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Jacques Auguste de Thou, the romantic

The following was written by Camille Davis, curatorial assistant to Dr. Eric Ensley 

Jacques Auguste de Thou (8 October 1553, Paris – 7 May 1617, Paris), also known by his Latin name, Thuanus, was a French historian and president of the Parliament of Paris. He was also the key negotiator in the Edict of Nantes with the French Huegonots. In special collections libraries, he is known by his distinct provenance bindings that leave a trail of his history throughout the stacks. 

Fig. 1 showing de Thou and his second wife Gasparde de La Chastre’s coat of arms with conjoint monogram “I A G”. Image from Provenance Online Project on Flickr

While he inherited his father’s library in 1583, de Thou was also known to be an avid book collector himself. Unlike other collectors, his books have three distinct decorative styles that inform us of when in his life he acquired these books. As the Conservation Online database notes, “many of [de Thou’s] books were simply bound in red, olive, or citron colored morocco, with plain boards, a few border lines in gilt, and his coat of arms in the center of the upper cover, surrounded by laurel branches, but with only the title and his cipher on the spine” (“Jacques Auguste de Thou”). This distinctive style makes his bindings particularly easy to spot when pulling from the stacks. The first binding style is simply his coat of arms: argent, a chevron between three sable flies, and his initials. We know that he had these books bound when he was a bachelor as his other two bindings were always ciphers of his coat of arms and initials. When he was married to his first wife, Marie Barbançon, the provenance bindings seamlessly integrate his sable fly insignia with her triple lion coat-of-arms. A cipher of their initials also appears at the bottom of this gilt binding (Fig.1). After she dies and he is remarried to Gasparde de la Chastre, he will once more ask for his custom bindings to represent their shared coat of arms. After his death, his son, François Auguste de Thou would continue to have books bound with this final cipher. This moving tribute to both of his parents also can make it difficult to discern which of the De Thous had the book bound. 

Typically, these coats of arms are gilt and are on plain brown calf bindings that have minimal tooling. However, the British Library, specifically, has many particularly interesting bindings that had belonged to de Thou. Karen Limper-Herz, binding expert and the curator of incunabula at the British Library, has previously discussed how de Thou, as a bachelor, had several lovely green and gold gilt fanfare bindings made for him as a bachelor. Another book in the British Library’s holdings that is distinctly different than his later bindings is a painted goatskin binding that was bound for de Thou during his marriage with his second wife, Gasparde de la Chastre.

Fig 2. showing coat of arms of de Thou and his first wife Marie Barbançon, with conjoint monogram “I A M” below. Image from Camille Davis, Special Collections & Archives

During the time that we have been recataloging the 16th century books at the University of Iowa Special Collections & Archives, we have spotted at least one of de Thou’s bindings and we certainly expect that there are more yet to be discovered in the stacks. The binding that was spotted was from the time when de Thou was married to his first wife, Marie Barbançon. As is typical for de Thou’s bindings, a laurel wreath surrounds their insignias (Fig. 2). Above the combined coats-of-arms, there is a ribbon that says “Jac August Thaunus.” In the center of the coats-of-arms is a cipher of the combined “IAT” (the “I” being a replacement for “J” at the time) and “M” so that both spouses are represented. 

Fascinatingly, this book is a copy of letters to and responses from John Calvin as well as “several letters from distinguished men in the church of God” (or, as the title actually is in Latin, “Ioannis Calvini Epistolae et responsa: quibus interiectae sunt insignium in ecclesia Dei virorum aliquot etiam epistolae,” FOLIO BX9420 .A5). Since we know that this book was in de Thou’s possession, it gives further proof of how he was actively reading the work of the major Protestant minds of the time so that he might be able to work with them on behalf of the French government. If it were ever possible, it would be compelling to see a full compendium of the works in his library so that more could be known about which works de Thou thought were the most relevant to his time, his life and his work. 

It is likely that the University of Iowa has more of de Thou’s bindings within their stacks. After de Thou’s death, his collection of 13,000 books became the property of Jean-Jacques Charron before they were sold off in 1789. Since that time, these books have found happy homes in many special collection stacks. However, unless a library is particularly attuned to those researchers who wish to search library catalogs for bindings and provenance, like the British Library or the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, then it can be particularly hard to find these bindings. Another interesting future digital humanities project would be to follow where all of de Thou’s books ended up; especially if a significant portion ended up in publicly accessible holdings. Then we would be able to piece together a more complete portrait of what books this significant bibliophile, statesman and historian of the 16th century found to be the most valuable books both for his own edification and for his writing. It would have significant implications for the book trade of the time. But, until such a project could happen, we will have to keep one eye open for this unique cipher that winks at us whenever we pass through the stacks. 

