W is for Woodcut

Woodcut printing is a technique that pre-dates the printed book; used for printing playing cards and religious prints, for example, as well as for block books. To create a woodcut image, the artist either drew directly onto a wooden block, or onto paper which was then pasted to the block. This image would then be carved in relief – so that the area to be inked stood out, whilst the white spaces in the finished image were carved into the block.

Whilst the very earliest of books were largely printed without any illustration or decoration – perhaps leaving spaces on the printed page to allow for these to be added by hand – printers quickly realised that woodcut printing offered a simple means to add decorative features and illustrations to texts. Crucially, the fact that woodcut printing was, like movable type, a relief technique, meant that images and text could be set and printed together, on the same sheet of paper. By contrast, intaglio printing techniques – which involve an image being incised into a surface – required a different kind of press (a rolling press) in order to produce an image. As a result, if illustrations produced using intaglio techniques were to accompany text on the same page, the sheet would have to be printed twice – once for text and once for image. This was a timely and a costly process.

Woodcuts, then, were the preferred method of producing images for early printed books. Earlier in the series we introduced the most highly-illustrated book of the 15th century – the Nuremberg Chronicles – with its 1809 woodcut images, produced using 645 woodblocks. Since woodblocks were durable, it was not uncommon to reuse images – sometimes even in a different work entirely.

The Nuremberg Chronicle is an excellent example of the close marriage of text and image that woodcut printing enabled.

Whilst the earliest woodcut images in books were generally fairly simple, outline images, designed to allow for colouring by hand, by the end of the 15th century the art of woodcut illustration in books had advanced such that the most sophisticated productions displayed considerable artistry, including the use of chiaroscuro effects to produce tones. Still, in terms of the quality of the finished image, woodcut was not able to compete with intaglio methods of printing. It was for this reason that copperplate printing eventually overtook woodcut as the preferred method of illustrating books, by around the middle of the 16th century. Because of the difficulties in printing text alongside copperplate images, it became common for illustrations to take up entire pages, which were then inserted in place before binding. As a result, books generally contained fewer illustrations and decorations than they had during the golden age of the woodcut.

The use of woodcut printing was just one of the techniques revived by William Morris at the Kelmscott Press. The 87 wood-cut illustrations in this, the Kelscott Chaucer, are by William Harcourt Hooper, after drawings by Edward Burne-Jones.

References and further reading:

Hind, Arthur Mayger, An introduction to a history of woodcut, with a detailed survey of work done in the 15th century, 1935

MacLean, Robert, Book illustration: the woodcut2012

Suarez, Michael F. and H.R. Woudhuysen eds., The Oxford Companion to the Book, 2010.

V is for Vellum

Vellum is a type of high quality parchment made from calf skin – parchment being prepared animal skin (usually calf, sheep, or goat) used for writing, printing and binding manuscripts and books. The British Library’s Making Manuscripts site has a short video illustrating vellum.

Vellum and parchment are most familiar as the material used for medieval manuscripts, but books have been printed on parchment from the start of printing in the mid-15th century onwards. SPEC Inc.CSJ.F10, the first printed edition of a classical author (Cicero) was printed on vellum in 1465. SCA also holds several early 16th-century Books of Hours printed on vellum and decorated in just the same way as their manuscript companions. Fragments of parchment repurposed from manuscripts also appear in the collection as bindings, spine labels, endleaves, and page dividers.

SPEC Inc.CSJ.F10 Cicero (Mainz 1465) printed on vellum

Books printed on vellum would be the exception, sometimes specially commissioned, and more highly valued than the larger run of paper copies. A few copies printed on vellum are a common feature of limited editions and particularly of the output of private presses, including the Kelmscott Press

A prime example of a prized book printed on vellum is the 1888 Roxburghe Club edition (SPEC H91.36) which was, appropriately, the first printing of a 15th-century manuscript.

