The Double Life of the Letter “U”

The letter “u” is a workhorse of the alphabet. It occurs so frequently that it will earn you only one point in Scrabble. Even so, it flies under the radar, escaping our notice. Now, texting threatens to elevate it to a pronoun. Have we underestimated this unassuming letter? The time has come for a closer look.
The letter derives from a character in the Phoenician script, attested from the eleventh century B.C.E., that originated as a pictogram of a hook, but also a sound transliterated as wāw. As the Phoenician script spread through the Mediterranean world, neighboring cultures adapted it to their own languages. In Greek, it became the upsilon—Υ, or υ in the lower case. In Latin, it became the v, which, despite its appearance, had the phonological value of our long u. The current, rounded form did not emerge in the Latin alphabet until the second century, when a book script developed that lost the angularity of earlier Roman scripts principally used for carving into stone.
The two forms coexisted throughout the medieval period. Its two forms, and the two strokes needed to form the letter, gave scholars much food for thought. A Carolingian scholar asked, “What is meant by its two strokes? And what do its two forms mean—the first oblique and the second straight? The first signifies evil speech and the last, good speech.” These same features prompted another scholar to the following ruminations: “How wide and spacious is life that leads to death! And how narrow and confined is the way that leads to life!”
We like the notion of a letter with an evil twin. Here are a few examples from our pre-1650 holdings. All are examples of the rounded form of u, but we hope the sentiments they help express do not lead you down the wayward path.
 Missal (1).jpg
This manuscript contains the prayers, rubrics, and music necessary to celebrate Mass. This image is of the Preface of the Canon. The Canon of the Mass often received special attention from scribes and  decorators as a way of acknowledging the sacrality of this portion of the rite. Decoration probably served a practical purpose as well. Since the Canon was the unvarying part of the mass, the priest needed to turn to it each time he celebrated mass. Large, colorful initials made it easier to find the necessary text.
This design is a monogram, when two letters combine to form a symbol. The two letters are u and d of the first two words of the prayer,uere dignum et iustus est [It is truly right and just]. The letters are hard to recognize because the artist has made them nearly symmetrical, but the priest would have had no difficulty recognizing this familiar prayer.
Notice also how, to the left of the monogram, the descender of the p sprouts both an acanthus leaf and a lizard’s head. The lizard looks like he is on his way over to take a bite out of the monogram, as if about to enact his own eucharistic feast.
This manuscript contains the coronation rites of Charles IV and of his wife Jeanne d’Evreux, a rite that took place on May 11, 1326. The manuscript is particularly significant because only three other illustrated coronation rites have survived. Ours is lavishly illustrated, with over thirty historiated initials. Scholars think the book was probably prepared in advance of the event and intended as a souvenir for a relative, possibly one of Jeanne d’Evreux’s sisters or Charles IV’s sister, Isabella of England.
The manuscript is open to the prayers the archbishop recited as he anointed the king. The first initial introduces the text, Ungo te in regem de olio sanctificato [With chrism I anoint you king]. It is an historiated initial that depicts the archbishop, crozier in hand, as he anoints the king’s forehead. An attendant, only partly visible, stands behind the kneeling king.
Below the historiated initial there is a second initial that contains the arms of Jeanne d’Evreux. It introduces an antiphon sung by the archbishop’s attendants. This antiphon invokes the coronation of Solomon by Zadoch and Nathan in the 1 Kings. The juxtaposition of these two prayers unites the coronation of Charles IV, occuring in the here and now, to the coronation of Solomon, occuring in the timeless, ahistorical realm of the liturgy.
 William (1).jpg
This manuscript contains a chronicle of the history of England commonly known as the prose Brut. The Brut draws on legend and history in equal parts, including figures such as Arthur and Merlin, along with Edward the Confessor and Harold Godwinson. The title derives from the figure of Brutus, the son of Aeneas and the legendary founder of Britain. The work was composed in the late thirteenth century in Anglo-Norman, but was later translated into Middle English with continuations to bring it up to date.
The manuscript is open to the section of the text that recounts the conquest of England. The section, introduced by a five-line initial, begins, “Whan Willia[m] Bastard duke of Normandye had conquerred al Þe londe uppon Cristmasseday next sewyng he was crowned king at Westmynst.” Since the w is the only decorated initial inside this manuscript aside from one at the text’s opening, we may assume that William the Conqueror was especially significant to the book’s first owner.
The letter w was not part of the Latin alphabet, but was introduced in English during the Middle Ages. First a convention arose of doubling the u when it served as a consonant. Eventually, it became a letter in its own right. That its form is of a double v and its name the double u attests to the interchangablilty of these letters throughout the Middle Ages.
Isidore of Seville’s encyclopedia, commonly known as the Etymologies, was a popular textbook throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. According to Stephen Barney, the work’s most recent editor, “it was the most influential book, after the Bible…for nearly a thousand years.” It gathers all knowledge into twenty books, ranging from the succintly titled “Grammar” (Book 1) to the more unwieldy, “Tables, Foodstuffs, Drink and their Vessels, Vessels for Wine, Water, and Oil, Vessels of Cooks, Bakers and Lamps, Beds, Chairs, Vehicles, Rural and Garden Implements, Equestrian Equipment” (Book 20).  Along the way it stops at the “Cosmos and its Parts” (Book 13).
The printer left space for initials to be hand-painted later, as well as small guide letters so the artist would know what letter to make. On this page, the guide letter is the straight form of the letter while the initial painted by the decorator is the rounded form. JC
Missal, ca. 12th century. Pre-1650 MS 0101
Ordo ad consecrandum et coronandum regem et reginam Franciae. France, approximately 1326-1330. Pre-1650 MS 0124
[Here begynneth a boke in Englysshe tonge called Brute of Ingelond, or, The cronycles of Ingelond.] England, ca. 1450. Pre-1650 MS 0116
Isidore of Seville. d. 636. Isidori Iunioris Hispalensis Episcopi Epistola Liber etimologiarum. Augsburg: Ginther Zainer, 19 November 1472.Incunabula Q. 871 I5e.Z

