Annotations and Generations (II)

by guest contributor Frederic Clark

Adam Winthrop died in 1623—seven years before his son John would board the Arbella and sail to Massachusetts. John Winthrop’s son, John Jr., was studying abroad at Trinity College Dublin at the time. His father wrote to inform him of his grandfather’s passing, explaining that Adam had enjoyed a peaceful death: “He hathe finished his course and is gathered to his people in peace, as the ripe corne into the barne. He thought longe for the daye of his dissolution, and wellcomed it most gladlye.” John Sr. also consoled his absent son, reminding him that “no distance of place, or lengthe of absence, can abate the affection of a lovinge father towardes a dutyfull well deservinge childe.”

Yet shortly in the same letter, John Sr. followed this poignant, affective language with a quick reflection on a different form of distance—namely, that between his son and his books. John Jr. had written earlier to ask his father for a Latin dictionary, Thomas Cooper’s Thesaurus linguae Romanae et Britannicae. John Sr. explained that travel conditions between England and Ireland were not ideal: “for Coopers dictionary I will sende it you so soon as I can but it is so difficult and hazardable.” Even as they mourned the loss of the family patriarch (who had built their familial book collection), the Winthrops continued to exchange books—even across bodies of water if necessary.

Adam Winthrop’s books made a far more “difficult and hazardable” journey less than a decade later, this time across the Atlantic. Once in the New World, John Jr. continued to annotate items from his grandfather’s library. At some point, he also began to acquire books from the libraries of far more famous scholars. John Jr. developed a special fascination for the books of John Dee (1527-1608/9). An advisor to Queen Elizabeth, Dee had also been an enthusiastic student of alchemy, esotericism, and the occult—subjects for which the young Winthrop developed a lifelong devotion (documented most recently in Walter Woodward’s rich study). And Dee’s library—one of the largest book collections in sixteenth-century England—constituted a treasure trove of information on such topics.

Like his grandfather Adam, John Winthrop Jr. was an avid annotator. However, he was not just a producer, but also a consumer of marginalia. He was interested not only in the books in Dee’s library, but also in how Dee himself had written in them. As Bill Sherman and others have shown, Dee was one of the early modern world’s most prodigious and creative of annotators. Perhaps nowhere is John Jr.’s obsession with the mechanics of marginalia clearer than in his copies of two books by the German physician and occultist Paracelsus (1493-1541). Both had formerly belonged to John Dee, who filled them with extensive notes. Again like his grandfather, John Jr. used annotation as a means of contextualization. But instead of jotting down details on Paracelsus’ composition of the texts, he produced meticulous (and rather repetitious) descriptions of Dee’s own notes.

Below one of these notes in Paracelsus’ Baderbuchlin—whose title page bore the inscription “Joannes Dee 1562”—John Jr. exhaustively catalogued every way that Dee had written in the book: “the above written and the name on the top of the frontispice of this booke and the writing in the middle of the frontispice and the severall notes in the margent through the whole booke, was written by that famous philosopher and chimist John Dee.” He then proclaimed, “I have divers bookes that were his wherein he hath written his name and many notes…”

(By permission of the New York Society Library. Click for the full-size image.)

(By permission of the New York Society Library. Click for the full-size image.)

In another of Dee’s Paracelsus books, Das Buch meteorum, John Jr. said nearly the exact same thing. As he explained, “the writing on the next leafe and the name on the top of the frontispice and the marginall notes in the booke were written by that famous and learned philosopher John Dee.” Just in case there were any doubts, he reiterated that everything was in Dee’s “owne handwriting,” and that “this book was his while he lived.” Again he asserted that “I have divers other bookes…that came out of his study,” while adding that Dee’s notes made then “farre the more precious.”

(By permission of the New York Society Library. Click for the full-size image.)

(By permission of the New York Society Library. Click for the full-size image.)

