Glasgow Incunabula Project update (10/7/15)

It was great to spend a couple of very hot and sunny days in Leicester last week attending the stimulating conference Reading copy specific features: producers, readers & owners of incunabula, superbly organised by Takako Kato of De Montfort University.

Many indexes make light work

Many indexes make light work

As a conference that concentrated on the copy specific aspects of 15th century books, it was good to have the opportunity to present a short overview of our project and website, highlighting some of the indexes we have provided to aid researchers. It was also very heartening to hear the project mentioned favourably by a number of other speakers.

1483 Koberger Bible

1483 Koberger Bible

The conference began with a trip to the University of Leicester Library to see some of their incunabula. I was particularly interested to hear about their 1929 bequest of books from Caleb Robjohns – a businessman and bibliophile who was somewhat eccentric by all accounts (with a habit of trying to outwit his housekeeper in sneaking more books into his crammed house, by throwing new acquisitions over his garden wall and retrieving them in the dead of night!). He was particularly interested in collecting early editions of Bibles, and so draws a parallel with our William Euing. Although I do not think Euing had to revert to subterfuge in purchasing his books, he was certainly obsessive in trying to collect as many different editions of the Bible as possible. In fact, two more of his 24 incunabula Bibles feature in this batch: two editions printed in Venice by Johannes Herbort, de Seligenstadt, in 1483 and 1484.

Inscription about Halley's comet

Inscription about Halley’s comet

Initial 'F', with embellishment

Initial ‘F’, with embellishment

Our copy of the 1483 edition, in particular, ticks all the ‘copy specific’ boxes. It has an early monastic provenance, bearing an inscription of the Dominicans of Rostock dated 1529. The book later passed into the ownership of the Capuchin S. Joseph monastery in Prague, and was acquired by Euing in 1854 via the bookseller John Mozley Stark. Unlike many of Euing’s books, it survives in a 16th century blind-tooled calf binding. There are also occasional marginal annotations in 16th-century hands, including an intriguing inscription (accompanied by a pen-and-ink drawing) regarding the sighting of a comet in August 1531. Finally, it has attractive decoration – professionally executed but all fairly standard until you spot idiosyncracies such as an initial “F” that incorporates a pen-and-ink drawing of a bearded man’s face.

So, all in all, there is quite a lot to learn here just from one book – which rather underlines the basic message of Lotte Hellinga’s and David Pearson’s conference plenaries: that these books are unique in so many different ways (irrespective of how many copies from each edition survive). Lotte Hellinga also stressed the importance of describing the books fully and trying to second guess what will be of interest to researchers of the future in providing information about them. Of course, we hope that our project indexing does provide access to the Glasgow books from a number of angles.

Another idea that provoked lively discussion was the notion that the absence of intervention and copy specifics is equally as interesting as those books crammed full of annotations, inscriptions, scribal initials and elaborate decoration. What does this absence tell us about these books and their survival?

Ficinus: initial spaces, with guide letters

Ficinus: initial spaces, with guide letters

It has to be admitted that these books usually tend not to be highlighted at exhibition or even in blogs – and there are a lot of them. In this batch, for instance, we have an example of one of many books where spaces are still blank in readiness for the insertion of initials and rubrication that has never happened. This  is a copy of Marsilius Ficinus‘ letters ([Nuremberg]: Anton Koberger, 24 Feb 1497).

Although undecorated, Koberger has provided printed guide letters for the hypothetical scribe to follow, thus making the book entirely legible; furthermore, our copy has obviously been read as it bears occasional marginalia and nota marks. What do we conclude about this? Is this simply a case of its first owner (possibly a strict and ascetic Carthusian) wanting a reading text to study at the cheapest price available, and deciding that decoration was an unnecessary expense? From investigating the many surviving copies of this edition as listed on ISTC, might it be possible to ascertain if this particular text was routinely left unadorned (at least two other copies available in facsimile are equally as ‘untreated’ as ours) and, if so, what does this mean? We know that there are many examples of Koberger books that are beautifully decorated. But is this book undecorated because of the large number of copies produced in a print run relatively late on in the incunabula period? Were all the scribes by this point simply too exhausted and overworked to bother, having laboriously added millions of initials to printed books in the prior decades*? It’s all very thought provoking – I guess that’s why we go to conferences!

*Ok, that’s just my own not very intellectual proposal. I daresay the scribes would have added initials to the Ficinus if they were paid enough to do so.

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


Categories: Special Collections

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1 reply

  1. Reblogged this on cautivadulce.

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