Upcycling Bellenden’s Hystory and Croniklis of Scotland

Spot the difference - the reverse of a patch replacing an excised woodcut initial, with the printed text replaced by handwitten text (Sp Coll Bn6-d.18), leaf C3r

Spot the difference – the reverse of a patch replacing an excised woodcut initial, with the printed text replaced by handwitten text (Sp Coll Bn6-d.18), leaf C3r

Do you have a favourite item of clothing, a favourite comfortable old woolly-jumper perhaps? The sweater may be stretched, faded, strange smelling and with the odd hole patched up here and there, but – defying the desperate pleas of your nearest and dearest – you’ve kept it. Why? Just because… Well, I came across the bibliographical equivalent recently, a sixteenth-century printed book, battered, soiled, with pages missing and with woodcut lettering sliced out. But, like we might do with a favourite item of clothing, the book has been lovingly and painstakingly repaired by a seventeenth-century owner who has replaced all of the missing leaves with handwritten facsimiles and has pasted hand-crafted patches over all the holes where the woodcut letters were excised. This was clearly an important and well loved object.

Hand-drawn initial pasted in (now loose) (Sp Coll Bn6-d.18) leaf B2r

Hand-drawn initial pasted in (now loose) (Sp Coll Bn6-d.18) leaf B2r

The book in question isn’t just any old book, it’s the earliest book held here in Special Collections that was printed in Scotland (we have two copies in fact): John Bellenden’s Hystory and Croniklis of Scotland printed in Edinburgh in circa 1537, a Scots translation of Hector Boece’s Latin History of Scotland. Dundonian Hector Boece’s Scotorum historiae a prima gentis origine, which describes the history of Scotland and the Scottish people from the earliest times, was published in Paris in 1527 and was received approvingly throughout Europe by a learned and humanist elite. Recognising its patriotic propaganda value, James V commissioned John Bellenden, Canon of Ross (and later Rector of Glasgow University) to translate the work into Scots, to be read by those of his subjects unschooled in Latin. Bellenden completed the first version in the early 1530s and made several revisions to the work before, sometime around 1537, Thomas Davidson printed the translation*.

Handwritten facsimile contents leaf (Sp Coll Bn6-d.18)

Handwritten facsimile contents leaf (Sp Coll Bn6-d.18)

The printing of books came to Scotland rather later than to many other countries – the earliest surviving works were produced in Edinburgh in 1508. That’s not to say that Scots didn’t own and read printed books prior to the early sixteenth century, it’s just that such books were imported, having been printed elsewhere (England (usually London) if in English; or the continent (often Paris during the earliest period) if in Latin**). Indeed, even after printing was established in Scotland, it didn’t really take off – most books were still imported and it wasn’t until the 1570s that the number of new titles printed each year crept into double figures***.  Therefore, on publication, Bellenden’s translation was still a rather unusual thing – a printed book, produced in Scotland. But while it was produced here, Davidson, the first King’s printer in Scotland, seems to have relied upon continental supplies to print the book: paper, type and ornaments were all imported (paper from France and Germany, type from France and the Low Countries, woodcuts and ornaments from the Low Countries and England)**** Ryoko Harikae, who has recently completed a PhD on Bellenden’s translation, estimates that Davidson likely printed 400-500 copies of the work, of which a surprising 34 copies (including our two) still survive. This may not seem like a large number but the attrition rate for sixteenth-century books is high and many books now survive in just a single copy, if at all.

Autograph on titlepage (Sp Coll Bn6-d.18)

Autograph on titlepage (Sp Coll Bn6-d.18)

The relatively high number of survivors and the condition of both of our copies (one incomplete and repaired; the other incomplete yet surviving) hint at the high regard in which this work was held from an early date.  Even when damaged it was not thrown away. Nicola Royan and Dauvit Broun argue that Boece’s Latin Scotorum historiae and Bellenden’s Scots Hystory and Croniklis together became the authoritative accounts of Scottish history right up to the eighteenth century, their popularity perhaps owing to their bilingual appeal (for different audiences) and to their attractive narrative style (*5). Interestingly, Royan and Broun describe how in the 1640s a Leith notary, Adam Broun, took 5 months to copy out the whole of Bellenden’s printed Hystory and Croniklis by hand, just to own a copy; while Harikae describes a surprising 11 manuscript copies of the work still surviving, all dating from the seventeenth century and earlier. In short, to quote Royan, “Bellenden’s translation was highly influential on the way in which the Scots regarded themselves”. When placed in this context, it is less surprising that someone has gone to the trouble of repairing this important text (*6). Perhaps my old jumper analogy isn’t quite so apt after all – this book was altogether something more useful and more valued!