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A 12th-Century Charter

This charter records a privilege granted to the city of Como, Italy, by the German king and Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V (1086-1125).


Henry V is mostly known for his role in drawing up the Concordat of Worms, which brought the investiture controversy to a close. His life tends to pale next to that of his father Henry IV, who deposed a pope and was excommunicated in turn. Henry V did his best to live up to his father’s example. He took a pope prisoner, for example, to extract an imperial coronation out of him.  However, this charter gives us insight into more subtle tactics of persuasion.


The dating clause states that it was granted “In the ninth indiction, in the year 1116 of the Incarnation, when Henry V had reigned eleven years as the King of the Romans and six as emperor.” The charter was one of many he made on a trip to Italy to secure his inheritance. His wife, Matilda had died in 1115. During her lifetime she had changed her mind several times about how to dispose of her lands, signing them over to the church, then back to Henry again. En route, he granted a number of urban privileges to gain the support of locals.

This charter grants the right of imperial protection to the cities of Como and Menaggio:

“We order that no bishop, duke, margrave, dignitary, or any person, great or small, shall presume to subjugate or harm the aforementioned men, or deprive them of their lands. For whoever shall do it, let him know that he will gather one thousand pounds of the best gold to be shared between our court and the aforementioned citizens. ”


Charter-Seal.jpg It is authenticated with an imperial monogram. Henry had two monograms. Here he used his imperial monogram. It stands for HEINRICUS DEI GRA[TIA] QUARTUS ROMANORUM IMPERATOR AUGUSTUS [Henry, by the grace of God, the Fourth annointed emperor of the Romans]. (He was the fifth Henry, but only the fourth to become emperor). Each letter of the sentence is only represented once, and the same lines recombine to form different letters.

Burchard von Holte writes the recognition clause. He was the bishop of Muenster, but seems to have preferred accompanying Henry around the Empire to putzing around his diocese.

