Tag Archives: Smith College Rare Books

Those Scots

A lovely footnote from a current research project.

I was looking up genealogical records for the Birnie family of Broomhill, to try and figure out the provenance of Smith College Mortimer Rare Book Room MS 274, which has the names of both Mr. Robert Birnie, Minister of Lanark, and John Birnie of Broomhill. (Robert (1608-1691) was relatively easy, since there weren’t many Roberts in the family; every generation had at least one John, though, but my bet is on John (1643-1716), Robert’s only son.) I was using a funny little genealogical volume, Account of the Families of Birnie and Hamilton of Broomhill, by another John Birnie (the son of John son of Robert), edited and printed in 1838 by W.B.D.D. Turnbull.

It’s a nice little volume, available on archive.org, that has the Account following an account by W.B.D.D. Turnbull on a particular dispute involving many members of the Birnie and Hamilton families, regarding church interment. Mr. Turnbull had previously (1833) reprinted a copy of William Birnie’s (1563-1619) treatise against the practice of church burials, and prints this volume of genealogy and documents relating to the later dispute as additional material.

At the end of the analysis of the dispute, which is a section labeled “Prefatory Remarks, we find a description of the heraldic bookplate that apparently appears in several books that Mr. Turnbull has before him. They do not, evidently, impress Mr. Turnbull, who remarks in a footnote that “Heraldry was never properly studied as a science in Scotland. The present officials of that elegantly organized establishment are about the most ignorant reptiles that ever crawled between earth and heaven” (xviii).

The object of Turnbull’s scorn? The Birnies of Broomhill, in creating their crest, did not follow the rules, resulting in what Turnbull refers to as “a heraldic freak” (xviii): “They have given to their shield as supporters, two parsons precant, sable, in reading-desks–all proper!! La voila!” (xviii-xix).

As substitutes for the usual zoological complement of lions, unicorns, and gryphons, it must be said that the parsons, even when referred to with the French-influenced language of heraldry as “precant, sable,” seem a little odd.




Birnie, John, Esq. Account of the Families of Birnie and Hamilton of Broomhill. Ed. W.B.D.D. Turnbull, Esq. Edinburgh: Printed for Private Distribution (Edinburgh Printing Company), 1838.

Genealogical material possibly taken from BL Add. Ms. 28850, but the BL dates the genealogical part of that manuscript to 1730, and the printed volume includes deaths up to 1733.

Dns .I. de Marignac, Or, Meotodes meahte

A research project has snuck up on me, as they often do, from where it was lurking in another project. While working at the Smith College Mortimer Rare Books Room, in my character as measurer of manuscripts, I came upon a thirteenth-century Bible, possibly from the Rhine provinces. A lovely big book, 33.5 x 22.6cm, with a pretty illuminated initial at the front. What caught my eye, though, was the inscription on the flyleaf, dated 1312.

IMG_0694 copy

The hand is difficult for me, and apparently for others as well; a mid-20th century interlinear pencil notation transcribes some of the words, but not all, and even some of those transcribed seem to be wrong. I pieced together some of it the first day, but I still didn’t have enough to figure out all of the place names. The next time I was in, after I finished all the measuring, I came back to it, this time with some help from an emeritus classics professor, with whom I pieced together more of it. By the end of that session (we were still working when the librarian needed to go to a meeting, so she locked us in at 5), we’d figured out almost everything.

Apparently I needed a project like this- a bit fussy, out of my sphere, and exciting. Really needed it, or maybe even needed a few, since I was already working on the Istoria della Fine del Mondo manuscript, which shares many of those characteristics. It’s become a minor obsession. I have half a dozen books out of the library, call numbers for half a dozen more, and a few ordered from interlibrary loan.

It refers to Dns .I. de Marignac, who was not Enguerrand de Marigny (chamberlain to Philip IV of France, and sometimes spelled Inguerrand), but more likely his half-brother Jean de Marigny.

So really, the power of the measurer (meotodes meahte, stolen from Cædmon, but taken here without divine implications) is apparently the power to come back to the library later and do more research. At least, that’s the power of this particular measurer.