Glasgow Incunabula Project Update (9/12/14)

Labelled papyrus scrolls from a Roman pottery fragment (Sp Coll Bo1-b.6-7)

Labelled papyrus scrolls from a Roman scultpure fragment (Sp Coll Bo1-b.6-7)

Identifying one book on the shelf from another can be tricky but it is hardly a new problem. The survival of a fragment of Roman sculpture dating from ca. 100 A. D.* depicting papyrus scrolls with name tickets attached, confirms that labelling to differentiate books predates even the codex format. Yet it’s fair to say that the need for regular external labelling or titling probably only became widespread with the onset of the incunabula age cluttering the place up with ever more books**(update 12/11/15).

Books stored flat on lecterns and on their sides. Stultifera Navis (Sp Coll BD16-e.4)

Books stored flat on lecterns and on their sides. Stultifera Navis (Sp Coll BD16-e.4)

This deluge of printed books revolutionised storage methods, in turn affecting the way books were labelled. Prior to the arrival of the printing press (and until well into the 16th century) books were stored flat on lecterns or in wooden chests***.  Labelling reflected this, with titles hand-written on covers or along leaf edges (see the index: ‘Manuscript title/author’s name added on fore-edge (or other edges)’ in the Practical Annotations section for examples). As libraries grew and available storage space shrank, books began to be stored upright, initially with spine inwards and with title commonly written horizontally across the outward facing fore-edge. Towards the end of the 17th century storage fashion changed again and took on a far more familiar look – vertical storage but with spine facing outwards. Identifying lettering was often tooled in gold directly onto the spine, and then from the 18th century, increasingly onto special leather labels pasted to the spine****

The latest batch of incunabula throws up a fascinating insight into one of the practicalities of 18th-century spine labelling. Bound in at the front of a ca. 1495 copy of Nicolaus Praepositus’s Dispensarium ad aromaticos is a bibliographical note in William Hunter’s hand. In it he mentions that he bought the work bound up together, “in a very old binding”, with a second work by Johannes XXI, Pont. Max. (Petrus Hispanus). Hunter evidently saw fit to have the two works re-bound separately (not an unusual 18th century bibliophile practice as we’ve noted previously). Both 18th-century bindings are remarkably similar: brown calf, identical marbled endpapers, red-sprinkled edges, gilt-stamped with Hunter’s personal hunting horn tool, and both bearing gold-tooled morocco spine labels. Fascinatingly, preserved in the Petrus Hispanus is a small note in Hunter’s hand reading “Calf Gilt Petr. Yspan. Thes. Paup.” – precisely the same lettering tooled onto the spine label. This note is clearly Hunter’s instruction to the binder as to how to bind and title the book.

Note to binder, written in William Hunter's hand (Sp Coll Hunterian Bg.2.4)

Note to binder, written in William Hunter’s hand (Sp Coll Hunterian Bg.2.4)

Spine title tooled in gold onto morocco labels (Sp Coll Hunterian Bg.2.4)

Spine title (Sp Coll Hunterian Bg.2.4)

What is perhaps even more surprising is that this fleetingly ephemeral 250 year-old fragment is not the unique example of this class of note discovered during GIP cataloguing. Similar notes are preserved in a number of incunabula including those previously owned by Richard Mead and by Anthony Askew (see: “Insertions (not necessarily related to the text)” in the Annotations index). This, I think, hints at certain conclusions we can tentatively draw about 18th-century spine titling practice: that choice of wording on the spine was commonly decided by the book owner rather than being determined by the binder. That such inserted notes were an accepted means of communicating this information to the binder. And, that the notes were often deliberately returned to the owners. Specific evidence for this last conclusion can be found in another contemporary 18th-century binding in William Hunter’s library – a 1753 Foulis copy of Plutarch. An instruction note to the binder in Hunter’s hand, which once again scrupulously matches the tooling on the label, has been bound-in so that it doesn’t fall out: clear evidence that its survival is no accident.

Quite to whom Hunter’s notes were addressed is another question. Unfortunately we have no surviving records/knowledge of which binder or binders Hunter regularly employed. The anonymity of binders in the history of the book trade is a frequently encountered problem, as David Pearson has noted*****. Binders were the lowest rung of the book trade ladder, and as such, they are rarely named. Perhaps, of course, this low social status provides a clue as to why these notes have survived. Might it be that, in a relationship of unequal status where a binder’s word likely carried less weight than a book owner’s, these notes were deliberately preserved by the binder to help ensure payment? They possibly acted as written receipts providing proof, in the book owner’s own hand, of work well done.

*nb. Illustrated in Browerus, C. & Masenius, J. Antiquitatum et Annalium Trevirensium Libri XXV – cited in Kallendorf, C. “The Ancient Book” in Suarez, Michael F. & Woudhuysen, H. R. The book: a global history, p. 43.
**this is not strictly true since plenty of labels can still be found on the bindings of medieval manuscripts, particularly those deriving from larger libraries, as demonstrated here by Erik Kwakkel: 
***See: Petroski, H. The book on the book shelf (New York: Knopf, c. 1999) for a useful summary of the changing book storage methods/fashions.
****The earliest surviving gold-tooled spine lettering actually dates from the 16th century but it is uncommon before the late 17th century. See Pearson, D. English Bookbinding Styles, 1450-1800, pp. 105-111 for a history of spine titling. In France and Italy it was less common to store books fore-edge outwards. Books commonly went from flat storage to spine out. See Pollard G. “Changes in the style of bookbinding, 1550-1830” in The Library, 5 s, vxi, (2) (June 1956)
***** Pearson, D. English Bookbinding Styles, 1450-1800, pp 164-177

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


Categories: Special Collections

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  1. Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #26 | Whewell's Ghost

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