Distributed throughout the many distinct collections in our stacks are thousands of early bookbinding specimens. Pictured below are a few representative examples, pulled at the request of a visiting researcher.
William Caxton (ca. 1422-1491) is primarily remembered as the printer of the first English book, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, and for his subsequent production of at least 100 other books and pamphlets. Caxton’s work, along with that of Richard Pynson and a small group of other early printers, is considered by many to have ushered in a period of linguistic standardization through which an often rude patchwork of local dialects was molded into modern English.
William Caston (fl. 1452-1460) was a wool merchant of the English Staple at Calais who has been all but forgotten save for an accident of history: W.J.B. Crotch found Caston’s name within certain contemporary legal documents and mistook him for the printer. This mistake was, perhaps, understandable: the two Englishmen worked in similar fields for a time and had both lived abroad during roughly the same period in roughly the same part of the world. The names “Caxton” and “Caston” were themselves historically interchangeable.
As mentioned in an earlier blog post, provenance can tell us a great deal about how past readers approached and interacted with texts. The nature of these interactions, and of historical readership in general, is an area of ever-emerging research and significant scholarly interest. However, for a number of reasons, deciphering the evidence required to establish provenance is often a challenging task for librarians.
Beyond the idiosyncrasies of early handwriting and the peculiarities of non-standardized spelling, the writing material itself — ink, for the most part — can be problematic. Until the late 19th-century, the most common ink used for writing was made from a mixture of iron salts and the acid derived from oak galls. This so-called iron-gall ink produced a rich, black line on the page. However, over the centuries, iron-gall ink oxidizes, lending it a recognizable, rusty hue. Depending on the mixture of the ink and the extent to which previous owners might have tried to erase it, the writing might also appear faded and is sometimes all but invisible to the naked eye. With its high acidity, iron gall ink also tends to be volatile. In extreme, though not entirely uncommon cases, it can slowly eat through paper, crumbling entire pages and rendering lengthy inscriptions unreadable.
In his biography of Edward Benlowes (1603-1676), Harold Jenkins writes:
A minor poet may sometimes reflect more faithfully than a great one the age which produces them both, merely by reason of that completer submission to circumstance which is part of what makes him “minor.”
Benlowes is remembered today as an eccentric poetaster on the fringes of 17th century English literary culture. As an artist he was, as Jenkins suggests, a product of his times, reflecting through his life and work both the political and religious tensions, as well as the loftier aesthetic aspirations of Caroline England. He was Catholic, then later, a zealous Anglican convert and an anti-Puritan Royalist. He was a man of means, lavishing his inheritance on friends and acquaintances until he was ruined by debt. But above all, Benlowes considered himself a man of letters, and his magnum opus, a sprawling poem of 13 cantos, is titled Theophila, or, Loves Sacrifice.
Anton Koberger (ca. 1440-1513) was a printer, bookseller, and publisher from Nuremberg. A major figure in the history of book production, he played a central role in the dissemination of modern literary culture during the earliest decades of printing.
Like Gutenberg, Koberger had been a goldsmith before turning his attentions to the printing press. But whereas Gutenberg was an innovator of process in the world of printing, Koberger’s major contributions to the art came via his development of a highly sophisticated, vertically-integrated business model for book production and distribution.