Upcoming Events: August and early September

Please join us for the following event being hosted in Rare Books and Special Collections:

Thursday, September 5 at 5:00pm | Italian Research Seminar – “‘Gli occhi della fantasia.’ Mental Images and Poetic Imagery in Leopardi” by Sabrina Ferri (Notre Dame).

Sponsored by the Center for Italian Studies.


The exhibit Hellenistic Currents: Reading Greece, Byzantium, and the Renaissance will open mid-August and run through the fall semester.

The current spotlight exhibits are Libros de Lectura: Literacy and Education after the Mexican Revolution / Alfabetismo y Educación después de la Revolución Mexicana (June – August 2019) and Art in a 19th-Century Household in Ireland: The Edgeworth Family Album (August – September 2019).

RBSC will be closed Monday, September 2nd,
for Labor Day.

Color Our Collections: “Libros de Lectura” spotlight exhibit

Today’s coloring sheet comes from our current spotlight exhibit, Libros de Lectura: Education and Literacy after the Mexican Revolution / Educación y Alfabetismo despues de la Revolución Mexicana. This exhibition highlights our growing collection of textbooks from the first half of the twentieth century in Mexico and examines literacy efforts in the decades before and after the formation of the National Free Textbook Commission, and is curated by Erika Hosselkus (Curator, Latin American Collections).

The exhibit is open to the public through August 2019.

Libros de Lectura: Education and Literacy after the Mexican Revolution / Educación y Alfabetismo despues de la Revolución Mexicana

by Erika Hosselkus, Curator, Latin American Collections

Earlier this year, Mexico celebrated the 60th anniversary of the creation of its National Free Textbook Commission (Comisión Nacional de Libros de Textos Gratuitos, CONALITEG). This program began in 1959 under the auspices of minister of public education, Jaime Torres Bodet. Today, the commission prints some 200 million free textbooks for more than 25 million Mexican students every year. Mexican administrations continue to tout the duration and scope of this program and scholars highlight it among systematic efforts toward free, secular education that began in earnest in Mexico after the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920).

“Libros de Lectura: Education and Literacy after the Mexican Revolution / Educación y Alfabetismo despues de la Revolución Mexicana”, a spotlight exhibit in Rare Books and Special Collections, highlights our growing collection of textbooks from the first half of the twentieth century in Mexico and examines literacy efforts in the decades before and after the formation of the National Free Textbook Commission. The exhibit showcases literacy-related materials sponsored, approved, or produced by Mexico’s Ministry of Public Education including textbooks for children and books promoting literacy among adults, whether workers or indigenous Popoloca-speakers.

Among the materials on display are Libro de lectura para el uso de las escuelas nocturnas para trabajadores (1938) and Cartilla, Campaña nacional contral el analfabetismo (1965). Both of these titles were produced by Mexico’s Ministry of Public Education.

Libro de lectura para el uso de las escuelas nocturnas para trabajadores is one in a series of three literacy textbooks created by Mexico’s League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists (LEAR) and was intended for workers enrolled in night classes. It was produced during the presidency of one of the country’s best-known leaders, Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940), an era when socialist ideals contributed explicitly to the development of national identity and also became explicit in literacy texts.

The book includes striking unsigned illustrations from prints by known Mexican artists. Heavy woodcut or linocut styles and strong imagery are characteristic of Mexico’s revolutionary art. The text begins by introducing the alphabet, vowels, and basic pronunciation. Later entries address aspects of daily life, familiar socialist themes, and even deliver public service announcements regarding, for example, the need for childhood vaccinations.

Libro de lectura para el uso de las escuelas nocturnas para trabajadores, 1er Grado, Mexico: Comisión Editora Popular de la Secretaría de Educación Pública, 1938. Medium PC 4115 .L53 1938


Cartilla, Campaña nacional contral el analfabetismo is evidence of a major literacy campaign undertaken by Mexico’s Ministry of Public Education in 1965. The National Free Textbook Commission (CONALITEG) printed an impressive 1,000,000 copies of this literacy primer as part of the nationwide effort. The text is meant to be used by any literate person to teach another person how to read. It provides lessons as well as instructions for use. The teacher is directed never to discourage a learner and instead to make her feel capable and successful. Helping a person learn to read, the primer states, helps to elevate the culture of the Mexican people.

