Curator’s Choice: An Early Alphabet of Puzzle Pictures in French

When people ask me to name my favorite book in the collection, I never have a good answer on the tip of my tongue.  “It’s like being asked to pick your favorite child” or “Whatever I’m working on right now”  are just dodges to avoid saying I like one and only one wonderful thing best out of thousands of possibilities–some of which are yet to be seen.

If a heartless desperado were holding my cat for ransom and the conditions for her release were to admit to a favorite book, it might be possible if I could stick to one genre.  Like the alphabet.

One of my favorite alphabets is L’alphabet personnife ou Les lettres rendues sensibles par les figures de 25 enfants in action et portant le nom des 25 lettres elles-memes  [The Personified Alphabet or the Letters Animated by the Figures of 25 Children in Action Bearing the Names of the Letters].  Cotsen just purchased the first edition of 1801, where it joins a copy of the 1809 third edition.

7307668tp151195tpL’Alphabet personnifie is incredibly rare in any edition, which probably accounts for  lack of comments in the scholarly literature.  The legendary Gumuchian catalogue of 1930 describing 6251 rare children’s books had a copy of the third edition, which was also listed in the bibliography of Segolene le Men’s Les abecedaires francais illustres du XIXe siecle (1984).  Penny Brown may never have seen it either because there’s no mention in the discussion of Freville in her Critical History of French Children’s Literature (2008).

Its author Anne-Francois-Joachim de Freville is a rather interesting person, even if he is not among the immortals of French children’s book writers.  Freville’s most famous works were two collections of anecdotes about extraordinary real children.  Vies des enfans celebres (1798) included the story of Irish youngster Volney Becker, who fended off a shark attack on his father, only to be bitten in half while being lifted to safety on a boat.  Vies circulated in English translation under the title The Juvenile Plutarch between 1801 and 1820. The second collection, Beaux traits du jeune age (1813), closes with an ambitious proposal for a pantheon to be built to honor the memory of notable children.   He could be more more fanciful, as this delightful group in the frontispiece to the fourth edition of his Contes jaunes (1804) makes clear.


A teacher by profession, Freville was arrested for Jacobite sympathies but kept his head when the revolutionary tribunal acquitted him.  After Robespierre’s fall, Freville’s politics veered to the far right.  During the Directory, he continued to produce books that incorporated a range of educational games designed to turn children into active participants in the pleasure of learning.

freville jeu

A.-F.-J. Freville, Jeu d’alphabet, chiffres, et symbols.

L’Alphabet personnifie is perhaps the most ingenious and charming of them all, although dog owners would probably give the edge to his collection of stories about celebrated canines.

The design of  L’Alphabet suggests that Freville was no ordinary teacher.  Like many enlightened educators who came after John Locke, Freville tried to invent ways to reduce the drudgery associated with learning to read.  Of course, he recommended using illustrated texts for that purpose, but on a different and more ambitious plan.  While it was true that children enjoyed illustrated alphabets of  animals in their primers, he observed,  they usually retained more information about the animals’ appearance and characteristics than they did of the letters of the alphabet, the real object of the exercise.

A better approach, Freville argued, was to anthropomorphize the letters, because children would take greater interest in the symbols if they resembled children the same age as themselves engaged in enjoyable activities (the different costumes and hats were also supposed to be a source of amusement).  The skillful use of alliteration increased the fun of learning, as well as an way of organizing the visual material so that it was more likely to impress associations on children’s minds.  Verbs are the heart of Freville’s method, which is somewhat unusual, as alphabets are more likely to focus on  substantives or nouns rather than actions.

Here is the letter “A,” impersonated by a boy watering [arrose].  When the children turn to the description of the plate, they will discover that it contains other objects beginning with the letter A: “Le petit Arlequin, arrose un Artichaut, fleuri dans son jardin” [Little Harlequin waters an artichoke blooming in his garden].   But if they look at the picture again, they will find even more objects whose names begin with “A” the description omits–“abeille” [bee] and “arraignee” [spider] to mention just two.  The engraver signed his name below the greenery in the lower right and I think it says “J. Le Roy.”

