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Penn State University Libraries

The English Emblem Book Project

The English Emblem Book Project

Word and Image

In recent years, scholars in many disciplines have recognized that the literally thousands of engravings, wood blocks, and etchings in emblem books constitute an unparalleled source not only for the study of daily life of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but also for extraordinary insights into what the intellectuals of the times viewed as a necessary adjunct to heraldry, social life, politics, philosophy, and moral behavior. The English emblem books scanned for this project are cultural artifacts frequently used in the analysis of reading practices, printing history, Elizabethan popular culture, the use of allegory, and the relationship of word to image.

An emblem combines a picture and text for the striking presentation of a message. For example, an emblem titled In astrologos alongside a picture of Icarus may at first seem mystifying, but the epigram beneath the picture explains that astrologers like Icarus get into trouble because they are overreaching their human limitations. The emblem text concludes that humans should not inquire into the mysteries that God has reserved for himself.

In an exhibit of Penn State's emblem books in 1993, Daniel Russell, head of the French and Italian department at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote that "these compact little compositions could be displayed on the reverse of medals, in festival decor, on costumes, and in all kinds of programs of political propaganda or religious pageantry. They were considered so effective in communicating pithy public relations messages that their composition was actually part of the curriculum of the upper classes in Jesuit schools in the first half of the seventeenth century. Emblem books provided moralizing and explanatory commentary that made these figures easier to read when they were encountered in the commerce of everyday life." --Sandra Stelts, Special Collections, The Pennsylvania State University Libraries

About the Emblem Books

Many of the texts included in the English Emblem Book Project are contained within the English Poetry Database published by Chadwyck-Healy. Members of those institutions having licensed the Database with Web access may search the texts of emblem books on line. To search the transcribed text of an emblem book on line choose the English Poetry Database from the menu below. In order to choose an emblem book title, do a bibliography search of the Database to discover the appropriate text ID. For Example, George Wither's A Collection of Emblems is 1.1150.

English Poetry Database [begins new browser for use in conjunction with the English Emblem Project pages]

You may also seach the entirety of of the Database (consisting of roughly 1300 authors) for common themes found in emblem books. Similar searches may be carried out in the following databases available to many institutions on the Web.

English Verse Drama

The Database of African American Poetry

The American Poetry Database