Left: A 'Facs' or ornamental letter in Pierce (sic) Ploughman's Creed. Right: Title-page from Bibliomania. Thomas Frognall Dibdin, Editor and illustrator ( 1776-1847). 1843-45. 26 x 16.5 cm. Collection: Kimball Collection, John Hay Library, Brown University. This item was catalogue no. 13 in Beckwith, Victorian Bibliomania (1987) [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Commentary by Alice H. R. H. Beckwith

Decorated initial T

he first edition of Dibdin's Bibliomania was a sympathetic letter addressed to a friend. It was printed as a small, unimposing pamphlet, but by 1842 it had gone through numerous reprintings, and Dibdin expanded it and rewrote the now 618-page volume as a series of conversations. The change in form was probably influenced by the success of Dibdin's Bibliographical Decameron of 1817, which was "the earliest extensive and influential account of illuminated manuscripts for the general reader" (Munby 71,74). Although later manuscript historians criticized Dibdin's writings as facetious and absurd, his books showed considerable knowledge and appreciation of illuminated manuscripts as well as a wide grasp of the secondary literature of the history of manuscripts and early printed books. Dibdin disagreed with his predecessors' admiration for sixteenth-century manuscripts, stating that he preferred manuscripts from the fifth through fourteenth centuries (Dibdin I, xx-xxii). Important authors with whom he took issue were the Abbé Rive (1730-92) and Thomas Astle (1735-1803).

The sumptuous red half-morocco binding with marbled paper over boards on the Kimball Collection copy indicates the respect that his work received in some quarters. It was remarked in 1836 in The Scot's Times, "Is there a lover of books in Merry England or Broad Scotland who feels no interest in Dr. Dibdin?" (O'Dwyer 7). Dibdin wrote about books in a conversational manner, illustrating his texts with attractive but often inaccurate facsimiles. His desire to bring the love of books to a wider public contributed to the growing Victorian interest in illuminated manuscripts. The present 1842 edition was limited to 500 copies and underwritten by Edward Walmsley, a calico manufacturer from Mitcham.

Early Victorian authors of histories of the book often illustrated disembodied illuminated ornaments and miniatures, sometimes even combining examples from many different texts and time periods on the same page. Historical accuracy and understanding of original manuscripts in their totality did not develop until the latter half of the nineteenth century . The illuminated illustrated here is greatly expanded in size and detached from its text. By blowing the illumination up to such a large size, Dibdin invites his readers to sharpen their appetites for investigation of works which in actuality are small in size. While one may criticize the piecemeal approach of separating the ornamented letter from its original context, one can also see how the charm of this illuminated letter with its vines and leaves entwining a pair of monks and a pilgrim might capture the imagination of readers, particularly those inclined to favor the Gothic Revival.

Viewers are still intrigued by details such as the tonsure of the monks, their enveloping black habits and rope belts ornamented with crosses, and the pilgrim's hat and flowing garment adorned with the scallop shells associated with pilgrimages to the shrine of St. James at Compostela. These figures have too many fussy details to be fourteenth-century drawings, but there is a quality of urgency about the bareheaded monk which reflects the tone of Piers Ploughman's Creed, written ca. 1394 at the time of the peasant rebellions involving John Ball and the Lollard followers of John Wycliffe.

Piers Ploughman's Creed and the religious allegory on which it was based, The Vision of Piers Ploughman from the second half of the fourteenth century, rank with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales as important examples of Middle English literature. The Creed and The Vision are centered on the teachings of the cleric-scholar John Wycliffe (ca. 1320-1384), who preached social equality and concern for the poor as well as recommending Franciscan ideals of poverty to the clergy. Dibdin was not as interested in Wycliffe's social vision as later Victorians like William Morris would be. However, Dibdin was influential in stimulating popular interest in fourteenth-century English texts, which was an important step toward Morris's assertion in A Dream of John Ball (cat. 34) that some fourteenth-century ideals were relevant to concerns of the nineteenth century .


Beckwith, Alice H. R. H. Victorian Bibliomania: The Illuminated Book in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Exhibition catalogue. Providence. Rhode Island: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1987.

Dibdin, Thomas Frognall. The Bibliomania or Book-Madness. History, Symptoms, and Cure of this Fatal Disease. Improved Edition. London: H. G. Bohn, 1842. (First edition, 1809). Printer: Bensley of Woking. Engraver: S. Freeman. Binder: R. W. Smith.

Last modified 27 December 2013