Works Cited

“Thou, Jacques Auguste De ( 1553-1617 ).” [CoOL], 

The Legacy of Flatland

The following was written by Marie Ernster, practicum student from School of Library and Information Science

The field of mathematics was in a period of philosophical volatility in England in the 19th century. A huge debate raged in the area of geometry over whether they should allow non-Euclidean concepts to enter the pedagogy. Among the traditionalists, geometry represented a means of providing consistent models that would bring certainty to the universe. Non-Euclidean geometry threatened this certainty because it went against the established metrics of empiricism in mathematics. In exploring extra dimensionality through mathematics, this new paradigm would change the very foundation of how geometry could be used as a piece of evidence in the consistency of the universe.

In 1883 President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Arthur Cayley, addressed these

Edwin Abbott Abbott, Image from Wikipedia

concerns by pointing out that mathematics was pushing beyond its established boundaries, and his fellow mathematicians should proceed cautiously with their exploration in this new field. He understood that mathematicians would use geometry to explore beyond three dimensions, so he asked that they not leave their more traditional peers behind. One year later, under the pseudonym of “A Square,” Edwin Abbott Abbott (yes, two Abbotts) decided to take a different path from Cayley and explain non-Euclidean geometry in the ground-breaking work Flatland.

Abbott himself was an avid writer at this point in his life, while still working as headmaster for the City School of London until his retirement in 1889. He usually published English guides, such as How to Write Clearly and English Lessons for English People, as well as theological writings like Silanus the Christian and Philochristus. As headmaster, he made elementary knowledge of chemistry compulsory because he believed that students should have a reverence for science. Abbott understood that some of the fears of English mathematicians came from how the association between certainty and geometry made their very faith in Universal Truths shakable as well. After all, if the unassailable reality of geometry could be so affected, then what else could prove the certainty of their own lives? Well, Edwin Abbott Abbott took the proverbial hands of these people, and showed them how to maintain certainty despite these fears.

In the world of Flatland: a romance of many dimensions,  A Square describes a world that exists on an infinite plane; essentially, he lives on a huge piece of paper. A Square describes the basic mechanics of living in such a land: how they can see and navigate, how they know what shapes are and how to differentiate them, how the social structures based on sidedness works, and so on and so forth. But then, A Square meets a circle (the shape considered most important because of its near incalculable sidedness) unlike any circle he had ever met before because this circle was actually a sphere capable, to the eyes of the square, of reducing itself to a small point and then to complete invisibility. A Square eventually learns from the sphere that there are more dimensions than the two he uses to navigate his plane of existence. The gospel of the third dimension is radical to A Square, and near incomprehensible when he exists in his own plane because he has no vocabulary to adequately describe the concept of the third dimension. To make things even more difficult, the priestly circles who govern his world declare that any teaching of the third dimension would lead to imprisonment, or even death. As it goes, A Square ends his story imprisoned for the rest of his life for speaking about the third dimension because he couldn’t contain his excitement about this new paradigm of existence.

Considering the infighting amongst mathematicians at the time, it seems more calculated than cute of Abbott to publish this story under a pseudonym. After all, he uses Flatland to conceptualize the fourth dimension and more beyond that. But he wasn’t just critiquing the traditionalist dogma of mathematics; Abbott was attempting to show that non-Euclidean geometry was the next natural step in the evolution of mathematics—a means to find deeper, more certain truths about the universe than what Euclidean geometry could hope to achieve.

Beyond that, Abbott used Flatland to critique English culture at the time, especially the rigid social dogmas that restricted creative thought and expression. In the second edition of his story, Abbott added a preface under a new pseudonym (called the “Editor”) where he explained that women need greater consideration in wider culture. He uses the treatment of women in Flatland to demonstrate that the rigid social and educational control over women in England prevents them from contributing intellectually to the cultural discourse. The women of Flatland are vapid fools because this is the only option given to them.

Jumping almost a hundred years later, the 1980 Arion Press edition of Flatland found in the Sackner Archive provides an interesting tangibility to Flatland and its inhabitants. Printed on a single, accordion folded sheet of paper, this edition of Flatland provides unique type formatting and crisp illustrations to the story. It can be rather daunting to read a short story that comes with handling instructions, but that makes this copy all the more fascinating. The introduction in this edition is by Ray Bradbury, who presents a wholly literary perspective on the piece and its merits. Bradbury explains Abbott’s creation of Flatland as a process of building strange and silly ideas on top of each other, one after another. Abbott takes the serious and straightforward concept of mathematical geometry and turns it into a silly allegorical story about circles oppressing the creative intellectual growth of other shapes under their purview. Bradbury’s final note is that this book “won’t necessarily prevent us from being fools, but it may help us not to be absolute fools.” Flatland is a story about our own world and imperfect perspectives, presented through the whimsical lens of polygons and lines and points.