Much like the earlier Libro de lectura para el uso de las escuelas nocturnas para trabajadores, this primer begins with pronunciation exercises and introduces more complex passages, including some clear government messaging, as appears on pp. 72-73 of this title. In this passage, entitled “They work and they study,” the family of Don Pepe works to educate laborers. When they encounter difficulty with part of the literacy text, Don Pepe consults the director of the local school, who tells him that the laborers need to practice a series of exercises to overcome their difficulty. In this way, the text promotes literacy among peasants and workers, facilitated by literate individuals, and offers a solution to challenges that might be encountered in the learning process.

Secretaría de Educación Pública, Cartilla, Campaña nacional contral el analfabetismo. Mexico: Comisión Nacional de Libros de Textos Gratuitos, 1965. Large PC 4115 .M5 1965


Other titles on display as part of the spotlight exhibit “Libros de Lectura: Education and Literacy after the Mexican Revolution/Educación y Alfabetismo despues de la Revolución Mexicana” are:

Francisco Cuervo Martínez, Mexico: Libro Nacional de Lectura V Año, (Ideologia Revolucionaria), Mexico: Editorial Patria, 1937. Medium PC 4113 .C83 1937

Leopoldo Mendez, En nombre de Cristo…han asesinado mas de 200 maestros. Mexico: Centro Productor de Artes Plasticas del Depto. de Bellas Artes, 1939. XLarge NE 546 .M4 E54 1939

Primer Cartilla Popoloca. Mexico: Instituto Lingüistico de Verano; Dirección General de Asuntos Indígenas de la Secretaría de Educación Pública, 1952. Medium PM 4206 .P67 1952

Carmen Domínguez A. and Enriqueta León G., Mi nuevo amigo, Libro segundo de lectura. Mexico: Empresas Editoriales, 1957. Medium PC 4115 .D59 1957

Happy Holidays from Special Collections!

Georg Dionysius Ehret, Plantae selectae quarum imagines ad exemplaria naturalia Londini, Nuremberg, 1750.

Wishing you and yours a happy Canada Day (July 1)…

Mark Catesby, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, London: C. Marsh, 1754.







…and a festive Fourth of July!

This week Rare Books and Special Collections is
open Monday through Wednesday (July 1-3),
CLOSED Thursday (July 4),
and open Friday (July 5).

Behind Juneteenth: Emancipation

by Julie Tanaka, Curator, Rare Books

This Wednesday, June 19, 2019, marks the 153 celebration of Juneteenth, the name African Americans in Texas gave to emancipation day.

On June 19, 1865, Major-General Gordon Granger, Union commander of the Department of Texas, arrived in Galveston, where he issued General Orders, No. 3:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, “all slaves are tree.” This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts, and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

This order impacted approximately 250,000 slaves in Texas. Upon receipt of this news, newly freed slaves engaged in a variety of personal celebrations. In the following year, large public celebrations were held. These continue to today.

Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation of slaves in Texas and more generally those enslaved in the Confederate states. This day brings people together and is marked with picnics, family gatherings, parades, barbecues, and other events featuring guest speakers. But it is not merely a day of rejoicing and fun. Juneteenth also emphasizes education and reflection about achievements. It is a time of formal thanksgiving, often opened by the singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” written by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), the American writer and civil rights activist.

Despite the welcome news that General Gordon’s order brought to slaves in Galveston in 1865, the freedom proclaimed for these slaves arrived two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln had already granted them freedom He promulgated the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863:

That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free…

Though the Proclamation applied only to slaves in states that had seceded from the Union and that had not yet come under the control of the North, it marked a significant shift in the long process to end slavery in the US. This process culminated, at least on paper, two years later on December 6, 1865 when Congress ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Three weeks after Lincoln’s promulgation, Harper’s Magazine published an unsigned article titled “Emancipation” on page 55 of the January 24, 1863 issue. In this article, the magazine announces that on the following two pages, it has published “another double-page drawing by Thomas Nast,” and offers its description of Nast’s work.

Lincoln’s action had attracted the attention of German immigrant and American editorial cartoonist, Thomas Nast (1840-1902). Nast allegorically rendered a freed African American family in the January 24, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, which the magazine captioned “Emancipation of the Negroes, January, 1863—the Past and The Future. Drawn by Mr. Thomas Nast.” Nast attracts his viewer’s attention in the central roundel. Several generations of this family—all happy and stylishly dressed—a family not ripped apart by slavery.

