Glasgow Incunabula Project update (18/12/13)

The Gnotosolitos by Arnoldus de Geilhoven (a massive work on morals and canon law) was the second work to be produced by the press of the Brothers of the Common Life (the Fratres Vitae Communis). This religious community ran the only printing house in Brussels in the 15th century.

Decorated initial "H"

Decorated initial “H”

Rubricated page

Rubricated page

Our copy of this work is rubricated throughout and features a nicely decorated sixteen line initial at the start of the main text. Rebound in the 18th century, the only evidence of use from early readers is the addition of early manuscript signatures and pagination. Like so many of our incunabula, it comes from the library of William Hunter, but we have no information on how or where he acquired it, or of its earlier ownership history. On the face of it then, in comparison with many of the books we have featured in these blogs, (although very large) this is not a particularly noteworthy book.

However, this edition (including our copy) has been the subject of an interesting article by Elly Cockx-Indestegen*. This is a good case study for the kind of research that can be undertaken when a number of copies of incunabula survive.

Cockx-Indestege attempted to answer the following fundamental questions about early printed books in conducting her research:

Once a book leaves the printing office, it becomes difficult to follow its further history: how big was the edition and how many copies of the edition were sent on to a rubricator, a flourisher or an illuminator? Which copies were entrusted to a binder within a reasonably short time? Who were the binders and who gave the orders for these things to be done? For whom was the text intended and when exactly did an interested individual or library acquire a copy? These are seemingly simple questions which in the absence of a comprehensive foundation of facts are nonetheless very difficult to answer.



She chose to try and answer these questions about the distribution and finishing of incunabula by examining the evidence found in a single edition, focusing on the Gnotosolitos as undoubtedly the most “important” book produced by the Brothers of the Common Life.

Her first task was to find the locations of all the surviving copies – and, as we know, 15th century books have spread far and wide! 31 copies were traced via ISTC and three further copies were identified as being owned privately, although ‘perhaps more are hidden elsewhere’ (a notion we must always have lurking in the backs of our minds when using union databases to assess the comparative rarity of items). Even with this relatively small number of survivors, it proved impossible for her to examine each copy in person, and questions were posed to librarians regarding their books, focusing on the decorative work (which, as she points out, is often fully described in manuscripts, and yet neglected in descriptions of incunabula). Our copy was examined by proxy in this way.

The evidence she gathered about this book may be summarised as follows.

For the decoration:

  • Initials follow a hierarchical pattern in levels of decoration corresponding to the textual structure of the book; the larger and more important initials are frequently “duplex” (ie. two interlocking parts like a jigsaw puzzle, usually in red and blue)
  • Copies as a rule were fully rubricated (although not always done with equal care; on close examination there is often variation – perhaps indicating different rubricators at work even in a single copy)
  • Very small differences in seemingly standardised rubrication (eg certain characteristics such as “abundant small spheres of a few millimetres diameter”) can help localise the decoration
  • About two thirds of the copies are further decorated with penwork, applied around the initials, and concentrating in the “eye filling” of duplex initials
  • Four different patterns of “eye filling” were identified
  • Most penwork colours are predominantly the same as the initials they accompany – except for a few copies (including ours) where “strikingly different colours” are used

For the bindings:

  • Only 15 copies retain their original bindings (not surprising for such a large and heavy book!)
  • The evidence that remains (given that much of the stamping is worn) points to binderies far from the place of printing (Brussels)

For the provenances:

  • About half of the copies have religious/monastic provenances, with Benedictines dominating
  • 6 private individuals were identified from inscriptions/coats of arms

For the marks of use:

  • There are annotations in many copies, but few are profusely annotated (perhaps owing to the well laid out navigational structure, with running headings, chapter titles etc supplied in print)
  • Contemporary foliation occurs only occasionally; contemporary quiring is often found
Printed navigational devices: running heading; chapter heading; side notes

Printed navigational devices: running heading; chapter heading; side notes

In attempting to follow in the tracks of a single book, Cockx-Indestege concluded as follows:

For early printed books it is necessary to start from early ownership indications and to seek to record the libraries that originally held them. Matters become even more complex if one starts out from the products of a single press. The discoverable data on decoration, bindings and provenance in surviving copies of fifteenth-century books are widely scattered and have to be checked against comparable ones in many different sources. At present we have hardly any such detail at our disposal. There’s work to be done!

Detail of "standard" small initial "S" (note the curling)

Detail of “standard” small initial “S” (note the curling)

What strikes me most is the immense variation that is found in the decoration, and the devil is in the detail. As we know, rubrication and decoration was usually applied soon after acquisition of the book, but the work on even a single edition must have been undertaken by a large number of craftsmen over a wide geographical area.

Here is where modern technology can be a huge help, however. The article by Cockx-Indestigate was published in 1999, and illustrated by nineteen black and white images from a number of the books she studied. Although there are similarities, none of these are exactly like the decoration found in our book. She comments about the difficulties in conducting this kind of research in comparing widely scattered books. But, in these days of websites,  flickr, and crowd sourcing, it should surely be much easier to compare large numbers of decorated books and pinpoint the styles of distinct craftsmen or workshops. In our decoration index, we have attempted to set out examples from our books in a hierarchical structure of levels of decoration, but (as Cockx-Indestigate ruefully stated fifteen years ago) there is still a world of work that could be done here.

Detail of decoration in the eye of the initial "H"

Detail of decoration in the eye of the initial “H”

This will be our final incunabula blog for 2013. Merry Christmas to all our readers!

* Cockx-Indestege, E.: ‘The Gnotosolitos of Arnold Geilhoven published by the Brothers of the Common Life in Brussels in 1476 … ‘ in ed. Martin Davies: Incunabula: Studies in fifteenth-century printed books presented to Lotte Hellinga (London: British Library, 1999) , pp. 27-77.

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

Categories: Special Collections

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