The fine collection of private press books bequeathed by William Noble includes (SPEC Noble A.22.18) one of the 10 copies printed on vellum (out of an edition of 210 copies in all) of the Eragny Press edition of Keats La belle dame sans merci (1896).

SPEC Noble A.22.18. One of 10 copies printed on vellum.

Noble’s bequest also contains many copies printed on ‘Japon (Japanese) vellum’ – not in fact parchment of any kind, but a particularly durable paper prepared to resemble vellum.

‘Limp vellum’ or limp parchment is a term used to describe bindings common in the 16th and 17th centuries, which might be simple undecorated wrappers or ornately decorated, for example the 1595 works of Tacitus at SPEC Y59.T4.2. Later books are also commonly half- or quarter-bound in parchment.

SPEC Y59.T4.2. vellum binding, with tape added to secure by wrapping around the volume.

T is for Title-page

Like so many elements of book design (bindings, bookplates, typography), the appearance of the title-page has been subject to fashions, and the amount of information offered on a title-page has varied over time accordingly. For example, whilst the earliest title-pages were relatively simple, in the 17th century it became standard practice to cram as much information as possible onto the title-page – with extensive sub-titles and detailed author and publisher information, often in multiple types, and within decorative frames. This trend died off in the 18th century, as a tendency for more simply set-out title-pages (often accompanied by half titles) took its place. This pattern repeated; the 19th century saw a return to more elaborate title-pages, whereas the emergence of modernism accompanied a more stripped-back approach in the 20th century.

As engraving came to be used more widely in book illustration from the late 16th century, engraved title-pages emerged. Occasionally books contained additional engraved title-pages alongside a letterpress title-page, as in the example below.

The earliest of printed books do not contain title-pages at all however; nor do most medieval manuscripts. Instead, these texts are generally identified by the “incipit” and “explicit” – the opening and closing words of the text, from the Latin verb incipere (‘to begin’) and explicitus, meaning ‘unrolled’.

An example of an incipit from a work printed in 1481.

Early printed books often closed with a “colophon” – a closing statement, providing, for example, the name of those involved in the book’s production (scribe, printer, publisher), and place and date of publication.

Earlier in this series we met the half-title page: here it is worth noting that the history of the half-title page, as outlined in this earlier post, also helps to reveal how it was that the title-page came to be – “printers would produce the pages of a text – the text-block – which they sold unbound”; a “blank sheet originally intended for protection came to be marked with a short-title in order to help differentiate one text-block from another, and it was this that then developed into the full title-page, with publication details as well as author and title.”

References and further reading:

Smith, Margaret M. “Title-page” in Michael F. Suarez, S.J. and H.R. Woudhuysen eds., The Oxford Companion to the Book, 2010.

Smith, Margaret M. The title-page: its early development 1460-1510, 2000.

British Library, Catalogue of illuminated manuscripts, 2018

R is for Rags

Making paper by hand.

During the hand-press era, the raw material for the production of paper for books was cloth rags – most often linen. Rags were bought in bulk by paper-makers, often sold to them by itinerant rag collectors; rag-and-bone men. The paper-making process began with washing the linen, which was left it in a damp heap to rot. After four or five days, the rotten rags were cut into smaller pieces, and then pounded down to form a pulp, using water-powered hammers. This pounding process was repeated two or three times; with pauses in between to allow for further rotting. By the 18th century the hammers had been replaced by a rotary machine which macerated the rags using knives – a much more efficient method. Invented in Holland, the machine was known as a Hollander.

Once the process of breaking-up and rotting down the rags was complete the pulp that remained was put into a vat and watered down to form a concoction resembling a watery porridge. Further stretching the porridge analogy – this mixture was kept warm and stirred occasionally using a paddle.

A close-meshed sieve made of metal wire (the mould) was then dipped into the mixture, before being lifted out with exactly the right amount of pulp in, laid flat, and skillfully manipulated to form a uniform ‘sheet’ of pulp across the mould. The mould was then expertly shaken, first forward and backward, and then side to side, to ensure the fibres crossed in each direction, which helped to strengthen the paper. The sheets were then removed from the mould and sandwiched between layers of felt. The resultant piles of paper interleaved with felt were put under a heavy press to squeeze out excess water before being hung up to dry.