In the surrounding images, Nast presents the past and the future. Scenes depicting the history of slavery—the public sale of slaves, families being torn apart, the brutality of slaves held in bondage—fill out the left half, while the rest of the image points toward the future and improved living conditions. The transition begins in the smaller roundel. Father Time holds Baby New Year, who unlocks the shackle of the slave kneeling before him. Columbia stands atop the central roundel. Below her to the left Lincoln’s portrait hangs on the wall next to the highly symbolic banjo (a symbol, rooted in African religious traditions, of slave life), and below Columbia to the right stands Justice before a scene of a Union victory. An American flag waves proudly above a public school with two children waving to their mom who wears a southern-style head scarf and holds an infant as they happily run off to school. Another sign of improved life in America are African Americans standing before a cashier’s window engaged in a business transaction.

Two years later, the large, Philadelphia print shop of King and Baird issued a commemorative print based on Nast’s image. The main difference between the 1863 image and the reissue is found in the small roundel. Lincoln’s portrait replaces Father Time, Baby New Year, and the kneeling slave. Whether Thomas Nast had approved this change or the issuing of the commemorative print is uncertain, but his message remains clear: the ills of America’s past can be corrected and as the US moves forward, new opportunities await for these emancipated Americans.



Texas State Libraries and Archives Commission, “Juneteenth.”

Texas State Historical Association, “Juneteenth.”

Fiona Deans Halloran, Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

‘Take Care of my Ghost, Ghost’: Ginsberg and Kerouac

by Amanda Gray, MLS Candidate, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, and Special Collections Intern, University of Notre Dame

The Spotlight exhibit for June and July, “Take Care of my Ghost, Ghost: The Friendship of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac,” focuses on three items from the Robert Creeley Collection: Take Care of my Ghost, Ghost: Allen Ginsberg & Jack Kerouac; Declaration of Independence For Dr. Timothy Leary: July 4, 1971; and San Francisco Blues.

The Beats formed in the wake of World War II, a literary counter-culture set on exploring in all senses of the word; physical exploration through travel, mental exploration through psychedelic drug usage and sexual awakening, spiritual exploration through Eastern religions. Kerouac coined the name “Beat Generation.” In his spoken word album Readings by Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation, he reads the poem “San Francisco Scene,” where he describes a jazz club and all that he sees, “and everything is going to the beat. It’s the beat generation, it’s be-at, it’s the beat to keep, it’s the beat of the heart, it’s being beat and down in the world and like old time lowdown and like in ancient civilizations the slave boatmen rowing galleys to a beat and servants spinning pottery to a beat.”[i] (Listen to it here, the first track of the album.) To drill down on one word in particular, Kerouac calls it “be-at,” as in “beatific,” or blissfully happy or holy. Kerouac was Catholic, and maintained his Catholic faith while also supplementing it with Buddhism. Benedict Giamo, a University of Notre Dame American Studies professor who retired this year, once told me that Kerouac used Buddhism as a lens through which to view his Catholicism, and it shows in his writings. Kerouac saw what he and the other Beats were doing as holy, enlightened work that expanded human consciousness.

Kerouac and Ginsberg were in the epicenter of this movement, meeting at Columbia University in New York City when Kerouac was 22 and Ginsberg was 17. Around them gathered a host of people, and in subsequent travels across the U.S. (see On the Road, The Dharma Bums, and other works for journal-esque descriptions of their trips), they connected with the San Francisco Renaissance, a group of poets stationed in California with similar ideals. Robert Creeley from the Black Mountain Poets connected here, too, and became lifelong friends with Ginsberg. It’s his amazing collection from which these three works come, as well as the works in the pop-up exhibit, scheduled for June 10.

