Glasgow Incunabula Project update (27/8/13)

Incipit leaf of Albertus Magnus De animalibus (Mantua:  12 Jan. 1479) Sp Coll BD9-a.9

Incipit leaf of Albertus Magnus De animalibus (Mantua: 12 Jan. 1479) Sp Coll BD9-a.9

On first inspection the incipit leaf (i.e. the opening page) of this Albertus Magnus De animalibus (Mantua:  12 Jan. 1479) while attractive and decorative is, well… nothing out of the ordinary. Yes, it has a beautiful illuminated manuscript initial and it has lovely floral manuscript borders but – as you can see from our decoration index – similarly decorated incunabula survive in reasonable numbers. Yet, when you look more closely at the initials and border, especially in a raking light, things are not what they seem. For this is a marriage. The initial and borders were originally executed for another work – likely a 15th century vellum manuscript – before being cut out and pasted to the Albertus Magnus. Why?

In truth it is difficult to know for sure but it seems likely to have happened reasonably recently in the life of the incunable: probably early in the 19th century. Several different trends were affecting book collecting and book selling at the time that may go some way to explaining what has gone on here.

The first is the growth of the bibliophile hobby of ‘extra illustrating’ (also known as private illustrating, or Grangerizing after James Granger (1723-76) who published a work with deliberately blank pages to which readers could add portraits). This practice of pasting in images (usually portraits and plates) from one book into another, so ‘improving’ it and personalizing it, became very popular in the 1800s. While the Albertus Magnus doesn’t contain pasted-in portraits, it still falls into that same general category of ‘improved’ book.

Pasted-in border and initials (Sp Coll BD9-a.9)

Pasted-in border and initials (Sp Coll BD9-a.9)

Detail of pasting in (Sp Coll BD9-a.9)

Detail of pasting in (Sp Coll BD9-a.9)

The second trend to note is the healthy market for manuscript miniatures and initials in the first half of the 1800s (e.g. see A.N.L. Munby, Connoisseurs and Medieval Miniatures 1750-1850). Up to the end of the 1700s Munby characterizes a world in which collectors were generally more interested in the texts, only rating miniatures produced before the end of the 10th century (anything later considered frightful, barbaric and poorly executed!) Collectors like William Hunter were at the vanguard of a new generation of English-based bibliophile who began to take an interest in later continental illustrated works (cf. his spectacular Vita Christi and Mirroir de l’Humaine Salvation). Subsequently a market for individual manuscript miniatures, fragments and initials began to grow, sometimes sadly resulting in the mutilation and dismemberment of manuscript codices*. Munby reports a fascinating factor which, in his view, may have contributed to the mutilation problem: a tax of £6. 10s per hundredweight on imported bound (pre-1801) manuscripts and books, “small wonder therefore” he remarks “that a dealer who had bought in Italy half a dozen elephant-folio Antiphonals was tempted to jettison the bindings and unilluminated pages and bring home only the decorative and saleable initials.” (see Munby, p.65).

Front binding of Albertus Magnus (Sp Coll BD9-a.9)

Front binding of Albertus Magnus (Sp Coll BD9-a.9)

Detail of binding tooling, showing thistle tool (Sp Coll BD9-a.9)

Detail of binding tooling, showing thistle tool (Sp Coll BD9-a.9)

And it is to these dealers themselves and their often questionable behaviour that we must turn to last! By the early 19th century a practice of ‘perfecting’ or ‘making-up’ copies existed in the trade. Leaves or plates were regularly plundered from one imperfect book to make-good another, which might be sold on to a (usually unsuspecting!) buyer for a whopping profit. Indeed Arthur Freeman** describes the bookseller Joseph Lilly’s workshop as “a kind of factory for making up Shakespeare folios, often sophisticating the 1623 ‘First’ with leaves from its paginary reprint of 1632, or even from the Douce facsimile of 1807.” Add to this dubious behaviour the activities of men like James Edwards,  the ‘ambulance chaser’ of his day who pursed the Napoleonic armies round Europe, negotiating a good price for the bibliographic plunder (see Munby, pp.5-6), and it doesn’t paint a very pretty picture of 19th century book dealing. If there was a profit to be had ‘pimping out’ an unillustrated Albertus Magnus with manuscript initials and a rubricated frame then many a 19th-century dealer would have been happy to do so!

Quite who (book dealer or collector) was responsible for the addition in this instance we may never know. The University Library received the book from William Euing in 1874 but he certainly wasn’t responsible. Not only are there no other examples of his having ‘improved’ books in this way but by examining the ‘stratigraphy’ of evidence we can rule him out***.  Euing bought the book in 1852 at the sale which dispersed the library of Edinburgh book dealer and auctioneer Charles B. Tait. Was Tait responsible? Or an earlier owner? Perhaps the clue is in the binding decoration which uses a repeating thistle tool. If you recognise it or have any clues as to earlier provenance and our mystery cut-and-paster then please get in touch!

* apparently a fashion developed for collecting initials cut from medieval manuscripts, arranged alphabetically and pasted to large boards (see Blades, The enemies of books, pp119-120; 123-124). Read more about book destruction and lost libraries in this other recent blog post.
**(see Everyman and Others, Part I: Some Fragments of Early English Printing, and their Preservers, The Library: the Transactions of the Bibliographical Society 9 (3), Sept. 2008, p. 279)
*** we know that the red marginal ruling must be contemporary with or later than the addition of the initial and border since it outlines them. We can also see that the ruling extends right into the guttering, meaning it must have been executed either prior to, or at the same time as the book was bound. The binding retains a small sticker (at the head of the spine) with the lot number of the sale from which Euing acquired it, meaning he bought the book with this binding rather than having it rebound.

The latest ten records described on the project website are:

  • Boethius: Opera Venice:  Johannes and Gregorius de Gregoriis, de Forlivio, 1497/98-99
  • Biblia latina [Lyons]:  Francois Fradin and Jean Pivard, 23 Dec. 1497.


Categories: Special Collections

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2 replies

  1. Reblogged this on Cardmon's Blog and commented:
    An excellent piece, a worthwhile read.

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  1. Exhibiting Ingenuity: Printing Workshops | University of Glasgow Library

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