The quality of the paper produced using this method was primarily determined by the quality of the rags used to make it. The best paper was produced from pure white linen; poorer quality paper from materials such as canvas, rope and wool. Linen rags were not readily available in England, where people wore wool rather than linen. This fact, combined with a lack of skilled workmen, meant that most paper used in the English book trade, up until around the middle of the 18th century, was imported from France or Holland.

By the 19th century, the demand for rags to make paper with was outstripping supply, and prices reflected this. This intensified the search for an alternative; which eventually resulted in the majority of paper being made using wood-pulp – and increasingly using machines, rather than by hand – from the middle of the century.

As it happens, a conference, ‘The Paper Trade in Early Modern Europe: Practices, Materials, Networks’ took place in Erlangen, Germany, on the 26th and 27th February. You can read about current research in paper, as presented at the conference, by searching for the Twitter handle #EMpapertrade.

References and further reading:

Gaskell, Philip. A new introduction to bibliography, 1972

Burke, James. From rags to paper, 2013

University of Ilowa. Paper through time: nondestructive analysis of 14th-through-19th century papers (project website).

N is for Nuremberg Chronicle

The Nuremberg Chronicle (Liber Chronicarum in Latin or Das Buch der Croniken und Geschichten in German) is one of the most important books in the history of printing.

Produced on commission from Nuremberg merchants Sebald Schreyer (1446-1520) and Sebastian Kammermeister (1446-1503) in 1493, the 600 page text is attributed to Nuremberg doctor and humanist Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514). Drawing heavily from earlier, medieval and Renaissance sources, Schedel purports to tell the history of the Christian world from its creation to the time of writing. The text incorporates its fair share of myth and fable – with geographical and historical information on European counties and towns written alongside tales of epidemics, monsters and comets.

What makes this work remarkable however, is not so much the text itself, but rather the beauty and skill of the images that accompany it – bringing to life the biblical and historical events, major cities and important figures from myth and history within the text. Indeed, the Nuremberg Chronicle is the most lavishly illustrated book of the 15th century. In total, the work boasts 1809 images, produced using 645 woodblocks, many of which were used more than once. A mere 72 blocks were used for the 596 portraits of emperors, popes and other celebrities, for example – so each was used to represent 8 or 9 different people, changing only the caption.

As you can see from the above image, the woodcut images were incorporated closely within the letterpress text. A feat of considerable technical skill on the part of those involved in its production, this resulted in a particularly elegant and satisfying mise-en-page. To enable this, the work was first carefully planned in manuscript drafts (called ‘exemplars’) before printing. Remarkably, complete exemplars of both the Latin and the German edition of the Nuremberg Chronicle survive, and indicate that the images were sketched first, with the text inscribed to fit within the remaining space.

The “Dance of Death”
Double-page map.

The woodcuts and exemplars for the Nuremberg Chronicle were produced by Michael Wohlgemut (1434-1519) and his stepson Wilhelm Pleydenwurff (c.1460-1494), and the work was printed and published by Anton Koberger (1445-1513) – the largest printer and publisher in Germany at the time. Koberger printed the Latin version on the 12th July 1493, with a German translation following shortly after, on 23rd December 1493. The University of Liverpool Special Collections and Archives (SC&A) is fortunate enough to hold three copies of the 1493 Latin edition, and one of the German translation. A final copy of the Chronicle in SC&A is a pirated edition, printed by Johann Schönsperger (d. 1520) in Augsberg in 1500.

That SC&A holds so many copies of such an early printed book is perhaps rendered a little less surprising when we learn that no other 15th century book survives in as many copies as the Nuremberg Chronicle, undoubtedly an indication of its popularity at the time, as well as its enduring interest to collectors and researchers alike. Indeed, the SC&A copies were given to us by some of the most important donors in the history of the library – Charles Sydney Jones, Henry Tate, Thomas Glazebrook Rylands and Robert George Morton, and we were recently very excited to have all five SC&A copies of this important work on display in the reading room at one time, having beeen ordered up by Dr. Nina Adamova, as part of her research into marginalia in copies of the Chronicle. 

