Provenance Mysteries: Medicinæ practicæ priores libri tres

This week’s provenance mystery blog post was written by David Pearson. Prior to retirement in 2017 David was Director of Culture, Heritage and Libraries at the City of London Coporation; Director of the University of London Research Library Services; and Librarian at the Wellcome Trust amongst other roles. He has recently published a new edition to his Provenance Research in Book History, published by the Bodleian Library. This mystery is found in Laurent Joubert’s Medicinæ practicæ priores libri tres, printed in Lyon in 1577.

Anyone who has been to one of my full week or shorter courses and workshops on provenance will know that I often include a session on Frustrations. There are so many ways in which provenance evidence can be manifested in books, with skills to hone for recognising them, but there are just as many ways in which we end up looking at a jigsaw with missing pieces. Any training on provenance research should always cover the problems, and help us accept that there are many puzzles which are just insoluble.

When Renae asked me to do a guest posting for this blog, selecting an image from a few she would send, I guessed what might be coming – we like to think we know a trap when we see one. I wasn’t disappointed: illegible names, cropped marginalia, old unidentifiable pressmarks, anonymous manicules and underlining. Provenance frustrations take many forms.


This image struck me as a nice example of one of the simpler of those forms, which manifests itself in many ways. Initials, which look as though they stand for someone’s name, may turn up inscribed in books (on titlepages, flyleaves or elsewhere), stamped internally or onto covers, on bookplates, sometimes on leaf edges. Or, are they not a name? – might they be a bookseller’s code, or stand for something else?  The evidence may be ambiguous. In my experience, if you don’t have a spelled-out name somewhere else in the book, or some other clue that suggests an identification, initials are usually a dead end.

Title Page

So, who is J D?  The letters look to have been written on this titlepage within fifty years or so of the late 16th-century imprint date. If they were lower down, and smaller – particularly if they were around the imprint rather than the device – we would suspect they were a bookseller’s code, but here they do look like the initials of a name. John Donne?  Middle Temple Library, lots of Donne’s books there – wouldn’t that be nice?  Which would be a provenance pitfall, rather than a frustration, which can often be hard to resist; the eyes of hope can easily be tempted to turn possible into probable, or just think it’s worth mentioning the possibility, when really the case is too thin for that. Provenance research needs to be forensically evidence-based, avoiding the speculative and fanciful. It doesn’t look to me like the J or the D which Donne typically wrote in the many examples of his inscription which do survive. The book has early marginalia and manicules – quite possibly the work of J D, though we can’t be sure of that – and its binding has no clues to help; the two parts of the book have been bound in the wrong order, with the second bound before the first.

The straight answer is, I don’t know who J D is, I doubt that we will ever know, and we just have to live with that. Except that somewhere, there may be another book or books in which the same J D wrote his initials with more besides, or spelt out his name, and someone may know where that is. If so, please step forward and tell us – otherwise, just one more of those frustrations.

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