Medieval manuscripts 2010: The Oldest Illuminated Manuscript from Moldavia

Author portrait of St Matthew, from Bodleian Library MS. Canon. Gr. 122.

The first Medieval manuscripts masterclass of 2010, on Monday 18 October, was given by Dr Georgi Parpulov, Departmental Lecturer in Byzantine Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford. Dr Parpulov spoke about Bodleian Library MS. Canonici Gr. 122, a manuscript written and illuminated in 1429 AD.

The talk was aimed at presenting a brief introduction to the manuscript and suggesting directions for future research. The following new translation of its scribal colophon (fol. 312r) was offered: “Through the benevolence of the Father, instruction of the Son and action of the Holy Spirit this Gospel Book was made in the days of the pious and Christ-loving Lord Voivod John Alexander, ruler of the entire Moldowallachian land, and of his pious Lady Marina. Burning with eager love [and] solicitous for Christ’s words, she readily gave [i.e. paid], and it [was] copied in the year 6937 and completed on the 13th day of the month of March by the hand of the monk Gabriel, Uric’s son, who copied [it] in the Monastery of Neamţ.” The eighteenth-century scribe who added Greek text in the volume’s side margins remains to be identified. The precise date of the book’s modern binding is also unclear.

The text in MS. Canon. Gr. 122 belongs to the so-called “second (B) Athonite recension” of the Slavonic Gospel translation, abundantly attested in other manuscripts of the 14th to 16th centuries (including the “Gennadius Bible” of 1499 AD). The text alone appears to be of no great philological or textual-historical interest. The manuscript’s four miniatures, on the other hand, are of significant importance for the history of Byzantine art during the last decades before the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople (1453). They need to be made better known through the publication of good-quality colour photographs.

During the discussion following the talk Dr Elena D-Vasilescu announced her discovery that the Venetian lawyer Giovanni Perissinotti (Pericinotti), to whom the present MS. Canonici Gr. 122 is known to have belonged in 1810, was a nephew of the renowned manuscripts collector Matteo Luigi Canonici S.J. (1727-1805).

[The colophon transcription and a select bibliography of the manuscript can be found in this document provided to the class by Dr Parpulov, attached as a PDF]

[Images of some of the illuminations and decorations in this manuscript, taken from 35 mm filmstrips, can be seen in the Bodleian’s online image library, under the heading, ‘Gospels of Gavril’]

Literary manuscripts 2010: finding Arcadia in the gutter

Manuscripts of Sir Philip Sidney’s works provided the opportunity for Professor Henry Woudhuysen (University College London) to deliver a master class in techniques for the study of early modern manuscripts. These include the recognition (if not identification) of different hands in a manuscript; consideration of the binding date and style; archaeology of the manuscript taking note of the gatherings or quires; and identification of the paper stock from watermark evidence.

For MS. Bod. e. mus. [museao] 37, Professor Woudhuysen asked students to look into the gutter, where pages meet at the spine of the book, to find stitching in the centre of gatherings. He demonstrated the importance of understanding the quire structure (as shown in the attached document detailing the structure of signature ‘O’) for detecting missing pages.

This manuscript of Sidney’s Arcadia, with ‘Certain loose sonnets & songs’, was written in at least three different hands, but a tantalizing clue is left by the scribe who signed the last written page with a flourish and his initials.

Half of a watermark (the royal coat of arms) seen in MS. Jesus College 150, with the aid of a fibre-optic light sheet.

Seeking the origin of MS. Jesus College 150, also a manuscript of Arcadia, Professor Woudhuysen looked for evidence at the watermark of the paper. This displayed a royal coat of arms, suggesting that this paper was made by the firm of John Spilman of Dartford in Kent. Spilman gained a patent from Elizabeth I in 1589, enabling him to monopolize the manufacture of high-quality white paper in the 1590s and first decade of the 17th century, and make this for the first time a profitable industry in England. On the study and use of watermark evidence, Woudhuysen cited the authority of Allan H. Stevenson, whose article ‘Watermarks are twins’ is linked here.

