A new database of historic publications motivates Dr Karen Attar to rethink teaching with Senate House Library’s literary treasures.

In 2019 Bloomsbury Digital Resources brought out Bloomsbury Medieval Studies, a database uniting ‘secondary content with visual primary sources’ – historic maps, works of art, and codices – all in a single cross-searchable platform. It was a major step forward and, gratifyingly for us, our Senate House Library provided the codices, the ancient manuscripts in book form.

The chosen items comprise two manuscripts and eight incunabula (books printed in the 15th century from moveable type). The manuscripts, both English in origin, are obvious treasures.

The ‘Black Prince manuscript’ (ca 1385) is an eye-witness narration of some of the exploits of Edward, the Black Prince, during the Hundred Years War, otherwise known through just one other manuscript, in Worcester College, Oxford. The other manuscript, from about 1400, is an early copy of John Langland’s famous Middle English poem Piers Plowman. Both the selected manuscripts feature in Senate House Library’s volume of treasures (Scala, 2012).

The incunabula are a mixture of books that had circulated in manuscript before the advent of print (Boethius, Bernard of Clairvaux, Petrarch, Chaucer) and books which made their first appearance in printed form. Subject-wise, they reflect the general diversity of 15th-century publishing, covering English and Italian literature, theology, history, astronomy, philosophy and witchcraft.

As an entity, they make various points about printing in its earliest days, juxtaposing illustrated books – most notably the period’s most lavishly illustrated book, the Nuremberg Chronicle – and non-illustrated ones; books with printed capital letters and books which anticipated manuscript capitals; books dated to a precise day and books of which the dating must be inferred from external evidence; books with a title page and books without.

Four of the books were printed in Germany, home of about 40 per cent of incunable printing, and two in Venice, the most prolific of all early printing centres. Atypically in view of the tiny fraction of English-language printing in the 15th century, two of the eight books, The Canterbury Tales and the Cronicles of Englond, are in English and were printed in England, in a nod to the English origin of the database and to accessibility for an Anglo-American audience.

So, the selection is even-handed. Some of the items are outstanding. Caxton, printer of the Cronicles of Englond, is a perennial favourite and of major significance as England’s first printer. Our copy of The Canterbury Tales, popular for its familiar content and woodcut illustrations, is remarkable for its contemporary manuscript glosses. It (and, for its contemporary German binding, the Malleus maleficarum) made it to the Senate House Library treasures volume (see above). The Nuremberg Chronicle did not, but is standard treasure-volume material, featured in the 21st-century treasures volumes of Durham University Library, Lambeth Palace, and London’s Guildhall.

All the editions are common, with the most extreme example, The Nuremberg Chronicle, extant in 1,160 copies. All have been digitised at least once before in other, freely available, copies.

From a scholarly viewpoint, it’s useful to have these extra copies of digitised incunabula for comparative purposes. Every extra surrogate makes it easier to establish the earliest post-production history of editions. What errors were corrected in manuscript in the print shop, and what later on, by individual owners? What rubrication was contemporary with production? Several of the Senate House Library copies have been annotated by an early owner, adding intellectual value.

Yet as a curator, it strikes me how flawed the material in the database is. When spaces have been left for manuscript capitals, these have seldom been supplied. Illumination, historiation, and penwork, present in some of our incunabula, are markedly absent here. Our Nuremberg Chronicle is unexceptional compared with copies with coloured illustrations, or the Guildhall copy owned and annotated by the 15th-century London chronicler Robert Fabyan.

The two English incunabula are imperfect, wanting several pages (supplied in facsimile). The final leaf, with the colophon, is among the missing segments of the Cronicles of Englond (1480), and the replacement leaf is, misleadingly, from the 1482 edition. In The Canterbury Tales a couple of leaves are bound in wrongly. Yet worse, Petrarch’s Trionfi e Canzoniere (1497) is a mere 13-leaf fragment. Why? Finding prettier, rare, or more perfect copies would not have been difficult, within Senate House Library or in libraries in Bloomsbury more broadly.

And why not include something published by Aldus Manutius (which we have), or such an iconic text as the editio princeps of Euclid’s Elements, which we also have, and which is important for showing the printing of diagrams?

Using the normal to appreciate the special

Puzzling over this, it occurred to me that something is to be said for experiencing what most people actually read. Just as the lay person might easily assume on the basis of the exquisite manuscripts displayed in exhibitions and flaunted in treasures volumes that mediaeval manuscripts were usually beautifully written and illuminated (most weren’t), perhaps we tend to over-emphasise our finer incunabula. Thus, it’s important to be reminded that much survival is fragmentary, and that vast numbers of incunabula are not adorned. Only by seeing the normal do we appreciate the specialness of the special.

The Bloomsbury selection also reminds me of what is valuable for teaching. Unlike an exhibition item, the purpose of a teaching resource is not to showcase a library’s collections, and it does assume an interested audience. What matters is engagement with the typical historical object, warts and all. Suddenly imperfections gain charm by adding to the layers of history in archaeological excavation. When and why did books lose leaves? When and why were they perfected?

And then come thoughts about commonness. We rare book librarians like to emphasise what is different about our holdings; what makes us stand out from the crowd. Unique books enjoy huge cachet. But students come to the area without former exposure to early printed books. Their thrill at the first encounter with the 15th-century object won’t be limited by the existence of several other copies of that object around the world. Later their curiosity might be whetted to see how the other copies differ from the first one, each book with its own history as reflected in part through provenance, bindings, adornment or lack of it, and annotations.

And so, to triumphalism. Just as librarians rejoice in rarity, we are hierarchical about quantities. The excellence of libraries has traditionally been measured in terms of the number of its early books: incunabula, 16th-century continental books, and pre-1701 English imprints.

The nearby British Library, which holds more incunable editions than any other repository in the world, will always dwarf Senate House. The Bloomsbury database is an encouragement to exploit what we have. Everything helps when teaching. A few leaves will show typical abbreviations, a certain fount, or the manuscript-style layout of commentary surrounding text as effectively from a fragment as from an entire volume.

Finally, Bloomsbury uses the digital surrogates of our codices to ‘boost student engagement’ and to ‘bring the period to life with material culture object images… which deepen understanding and give substance to key themes’. That’s despite the fact that students do not have the actual book in front of them. They can’t feel the thickness of the rag paper or compare the heavy unwieldiness of The Nuremberg Chronicle with the portability of the 40-page quarto Flores Albumaseris. The interaction with history is at a remove.

The ability to access materials long-distance is clearly invaluable. This can motivate us to realise how, joyfully and unashamedly, we can use the physical resources to increase student satisfaction exponentially. At Senate House Library we already use physical incunabula for teaching purposes, mostly in connection with the History of the Book, but also for literary studies. I think I’ll now be doing more.

To read more about:

Dr Karen Attar is the curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.