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More about two 17th Century Catholic books


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By Nigel H. Sinnott, Sunshine, Victoria, Australia

“Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood
of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”
– John Milton, Areopagitica (1644).

In the June 1991 issue of Biblionews I recounted my discovery, as a boy in the 1950s, of two seventeenth-century books in a Nissen hut on what had been a Second World War aerodrome in north Oxfordshire.1 The airfield occupied a tract of land between the villages of Enstone, Great Tew and Sandford St. Martin, and extended to the hamlet of Gagingwell, where I lived.

The books were the Lyricorum Libri IV of Mathia Casimirus Sarbievius, or Fr. Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski, S.J. (1595 – 1640), also known as Casimire2, published “ex Officina Plantiniana” (from the Plantin Workshop) by Balthasar Moretus3 of Antwerp in 1634, and a purportedly third edition of the Traité de la regale, perhaps by the Abbé Du Buisson, published by Nicolas Schouten of Cologne in 1681. The first book contained the Late Latin poetry of a celebrated Polish Jesuit; the second was a defence of the Bishop of “Pamies” (Pamiers, France), François Étienne de Caulet, who was involved in a protracted church-and-state dispute with King Louis XIV.

I thought it most unlikely that the books had simply been left behind by a serviceman at the end of the Second World War and, in view of the similarity of the vellum bindings, I assumed that the books must have come either from the private library of a local Recusant family or from a Catholic theological library. I made a few inquiries at the time of writing my earlier article, but nobody claimed the books or knew where they had come from.

In 1995 the Oxfordshire Family History Society, of which I am a member, announced the publication of Thames Valley Papists, by Recusant historian Tony Hadland. I wrote to Tony, told him about the two old books I had found, and asked for his help. He transcribed my Biblionews article to his computer and put the text on his web-site4, in the hope that someone might read it and offer further information. Nobody did.

In 2001, while researching other matters, Tony Hadland made two discoveries. First, there had been a Catholic mission at Enstone from 1753 until 1840, and secondly the Recusant Browne-Mostyn family of Kiddington (a village I knew quite well) had had a domestic chapel, “served by Jesuits until at least 1750, Benedictines until 1825″. The chapel had closed in 1840, “when a new chapel at Radford took over (closed 1969)”.

Radford was also very near where I found the books, and I remembered there being a convent at Radford when I was a boy. I had also met Fr. Cyril Bennett, who had been based at Radford in the 1950s. Had the Browne-Mostyns perhaps given their theological books to the new convent?

As the Radford convent had closed, Tony suggested I write to the archivist of the Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham. I sent an e-mail message to the address Tony gave me, and soon had a reply from the archivist, John Sharp. He informed me that the archdiocese did not hold records of Radford Convent, but he gave me the Birmingham address of the archivist of the Sisters of Charity of St. Paul the Apostle, and recommended that I write to her. I followed this advice, and received a reply from Sister Anne Cunningham. She could find no record of Radford Convent acquiring any rare or very old books, and concluded that “the Convent would have had only school books and the usual devotional books”.

This was disappointing as, if the books had been at Radford, I had a theory to account for their appearance at nearby Gagingwell.

However, Tony Hadland also gave me the address of the Rt. Revd. Monsignor Vaughan Morgan of Charlbury, Oxfordshire, whose jurisdiction includes Radford. On receiving a letter from me he did some investigating, and came up with evidence that made the Radford link seem very plausible again. He replied that, if the two old books had once been at Radford, they were more likely to have been held at the presbytery than the convent. “The mission at Radford was founded when the Browne-Mostyn family sold Kiddington Hall with its chapel. This was in 1840 (the date of the opening of the church at Radford). It is possible that books belonging to the former chaplains at Kiddington Hall were passed on to Radford. Fr Bulbeck who left this parish in 1997 certainly sold some old books.”

So, if the books had been in the Radford presbytery, how did I find them in a Nissen hut?

After the Second World War several families squatted in some of the disused air force huts on the aerodrome until they were gradually rehoused by the local council. My friend A (as I will call her here) belonged to the last family of squatters to remain. She lived about a hundred and fifty metres from where I found the books. She had also been befriended by Fr. Bennett of Radford, and was interested in becoming a Catholic. In fact I thought she had joined the Catholic Church until Monsignor Morgan informed me that there was no record of A’s baptism in the Radford registers.

Now A probably saw Fr. Bennett most of the time on his visits to Gagingwell, but if she had shown serious interest in the Catholic Church, she might on occasion have had to go to Radford to take instruction.

My friend A was both conscientious and meticulously honest, and would certainly not have taken the old books from the Radford presbytery. Her brothers B and C, however, might have been less scrupulous: indeed, I saw little of them because they were juvenile guests of Her Majesty for an extended period following an altercation or two over other people’s property. More recently I have received unconfirmed reports that the brothers are now sober and respectable citizens. But in their youth they were a tad wayward, and if on one occasion they had accompanied A on a visit to Radford, who know what temptations might have arisen while A and Fr. Bennett were absorbed in discussion of the finer details of the catechism!

If B and C did take the books, they might have dumped them once they realised they were in foreign languages, and of no use to them. Or their sister might have discovered what A and B had done, confiscated the “loot”, but might have felt unable to return the books to Radford for fear of getting her brothers into (more) trouble. Of course, if the books had been at Radford, someone else might have taken them – but most people would be unlikely to leave them fifty metres from the cottage where I lived.

