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The 1496 edition of the Malleus Maleficarum looks harmless enough from the outside. Barely five inches wide and eight inches tall, its spine has grown bare—apart from the title, which was pasted on sometime in the last century, and which is usually translated as “The Hammer of Witches.” But although its light-brown leather covers are mottled and worn, they are supported by two robust blocks of wood that suggest hard, frequent use.

Inside, its off-white pages are remarkably intact, apart from an occasional tea-colored stain. The type is black gothic, with flecks of red ink at the capital letters. Seeing the red on these double-columned pages, it is hard not to be reminded of the fiery deaths suffered by those judged to be witches: The Malleus was written by two Dominican inquisitors to instruct other inquisitors on how to determine who was a witch—and how to deal with them.

“It was not a display book,” says Dr. Edward Peters. “It was a user’s book.”

The Malleus is one of about 15,000 volumes in the Henry Charles Lea Library, which adjoins Peters’ office on the sixth floor of Van Pelt Library. Ever since Peters arrived at Penn in 1968 as the Henry Charles Lea Assistant Professor of History, he has served as the Lea Library’s curator. (Michael Ryan, director of the University library system’s collection of rare books and manuscripts, offers what must be the highest compliment he has: “Ed is a born librarian who had the unhappy fate of becoming a historian.”) Transported from Lea’s home to the Penn campus, the library’s old-fashioned splendor lives up to every expectation of what the reading room of a wealthy, scholarly 19th-century gentleman should be—if, that is, the gentleman was particularly interested in inquisition and heresy.

Lea was one of the foremost scholars of early Europe, and a collector who had the means to purchase what he wanted. His books on the Inquisition and witchcraft—including that edition of the Malleus, which he acquired in 1876—are still consulted. Though the holdings are primarily related to the Middle Ages, he was also interested in world religions, legal history, and church history.

In an essay about the Lea Library, Peters notes that when it was given to Penn in 1925 by the historian’s children, the library held “around 7,000 volumes, including 400 medieval manuscripts, incunabula (books printed before 1500), transcriptions of manuscripts and archival material from Europe, Lea’s scholarly correspondence, drafts and corrected proofs of his historical works, unpublished research and reading notes, as well as the entire room and its furnishings.”

In addition to the large glass-topped seminar table in the center, the room contains Lea’s original desk and chair, a painting and a sculpture of Lea, and an elegant fireplace. Persian carpets cover the floor, and a stairway leads to the second story.

Around the perimeter of the room, on both levels, are glass-doored bookcases and shelves of rich dark wood, which Peters identifies as eastern black walnut. The shelves are filled with volumes and folios such as the two-foot high Rerum Italiarum Scriptures, the two-volume Codex Apocryphus Novi Testamenti, and Lea’s own History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages (1888), a three-volume set bound in black leather.

The Lea Library impresses both the students in Peters’ classes (who gawk at the bookish surroundings) and experienced scholars from Europe, who rhapsodize about the room and its holdings. “Their jaws drop,” says Peters. “They’re absolutely dazzled.”

—John Shea


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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 04/28/03