137 years later and Flatland still remains an interesting touchstone of debate and discussion about the mathematical concepts, feminist interpretations, and even genre definitions it encompasses. Even conventional genre labels cannot encompass the themes and ideas of a story about A Square living in a world of shapes. People debate whether it could technically be called science fiction when there isn’t anything all that scientific about it, or maybe literary culture as a whole should break down and call it “mathematical fiction,” even though such a label might only really exist for this story and the few pieces inspired by it.

Considering he never wrote another piece like it ever again, it seems as though Abbott expected his other works to become his greater legacy, or maybe he thought there could be no more to say about Flatland besides some minor corrections or clarifications from edition to edition. In fact, it is one of the shortest pieces he ever published. But the reality is Flatland: a romance of many dimensions became his most famous and enduring work because it presents a fantastical world so different and so similar to our own, with ideas that spark questions and debate to this day about intention and culture, that there could only ever be one


Special Note:

The Ruth and Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual poetry has a treasure trove of materials yet to be uncovered as parts of it awaits processing in Special Collections & Archives.  The Arion Press edition in the Sackner Collection has not yet been processed, but it will soon be accessible from the Special Collections & Archives website.


Gilbert, Elliot L. “’Upward, Not Northward’: Flatland and the Quest for the New.” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, vol. 34, no. 4, Arizona State University, Department of English, 1991, pp. 391–404.

School of Mathematics and Statistics. “Edwin Abbott Abbott – Biography.” Maths History, University of St. Andrews, Feb. 2005,

Valente, K. G. “Transgression and Transcendence: Flatland as a Response to “A New Philosophy”.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts, vol. 26, no. 1, Taylor and Francis Ltd, 2004, pp. 61–77, doi:10.1080/08905490410001683309.

Different Editions of Flatland at Special Collections & Archives:

Flatland by Edwin Abbot Abbott, Introduction by Ray Bradbury, Printer’s Note by Andrew Hoyem, 18th American Edition, 1980

The Annotated Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin Abbott Abbott, Introduction and Notes by Ian Stewart, 2008

Flatland: a romance of many dimensions by Derek Beaulieu, Afterword by Marjorie Perloff, 2007

It’s in the details: a closer look at Old Armory fire in an unlikely place

The following is written by University Archivist David McCartney

Image of the fire from the 1971 Hawkeye Yearbook

In the early morning hours of Saturday, May 9, 1970, the building housing the Dept. of Rhetoric mysteriously caught fire and was declared a total loss. Although the cause of the blaze was never determined, many to this day believe it was the work of arsonists. No one was injured. The building, Old Armory Temporary – nicknamed “Big Pink” – was a wooden frame structure situated roughly where the Adler Journalism and Mass Communication Building is now, just east of EPB and across the railroad tracks.The building’s destruction came just days after the deadly Kent State shootings in Ohio on May 4, 1970, and was emblematic of the anti-war protest movement that closed or threatened to close campuses across the U.S. that spring. While UI remained open, students were given the option to complete their semester’s work early and leave the campus, or remain on campus until semester’s end.Fast forward 51 years. In the Dept. of Special Collections & Archives, University Archives Assistant Denise Anderson is processing the Rhetoric Department’s records and recently noted a set of files that appear to have been singed on the papers’ edges. We are speculating that these records survived the 1970 fire, and were saved by Rhetoric staff.

Evidence of burnt edges on the file of Paul J. Kleinberger

Among the surviving records are documents concerning Paul J. Kleinberger, a graduate assistant in Rhetoric who in late 1967 had been suspended from his position by the university following his participation in the Dec. 5, 1967 Dow Chemical protest at the Iowa Memorial Union. Newspaper clippings, correspondence, and other records document this tumultuous chapter. Kleinberger was reinstated in early 1968 and continued to teach, but we don’t know what became of him; his last listing in the student directory is in the 1967-68 edition.Mr. Kleinberger’s letter to the dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Dewey Stuit, dated February 4, 1968, is his appeal to be reinstated. Also included here are a January 1968 article appearing in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, reporting his plan to appeal, and a portion of the Dept. of Rhetoric newsletter, dated November 9, 1967, about a month before the Kleinberger controversy unfolded.