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Treasure of the Month

Highlighting some of our most precious historic artefacts, from manuscripts to jewellery.

March 2019: Carlo Sigonio, De Antiquo Iure Civium Romanorum, Paris, 1576 Book owned by John Donne

31st March 2019 marks the anniversary of the death of the metaphysical poet John Donne, and to commemorate this, Durham Cathedral Library’s Treasure of the Month for March is a book owned by Donne himself – with his name inscribed at the bottom of the title page.


During a varied and colourful career, Donne spent time as a soldier, secretary, diplomat and MP, before becoming a Church of England clergyman, and eventually Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral – a somewhat unlikely career path, considering that he was born into a family of Catholic recusants (his mother was a great niece of Sir Thomas More, and his brother died of the plague in prison, where he was sent for harbouring a Catholic priest). Donne is most well-known, however, as one of the most significant writers of the English Renaissance; his works include religious poems, sonnets, love poems, Latin translations, sermons, elegies and satires. Although never initially published, his early erotic poetry was circulated widely in manuscript form, and included ‘The Flea’, which compared a flea biting two lovers to the physical consummation of their relationship, and ‘To His Mistris Going To Bed’, which likened the poetic undressing of his mistress to the exploration of America.


As he grew older, however, Donne’s works grew more somber and pious; he wrote extensively on the subject of the ‘true religion’ – arguing that it was better to closely examine one’s own religious leanings, rather than blindly believing all that one was told, as none would be saved at the Final Judgement by arguing “A Harry [Henry VIII] or a Martin [Luther] taught [them] this”.

His work most notably inspired Ernest Hemingway, who used a quote of Donne’s to title one of his most famous works:

“any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”


The Poetry Foundation wrote of Donne’s work that “no other body of great poetry has fallen so far from favour for so long”.


The work owned by Donne is a book on Roman antiquities by Italian humanist and historian Carlo Sigonio (c.1524 –1584); one of the first scholars to insist on applying a critical method of study to the post-classical world, Sigonio often found himself at odds with both fellow scholars and writers, and the Vatican. ‘De Antiquo Iure Civium Romanorum’ was one of his most important early works.


In 1583, Sigonio claimed to have discovered a non-fragmentary version of Cicero’s ‘Consolatio’ – a lost work written around 45 B.C. to help soothe Cicero’s grief at the death of his daughter, Tullia. The work was later revealed to have been a forgery – some suspecting Sigonio himself as having written it.


As part of Durham Cathedral’s collection of early printed books, this volume is available to be consulted by readers and interested parties. Appointments to view the special collections typically take place Tuesday to Thursday and need to be made in advance by emailing Please see Durham Cathedral Library's page for further information.