However, two or three tramps had Gagingwell as part of their “beat”, and it is possible that a tramp may have purloined the books from Radford while calling at the presbytery to ask for hot water or food, and then camped at Gagingwell overnight. Tramps regularly called at the Sinnotts’ cottage; and the nearby airfield huts offered plenty of dry overnight shelter. Anyway, B and C and their light fingers, or a passing tramp, are the most plausible explanations I can come up with after half a century of puzzling over the provenance of the two books.

This, however, is not the end of the story. While I was busy corresponding from Australia with Tony Hadland, Monsignor Morgan and others in England, an extraordinary coincidence occurred on another continent.

For many years I have corresponded with the writer, editor, printer and publisher Fred Woodworth in the United States. Fred is probably best known as editor and publisher of The Match!, a magazine about anarchism and freethought. But he also produces The Mystery and Adventure Series Review, which caters for collectors of old mystery and adventure stories. Fred collects old calculating and printing machines, and is very proud of the fact that all his printing and publishing are done without the aid of modern electronic computers. To quote him: “No computer equipment is ever used here.”

One day Fred Woodworth arrived at his local post office in Tucson, Arizona, in a hurry. I think his parking meter was about to expire. In his haste to dispatch his outgoing mail Fred accidentally let an envelope, addressed to me, slip inside a larger envelope, addressed to someone else.

The larger envelope was sealed and posted to Belgium, where it was received on 29 June 2001 by Christophe Martens of St.-Denijs-Westrem. At first he thought the envelope with my name and address on it was something that Fred Woodworth had recycled, but when Christophe opened the smaller envelope he deduced that Fred had made a mistake. Christophe added a short letter of his own, resealed the envelope, put some Belgian stamps on it, and posted it by air to Australia.

I received the envelope – now with two letters inside – a few days later, and wrote to thank Christophe Martens for his helpfulness. I mentioned that I had a seventeenth-century book, published in Belgium, and added that, if I ever got a chance to visit Belgium, I would like to go round the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp. (Tony Hadland had visited it as a teenager and had been much impressed with the place.)5The museum occupies the building where Sarbiewski’s Lyricorum Libri IV was published, and is full of antiquarian books and historic type and printing equipment. I added to my letter a copy of my article by way of further explanation.

Christophe Martens replied by informing me that, like me, he had grown up near an abandoned airfield. In his case the airfield had been used during the German occupation of Belgium by the Luftwaffe, and afterwards by a Polish wing of the R.A.F. Like me, he had spent a lot of time exploring the deserted hangars, runways and buildings. Furthermore, Christophe had a reader’s ticket for the Plantin-Moretus Museum’s library. “Whenever I’m in Antwerp I try to visit this wonderful museum.” And he added: “I think it’s the only place in the world where a fully equipped sixteenth and seventeenth century printshop can be admired.” Christophe included two brochures from the museum, and a circular from the Plantin Genootschap, a postgraduate institute of printing and graphic arts, based at the museum.

On 18 August 2001 I received a package from Belgium. It contained a gift from Christophe Martens: a copy of Maurice Sabbe’s L’Œuvre de Christophe Plantin et de ses successeurs (207 pp.), published in Brussels in 1937.6 The book was in almost perfect condition, and the pages were still uncut!

The two old books have not only intrigued me, they have greatly enriched my life and expanded my knowledge since I chanced upon them half a century ago; and now they have been joined by a third book. I am very grateful to everyone who has helped me in my quest for information. I now know a fair amount about the Plantin and Moretus families, who were Antwerp’s most famous printers. (They even secured the artist Peter Paul Rubens to design some of their title pages.) My next task – and I think it will be harder – is to find out more about Nicholas Schouten of Cologne, printer and publisher of the Traité de la regale.


  1. “Two Seventeenth-Century Catholic Books Found in Oxfordshire”.
  2. For accounts of Sarbiewski see the New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967 edn., vol. 12 (article by T. F. Domaradzki), and Julian Krzyżanowski, A History of Polish Literature (translated by Doris Ronowicz; Warsaw, 1978). The Augustan Reprint Society (University of California, Los Angeles) issued in 1953 a facsimile edition of The Odes of Casimire, translated by G. Hils (originally published London, 1646).
  3. Balthasar Moretus I (1574 – 1641), in charge of the printing house 1610-41, as distinct from his nephew and great-nephews, Balthasar II, III and IV. Moretus is the Latin form of Moerentorf. The firm was founded by Christophe Plantin (1520?-89), whose daughter Martine married Jan Moretus (1543 – 1610). Balthasar I was their son.
  4. Now (this site)
  5. I am grateful to Tony Hadland for lending me his copy of Dr. L. Voet’s English-language booklet, The Plantin-Moretus Museum (Antwerp: Museum Plantin-Moretus, 1965). There is also an account of the Plantin-Moretus publishing firm in Lucien Lefebre & Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book: the impact of printing 1450 –1880 (translated by David Gerard; London, 1984).
  6. Lefebre & Martin (note 5) drew extensively from Sabbe’s book for their account of the Plantin-Moretus firm.

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