The charter is the oldest document in the Archivio Cavagna Sangiuliani in Zelada portion of the Cavagna Collection, which consists of both manuscript and printed materials relating to local history of Italian cities and towns, institutions, societies, and families. Please contact a staff member if you would like to request this item for use in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. JC

CAV 53.7


Further Reading

More fun facts about the Salian dynasty can be found in,

Fuhrmann, Horst. Germany in the High Middle Ages, c. 1050-1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Scholarly sources on royal and imperial monograms of the Middle Ages are scarce. The best source I have been able to find is,

Baudis, Gottfried Leonhard. Monogrammatum Imperatorum Ac Regum Germanicorum A Carolo M. Usque Ad Excessum Conradi III….Leipzig: Breitkopf, 1737

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The Rare Book & Manuscript Library Invites Visiting Scholar Applications

The John “Bud” Velde Visiting Scholars Program

The Rare Book & Manuscript Library

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

CALL FOR APPLICATIONS, 2016-17 Program Cycle

The Rare Book & Manuscript Library annually awards two stipends of up to $3,000 to scholars and researchers, unaffiliated with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who would like to spend a month or more conducting research with our materials.

The holdings of The Rare Book & Manuscript Library are substantial. Comprehensive collections support research in printing and printing history, Renaissance studies, Elizabethan and Stuart life and letters, John Milton and his age, emblem studies, economic history, and works on early science and natural history. The library also houses the papers of such diverse literary figures as Carl Sandburg, H. G. Wells, William Maxwell, and W. S. Merwin. In addition, it is anticipated that the Gwendolyn Brooks Papers will be open to researchers in time for this program cycle.

For information about this program, how to apply, and to find out more about The Rare Book & Manuscript Library, please visit our Web site at:

Please contact the Public Programs Manager, Dennis Sears, with further questions about the program or the Rare Book & Manuscript Library:

Or email Dennis: dsears (at) illinois (dot) edu.

Deadline for application: *5 February 2016*.

Thank you!


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The Rule of Saint Benedict

This wonderful historiated initial comes from the opening of our copy of the La regle saint Benoit, a French translation of the Rule of Saint Benedict. The illustration shows Saint Benedict addressing four attentive nuns. The artist incorporates suggestive details that give the scene a liveliness that is surprising for so small a picture. The nun closest to Benedict points to a passage, as if asking for clarification. Benedict holds his book closed, appearing to keep his place with his index finger as he pauses to answer a question.

Initial Detail DSC01328

Decorated initials are among the most striking features of manuscripts, but they were not widely attested until the Middle Ages. Books were rarely decorated in the ancient world because, even though literacy rates were higher, oratory remained the principal means of delivery while the physical books and scrolls were relegated to supporting roles.

During the Middle Ages, with the influence of Christianity, the book became important both symbolically and practically as an instrument of textual transmission. Decorated initials helped to reveal the structure of a text by emphasizing the beginnings of works, sections and verses. Historiated initials such as this one tended to be reserved for major divisions, while smaller initials might break a text into sections. A memorably decorated initial would help a reader locate its associated text. This is especially so when it reflected the text’s meaning, as in this case, where the initial introduces the sentence, Escoute fille les coma[n]demens de ton maître [Listen, daughters, to the commandments of your teacher]. It may seem odd that the initial, so appealing to the eye, introduces the injunction to “listen.” It reflects a cultural milieu in which the reception of texts was both auditory and visual.

Our copy was produced in northeastern France toward the end of the thirteenth century. In addition to the Rule, it also contains other devotional works, including Li livres des tribulations, Chanson d’amors de pure povreteit, and three short treatises. The French has feminine inflections, suggesting that the book was made for a female readership. An inscription pasted into the book by Claude de Grilly, a nun at the Abbey of Sainte-Glossinde, suggests the book may have been made for that convent.  JC


Benedict, Saint, Abbot of Monte Cassino. La regle saint Benoit. ([Lorraine, approximately 1275-1300]). Pre-1650 MS 0098

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Like an insect in amber

It is not unusual to run across insects in old books: flies and spiders get squashed in the margins, and paper-loving silverfish perish between the pages they’ve been dining on. However, it is out of the ordinary to find one embedded in a book’s actual paper, as RBML cataloger Linda Bial did recently!

