund Laurent (1796-1837), William Leake (1777-1860), François Pouqueville (1770-1838), William Turner (1792-1867) and Hugh William Williams (1773-1829). Numerous works include striking coloured plates depicting local dress, customs and topography, for example, The costume of Turkey (1802) and John Cam Hobhouse’s Journey through Albania (1813).

'A Dehli - Turkish light cavalry' from Wittman's Travels (1803). Plate depicts a cavalry trooper with a lance in his hand and mounted on a brown horse.

Pope's translation of the Odyssey

William Wittman’s Travels in Turkey, Asia-Minor, Syria, and across the desert into Egypt (1803) gives a fascinating but flawed account of a British military mission to Turkey from 1799 to 1801, led by Brigadier-General George Frederick Koehler. The copy of Wittman’s Travels in the Rare Books Collection (a second copy is held in the FCDO Historical Collection) was given to the library as part of a gift by Mrs F Stroud Read in 1942 of 679 volumes on medieval and modern Greece and related subjects from her late husband’s library, including a substantial number of 16th and 17th century items.

New Testament title page from the second edition of the King James Bible (London, 1613).

Bibles, patristic texts and Judaica are well represented in the Rare Books Collection.

The collection contains a significant number of Bibles, including a number of important polyglot Bibles. Two copies of the London Polyglot Bible are held, one in the Marsden Collection and one in the Rare Books Collection. The copy in the Rare Books Collection once belonged to Canon George Herbert Box (1869-1933), professor of Hebrew at King’s. The text is in nine languages but no one book of the Bible is printed in all of them. The languages are Hebrew, Greek, Samaritan, Aramaic, Latin, Syriac, Ethiopic, Arabic and Persian. It is regarded by many as the most scholarly of the polyglot Bibles.

Other polyglot Bibles held in the Rare Books Collection include Biblia Hebraica printed at the Plantin Press in Antwerp in 1584 and Novum Testamentum harmonicum printed in Nuremberg in 1602. Several Bibles from the collection were showcased in our 2011 exhibition ‘To make a good one better’: translating the Bible which is available to view online. These include our copy of the second (1613) edition of the King James Bible, a 1549 English edition of Erasmus’s paraphrases and commentaries on the Epistles and a 1594 edition of the Geneva Bible.

A 1674 printing of the King James Bible, The Holy Bible: containing the bookes of the Old & New Testament, is of particular note because its ownership history over such a long period is so well documented. Its first owner was the Puritan divine Richard Baxter (1615-91) and a remarkable series of ownership inscriptions, dating from 1676 to the 1920s, trace its provenance until the Bible came to King’s in the early 20th century.

Inscriptions in The Holy Bible 1674.

Also of importance is a 1519 edition of Erasmus’s New Testament, a landmark in the critical study of Scripture. The text in our copy has been extensively annotated throughout in Latin in a 16th century hand. The volume is bound in a 16th century blind-stamped German binding with original clasps, one of which is completely preserved.

The collection includes a number of patristic texts including De Civitate Dei (1596) by Saint Augustine (354-430) with the commentary of Juan Vives (1492-1540), The genuine epistles of the apostolical fathers, S Barnabas, S Ignatius, S Clement, S Polycarp (1710) translated and edited by the archbishop of Canterbury William Wake (1657-1737) and Commentarii In epistolas catholicas, Iacobi I. Petri II. Ioannis III. Iudae I (1527) by Jacques Lefèvre d'Etaples, an important Biblical and patristic scholar.

The collection also holds the first edition of De legibus Hebraeorum ritualibus et earum rationibus, libri tres (1685) by John Spencer (1630-1693). This work laid the foundations of the study of comparative religion, by studying the religious customs of the Jews and those of other Semitic peoples. Also held is the third revised edition in Latin of Johann Buxtorf’s Synagoga Judaica (1661) on Jewish customs and practices. Both the Rare Books Collection and the Marsden Collection contain numerous editions of works by Buxtorf including various dictionaries of Semitic languages.

A plate engraved by Bernard Picart depicting a Turkish marriage procession.

Another work of significance is the sumptuously illustrated seven-volume Histoire générale des cérémonies, moeurs, et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde, printed in Paris in 1741. The works co-editors, the abbé Antoine Banier (1673-1741) and the abbé Jean Baptiste Le Mascrier (1697-1760), aimed to describe all religions of the then known world, their origins, doctrines and rites. This masterpiece of 18th-century French printing contains 243 engraved plates by the renowned engraver Bernard Picart (1673-1733).

