THE VIRTUES OF SEXUAL ABSTINENCE FROM AMBASSADOR KENELM DIGBY’S LIBRARY

Nicetas seu triumphata incontinentia.

Cologne, Cornelius van Egmondt, 1631.

£3,250

24mo., pp. (14), 284, (2). Roman letter, little Italic; engraved title with putti and Jesuit monogram and two detailed plates, all by Philip Sadeler, one decorative tail-piece including Christ’s face; very lightly dust-soiled. A very good copy in contemporary tan calf with gilt panel and the arms of Kenelm Digby (1603-1665), his cypher and title on spine, compartments richly gilt, all edges red, slightly rubbed, old repairs to one corner; on front pastedown, ex libris label of Mary Augusta Elton (1838-1914) with a quotation from Martial.

Rare, early edition of a successful Jesuit book about Christian morality, first published in 1624. Three variants are recorded in VD17, of which this is the rarest. Raised a Lutheran, Jeremias Drexel (1581-1638) converted very early to Catholicism and joined the Society of Jesus. Besides teaching rhetoric in Dillingen, he served as a preacher for 23 years at the court of Maximilian I, Elector of Bavaria, and his wife, Elizabeth of Lorraine. He was a prolific and successful writer of some 34 devotional books, widely read and translated.

Nicetas comprises a fictitious dialogue about the advantages of sexual continence and the many vices connected to promiscuity. A young Christian Egyptian, Nicetas is presented by St. Jerome as an example of virtue: bound with silk laces to a bed by some pagans who wanted to convert him and tempted by a beautiful courtesan, he preferred to bite his tongue and spit blood in her face than give up his faith in Christ. Drexel’s work is named after him, creating a pun with the meaning of Nicetas’ Greek name – winner – and the idea of the moral triumph of chastity over voluptuous desire. Two engraved illustrations emphasise this message with unexpected brutality. In the first plate, Nicetas, dressed as a Roman general and depicted as a Christian saint, is hailed by a crowd of angelic putti while stepping on a dying Cupid; in the second, Cupid himself is crucified, tortured and mocked by diabolic children or dwarves.

This copy bears two interesting English provenances. Kenelm Digby (1603-1665) was a versatile scholar, ambassador and Catholic politician. A founding member of the Royal Society, he could count amongst his friends Van Dyck, Ben Johnson, Thomas Hobbes and Queen Henrietta Maria. His long but troubled career in the service of the Stuart monarchy and the Commonwealth was affected by his religious faith, for which he spent portions of his life exiled in Paris. His library was great both in quantity and quality.

This binding betrays the influence of the French taste of the period, and in particular of the distinctive style adopted by De Thou for his books. Mary Augusta Strachey Elton (1838-1914) was a prominent woman bibliophile; together with her husband, Charles Isaac Elton, MP and FSA, she authored the well-known bibliophilic study The Great Book-Collectors, 1893. Part of their vast library was sold by Quaritch in 1891.

Rare. Only one recorded copy in the US (Harvard).

Not in Brunet or Graesse. VD17, (23:287985G); BM STC Ger. 17th, D735 (Variant C); Sommervogel, III, 186:6 (Variant B); Landwehr, German, 251 (Variant A); Praz, Studies, 319.

L1881

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