Large flourished initial in gold and colours on folio 1 of the copy of the Chronicle donated to SC&A by Robert George Morton in 1969.

References and further reading:

Wilson, Adrian. The making of the Nuremberg Chronicle. (1976)

Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, ed. Worlds of learning: the library and world chronicle of the Nuremberg physician Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514). (2015)

M is for Marginalia

“Marginalia”, or marginal notes, are marks made in the margins of books. In particular, researchers have become increasingly interested in the marks made by previous owners of a book. Whether these appear as comments, abbreviations, glosses, scribbles, symbols, or doodles, these marks offer an opportunity to better understand the different ways in which individuals have interacted with the book through the course of its life. The passages a reader has chosen to mark can reveal much about the concerns of that individual, and the ways in which they read, as well as about the social, political and religious circumstances in which they lived.

As a leading scholar on Renaissance marginalia, Bill Sherman, has written:
“Readers’ marks are better at providing examples (and still better at providing counterexamples) than general rules; but if we cast our net widely they can reveal both large-scale patterns of use and extraordinary encounters of individuals and their books. The former can correct some of our most deep-seated assumptions about reading and readers…” (Used books, p. xvi).

Pictoral marginalia in one of our incunables – Higden’s “Polychronicon”, printed by Caxton in 1482. This book boasts the ownership marks of five different former owners (SPEC Inc CSJ D3).

Sherman’s own study of over 1000 books from the first two centuries of printing has helped to shed light on the ways in which many Renaissance readers used writing – or even drawing – in the margins as a means to aid the memory. For these readers, reading was very much intended to be purposeful, equipping a reader for success in  work and in society. Today we might feel we can rely upon near constant access to the internet to provide us with information at the point of need, but for previous generations it was important that readers were able to memorise, or quickly access the information learnt through reading. Engaging the hand in note-taking, or drawing, is thought to have helped to help concentrate the mind and strengthen the learning process, enabling readers to commit passages to memory, as well as ensuring the most important passages could be quickly returned to when needed.

Renaissance readers often employed a range of symbols to help categorise and arrange the texts they read. One of the most frequently recurring of these is the pointing hand, or “manicule”.

Marginal notes can also be used to comment upon, criticise or explain the main text, and as such offer a means by which to trace the reception of specific works and ideas. In a recent Bonnier Lecture given at the University of Liverpool, Professor John O’Brien of Durham University showed how attending to the marginalia left by ‘ordinary’ early modern readers of Montaigne’s Essais, led to unexpected deductions about the ways in which they interpreted Montaigne, and the passages they found to be of most interest. As he noted, these findings can, in turn, help to us to see more current perspective (and its attendant biases) in a new light.

This 1687 copy of the works of Lucian of Samosata contains commentary and cross-references in the margins in more than one language, in a rather neat contemporary hand (SPEC Y68.2.44).

Marginalia offer a rich resource for researchers then, as well as providing an often touching insight into the life and mind of individuals living hundreds of years ago. Indeed, as an important source of paper – a relatively luxurious commodity for much of the history of printing – margins have been put to a wide range of more quaint uses; for handwriting practice by readers learning to write, for example, or to record familial births, deaths and marriages.

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A previous reader has gone to town on the paper offered by front cover of this 17th century pamphlet. Handwriting practice, perhaps?

 

References and further reading:

Sherman, William H. Used books: marking readers in Renaissance England. (2008)

Grafton, Anthony and Lisa Jardine. ““Studied for action”: how Gabriel Harvey read his Livy”. Past & Present, 129 (1990).

O’Brien, John. “What Montaigne meant to them: the Essais and their early modern readers”. Annual Bonnier Lecture in French Studies, University of Liverpool (2018).

