Glasgow Incunabula Project update (1/5/13)

Nearly all the books in this batch are from the library of Professor John Ferguson. As we know (or should do – if you have been reading previous incunabula blogs!), Ferguson sought “completeness” in his collecting strategy; as a keen and respected bibliographer he examined and researched his acquisitions with care, and gave many talks to learned societies on his findings.

Ferguson's copy of the De Secretis

Ferguson’s copy of the De Secretis

His copy of the rare edition of the Secreta mulierum et virorum (Sp Coll Ferguson Ah-a.30) was the subject of a lecture he gave to the Society of Antiquaries in 1886: ‘On a copy of Albertus Magnus’ De Secretis Mulierum, printed by Machlinia’. This paper makes interesting reading and offers us some insight into Ferguson’s motivations, tenacity and interests as a book collector.

Ferguson begins by relating that he purchased this edition of the De Secretis at the sale of the Duke of Hamilton’s library in 1884. An unsigned edition, the Hamilton sale catalogue stated that it was said to be printed by Machlinia by Ames but was “certainly not the production of that printer”. This undated and  anonymously printed volume did not, seemingly, attract much interest from other book collectors and Ferguson acquired it “without any difficulty, not much caring at the time by whom it was printed, so long as it was a copy of an undescribed edition”. However, his interest was obviously piqued, and despite the assertion that the book was not printed by Machlinia, Ferguson’s experience in typography led him to believe that this might well be a 15th century production, and he decided to investigate – “a book by Machlinia being one of the greatest of rarities” after all. Machlinia – a native of Machlin, in Flanders – was one of the first printers to set up in London after Caxton, and any book from his press would be a sought after acquisition; working initially in partnership with John Lettou, ISTC today records only 28 editions associated with his name.

Ferguson, of course, was investigating the book in the days before ISTC and online catalogues. He first consulted all the contemporary bibliographies of typographical antiquities (Hain, Ames, Herbert, Dibdin and Johnson) for more information on the scarce output of Machlinia, but his main course of action was to compare the book against his and the British Museum’s copy of Machlinia’s Liber Aggregationis by Albertus Magnus (Sp Coll Ferguson Ah-a.29): there were no other examples available for comparative purposes locally, the University’s Hunterian Library lacking any Machlinia texts. Ferguson had recently acquired his slightly imperfect copy of the Liber Aggregationis from the Syston Park library sale in 1884; it had previously belonged to the bibliographer William Herbert (1718-1795), whose inscription is found on its opening page. Ferguson had also examined other copies of the work in the British Museum and the Bodleian to gain an overall picture of its bibliographical composition.

William Herbert's autograph in the Liber Aggregationis

William Herbert’s autograph in the Liber Aggregationis

As a result of his research, Ferguson argued confidently that the De Secretis was indeed printed by Machlinia in London: “the two books have been printed with the same type, in the same style, and of the same dimensions of page; the workmanship is, in fact, identical”. Ferguson was quite right, and the book is firmly attributed to this press to this day. However, his investigations also had an interesting by product as regards the provenance of the volume. As already mentioned, his copy of Machlinia’s Liber Aggregationis had belonged to William Herbert. In Herbert’s description of this book in “Corrections and additions” to Ames (that is: Joseph Ames Typographical antiquities … Begun by the late Joseph Ames  … Considerably augmented … by William Herbert (London 1785-90) vol. 3, p. 1773), Herbert says: “To my copy of this book is prefixed another, printed on the same types. It wants the title-leaf; but has this head-title, in ancient writing, ‘Albertus magnus de secretis Nature et de miraculis Mundi.’ … “

Since Ferguson now owned this copy of the Liber Aggregationis, he knew that it was no longer bound in with any other item. Ever the curious, he therefore asked: where is Herbert’s copy of the De Secretis now?

Distinctive rubrication in the Liber Aggregationis

Distinctive rubrication in the Liber Aggregationis

He concluded that it was the very copy that he himself had purchased at the Hamilton sale. Bearing in mind that he had also examined other surviving copies in the British Museum and Bodleian, he based his evidence on the uniformity of style of the rubrication, arguing that the two books must have been separated at some point prior to 1808 – perhaps by Herbert himself. He says: “Both Herbert’s Liber Aggregationis and my own De Secretis have the capitals rubricated, the De Secretis more completely than the other; but in addition there are several flourishes in red at the end of each paragraph of so unmistakable a character that they must have been executed by the same hand. These seem to me to identify the two copies beyond all question. In this case Herbert’s copy, after it was separated from the Liber Aggregationis, must have been utterly neglected, leaves were lost and the corners wasted. Ultimately it came into the hands of some one who, recognising its value, had it most carefully mended and sumptuously bound.

Ferguson was obviously delighted that he was able to reunite these two books in his collection “after having been divorced for well nigh a century”. What is also apparent is that he relished the thrill of the book collecting chase, gaining great satisfaction in having spotted a bargain at the Hamilton sale. His acquisition of both Machlinia editions results in some ever so slightly smug final remarks (but who can blame him?), that “in addition to their being among the very first books ever printed in London … to their excessive rarity … to their formerly belonging to such famous collectors as Herbert … these volumes have this distinction that they are the last representatives of the only Latin editions of these curious treatises by Albertus Magnus which were ever printed in this country … In every respect, therefore, intrinsically and historically, they are full of the greatest interest and value”.

The latest ten books described on the project website are:



Categories: Special Collections

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