While John Jr. perfected the art of effusive meta-marginalia, he also used annotation to fix his own acts of reading in time and space. We close with one of the more curious items in the vast Winthrop library, namely a 1589 bibliography of Florentine writers or Catalogus scriptorum Florentinorum omnis generis. This Florentine bibliography belonged to the same genre as John Bale’s Catalogus of British writers—an aid that had proven essential to Adam Winthrop’s reading. John Jr.’s otherwise clean copy contains but a single note found beside the entry for the Renaissance Neoplatonist philosopher Marsilio Ficino. When the bibliography enumerated the contents of the first volume of Ficino’s collected works, it triggered John Jr.’s memory. He recorded in Latin that “I saw this volume when I read from the book De sole and De lumine in the library of the college of Edinburgh, when I was in Scotland in the year 1634.”

(By permission of the New York Society Library. Click for the full-size image.)

(By permission of the New York Society Library. Click for the full-size image.)

Although we cannot say with certainty whether John Jr. explicitly followed Dee’s practice here, this note was classic Dee. Dee was himself an enthusiastic annotator of bibliographies, which he filled with numerous references to the many books he possessed or had seen. In addition, John Jr.’s casual reference to reading Ficino in Edinburgh allows us to track the precise itinerary of his first trip back to the Old World after his 1631 arrival in New England—the first of several such journeys. On both sides of the Atlantic, John Winthrop Jr. continued a family tradition of annotation begun by his grandfather Adam. This tradition enabled him to record acts of reading performed by an eminent scholar almost a century before and an ocean away. And along the way, it facilitated remembrance of his own travels, both readerly and literal.

Frederic Clark received his PhD from Princeton in 2014 and is currently a Mellon postdoctoral fellow at Stanford. His research focuses on the cultural and intellectual history of early modern Europe, especially book history, classical reception, and the history of historical thought. He, Erin Schreiner, and JHI Blog editor Madeline McMahon are the curators of Readers Make Their Mark: Annotated Books at the New York Society Library (through to August 15, 2015).


  1. I find myself wondering about origins. Some of the Winthrops’ practices go back a long way–biobibliographical obsessiveness, for example, back to Bale himself and before him to monastic bibliographers. But what made these sixteenth-century Cambridge men–Dee, Harvey, Winthrop–such pathological artists of the margin? Did their tutors give lessons (as they seem to have given annotation lessons in Leipzig, as Maddy showed here some time ago, and in Paris)? Did they take independent paths to such a distinctive set of practices? Enquiring minds want to know.

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  2. Excellent point, Tony–thank you so much! The more I delve into Adam Winthrop the more I’m struck by the many points of similarity with Harvey, and I agree that there seems to have been something in the air in late sixteenth-century Cambridge as far as marginalia was concerned. As you and Lisa Jardine showed so wonderfully about Harvey, reading and annotation were inherently social phenomena, and it seems as though it was for Adam as well, based not only on the records we have of his lending of books, but also of the multiple other hands that are swarming through many of the copies. I wonder if this might explain part of the obsession with contextualization and bibliographical notes: perhaps it’s a form not only of aiding your own memory/interpretation of a text, but also of sharing it with others, and advertising your erudition in the process.

    I also think that there’s a broader story here about the transmission of the idea of bibliographic encyclopedism (itself something with deep monastic origins, but which seems to have taken on a distinctive new form in the culture of international Protestant erudition)–from the Zurich of Conrad Gesner and and the continuators of the Bibliotheca Universalis like Josias Simler to John Bale and John Dee. Dee’s copiously annotated copies of Bale, Gesner, and Simler are fascinating, and so there’s a story that leads from Zurich to London/Cambridge and finally to New England. Dee responded enthusiastically to Simler’s call to update the “universal bibliography,” and not only did he produce many notes along the line of “I have this…” or “I saw this…” but it recently struck me how much Simler is doing exactly the same thing–mentioning manuscripts he’d seen in Italian libraries and the like. Hence, so much of bibliography (whether printed or done through manuscript annotation) becomes an attempt to map–quite literally–the physical locations of both books themselves and one’s reading of them.

    Finally, I’d love to learn more about the links, if any, between Dee and Adam Winthrop. While the direct evidence suggests that it was John Jr who first began the family’s obsession with the English magus, Dee’s style of reading and Adam’s are strikingly similar. Perhaps this is reflective of a kind of “Cambridge School” of marginalia in the late sixteenth century? And just how much were figures like Adam Winthrop–linked to the university but not a scholar by profession–aware of Dee’s bookish projects? I can’t wait to find out more!

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