10-23-15 Spider_1

This unfortunate spider evidently fell into the mold where fresh paper was dried during the paper-making process. Paper in the days of handpress books was a precious and pricey commodity, and undoubtedly the printer saw no reason to discard a perfectly good piece of it just because of one little arachnid. The spider portion of the paper ended up being incorporated into the final blank leaf of gathering 3R and none of the previous owners opened the uncut top edge, perhaps seeing no reason to expose the spider any more than it already was.

10-23-15 Spider_2

The book, a mathematical work by Gerardus Vossius, was printed in Amsterdam in 1650 and the paper was likely manufactured in the same area, making this a Western European spider. It appears to be of the family Pholcidae, known informally as “cellar spiders.”

Like the ghostly handprint which cataloger Chloe Ottenhoff found in the paper of a book earlier this year (, the material presence of the spider makes book production from over 350 years ago seem like it happened just yesterday. SL

Gerardus Joannes Vossius. Gerardi Ioannis Vossii De quatuor artibus popularibus, de philologia, et scientiis mathematicis. (Amstelaedami : Ex typographeio Ioannis Blaeu, MDCL [1650])
839.38 V93q:

10-23-15 Spider_4

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Who Saw the Wright Brothers’ First Successful Flight?


When the Wright Brothers went to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to successfully test their “Flyer,” the first successful airplane, they did not drag behind them a train of reporters, public relations flacks, or the other impedimenta we associate with technological breakthroughs. There was too much uncertainty; there had been too much failure before. As it happened, the December 1903 flights were a breakthrough—but unspectacular, as the Wrights struggled to control the plane.

A few scant messages about the flight leaked out from this distant outpost. They did not make an impression, except upon Amos Ives Root, a businessman in Medina, Ohio. He was a beekeeper and owned a candle business, and published a beekeeper’s journal, Gleanings in Bee Culture. Besides beeswax, he was passionate about both his fervent conservative Christian faith and about keeping abreast of the latest advances in technology. He was the first American to ride a velocipede and was an early adopter of the automobile, which he had to defend on Christian grounds to his detractors. Inspired by the bees around him, he eagerly awaited powered flight.

The Wrights, and their Flyer, were thus of tremendous interest. Root particularly liked that they were the sons of a prominent minister. In March 1904—three months after the first flight—he mentioned them in his “Our Homes” editorial column, which closed out every issue of Gleanings. Several months later, Root drove across Ohio to see the Wrights in Dayton.

By fall and winter of 1904, the Wrights had made significant improvements both to the Flyer and to their piloting skill. Over the course of 1904 they would perform over a hundred flights—again, to very little fanfare until Amos Root arrived at Huffman Prairie. There, Root was the first journalist of any definition to actually see an airplane in action—and it was quite a show, with the airplane able to make complete circles, get thirty feet in the air, and stay aloft for more than five minutes, all of which had been impossible two years earlier.

Root depicted the scene at length in “Our Homes” feature for the January 1, 1905 issue of Gleanings in Bee Culture. He began by invoking a Biblical text—“What Hath God Wrought?” from the prophet Jeremiah—which was also Samuel Morse’s first telegraph message. He described the flights he saw, the conversations he had with the Wrights and their assistants, and explained the plane’s shape and its workings, in layman’s terms.  He also speculated on the future of the airplane—even though he hedged his bets, his technological optimism shone through.