While these methodologies of manuscript studies are necessary tools for the scholar, Woudhuysen argued that they should not replace, but supplement, textual analysis. Following a period of intense academic interest in the material forms of both manuscript and printed texts, in pursuit of a history of scribal and print culture (defining the field of History of the Book), Professor Woudhuysen predicted that we will see a return to textual criticism, with the aim of establishing the best text. Techniques helping to date the manuscript witnesses, or place them within a stemma of the text, will continue to be valuable in this scholarly work.

Thomas Churchyard, A sparke of frendship and warme goodwill, that shewest the effect of true affection and vnfoldes the finenesse of this world VVhereunto is ioined, the commoditie of sundrie sciences, the benefit that paper bringeth, with many rare matters rehearsed in the same ... (London, 1588)

Script and print
Many of the techniques demonstrated in the examination of these manuscripts could be applied to printed books of the same period. Just as scribes had their personal styles (and foibles), so did type compositors; watermark evidence can be found by the same means; the format, gatherings, and binding repay examination in determining the intentions behind the manufacture of any book, whether in manuscript or print.

A future for handwriting analysis?
The regularity of the taught ‘secretary’ handwriting was its virtue for the 16th-century reader, but operates against modern scholars who try to find distinctive personal handwriting styles. Digital photography has the potential to enable scholars to build up a visual databank of handwriting samples.

Reading list for this session: page 1page 2

The Literary Manuscripts masterclasses take place on Monday afternoons in Michaelmas term. See the Centre for the Study of the Book calendar for details.

Psalters from Bodleian Library collections

Throughout the Middle Ages psalters were produced in relatively large numbers for different patrons and uses. The psalter is the most frequently preserved liturgical book from the early Middle Ages, and the most extensively illustrated medieval liturgical book. This display of manuscripts from different countries aims to give an idea of the variety of its content and form.

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(1) MS. Rawl. G. 163: Psalter with commentary attributed to Bruno of Würzburg (d. 1045), Germany, Tegernsee, 11th century, second half.
Each page is divided into two equal columns, with the text of the psalms in a larger script occupying the inner column and the text of the collects (middle-size script) and commentary (small script) occupying the outer column. Titles in red; running header ‘BRVNO EPS’; liturgical additions in late-medieval hands.

(2) MS. Bodl. 554: Wycliffite Psalter, England, late 14th century.
The psalms are accompanied by titles in English and Latin incipits which appear before the start of the English text. Liturgical divisions are marked with larger initials. The margins contain extensive glosses, mostly from Nicholas of Lyra, but also from Augustine and the ‘comun glos’. This MS preserves the Wycliffite glosses on the psalter better than any other known copy.

(3) MS. Liturg. 198: Secular Psalter, England, North East(?), 14th century, third quarter.
Liturgical divisions according to secular use (Matins and Vespers during the week), and the division into ‘three fifties’ are marked with larger initials. The initial of psalm 101 contains a portrait of a lay woman kneeling before an altar. The portraits of patrons are particularly likely to appear at the start of this penitential psalm, beginning ‘My Lord, hear my prayer’.

(4) MS. Liturg. 396: Psalter, Flanders, Bruges, 13th century, middle.
Psalms are preceded by a calendar with miniatures depicting Occupations of the Months, including a woman with a candle (for the feast of Candlemas) for February, and a man pruning a tree with an axe for March. These pages also contain added 15th-century notes in Netherlandish about bissext and the calculation of the date of Easter.

(5) MS. Douce 48: Portable Psalter made for a Franciscan patron, France, Paris(?),13th century, second quarter.
Psalms are preceded by fourteen full-page miniatures, illustrating the life of Joseph. This is a rare example of a psalter with a prefatory cycle based entirely on Old Testament subjects. As is common in Parisian manuscripts from this period, the miniatures are set in medallions with scenes on gold background.

