Cotsen’s Covert Collections, part 1: A Pair of Burmese (Myanma) Buddhist Manuscripts

Around Princeton, Cotsen Children’s Library is most often referred to as “the children’s library” (with a myriad of connotations). In the research community, the library is well-known for its wealth of children’s literature, folk tales, educational material, toys, manuscripts, and juvenilia. Material is available in scores of languages spanning the last 400 hundred years or so. But Cotsen is also home to an array of fantastic and surprisingly rare material that most wouldn’t expect to find given our collection interests and reputation.

In a blog series I’d like to call “Cotsen’s Covert Collections” (so I’m calling it that), I will showcase some of the more unexpected collections material that I come across. These are the items that I find in the vaults that make me say: “I can’t believe we have this. I don’t quite know what it is, but this is really cool!”.

The first items I’d like to show are a pair of Burmese (Myanma) Buddhist manuscripts:

2 volumes, Cotsen 101728

2 volumes, Cotsen 101728

The shape of these manuscripts differs drastically from a typical Western bound manuscript. Both feature accordion folded sections of rag paper pasted together between highly decorative red and gold painted wood boards.


The manuscripts have no spine like in a typical codex. The sheets are pasted together at even intervals and stacked, they are only connected to the binding at the terminal ends.

Each panel can be read separately or the whole work can be unfolded vertically like a wall chart. In this way, the manuscripts are something between a bound manuscript and a scroll. Unlike a western manuscript or a typical scroll, however, the works are double-sided. On one side the works feature hand painted illustrations and text, on the reverse side the works feature only inscribed text.

The top manuscript in the first picture above.

The top manuscript in the first picture above.

The bottom manuscript in the first picture above.

The bottom manuscript in the first picture above.

The record indicates that both manuscripts were made around 1890 in Burma (Myanmar). This information was probably provided from a dealer’s description which we no longer have with us. Though the items themselves provide no indication of place or date (as far as I can tell) the manuscript style is iconically Burmese; and we’ll just have to take the date on face value for now.

Judging by the skill of the paintings, the mistakes in the texts, and the similarities of the works, I think it’s safe to assume that one artist probably authored both works; and that he or she was an amateur or novice.

Though my knowledge of the Burmese (Myanmar) language can hardly be called knowledge, the script does seem to differ from modern Burmese. My guess is that the manuscripts were written in Burmese-pali as is typical of other more ornate Buddhist manuscripts from Myanmar called Kammavaca. Burmese-pali uses an older form of Burmese script in order to write the Pali language, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism (the dominant branch of Buddhism in South East Asia). ***A blog comment by pansuriya (see comment below) has corrected my supposition above. The text panels are in the Shan language while the image descriptions are indeed in Burmese. I have also turned the text images 180 degrees since I depicted the text upside down.

The first manuscript seems to depict various previous lives of the Buddha juxtaposed against his final earthly state. Called Jataka tales, stories about previous lives of the Buddha are moral tales in which a particular virtue is correctly exercised by the Buddha in one of his past forms:


1st panel, Possibly a short depiction of The Story of Chaddanta Elephant


4th panel

Of course, the text on the reverse side of the manuscript would probably offer further clues about the content of the images. Unfortunately, we don’t yet know what the text says either:

First text panel

First text panel

Last text panel

Last text panel

The second manuscript might be focused on scenes from the life of Siddhārtha Gautama, but I’ll admit it’s difficult for me to discern:


2nd panel


6th panel (luckily this final panel is not stained by red dust which has soiled the rest of the work)

First text panel

First text panel

Last text panel

Last text panel

By including items like these on the blog, I hope to make it more transparent that Cotsen has a variety of materials that one would not expect at “the children’s library”. Hopefully, bringing these objects to light means that someone more knowledgeable than me can help us discover more about these wonderful (and under-described) materials. We have a range of unusual or unexpected artifacts, books, and objects. I hope this blog series will inspire researchers to see what else they can find in our collection.

