Illuminated Incunabula

Most people are familiar with illumination, the beautiful colours and intricate elaborations of initials and margins in medieval manuscripts. But it is less common to come across illuminated printed books.

A four-volume incunabula set of the Bible with commentary, Biblia cum postillis Nicola de Lyra, in Balliol Library is an example of this rarer illumination from the early days of the hand press.

This edition of the Vulgate Bible was published in Venice in 1481 by the master printer, Nicholas Jenson. The volumes were evidently owned by one Henry Clifford, though his signature appears to be 15th century.

clifford-signature
‘Henricus Clifford me possidet’: inscription on first leaf of volume 1 (Photo: Balliol College Library)

One assumes that to own this set of books so soon after the invention of printing Clifford would have been a wealthy man. One candidate might be Henry Clifford, tenth Baron Clifford (1454–1523), who, the Dictionary of National Biography  notes, was ‘…not just literate but even bookish, owning volumes on law and medicine, and developing a taste for astronomy and alchemy’. However the books themselves have no other marks of ownership.

The illuminations are a reminder how much the printed book borrowed from the manuscript. It was usual for print fonts to emulate handwriting. Here, this additional characteristic of the manuscript is borrowed.

There is one striking feature of the pattern of illuminations: many are incomplete, some hardly started. While some glitter lavishly others are no more than the rough drafts in black ink.

Clearly there is a story contained in this set that we will never be privy to. Why break off halfway through? Was this some sort of practice set that was never intended to be finished? The more complete illuminations seem to have had too much trouble taken over them for that. Did the illuminator who took on the job simply die before he could finish? But then why did the owner not go to someone else to finish the job? Or was it the owner himself who died, the gospels being laid to one side in the craftsman’s workshop and ultimately forgotten?

We will never know. The rather rough and ready plain paper-covered boards, a dull purple familiar in Oxford college libraries, suggests that their later history was not as grand as it once had been.

Cover and binding of Biblia cum postillis Nicola de Lyra Vol 4 (Photo: Balliol College Library)

Balliol College Library shelfmark 595 c 1-4

By Jeremy Hinchliff

Caxton fragment

A single leaf from one of the very earliest books printed in Britain, Caxton’s 1477 Canterbury Tales

The leaf was donated to the Library in 1965. There are traces of earlier provenance on the front pastedown (it was bound between gold-printed paper-covered boards in the 19th century) but they do not shed much light on the fragment’s pre-19th-century history.

This fragment, leaf 191, is slight in itself but represents a landmark of early English printing history, and inspires several questions about authenticity and origins.

Authenticity

The leaf’s authenticity is not certain. The print is still remarkably black: Caxton’s ink quality is well-known and weathers well.

Caxton leaf type detail

The paper, by contrast, betrays its age. Its discolouration is not surprising given its detachment from protective neighbouring pages. Our fragment spans the end of the Clerk’s tale and the Franklin’s prologue: not an especially desirable passage to forge. The profile of line endings exactly matches the equivalent leaf in a British Library copy (which is digitised and online).

Forgery or facsimile?

It is conceivable that our leaf may be the work of a facsimilist. Some facsimilists were lauded for their skills in producing reproductions of early printing. John Harris (1791-1873), for example, received commissions from celebrated collectors Earl Spencer (1758-1834) and George III (1738-1820). These men, along with respectable institutions like the British Museum, commissioned facsimile leaves to replace absent leaves in their copies of valuable editions. Harris’ processes for creating facsimiles, far from being a shameful secret, were described by him for publication in 1852 with details of both his hand-drawn and lithographic methods. Indeed, among other copies of this edition, those at the British Library, John Rylands and Folger Libraries contain pen-and-ink facsimiles of missing pages (see the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue).

Theories of detachment

If this is not a facsimile, why does only one leaf survive? It is a little grubby, true, but there is no sign of water damage or buckling. The survival of this single leaf, in good condition, suggests that the rest of the text block did not disintegrate around it, but was severed from it.

Is it the legacy of a form of early print trophy-hunting, such as the fashion for leaf books at the turn of the last century? E. Gordon Duff’s William Caxton (1905) was issued with single leaves from this very edition. The Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC) records that many other European and North American libraries hold one or a few leaves of the same edition.

Or perhaps our single leaf is related to the practice of completing or ‘sophisticating’ incomplete books? Among the half-dozen copies of the 1477 edition of Chaucer in British Libraries according to ISTC is another Oxford copy, at Merton. Merton College is blessed with not only a superb library but a thorough antiquarian catalogue. In their record we find a suggestive explanation for the detachment of individual leaves. Merton’s copy was rebound in 1815 by Charles Lewis of London ‘on the recommendation of Lord Spencer’ (probably the same Earl Spencer who was John Harris’s client). The record quotes from Merton College’s Register for 17 May 1815:

It is agreed that the Warden be requested to thank Lord Spencer for his great kindness to them, in permitting them to take from His Lordship’s mutilated duplicate of Caxton’s 1st edition of Chaucer, any leaves that might supply the deficiencies in the copy belonging to the College Library, and which upon collation, did supply them with one leaf, out of the three that are wanting …

Earl Spencer was a recipient of leaves for incomplete books as well as a donor. In 1810, the antiquary Francis Douce had agreed – unhappily – for leaves to be removed from his copy of another Caxton, the Golden Legend, for insertion into the Earl’s own copy. This ‘gift’, Douce estimated, increased the value of the Earl’s copy by £100.

This practice is now frowned on by most bibliographers because it disrupts this historical evidence of a book’s production. It was common before the 19th century, though. Extensive collections of ‘orphan’ leaves still surface from time to time, relics of an age in which the completion of almost-perfect copies using collections of fragments was commonplace.

Bibliography and further reading

  • Freeman, A. (1982). ‘The workshop of T.J. Wise.’ Times Literary Supplement, 17 September 1982: 990
  • Freeman, A. (2008). ‘Everyman and others, part I: some fragments of early English printing, and their preservers.’ The Library, 7th series, 9(3): 267-305
  • Harris, J. (1852). ‘Account of creating facsimiles of early printing’. In Reports by the juries on the subjects in the thirty classes into which the exhibition was divided. London: Royal Commission, p. 405
  • Jensen, K. (2011). Revolution and the antiquarian books: reshaping the past, 1780-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Silver, J. (2004). ‘Beyond the basics: leaf books.’ Fine Books and Collections, September/October 2004. [Online journal article]. Accessed 2 May, 2012