The Foyle Special Collections Library preserves several volumes of incunabula, or books from the infancy of printing, which are listed at the bottom of the overview tab here. A number of incunabula are of a religious nature including a fine Latin Bible printed by Simon Bevilaqua in Venice in 1498 and Breviarium totius juris canonici by Paulus Florentinus, printed at Memmingen by Albrecht Kunne in 1486.

Full-page engraving designed by Richard Bentley to illustrate Thomas Gray's poem ‘Elegy written in a country church yard’.


The Rare Books Collection is particularly strong in classical literature, English literature, especially of the 18th century, and Portuguese literature.

Of particular note from our holdings in classical literature are the editio princeps of the seven surviving plays of Sophocles published by Aldus Manutius in Venice in 1502, the editio princeps of Homer’s works, which were edited by Demetrius Chalcondylas and printed in Florence by Bernardus Nerlius and Nerius Nerlius sometime around 1489, and Thesaurus Cornucopiae & Horti Adonidis, a collection of ancient grammarian texts in Greek which was the combined work of various scholar-editors, including Aldus Manutius and was printed by him in Venice in 1496. Further items of interest include Euripides’ Tragoediae octodecim (1537) and Sophoclis tragoediae, Antigone & Trachiniae (1708). Holdings in classical literature are particularly strong due to the acquisition of the vast classical library of Petrus Johannes Enk (1885-1960). Enk was professor ordinarius of Latin language and literature at the University of Groningen, Netherlands. His library was purchased by King’s College London Library in 1961 and his papers are held in the College Archives. Examples from Enk’s library include Henri Estienne’s Annotationes in Sophoclem & Euripidem (1568) and Pierre Brumoy’s Theatre des Grecs (1730).

Engraved title page from 'The anatomy of melancholy' by Robert Burton (London, 1632).

English literature is well represented. The collection holds a number of notable literary items that were printed in the 17th century, including the first edition of Ben Jonson’s Workes (1616), Robert Burton’s Anatomy of melancholy (1632), Milton’s Poems (1645), Fernando de Rojas’ The Spanich bawd, represented in Celestina (1631) and The workes of our ancient and learned English poet, Geffrey Chaucer, newly printed (1602).

There are numerous 18th century literary items of note including Pope’s translation of the Odyssey (1725-26) and Richard Bentley’s Designs (1753) for the poems of Thomas Gray. The collection also holds several first editions of novels by Dickens: The Pickwick papers (1837), Nicholas Nickleby (1839), Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), Bleak House (1853), Little Dorrit (1857) and Our mutual friend (1865). These editions are showcased in our two online exhibitions Charles Dickens: a writing lifetime and Dickens, Scrooge and the Victorian poor.

The collection includes a number of editions of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (a copy of the first edition published in 1755 is held in the Guy’s Historical Books Collection) and several other important dictionaries, such as Thomas Sheridan’s General dictionary of the English language (1780), John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1721) and John Florio’s A worlde of wordes, or, Most copious, and exact dictionarie in Italian and English (1598).

Travel and voyages of exploration and discovery

The Rare Books Collection is rich in works on travel and voyages of exploration and discovery and holdings complement those in the FCO Historical Collection and the Marsden Collection. The following items provide some examples of the variety of material held.

Richard Ligon’s A true and exact historie of the Island of Barbadoes remains an important source for our understanding of the early history of the English colony on that island. The copy of the second edition (1673) held in the Rare Books Collection is particularly interesting as it bears annotations throughout in a 17th century hand which correct and amplify the text.

'At Persepolis'. A carving of a lion attacking a bull from 'Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, ancient Babylonia ...' by Robert Ker Porter (London, 1821).

In Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, ancient Babylonia, &c. &c. (1821-22) the author Robert Ker Porter describes his voyage from Russia through the Caucasus to Tehran and Isfahan, and the site of the ancient city of Persepolis. Of note are the illustrations of the various Achaemenid and Sassanian monuments that Porter visited in Persia, particularly those at Persepolis. Porter’s drawings were the most accurate representations produced of those monuments to that date and remain important records of monuments many of which are now lost. Also of interest is Persepolis illustrata, or, The ancient and royal palace of Persepolis in Persia ... Illustrated and described, in twenty one copper-plates (1739).

