Book with notes by John Milton found in Phoenix public library

A rare book with handwritten annotations by Paradise Lost author John Milton has been discovered in a public library in Phoenix, Arizona. This is only the third book with Milton’s notes known to survive, and one of only nine surviving books from his library.

The notes in two volumes of Holinshed’s Chronicles, a history of England, Ireland and Scotland published in 1587, were spotted by researchers in the Rare Book Room of the Burton Barr Central Library this March. Arizona State University faculty invited four visiting scholars to examine a selection of books collected by Alfred Knight, a real estate magnate, bibliophile and philanthropist who bequeathed his collection of more than 2,300 items, including a wide range of literary output from illuminated manuscripts to cuneiform tablets, Shakespeare folios and rare first editions, to the people of Phoenix in 1958. Knight had two fine first editions Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667–8) and collected prose (1697), but he had no idea that his copy of Holinshed was part of the great author’s personal library.

The Holinshed was among the books pulled for the research forum, and two of the visiting researchers recognized the distinctive italic handwriting in the notes as that of John Milton. Dr Aaron Pratt, Curator of Early Books & Manuscripts at University of Texas, was the first to notice that a letter “e” looked a lot like Milton’s “e.” Claire Bourne, the associate professor of English at Penn State who in 2019 had found Milton’s annotations in Shakespeare’s First Folio at the Philadelphia Free Library, compared the Holinshed’s notes to the Shakespeare ones, and found them so similar, she sent photos of the notes to Professor Jason Scott-Warren at the University of Cambridge. He didn’t hesitate to agree that this was Milton’s hand.

John Milton censors Raphael Holinshed's lewd anecdote about the mother of William the Conqueror, Arlete. Milton crosses the passage out with a diagonal line and adds a note saying: "an unbecom[ing] / tale for a hist[ory] / and as pedlerl[y] / expresst". Photo courtesy the Phoenix Public Library.The researchers found more than 100 annotations in the first volume alone. In one of them he takes umbrage at a passage, striking the entire paragraph with a diagonal line on the grounds that it is “an unbecoming tale for a history and as pedlerly expresst.” “Pedlerly” means junky, like something a peddler would sell. Milton was clutching his pearls over a rather juicy story, to be fair: the conception of William the Bastard, later known as William the Conqueror.

In the yéere of Christ 1030, Robert, the second sonne of Richard the second duke of Normandie, and brother to Richard the third duke of that name there having with great honour and wisedome gouerned his dukedome seven yéeres, for performance of a penance that he had set to himselfe, appointed a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; leaving behind him this William a yoong prince, whome seven yéeres before he had begotten upon his paramour Arlete (whom after he held as his wife) with whose beautifull favour, lovelie grace and presence, at hir dansing on a time then as he was tenderlie touched, for familiar utterance of his mind what he had further to say, would néeds that night she should be his bedfellow, who else as wivelesse should have lien alone: where when she was bestowed, thinking that if she should have laid hir selfe naked, it might have séemed not so maidenlie a part: so when the duke was about (as the maner is) to have lift up hir linnen, she in an humble modestie staid hir lords hand, and rent downe hir smocke asunder, from the collar to the verie skirt. Heereat the duke all smiling did aske hir what thereby she ment? In great lowlines, with a feate question she answerd againe; “My lord, were it méet that any part of my garments dependant about me downeward, should presume to be mountant to my sovereignes mouth vpward? Let your grace pardon me.” He liked hir answer: and so and so foorth for that time.

So basically, instead of letting Robert I take her shirt off, Arlete tore it off her body Chippendales’ style from neckline to waist. Nine months later, a bouncing baby Conqueror was born.

The researchers believe that the discovery opens up new perspectives on his engagement with a major source for his writings, including Of “Reformation “(1641) and “The History of Britain” (1670). He would have been working on both around the time—or shortly after—he was reading the “Chronicles”.

Several of Milton’s notes cite other books known to have been in his library. These include John Stow’s “Annales”, another key source of historical information. Milton also marked out Holinshed quoting Giovanni Villani’s “Chroniche di Firenze” (“Chronicles of Florence”), a book which Milton included in the curriculum he developed for his nephews in the 1640s.

The notes also emphasize Milton’s interest in continental poetry. Under Holinshed’s assertion that Richard the Lionheart was “not very notorious,” Milton added, “the booke of Provenzall poets numbers him in / the catalogue, telling of his poetrie, and his Provenzal / mistresses.” The researchers believe this book refers to Jean de Nostredame’s “Les vies des plus célèbres et anciens poètes provençaux” (Lyon, 1575), which discusses Richard’s poetry and mistresses.

4 thoughts on “Book with notes by John Milton found in Phoenix public library

  1. The 11th century “Gesta Hammaburgensis” report in Bk.2, 52 that…

    “…Cnut cunningly planned that with marriages the Angles and the Normans would become more loyal towards the Danes, in which he did not fail. However, Richard II (i.e. William’s granddad) wiggled out of the affair with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he passed away, leaving behind in Normandy his son Robert, whose son is the same Wilhelm that the Franks refer to as B… ”

  2. “…(Cnut the Great) callide ratus Anglos et Nortmannos per conubia Danis fideliores, quae res eum non fefellit. …

  3. (…) Chnut, Iherosolimam profectus, ibidem obiit, relinquens filium in Nortmannia nomine Rodbertum, cuius filius est iste Willelmus, quem Franci B… vocant…”

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