A Rare Vellum Printing

A book may be interesting on the basis of its physical features, its intellectual content, or its history of ownership. Here we have the trifecta: a book of unusual, even beautiful, material construction, containing a text of scholarly interest, and a well-documented sequence of former owners. It is among the most exciting books I have had the pleasure of cataloging since I arrived at John J. Burns Library last November.


Don’t be misled by the title page. This book was not printed in Leuven, Belgium, in 1674 but in Dublin, Ireland, in 1829.

The full title is The Bleeding Iphigenia, or An excellent Preface of a Work Unfinished, Published by the Authors Friend, with the Reasons of Publishing It. Written by Nicholas French, Bishop of Ferns, Bleeding Iphigenia is a rallying cry for the property rights of Irish and English Catholics during the upheaval following the Restoration of Charles II. The title refers to the mythological Greek princess sacrificed by her father to appease the goddess Artemis. Here Iphigenia represents Ireland, sacrificed and betrayed in the wake of the Restoration. French intended the text as a preface to his 1674 polemic The Dolefull Fall of Andrew Sall, which castigated his friend and colleague, an Irish Jesuit, for converting to Anglicanism. For reasons unknown, this preface was omitted and issued separately, perhaps in 1675 or slightly later, and with no title page.

This copy, however, is not from the circa 1675 edition, but a 19th century reprint. Although the title page reads “Lovain: Printed in the Year MDCLXXIV,” alluding to the time and place of its original composition, this book was actually printed in 1829 by the Dublin firm Hodges and Smith. The publishers make this explicitly clear in their preface to the “very rare and curious tract … now offered to the public with all the inaccuracies which denote the foreign Press, from whence the original issued.” Indeed, the introduction aside, the text is a line-by-line facsimile of the original edition, retaining its archaic spellings, line-endings, catchwords, and punctuation. Most extraordinarily, Hodges and Smith chose to print a small number of copies, of which the Burns Library copy is one, not on paper but on vellum.


In their introduction to Bleeding Iphigenia, the publishers declare their intention to reprint “scarce works relating to Ireland.” Page iv from The Bleeding Iphigenia, or An excellent Preface of a Work Unfinished, Published by the Authors Friend, with the Reasons of Publishing It, by Nicholas French, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Vellum, also known as parchment, is made from animal skin, generally calf or sheep, which is treated with lime before being stretched and scraped smooth. In widespread use for European manuscripts through the medieval period, vellum could never be produced on the industrial scale demanded by the printing press. Printers rationally adopted paper as the more economical material, using vellum exclusively for small editions marketed as luxury items, today rare in any library.

According to the 1884 auction of a portion of the Earl of Gosford’s library, Hodges and Smith issued only three vellum copies, though the 1867 sale of George Smith’s library states there were six. WorldCat locates seven libraries in possession of an 1829 Bleeding Iphigenia, three of which—the National Library of Ireland, the Newberry Library, and Burns Library—are positively identified as vellum. The remaining four institutions do not specify if their copies are on paper or vellum, but having made inquiries with librarians at Harvard University, the University of Kansas and the University of Cambridge, I have been able to confirm the existence of at least three copies on paper, and there are likely more in private collections.


A typical page of text from Bleeding Iphigenia, showing how the publishers have emulated the original edition down to the typeface and line-endings. Pages 34-35 from The Bleeding Iphigenia, or An excellent Preface of a Work Unfinished, Published by the Authors Friend, with the Reasons of Publishing It, by Nicholas French, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

To round out the triple threat of bibliographic curiosity, there is the book’s provenance, beginning with Archibald Acheson, third Earl of Gosford (1806-1864), whose autograph signature is seen on the front pastedown. Beneath Gosford’s signature is a clipping, describing the book, from a printed bookseller’s catalog. Whether the clipping represents the bookseller from whom Gosford himself, or a later owner, purchased the book, is open to debate. Gosford’s library, which included a Gutenberg Bible among other treasures, was sold to London bookseller James Toovey in 1878, and subsequently dispersed in a series of sales, including the 1884 auction noted above (De Ricci, 1960, 156).


The inside cover of Bleeding Iphigenia is a goldmine of information about previous owners, as evidenced by signatures, bookplates, and stamps.

The next documented owner was Irish judge and bibliophile William O’Brien, whose 1899 bequest to the Jesuit Library at Milltown Park is evident in the bookplates and stamps on the front pastedown and title page. In 2016 many of the rare books at Milltown Park were sold at auction, including the 1829 Bleeding Iphigenia, which was acquired by a Dublin bookseller, and soon after purchased by the Burns Library.


The front cover of Bleeding Iphigenia provides a fine example of blind-tooling, the technique of impressing leather with decorative flourishes using a heated metal tool.

Bound in 19th-century full green morocco with blind-tooled boards, the volume is a pleasure to behold, though I am afraid the photos do not do justice to the look and feel of its vellum pages. As always, interested readers are most welcome to visit the reading room to consult the book in person.  







Noah Sheola

Special Collections Cataloging Librarian, John J. Burns Library

Works Consulted:

ESTC, and British Library. English Short Title Catalogue (Online). London: British Library, 1992.

Jones, Thomas, Francis Peck, James Henthorn Todd, and Charles Dodd. A Catalogue of the Collection of Tracts for and against Popery (published in or about the Reign of James II.) in the Manchester Library Founded by Humphrey Chetham Manchester: Printed for the Chetham Society, 1859.

Puttick and Simpson. Catalogue of the Fine, Extensive and Valuable Library of the Rt. Hon. the Earl of Gosford … London: G. Norman & Son, 1884.

Ricci, Seymour De. English Collectors of Books & Manuscripts (1530-1930) and Their Marks of Ownership. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1960.

Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge. Catalogue of the extensive and very valuable library of books in all languages … formed with consummate taste and judgment by the late George Smith, Esq. London: Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge, 1867.

This entry was posted in Acquisitions, Irish Studies, Jesuitica, Rare books and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A Rare Vellum Printing

  1. J.B. Walsh says:

    Interesting article. Thanks for sharing this.

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