Glasgow Incunabula Project update (30/9/13)

An edition of Johannes de Sacro Bosco’s astronomical treatise Sphaera Mundi features in this batch. This popular work was reprinted on numerous occasions in the 15th century (we have four other editions listed so far), and – as befits a scientific work – the books often include beautifully produced woodcut diagrams and illustrations.


Woodcut illustration depicting a man holding an armillary sphere

Device of Jean Petit

Device of Jean Petit

The editions by Erhard Ratdolt are probably the best known. The book we are looking at here, however, is a Parisian production, printed by Guy Marchant for Jean Petit in February 1498. Like Ratdolt, Marchant is renowned for the high standard of his illustrated works. He printed this particular work on behalf of the publisher/bookseller Jean Petit. Petit (fl. 1492-1530) dominated the book trade in Paris, and became the official printer of its University  – it has been estimated that he was responsible for financing over 1000 publications! He was succeeded by Jean Petit II (presumably his son), who was active from 1525 – 1543. Both Petits often marked their “proprietorship” of the books they commissioned to be made by the use of a printer’s device. Renouard (in Les marques typographiques parisiennes des XVe et XVIe siècles) records examples of over twenty of these. The version found in this book, incorporating a lion and a leopard holding a shield, is the first Renouard lists (device no. 880).

Our copy is bound with another astronomical treatise, by Jacques Lefèvre, d’Etaples (Paris: Henri Estienne, 1517), and comes  from the library of Robert Simson (1687-1768), Professor of Mathematics at the University of Glasgow from 1711 until 1761. Simson’s marvellous library is perhaps overshadowed by some of the better known collections now held here. It contains some 850 printed books, and, not surprisingly, given Simson’s academic post, early mathematical and astronomical texts predominate. Bequeathed to the University on Simson’s  death in 1768, only a small number of incunabula are to be found, but the collection as a whole includes some very important and rare works, and deserves further attention.

Woodcut illustration depicting the month of April

Woodcut illustration depicting the month of April

Interestingly, this book has somehow drifted away from the main Simson collection which today is shelved all together with shelfmarks beginning “Ea”. Simson did not habitually write his name or mark his books, and there are no traces of his ownership in this volume, but we have been able to prove its connection to him from the evidence of an early library shelfmark written on its bookplate: “BR.6.2”.

Bookplate with pressmark

Bookplate with 18th century pressmark “BR.6.2” (crossed out)

This form of pressmark dates from the 18th century and can be checked in the 1791 printed catalogue of the University Library (compiled by the Archibald Arthur, the then librarian, and printed by the renowned Foulis Press). There are two ways you can check books in this catalogue – one volume listing the books in pressmark order, and one volume listing the books by author. If you look “BR.6.2” up in the pressmark volume, details of the two titles bound together are given and nothing more. However, if you check out the entries for Sacro-Bosco, you will find our book listed with the additional detail “Sims” at the end of its entry, denoting it as a Simson book.

It becomes apparent from examining the early shelfmarks in other Simson books that his library was not kept together as a collection when it was originally bequested to the library – and why, I suppose, should it have been? Although it does include a number of early imprints such as this one, it also contains a lot of 17th/18th century material which at the time would have been nearly contemporary, and therefore perhaps not deemed worthy of any special treatment . It would be an interesting project in itself to trace the different organisation of the library over more than five hundred years via the various shelfmarks found in the books (certainly that is for another day!), but – suffice to say – at some unknown point it was decided to bring the Simson books back together as a unit and they were all given new shelfmarks. I imagine some poor soul had the job of laboriously going through the entries in the Arthur catalogue looking for all those marked as “Sims”, so perhaps it is not surprising that the odd one, like this volume, was missed. Thank goodness for modern technology in searching catalogues today!

The latest ten books to be added and indexed on the project website are:

Categories: Special Collections

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