151195leaf1This being a French alphabet, the pleasures of the table must be shown.   Here is “B” for “boit” [drink] and “M” for “mange” [eat].

151195leaf2151195leaf13And the noblest of the fruits also makes an appearance in “V” for “vendange” [grape harvest].  More French fruits can be seen in a previous post on a new acquisition.

151195leaf22Plenty of ways to work off the food and drink are also illustrated, such as “H” for “hache” [chop] and “N” for “nage” [swim].

151195leaf8151195leaf14The boy is also shown practicing his handwriting in “E” for “ecrit” and playing in “J” for “joue.”151195leaf5151195leaf10Did Cotsen really need both editions?   A careful comparison showed that there are quite a few differences in the accompanying reading exercises, which are too complicated to describe here.  The comparison also reveals that in the 1801 edition, “Z” pursued the zebra through the woods completely naked, whereas in the 3rd edition, he is draped for the hunt in a diaphanous robe, still with no shoes.









Perhaps the revised plate is poking a little fun at the merveilleuses, the fashion victims of their times, who appeared in dresses so sheer as to leave very little to the imagination….


An English satirist like Isaac Cruikshank was probably not the most objective observer of French fashion…


Cotsen’s Covert Collections: The First Illustrated Book Printed in Turkey

The other day I was perusing the catalog, looking at records in some of Cotsen’s smaller language collections. When I searched for our holdings in the Turkish language, I found something really surprising and rare (okay you caught me, I was looking for blog post material). Cotsen’s Turkish language holdings are relatively small compared with other languages in the collection. But we still hold around 130 items, mostly pamphlets and educational material printed in the 1980’s and 90’s, some earlier 20th Century material, and one copy of Musavver tarih-i hayvanat (Encylopedia of Wild-life) printed in 1892 (Cotsen 102716).

So you might imagine my surprise when I came across this book in the catalog: Tarih ul-Hind il-Garbi; el musemma bi-Haidis-i nev; the first illustrated book printed in the Turkish language and the Muslim world.

Rebound in blind-tooled morocco, probably 20th Century. Cotsen 3134.

Rebound in blind-tooled morocco, probably 20th Century American. The leaves of Cotsen’s copy, probably rearranged when rebound, were collated in 1980 and found to be out of order, especially at the beginning and end of the text block. Since Ottoman Turkish reads right to left, this mistake is understandable. Page citations below follow these reviewed pagination marks when available. Cotsen 3134.

Tarih ul-Hind il-Garbi; el musemma bi-Haidis-i nev (The History of the India of the West according to recent discoveries) was printed in 1730 (1142 AH) by Ibrahim Müteferrika in Konstantiniyye (Constantinople, not changed to Istanbul until 1929). Muteferrika is an honorific title meaning “court-steward”, which Ibrahim received between 1705 and 1711. Though his original name remains unknown, he was born in Kolozsvár, Transylvania between 1672 and 1675 as a Unitarian Christian who only later converted to Islam.1

An Arabic Quran had been printed in Italy as early as 1537. Jewish and Christian millets (minority religious communities within the Ottoman Empire abiding by separate legal courts) had already been operating presses by Müteferrika’s times. But he would prove to be a true reformer; becoming the first Muslim printer and the first to print with movable type in the Ottoman Turkish language (written in a Perso-Arabic script until the Latin alphabet was adopted in 1928)


Ibrahim Müteferrika

Agitating against a manuscript culture over eleven hundred years old, Müteferrika lobbied for a state supported printing press in 1726. Facing initial heavy opposition from court appointed calligraphers and a few Ottoman Ulama (religious authorities), he was granted permission to print non-religious and non-legal works the next year. By 1729, Müteferrika issued his first printed work: Kitab-ı Lügat-ı Vankulu (Sihah El-Cevheri), an Arabic and Turkish lexicon. The press ran until 1742, and in just fourteen years he printed seventeen works totaling 13,200 volumes. Most volumes, including Tarih ul-Hind il-Garbi (Müteferrika’s fourth work), were printed in 500-copy editions and only received one printing.