Turning to the objects in the exhibit, the goal was to highlight Kerouac and Ginsberg’s friendship while also showing their abilities outside of their “known” styles of writing. Kerouac, known mostly for his prose work, wrote poetry like a jazz musician, and San Francisco Blues is a great example of his abilities. Scraps of San Francisco Blues appear like breadcrumbs throughout other works and publications; bits of it in Heaven & Other Poems, another selection in Palantir, some lines in New Directions. Though he died in 1969, Kerouac’s full collection of the 79 choruses in San Francisco Blues were not published together until 1983. The cover shows a composite image of Kerouac, leaning against a brick wall while smoking, the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. Kerouac called the completed work a “beautiful unity,” written while pondering the city of San Francisco from his room at the Cameo Hotel in 1954. He wrote about the dilapidated buildings, the people walking on the street, the feelings in his body as he pondered what he was doing with his life. The only limit to his poetry was the size of the page in the notebook in which he scrawled them — “like the form of a set number of bars in a jazz blues chorus,” he writes in the introduction  — creating poems that hit the consciousness like the music he listened to.

Kerouac had been writing for several years at the time he wrote these poems, with his first book The Town & the City published in 1950 He wasn’t published again until 1957 with On the Road, despite completing several novels and books of poetry. His journals from these years in between, including a few excerpts in Take Care of my Ghost, Ghost, show just how much the rejection he received impacted him as a writer and as a person. Rejection hurt him, but he also found elation once he was published.

Ginsberg, known for Howl and other fantastical, forceful works of poetry, is an electric prose writer with power and precision in every line. His defense of Dr. Timothy Leary is a masterful work of evocative but exact language. Ginsberg rallied the poetic troops with this piece, independently published in response to the arrest, charge, and conviction of Dr. Timothy Leary, who had a small amount of marijuana on his person when arrested in 1970, and who experienced a whole host of legal trouble in the years that followed. Leary had also published on drug usage, something which the federal prosecutors and judges “regarded as a menace,” according to Ginsberg.

Ginsberg made this piece a larger argument for freedom of speech, for a writer to write about whatever he or she wants to. It’s an engaging piece of prose from a man who’s most known for his manic approach and imagery in poetry. It’s rational, well-argued and had little to no impact on Leary’s legal troubles. Though his name is not listed on the piece as author, Ginsberg’s fingerprints are all over it. The evocative language, the subtle shift to near-poetry in the final lines, the intelligence carried in every line — it’s as apparently Ginsberg as Howl is. A flair for the dramatic, the group sent a contingent of poets to deliver it to the Swiss government on Bastille Day.

The two writers were constant influences on each other (for example, Ginsberg credits Kerouac for the title of Howl in the dedication page of the poem), but they were so much more than that. Take Care of my Ghost, Ghost shows scraps of communication from Ginsberg to Kerouac, as well as some excerpts from Kerouac’s journals. A humble item at first glance, the collection of correspondence between the two writers is printed simply; 34 sheets of 8.5×11 paper, three simple staples down the side. Within its pages, though, it shows a friendship fostered both in person and at a distance; while bumbling around Greenwich Village or from San Francisco; with friends, lovers, or within a mental institution.

Within their friendship they found a place to confide; their letters to each other reveal a rawness that only comes with the comfort of time. Scraps of poetry made their way into the letters, too; Ginsberg wrote to Kerouac on Oct. 6, 1959:

Leave the bones behind
They’re only bones
Leave the mind behind
It’s only thoughts
Leave the man behind
He cannot live
Save the soul!

According to one rare books seller, this was a “piracy edition” and was suppressed by Kerouac’s estate.[ii] In the back of the book, a page states that it was “published for friends in an edition of 200 copies.” A more extensive collection of their letters is part of our General Collection and able to be loaned.

Kerouac and Ginsberg were friends — sometimes with benefits, if Ginsberg’s Gay Sunshine Interview is any indication.[iii] They were companions. They were partners-in-crime. After Kerouac’s death in 1969 at the age of 47, Ginsberg mourned him, along with Neal Cassady, another Beat who died early in life.  In The Visions of the Great Rememberer, Ginsberg writes, “So I survived Neal and Jack — what for, all my temerity? This empty paradise? Nostalgia world?”[iv]



[i] Kerouac, J. 1960. “The San Francisco Scene.” Readings from Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation. Retrieved from https://genius.com/Jack-kerouac-the-san-francisco-scene-annotated.

[ii] PBA Galleries. (2018). Lot 334 of 450: Kerouac Ginsberg Take Care of My Ghost, Ghost. Retrieved from https://www.pbagalleries.com/view-auctions/catalog/id/189/lot/54835/Take-Care-of-My-Ghost-Ghost-From-the-letters-of-Allen-Ginsberg-to-Jack-Kerouac-1945-1959.

