Dr Abigail Brundin, University of Cambridge


The National Trust owns and manages over 150 properties in the United Kingdom that contain collections of books, the majority still housed in the buildings where they were assembled and read by their original owners. Between forty and fifty of the libraries in National Trust properties have been described as being of ‘major national significance’ (Purcell and Shenton, 2005). The contents of these libraries constitute an unparalleled resource for the study of the history of private book ownership in the United Kingdom. To date, comparatively little work has been done on most of these collections, although the process of cataloguing the major libraries is underway and ongoing, the results accessible to researchers on the Copac Catalogue as they become available.

This network project will function as a pilot study, in order to showcase future research potential in these exciting collections, which form an intrinsic part of our national cultural heritage. The network will bring together interested parties from a variety of backgrounds to discuss initial findings and collaborate on the way forward in future.

The pilot study will shed light on one aspect of the long and intricate history of these various libraries, by examining the place of Italian books in an English great house library in the wake of the Reformation. The relationship between Italy and England in the early modern period is particularly rich and complex. On the one hand, Italy acted as a cultural reference point for English writers, dramatists, artists, architects, who looked to that country for models and inspiration, while at the same time religious differences divided the countries of Catholic and reformed Europe. How far do the Italian books in an English library from this period reveal the tensions inherent in the relationship between the two countries, and what can they tell us about the reception and understanding of Italian culture and history in England in the early modern period?

The pilot study will take place at Belton House in Lincolnshire. Belton houses the Trust’s second largest library (over 11,000 titles), assembled by successive generations of the Brownlow family, and the collection has been fully catalogued. Within this rich and varied library are 229 works in Italian published between 1500 and 1800, across a variety of genres and subjects. A full analysis of these Italian holdings (conducted by the PI, a specialist in Italian literary history of the early modern period, and a research assistant specialising in book history and provenance), including a careful search for signs of readers’ interaction with the books, will form the basis for the workshop presentations and initial discussion.

Two themed workshops will follow the initial analysis. The first workshop (at Belton House) will explore the theme of ‘Cultural mobility in the early modern library’, considering the passage of continental books into English collections, and the social and cultural history contained in these texts. This event will rely on direct access to texts from the Belton collection to guide discussion, and will aim to map the various ways in which the books in National Trust libraries can and should be drawn into the narratives that these houses tell about the families that owned them. The second workshop, hosted by the Centre for Material Texts at the University of Cambridge, will explore the theme of ‘Great House libraries: an assessment of impact’, and will seek to advance new ideas about the curatorship of great house libraries, in discussion with the curators themselves. An exhibition will be held at Belton House showcasing the connections between book and place for a general audience. Finally, a planning meeting will put in place the framework for a larger project, spanning major European languages, and looking at the acquisition and reception of continental books in a number of English great house libraries after the Reformation.


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