 

L is for Leaf

The smallest element in bibliographical descriptions of books: the piece of paper comprising two pages. The front side is called the recto and the back is the verso.

A leaf numbered on the recto may be referred to as a folio – foliation (numbering each leaf) is often seen on manuscript texts and became a common printing practice in the late 15th and 16th centuries. Books from 1600 onwards have more usually been printed with pagination (a separate number for each page, or side of the leaf).

Fraser 567: Nicolas Monardes, Ioyfull newes out of the new-found vvorld (1596) showing foliation

The physical description statement in catalogues gives the make-up of the book in sequences of leaves (if the printed text is foliated) or pages (if the text is paginated). Descriptions by number of pages always give an even total to account for both the recto and verso of the leaf, even if the verso if the final leaf is blank.

Description ix, [1], 533, [1] pages, [1] leaf of plates: illustrations; 20 cm

Illustrations such as woodcuts may be included as part of printing the text, and not separately numbered, but illustrations such as engraved plates printed by a separate process are numbered as leaves, since the illustration is on one side of the leaf only.

Leaf may also be used in terms describing parts of a book: endleaves (or endpapers) are the additional leaves before and after the printed text; flyleaf is sometimes used to refer to a leaf at the beginning of a volume. They are normally mentioned in catalogue descriptions as the location of bookplates, owner’s inscriptions, etc., or for their decorative qualities.

An interleaved copy of a book has additional blank leaves bound in for the owner’s notes, either as an integral part of the publication, or for an individual owner after publication:

2017.b.008 – Liverpool shipping register for 1835 interleaved for corrections and additions.

JUV A727.1 – The illuminated scripture text book with interleaved diary for memoranda and a coloured illustration for every day by Edmund Evans (1875)

K is for Kelmscott

The first of the private presses, and one of the most famous, was the Kelmscott Press, which was founded by a key figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement, William Morris (1834-1896), in 1891.

The Arts and Crafts Movement aimed to preserve traditional craftsmanship against what its proponents saw as the insidious growth of new technologies and mass production during the 19th century. They considered the industrialisation of the arts and crafts to be responsible for a decline in design and quality, and thereby in working and living conditions, with damaging detrimental effects on moral and social health. In book production these ideas led to the founding of ‘private presses’ – usually defined as printing presses that aimed at craftsmanship and artistry rather than profit, advocating a return to the materials and techniques used in early book production. The Kelmscott books were produced in a “quasi-medieval” style, drawing on Morris’s admiration for the design and craftsmanship of illuminated manuscripts and early printed books – in particular the work of 15th century Italian printers. Care was taken over all aspects of the book’s production – with Morris designing his own types, sourcing ink from Germany and paper handmade (in a 15th century Italian style) in Kent, and paying meticulous attention to all aspects of design. For many, the results of this painstaking craftsmanship are amongst the most beautiful books ever created.

“The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer” (1896) is arguably the greatest accomplishment of the Kelmscott Press, with 87 woodcut illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones.

From “A note by William Morris on his aims in founding the Kelmscott Press…”, the last book to be printed at the press, in 1898.

Again replicating 15th century craftsmanship, many of the Kelmscott books are bound in stiff parchment, with silk fore-edge ties.

The Kelmscott Press, which closed in 1898, two years after Morris’s death, produced over 50 works, all in limited editions of on average around 300 copies. The University of Liverpool Special Collections and Archives is very lucky to hold a complete set of the Kelmscott publications. They were bequeathed to the University by William Noble (1838-1912), who as well as being Treasurer of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, was an avid collector of illustrated, finely printed and limited editions of English books of the late 19th and early 20th century.

The colophon to Morris’s reprinting of William Caxton’s 1481 translation of “The History of Reynard the Foxe”. Morris’s edition had a print run of 300 copies.

Further reading: Peterson, William S. The Kelmscott Press: a history of William Morris’s typographical adventure (1991).