[iii] Young, A. (1974). Gay Sunshine Interview. Bolinas: Grey Fox Press. Pp. 3-4. Ginsberg talks about specific sexual encounters he had with Kerouac and Neal Cassady.

[iv] Ginsberg, A. (1974). The Visions of the Great Rememberer. Amherst: Mulch Press. Pg. 1. The title itself is a nod to Kerouac’s autobiographical work Visions of Gerard, as well as the posthumously published Visions of Cody, which focuses on Neal Cassady (called Cody in the book). The Visions of the Great Rememberer now publishes as an introduction for Visions of Cody.

Myths and Memorials

by Rachel Bohlmann, American History Librarian

Memorializing the Confederate States of America has been part of a national debate recently, as communities argue over public monuments that valorize a government and its soldiers who fought for slavery. This print, The Charge of the First Maryland Regiment at the Death of Ashby, was published in 1867, just two years after the end of the Civil War. It was an opening salvo in this debate.

Designed to be hung in the homes of Marylanders who identified with the Confederacy, it was commissioned to raise funds to erect a monument to the Maryland Line, a regiment of Marylanders who fought for the Confederacy. The monument was never built.

Although a slave state, Maryland remained in the Union during the war. After President Lincoln ensured that the legislature voted against secession in the spring of 1861, as many as 30,000 Maryland men fled to Virginia to enlist in the Confederate army. They made up about a third of all Marylanders (black and white) who fought in the Civil War. So many Marylanders joined the Army of Northern Virginia that they formed their own regiment, the Maryland Line. The print commemorated a victory of some of those Maryland Confederates near Harrisonburg, Virginia on June 6, 1862. Confederate troops, commanded by Stonewall Jackson, had engaged with Fremont’s Union forces north of Harrisonburg and were in retreat. Confederate Brigadier General Turner Ashby, in an effort to protect the rear of the retreating army, ambushed a detachment of Union soldiers with Maryland and Virginia troops. When the Union line was reinforced, Ashby was killed as he attempted to charge the Union position. The Marylanders then successfully repelled the Union attack and captured its commanding officer.[1]

The print’s image foregrounded Maryland soldiers poised to charge, including a dying Confederate soldier passing the regimental colors to another, a stock scene of nineteenth-century sacrifice and heroism. Ashby’s death is barely discernable in the background. The former Confederates who purchased this print would have already been familiar with Ashby, who had been widely hailed in the South as a hero both before and after his death. As one historian put it, “Ashby represents an early prototype of the Lost Cause hero.”[2] Even small and marginalized, Ashby’s image evoked a set of myths that many whites used to rewrite Southern history into a racialized story of plantation prosperity, contented slaves, and white manly honor.

Maryland raised many monuments honoring the Confederate cause in the century and a half following the war. Two years ago Baltimore removed four Confederate statues from public spaces because they valorized slavery and a government that defended it. The Maryland Historical Trust’s Governor’s Commission on Maryland Military Monuments updated its inventory to reflect these changes in public memory and memorialization. At the same time, however, the Daughters of the Confederacy and other groups rededicated a monument to Ashby outside of Harrisonburg. The debates over history and memorialization continue.



[1] Donald C. Pfanz, Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1998), 204-06.

[2] Peter S. Carmichael, “Turner Ashby’s Appeal,” Gary W. Gallagher, ed., Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003), p. 117, accessed May 22, 2019, ProQuest Ebook Central.

Recent Acquisition: Making a Pact with the Devil – Goethe’s Faust

by Julie Tanaka, Curator, Rare Books and Joe Ross, Original Cataloger for Special Collections

Enhancing the German literature holdings is the recent acquisition of Faust: Eine Tragödie, the first edition of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s work published in 1808 by J. G. Cotta’schen Buchhandlung in Tübingen.

Faust, the two-part epic poem written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), a masterpiece of German literature, reflects the transforming world in which Goethe lived. Begun in the waning years of the Holy Roman Empire (the final dissolution marked by the abdication of Francis II on August 6, 1806) and almost a century before the unification of Germany in 1871 into a nation-state, Goethe’s work exhibits his understanding of the world in upheaval—the revolutions in America and France and the Napoleonic Wars, the rise of Romanticism in literature and art, the Kantian Revolution in philosophy, the Industrial Revolution in science, technology, and economics.

