The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Guild Library Discoveries

As I mentioned in a previous Beehive post, there are all kinds of interesting discoveries to be made when exploring MHS collections. This time around I will be talking about a collection of books that I came across almost by accident while navigating through ABIGAIL, our online catalog.  I found a link to a book on Norse mythology, written by Rasmus Bjorn Anderson, which intrigued me quite a bit.  Working in an institution with a clear focus on Massachusetts history, I admit I was confused when I found an item on Scandinavian antiquities.  I put in a request for the title, and when it came to me, it was in a large record carton with a number of other books. 

To my surprise, when I opened the carton there were ten volumes inside, only one of which was the book by Rasmus Bjorn Anderson.  Of the other nine, all were written by different authors, with the exception of a two volume edition of Evelina, by Fanny Burney.  In addition to Anderson’s Norse Mythology are included an English edition of Goethe’s fable Reynard the Fox and Edward B. Lytton’s historical novel The Last Days of Pompeii.  Why was Anderson’s volume on the mythology of ancient Scandinavia housed with these other intriguing yet disparate works?  The books are all part of the Guild Library, an eclectic private collection which is one of several such private collections gifted to the MHS throughout our institutional history consisting of books on a truly broad range of topics.  The library belonged to Curtis Guild, Jr., Governor of Massachusetts and MHS member, and was donated to the MHS under the terms of the will of his wife Sarah Louisa Guild in April of 1949 (MHS Proceedings, vol. 69).  Below are a few of the works I found particularly interesting, and just a taste of what the Guild Library has to offer.


Rasmus Bjorn Anderson, born in 1846 to Norwegian parents in Wisconsin, heavily promoted the Viking exploration of the New World and also originated Leif Erikson Day.  In his bookNorse Mythology, Anderson celebrates the linguistic and literary heritage of the Scandinavian countries, as well as that of Germany and England.  Anderson praises the efforts of nineteenth century scholars who promoted the study and spread of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse literature.  He then goes on to provide a preface to some of the major poems and written works that have survived in Old English and Old Norse, mainly from England and Iceland. 



The copy of Reynard the Fox has been translated from Goethe’s German into English verse by Thomas James Arnold.  Arnold, a nineteenth-century English barrister and magistrate, was known for his translations of Goethe and other German writers.  In addition to Reynard the Fox, Arnold translated Goethe’s Faust and Friedrich von Schiller’s ‘Song of the Bell’ into English.  Reynard the Fox is an epic verse adaptation of the story of Reynard the Fox, the central character in a cycle of fables dating to the Middle Ages, mainly from England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.  The main character, Reynard, is a trickster figure whose adventures involve a number of other animal characters including Bruin the Bear, Sir Isegrim the Wolf, and Noble, the King of Beasts.  The stories surrounding Reynard’s exploits seem to parody the political and religious institutions of the Middle Ages, as a number of characters are clearly modeled on such familiar positions as the monarch, the priest, and the soldier. 


The Last Days of Pompeii, written by Lord Edward Bulwer Lytton in 1834, is a work of historical fiction focusing on events in the city of Pompeii leading up to the fateful eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.  The novel was popular throughout the rest of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century, although today its popularity has severely waned.  The plot centers on a number of the city’s inhabitants.  The principal characters include a Greek aristocrat, an Egyptian sorcerer, an enslaved noblewoman, and a Christian persecuted for his faith.  The novel has been adapted to a variety of other mediums, including opera, film, and television.  Notably, the 1959 film version, directed by Sergio Leone, is considered a standard of the “sword-and-sandals” epic genre.  The cover is beautifully decorated with an image of townspeople fleeing as Vesuvius erupts, as well as with gilding and patterning along the borders. Throughout the book are intricate illustrations of scenes from the novel, though the illustrator’s name is not included.  The book is a perfect read for those hoping to learn more about nineteenth century printing, historical fiction, or romanticized memories of classical antiquity.

My curiosity about a book on Norse mythology would lead me to a number of other exciting discoveries.  I never thought that I would find a translation of a Goethe poem or a copy of a nineteenth-century historical fiction novel in the MHS collections, let alone boxed together with Anderson’s text.  The Guild Library collection covers a number of other topics as well, including African exploration and big game hunting in the nineteenth century.  There are all sorts of interesting items for the steadfast researcher or the inquisitive reader.  I can personally attest that hoping to examine just a single item, namely Anderson’s Norse Mythology, led me down a literary rabbit-hole I would not have thought existed.  Yet another example of what can happen while just browsing through MHS collections (  


permalink | Published: Friday, 22 January, 2016, 4:07 PM


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