— from Elizabeth Solopova

The Gathered Text, 3 September 2010, CSB

‘The Gathered Text’ cut a cross-section through current book-historical studies, taking a highly original view of the subject from a new angle. (Gathering, quire, signature … look inside with this display.) As defined by Rebecca Bullard, who convened this symposium, the gathering suggested not only the sheet of paper or parchment constituting a standard unit of book production (whether in manuscript or print) but importantly the transformative actions — of folding, stacking, and sewing — that made these sheets into books.

Randall McLeod (University of Toronto), ‘Omnium gatherum’.

Randall McLeod’s keynote speech brought to mind the journalistic genre of dance criticism in eloquently reconstructing in words the trajectory and effect of physical actions that have left no record, but in this case only their product. He described the progress of a bookworm through the leaves of a Hebrew book stored in a warehouse, not yet folded into the quarto gatherings it later became. Then he described the effects of a hastier gathering of sheets: offsettings in the 1732 Bentley edition of Paradise Lost, as he demonstrated, were created by the human movements of stacking sheets still too fresh from the press.

Following McLeod’s lead, all the speakers on 3 September contributed to this dynamic view of the gathering as product of movement. In some cases the graceful partnership of a dance was suggested, while at other times the inclusion or excision of gatherings seemed to be the object of contention and struggle.

Nicholas Pickwoad (University of the Arts, London), ‘Bookbinders’ gatherings’.
Andrew Honey (Bodleian Library Conservation Unit), ‘Stitched pamphlets and blank memorandum books – two atypical approaches to making gatherings’.
Henry Woudhuysen (University College London), ‘Gatherings in private press books’.

The first panel of papers explored different types of relationship between printers (of sheets) and binders (of gatherings).

Nicholas Pickwoad outlined conflicts that could occur between the delivery of printed sheets and the efforts of binders to create a durable volume that would open to display the pages as intended. He showed how binders used a variety of hinges and sewing styles to compensate for the variety of printed material they might receive, whether large, expensively-produced engraved plates opening the full width of a volume, or books cheaply printed in single bifolia.

Andrew Honey looked at 17th-century pamphlets for which printers had provided pseudo-wrappers of single bifolium comprising a title page and blank endleaf. The suggestion that these pamphlets were recognized, even at the time of their printing, as likely to endure a different physical fate to other books intrigued the symposium; many now surviving in libraries have surely been rebound into volumes, with a possible loss of this kind of evidence.

In Henry Woudhuysen’s account of the Kelmscott and Doves Presses, we heard of the situation opposite to that outlined by Pickwoad; these private presses, seeking to present a total design, took responsibility for both printing and binding. Following the maxim of William Morris, who urged that the well-balanced opening was the most important aspect of a book, they encountered their own challenges in ensuring harmony between separate gatherings.

David McKitterick (Trinity College, Cambridge), ‘Producing and selling monsters’.
Rebecca Bullard (University of Reading), ‘Margaret Cavendish’s gathered texts’.
John Barnard (University of Leeds), ‘Dryden’s Virgil (1697): Gatherings and politics’.
Ian Gadd (Bath Spa University) ‘Fooling Lord Wharton: The second edition of Swift’s The Publick Spirit of the Whigs (1714)’.

Papers in the afternoon by David McKitterick, Rebecca Bullard, John Barnard and Ian Gadd addressed the ways in which gatherings allowed early modern authors and publishers an incremental approach to constructing – or deconstructing – a book.

McKitterick considered how booksellers influenced the way books were presented, through the bibliography of Henry Smith’s sermons. The bulk of these were published posthumously in the 1590s, in volumes of what were evidently separately printed sermons. (STC 22716-22783.7) The complications of the separate printings and variant issues of these collections drove STC bibliographers to allow the heading ‘Henry Smith, Monster’ (instead of Minister) to be ‘mis’printed in this entry.