Sir Henry Blount’s Voyage into the Levant proved a popular account of the Ottoman Empire which went through eight editions between 1636 and 1671 (a copy of the fourth edition from 1650 is held in the FCO Historical Collection while the 1669 edition is held in the Rare Books Collection).

Engraving of a little blue heron and several species of hummingbird. From 'A voyage to the islands, Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica ...' by Sir Hans Sloane (London, 1725) .

Sir Hans Sloane’s Voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica (1707-25) provides the most comprehensive account of the flora of Jamaica to that date and also gives historical insight into life in late 17th century West Indies. The first volume, which was published in 1707, deals mainly with the flora of Jamaica, while in the second volume, published in 1725, Sloane also gives a detailed account of the island’s fauna, as well as its climate, agriculture and trade links and the lives and customs of its inhabitants, both enslaved and free.

George Keate’s An account of the Pelew Islands, situated in the western part of the Pacific Ocean (1803) is finely illustrated and contains a wealth of information about the Pelew islands, their inhabitants and their language. In August 1783 the Antelope, an East India Company vessel, was shipwrecked on the unexplored Pelew Islands in the South Pacific and Keate’s account documents the adventures of the ship’s captain and crew. A copy of the first edition (1788) is held in the FCO Historical Collection.

Title page of The Oriental Miscellany (Calcutta, 1789).


The Rare Books Collection holds several items of interest and rarity for those studying music. The collection includes a number of items formerly belonging to the library of Thurston Dart (1921-71), musicologist, harpsichordist and professor of music at both Cambridge and King’s. These include a copy of a remarkable 18th century collection of Indian music, William Hamilton Bird’s Oriental miscellany (1789). In 2011-12 the Foyle Special Collections Library was delighted to host harpsichordist Jane Chapman as artist in residence and this work provided the starting point for her exploration of early musical encounters between the Indian sub-continent and the West.

Other items of interest include Matthew Locke’s Melothesia, or, Certain general rules for playing upon a continued-bass (1673), John Playford’s Musicks recreation on the viol, lyra-way (1661) and George Sandys’ Paraphrase upon the Psalmes of David and upon the hymnes dispersed throughout the Old and New Testaments (1636) with music by Henry Lawes (1596-1662), one of the leading English composers of his time. Also of note is The treasury of musick (1669), a re-publication of many of Lawes’ compositions. Our copy suggests an interesting provenance, bearing the following title page inscription, ‘Jer. Clarke 1705’. This could be the inscription of the composer Jeremiah Clarke (1673-1707).

The collection includes a number of scores by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), for example, Handel’s celebrated coronation anthems in score, for voices & instruments printed in Catherine Street off the Strand in the early 1740s. The volume contains Handel’s four coronation anthems ‘Zadok the Priest’, ‘My heart is inditing’, ‘Let thy hand be strengthened’ and ‘The King shall rejoice’.

Diagram of an air pump from 'Physico-mechanical experiments on various subjects' by Francis Hauksbee (London, 1719) .


Much of the library’s early scientific material is held in the Rare Books Collection covering a variety of subject areas including physics, mathematics, astronomy, botany and zoology. Material complements those held in other scientific collections such as the Wheatstone Collection, the De Beer Collection, the Stebbing Collection, the Ruggles Gates Collection and the Early Science Collection.

Physics and mathematics are well represented in the Rare Books Collection. First editions of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica (1687) and Opticks (1704) are held, as well as a second edition (1719) of Francis Hauksbee’s Physico-mechanical experiments on various subjects. The results of a number of Hauksbee’s experiments, particularly those on phosphorescence, static electricity and capillary rise had a considerable influence on Newton’s scientific thought and were incorporated into his revisions of both Opticks (1706 and 1718) and Principia (1713). Hauksbee, in his turn, derived his theoretical principles from Newton and was guided by Newton’s comments and suggestions for experiments.

Other related items include Robert Smith’s Compleat system of opticks in four books (1738), John Keill’s Introduction to natural philosophy (1720) and The works of the Honourable Robert Boyle (1744). Noteworthy early works related to mechanical engineering include Jacques Besson’s Theatrum instrumentorum et machinarum (1582) and Georg Andreas Böckler’s Theatrum machinarum novum (1662).