Curator’s Choice: Mrs. Sherwood Corrects the Proofs of “The Oddingley Murder”

oddingley murder

Over her long career, Mary Martha Sherwood typically wrote for four or five hours each day.  Although she is best known for two novels for children–The History of Little Henry and His Bearer (1814) and The History of the Fairchild Family (1818)–she also produced penny pamphlets, adaptations of eighteenth-century children’s classics like Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, and textbooks for use in the school she and her husband ran after their return from India in 1818.  Even with the income from the school, the Sherwood family was strapped for cash, so she turned out around a hundred tracts over the next twelve years to make extra money.

sherwood front

Frontispiece, Mrs. Sherwood and Her Books for Children, M. Nancy Cutt (London, Oxford University Press, 1974) Cotsen PR5449.S4 Z63

The Cotsen Children’s Library has a fascinating manuscript from this period of her life: the annotated proofs for a tract about a notorious murder that had taken place in the tiny village of Oddingley, Worcestershire on Midsummer’s Day 1806 that went unsolved until 1830.


Cotsen 40111

The lurid story was a quintessential English crime set in a beautiful, remote village seething with class resentment.  The cast of characters included a grasping vicar, a shady man of all work, some disgruntled farmers, and the dapper old soldier who was the local magistrate.  Add two brutal killings and a shallow grave in a ramshackle barn and voila, a perfect candidate for Masterpiece Mystery…

When the murdered murderer’s body was finally found, Mrs. Sherwood, a Worcestershire native herself, picked up her pen to write about this real-life crime.  The why is more complicated than it might first appear.  To a devout Evangelical Christian like Sherwood, the way the perpetrators of the crime was discovered after twenty-four years fulfilled Isaiah XXIX.15: “ Woe unto them that seek deep to hide their counsel from the Lord, and their works are in the dark, and they say, “Who seeth us?  Who knoweth us?”

A personal connection to the sordid affair may also explain her eagerness to drive home the lesson that “No man can conceal what Providence willeth to bring to the light.”  Her brother John Marten Butt was drawn into the case as Oddingley’s pastor: he was the successor of the murdered clergyman George Parker.   During his tenure in Oddingley, Butt came to realize that his parishioners had known all along the identity of the perpetrators and felt no remorse at their never having been brought to justice.  The villagers’ attitudes so profoundly disturbed Butt that he eventually left his living for another.

Mrs. Sherwood must have written the text almost immediately after the January trial.  On February 18, 1830, her publisher, Edward Houlston, mailed the proof of the tract now in the Cotsen collection to her in Worcester from Wellington, Salop (Shropshire), about forty five miles away.

Google Maps. (2015).

Google Maps. (2015).

To save time and money on postage, he wrote her a letter, asking how many copies she wanted and if he might enclose copies in her parcel for delivery to the Worcester booksellers.  In the closing, he asked if she could write six more tracts for the new series at her earliest convenience, adding that two would suffice at present.

Houlsten's letter to Sherwood

Mr. Houlston’s letter to Mrs. Sherwood

After making changes on pages 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 16, and 18, Mrs. Sherwood wrote her reply to Houlston on the blank side of the sheet.

Page 6, with Mrs. Sherwood's corrections

Page 6, with Mrs. Sherwood’s corrections

Page 10 with Mrs. Sherwood's corrections

Page 10, with Mrs. Sherwood’s corrections

She said, “I had written a letter to you which I shall not send requesting you to be very quick in sending ‘The Oddingley Murder’ as people know I have written it and are enquiring for it.”  She directed him to send her four copies of the French-language translation of Little Henry and His Bearer, six of “The Mourning Queen,” a dozen “The Oddingley Murders,” and an unspecified number of a new tract for the booksellers.  She closed (a bit tartly) with “I will write some tracts when I can find time—but time is a very scarce commodity.”

On back of proof, Mrs. Sherwood's response to Mr. Houlston.

On back of proof, Mrs. Sherwood’s response to Mr. Houlston.

The sheet was folded up for a second time and mailed to Houlston on February the 20th.  Presumably it retraveled those forty-five miles to Wellington within twenty-four hours.  The speed of the British postal service during the nineteenth century is well known, but this corrected proof is testimony to its efficiency.  Of course, the service then was slow compared to what we have come to take for granted via the Internet, but this annotated proof is a vivid reminder that Mrs. Sherwood could never have written as much as she did without a superb communications infrastructure.

Mr. Houlton's address.

Mr. Houlston’s address.

And thanks to our paper conservator, Ted Stanley, for restoring the proof of this tract, which was found in rather parlous condition in the Wall of Books some months ago.