Authorial interventions also disturbed the order of gatherings. Rebecca Bullard traced the efforts of the 17th-century royalist Margaret Cavendish to publish, from exile, her poetry and natural philosophy through the printers Martin and Allestrye in London. Cavendish’s multiple interjections, sent to the printers while her books were in press, appeared to reflect her concern to express the evolution of her ideas over time. However monumental these folio volumes might become in the press, the disrupted pagination and interjected ‘Addresses to the Reader’ allowed Cavendish afterthoughts and restatements, undermining any tomblike fixity of the text. Was this also, asked Bullard, a means of drawing attention to her exiled state?

Deep political divisions between author and printer were at work, argued John Barnard, in the publication of John Dryden’s Virgil, printed by the Whig-supporting Tonson in 1697. While Tonson commissioned illustrations depicting Aeneas with the visage of William III, the dedications by Dryden to Catholic, Jacobite, and Tory peers were evidently delivered after the body of the work had been printed, and formed separate signatures.

In 1714 a threatened prosecution led, as Ian Gadd showed, to a mysteriously disappearing gathering, the surreptitious replacement of pages in an anonymous pamphlet by Jonathan Swift, ‘The Publick Spirit of the Whigs’. The result was that Lord Wharton, preparing to read the incriminating passage aloud in Parliament, found that his ‘copy’ of the pamphlet was missing the relevant pages. In fact he had the unacknowledged second edition lacking the offending text. Remarkable in this story was that the disrupted pagination of the expurgated (new) edition appeared not to arouse suspicions — a comment either on the attentiveness of readers or on the expected standards of pamphlet printing.

Peter Stallybrass (University of Pennsylvania), ‘Strings, thread, pins, wire, laces and folds’
Kathryn Sutherland (University of Oxford), ‘Jane Austen’s draft gatherings’.

Kathryn Sutherland and Peter Stallybrass concluded the day with a look at manuscript gatherings, considering the different physical forms of blank paper used by writers, from the 16th-century Lope de Vega’s booklets, each neatly holding one act of a play, to the 19th-century notebooks used by Jane Austen. Though blank-paper notebooks had become more common by Austen’s day, the choice of a size of notebook and the use of the pages signified, for both speakers, the self-defined spaces in which these authors drove the pen along in the act of writing.

The symposium was hosted in the library by the Centre for the Study of the Book.

Gatherings: a display

A ‘gathering’ (or ‘quire’) is made of one or more large sheets of paper, folded one or more times to make a single ‘booklet’ of leaves; these are then bound together in a sequence to make a book. Gatherings have been the basic building blocks of manuscript and printed books for centuries. The items in this display date from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. They show that gatherings can reveal much about the print culture of this period, from the ways in which books were constructed by printers and binders to broader, cultural questions about the composition, marketing and censorship of early modern texts.

See a report of The Gathered Text, a symposium on the subject of gatherings in book history.

Rebecca Bullard (University of Reading), Ian Gadd (Bath Spa University), Andrew Honey (Bodleian Library) and Randall McLeod (University of Toronto) selected the items for this display.

Click on any image to enter the gallery.

Library machines: the McLeod collator

The Bodleian Library saw a reunion of inventor and invention on September 2 when Professor Randall McLeod from the University of Toronto conducted a masterclass in the use of the visual collator he invented and built. The device is used to compare copies of printed books. Even copies of the same edition of a book printed in the hand-press period might differ from one another, as corrections were made during a press run.

The Bodleian has owned a McLeod collator since the 1980s. It was kept first in the Modern Papers Reading Room (Room 132 in the New Library) and later in Duke Humfrey’s Library. The library’s copy of the guide to its use, (PDF linked below) has been headed in pencil: “Please do not remove from Room 132”.

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The collator itself was returned briefly to Room 132 for a special visit by Professor McLeod, who talked about his invention and demonstrated its use to a class of 25 visitors.

Bibliographers and book historians collate printed texts, comparing copies of the same edition, in order to detect any of the differences that may arise due to stop-press corrections, accidents in the press, or later annotations. A famous example of this process was the work done in the 1950s by Charlton Hinman on the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, resulting in Hinman’s study, The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare (1963), that highlighted the many differences in the finished products that might leave an early-modern printer’s shop under the same title. By the same token, as masterclass participant Ian Gadd of Bath Spa University commented, collation can reveal sections of text that match so exactly — including errors — that the publisher’s claim of an updated edition might conceal the fact that only some of the type had actually been re-set.