Müteferrika’s publishing choices, some of which he authored himself, demonstrate his diverse knowledge and the interests he developed during his official capacity as an Ottoman diplomat. He published books on history, geography, astronomy, translation, military matters, and polemics for the modernization of the Ottoman state. Tarih ul-Hind il-Garbi, demonstrates his interest in the first three subjects.

Originating from a Turkish manuscript by an unknown author written around 1580, the book opens with a short discussion regarding cosmology, particularly the geocentric vs. heliocentric models of the universe, and then moves on to a general geographical discussion. Though rebound to the back of our copy (in this case meaning the left-hand side), this section includes beautifully executed plates:

Geocentric model of the universe. Fold-out chart [95]

Geocentric model of the universe. Fold-out chart [95]


Map of the known world. Spread [93]


Western and Eastern hemispheres. Spread [94]

The bulk of Tarih ul-Hind il-Garbi, however, focuses on Central and South America; the regions’ 16th Century conquest by Spain, their peoples, places, flora, and fauna. This material consists of entirely of translations taken piecemeal from five 16th Century Spanish volumes about the conquest of the New World. The content of these five volumes was probably made available to the original Turkish author via Italian translations. Venetian printers, after all, were among the few European traders who had access to Turkish markets for much of the late Medieval and Renaissance eras.2

Possible title pages or chapter headings for these different sections. Leaves [4] and [1]

Possible title pages or chapter headings for these different sections. Leaves [4] and [1] respectively.

Müteferrika’s choice to publish Tarih ul-Hind il-Garbi as his first illustrated book is significant. Given that much of the source material borders on fantasy (many of the original Spanish authors never even visited “New Spain”) the woodcuts executed by an unknown artist working solely from the descriptions in the text are highly imaginative:

Mermen in an altercation with locals. Leaf 49 recto

Mermen in an altercation with locals. Leaf 49, recto.

Waterfowl . . . and some other kind of four legged bird? Leaf 55 verso

Waterfowl . . . and some other kind of four legged bird? Leaf 55 verso

Hunting. Perhaps a jaguar in the top right? Leaf 86, recto

Hunting. Perhaps a jaguar in the top right? Leaf 86, recto

The bountiful New World, where women grow from trees. . . Leaf 15, recto

The bountiful New World, where women grow from trees. . . Leaf 15, recto

The illustrations appear to be chosen for their wow factor, depicting images of the most unusual and foreign aspects of this unknown land. In the Muslim world, Tarih ul-Hind il-Garbi remained the definitive text about the New World for a culture that would share only limited contact with these far away lands until the 19th Century.


Hunting a tree demon? With your trusty lama (who may be under attack by a bird)? Leaf 5, verso


Two birds with what might be a jobo and banana tree. Leaf [89] verso

Tapirs? Leaf 46, verso

Tapirs? Leaf 46, verso

In 1745, three years after Müteferrika’s print shop closed for good, he died. Whether or not his press was closed due to political and religious pressure, remains speculative. What is known, however, is that for almost forty years after Müteferrika’s death, Muslim printing died with him. Besides a re-issue of his first work in 1755, printing would not be re-introduced to Constantinople and the Muslim world until 1783.

His scholarly and reformist initiative was hard won and influential. He remains a seminal figure in the history of printing and a figure remembered (but largely unheeded in his time) for his attempts to modernize and revitalize a waning empire. Perhaps Müteferrika read the writing on the wall for an empire that was just beginning to show the technological and political stagnation that would earn it the nickname of the “sick man of Europe”, around a hundred years after Müteferrika’s death.

Untranslated inscriptions. First blank [1]

Untranslated inscriptions. First blank [1]

  1.  Watson, William J.. “İbrāhīm Müteferriḳa and Turkish Incunabula”. Journal of the American Oriental Society 88.3 (1968): 435–441. Web…
  2.  Goodrich, Thomas D.. “Tarihi-i Hind-i Garbi: An Ottoman Book on the New World”. Journal of the American Oriental Society 107.2 (1987): 317–319. Web…