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The Life of Sir Charles Scarburgh: The Library of Sir Charles Scarburgh

Michael Molinsky (University of Maine at Farmington)

Over the course of his life, Scarburgh amassed an impressive personal library. According to the British diarist John Evelyn (1620–1706), Scarburgh’s library “was the very best collection, especially in mathematical books, that was I believe in Europe” [Evelyn, Wheatley, and Bray 1879, 120]. There had initially been designs by the royal family to acquire the entire library, but with the death of Queen Mary II in 1694, those plans came to an end. Scarburgh’s library was instead put up for public auction a year after his death, with the first part of his collection sold on February 8, 1695, and a second auction for his mathematical and medical works held ten days later [Munby and Coral 1977, 47].

The catalog printed for the auctions, Bibliotheca Scarburghiana, listed over 2000 volumes covering a wide range of topics, including at least 600 mathematical volumes. The mathematical volumes were mostly in Latin, with some Greek, Arabic, French, Italian and English books. Below is a very small selection of first edition works from the collection:

Of particular interest is the fact that Scarburgh’s library contained numerous volumes of translations and commentaries of Euclid’s Elements; in some cases, he had multiple copies of the same edition, or multiple editions from different years. Some of the most notable volumes include:

As well as the first editions listed above, Scarburgh had later editions of every major Greek or Latin edition from the 16th century. He even had a copy of the Italian translation by Nicolo Tartaglia (1500–1557) (the first edition was published in 1543, while Scarburgh’s copy was from 1569).

While Scarburgh continued to purchase new works of the Elements until at least 1679, there are a few notable omissions from his collection. For example, he did not have Thomas Rudd’s English translation from 1651, or any of the Latin or English editions by Isaac Barrow (1630–1677).

Michael Molinsky (University of Maine at Farmington), "The Life of Sir Charles Scarburgh: The Library of Sir Charles Scarburgh," Convergence (June 2021)