Collation may be done by hand, but this is a laborious process of checking every character. As with proofreading a word-processed document, the brain may falsely supply what the eye does not see. Scholars have sought ways to make the process of comparison entirely visual, so that the differences on a page leap out to the eye, and they have looked for ways of superimposing images of two supposedly identical pages.

Hinman’s own answer to the question, for the daunting task of collating the massive First Folio, was the Hinman Collator. This machine adopted the principle of the blink comparator, a device used by astronomers, to make tiny differences in the images jump out as first one, then the other, page image flashed in front of the operator’s eyes.

The Bodleian Library bought a Hinman Collator in 1970. At first this was kept in Room 132 of the New Library, which was then the Bibliography Room (housing the library’s handpresses) until that room became the Modern Papers Reading Room. Then the collator’s blinking lights were seen to disturb readers, and it was retired to the library stack. It is now unfortunately not functional.

Professor Randall McLeod used his own invention to collate copies of John Harington’s translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. This device works on a different principle from the Hinman, as it uses the operator’s two eyes viewing texts simultaneously.The two images are then superimposed by the human brain, trained for binocular vision. In McLeod’s words, the images ‘suddenly fuse [and] [t]he brain … sees only one page’. Where the two settings of type are identical, the image appears solid, but any differences appear to ‘shimmer,’ and gain depth, like the pictures seen through a stereoscope.

During the class Professor McLeod compared copies of the 1621 edition of Samuel Rowley’s play, When you see me you know me, revealing several variants.

Other McLeod collators are owned by Cambridge and the University of London; the National Library of Wales; Università di Udine; New York Public Library, and the Pierpont Morgan Library.

A guide to the use of the McLeod Collator can be found here:
Also see an article from Lingua Franca, 1997, by Daniel Zalewski.


As a department we boast an extreme form of minimum kit, a solo act in fact. Our title “Special Events and Public Programmes” embraces a multitude of activities in which Blogarati would find something to interest them. In this posting, we will confine our report to one special event and one public programme.

The first of these is Shakespeare’s Globe on Tour who will be presenting
A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Old Schools Quadrangle, Bodleian Library. For the third year in succession the library has collaborated with the Oxford Playhouse and the Globe Theatre to bring top class open air theatre to a contemporary Shakespearean setting. We have built up a loyal audience and this year’s tickets are selling fast. The performances run from Tuesday 27 July to Sunday 8 August – no show on Monday 2 August. The evening performances start at 19.45 with Saturday matinées at 15.30 and Sundays at 14.30. Drinks are served before the show and during the interval in the magnificent 15th century Divinity School where you can admire Oxford’s finest fan vaulted ceiling. Additionally, there will be a small display in the Proscholium of Shakespearean material from the library’s collections. This year it will focus on items of interest to children. As usual, there will be pre-shows talks introducing the play. These take place in Convocation House, Bodleian Library, from 18.45 – 19.15 before most performances.

Tuesday 27 July Dr Bonnie Lander (Wolfson College)
Wednesday 28 July Dr James Methven (Oriel College)
Thursday 29 July Dr Helen Barr (LMH)
Friday 30 July Dr Eleanor Lowe (Oxford Brookes)
Saturday 31 July Professor Tom Betteridge (Oxford Brookes)
Sunday 1 August Dr Sam Thompson (St. Anne’s College)
Tuesday 3 August (Post Show Talk)
Wednesday 4 August (No Pre- or Post-Show Talk)
Thursday 5 August Professor Katherine Duncan Jones (Somerville College)
Friday 6 August Dr Emma Smith (Hertford College)
Saturday 7 August Dr Elisabeth Dutton (Worcester College)
Sunday 8 August Professor Laurie Maguire (Magdalen College)

Tel: 01865 305305 or online at where a seating plan is available.