The collection is rich in early works on astronomy. There are several works by Johannes Kepler, including Dioptrice (1611) and Harmonices mundi (1619). Other important astronomical works include Galileo Galilei’s Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo, Tolemaico e Copernicano (1632) and Selenographia, sive, Lunae description (1647) by Johannes Hevelius. In addition to the Hevelius’ engraved plates, our copy retains a surviving volvelle, a plate with a revolving dial and thread to calculate the phases of the moon; in other copies of the book these have often been lost or damaged through frequent handling.

Zodiac man from 'Margarita philosophica' by Gregor Reisch (Freiburg, 1503).

Margarita philosophica (1503) by Gregor Reisch is a beautifully illustrated encyclopaedia which was widely used as a university textbook in the early 16th century, particularly in Germany. It gives us an intriguing insight into the university curriculum and state of learning and scientific knowledge at the close of the Middle Ages and the start of the 16th century.

Natural history is also represented. Important books include Gilbert White’s The natural history and antiquities of Selborne (1789) and the first edition of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665), a remarkable account of the natural world, as observed through the compound microscope, which Hooke had perfected.

Notable early botanical works include Hortus sanitatis, a lavishly illustrated late 15th-century medical encyclopaedia which, as well as containing a herbal and a treatise on urinalysis, has extensive sections on animals, birds and fish and their medicinal uses. The edition in the Rare Books Collection is from the library of Douglas Charles Harrod (1910-94), a former senior lecturer in Pharmacy at King’s and is a copy of the Strasbourg edition printed by Johann Prüss in around 1497. A hand-coloured copy of Meydenbach’s 1491 edition is held in the St Thomas’ Historical Books Collection.

Also of note is a second edition (1656) of Paradisi in sole by John Parkinson which contains nearly 800 plants illustrated in 108 full-page plates. First published in 1629, the work was a landmark in English garden literature. Further items of interest include Parkinson’s Theatrum botanicum (1640), Aldrovandi’s Dendrologia naturalis (1668) and Nehemiah Grew’s Anatomy of vegetables (1672).

Significant zoological works include a first edition of Fauna Suecica (1746), the first complete survey of animal species in Sweden by the Swedish physician and naturalist Carl Linnaeus. Also of note is The ornithology of Francis Willughby of Middleton in the county of Warwick (1678) edited by the naturalist and theologian John Ray, who prepared the ornithological notes of his friend Francis Willughby for publication, adding his own material and the observations of others. The work was first published in Latin in 1676. Also of interest is a multi-volume English translation (1785) of Buffon’s Histoire naturelle (various volumes in French are held in the Guy’s Physical Society Books Collection), a fourth edition (1776-7) of Thomas Pennant’s British zoology and a second edition (1781) of his Genera of birds.

Woodcut of one of Vesalius' so-called 'muscle-men' exposing the structures under the skin.


The Rare Books Collections contains a number of notable medical treasures which enhance the rich holdings of medical material in the St Thomas’s Historical Books Collection, the Guy’s Historical Books Collection and the KCSMD Historical Collection.

Notable early items include two copies of the first edition of De Humani corporis fabrica (1543), one of the most important works in the history of medicine. A third copy of the first edition is held in the St Thomas’ Historical Books Collection. The Library recently purchased an annotated English translation (2014) of the 1543 and 1555 editions. Further early items of interest include Volcher Coïter’s Externarum et internarum principalium humani corporis partium tabulae (1573), Ambroise Paré’s Opera chirurgica (1594) and Durante Scacchi’s Subsidium medicinae (1596).

We have purchased a number of books on childbirth and midwifery in recent years to augment our specialisms in these areas. Additions to our Rare Books Collection include Albert Coffin’s Treatise on midwifery and the diseases of women and children (1878) and Karl Friedrich Senff’s Nonnulla de incremento ossium embryonum in primis graviditas (1802).

We also acquired two books by the physician, chemist and mineralogist William Babington (1756-1833) which both have extensive contemporary annotations: Syllabus of a course of chemical lectures, read at Guy’s Hospital (1797) and Outlines of a course of lectures on the practice of medicine, as delivered in the medical school of Guy's Hospital by William Babington and James Curry (1811).

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