In provenance research – the study of evidence of previous ownership of items – bookplates and other ex-libri can be a great resource. Taking into account that these plates could sometimes be recycled or added considerable time after a book had entered a collection, the identification of the individuals behind the bookplates can nevertheless be really rewarding. This is especially the case when plates turn up unexpectedly in unrelated collections or when we know for certain that the owner’s collection was dispersed.
This week’s bookplate turned up in the library at Hatfield House, pasted into an edition of the collected works by the 6th-century Byzantine scholar Procopius of Caesaria, printed in Paris in 1662-3 (fol., 2 vols.)
The bookplate, carrying the year 1702 and the humanistic motto ‘Michaeli Begon et amicis’ (Michel Begon’s and his friends’), probably belonged to Michel Bégon V – also ‘le grand Bégon – (1638-1710), an ancien regime official and prolific collector of books, works of art and plants. According to Wikipedia, that great source of all truth, the begonia was named after him. One of his cousins was married to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s finance minister, through whom Bégon may have secured some of his posts.
In 1699, Bégon’s library was said to contain 7000 volumes, along with ca. 60 manuscripts in different languages, and miscelleanous collections of images (printed and painted) of fish and birds, plants, people, and medals. There was a substantial herbarium and a good selection of maps and plans. Like many other collectors, he also assembled a large collection of medals and coins, some of which formerly belonged to Jean Grolier. Most of it was dispersed at his death.
The phrase ‘et amicis’ or ‘et amicorum’ was used with great frequency by book collectors in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The most famous of these was Jean Grolier, who had the motto ‘Io. Grolieri et amicorum’ stamped on some his distinctive bindings. This was not simply an expression of generosity, but a conscious formulation of a ‘common ground’ among people working towards the same goal, in this case, the higher good.
C. Coppen, ‘et amicorum: not just for friends‘, in Syntagmatia: Essays on neo-Latin literature…, ed. D. Sacré & J. Papy (Leuven UP, 2009), pp.9-18.
Michel Bégon, intendant de La Rochelle : correspondance et documents inédits recueillis, publiés et annotés par Georges Duplessis ; avec un portrait gravé à l’eau-forte par P. Sellier (Paris, Aubry, 1874)
Walter Hamilton, French Book-plates: A handbook for ex-libris collectors (London: George Bell & sons, 1892) , p. 126