Morris, William. “A note by William Morris on his aims in founding the Kelmscott Press: together with a short description of the press by S.C. Cockerell, & an annotated list of the books printed thereat” (1898).

 

I is for Incunable

Incunables are books printed with moveable type before 1501. Incunable comes from the Latin incunabula – a fake plural Latin noun derived from in cunabulis (in the swaddling clothes). According to S. H. Steinberg’s Five hundred years of printing, the term incunabula was first used in the context of printing at the celebrations of the second centenary of Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable metal type printing press. A tract printed in Cologne in 1639 described the later fifteenth century – from Gutenberg to 1500 – as ‘prima typographiae incunabula’, the time when typography was in its swaddling clothes.

SPEC Inc CSJ.D12.OS: Pliny, Historia naturale (Venice: Nicolas Jenson, 1476)

Incunables have many features in common with manuscript books of the same period, and even more with the books printed in the first half of the sixteenth century, but owning incunables retains a particular cachet and many libraries have separately catalogued collections of incunables.

The British Library’s Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC) is an international database of European fifteenth century printing listing more than 30,500 editions and library catalogues of incunables will often cite the ISTC number.

SPEC Inc CSJ.D14.OS: Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) ISTC is00307000 ; Bod-inc. S-108

Other major online catalogues include Germany’s Bavarian State Library Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Inkunabelkatalog and Oxford’s Bodleian Library Bod-Inc Online. The ongoing Material Evidence in Incunabula (MEI) project links ISTC records with details of individual copies to uncover the journeys they have made over the centuries.

Liverpool University Library has more than 250 incunable volumes, thanks chiefly to the fortunate coincidence of a revived interest in the medieval period in the late nineteenth century, when the University of Liverpool was founded with the support of many Liverpool benefactors.

Incunables given to the University of Liverpool by Sir Charles Sydney Jones

Further reading: S. H. Steinberg, Five hundred years of printing first edition 1955, 1996 British Library.

H is for Half-title

A half-title is a leaf that directly precedes the title-page proper and contains a title or short title, and perhaps the name of the author, or a volume number.

Half-title page for a pamphlet of 1691.

Given that the details recorded on a half-title are generally repeated, and elaborated upon, on the title-page which follows it, one might well wonder what purpose this extra leaf serves.

The title-page of the same pamphlet, which directly follows the half-title page shown above.

A favoured explanation* takes as its starting point the fact that, in the early printed book trade, the printing of the book and the binding of the book were two quite separate activities. Initially, printers would produce the pages of a text – the text-block – which they sold unbound. The text-block’s new owner would then have these pages bound into a volume according to their tastes and budget (or, in the case of a bookseller, the taste and budget of the customer they hoped to attract). To help protect the first page of the text-block from dirt and dust, it was customary for early printers to put a blank sheet on top of the unbound text-block.

Here it should also be noted that the very earliest printed books did not contain a title-page. The blank sheet, originally intended for protection, came to be marked with a ‘title’, then, in order to help printers to quickly differentiate one text-block from another. From here, this added sheet developed into the full title-page as we have come to know it; with publication details, and perhaps even some illustration, as well as author and title added to it.

But as this page became increasingly important in its own right, it became necessary to protect it from dirt and dust too, and so the process was repeated. A blank page, laid on top of the title-page to protect it from dirt and dust, had a short version of the title added to it to help with identification in increasingly busy printing houses and binderies, during the second half of the 17th century.

It is worth noting that there was arguably little clear impetus for this half-title leaf to be retained in the finished, bound version. Indeed, according to John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors, binders removed these sheets more often than not – not just because they were inessential, but because waste paper of this sort could be sold back to the paper mills, creating an extra mode of income for bookbinders. This helps to explain why half-titles aren’t more common in early printed books.

In the example above, however, the printer has found a use for the extra paper, putting the verso of the half-title to good use as a space for advertising his wares:

*This is the explanation provided by Philip Gaskell, in his renowned A new introduction to bibliography, for instance.