Goethe, drawing upon Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s call for German dramatists to establish their independence from the French and to treat the Faust tragedy as a specifically German theme began composing his version around 1773. Goethe’s work went through numerous stages. The earliest version, known as the Urfaust, was probably finished by 1775 and the next revision, known as Faust: Ein Fragment, appeared in 1790. After almost a decade, Goethe returned to Faust, adding the prologues, the second part of “Night”, and “Walpurgis Night.” This version now referred to as Part I was finished in 1806 and published two years later. Goethe continued to work on Faust sporadically in the 1820s and completed Part II in 1831 but sealed the completed manuscript—though he made a few final corrections in early 1832—to be published only after his death.

In composing Faust, Goethe drew upon the so-called Faust tradition of texts dating to the early Christian period, but this source base forms only a small part of what he used in his composition. Goethe anchors his Faust firmly in the European tradition, alluding to and parodying ancient Greek and Roman authors including Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, Apollonius, and Ovid as well as the more contemporary figures of Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and Calderón de la Barca.

This copy was bound by René Kieffer (1875-1964), one of the foremost Parisian binders of the early twentieth century. Kieffer was trained in classical techniques and worked as a gilder for a decade at the Chambolle-Duru bindery in Paris. After opening his own shop in 1903, he found new inspiration from the father-son binders Jean Michel (1821-90) and Henri François (1846-1925) in Paris. The influence of the latter’s use of curved stamps to work floral and leaf forms is evident in Kieffer’s work.

A fine example of Kieffer’s adoption of the Art Nouveau style, this copy of the first edition of Faust is bound in gilt-tooled green morocco over stiff paper boards. Four rectangular panels on the upper and lower boards display four central lily ornaments. Each rectangle has a floral ornament in the center with four lily corner-pieces. The covers bear a single gilt fillet border, and the spine is gilt-tooled morocco with five raised bands with panels that have a central rose with foliate ornaments on either side. “Goethe / Faust” in gilt lettering appears in the title panel at the top and the bottom panel bears 1808 below the floral ornament. Inside the book are brown morocco doublures (decorative linings, shown above) with a gilt broken circle. Lily ornaments break the line between the four large lily ornaments at top and bottom and either side. A single fillet border surrounds the five floral ornaments that form the upper and lower border. The free end-leaves are silken with diagonal beaded line grain, a full-page floral water-color on verso of free end-leaves. This fine volume is housed in a slip case also designed by Kieffer.


Works Consulted
  • Brown, Jane K. “Faust.” In The Cambridge Companion to Goethe. Edited by Leslie Sharpe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. 84-100.
  • Sharpe, Leslie. “Introduction.” In The Cambridge Companion to Goethe. Edited by Leslie Sharpe Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. 1-5.
  • Sanjuan, Agathe. Les éditions René Kieffer, 1909-1950. Paris: A. Sanjuan, 2002. <http://www.chartes.psl.eu/fr/positions-these/editions-rene-kieffer-1909-1950/>.
  • Arwas, Victor. Art Nouveau: The French Aesthetic. London: Andreas Papadakis Publisher, 2002.
  • Roberts, Matt, Don Etherington, and Walter Henry. “Michel, Marius.” In Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2003. <http://cool.conservation-us.org/don/dt/dt2225.html/>.

Rolling the Dice: Guided by the Stars, Math, and God (in that order)

by Eve Wolynes, Ph.D. candidate, Department of History, University of Notre Dame

Special Collections’ spotlight exhibit for May, “Blasphemous Fun: Late Medieval and Early Modern Game of Chance and Fortune,” features a pair of medieval and Early Modern books on fortune-telling dice games: a modern facsimile of the Libro delle Sorti (The Book of Fates) and the Dodechedron de Fortvne.

The original Libro delle Sorti, held at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice, was written in 1482 by Lorenzo Spirito Gualtieri in Perugia and was illustrated by Umbrian painters in the circle of Pietro Perugino and the young Raphael. Its pages contain a guide to using three six-sided dice to divine the answers to any of twelve questions about the future, in a somewhat comically roundabout method.

