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William Cecil’s copy of Erasmus’s Adagia

March 22, 2017
Ann K.D. Myers
Erasmus Adagia front cover

A recently cataloged item in our Rare Books Collection, a gift from Friend of the Library Frank J. Novak III, has an interesting provenance. The book in question is a 1533 Basel edition of humanist scholar Erasmus’s Adagia, an enormous collection of proverbs in Latin and Greek. It was issued in multiple editions from 1500-1536, each edition larger than the last as Erasmus found more entries culled from his reading of ancient literature. The Adagia is the source of many commonplace sayings in Western European languages, such as “the grass is greener over the fence,” “many hands make light work,” etc.

Stanford’s copy has an inscription on the title page which reads "Gulielmi Caecelli ex dono M. Laurentii Ersbej 1542." [William Cecil, gift from Lawrence Eresby, 1542]

Erasmus Adagia title page

Erasmus Adagia title page

William Cecil inscription

William Cecil inscription

In addition, the front and back covers retain their 16th century calf covering over oak boards, blind-stamped with scrollwork which includes Henry VIII’s Tudor rose, and stamped with the initials “W.C.”

Erasmus Adagia front cover initials

William Cecil initials

In 1542 William Cecil was just a law student, and had received this book as a gift from his brother-in-law, but he would eventually become one of the most influential politicians in English history. By 1544 he had begun his rise to prominence in service to the Duke of Somerset, Lord Protector to Edward VI; he eventually became Queen Elizabeth I’s chief minister and most trusted counsellor. Under Elizabeth, Cecil became Lord Burghley, and served at various times as Secretary of State and Lord High Treasurer. He served the English government for over 40 years, shaping both foreign and domestic policy in ways that would be felt for years after his death in 1598.

The provenance of this book does not end there. A second signature on the title page reads “T. Grey, 1652.” It is thought that this might be Thomas Grey, Baron of Groby, who was William Cecil’s great-great-grandson. He was a commissioner of the court which tried King Charles I, and the only nobleman to sign the king’s death warrant.

Thomas Grey signature

Thomas Grey signature

Even without the fascinating provenance, the Adagia is a handsome volume with beautiful typography blending the Latin and Greek texts seamlessly. The spine has been replaced sometime along the way with more modern leather, and the brass clasps are incomplete, but the 16th century decoration on the covers is still as clear and impressive as ever.

To view this book in person in our reading room, you can request it here; please give at least 2 days’ notice:

https://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/6990589

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