Watermark of single handed pot, with crescent and letters P|BR. Same as Gravell, Pot 0.39.1 (Sp Coll Bn6-d.18)

Watermark of single handed pot, with crescent and letters P|BR. Same as Gravell, Pot 0.39.1 (Sp Coll Bn6-d.18)

So, do we have any clues as to who might have been the loving repairer? Well, we know that the book arrived in Glasgow University Library prior to 1791 (at which point it was listed in Archibald Arthur’s Catalogus impressorum librorum in Bibliotheca Universitatis Glasguensis) but from where it came we are unsure – potentially vital provenance evidence appears to have been concealed when the eighteenth-century University Library bookplate was pasted to the inside of the front board. However, there are a couple of clues. Analysis of the watermarks of the facsimile pages suggests paper stock that was in use around 1621, so our repairer couldn’t have been at work much prior to this and may well have carried out the repairs around this time. Another clue can be found on the facsimile title page itself, which bears the inscription M[agistr]o. Bankie (I think!) So perhaps in was Master Bankie, whoever he was, who repaired our copy.

Hand-written facsimile titlepage. Very different from surviving examples of the printed titlepage (Sp Coll Bn6-d.18)

Hand-written facsimile titlepage. Very different from surviving examples of the printed titlepage (Sp Coll Bn6-d.18)

One final point though: the handwritten facsimile title page of our copy is very different from the standard printed titlepage (as it appears in Early English Books Online and in other copies I’ve checked ) which bear a large woodcut of the Royal arms and the text “Heir beginnis the hystory and croniklis of Scotland”. While this difference is perhaps not surprising given that it is hand copied, elsewhere in the work the copyist hasn’t deviated far from the printed exemplar. Furthermore, the facsimile arguably looks like a copy of a different title page, bearing the distinctive typographical conventions of the period (e.g. different ‘typefaces’, statements of authority, imprint and even a typographic ornament). It really does look like the copyist has copied out a real title page. So is this perhaps indicative of Davidson printing more than one early edition, this being a copy of the title page of one no longer extant? Well the academics who have recently studied the work think only one edition was printed, and unlike them I haven’t had the opportunity to examine all of the surviving copies for evidence. Some textual variance does apparently exist between the surviving copies but this has been attributed to stop press corrections (*7). However, I’d be interested to know why this facsimile title page looks so different from the one on EEBO. Did the copyist just have a very fertile imagination? Or, do complete copies of the Hystory and Croniklis contain a secondary title page following the woodcut title page, that is missing from our two incomplete copies and which was also omitted in the EEBO filming? Or just maybe, could this facsimile be a ‘ghostly reflection’ of a now lost title page to another edition (or more likely a variant state) of Davidson’s printing? Please do let me know if you have any answers or ideas.

*Ryoko Harikae, John Bellenden’s Chronicles of Scotland. (Doctoral thesis. University of Oxford, 2010). See p 9 for a discussion of James V’s intentions in commissioning the translation; see pp. 21-23 for a discussion dating the work to c. 1537.

**Margaret Lane Ford, ‘Importation of printed books into England and Scotland’ in Helinga, L. and Trapp, J.P. (eds.) The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Volume III, 1400-1557 (Cambridge: CUP, 1999) p 179. For an example of one such early printed book, imported into Scotland by and for a Scottish owner, in this case Hector Boece himself, see the Glasgow Incunabula Project.

***Andrew Pettegree, The Book in the Renaissance (New Haven; London: YUP, 2010) p. 263. Indeed Pettegree goes on to comment that only 350 titles were printed in Scotland in whole sixteenth century (p. 265)
****Paul B. Watry, Sixteenth Century Printing Types and Ornaments of Scotland with an Introductory Survey of the Scottish Book Trade (Doctoral thesis. University of Oxford, 1992) cited by Harikae (see above) pp. 15-16)
*5 Nicola Royan & Dauvit Broun, ‘Versions of Scottish Nationhood’ in Brown, I. The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, Volume I, From Columba to the Union (until 1707) p. 179
*6 in fact, considering its early significance, one wonders why the copy was mutilated in the first place, and who was responsible!
*7 E. A. Sheppard, Studies in the Language of Bellenden’s Boece (Doctoral thesis, University
of London, 1937) as cited by Ryoko Harikae (see above) p. 18 and p. 21

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  1. Scotland’s forgotten language « University of Glasgow Library

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