Tours of the Bodleian will also be available. Please telephone 01865 277224.


Turning to the second item of particular note we are about to embark on something which will be an exciting departure from anything which the library has offered hitherto. This will comprise a series of free gallery talks presented between 13.00-14.00 every Friday during July and August to illustrate the summer exhibition
‘My Wit was always Working: John Aubrey and the Development of Experimental Science’. They will be given by Thomas Roebuck and Jeffrey Mille, both of Magdalen College. The talks will start in Convocation House (entrance via the Divinity School, Old Bodleian Library). The audience will then be escorted to the exhibition room, where select items will be expertly discussed. No booking is required and all members of the public are welcome . We hope to see you there.
Wilma Minty
Special Events & Public Programmes

Bodleian’s Winter Exhibition “Crossing Borders”

The Kennicott Bible. MS. Kenn. 1 fol. 352 v.

On Monday 4th May some 600 visitors grasped the last opportunity to see the exhibition, ‘Crossing Borders’, in the Bodleian Library exhibition room.  During the five months of this exhibition, 30 Hebrew manuscripts together with about 30 Arabic and Latin codices were viewed by 30,412 visitors in total. This precious selection of the Bodleian holdings was ‘a feast for the eyes,’ as Bodley’s Librarian Dr. Sarah Thomas  said when she opened the exhibition on 7th December 2009.

Several bibliographic celebrities were present, among them the Kennicott Bible. Thanks to a digital display, users were also able to ‘turn the pages’ of a facsimile of this 15th-century manuscript.  Maimonides’ autograph draft of his legal code, the Mishneh Torah was another outstanding presence.

Maimonides’ autograph draft of his legal code, Mishneh Torah (from the Cairo Genizah), in cursive Sephardic script (Egypt, c. 1180).

Other books, however, were on public display for the first time in their long lives, such as the 13th century illuminated prayer books for the Jewish festivals, Nicholas of Lyra’s commentary on the book of Exodus with gold leaf  images of the Menorah, the selection of Arabic, Hebrew and Latin fables, the oldest extant  13th century Hebrew Encyclopaedia of science and its Arabic and Latin counterparts, some precious Greek papyri and Hebrew fragments from the Cairo Genizah, must have been thrilled by this extraordinary interest in their existence. As these manuscripts sat in the exhibition cases, they might have found the number of admirers visiting them less surprising than their unusual neighbours. Resting on their accustomed shelves in the bookstacks they had always been surrounded by family members: Hebrew by Hebrew, Latin by Latin codices.

Tripartite Mahzor: Initial word of the opening prayer for the Day of Atonement (Kol nidrei; Ashkenaz, fourteenth century).

But in December 2009 they became the centre of a cross-cultural event. In the exhibition the Hebrew manuscripts became a meeting place of cultures. In a direct comparison with Arabic, Greek and Latin manuscripts they showed in unexpected ways the social and cultural interaction between Jews and non-Jews in both the Muslim and Christian world.

Nicholas of Lyra, Commentary on Exodus, with comparative diagrams of the menorah and the table of showbread (France, late fourteenth century).

The interaction  came to light in decorative patterns, writing styles, script types and text genres. By absorbing elements of the host cultures in which the Jews lived, the Hebrew manuscripts became proof of coexistence and cultural affinity, as well as practical cooperation between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbours in the Middle Ages. Back in the stacks they all will miss their new friends.

– from Piet van Boxel, Curator of Hebrew Collections, Bodleian Library.

An online selection of images from the exhibition is available:

William Wake at Christ Church College, Oxford

Know a man by his ancestry, his friends, his enemies… and his books.

William Wake’s ancestry included the quarrelsome and rebellious Hereward the Wake; several members of the clergy; a book thief (who is also to be counted in the previous class of persons in this list); a father who was in prison when he was born; and a mother who by cleverness and hard work managed to restore the family fortunes. Between his friends he could count a wife with Archbishop Chichele’s blood in her veins; several Bishops and Archbishops, and half of the clergy in England; French Huguenots and expatriates; writers and publishers; and the Prince and Princess of Wales (unfortunately, not the King). As for his enemies, the Government and the other half of the clergy are the most conspicuous.

