This post was written by Manuela Pallotto Strickland and Friederike Wolpert, Graduate Library Trainees at the Warburg Institute. It is part of a series of posts on the theme of Women’s History to tie in with History Day 2018.

“Behind every great library, there is a great woman.”

Isn’t that what they say?

Sometimes – very often, in fact – there is more than one. The three women featured in this post helped shape the Warburg Library as we know it today, ensuring the library’s survival in turbulent times, supplying impetus to future generations of scholars for new, pioneering research, and – last, though certainly not least – forming the collection’s character by bequeathing their private collections.

Gertrud Bing (1892-1964)

An early photo of Bing, aka: Bingia, Bingius, and Bingio, all playful nicknames Warburg gave to her.

It is impossible to read the obituaries commemorating Gertrud Bing upon her sudden death in 1964 without feeling sad. Bing’s colleagues unanimously praised her deep humanity, intellectual generosity, curiosity, and determination. A close collaborator of Aby Warburg, whose own private collection forms the core of the library, and later of Fritz Saxl, “Kollegin Bing” became director of the Warburg Institute in 1955 after Henri Frankfort’s death.

Photo of the Warburg Library Reading Room at the Imperial Institute in London..
In 1922, Bing joined the Institute founded by Aby Warburg in Hamburg.
She remained devoted to the institute and its library for the rest of her life.

Bing played an important role in the successful emigration of the original Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (KWB) from Hamburg to London in 1933. It was thanks to her resourcefulness during the Third Reich that the Institute was able to come to the aid of many refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.

Items from the Festschrift put together by Bing’s colleagues for her seventieth birthday.
In her youth, Bing aspired to become a singer. Music always played an important role in her life, especially Verdi’s operas.


Gertrud Bing’s doctoral thesis. Warburg Library Classmark EEM 400.


However, Bing’s colleagues also realised how little they knew about her personal life, her likes and dislikes. The books she surrounded herself with, acquired over a lifetime, speak volumes about these private interests. While combing through the second floor shelves – dedicated to the transmission of classical texts and ideas in language and literature – to reconstruct her collection, we were surprised to uncover one of her passions: illustrated children’s books.

Some of the illustrated children books from Gertrud Bing’s personal collection.

These beautiful, colourful volumes are unconnected to the scholarly research Bing conducted at the institute, which examined (for example) the seventeenth-century German philosophical tradition and medieval apocalyptic manuscripts. These children’s books conjure up a dreamy landscape that contrasts with the darker tone of her Faustian bookplate.

Gertrud Bing’s personal ex-libris, bearing a citation from Goethe’s Faust:
“Is parchment, then, the sacred rill,
From which to quench thy thirst for ever?
That thirst Thou’lt ne’er assuage, until
It bubble from thine own heart – never!”

Frances Yates (1899-1981)

Yates was home-schooled and did not follow an institutional route into her academic career. Meeting Edgar Wind in 1937 was a life-changing event. In the 1940s she began lecturing at the Warburg Institute on sixteenth-century history, which allowed her to pursue a very specific kind of historiography: “History in the round, encyclopaedic history, the history of symbolism and imagery integrated with general history – in short Warburgian history.”

When we took some of the volumes that had belonged to Frances Yates off the shelves, we were – at first – surprised. Yates is renowned for her pioneering scholarship on medieval and early modern cultural history, an area of enquiry that had been considered marginal – if considered at all – by traditional historiographers.  The art of memory, the thought of Giordano Bruno, dynastic iconography, astrology, hermeticism, Renaissance magic, and the occult: it would be fair to expect to find among Yates’s books some specimens of a more esoteric nature.

Pre-modern binding from the Yates collection.


Instead, we were confronted by a very consistent collection of seventeenth-and-eighteenth-century encyclopaedias, works on pictorial symbolism and emblems, compilations by mythographers and Latin lexicographers, and even a 1724 illustrated edition of Curtius’s biographical account of Alexander the Great. What we found was a bibliotheca formed in a most ‘orthodox’ Warburgian spirit.

Vincenzo Cartari’s Le imagini de i dei de gli antichi, 1581, and Picinelli’s Mundus Symbolicum, 1695.
From the Frances Yates collection, Warburg Institute Library.

However, we should not have been surprised at all. Because if it is true that – after Yates had arrived as a scholar at the Warburg Institute during the early 1940s – she did not simply pick up with her research where others had left off, it is equally true that the Institute and its library were an important inspiration and introduced Yates to exciting new (and, at that time, also unheard of) ideas, which she promptly made her own.

The Warburg library showed Yates a new, ‘encyclopaedic’ approach to history that neither recognised strict ‘departmental partitions’ in historical cultures, nor in academic research. In her own words: “The Institute’s library is designed to present the history of culture as a whole – the history of thought, science, religion, art – and to include in this history the history of imagery and symbolism”.

The old Warburg Library colour-coded classification system strikingly modern on the spine of these beautiful bindings.
If you want to know more about the colours, you could read Schäfer’s book on the library.

Elizabeth David (1913-1992)

Cookery writer Elizabeth David is perhaps best known for having revolutionised British eating habits. After extensive travels around Greece, France, and Egypt during the 1940s, David introduced post-war Britain to continental European and Mediterranean cuisine and revitalised home cooking as self-expressive, creative, and fun. It is largely thanks to her efforts – at first in a regular column for Harper’s Bazaar and, later, in several influential publications that included A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950) and French Provincial Cooking (1960) – that we season with basil, cook with olive oil and garlic, and eat as much pasta and pizza as we do.

Hannah Glasse (1708-1770), The art of cookery, made plain and easy (1751), Classmark DCH 379.


Elizabeth David’s bookplate.

As part of her research into the social history of food, David collected cookery books and left her private collection of historical material – in total, 234 volumes – to the Warburg Institute Library.

A fascinating resource of incredible breadth – documenting sweet and savoury drinks and dishes, cooking tools, food stuffs, and even sanitary concerns from the seventeenth century onwards – David also owned a number of cookery books by women who, despite enjoying comparable fame during their lifetimes, have since been largely forgotten.

London-born Glasse’s best-selling cookery book set a precedent with its simple instructions, its use of common ingredients, and practical instructions for measurements, famously instructing the cook to use “as much thyme as will lie on a sixpence” when roasting a hare.


Glasse’s book contains the first recipes recorded in English for Indian-style curry and Yorkshire pudding; Glasse is also the first to include jelly in a recipe for trifle.


Eliza Acton (1795-1859), Modern cookery, in all its branches: reduced to a system of easy practice, for the use of private families (1845), Classmark DCH 382. David referred to Acton’s work as “the finest cookery book in the English language”. It is one of the first British recipe books aimed at the domestic cook, listing ingredients, exact measurements, and cooking times separately.


Acton’s recipes for Brussel sprouts and Christmas pudding are particularly celebrated, and she also introduces the term ‘spaghetti’ to the English vocabulary.


Hamburgisches Kochbuch, oder, Vollständige Anweisung zum Kochen : insonderheit für Hausfrauen in Hamburg und in Niedersachsen (1798), Classmark DCH 413: David’s collection is line with Warburg’s interest in all aspects of cultural history. Here is an eighteenth-century regional cookery book – written by several Hamburg women for use by housewives in Hamburg and Lower Saxony – that bears Aby Warburg’s bookplate.

All the books we have referred to in this blog are available for our readers to browse. You can find out more about the Warburg Institute Library admission rules at If you have an inquiry, please email