First, the reader chooses a question, which then points them to a “king” — an image of one of twelve historical and biblical figures, including Priam, last king of Troy, and King Solomon. These kings then instruct the reader to a “sign” — a table associated with celestial bodies, animals and mythical figures, such as a unicorn, a scorpion, or the moon. These tables provide combinations of dice rolls — whatever the reader rolls, they find that combination on the table, which then directs to a “sphere” of different celestial signs and their Roman Gods — such as the sphere of the Sun (shown in the exhibit) or Taurus (shown here), but also the sphere of Cancer, Capricorn, Mercury, Apollo and Mars. These spheres finally direct to a “list” of decided fates, organized according to the prophets of Christianity. The rather convoluted links of the game intertwine Roman mythology, biblical figures and astrology in its pages to tell a story of Italian medieval culture that dipped into multifaceted heritages — Roman and Catholic pasts interlinked, with astrological stars and theological heavens brought to bear on earthly concerns.

The Dodechedron, meanwhile, is attributed to medieval poet French Jean de Meun, famous for his scandalous and obscene Roman de la Rose, and earliest manuscripts date to roughly the first quarter of the 14th century. The work regained popularity as a printed text in the late 16th and early 17th century – as demonstrated in our 1615 printed edition, and found itself translated into English around the same time. It describes a game of dice played using a 12-sided die connected to the twelve signs of the zodiac in order to predict the future.

Twelve repeats itself frequently throughout the game, which requires that the player choose one of twelve questions from twelve different “houses” (144 questions total) about a wide breadth of topics from a child’s future health to whether a judge in a court case would honestly uphold to justice. Readers then pick a house and a question, correlate those numbers to a 12-by-12 grid and roll a 12-sided die to count out the final tally of their numbered fortune from a list of answers. The repetition of 12 places the Dodechedron into a tradition of spell books that relied upon mathematical calculations founded on astrological divination to calculate the future.

Dice games were nominally frowned upon in the Middle Ages — and gambling with dice barred to members of the church, though that didn’t stop them — and the connections between chance determining the future and pagan practices of divination through dice meant that these games bordered on blasphemous and played on the boundaries of “everyday magic.” Indeed, dice games were often paired with blasphemy as players prayed to God, Mary and saints in the lead up to their rolls — and cursed them when things didn’t go their way. In the 13th century the King of Castile, Alfonso X, attempted to regulate dice games in his Ordinances of Gaming Parlours, and began with punishments for various levels of blasphemy during such games, up to having part of one’s tongue cut off. In discussions of dice games and gambling, the worship of Decius (dice) was often put in contrast with worshipping Deus (God) to characterize such games as a form of pagan or satanic ritual, as referenced in the 14th century Manuale Sacerdotum by John Mirk, preaching that, “He [who gambles with dice] makes of the gaming table an altar for himself, upon which he offers up the goods of the Church to the Devil.” [1]

Fortune-telling games, rather than gambling with dice, however, escaped complete censure by the medieval church and remained closer to the practice of divining “Lots”, also called Sortes Sanctorum (Fates of the Saints), through bible verses and the practical application of astrology, which were both frequently interlocked as such games referenced astrology and the stars throughout their manuals, and games often instructed their players to offer prayers or recite psalms before casting their dice.

The advent of Protestantism after the first half of the 17th century in Europe coincided with a heightened lockdown on fortune-telling as a form of magic that contradicted the omnipotence of God wherein any event was not chance but a direct reflection of personal virtue in God’s eyes. Still, the temptations of chance, future and fortune were hardly daunted by whispers of blasphemy — dice games and fortune telling continued in popularity well into the early modern era and beyond, and live on in our gambling dens and friendly tabletop games today.




[1] Rhiannon Purdie, “Dice-games and the blasphemy of prediction,” in Medieval Futures: Attitudes to the Future in the Middle Ages, 2000. P. 178.

Upcoming Events: May and through the summer

Currently there are no events scheduled to be hosted this summer in Rare Books and Special Collections.

The exhibit As Printers Printed Long Ago: The Saint Dominic’s Press, 1916-1936 will run through the summer and close in late July.

The current spotlight exhibits are The Work of Our Hands: A Multi-Venue Exhibition of Liturgical Vestments (March – May 2019) and Blasphemous Fun: Late Medieval and Early Modern Games of Chance and Fortune (May 2019).

Rare Books and Special Collections is open
regular hours during the summer —
9:00am to 5:00pm, Monday through Friday.

RBSC will be closed Monday, May 27th, for Memorial Day and Thursday, July 4th, for Independence Day.