Gleanings in Bee Culture lives on as Bee Culture, and Root Candles still produces candles. Root’s status as the first published eyewitness of powered flight is just now becoming widely known. The 1904 and 1905 issues of Gleanings in Bee Culture featuring the Wrights have become rare, and the ones that survive have become brittle with age.  The University of Illinois Library is fortunate to have copies in good condition, with only minor wear. The Rare Book & Manuscript Library invites you to take a look at them, where they stand alongside a collection of other important scientific and technological articles and journals. —Alfred Wallace, graduate student, Graduate School of Library and Information Science

Gleanings in Bee Culture. Medina, Ohio: A. I. Root Co., 1904 and 1905. 638.05 G 

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Reunited for the First Time Since 1879: Six Books and an Invoice

Cavagna Receipt_2

When private libraries like the Cavagna Collection–containing over 40,000 books and manuscripts–are purchased, one of the first questions that arises is how these owners and collectors acquired their books. A Pavia native, Cavagna purchased his books primarily from booksellers around northern Italy. The evidence we’ve encountered so far suggests that he turned and returned to several sources when buying. We look at one of these sources in this post, a bookseller in Como who sold Cavagna six books in October, 1879.

We discovered this bookseller’s invoice in July 2015, laid in Constitutiones synodales Burgi S. Donnini (1697). It details six books that Cavagna bought and their prices, including the book in which we found the invoice. The bookseller was Felice Mojana whose shop was located at Via Meraviglie N. 249. Mojana advertised himself as a dealer of antique and modern books, both Italian and foreign (“stranieri”). Among the other services he offered were bookbinding and book-lending; for a 1.50 lire monthly fee and a 5 lire deposit, a customer could borrow secondhand books from the shop. Mojana also apparently bought and sold other antiques, including furniture, currency, weapons, and paintings.

Cavagna Receipt_8
The invoice is dated the 11th of October and the total bill was 14 lire, after Mojana gave Cavagna a 5.75 lire discount. Does the discount indicate that Cavagna was rewarded for being a loyal customer, or was such generosity an everyday part of Mojana’s service? We have not yet come across any similar invoices, but there is at least one other book in the Cavagna Collection that was sold by Mojana, a scarce 1878 pamphlet titled Il Santissimo Crocifisso di Como, suggesting that Cavagna may have paid recurring visits to the shop. The invoice is also inscribed in a familiar manner by Mojana, “mi segno con profondo rispetto, il divotissimo servo Mojana Felice” (“Signed with deep respect, your devoted servant Mojana Felice”). A couple of the titles from the invoice exist in multiple copies within the Cavagna Collection, suggesting that Cavagna either did not keep track of what he owned or that he couldn’t resist a good deal.

Cavagna Receipt_4
All six books eventually came to reside at RBML after a trans-Atlantic journey and nearly one hundred years of knocking around the University of Illinois library, and for the first time since their 1879 purchase, we’ve reunited them. Together, they provide a rich insight into a 19th-century collector and his habits. SL

Cavagna Receipt_5

1. Acta primae et secundae synodi dioec. Comen de annis MDLXV et MDLXXIX. (Comi : Apud Hieronymum Frouam, 1588). 10 lire.
274.522 C731579 copy 2:
2. Constitutiones synodales Burgi S. Donnini … (Fidenza : Typis Iosephi Rossetti, impressoris episcopalis, 1697). 2.75 lire.
274.5411 B645c:
3. Pasta, Guiseppe. Delle acque minerali del Bergamasco: trattato. (Bergamo : Dalla stamperia Locatelli, 1794) 2.50 lire.
615.79 P26d copy 2:
4. Raineri, Giovanni Battista. Breve ragguaglio delle virtù della marchesa d. Maria Margherita Durina Serponti. (Milano : Nella Stampería di Pietro Antonio Frigerio, 1756). 1.50 lire.
B. D962r:
5. Regola di S. Benedetto abate e patriarca de’ monaci … (Mantova : Nella stamperìa di S. Benedetto, per Alberto Pazzoni, stampatore arciducale, 1723) 1.50 lire.
Cavagna 271.1 B43rI1723:
6. Mattioti, Giovanni. Vita di s. Francesca Romana … (Venetia : Appresso Francesco Bolzetta, 1610) 1.50 lire.
B. F8153mI:

Cavagna Receipt_7

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