Tracing the character of William Wake (1657-1737, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1716) through the books he collected during his life has been an interesting and rewarding exercise. Wake’s books have stories to tell about the schoolboy, the scholar, and the man of power, but also the father and the husband; they shed light on his habits and reveal him to us as a hoarder; their bindings talk about his travels and his fortunes; and they teach us about his ancestry, friends and enemies.

View of Upper Library, Christ Church College, Oxford

Christ Church Upper Library exhibition WAKE is a celebration of the conclusion of the cataloguing of the over 7000 early printed books in the Wake Collection. Work began in-house in 1995, and after a break between 2003 and 2005, was continued until completion, on Friday 26th February 2010, through participation in the Early Printed Books cataloguing project of the Bodleian Library. The records are accessible via OLIS, the Oxford University integrated online catalogue.

WAKE  – an exhibition open at Christ Church – Upper Library

The exhibition will be open between 28 April-28 May 2010.
Visiting hours
9.00 am – 1.00 pm
2.00 pm – 5.00 pm
12 noon-1 pm

What is a book? Peter Stallybrass lecture at CSB

Vet. A1 e.123
Stab-stitching shown on an early 17th-century pamphlet containing the “39 Articles” of the Anglican doctrine.

As the field of book history expands to include written and printed matter of all kinds, Peter Stallybrass (University of Pennsylvania) asked us to consider our terms of reference. “There is a huge range of material lost when you broaden the category of books, and I want to make it more narrow.” Taking up the thread of a story where many accounts of early books leave off, Prof. Stallybrass’s lecture to the Centre for the Study of the Book on 1 April 2010 moved away from the press, focusing instead on the “job printing” undertaken by printers in order to ensure their business would survive. Stallybrass joked that this category might be called “What is not a book,” but nonetheless showed the extent to which “books form a small portion of printed matter, yet are the chief survivors of what is printed.” The real money in printing, and more importantly the majority of printed texts, was ephemeral: indulgences, state proclamations, and short pamphlets such as tracts, almanacks, and plays. At the root of this disparity between the books that survive and the overwhelming number of other printed texts that printers subsisted on, is whether the sheets were bound or not.

“Printers print sheets,” Stallybrass reminded us; books are made outside the printing houses, when binders or owners collect the sheets into a binding. Their variety of purpose often results in a variety of appearance. For example, the working papers in any household or business needed to be stored for easy reference. The “files” used were filaments: strings to hold these papers together, as can be seen in the portrait of a merchant by Jan Gossaert, c.1530. The portrait also illustrates another stage of storage: papers in loose, unbound quires used for record-keeping that could be easily enlarged. A finished calfskin binding is less permissive to the demands of ever-expanding quantities of records, so limp vellum was the ideal binding choice for such expanding collections.

How, then, did early modern readers end up with books on their shelves? Stallybrass asks us to revise our idea that early-modern booksellers sold unbound sheets, just as they came off the press. Only the very wealthy could afford, or would want, to pay for sheets of a book to be sent for a bespoke binding. Modern conditions distort our perspective because these fine bindings, sheltered within large and well-funded private collections, are now over-represented in libraries.

The average customer would have bought a book in a workaday cheap binding. Preparing pamphlets for sale was even easier. Stab-stitching of pamphlets could be done by a member of the bookseller’s household. Later, the owner of a number of loose pamphlets – miscellaneous plays by Shakespeare, for instance – might take these to a binder to achieve greater tidiness on his bookshelves. Examination of bound volumes of pamphlets reveals the stab-stitching holes, sometimes carefully repaired. Paradoxically, the efforts that owners and libraries have made to preserve the books for us today have covered such traces of their original forms, and the hierarchies of printed matter they reveal — not every “book” was always a “book”.

This subject will be further explored in “The Gathered text” on 2-3 September 2010, at the Bodleian Library. See link for details.