Glasgow Incunabula Project update (9/5/13)

When it comes time to blog about the latest batch of incunabula sometimes one item stands out from the rest; other times there are simply too many things to choose from! This is such a batch – where to start?

How about with The Borgias… If, like me, you’re hooked on the Showtime/Sky Atlantic Quattrocento romp you may recall the Ottoman prince Cem (pronounced Jem) from season 1, the Vatican ‘guest’ of Jeremy Irons. Well, while some of the dramatised details are unsurprisingly dubious (e.g. Cem actually arrived in Rome during the papacy of Alexander VI’s predecessor Innocent VIII), the gist of the story is correct. Following the death of their father Mehmed II his two surviving sons Bayezid and Cem fought over the Sultanate. Bayezid won and Cem, in attempting to re-conquer his Empire, became a prisoner of the Knights of St. John in Rhodes. He was essentially held under house arrest first by the Knights and then later the Pope in exchange for the vast sum of 40,000 gold ducats per year, which Bayezid seemed all too happy to pay to keep Cem out of sight and out of mind.

Contemporary manuscript copy of a letter sent to Pope Innocent VIII relating to Ottoman relations with the Papacy (17 November 1487). Folio 1v. Sp Coll Bn7-b.4.

Contemporary manuscript copy of a letter sent to Pope Innocent VIII concerning Ottoman relations with the Papacy (17 November 1487). Folio 1v. Sp Coll Bn7-b.4.

Contemporary manuscript copy of a letter sent to Pope Innocent VIII relating to Ottoman relations with the Papacy (17 November 1487). Folio 1r. Sp Coll Bn7-b.4.

Contemporary manuscript copy of a letter sent to Pope Innocent VIII concerning Ottoman relations with the Papacy (17 November 1487). Folio 1r. Sp Coll Bn7-b.4.

Fascinatingly, the text of a letter apparently concerning Cem and his captivity, sent to Innocent VIII in 1487, is copied into our 1481 copy of Pius II’s Epistolae familiares. The letter, which we haven’t fully transcribed or translated (hint – an interesting project for any Ottoman historians out there!) begins: “Soldan[us] pontifici Romano p[ro] Restaurat[i]o[n]e Iunioris filij Semoris Turchi” and is dated “Chairi xvijo Noue[m]bris Ao mo cccco lxxxvijo”. What is this letter? Who wrote it and why? Do other copies survive? Over to you, dear readers… (for larger copies of the text see recto and verso)

If Ottoman princes don’t take your fancy, how about a good old detective story? Our 1491 copy of the splendidly illustrated herbal the Hortus sanitatis, which surveys the medical uses of the world’s plants, animals and minerals, was split into two volumes back in the 16th century, the second of which is now missing. Our volume one is quite distinctive: a beautiful 16th-century blind-tooled binding with vellum-waste endpapers from a liturgical manuscript. It has a distinctive monastic inscription placing it in the possession of the Dominicans of Dortmund in the 18th century before arriving here on permanent deposit from the Church of Scotland’s Trinity College Library in 1974. Through some good old-fashioned detective work we discovered that the companion second volume, with an identical binding, provenance and markings is now housed in the Wellcome Library! The second volume was evidently disposed of by the Free Church Library (later Trinity College Library) for some reason (did they mistakenly think it was a duplicate perhaps?) and was purchased by the Wellcome Library at Sotheby’s in 1905 for £9.0.0. It’s nice to know that the second part of this great work has survived, and is in such safe hands, even if it is several hundred miles away from our part one!

Binding of Thomas a Kempis by J. Carss & Co. on 20 Oct 1869 for £0.10.6 (Sp Coll BD15-a.26)

Binding of Thomas a Kempis by J. Carss & Co. for William Euing, finished 20 Oct 1869 for £0.10.6 (Sp Coll BD15-a.26)

It’s not all Ottoman princes and long lost books here at GIP though… Occasionally, some of the most interesting aspects of incunabula can be slightly lower key. One of the great benefits of this kind of detailed cataloguing project is the recording of previously disregarded 19th century pencil scribblings, notes and codes made by collectors, booksellers and binders. In isolation, they don’t necessarily mean anything but in aggregation, they have the potential to shed new light upon neglected areas of book history. One such example is found in this batch where a copy of Thomas à Kempis’s 1494 Opera, owned by William Euing, was rebound in Glasgow by J. Carss & Co., the binder adding pencil notes indicating the work – costing £0.10.6 – was completed on 20th October 1869. Since Euing seemed to rebind many of the incunabula he acquired (three quarters of the hundred or so incunabula so far catalogued that he owned have 19th century bindings, many by J. Carss & Co.) and since Mr Carss was evidently a keen note maker, similar notes survive in other incunabula. For example, we know that a similarly sized incunable bound 2 years previously in the more expensive goatskin (rather than calf) cost more than double (£1.2.6) to bind. We even have two incunabula bound for Euing on the same day, presumably part of the same batch (29th August 1872), both in green calf, one costing £0.2.6, the other, a slightly larger book, £0.3.6.

So why are these details interesting and what can they tell us? Well, they are interesting because it is rare to know who bound a book (often no binder’s stamp, mark or label is added – see the numerous unattributed and unlocated 19th century bindings in our index) never mind exactly when the work was done and what it cost. A closer study of this sort of note might add to our understanding of the 19th-century binding trade, which experienced great changes due to technology advances and changing market forces, resulting in craft and edition (i.e. publisher’s) binding diverging into two almost distinct professions. Was half a guinea a lot of money to pay for a bespoke calfskin binding in 1869? Was it cheaper to have a book bound in Glasgow than Edinburgh or London? Was goatskin always so much more expensive than calf?

J. Carss & Co. binder's label on a Euing incunable (Sp Coll BD7-e.17)

J. Carss & Co. binder’s label on a Euing incunable (Sp Coll BD7-e.17)

At the very least, a closer look at these notes might tell us a bit more about the Carss firm, little of which seems to be recorded. The Scottish Book Trade Index gives 1849 as the latest date for the firm but the name continues to appear in the Glasgow Post Office Directory right through to 1877 and the firm was clearly being used by Euing through to his death in the early 1870s. Dibdin, in his fabulous Bibliographical antiquarian and picturesque tour in the northern counties of England and in Scotland (Euing’s copy was fittingly bound by Carss!) met Mr Carrs [sic] “the favourite book-binder among the cognoscenti at Glasgow” in the late 1830s:

From his glass-door cabinet, he has his eye constantly upon stitchers and binders. Not a movement escapes him; and he is about the pleasantest tradesman imaginable to do business with: first because he is both quick and civil – and secondly, because he knows in what his art more especially consists. A good long term of life is apparently before him; and his gains cannot fail to be both constant and considerable. … Mr. Carrs and I had almost mingled tears at the sight of a precious old volume of poetry, which had been the property of Drummond – with his autograph – having been left with him with an order “to be bound as cheaply as possible”. Even “sheep-skin” had been hinted at! Could profanation on this score have assumed a more awful front?

See our bookbinders index to see examples of other J. Carss & Co. bindings. The latest ten books described on the project website are:



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  1. Friends reunited: an incunabulum split between London and Glasgow | Wellcome Library

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