Glasgow Incunabula Project update (9/4/14)

Two English books feature in our latest batch of incunabula. The vast majority of 15th century texts are in Latin – the language that could be understood by a wide market of humanist scholars all over Europe. However,  printers also saw the potential of this new technology for mass producing vernacular works that might appeal to the growing literate middle classes.

Excerpt from Caxton's preface to Eneydos

Excerpt from Caxton’s preface to Eneydos

We have a number of incunabula in English, ten of which were produced by England’s celebrated first printer, William Caxton. Included amongst these is a copy of The boke of Eneydos, an adaptation of Virgil’s Aeneid.

A shrewd businessman, Caxton concentrated on printing works in English that could not be obtained elsewhere – providing translations, prologues and epilogues when required.  He translated Eneydos from the French ‘Livre des Énéides’. In its prologue, he famously discusses the problems of understanding a fast changing language that then existed in many variations, relating the much quoted anecdote on the confusion resulting from differing vocabulary in dialects, such in  “egges” (northern use) and “eyren” (southern use) – a northern merchant being somewhat miffed at being accused of speaking French when asking for eggs .

Caxton's preface

Egges versus Eyren (from Caxton’s preface to Eneydos)

Caxton’s rueful conclusion is that “certaynly it is harde to playse euery man, by cause of dyuersitie & chau[n]ge of langage”. Caxton’s mass production of texts, in fact, made him a significant figure in standardising English.

The Chronicles of England

The Chronicles of England

The second English work featured here is a copy of The Chronicles of England, a version of the popular Prose Brut history. This was produced by the so called “Schoolmaster printer” of St Albans in about 1486. This edition is an extended version of the text that was first printed by William Caxton in 1480. It is interpolated throughout with a history of the Popes and ecclesiastical matters, and includes extra prefatory material.

One of eight books produced in St Albans between 1480 and 1486, little is known about its printer except that Wynkyn de Worde referred to him as ‘sometyme scole master of Saynt Albans.’  There was a large Benedictine Abbey in St Albans at the time, and it is possible (especially in considering the religious matter incorporated into this text) that the Abbot had an interest in the press. However, it might also be possible that actually two different printers operated in St Albans. The earlier output of the press is represented by four dated books of 1480-81 – all religious and academic works in Latin; there was then a switch to two popular vernacular works, the Book of Hawking and this work, the Chronicles. Neither are dated but both are thought to have been produced in about 1486. As the BM catalogue points out, the appearance of both these books is “radically different” from the earlier Latin works:

Typographically they are much more elaborate, with printed initials and lombards, a second type for headings … directly obtained from Caxton, and more remarkably, colour printing … Where the Latin books showed good press-work, in the two English books the quality is poor.

It has been suggested that in producing these books, this press was trying to emulate Caxton’s success in Westminster in producing proven money-makers – the Chronicles (aka Brut), for instance, is often cited as being one of the most popular and best selling works of the medieval period. This emulation extended to using a typeface similar to Caxton’s, indicating that perhaps there may even have been a direct connection between the two businesses. Although this has been impossible to prove, one hypothesis is that Caxton was behind the printing of both the Chronicles and the Book of Hawking, providing the printer in St Albans with materials such as remnants of paper and an old fount, and then leaving him to get on with it.*

Marginal annotations

Marginal annotations

Our copy has been heavily used and is now somewhat dilapidated. It has lost a number of pages (including, unfortunately, the last page with its printer’s device), but its frequent annotations give us a fascinating insight into readers’ responses to the text. Although there are occasional remarks from at least two early users of the book, the main hands at work are 17th and 18th century – nice proof of the longevity of the text. Another noteworthy feature is the consistent censoring of the word “pope”  by means of heavy ink crossing out; this is presumably the work of a politically sensitive reader following Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church.

A final point of interest about this text is that we also have a late 15th century manuscript copy of it, parts of which were clearly copied from a printed copy of the St Albans edition. Our rather workmanlike MS Hunter 83 is a  ‘composite’ volume. It consists of an original Brut text that ends imperfectly; this core text is substantially augmented by material added by a second scribe both at the beginning and the end, thus updating the text. It is the additional prefatory material – including  the woodcut diagrams – that was copied from the St Albans version of the work.

Section on Noah (printed: Bv.2.17)

Section on Noah (printed: Bv.2.17)

This is a good example of an early modern reader updating a manuscript to keep it current. The use of printed books as copy texts for manuscripts was surprisingly common in the 15th Century – while there were obviously some printed copies of texts in circulation, they might have been beyond the reach of some readers, either through relative scarcity or because of their cost; therefore, in many circumstances, it must still have been cheaper and simpler to have copies written out.

Section on Noah (manuscript - MS Hunter 83)

Section on Noah (manuscript – MS Hunter 83)

*For more on this, see introduction to B.M.’s Catalogue of books printed in the Fifteenth Century, Part XI, England, pp. 10-11 (2007)

The latest ten records to be added to the project website are:

Categories: Special Collections

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  1. Glasgow Incunabula Project update (10/9/14) | University of Glasgow Library

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