A contemporary cure for the plague
Finding marginalia and other inscriptions in our early collections is so common that we often take it for granted. However, sometimes something really spectacular pops up that demands our attention. Such was the case when TypBL.B55WBo2 came across my desk a few months ago. The Library owns two copies of this mid-16th century (ca. 1554—STC) London imprint of John Lydgate’s translation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Casibus Virorum Illustrium (On the Fates of Famous Men, or Lydgate’s own Fall of Princes).
Both of these copies are interesting. TypBL.B55WBo has the usually lacking leaf 2G4, which is the title page of Memorial of suche princes, as since the tyme of king Richard the seconde, have been unfortunate in the realme of England edited by William Baldwin and printed by John Wayland (recorded by ESTC in only 6 other copies).
TypBL.B55WBo2, however, is far more interesting from the ephemeral perspective: there is a contemporary price marked at the head of the title page (14 shillings, 6 pence) along with an English couplet signed “Arthur Poole” in a late 16th or early 17th century secretary hand. The blank verso of leaf 2G3 is most interesting: a recipe “For a pomaunder against the plague” has been inscribed in the same hand as the title page which includes each ingredient (some of them easily recongizable like ambergris or cinnamon), the precise amount and the cost of each item. Following the list are detailed instructions on how to assemble your pomander (from the French pomme d’ambre, literally “an apple of amber”). This inscription is probably contemporary with one of the many waves of the plague that arrived on the British shores in the last half of the 16th century and sheds some light on the anxiety that Londoners felt towards the plague and how much they were willing to spend on remedies and protections against the illness.
It is a bit ironic that this is found on the back of a translation of Boccaccio’s works, even though it is not the Decameron!